Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Q & A with Sam Prekop

Photo from Thrill Jockey video
Sam Prekop is a musician and photographer based in Chicago.

BA: I've known your music with Sea And Cake since the mid 90s, but I've only recently gotten to know your photos through Instagram. How'd you get into photography?

SP: I grew up around photography, darkroom in the house, the whole thing. My dad is a long time and quite accomplished artist/photographer.  Somehow I avoided it til much later. I went to art school for painting and the two don't coexist, especially in art school.

What do you mean "the two don't coexist"? 

Yes of course they “coexist” I should have said the departments just felt quite separate without much interaction at least from my perspective. I was so focused on painting I’m not even sure I was aware there was a photo department!

Was it a situation as a kid where you didn't want to do what your parents did? Is that why you avoided it when younger?

I don't think so really. I knew pretty early on I wanted to be an artist but I just didn't equate photography with it exactly I suppose. I do recall doing Rayograms. Is that the term placing objects, etc, on photo sensitive material?

Yeah, those are fun. You did those in art school?

At Home.

Nikko, Japan

What does your dad think of your recent photos? Does he follow your Instagram stuff?

He's always been a big supporter of whatever I'm getting up to. He's checked on my Instagram but hasn't kept up. I tried to get him involved but it just didn't click, too small! His main tool is large format studio photography, which doesn't quite translate well on a phone.

The digital divide. What if you show him prints or some other method? Just curious how he'd react from an art/academic perspective. I think your photographic style is unlike what's usually taught in art schools.

Well the IG thing is somewhat recent for me, well a couple of years I guess, but I was for sure focused on making prints and dreaming of making books. But I'd say he thinks I'm a better painter than photographer! And probably wishes I would get back to that instead of music, etc.

What does he think of Sea and Cake's music?

Well I’m not sure how often he really listens to it, but I’m pretty sure he likes it fine. I think he’s most impressed that I’ve eked out a career of doing what I want. He’s always been very supportive of me not getting a real job! 

Are you still painting?

It's been a while but admit I feel like I'm gearing up for it again. I make a lot of drawings that I think keep me somewhat limbered up. I also think of my photos as in a away as "fast" paintings. Really fast!

Split second. Drawing has no chance. Let me go back a second to art school. You didn't do any photo studies there?  

Yeah, no photo stuff in art school.

Did art school help you with looking? Or was it more focused on thinking?

I'd say my focus was looking first, thinking afterward, which is how I make photographs as well. My paintings work along similar lines, hope something happens that's interesting and that you're in a place to recognize it and not screw it up. 

When did you first get into photography?

I started dabbling a bit in designing record covers, but didn't really get into it until on a whim I brought a camera on an early tour, and pretty quickly I fell pretty hard for it. I early on made the connection that in a raw sense, just looking was rewarding work in itself, and the documents became interesting as well.

How do you decide which of your photos to use on album covers?

Well actually I almost never plan on using one of my photos, the exception would be the latest record, but that came about somewhat by accident. While looking through some old 4X6 prints the image I used seemed so just right and that the photo is probably 10 or so years old also contributed a mysteriously detached quality to it even though its subject matter is so familiar to me, but in a transition state, being that it’s a photo of a room that I had just moved into, in a new house at the time, but where I live now. Anyway these are a few of the reasons the image resonated with me so much I think. Also normally I don’t really decide on what an album cover should be until the record's finished. In this case I found the photo and then made the record. It was on my mind during most of the process.

The Sea and Cake, Any Day, 2018 (Thrill Jockey)

What about generally? What are your favorite all-time album covers that use third-party photos? 

Oddly not something I’ve really thought about. but one of my least favorite album covers happens to use the Eggleston photo of the dolls on the Cadillac! I think it’s a Big Star or Alex Chilton record. 

Did you pursue any training as a photographer? 

No training in photography. Years after first getting into it, I then became really interested in the "craft" of making prints in a darkroom. So for five or so years I was focused primarily on black and white work, and teaching myself how to print and process.

Sam Prekop, Photographs
2017 (Presspop Gallery Publications)
Those were the photos in your first book.

Yep. So my darkroom work was going well and then I had kids, and had to shut it down!

Because of kids?

Yeah, we needed the extra bathroom and somehow the whole operation seemed just too close to newborns. I now have a separate studio again and have thought about setting something up again, but really I think I'd shoot for getting my painting studio going first.

So the reason you switched to color was purely due to space limitations? Was there some aesthetic reason too?

In retrospect I consider myself a color photographer. I started with color and then the black and white detour occurred. Wanting a darkroom —among many reasons I was not satisfied with the whole scan and inkjet workflow. I wanted"real" prints, and black and white was what I could pull off. Of course I love black and white work. I just don't think my work is as strong in that area.

Do you make prints now of your color work? 

Actually I don't make prints all that often any more. I mean, I hope that changes but the right project I guess hasn't presented itself. But when I do I scan and then send them out to be printed on "photo paper"

Well that's a print, isn't it?

Yes, of course, but I used to print a whole lot more. Now it's a somewhat rare occasion.

You're shooting film?

Yeah, film.

I asked before if you'd pursued any photographic training but I'd kinda guessed the answer already. What I like about your photos is they are quite raw and unmanipulated. So whatever you're doing, don't change it. I'm curious if you were looking at other photographers as you developed, or had any outside influence besides your dad. How did you find your style?

St. Louis perhaps?

Well yes, I look at a lot of work. I guess these days it's on IG! So I've gone through several periods of obsession with certain photographers. Like a lot of people Eggleston was pretty big for me. I recall seeing his work before making photographs and being distinctly unimpressed. I think it helps to try making you're own work to really appreciate his genius. Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Atget, many of the usual suspects. I also went through a real German photography period which hasn't held up for me quite well.

What do you like about Eggleston's photos? Do you remember the conversion moment for you, when you went from unimpressed to impressed?  

The first Eggleston book I came in contact with was “The Democratic Forest” and I think it’s still my favorite. So I think his work really got to me in book form. I think the sequencing and the color feeling like the subject really spoke to me in a way that a one off photo can’t do. Also the process of having the book and coming back to it again and again only increased the weird fleeting ephemeral quality to the work. And his working statement with regard to a visual democracy, that anything can be a photo has of course been a huge influence on me. 

I think Eggleston is an good example of photography being inside baseball. If you don't make photos he can seem obtuse. A bit less generally accessible than music, perhaps? I guess it depends on the specific photos or specific music

I agree, but a bizarre strength of taking a photo is that it's available to anyone. I've always found this fascinating. It's truly democratic, for better or worse. Music takes more effort I'd say on a base level. But because of photography's inherent qualities, it's very difficult to make an interesting picture.

How do you know when you've made an interesting photo?

Well, I never quite feel like I'm "making" it. I like to think I found my better pictures. While I'm out taking photos is not where it's happening, in a way. For me it's quite intuitive, backed with a lot of looking. The ones that get to me jump out with not a lot of effort. Of course I'm not always right!

I'm curious about your process. How do you go about finding photos?

When I'm really on I'll go out daily to take photos. However it's usually en route to do something else, grocery store, kids, school, etc. So it's pretty much in my neighborhood. I rarely go somewhere specific to take photos, but I will say my neighborhood has been quite an inspiration. I also do quite a bit on tour as well, but I feel like my best work happens around here in Chicago.

Which neighborhood is that?


Pilsen. It still feels like "old Chicago". It hasn't changed as much as other areas, and is quite a vivid mash up.

Photography is a good enforcer. It makes you pay attention to the everyday. Just one city block can provide entertainment for hours. Maybe it's a double edged sword though, because eventually it becomes hard to simply be in the world without visualizing it as a photo. That's especially a problem for folks (I'm one too) who find material in their everyday routines. Sometimes I envy studio photographers. They can make their work in one place. Then come home and leave it behind for a while.

I spent some time setting up still life situations to photograph an interesting problem to solve. It's definitely closer to painting than street photography. Lately I've just started taking photos again around here, and being what I'd say is a bit rusty, everything looks new and weird again, pleasant but somewhat awkward.

Are there streets or areas nearby you haven't yet explored with a camera? Or have you seen all of it by now?

I do feel like I’ve seen them all! Well, not really. I like alleys quite a bit in that they’re more similar to each other than say streets are. So alleys always have a sort of neutral appeal to them always nicely unremarkable and it’s likely I’ve seen most of them but who can remember! So they look oddly new all of time. The neighborhood just south of Pilsen is called Bridgeport and it’s really as different from Pilsen as you can get both visually and culturally as well. I actually feel like I work there a bit more lately and it does seem to hold some more surprises for me in a way lately.  

Do you compose music in your head while photographing? Or is that a completely separate activity?

Yeah pretty separate, really. I'm usually working on one or the other.

Why did the German photographers become less interesting to you?

I guess last year I saw a pretty major Thomas Struth retrospective in Munich, and I was quite shocked at how flat it felt to me. I really don't like huge prints at all, and the work felt bored, and maybe he wishes he were making paintings? A bit harsh, I guess! But I can't say I'm opposed to all german photography!

The Düsseldorf stuff is pretty controlled. 

Yeah, I think my initial attraction to it along with everyone else was that they might not be "photos" in a away, and a very specific "European-ness" to them was quite exotic some how.

It's not really my thing either. But I like some of the related offshoots like, say, Stephen Shore or Baltz.

Yes, Shore would be in my foundations list.

What do you think of his Instagram photos?

Hmm, I really like that he makes them, but I'm not always convinced by them. But somehow that doesn't bother me.


What's your take on Instagram in general? Do you value the feedback? Do you learn from it?

I guess I was a bit conflicted when I started and really wasn't all that interested, but it's grown on me gradually. Now that I'm into it I'd say now I've learned a tremendous amount from it and really have found crazy value for my work and the work I've found. I think it's changed my work as well. Before IG I really didn't have much of an outlet, and wasn't all that concerned about it either. But now I just appreciate in a weird way what I've been exposed to and the exposure I think it's afforded me as well. 

But it is a real time suck! I am a bit concerned that I'm compelled to post something daily, and fear quite a bit the addiction involved with the "feedback" element.

You've learned a tremendous amount about your own photos? Or about what's out there?

One thing I've caught myself feeling that one photo might be to Instagram focused, an easy shot, and I've been a bit weary of leaning on what I think might work better than another, in an Instagram context. But of course some stuff just works better than others.

Who is someone you've discovered there whose photos have radically opened your eyes or altered your thinking?

Hmm, I wouldn't say radically, but I do have some favorites. @ann.lee, @hitomarunobase, @negativeone2, these are a couple of the top of my head.

@negativeone2, yeah he's extremely unpredictable in a good way. That's Scott that used to live in Portland. Good friend of @faulkner.short. I think he lives in San Antonio now. But his IG feed doesn't really show that. It's all over the place. And time.

Yeah definitely, somehow his work has changed, even though he seems to show a lot of old stuff. But for quite a while I felt we probably just liked the same photographers. But some photos he's gone past that for me.

What do you mean, his work has changed? How so?

When I first started following his work, I must have liked something about it, but it seemed so wildly inconsistent and perhaps that was part of the appeal in a way. But maybe the work hasn’t actually changed as much as I think, but just that he’s gotten much better with the editing. I will say I’m still pretty often surprised by a certain loose almost scattershot way he has with his work but still comes off quite elegantly. 

I feel the self imposed Instagram filter you mentioned earlier. After being on there a little while I realize that some photos work better on IG than others. So it's hard for me to impose the type of conscious inconsistency that makes some books work well, or that Scott employs to great effect. Extrapolate that to the general situation and Instagram is probably having some long-term effects on the overall direction of photography. Another double edged sword. Darn, those things are everywhere.

Yes, definitely.

Maybe Spotify and Soundcloud are having a similar effect on music?

Hmm I guess, I actually don't really participate with that stuff any where near to IG. I know it's happening, just hasn't happened to me.

Why do you distribute your photos and music in such different ways? Is it something about the artistic mediums? Or about you?

I make a lot of electronic music that I’ve been thinking about posting on soundcloud / bandcamp , and I’d be interested in the feedback to it and just having it exist beyond my studio. But since I do have a more “traditional” way of getting my music heard via my record label that could be why I’ve been a bit less urgent about getting it out there in a social media sort of way.  I’m definitely not opposed to it. I think it’s really just a matter of time and a bit of sorting priorities. 


Do you ever put together shows of your photos? Or maybe have another book planned? Or some other non-IG outlet?

I've had a handful of shows, but for me I think books are the optimal way to deal with photos. I'm always thinking book in the back of my mind, but no plans.

Are there photographers in Chicago you get together with to share work or chat or shoot together? Or is it just you?

Just me. I know a couple of people working, but yeah, I don't feel a part of any "photo community" here. For a while I used a rental darkroom and really enjoyed the general photo banter action.

I think that's another maybe underrecognized aspect to Instagram. It can feel like a community of sorts. Or maybe it can supply community for those folks who don't have it locally.

When I take photos on tour, I find a bit annoying to have other people around! Always having to ask people to move out of the way, etc.

You mean shooting photos with bandmates?

Yeah, band mates. I'm sort of kidding a bit.

I generally like to shot alone, especially in urban scenes. But it's nice each month to hang out with photo buddies and look at pix together.

Yeah, that would be excellent. Archer who's in my band is quite a cheerleader and critic of my work so I'm always eager for his take on things.

Does he take photos?

He does, but it's pretty much in an in passing sort of way.

But he has good feedback?

Years ago he would say he had loftier ambitions for it, I think.

So he dropped photography to do something practical...like join a rock band. Haha.

Well the feedback I'd say wouldn't be perhaps the most hardcore. But we have such a long working history it's valuable.

Friends like that are so valuable they're invaluable.