Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Q & A with Mike Slack

Mike Slack by Ron Jude, 2008
Mike Slack is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He also performs occasionally on drums, backup vocals, and cowbell.

Mike Slack: Apropos of nothing (or everything?) this has been stuck in my head for the last week.

Blake Andrews: I can't tell you why that song has been stuck in your head. But The Long Run was one of the first cassettes I ever bought way back in... 1979? Probably still in my basement somewhere. 

I categorically hate the Eagles, but the last 90 seconds of the song are sublime. Maybe one of the best "easy listening" tracks ever recorded. Saw this outside my hotel in Santa Barbara last week: 

That drummer is pretty smooth. What you say about the Eagles is sort of funny. I think everyone categorically hates them but secretly adores at least one of their songs. I have a hard time judging them because I listened to them hard back in 6th grade and now all the lyrics are stuck in my brain forever, so I can't help hum along. Damn earworm.

The New Yorker, June 15th, 2015

Exactly. I never went out of my way to listen to the Eagles, but I can’t go anywhere without hearing them, for my entire life! I don’t even know if it qualifies as "guilty pleasure" to know every lyric to most of their songs. It’s just a condition of modern life.

I think the Eagles situation may be more acute for you since you live in LA. I mean, that's ground zero for their music. Up here in the Northwest, Nirvana serves a similar role. Their music is drilled into everyone from birth. Yay, regionalism! The last bastion of non-web powered aesthetics.

The Nirvana thing is certainly more of a regional effect, but the Eagles’ oppression extends far beyond LA. I guess it may be more pronounced down here, and it’s my own fault that I only listen to classic rock (or my karaoke playlist) in the car. I went to a Christian high school in suburban Indianapolis, and you can imagine the lectures I had to sit through about the Satanic subtext of “Hotel California,” which of course only drove the earworm further into my psyche.

You went to a Christian high school where they lectured about the evils of "Hotel California"? Holy shit, that's interview pay-dirt.

Does it seem exotic? It seemed totally normal back then (I went to the school from 4th grade through high school). Conservative culture only seemed strange to me, increasingly so, later in life. Around the mid-1980s these guest speakers would come to the school give seminars the evils of rock-and-roll music, the practice of “backward masking” in heavy metal recordings, subliminal sex messages in advertising, that kind of thing. If you’re so inclined, you can pick apart the lyrics of “Hotel California” (which is already an openly dark song about the trappings of hedonism, etc) and read them as references to Satanism — the lines “in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast, they stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast” still sound really creepy to me. At the time I was vaguely frightened by all that dark stuff, but also quite intrigued. 

from High Tide
Seems ridiculous to me now that grown adults were trying to teach us this stuff, or that they themselves really believed it and were afraid of it. Everything “secular” was some kind of trap set by Satan (or homosexuals). All it really did was make me love Ozzy and Dio and Accept and Iron Maiden, which I listened to obsessively throughout high school (along with all the “alternative” music of the 80s and then Brian Eno’s ambient records, which I discovered around 11th grade by way of Roxy Music — long story), and also made me look that much closer at print advertising, scrutinizing the CMYK dot patterns, hoping to detect some naked tits hiding in plain sight in a glass of whiskey, or a cock and balls hidden in the nose of Joe Camel… (John Darnielle, by the way, makes ingenious use of backward masking in his novel WOLF IN WHITE VAN, whose title comes from a “hidden” phrase in Larry Norman’s “666.”)

I could probably make a case that photographing the way I do — treating the “background” or secondary matter as the important stuff, generally ignoring the conventionally “beautiful,” making books that don’t really have a beginning or an end — is all some process of resisting the idea of a top-down hierarchy, reversing the kind of power structure the Church drilled into me in various ways…

Did you know you have a photographer Doppelgänger? In Berkeley.

Yes, I’ve come across this other Mike Slack (nature photographer?). There's also an illustrator (also in the Bay Area?) named Michael Slack... I work for his publisher and occasionally get emails from his editor about this children’s book illustrations. Very confusing. We should all have a show together.

New Orleans, 2015

I think it's kind of wonderful. I like the idea of someone looking you up or the other one and becoming confused. The Berkeley one is not much like you photographically.

Confusion is not a bad thing. And all these Mike Slacks are making visual art, which is odd.

I wrote a post about mixed up names a few years back.

Wait... you’re not the director of the Pink Panther films? What is this interview about? 

It's about how did you begin as a photographer?

I did have a Pentax K-1000 in high school and took a couple photo lessons back then (my dad was an enthusiast) but it was never really a thing for me — creatively I was more into playing drums, and then studied English in college, had an interest in language and linguistics. Moved to Southern California in the early 1990s and started making Polaroids with a 680SLR in the late 90s. That’s when the photo thing took root, and I had a kind of mania for making pictures but didn’t really think of myself as a “photographer” until later.

It says drummer on your Facebook profile. "Drums, Backup Vocals, Cowbell at The Ice Plant." It's amazing that a small publisher can find a niche for those roles in the budget. It seems only the major publishers can afford cowbell players anymore.

That's more of a metaphor at this point, and we don’t have much of a budget. Actually, my day job is with one of the major publishers (Macmillan). Definitely a lot of cowbell there.

What's your day job with Macmillan?

Traveling salesman. I sell their books to independent bookstores in southern California, Arizona, and Hawaii.

Do you use your travel as photo ops? Do you shoot while traveling?

Always. I take a lot of detours. Probably make more pictures when I’m traveling than when I’m home — although Los Angeles is so vast I can often end up an unfamiliar place in a matter of minutes. 

Do you have any other formal training in photography? In college or outside of school or anyplace?

None. I’m totally informal, and maybe untrainable.

Do you still play drums?

Not really — a lot of air-drumming, and the steering wheel of my car takes a pounding. I do still have my original snare drum on a stand in my office at home and have been playing it lately to clear my mind.

It's like meditation for you. Does photographing do that too? Or maybe it has the opposite effect? Filling the mind.

Playing the drums is definitely like meditation  I wouldn't mind being in a Krautrock band where I could just hammer out a 4/4 motorik indefinitely. Using a camera is also kind of meditative — I consider it a 'practice,’ a long-term practice without a goal, like yoga or karaoke (I think I'm quoting myself from another interview here). Roaming around with a camera clears the mind to a certain extent  shuts off a part of my thoughts, emphasizes other senses, heightens a certain kind of attention.  I like how Henry Wessel describes the process of making photographs in his short intro to California and the West: “…eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point connecting. It’s thrilling to be outside your mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.” 

Ed Panar, Mike Slack, Ricardo Cases (photo by R. Cases)

What do you mean "without a goal." Isn't the resulting photograph the goal? Otherwise why put film in the camera?

What is this mysterious "film" you speak of?… Each photograph is a kind of destination, but as a personal practice or habit, the individual pictures aren’t really the point. It's an open-ended process, a headspace. I might nail a particular song in karaoke, or hold a perfect handstand or some crazy yoga pose, but have I arrived? In the long-term, I don’t know what the goal is, other than to keep doing it, to stay in practice, to stay engaged and see new things. There's a lot of repetition, and satisfaction, in the behavior. 

I guess asking someone about the goal is a loaded question. It varies for everyone. And I agree the process of looking and converting the world into photos is sort of a self-contained answer. But taken as a life activity, isn't there some goal? To improve one's vision? Or relationship with the world? Or to show others how you view things? I don't know and I'm just speculating, but I'm curious to hear your take.

Is there a goal to any life activity, or human history in general? I’m maybe taking too wide a perspective here, but the open-ended "meditative" aspect of photography is what I’m getting at, the aimless wandering. There doesn’t have to be a point. (“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot live without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” —John Gray, Straw Dogs

Sometimes a good picture or a good book comes out of it, but the pleasure is mostly in looking through the camera and seeing things, recording things, over and over, shooting first, asking questions later. Of course I want to be good at it but I don’t get too fixated on goals (probably to my financial detriment)… On the other hand, images are language, and even if I’m not sharing what I see with other people, there is an uncontrollable (prehistoric?) urge to create images that convey new information about reality, that record things in new ways. So maybe that is the essential goal, to create new information. The impulse to make pictures — to depict — is primordial, and led to the creation of alphabets and written language (maybe a topic for another interview). Sharing that visual information, communicating with others — maintaining and making sense of an archive, making books, posting pictures on Instagram, selling prints or whatever — is a whole other practice. 

On the subject of goals (from Pyramids) "The Devil's favorite word is tomorrow."

"Time and the Devil are identical.” VilĂ©m Flusser, The History of the Devil.

I gotta think about that one. I thought time was Jesus? I had it completely backwards. Which involves time of course. So that explains it. Going back in the Devil a minute to the subject of the mysterious "film", what was it about Polaroids that first drew you in?
from OK OK OK

I was attached to the Polaroid for a long time for a lot of reasons — the camera itself, and also the prints, all of it very physical, clunky, analog. I drifted away from it after Pyramids, but I kind of miss carrying it around, treating it like a recording device, working within its limitations, hearing its mechanical sounds. Part of what first drew me in was that the pictures often looked more like paintings than photographs, and this could be done without Photoshop and without much technical knowledge of how the camera and film functioned. There was an immediacy to it, a lot of surprises and happy accidents. Also a challenge in making a really precise picture using this relatively primitive apparatus. It’s entirely possible I could’ve gotten a similar satisfaction shooting negatives and making prints the traditional way, but the Polaroid worked for me back then and I stuck with it.

Part of Polaroid photography involves that short five minute window while you wait and watch the photograph slowly develop. Was that a meaningful time for you? Did you use it to pause or meditate or somehow satisfy expectations? For me using Instax, I find those short periods to be very contemplative. The world stops for five minutes.

Ah, so it’s not exactly “instant” photography! There’s still a time factor (the Devil is tenacious)… That five minute window is of course full of anticipation. The conclusion is often a letdown, but when a "perfect" image happens to coalesce from the nothingness of the emulsion, it’s like an abstract thought suddenly achieving clarity in the mind, or a memory suddenly being retrieved. 

I like photos that feel like they had to be made at a certain time and place to work. Two feet to the left or one minute later and the photo would fall apart. Your Polaroids seem to have that. They are very precise in framing and perspective. Good sense of edges, and also the subjects themselves. Not easy. I think it's hard to be the sort of photographer who pulls randomly from the real world while still injecting that sense of certainty.

The precision is a natural inclination. I love(d), and was maybe drawn to, playing drums for this reason — the mechanical mathematics of tempo, rhythm, polyrhythm, syncopation, etc — and I ascribe some of my sense of visual composition to that skill, zeroing in on something (even the most nondescript, random part of reality) and balancing it within the frame. Tricky to do this in-camera with the Polaroid of course… Part of the allure of photography is exactly what you’re saying — an unrepeatable split-second of light, color, texture, all mind-bogglingly specific to a location in space-time. Almost all my pictures are taken outdoors, and sunlight is a key factor, which may emphasize that feeling — no way to stop the rotation of the Earth and no way that shadow will ever look exactly the same. (“The Devil’s favorite word is tomorrow”?)

So you have precision built in. Were you a math/science guy in high school? Or were your parents engineers? Or where does that come from

None of the above. I have no explanation (“I can’t tell you why…”). While there’s precision in a lot of the images, or in the way they’re presented, the routine of making pictures is often deliberately imprecise and random. A lot of the locations and subjects of the pictures are determined somewhat by chance — stopping to shoot one thing, then discovering another thing around the corner or just to the left or right, or even forcing myself to stop at a random location (i.e. setting a timer to go off every 5 or 7 minutes). So maybe it balances out.

Do you still shoot Polaroids?

I’m not really shooting Polaroids at all now. A couple years ago I shot the "Alphabetography" Polaroids which appear in The Photographer's Playbook, which was strangely difficult and ate up most of my remaining film… Pyramids was published in 2009 around the time Polaroid went bankrupt, and I briefly played around with a few other instant formats (The Impossible Project films, etc) but the novelty of it had worn off somewhat, and all my good Polaroid cameras were falling apart and a hassle to maintain. I gradually found a digital camera I like and have been content with that for a few years now…

Alphabetography from The Photographer's Playbook

I've had fun with the Fuji Instant cameras. They're plastic and fall apart, but so cheap they're easily replaced. I know I could do the same photos with an iPhone but something about that physicality which you mentioned appeals to me.

Never say never. I might come back to instant cameras some point, but I'm happy at the moment with the NEX7. 

How would you compare Instagram to Polaroid?

Are they comparable? I use Instagram but I don’t use the app as a camera. My feed is a combination of stuff from my Sony NEX7 and my iPhone camera roll, often weeks or months old. I like the general flow of the whole thing. It’s good to have that channel open, to maintain a kind of casual gallery (as opposed to my website, which I rarely maintain).

from Mike Slack's Instagram

I think they're comparable in the type of material they turn up. Polaroids were closely associated with snapshots and daily ephemera. Instagram seems to have assumed that role now. When a photograph is released from the burden of showing "important" stuff, interesting material can fill that void. Both Instagram and Polaroid feed on that.

To some extent, though it depends on whose feed (or whose Polaroids) you’re talking about. Instagram has that personal/informal aspect, but there’s much more there than just snapshots and daily ephemera. Maybe the “instant” experience of making a Polaroid has evolved into the “instant” experience of sharing images? 

If you watch this amazing promotional film (by Charles & Ray Eames) about the SX-70 camera, it’s clear that Edwin Land’s mission with Polaroid was to give consumers (to give humanity) an easier, more direct means of making photo prints, “to remove the barrier between the photographer and his subject” with a device whose “thoughtful use could reveal meaning in the flood of images which makes up so much of human life.” This was a deep human need he was trying to address — our natural compulsion to make pictures of our surroundings and interact with them. I’d agree that the invention of the Polaroid was a huge step in democratizing photography, pushing it beyond the Instamatic point-and-shoot experience toward this crazy instantaneous photo-sharing situation we’re in now. If Land was trying to close the loop and remove technical steps from the process for the photographer, Instagram has closed the loop even tighter than he could have ever imagined.

How did your Polaroid books come into being?

I met Jason Fulford around the year 2000 and showed him all these pictures I'd been accumulating. I had tracked him down after finding a copy of his first book, Sunbird — it seemed self-published and I simply wanted to pick his brain about printing a book of my own, not realizing he was starting to publish other people’s work. He did the initial edit for OK OK OK (culled from the nearly 400 Polaroids I’d scanned and printed) and we built the book around those. I was fortunate to have his input on all that — he's a really good editor, and the book design was perfect. After the J & L Books edition sold out, Tricia Gabriel started The Ice Plant (which we now run together) and reprinted OK OK OK, and we kept the same basic design (with different colors) for Scorpio and Pyramids. It wasn't planned this way but the three books now feel to me like one single project, a 3-headed creature.

Pyramids, Scorpio, OK OK OK

They form a nice trilogy with the blue, yellow, and red covers. I thought they'd been conceived as a set of three. But apparently not. Was Jason Fulford's edit much different than your own?

Vastly different. I really didn't have much of an 'edit' back then. I'd been collecting the Polaroids into groupings of 4 and 8 in these big portfolios, combining them in various ways based on color, shapes, themes, but it was really a huge mess of pictures and I was too close to all of them. Jason cut out 90% of it and somehow pulled out just the essentials  the 5 or 6 basic picture-types and their variations, plus a couple wildcards. I was a little shocked when he first showed me an edit of around 35 pictures, each on its own spread. Hadn't occurred to me to look at them this way, or to present them to an audience in such a minimal layout. But it immediately made sense, and had a big impact on how I worked going forward.

What do you mean? It affected your shooting? Or your editing?

The editing, and thinking about how to juxtapose and sequence pictures. Which in turn may have affected the shooting.

What if you had boiled the 400 down into 35 photos before showing them to Jason? How different would your selection be?

I just wouldn’t have done that. At the time I was still discovering my own sensibility, seeing unintended connections between the pictures, finding patterns and recurring themes, enthralled by the whole thing, deciphering the language. If I had any idea about editing, it was to keep expanding the mass. It was good to have somebody come in and take the opposite approach, to strip it all down and give it some space.

from Pyramids
There is one set of buildings which appears in a photo in each of the three books. As far as I can tell it's the only subject which appears in all three. I'm curious if that's an intentional marker to tie them all together, or just an accident? And where are those buildings? Is it some LA landmark?

Those are the Pyramids in Indianapolis.

Ah. See, I was making up an LA story in my mind about them. And all the while they were in Indiana. I guess that's the beauty of non-captioned photos. They allow a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. Does that site have some personal meaning to you?

One of my earliest memories is seeing these buildings through the backseat car window on the drive to my grandmother's house.  When I was a kid they seemed like something from another planet, both futuristic and ancient, out there off the highway surrounded by nothing. My three main Polaroid books are kind of an echo of those three buildings — again, not something I planned consciously, but it now seems obvious.

And that was something Jason Fulford keyed on too? That's sort of remarkable considering he was sifting through 400 photos.

Jason only worked on OK OK OK, and the oddly cropped Pyramids picture there connects to some of the other architecture photos in the book, both compositionally and thematically. When I was putting Scorpio together I included a shot of the same buildings from a different angle. There are actually 2 shots of the Pyramids in Pyramids but you might never know it... The odd geometry of those buildings has been with me forever.

from Pyramids
I'll look for that second shot. I remember one photo of a pavement repair which had the same shape as the buildings. And I know there are many repeating forms throughout all three.

That pavement repair was actually on the sidewalk next to the Pyramids! Either a strange coincidence, or a clever construction worker... The other actual shot of the Pyramids is the triangular aperture shape toward the beginning of the book.

Were all three books pulled from the original body of 400 Polaroids? Or had you continued to make new work along the way?

I was making new work the whole time. There may be a picture or two in Scorpio from that original 400 but almost all of it was shot afterward, and Pyramids is all post-OK OK OK

Since you mentioned your memories of the buildings I'm curious how many other photos in those books have some close personal meaning for you. For me as an outside viewer they seem rather formal and objective.

Many of the pictures in all 3 books have a very personal significance. They books are not strictly 'autobiographical' but all the images trigger intense personal associations — my cat (now deceased) and my ex-wife are in OK OK OK, my dad is in Scorpio, and my mom is in Pyramids (as well as a Polaroid-of-a-Polaroid of Tricia). Even the more formal pictures are loaded with emotion and memory. For me the pictures are energized and held together by all that personal stuff, but people can read into them as much as they want to.

I think that's when you know you're on the right path. When you can create a photo (or any art) invested with personal feeling, but which also can be appreciated by Joe Schmo on the street for its purely aesthetic quality.

Joe Schmo is maybe my ideal audience. 

What about the recent book, Shrubs of Death? Is there some personal connection?

Those photographs were made at the cemetery in northeastern Indiana where my grandparents are buried. My parents (still living) already have headstones there too. I was there alone last summer and it was kind of intense, thinking about death, life, family, etc. The shrubs around the cemetery are unnervingly present and I had an urgent need to photograph all of them (and no intention of making a book). The phrase “drums of death” has always been on my short list of potential book titles, so…

from Shrubs of Death

Tell me more. What do you think about death?

Is this a James Lipton moment? When I say death, maybe I just mean loss, the inevitability of losing things you love and having to cope with that, anticipating it. When I photographed those alluring shrubs, I had in mind a typology, some reference to the New Topographics. But when I looked at the pictures a few months later, it occurred to me that they were about death, the idea of death, the inability to know anything about death — they seem to be saying something, to mean something, but they’re inaccessible, dark, silent, they give you absolutely nothing. Photography is of course always about death and loss in some sense (“All photographs are memento mori.” —Susan Sontag, On Photography), and photographs also only ever pretend to have meaning, they conceal more than they reveal. 

Here's a techie question about the books. I like the way the reproductions are actual size to resemble photos laid on a page. But the borders look fake to me. Were they photoshopped in? They don't have any stains or texture or anything.

The Polaroid border in all the books is simulated. It was important to me to present the Polaroids as objects on the page, but when Jason and I saw the proofs for OK OK OK all the borders looked inconsistent and murky, and they were going to get worse as we color-corrected on press. So we came up with this other solution, while at the printer in Korea, literally a couple days before the book was printed. It's a slight tint (maybe a small percentage of C, Y, K, I can't remember exactly) with a varnish over the whole Polaroid area.

Did you color correct to keep Polaroid's unique color palette? Or to correct its flaws?

The images were adjusted to be as close as possible to the originals -- not easy with offset printing but it's close enough.

I think the photos might've looked nice with inconsistent murky borders. Isn't that part of the Polaroid magic? Each photo is unique and not easily copied.

The texture of the borders was what we originally wanted, but the color adjusting (given our somewhat limited knowledge at the time) was really messing things up and it would have been a distraction. I actually prefer the clean look as it is — the emphasis is on the images but a ghost of the medium is still there.

New Orleans, 2015

Last question because we've been at this a while: What's the deal with you and cats? I'm thinking of the New Orleans photos you sent me. Plus some of your Instagram feed...

Non-human intelligence? I don’t know. If I could explain the deal with me and cats, I wouldn't need to photograph them so much. They're a necessary element.

All photos above by Mike Slack unless otherwise noted.


John said...

very thoughtful stuff. Thanks B & Mike

Stan B. said...

Love them shrubs to death!

Unknown said...

Great article, will definitely bookmark your blog.

R. McGraw said...

Hi Mike, would like to get in touch with you to catch up if you would. No pressure, but think ot would be great to do so.
R. McGraw

Blake Andrews said...

R. McGraw, I don't think Mike is likely to check this post regularly. I suggest contacting him through Ice Plant, his publishing company.