Monday, March 11, 2013

Q & A with Liz Kuball

Liz Kuball is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

BA: Can you trace briefly how you got to where you are now as a photographer. You started at 11?

LK: “Started at 11” is a bit of an overstatement. I mean, I did get my first camera when I was 11, and from that point on, I always had a camera, but I didn’t carry it with me everywhere, and it wasn’t like photography was my life. I would say I was curious about photography and interested in it throughout high school and college, and I would take pictures the way everybody does—snapshots of family and friends, or of travels, that kind of thing. But then, when I was in grad school for writing, around the time I turned 30, I took an independent study course, and the professor wanted to give me a syllabus of things to read and write about, so he asked, “What are you interested in?” And I said, “I’ve always been interested in photography.” And that pretty much changed everything.

A photo sequence by 11-year old Liz Kuball
What do you mean?

First, I started reading about photography—Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Janet Malcolm’s Diana & Nikon, the things he had assigned for me to read. And at first it was just writing about writing—looking at why Sontag drove me nuts, why Joan Didion was my everything (not that she wrote about photography but just as a comparison to Sontag). 

Why does Sontag drive you nuts?

Oh, believe me, I get the brilliance of Sontag, but when I read her it feels like everything is an intellectual exercise for her—I’ve read a fair amount of Sontag, and I don’t feel like I know much about her. Whereas, having read a lot of Didion, I feel like I know her completely. Which is an illusion, of course, but Didion’s blood is on the page, whereas I don’t see any of that with Sontag.

Anyway, the more I read about photography, the more I was like, “What the hell am I doing? I want to be a photographer.” I hadn’t been happy in grad school up to that point—I guess like many English majors I had always thought I wanted to write, but I wasn’t writing, and grad school was just painful for me, and then suddenly when I remembered that I had wanted to be a photographer when I was a kid, it all sort of fell into place. I don’t know if that makes sense.

I think academia does tend to channel people into writing rather than photography.

I mean, I say that I wanted to be a photographer when I was a kid, but then why didn’t I pursue that? I guess because it was like, “Be a photographer? How do you do that?” It seemed so foreign to me. And I was all about following syllabi and doing what was expected/asked of me, and being an English major was something I knew.

Why did your professor assign that stuff? Was he a photo buff? How would he know about Diana & Nikon?

To be honest, I never asked him how he knew about these books. He was (and is) just the kind of guy who seems to know a lot about everything. I should ask him. . . .

What happened then? Did you continue grad school?

Yeah. I was already close to done with grad school. I think after that independent study course, all I had to do was my thesis, and I ended up writing about photography (or more about how I wanted to be a photographer). I knew so little about photography. Rereading that thesis now is like reading your diary from junior high or something—just cringe inducing all the way through. But that kind of got me at least thinking about photography. And then when I was done with grad school, I created a syllabus for myself to teach myself what I needed to learn. At first, it was really basic stuff like how to use my camera in Manual mode. And at the same time I was reading more essays and things. I read a massive book on the history of photography. And then when I finished that syllabus, I took a handful of courses at a local city college. In December 2006, I was at the point where I was deciding whether to sign up for more classes, and I didn’t really want to take any more classes, but I was afraid that without that structure, I wouldn’t photograph as much, so I started my blog in January 2007, as a way of getting myself to shoot every day.

Untitled (Hollywood Hills), 2011, from California Vernacular series

Interesting. So when you started blogging you were still in limbo, half Writer–half Photographer?

l wouldn’t even say I was a “writer.”

You’re a Writer. . . .


. . . and a Photographer. Or maybe half each?

Yeah, I mean, I don’t break it down like that or define myself that way. I just write when I have something to say.

A lot of people do that but it doesn’t make them Writers. Just like a lot of people shoot snaps of birthday parties. That doesn’t make them Photographers. 

Not sure what you mean or what you’re referring to. . . .

I mean that writing is more than just stringing words together. It’s expressing yourself articulately. Which you do. So I think you’re a Writer. I hadn’t realized that you were still transitioning into photography when you began the blog.

I mean I was just starting out. I’m resisting the term “transitioning.” I didn’t see it as a transition from “writer” to “photographer.” It was just, “I want to be a photographer and I’m going to learn everything I can about this and take as many pictures as I can, given my day job, etc.” At first, I didn’t even write anything there. I think I posted a photo a day for the first six months of 2007. And I wrote very sporadically.

I started reading your blog a bit after that. I actually wanted to ask about blogging so that could be a good segue. I think photoblogging has shifted in recent years. Maybe it’s gone into regression? Was there a heyday from 2007 to 2011 that we’re going to look back on as some exceptional flourishing? It’s hard to examine it when it hasn’t yet receded that far into history. I feel like it was Paris in the ’20s or something. Like it was a special time but the characters won’t even realize they were creating history until 50 years later.

Nice analogy. I feel like the heyday was maybe 2007 to 2009? I don’t know. I mean, when I started blogging, that’s when I first heard about people like Alec Soth. His blog had just started I think maybe the fall of 2006? And there were a ton of photographers blogging around that time.

Yes, his blog was very fun and active. I remember the shock of reading it one day and the post was just “I’m done” or something. But he put it in ambiguous language, so I kept checking back to see if it was actually done. And it was.

Yeah, I remember that.

Put on my walking shoes. He wrote something like that.

I think he quoted Whitman.
Soth's last blog post, 9/30/07
Someone should recap the history of blogs . . . in a blog post.

Yeah, it’s tough because I don’t have a real sense of the entire scope of that blogging world. I’m sure there are lots of people I never knew about.

Why do you think blogging had such a short, strong burst? What the heck happened there?

I don’t know . . . I can’t speak for other people, but I know personally that after five years of it, I found it taxing in a way. I started blogging and literally no one was reading my blog. And then sort of quickly, I developed a pretty good audience . . . and suddenly I was like, “Wait, there are people reading this stuff?” And then there was a level of self-consciousness I had to contend with. Like how much do I want to put out there for public consumption (not in terms of my photographs so much as myself, because my blog was really personal).

Well, now that blogging is dead again, it’s fine to write more personally, with not much expectation of anyone reading it. It’s just like the good old days.

Yeah, seriously. Some of it, too, might be just the evolution of technology. I mean, Tumblr became bigger. Twitter is bigger. Facebook. There are more venues than there were back then. I took a break for a year, was on Tumblr very sporadically, and then restarted my blog in January of this year, and I have such a small audience now . . . it’s back to square one.

Because you made it untraceable. There was no forwarding address, I don’t think.

Yeah. I just wanted out.

Out of what? 

Out of putting myself out there so completely, revealing so much. I don’t know any other way to do it, any other way to be, so there’s not much of a middle ground, and at times it just becomes overwhelming.

If you really want to be untraceable I think it’s tough to beat paper. Stored under a pillow maybe.

Well, clearly I must not want that.

Untitled (Santa Barbara), 2009, from California Vernacular series

I wonder if it’s easier to make work—either writing or photography—in some sort of vacuum without being conscious of audience. Not necessarily ignorant of audience, because eventually any work needs an audience to activate it. But made in total disregard for audience. Zappa comes to mind. Or maybe Disfarmer. When you know people are actually reading your blog, it affects what you write. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it puts a layer of restriction on it compared to say a diary. So, you wanted to return to more of a diary?

No, I can’t say I wanted to return to a diary, because I’ve never really written a diary. I think my previous explanation nails it—I just needed to pull back for a while.

I’ve toyed with ending my blog many times but something keeps dragging me back. All the fame and glory. Ha ha. I think part of me is sort of exhibitionist. And maybe that’s essential to being a photographer, too.

I think for me it was a few things: I mean, I just find that I tend to write more when I have a venue to share it publicly. I don’t keep a journal or a diary, and blogging is a way for me to get my thoughts down. Also, I really enjoy the community of blogging. I love getting emails from strangers saying, “I really love what you said about such-and-such” or “I didn’t think anyone else felt that way.”

Yes, those are fun. And comments too. But I get far less of both than in the heyday. Do you think this applies to your photography? How does audience effect your work?

I don’t really think about audience at all when I’m photographing. I start to think about it more when I’m editing, but I’m my first and most important audience. In other words, I’m selecting the images that work for me. I try to learn from feedback from people I respect, but I also don’t hesitate to ignore what they say if it doesn’t work for me.

So, you started getting serious about photography and blogging around the time you moved to California? Please correct if wrong.

I moved to California in 2001. Was in grad school from 2002 to 2004. Then sort of taught myself photography in 2005, took some classes in 2006, and starting blogging in 2007.

Your California Vernacular seems based in a sense of exoticism. Like you’re looking at all these palm trees and bright houses through the eyes of someone who can’t quite believe they’re real. Which is why I mistook the time you’d moved there. Because the photos seem to be almost from a foreigner’s perspective. Like Frank touring America or something. That’s my read but possibly a misread.

Yeah, I think that’s fair. Are you gonna ask me how I still felt that way in 2008 to 2012 when I moved here in 2001? 

OK, good question. Sounds like you’ve been asked this before? Or thought about it?

No, never been asked. I have thought about it, though. For whatever reason, I think the experience of growing up in the Midwest, in the same small town in Michigan where my parents grew up, made me very much of that place, if that makes sense. So, living in California, I’m blown away by it all, even still. I mean, I’m not remotely jaded. I live in Hollywood, and every once in a while I come across tourists on my street looking for the Hollywood Sign. I love giving them directions, and I’ve even driven a handful of them up there myself and taken their pictures in front of it.

Do you ever make photographs in your hometown in Michigan?

Yes, I started a project a few years ago that I’m calling Back East. I only get back there once a year, so it’s slow going, and right now it’s not on my website, but maybe I’ll put it up someday.

Does California still not feel like home? After 12 years?

Oh, it’s definitely home. No, I feel very much at home here. But it still blows my mind.

It’s still exotic. And familiar. The best of both worlds maybe. 

Exotic isn’t a word I would use—it just feels so different from what I knew before, and yet I feel completely myself here. I said this somewhere once: I feel like I can think more clearly in Los Angeles than I can anywhere else.

Do you think it’s easier to photograph places/things you know well? Or things that are unfamiliar?

I find it much easier to photograph the familiar. I think the things I would’ve photographed in the first few years here were different from the things I photographed after being here eight, nine, ten years.

But California Vernacular seems charged with this sense of newness, like you’re still exploring unfamiliar territory.

Hmm . . . yeah, I see your point. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like it’s familiar and home, but I’m still aware of all the things it’s not, or the ways it differs from where I’m from. Does that make sense?

4th Runner-Up, 2007, from In Store series

What about your earlier project, In Store? Before California Vernacular, right? I think your project sort of anticipates Storage Wars and similar TV shows that explore that world.

Right. I’ve never seen that show! Maybe Hoarders, too.

I think you should see it. It’s not great, but I think that show and your project are both rooted in this fascination with collecting, and artifacts, and cultural baggage. The stuff we accumulate. Though your project is more from the exterior looking in.

You want the truth, though? I don’t give a shit about any of that.

There goes my theory. So, what’s it about?

I came up with the idea for the project—or I think, actually my boyfriend at the time may have given it to me—because I was actively looking for a project. Everybody whose blogs I followed had a project, and this seemed like it would be a good one. But I never felt passionate about the subject, which is why I quit it after maybe six to nine months. It is about what you said—I just never cared about it.

What about another related theory of mine: I think all photographers are packrats. We can’t practice non-attachment. I thought that might have been what attracted you to the subject.

Well, if you mean in terms of collecting images, I can see that. But I’m the least packratty person around. I don’t hold on to much of anything.

Another theory blown.

Aw, I’m sorry! I think it’s actually really cathartic to get rid of stuff.

No, it’s OK. I live for counter-examples. I have a theory that all photographers do.

You have lots of theories. Before I moved back to L.A. in 2009, I threw out a ton of stuff. Old love letters, photos, etc.

Really? Letters?

Oh, yeah. It felt good. I stood at the trash can, reading through them, and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t need this anymore.” What am I gonna do, read old love letters when I’m 90? I want to be living in the moment when I’m 90.

I don’t think I want to live to 90. But you’re probably right about living in the moment. Is this related to what you did with your blog? One day you dumped it and moved to Tumblr. Then dumped that. A sort of willful disregard for archiving/history?

Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it that way. . . . But I do keep archives for myself—I just don’t make them available for public consumption.

I want to go back a minute to an earlier response. You seemed to disparage the idea of photo projects. Or maybe it was just In Store. But what about your more recent photography? Does it fit into some project like California Vernacular, or is that sort of an artificial label?

Oh, I totally believe in projects. It was just In Store that I was disparaging, and not really disparaging, but just sort of being honest about: I started it for the wrong reasons. But it was part of the learning process for me, so it’s all good. I’m still happy with the photos I took for it. Now I just approach projects differently. I guess I come to them more from a place of really caring deeply about the subject. But then I also don’t feel the pressure to “find a project” the way I did in 2007.

Is California Vernacular your main active project still, or is it done?

California Vernacular is done. I published a zine in February, and that’s a wrap. Right now, I’m working on a project called Soledad, but that requires travel, so I don’t photograph it day in and day out the way I could and did with California Vernacular.

Page spreads from California Vernacular zine

Yes. Nice pix. Very different from California Vernacular.

Thanks! Very few so far. It’s so hard to shoot that project.

Well, maybe it gets back to our earlier discussion. Maybe part of your attraction to that place is that it’s exotic and unfamiliar.

No, I think it’s not about that at all, actually.

Blown theories left and right.

It’s really about what I say in my statement (or what passes for a statement for now): It’s about that cusp between loneliness and solitude, where I feel like I’ve lived much of my life. That town is so far out in the middle of nowhere, and it feels really isolated. I like being there for that reason, and I also hate being there for that reason.

How do you go about shooting it? Just in pieces? Or do you stay there for longer periods?

So far, it’s just been weekend trips. I can really only stay a couple nights before I feel like I have to get out.

Do they know you there yet?

No, not at all. I don’t really even speak to anyone. I’m telling you, I’m a total loner. I would like to include portraits in the series, eventually. So, I’ll have to get over that. I’ve done portraits before, though, for other things. So, it’s just a matter of getting back in the habit.

from Soledad series

I sense some fascination with being an outsider. Being alienated. Good photographic material there. What do you think of Shore?

Just in general what do I think of him?

Yes. His photos have some of the same sense. Of being a wandering eye passing through these scenes. And similar framing, color, vacancy. To me they have this sense of alienation. Like he’s a space visitor examining America. Not talking to anyone, just doing visual research for the coming invasion.

Yeah, I don’t really see the “space visitor” aspect you’re talking about—that implies a detachment that I don’t see in Shore’s work. I love his early work. American Surfaces is my favorite, and then I also love Uncommon Places. I don’t feel the same connection to his more recent work.

Your photos remind me much more of Uncommon Places than American Surfaces.

I guess I can see that. I mean, Uncommon Places is obviously large format and more formal than my work. But I love Uncommon Places, so I won’t complain.

Hmm. I think your pictures are a bit formal actually. Just my take.

That’s interesting. I don’t see them that way.

They have some consideration behind them. Like you found the scene then stood here and there and got what you wanted in the right place. Usually a visual element aligned with the frame. 

Yeah, that’s true. Good point.

Is it surprising to hear me describe your photos as formal? Do you think I’m wrong? Or does it change the way you think about them?

It’s not surprising—it’s just not the way I think of them myself. But there’s no right or wrong here. Something about my photos registers as formal to you, and that’s fine with me. It’s not how I think of myself or my work, but I don’t have a problem with other people interpreting or seeing it differently. Their interpretations are theirs. My photographs are mine.

When will you begin making portraits?

I’m not sure. . . . I’ve made portraits before. I don’t have any on my website right now, but I posted some on my blog. That was from like 2007. I haven’t made any portraits recently. Maybe next time I’m in Soledad.

I know. You shot one a day for a while.

Yes, that was it! December 2007. Portrait Month. It’s just like anything . . . muscle memory. I just have to get over the inertia. It takes a lot for me to approach a stranger. I mean, the more I did it, the better I got at that, and then eventually it was nothing.

I have the same mental block. I need to be in the right mood to make portraits. Which hasn’t been lately.

I’m out of the habit, but I’ll get back into it. I did really enjoy it.

How do you approach someone for a portrait. What’s your line?

During Portrait Month, I would say, “Hi, I’m a photographer, and I’m really shy about taking people’s pictures, so I’m forcing myself to take a picture of at least one stranger every day this month. Would you be willing to help me out and let me take your picture?

And it usually worked?

Yeah, I think I was only turned down like twice. Maybe once even? To be honest, I can’t remember being turned down. I feel like I found someone at a bus stop once, and she had to catch the bus, but other than that. . . .

I’ve used the student routine before. I’m taking a portrait class, can I practice on you, etc.

Yeah, that’ll work. But I just find, in general, that honesty is the best policy. I also actively looked for people just hanging out. Which is why a lot of the pictures I got were of teenagers or young adults.

This may sound sexist, but I think people respond better to a woman stranger asking for a portrait.

Hallie, 2007

Yeah, I’m sure they do. Not as threatening.

Why do you want to shoot portraits? What do you want those photos to show? How do you want them to look?

For Soledad, I’d like them to reflect the loneliness I feel myself and see in that place. I’m not sure how I want them to look yet. I’ll know it when I see it. 

So, if you’re going with the honesty policy, you might tell someone they look lonely when you ask for a portrait? Or that you think a photo of them might express loneliness? Or that their town makes you feel lonely?

I’m not trying to be provocative here, but it sort of brings up the problem I have approaching a stranger honestly. Because usually the honest explanation is, “You strike me as someone who is very interesting visually,” which is hard to say to a stranger. You don’t know how someone is going to take that. Maybe they have cool tattoos or didn’t comb their hair just right or they have a strange, wise look. Or who knows why but something sets them apart, something they might be self-conscious of. So sometimes it’s just easier to lie, “I’m a student. Can I practice on you?”

I’ve never lied to someone whose photograph I’ve taken. I know people who use the student line, and I have no judgments about that at all. It’s just that, for me, personally, (a) I’m a terrible liar, and (b) I feel like the people who let me photograph them are giving something to me, and the least I owe them in return is the truth.

That said, I think less is generally more when it comes to explanation. I did make a couple portraits the last time I was in Soledad—nothing I ended up wanting to be part of the project (at least not yet). One of them was an old man, a farm laborer, standing outside a boarding house, smoking. I walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m a photographer, and I’m taking pictures around town, and I was wondering if you’d let me take your photograph.” I remember him asking something like, “Why me?” And I said, “I think you’re interesting.” He said, “Me?” And I said, “Yes.” And that was all it took. I mean, what person doesn’t like being told that someone thinks he’s interesting? I don’t think I needed to go into a long spiel on what the project was about or why he looked lonely to me, but if he’d asked more questions about the project, I would’ve talked to him about it some more.

Do you look for photos driving or on foot?

I usually look while driving—ideally, as a passenger, so I can see more, but I drive plenty on my own. 

Not on foot? Even for California Vernacular?

Almost never. Occasionally, I would have my boyfriend drop me off at one corner, and I would walk around the block while he waited. 

But cars go so fast. And seeing photos takes time.

But I would say 95% of it was me saying, “Wait, stop! Pull over!”

What visual elements make you want to pull over for a photo?

I don’t have a clue. It’s all gut reaction. Something grabs me.

Then you have to look for a parking space. Then the scene never looks quite the same as it did from the car.

I never had that problem. I mean, I took plenty of crappy pictures, don’t get me wrong. But the scene almost always looked exactly as I thought it would.

Then what’s the point of making the photo? 

Hmm . . . your question implies that the only reason to make a photo is to see something other than what you thought you would see. I don’t follow.

Well, for me the photo almost always looks different than what I expect while shooting. Maybe part of that is that I usually shoot b/w so naturally it’s further removed from reality. But even when I shoot color a photo is hard to predict. Sometimes the difference between average and great is just a few inches one way or the other, or a moment later or earlier. And for me that stuff is hard to figure out at the time I’m making the exposure. I know it sounds trite but I think the Winogrand epigram is very descriptive: “I photograph to see what something looks like photographed.” So that’s the source of my question. If you know what it’s going to look like, why take it?

You’re conflating two very distinct things here. You started by saying that if you’re in the car driving and you pull over to take a photograph, “the scene never looks quite the same as it did from the car.” What I said was, I’ve never had the experience of a scene not looking like what I thought it would look like from the car. From there, you extrapolated that every photograph I take looks exactly like what I thought it would look like as I was photographing it, and that’s not the case. I do photograph to see what something looks like photographed. I’m just saying that I’ve never gotten out of the car to take the picture that made me pull over and said, “Oh, forget it. This isn’t what I thought it would be.” It is what I thought it would be. And then it’s a matter of chance, luck, fate—whether it makes for a good photograph.

What makes a photograph good?

I don’t know. . . . For me, it’s visceral. Something about the photograph makes my heart ache.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

what an amazingly insightful interview.
big thanks to both!