Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Q & A with Scott Hurst

Photo by Marc Manabat
Scott Hurst is a photographer based in San Antonio, TX.


BA: Thanks for taking time to do this.

SH: I'm an on-time freak...

Me too. I think it's genetic maybe, passed down in the family. All my relatives are like that. It might help with photography. Like if you're 1/500th too slow it can fuck up the photo.

I don't talk to many relatives. I always wanted to be left alone, haha.

Well, we can get into that later maybe. Or not. I don't know much about you. Where'd you grow up?

Western Nebraska, close to Wyoming.  I don't know much about you either, but I've been hearing about you for a long time.

Shit, the secret's out. Maybe you heard about me through our mutual friend Faulkner?

Yeah, how's Faulkner? I never see anyone anymore...

He's in full Dad mode and enjoying it. But non-family photography has kinda taken a back seat.

Faulkner in K-Town with Fuji Instax, 2010

That's so odd to me, haha.

Happens to the best of them. He's a good dad.

I bet. His dad is rad!

I've never met his dad but I feel like I know him through Faulkner's photos. Kind of a 70s renaissance type.

He's exactly the kind of serious freak that I like. On his own trip.

Were there many freaks in Western Nebraska?

Only me... I had to leave immediately.

When was that?

1990, I moved to Denver.

How old were you?

18, summer after high school.

I'm guessing Denver was a bigger scene with more freaks? What were you doing there?

I did a lot of drugs and hung out with goth girls...

What kind of drugs were you doing? Do you think they led you to photography?

I was mostly doing acid in Denver and yes it probably is still a big influence... Where did you grow up?

Northern California.

Oh nice...

I had kinda the opposite situation from you. Everyone was a freak...

Most of my friends are like that.

But I knew almost no photographers.

I didn't know any photographers either.

Do you know any now locally? Is there a photo scene in San Antonio?

I know a bunch, yeah. There is a small scene of folks that shoot. Shit I know two people with Leica MP’s, haha never even seen one before here.

San Antonio seems kinda underground still.

Eugene is definitely underground. 

Haha. Yup. The photo scene here is lame though. Maybe too underground.


San Antonio, 2019

San Antonio’s a place that I don't want anyone coming to. Go to Austin, don't come here...

But I've got an MP. I'll fit right in there. 

You'd love it here. It was 70 degrees and sunny today. San Antonio is like if late '80s Portland was in Mexico. If all rainy days were 100 degrees instead. Do you still like Portland?

Yes, it will always have a place in my heart. Very special city...to visit. I'm not sure I could live there anymore though. Too much corporate money washing over everything. It just twists everything to shit.

Yeah, development fuckin' sucks...

The development in Portland is out of control. But I’m talking more about the culture. When you inject that much money into a scene it just warps everything. No one can evaluate what’s real anymore. Taste goes south. People become plastic. All these rich idiots with Ikea dens and weekly haircut appointments, no thanks. I sound like a backwoods snob, sorry. 

I agree with money warping culture. San Antonio is a very poor city where you can still eat lunch for five bucks. I hope that never changes.

Money aside, the photo scene in Portland is very strong. That's where I learned photography back in 1993. It's where I absorbed photo culture and developed artistically. If I'd lived somewhere else, it's probably a different story. Even now I still go up there for my monthly photo group (with Faulkner, among others). I have a group in Eugene too but it's not quite as fun. Not as hardcore.

Yeah, your Portland scene is really tight and cool. I started off there. Don't know why really.


Portland, 1999

But wait, we're getting ahead of the story. When did you get into photography? Was it in Denver?

No, I didn't get into photography until the mid-90's, and not seriously. Well I still don't take it very seriously. It became a habit in like '99 I suppose.

Where were you then?

Portland still.

When did you move to Portland from Denver? 

I only stayed in Denver for a year. I was frying my brain too fast, so I moved to Lincoln, NE, then I moved to Portland from there. I made a feeble attempt to go to college in Lincoln.

U of Nebraska?  

Yep, terrible place.

I think John Sypal went there if you know him? He's about your age.

I tried to hang out with him in Tokyo, but he was hanging out with Ed and Deanna instead, haha...


Tokyo, 2016

He's a big Templeton fan.

Yeah, I met Ed, he's very likable. I'm not a huge fan of his photos though...

I love Deformer. All-time top ten photo book for me. But after that I'm less enamored with his straight photos. Oh well, it's hard to maintain the platinum standard after a book like that. 

I don't know it. I'm not too versed in modern photographers or books.

I think it was one of his first books. It's sort of a graphic memoir with personal photos mixed with collage and painting, and it tells the story of his adolescence and how he met Deanna, etc. His life was kinda fucked up. Mixed up kid. Broken home, etc. It's an incredibly open and honest book.

I met him right before I left LA and we just talked about Japan.

Deanna is in the book naked and those photos hit me hard, like who the heck is this gorgeous woman? And then it turns out they got married later, story came full circle. Now they’re partners in everything. Gotta admire Ed Templeton. He's cut his own path straight to the top with no compromise. Just doing his thing. No bullshit artworld maneuvering. I guess the powers that be took a liking to him. It’s a mystery how that stuff works.

Yeah, I'm jealous of that. I want to be famous in Japan!

One reason I like your photos is they show little outside influence. Very pure.

I've shed my influences over the years I hope. I definitely have them.

Let's go back a few steps. How'd you get into photography?

I'm not sure. I was trying to write a novel for a while and then I got a camera. I was always kind of an adventurer or wanderer and it went with that lifestyle quite well.


Blackwell, Oklahoma, 6x7, mid-2000's

What were you shooting early on in the first few years?

Canon AE-1, but disposables and polaroids before that.

Did you have friends who did it? Or anyone to show you the ropes? Any books? 

No. I didn't look at any photos until I'd been shooting for a few years, maybe that's my real style, haha. Primitive.

I kind of group you, Faulkner, and Sam Prekop together in my mind as photographers with a pure, wide open approach. Not cutesy or clever, just straight recording. I guess it’s in the ballpark of Eggleston, but less stylized. Maybe you could start a movement or something, or a non-movement.

The inherent beauty and mystery in photography is that art-wise at least, there are no rules and there is no way to fully understand what makes a good photograph good. It’s what makes it so interesting and perplexing and why it’s difficult to do over and over even if you know how. Then if you figure something out that you can repeat you almost have to change because it isn’t challenging anymore, so yes, primitive, uncomplicated, style-less style is style, definitely American. That’s my style.

Could we call it American Primitive? Like John Fahey translated to the lens?

I love Fahey, he's a huge influence.

How does Fahey translate to photos?

It's the attitude. I love an outsider lifestyle.

Yeah, he never quite fit in anywhere. 

Someone with no grasp of how to exist haha. He was drinking moonshine with Bukka White, I mean that's insane.

Speaking of outsiders, Reuben Radding posted on IG the other day about Eugene Chadbourne's birthday. I looked and it took me a while to recognize the guy. I was like that's what Chadbourne looks like now? Then I went down the Chadbourne rabbit hole for a while on bandcamp listening to his bizarre music. Another pure outsider. At least that's how I picture him.

Yeah, I haven't thought about him in a long time. But probably in the same vein.

He's playing bars and the local circuit in North Carolina clubs. The occasional trip to Europe. Never accepted or widely known in the states, just doing his thing. but talentwise he's on par with anyone out there.


Parking Lot Experiment

I love guys like that. Fuck the world.

Well, the world often gets it wrong. But still I love the world. The world's beautiful! Anyway this sort of goes back to photography. The way you got into it, and the way Eugene Chadbourne probably got into music, is just finding the path organically. Can you imagine if he'd gone to music school? It would've crushed him.

Oh yeah, school is fuckin' awful...How to sell yourself and kiss ass haha, forget it. I don't wanna make money off of photography. I hope you’re not a teacher!

Nope. I like the DIY School. But I'm not anti-teaching. Can't ditch it entirely. Other photographers and study have definitely helped me on my path. So education can have a place, so long as it isn't didactic. But if it’s like “do it this way,” then screw that. In photography, I think the most important thing is to find your own personal voice, your way of seeing that's like your handwriting. If a teacher can help students find that visual voice, hooray! Unfortunately I don't think many photographers ever reach that point, regardless of schooling.

Your knowledge of photography is light years beyond mine for sure...I know some photography teachers that are interesting and take good photos. I could never teach anything myself.. Don't look through the viewfinder for a day, stuff like that maybe haha.

Is that something you've tried?

I've tried everything, I guess. Well not everything, but yes.

Any promising tips?

No, 99% of the photos are slightly off haha.

Well isn't that the goal?

Perfect photos definitely don't interest me. I mean most photos don't haha, including my own.

What kind of photos interest you? 

Photos that I haven't seen...but it's so goddamn hard. It's luck really. I think that you understand from seeing your stuff.

I agree luck is integral. But it's a difficult ingredient. It can't really be mastered easily. How do you inject chance?

I think that you create it by being curious and open to it.  Have you seen the movie Repo Man?

Yup. Not for a while though.

There's a scene where the guy that drives off at the end in the Malibu is talking to Otto and burning trash, he pretty much describes what I think luck is...haha.

How do you inject luck into an exposure? What if you come up on a scene and it might be a photo. If it's a dynamic scene there's some luck involved with timing and composition.But what if it's static, which I think is most of the scenes you shoot? How do you get out of your own way and let fate take over? 

Don't think. If you do think, don't shoot cuz it's pointless at that point.

Same strategy applies to jump shots. If a basketball player has a few milliseconds to line up the shot they'll usually miss.

Same philosophy yeah...Thinking fucks things up.

So if you turn your brain off and you're not thinking, how do you know what scenes might make a good photo? Is it just visual?

Seeing and thinking are different things.

True. And photography is mostly about seeing, I think. But there's a component that comes at the end, when you see a resulting good photo. It appeals to the brain too, and photography is actually a pretty cerebral discipline. I think that’s part of its appeal for me.

I just know that once I've thought about a photo 99% of the time I shouldn't have shot it, it's totally ruined.I think that you start to make photos that are familiar when you think about them.

Is that part of why you moved to San Antonio. To inject unfamiliarity?

Yeah. I knew that continuing my LA stuff was going to be repetitive and boring for sure. The stuff I've shot here I'm not really ready to deal with yet, though I've shared some of it on Instagram. I was trying to slow my life down really.

Have you explored most of the city by now? Or are there untapped areas?

I've got it covered, but South Texas has much to offer. But once again, don't come here! Austin is really cool.


South Texas, 2019

What's your photo routine? 

I'm working 5 to 6 days a week, so only shooting 1 or 2 days a week, depending.  I don't mess with the rest, I only shoot. I have about 300 rolls to process from the last few years...I just got 25 rolls back yesterday.

What’s your day job?

I manage a warehouse that was converted to an art gallery, art studios, and apartments.

What’s your editing process for photos?

Almost nothing makes the cut nowadays...There's so much stuff I don't want to see.

The search gets harder as the bar gets higher. But the good news is you get better so hopefully you can meet the rising standard?

I wish I could put a shock collar on my shutter finger, haha.

Same here. Many of the frames I wind up choosing now are outtakes and grab-shots, the ones I have less control over. Does that mean the worse I get the better I get? Who knows. 

I like that.

If I line up a photo and take 5-6 pictures it's almost guaranteed none will work.

That's kinda what I meant earlier... The feeling I'm trying to find is so elusive.

I think I understand, just trying to sort out the implications. Like, if practice and technique don't lead to better photos, what's the best way forward?

Who's your favorite photographer?

That's a tough question. I'd say most influential is probably Friedlander. But favorite? It changes day to day. Hmmm. Winogrand is probably the obvious choice. But I feel like he doesn't have much more to teach me at this point. I like Henry Wessel a lot. There's a mischievous quality to his photos. Then there's Mermelstein, Eggleston, Charity Conkle... I dunno, who's yours?

Walker Evans, but Keld Helmer-Petersen is a close second. I'm loving Winogrand's late late period photos as well. 


Keld Helmer-Petersen, Fence & Bridge Pattern I, 1950s

The ones from LA that get shit-canned by everyone? What do you like about these? Do you also like his early stuff?

I like most of Winogrand's photos but the late LA stuff is mysterious and strange and I like them the most. I'm very much looking forward to seeing a book of his kodachrome stuff. I like Wessel too. And Baltz is great.

I have no idea who Helmer-Petersen is. Guess I’ve got some studying to do.

Oh shit. He's amazing...Fragments of a city...I like Callahan a lot too.

Walker Evans leaves me a little cold, gotta say. Too clinical.

Yeah, he's more of a philosophical influence. I love his cold camera stare though. What do you think about Robert Adams?

Hit or miss for me. I love some of his photos. But a lot of them I don't connect with. Which maybe makes sense because I think he shoots in a very personal way. They probably mean something very different to him than to anyone else. But the political stuff, meh. I only need to see one clearcut photo, not fifty. Then again I live in Oregon so maybe I'm not the target audience for that work.

Haha, he just loves to get deep into misery...

I generally am annoyed at photos with a political message. I think photos should just be photos. Leave politics out of it. Photos of rallies, protest signs, climate change, burning forests, oppressed natives, etc, all tend to put me off. But that's just me.

Yeah, I shot some stuff in LA, like protests and shit, I guess because it was there, but I don't care about it...Do you know Anthony Hernandez?

Hernandez is good. Some of it. His Rodeo Drive series is excellent. He's often touted as this pioneering LA street shooter. Which is a badge of accomplishment, but it tells you more about the state of street shooting in LA than about Hernandez.

He's made some amazing photos... My favorites are probably the bus stop large format stuff from the 70s. He's virtually unknown there which is crazy to me.  His new photos through a bus stop style screen are awesome... I met Anthony out shooting in LA...

Cool, what’s he like?

He was in some bushes with a Hasselblad on a tripod, wearing a photographers outfit kinda like Friedlander would, the vest and stuff...

Creepy.

HAHA.

Hiding in the bushes with his 300 mm zoom, vest pockets bulging with unknown stuff.

Totally. Photographing a fence.

Photographers must seem like an alien race to most people.

Who knows...we should bring back the photographer vest, so we can identify each other easily...

No, I've got it. How about a big red P pinned to the breast?

I have a lot of strange alien encounters here for sure...People are like what the fuck is that weirdo doing?

I get hassled occasionally. I take it as a sign that I must be doing something right. 

Getting hassled is par for the course. It often leads to interesting situations.

You get a lot of shit there in San Antonio for taking photos?

Portland, 2002

Yeah, for sure. I got some guns pulled on me early on...

Do tell...

San Antonio Speedway, abandoned racetrack... Purple paint means don't come here, you'll get shot apparently, but I didn't know. The guys first tried to take my two Leicas, then told me to call the cops on myself, then eventually invited me to go dove hunting with them...It was very Deliverance. Actually Purple Paint is my new project title.  Thanks, Blake!

You gonna change your IG now to Purple Paint?

It's probably taken. But it is time for a change.

What's your strategy with that? You change your IG name every few months. And erase the old posts.

I just try to make it fun for me.

And is it?

No not really, haha.

Is there a covert component with the name changes? Like keeping one step ahead of discovery? 

I don't care about attention, I'm not going to be a successful artist, so I guess it's just fun to mess with the whole idea of this is a serious thing that deserves respect. It's not and I don't care about it and I encourage others not to care as well...

I think you've changed your IG handle 3 or 4 times since I started following you. The first few times reading the new handle was a bit mysterious but I have to say you have such a recognizable style that I can tell it's you even before I see the new handle. Maybe that's a good thing? Or not?

I've been wanting to create a fictional character online for awhile.  Kinda like Blind Joe Death...

John Smith.

Blind John Smith, photographer. The best kind.

Your home keeps moving too. Denver to Portland to LA to San Antonio... Maybe some other city next? What’s behind the restless spirit? 

I read too much Kerouac and listened to too much Hank Williams...

Here's a good test. Change your IG name every day for a month or so. See who can tell it's you, or what's up. Instead of one fictional character, you create 30.

The Flea Market Series, Ongoing, 2006

I was changing daily for awhile...people seemed annoyed, haha.

That must've been before my time.

I don't know but I'm glad you found me. I feel terrible that we never hung out more when you were in LA...but you were this phantom person that had always just left before I got there haha.

I’m heading down with the Portland crew in early Feb. It'll be fun but this might be the last trip because the city's getting too familiar. Maybe San Antonio next year?

No, purple paint! Austin is super cool though.

Well, Slacker is perhaps my favorite film. But I don't think Austin is like that anymore. I think it’s more like Portland or Seattle now? 

Slacker is amazing and Austin is not like that anymore, no.

They coulda made that film in Eugene, no shit. Every day I pass a river of characters straight out of the twilight zone. It could be a movie set.

San Antonio is like Austin 20 years ago if it was in Mexico, as described to me by people from Austin...

Eugene is like Portland 40 years ago if it was in Idaho, but secretly run by Phil Knight.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Triggered

Two of my photo worlds collided for a brief moment Monday when Mike Johnston named The Pillar as his favorite book of 2019. Among highbrow photobook connoisseurs, The Pillar was a consensus pick for book of the year. But that ain't really Mike Johnston's crowd. His blog The Online Photographer appeals more to middle-of-the-road hobbyists (at least that's my guestimate based on who comments there). TOP tends to run long on gear talk, technical discussions, and armchair musings on lens performance. And on those subjects it is the best written of any photoblog IMHO. 

But ventures into conceptual photography or high falutin' art talk are less common. Peter Turnley and Michael Kenna draw high praise. Catherine Opie and Thomas Demand? Erm, not so much. But this is in fact where much of the photobook action takes place, in that strange underworld where a duct-taped banana might be taken seriously. Where books sell out privately before anyone has seen them. For better or for worse, The Pillar fits well there. So it was a mild surprise to see it on TOP Monday.

I try to keep a foot in both of these worlds —well, more of a pinky toe to be honest —and I couldn't remember the last time they'd collided like this. Maybe the Peter Lik controversy?

As might be expected, Mike's choice drew some flak. "Who really cares about birds sitting on a pole?" asked one commenter, before settling on the central question: "What is interesting about these pictures?" Another wrote, "I was a little underwhelmed by The Pillar when I saw it back in September. Too minimal for my taste. Too brainy. Too transparent the intention." 

Several readers seemed unwilling to take the conceptual plunge and accept a remote-trigger camera as a viable tool. "Setting up a machine and walking away, taking my attention to the proposed subject with me isn't art," flatly declared one reader. "Useful for science perhaps, but it isn't art." Another reader chimed in, "Since the bird(s) triggered the camera, shouldn't it/they own the copyright, credit and profits?" Another comment: "Crediting Gill as a photographer, rather than as an editor, hardly seems to be appropriate in these circumstances." 

Hmm. It seems to me that no matter what sort of photographer you are, editing is just as important as shooting. Sure, making good photos is important. But more crucial still is what you decide to show of them. This has always been the case since photography's invention, but it is perhaps so more now than ever. We live in an image flood. Curation matters.  

The fine art photo world digested this truism several decades ago. But there still exist a diehard strain of hobbyists who believe that a photographer must control content, that luck is somehow cheating, that hipshots or Google Street View or drones or remote-trigger cameras are somehow less valid methods, that editing is a minor skill compared to shooting, preferably while wearing a photographer's vest, carrying 3 zooms at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise.




No worries. In this case such skeptics are an asset. Because they prevented what I was most afraid of: The Pillar selling out. You see, ordinarily TOP is a selling machine. The readership is huge, with disposable income to spare. Anything that Mike touts generally gets an immediate market boost. Prints, books, gear...it doesn't seem to matter. His print sales typically number in the hundreds. Anodyne shadow studies and barns and yaaaaaaawn. He even managed to sell out that boring-as-hell Dave Heath book a few years back. 

That's all fine. Different strokes for different folks. But you can see why I was alarmed. As someone who had not yet purchased The Pillar, who had instead ruminated since last summer over the book, hemming and hawing for months should I buy or not, was it worth it and how much did I really care about birds in a field, and should I pay the exorbitant shipping to the U.S., Mike's post scared the crap out of me. Could he create a run on the book? How many copies existed? How long would they last? One thing for sure, this was an unusual book. The photos I'd seen online were quite original. They each seemed to have a mind of their own, as photos might if created by a remote-trigger.

I've missed out this way on too many books to count. Wait too long and it's out of print, expensive, inaccessible forever. And I've been on the other end of it too. I've ordered books sight unseen, only to have them arrive and feel like meh. What was I thinking?

Sometimes that's for the best. The book's urgency fades, and I move on to other fancies. But this one burned. Honestly it had been smoldering for 6 months. Late Monday I went to Gill's site and bought the goddamned book already.