Ed Templeton is a photographer, artist, and skateboard executive based on Huntington Beach, CA. (This interview was compiled from two chats during the third week of September 2020)
BA: How's it going?
ET: It's going well considering.
Oh yeah. Maybe one good thing about the wildfires is that it has kind of pushed that to the back burner, at least for a little while.
Yeah, tough to worry about the pandemic when your countryside is on fire spewing toxic smoke. Just makes everything worse. I'm personally doing fine, feeling very lucky to have been able to work seamlessly from home through all of this. But after 7 months in I'm starting to go stir-crazy.
How has the pandemic affected your shooting? Are you still going out most days? Or stuck mostly at home?
The pandemic has definitely kneecapped my shooting so far. We used to go for a photo walk almost every day, and we normally travel quite often for things, and shoot photos on those trips. So those daytime walks and the travel have been stopped. Fortunately, I do a lot of things, so I just shifted to painting, and working on upcoming books. We take a night walk in our suburban tract every night, but I have barely brought my camera out on them. I'm starting to get itchy to shoot, so I have gone out a few times just to drive or walk in the daytime recently.
Is that a big shift for you, to go out without a camera? I'm one of those people, I just take my camera everywhere as a routine thing. But I know not everyone does that.
Yeah, I normally never go out without a camera! But on these night walks we literally see nobody, and there's been scant times I wanted to shoot a night photo of someone's house. Normally it's a routine thing, but since we are in our own tract, the last thing I want to do is freak out my neighbors with a flash photo at night of their house! They can find out where I live. I did shoot some cats, and a rat and took a photo of Deanna the other night. Some kids have done sidewalk chalk I’ve been meaning to shoot. It never rains here, so it stays there for weeks. Some Trump propaganda has appeared on people’s lawns, and I thought maybe I should shoot those, even though it makes my blood boil. But yes, there's no excuse to not be ready for a photo at all times.
Wow, maybe the pandemic will turn you on to a new direction. Night photos
Yeah! I like shooting at night in cities, or when I'm out and about. I usually keep a flash in my bag just in case, but my tract is so commonplace. Having said that, I should bring my camera out every time no matter what. I'm breaking my own rules!
You say you live in a suburban tract, which runs contrary to my mental image of Huntington Beach. I thought of it as more gritty. But that might've been just the side of Huntington Beach I was seeing in your pictures. So where you live is more of a typical suburb with lawns and sidewalks and shit? How far is it from there to say, the pier where many of your photos were taken?
Oh yeah, HB is a fully functioning suburb, born of white flight in the 50s and 60s. An endless sprawl of tract housing, mostly conservative people, lots of Trumptards. (Although Hillary just barely won in the 2016 election, so gaining in Democrat voters) The main street used to be gritty and cool in the 80s. A very surf / local boy culture, lots of fistfights. I had friends that wore rubber mouthpieces around their necks because they would fight the local skinheads so often. But since then it has become fully "Starbucks and Jamba Juiced" out. It's all micro breweries, bars, restaurants. Pretty much the usual gentrification.
Huntington Beach’s downtown was a summer beach destination for wealthy Angelinos in the 1920s and '30s and now a lot of those old single story beach cottages are being torn down and massive 3 story homes are being wedged into the skinny lots. There's still a mild locals only vibe, but it's mostly young wealthy suburbanites. There's also a lot of flat-billed baseball cap wearing dudes with sketchy vaguely racist tattoos, and suddenly everyone is a trained MMA fighter or trying to look like one. Pit bulls and tribal tattoos. The photos of mine you see from HB are mostly shot in that downtown area, Main street and the beach and pier. I live about 3 miles from downtown. There’s a still a remnant of grit. It's kinda like Venice beach lite. People come here to be seen, to parade and peacock around. The easy access to parking and food bring crowds on summer weekends, and therefore the religious zealots come to preach to those crowds. There's a drum circle on Sundays and it's a total freakshow.
Ever join the drum circle?
I've shot photos of the drum circle, but never joined in!
I've never actually been to HB but I've been to Laguna Beach if it's anything like that?
Laguna Beach is way nicer, that's where we go when we want to enjoy the beach. They actually have taken steps to keep their charm and restrict some of the rampant gentrification. It’s harder to park there too, so the beaches are typically not as packed, and the water is much nicer. You can snorkel there.
Has the gentrification in HB made it harder for you to find the types of subjects that appeal photographically?
Yes it has fully transformed in my lifetime. I skated down there starting in 1985, and still go down there to shoot into the 2020s so the change has been interesting to watch. On paper the vibe down there is the polar opposite of the kind of place we actually like, but it has always been so good for photos, and it's close to home. I have been thinking about the fact that I seem to be drawn to shooting things and places that I’m critical of. I’m worried that I’m a “hate shooter.” I enjoy shooting the things I dislike about human nature rather than the things I like. It’s not 100% true, maybe only when I’m in the USA?
We try to see past the people and enjoy the ocean and the sea life. It’s really an amazing place on that level. Perfect weather always, etc. My photos probably lie a bit in that I'm particularly looking for the things that stick out to me in this place, and I'm not shooting photos of the average family dressed normally with their kids in stroller. I'm focused on the religious zealot yelling at them instead.
I guess that leads to the next question. What are the types of things you are drawn to photographing? And why do you think you're attracted to them? Is there some connection to your skating youth? Maybe you want to shoot people who remind you of that spirit?
There's the million dollar question! My entire photo practice has been almost 100% whatever falls in front of my face as I navigate through life. I started shooting in earnest in 1994 while on skateboard tours, wanting to document the people and lifestyle around me at the time (influenced by Nan Goldin, Jim Goldberg, and Larry Clark). That quickly branched into shooting photos anywhere, anytime but always because I was wherever I was because of skateboarding. And then as I started showing art, the travel started shifting from skateboard tours to art exhibitions (doing both of those for many years simultaneously). So I would be shooting street photos in Barcelona or Copenhagen, for instance because I was there for either and exhibition or a skate tour. I don't think I have ever gone somewhere just to shoot photos. There has always been another reason for the trip. So now, for example, if I need to go to Tokyo for something one of my sponsors is organizing, I will go do the job, but then usually arrange to stay for an extra week or two just to walk around and shoot photos. I guess I’m trying to say that I have never planned ahead of time, like, ”Hey, I’d like to go to South Africa to document the townships" or something like that. All of my photography has been very organic.
SO, that leads to the answer. I think I am drawn to anything that is interesting to me, mostly people and how they present themselves and act. I trust my eye and sensibilities as I walk around to guide me. I probably err on the side of being a tad cynical. I like shooting people most. I think that is the hardest kind of photo to take, so I enjoy the rush of getting close and seeing and and trying to compose and capture a little slice of reality that can transcend the moment and tell a story on its own. Although I'm sure many of mine do not succeed on that level, and of course they are open to varying interpretations, that's the idea.
I know a few other photographers who were once skaters. Do you think there's any crossover between the two skillsets? Maybe the ability to be in the moment, or have your brain in a state of flow? Or who knows? (I'm not a skater, just speculating).
Yeah, there's a lot actually. I think at its core skateboarding draws in creative types, and so in many ways skateboarding was another tool, like a camera or brush for self expression. Spike Jonze the academy award winning director comes from skateboarding and BMX, as well as film director Mike Mills. Jason Lee is another example. So many more, Mark Gonzales. The professional side of skateboarding is deeply entwined with video and film cameras because documenting your skill for magazines and films is the whole point of being pro. My early exposure to cameras came from being a sponsored skater and having to go out every day with guys whose job it was to shoot me. All this was very informal, but I learned a lot from being around those guys and basically was exposed to fine art photography through them too. I do think there is a connection actually with street photography and skateboarding in that as skaters you are part of that street milieu. You are amongst the homeless, the security guards, the cops, etc. You have an awareness of the mood and feelings the "street" gives off. Being a skater has made me more comfortable in many street situations. But as I age I feel like those benefits fade away. I still have the reading of the situation down, but visually I'm just a frumpy middle aged white dude, so the "being part of the milieu" part is a bit harder.
I like the “flow” thing you said too. There's certainly a flow to street skating, and also to street photography. You can get into good grooves doing both. I have actually felt it leave me before. Have you had that? You're walking and shooting and then you miss a great opportunity for a photo and there it goes, the flow of the day just left you because you missed it. After that it's like you switched tracks and nothing goes right after.
Oh yeah, of course. There are always missed shots and regrets. That's just part of photography. I think I've learned to just accept it. I don't beat myself up too much. As far as the flow thing, that's definitely an aspect. Sometimes I'm seeing really well and photos just fall in front of me. And other times that doesn't happen. I think there's a bit of warmup period involved. Like if I'm shooting for several hours, by the end of that I'll usually be in a pretty good head space.
True, you have to work through the funk, I guess.
What is sometimes tough is to go out and feel kind of defeated, like why am I doing this, there are no photos, what's the point? Because just when you convince yourself of that mindset is usually when the good photos crop up. It's like the world kicking sand in your face.
Exactly! If I miss a photo that I totally saw coming, either by flubbing it, wrong positioning, or just plain wussing out, I can get pretty bummed on myself, like I spend all this time and effort to get to this point in time and then I blow it at the moment of truth? So frustrating. People forget how many failures it takes to come up with 10 good photos.
Haha, that's surprising you'd get frustrated after all this time. You've been shooting for like 30+ years?
Since 1994, 26 years I guess, feels longer.
Have you ever witnessed a paranormal event?
Paranormal? I have been on some long drives in the dessert on tours, while listening to Coast to Coast radio and probably wished myself into believing I witnessed something paranormal. But in fact, no, I don't think I've ever witnessed something that could not be explained.
I think paranormal events maybe happen in the same way as photos. Just when you've convinced yourself they are unreal and nothing strange is happening is maybe when they pop up. Not that I've ever seen one.
I deeply wish I was able to be in that mind space, because I feel like my skeptical mind is kinda boring.
My first girlfriend in high school was able to leave her body. She would travel outside it and float around the neighborhood and spy on people. At least this is what she told me. I don't think she was lying. Something in her brain thought it was real. And maybe it was? She was part Native American.
How many drugs did she do?
Haha, mostly just pot.
I have experienced some psychedelic situations while sick that are probably not dissimilar to an acid trip or a vision quest. I think any state a drug can put you in is also achievable within your own body if you push it there.
You were ill enough that the chemistry in your brain was psychedelic?
Yeah, having an extreme fever, I read, can be the same as the experience felt using acid or mushrooms, etc. And the native American "vision quest" or the Aboriginal "walkabout" is a rite of passage where you starve yourself and push your body to an extreme and have similar experiences without drugs. You come back from those trips and changed person. Makes me want to try psychedelics. But I haven't ever.
They're coming back in style. Oregon has a ballot measure in November to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic uses. Hopefully it passes. We'll see.
I guess all of this goes back to flow states and the proper mental outlook for skating or for seeing photos. Personally I've never had any good luck seeing pictures on drugs or sick. Alcohol does allow some freedom from shooting inhibitions, and sometimes good pictures happen. But I don't feel I'm in control of them, so it's a mixed bag.
Ha! I could imaging being drunk while shooting could be a barrier breaker, but yeah, the focus might be sketchy. Regarding psychedelics I have heard some podcasts about them recently, micro-dosing and all of that. I have been doing OK for 47 years without any drugs, so I guess I'm kinda scared about a drastic change in my brain. Would it be a benefit or a curse? The only way is to try I guess.
Yeah, maybe give psychedelics a try if you want. Personally I'm too old for that stuff. Anyway I'm curious about when you are out shooting at the pier in Huntington Beach (before the pandemic), if you visit that space which is relatively small regularly over a long course of time, do people begin to recognize you there? Are you known as the local photo guy? Or as Ed Templeton? And if so, is that lack of anonymity a problem?
Yes to all of those questions! I would say that most people do not know or recognize me, so it's not as bad as you might think most days. But some days I feel like the mayor down there, people yelling at me, waving left and right. This all comes from me being known as a skateboarder, not an artist. I have had people stalk me on the pier, or DM me on Instagram to ask when I'll be there so they can get a deck signed or something. I've had a guy secretly try to photograph me without being noticed and post the photos to his Instagram. I can feel myself being looked at by skaters who recognize me at times, and it makes it hard to shoot knowing I'm being watched. Because nothing is weirder than watching a photographer try to get photos. We look super creepy at times. I'd rather have them just come up and say Hi. We can chat and it's over rather than being followed around. Many times, Murphy's Law kicks in and right when I'm about to approach a photo, when my awareness is focussed on the task at hand, that is exactly when a fan will come up and yell out "Ed!" and I have to abort my photo stalk and have a chat. I'm super glad to talk with people though, don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled anyone even wants to say hello to me because I touched them in any way through skateboarding or art or photography. It's an honor to me to get to talk with people in that way. But it's just funny how it always seems to happen right when I'm about to shoot a photo.
There are locals I avoid, and others I stop and chat with most days. So it's kind of a blessing and a curse being in the same place every day. What's crazy to me is how clueless many people are. People I have seen almost every day for years seem like they are seeing me for the first time over and over again. Maybe I'm that nondescript?
If you are nondescript count it as a blessing. That's helpful for candid photography.
I see a guy who films bikini girls twice a week in summer down there. I see his techniques. He tries to look one way while filming the other and has a swivel screen on his video cam he can look at. I always wonder if he has never seen the internet? Why film girls in bikinis when you can just see whatever you want at the click of a button? But he probably has the same fever I have for shooting photos towards getting his shots. I think he finally recognizes me recognizing him and it's awkward. Many people witnessing me shooting on the beach would no doubt lump me in the same category as him, just another perv.
What exactly is a pervert?
We all have our perversions. I think intent is a major factor on how to judge a person's actions.
The definition of pervert is pretty relative. I mean homosexuality used be considered perversion. Now it's accepted. Some people might consider polyamory or pegging perverted. It's completely arbitrary. And of course street photography is perverted to some observers. You mean you're out there shooting pictures of strangers!? WTF? You pig! Why not shoot your kids or a sunset?
Exactly. They can't fathom why you are out there shooting strangers. Especially in skateboarding. Lots of my Instagram followers do so because of skateboarding and yet my entire page is mostly photos, books and art. But lots of them can’t wrap their head around the idea that some skater they know spends his time shooting randoms.
I got yelled at by a cop last year, super loudly, he was trying to embarrass me, calling me a pervert. They were actually hassling a couple for drinking on the beach, a boy and a girl both in bathing suits, and I shot the interaction with the cops and then when he saw me and started flipping out. He's like "You shot that girls butt!" And I'm like, "From where I am her butt would show up on my photo the size of a pencil eraser. I was shooting you hassling them!"
But to be fair you have shot girl's butts before.
There are bikini butts in my photos for sure. Shooting at the beach it's inevitable. And I will readily admit that the presence of both men and women in bathing suits make the images more compelling on some level.
I think the reason you might do that, and the reason that a guy likes to shoot women in bikinis is the same as the basic urge behind all photography. At a certain level it's about control over the world. Wanting to capture it and seal it off and box it up, even if it's just one little tiny 35 mm bit of the world. Because the rest of the world is beyond control.
I have for sure crossed into pervert territory while shooting down there, but I'm a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of person. The choice for me comes when I decide what to show, what to include in a book or exhibition, and what context to put it in.
Context is helpful. Knowing about the person behind any art is helpful.
So, for instance I have a photo of a guy using a long lens to shoot bikini butts from the pier, and I may, in the context of a book, pair that photo with a photo of some sunbathing women to illustrate that point. Taken out of context the image of the sunbathing women might seem a bit frivolous. I have photos from my skateboard tours of girls having their breasts signed. I am always careful to write on the prints where I am coming from to give context to the photos, because I know there is an alternative reading to the photo out of context that might be, "look, boobies!"
How do you generally decide what to show...for example on Instagram?
For Instagram I have been very open to showing anything, but for sure I need to "read the room" when it comes to certain photos because no matter what text is included or context provided, it's still being blasted to 200 thousand people from all walks of life. These followers aren't people who came to a gallery specifically to see my work. It's just coming across their screen at random.
I like that your feed is pretty scattershot, or at least that's how it seems as a viewer. You might show a photo from 20 years ago, then a recent one, bouncing between projects. I can't really find any obvious rhythm or sequence. I kind of like the playfulness. You must have a pretty well organized system to pull all these shots out from different places. I mean, those two you sent me from Eugene. It might take me weeks to track down pictures from a specific city.
Let me ask you about that Eugene photo. The second one I recognize as near the train station. But I can't figure out where you shot the first one (with the balloons). Do you remember where or what the event was?
|14th and Willamette, Eugene, OR (GSV)|
It was a parade happening on one of the main drags there I think, Willamette or Amazon? I think it was 2005. I was there visiting my aunt Margie who lives there. I think her and her daughter Ariana took us to see the parade.
And I assume they're all shot on film? That just adds to the organizational headache.
Oh yeah, I think I realized early on that if you can't find the photo you know you shot, then what’s the point! So many of my friends have unorganized or lightly organized boxes of negatives and it takes them a whole day just to find a photo they know they shot. I have a pretty good system that works for me. Yes, it's all on film. I get my processing and proof sheets done at a lab in LA. There's no labs I trust around me locally. So it's an hour drive to my lab. Once I get the proofs back I sit down down and flatbed scan all of them and then separate each individual photo worth archiving into it's own .jpg with the number of the binder and and the proof number within that binder, along with the relevant keywords that will fit in a Mac file title. So If I'm looking for a photo that I shot of my friend Josh Harmony 15 years ago jumping off a bridge into a river, I just have to search for "Josh Bridge" and I'll get a file like: "17-25 Josh harmony jumping off bridge.jpg" That tells me that negative is in Binder 17 and on Proof 25 in that binder.
So if you need a shot of Eugene you just type in the city.
Yes. It makes bookmaking way easier too. I lay out books using the lo-res images off my proofsheets and only when the sequence and edit is final do I go and pull all the negs to be printed or scanned.
Dang, that' s a lot of work. But worth it.
Coming back from a trip with 30 or 40 rolls is daunting, but it only takes a few hours a day over a couple of weeks to get them logged in. Most of the time it's only 5 to 10 at a time.
My system is nowhere near that digitized. I shoot film but my archiving system is all analog. So it's harder to find things.
Oh wow, how do you do it?
I shoot film, process and make proof sheets, same as you. But my editing takes place in the darkroom. I go through every frame and make a work print of the ones which interest me. It's in the organizing of work prints that I run into trouble. Some are easily categorized. But a lot of them don't fit into easy labels so they just float around in boxes.
Oh wow! That seems like even more work! Making a print of each one? That's nice to have I bet, but seems like a lot of work.
It's a lot of work but it's actually fun. I like the darkroom. And I like the process of going through negatives and printing. it's like a treasure hunt. I never know what I'll find, even though I shot it. I should know but I don’t.
I tend to like and want to archive so many photos that making a print of each one would be crazy. I usually log about half the roll.
Yeah my hit rate is way less, maybe 1-3 frames per roll. Sometimes more. Sometimes none.
Not that I'll ever use half of every roll, it's just I might for some reason want to be able to find it. Plus it's fun to find typologies within my archive. I have done some zines that are literally search a word and make a zine from the results.
"Teenage Kissers"? That's a book actually not a zine. But maybe it started as a keyword?
Kissers was a concept first based on Teenage Smokers, but yes, finding the photos was easy because I just had to search the word "Kiss."
The zines Lick and Umbrella and Makeup Girls (1 and 2!) were made like that.
Speaking of keywords, someone told me that you created #photojousting. Is that true?
I think that is true! I wanted to use a word to share photobooks that was weird enough that your average hashtagger wouldn't use it unless they were in the know. I mean have you ever clicked the hashtag #Streetphotgraphy? It's all fucking over the place. You need to use a strange word to make it specific.
"Jousting" is an uncommon word. Is there some competitive angle too? Like fighting?
When I first got on instagram I started a thing called #StickerWars so people could share old skate stickers. That's where the idea came from. Then I was like how can I share photobooks? The hashtag #Photobooks is too general, so I threw jousting on there to make it specific and I'm glad it has been adopted!
It almost has the same problem as #streetphotography. It's so widely used that it's overwhelming. Like if you follow that hashtag you just get buried.
That's the only downside to the word I chose, is that it implies that you are bragging about your book collection, which it kind of is, but the word choice was mostly used to be weird enough that your average mother in Kansas would't use it when sharing her photo album or book of pretty flowers. It was for photography book nerds to share actual fine art photo books.
Do you remember what the very first #photojousting post was?
I'd have to dig down! I also use #Edsphotobooks to show my own collection, so you can see just the ones I have posted. The first book at the bottom of #edsphotobooks is a book by Cheryl Dunn, Bicycle Gangs of New York. That might be the first #photobookjousting!
I don't know that book but Cheryl Dunn is rad. What about your own books? What are you working on now?
Most days I’m just trying to avoid a terrible skid of procrastination. I’ve been painting a lot. I just finished helping Deanna with her book “What She Said” that will be published by Mack next year. I designed it with her, so that was many weeks of pre-press stuff. Color correction and fixing of drum scans, proof printing, all sorts of challenges to overcome. I personally have multiple future book projects I’m slowly editing. I printed photos in the darkroom yesterday.
I was in the darkroom yesterday too. What were you printing?
I was printing a few photos for my Wires Crossed book. There are a number of photos in the book that I want to print first, write on physically, then scan for inclusion in the book. It will be a mix of drum scans from the negatives, and print scans.
@WiresCrossed is also your IG account (one of them). So the book will be photos from that?
Actually there are almost no photos on the @WiresCrossed account that are in the book. I have been posting mostly out-takes and ephemeral stuff on that IG for now. Once the production really ramps up I'll be posting more. But yes, that account is the hype account for this project which I have been working on since I started shooting. I probably should have finished it a few years ago, but with all major life works, it's daunting to even start. There's so much work.
That’s the story of every photographer. It's a volume-based art. You're just always dealing with scads of shit, compared to say painters or sculptors who might do just a handful of things a month.
For sure, as photographers we're literally constantly editing. Almost every night I just sit and "prune" my archive. Open folders, look through, rename things, edit things, fix problems. It's a daily thing or it gets moldy. I finally went through, systematically, book by book, binder by binder for this project, doing the due diligence to see every possible photo I've ever shot and make sure it is or isn't part of this series. I did that because there have been past books where because of an archiving mistake, I have missed photos that would have been included in a book. That just kills me knowing I had a photo that would have been used and I never found it.
I think that goes to the core of who we are as photographers. The nature of editing and winnowing down is so important. More than for most other creatives maybe? Or maybe that's just self-centered view. I think photographers generally have a packrat issue which is pretty central to the art too. So perhaps just being buried in reams of shit is a comfort zone for photographers. Hoarders. They could make a TV show about photographers which would be not much different.
Photographers are for sure obsessed collectors, and those collections keep growing and becoming more hairy. I also have hoarding tendencies. Deanna keeps my clutter at bay. It's a good balance.
But wait, she' s a photographer too. But not a hoarder? There goes my theory, oh well.
She is not so much a hoarder. She has her crap as well. As a film shooter her shelf with binders keeps growing too, but overall she keeps things tidy, and puts up with my messy little corners of the house.
So what goes into the Wires Crossed book?
Wires Crossed is a look at my life as a pro skater, seen from the inside. It's a real look at what the lifestyle was like in a certain era, mostly before cell phones in skateboarding. I was pro for 4 years before I realized that the life I was living and the people I was surrounded by were incredible and more than worthy of being documented, so I really dove in in 1994 and started carrying a camera always, and being that guy who was never 100% in the moment, because I was trying to observe from the outside. I had to worry about having a camera, not getting it stolen, and deciding when to participate in the shenanigans and when to shoot. I was always the sober guy, and the owner of the company, so I always kept my head about me while essentially enabling the behavior of the kids around me. Both indulging them but also keeping them safe, and getting us the next spot on time. The book will be a document about youth, fame, self-medication, testosterone, lust, brutality of skateboarding, boredom, the road.
Have you seen that new Ari Marcopoulos book Polaroids 92-95? Maybe you guys know each other?
I know Ari. I’ve known him since 94 too! He did a similar book to the one I'm doing. His was on snowboarders called Transitions and Exits I think. Sort of an inside look at the life of pro snowboarders. I have his latest polaroid book, I like it! I #photobookjousted it on my story recently. Our work is not at all similar though. He was always an outsider. And those Polaroids are almost more about fashion and personality than about what it feels like to be a pro skater and what we actually do. I was less interested in portraits, and more interested in actions, emotions, telling a potential viewer the story of what this life was like. Sort of going for that decisive moment in the HCB vein, but also the raw emotion and feeling of it in the Frank style. If I may be so presumptuous.
That's an interesting division you highlight, between those in the scene and "outsiders". From your earlier description it sounds like that's something you wrestled with even as you were taking part and shooting. That division between "when do I skate" and "when do I stand back and take a picture" is maybe insurmountable. I don't know if it's possible to do both. I have the same dilemma I shoot my kids. Like, when am I a photographer and when am I a parent? Because those roles don't always agree. Do I put a bandaid on the cut? Or take a photo first? Sally Mann's problem.
I was always tortured by that fact. I would be "doing my job" aka skating a demo, which means basically I, along with the team, skate a park for about 4 hours straight and then mingle and sign autographs for an hour or two after. It was my responsibility to set the tone of professionalism and keep focussed, but I would always see something going on on the sidelines that I would want to shoot. Some of my fellow skaters would check out early and go shooting while we all skated (Looking at you Jerry Hsu! -that was later, 2010). So for me, as soon as was possible I'd go to the van, get my camera, and try to shoot what I could along the fringes. It haunts me how much I missed.
But that's just it. You couldn't do both at once. You had to either skate or photograph. But not both at once.
Yeah, you can't skate with your Leica on! I had that test in 2003 or something. I was in Wisconsin for my brother’s wedding. My grandparents and my mom had flown out. We were all getting into a car together and my grandpa was driving. He thought everyone was in but my grandma was half in and half out when he took off and it launched her face-first onto the pavement. I was sitting there, camera in hand, and she lay on the asphalt, we were all yelling, and I actually thought, "what a great photo" - but in reality I rushed around and picked her up, and cradled her chin, as her blood filled up my hand. I shot every aspect after that, the hospital visit for stitches, and all. But that moment made me think, “Am I a bad photographer? - Where was my killer instinct?” It actually fucked with me for a while because I thought I could have shot one, and it wouldn't have hurt anything, but I didn't. I have crossed the lines other times, but I think I have my priorities straight.
Yeah I've had a few of those. It kind of goes back to what we talked about earlier. You're going to miss shots. It's just going to happen. So are you going to beat yourself up about it or do the healthy thing and move forward?
Yeah, you gotta move on.
But maybe what you're talking about is something deeper if it makes you question your basic outlook as a photographer. Like, what am I made of? If I was James Nachtwey I'd shoot that bloody corpse without a second thought. But I've known for a while I'm not him.
Yeah, the Nachtwey problem. You have to convince yourself that you’re doing something to help, otherwise you’re just a disaster tourist, a succubus of human misery. Albeit I’m operating at wildly different stakes than he is, my injured grandma isn’t in the same league as bringing light to the suffering in Rwanda, for example. Having kids, that mini-dilemma must happen all the time!
My kids are teenagers now but there's a period in a kid's life, like maybe ages 3-12, where they are just a walking, talking photo op. Completely unselfconscious and body positive and doing bizarre chaotic stuff all the time. So that’s just the reality of being a parent, for me anyway. For a while there I was surrounded by photo ops 24/7, and I just had to accept that I was going to miss some things, and maybe even put away the camera once in a while. But that was rare.
Yeah, for sure. I think I mentioned before I like to shoot first and ask questions later. So I shoot all sorts of stuff that is questionable, or breaks the rules, or follows the tropes too closely, but I want to have everything that strikes me captured so I can decide later how and when, if ever, to use it.
You talked earlier about printing photos and then writing on them. Which I think is pretty awesome. I also love some of the pictures I've seen by you (can't remember which project) where you hand color the prints. What inspired you to do that? How did you do it? And do you do much of that anymore?
Yeah, I still do it! Some of my early inspirations in photography were people who also used writing, collage, and paint on their work. Robert Frank after The Americans is a good example. Then Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor series and of course Raised by Wolves is possibly my all time fave. I was really into Peter Beard too, and even Allen Ginsberg. Those were people what took the print and made it into something different. In Ginsberg's case the photos are not even that great, but when you read the story of who is in the photo and the mood he was in while shooting, it makes the photo greater than that singular frozen second. I'm a big fan of David Hockney too, and his work as a photographer and also his later criticism of it. He said, "Photography is great if you like seeing the world from the perspective of a paralyzed cyclops" or something like that. And he is right, there is no "time" in a photograph. It is such a frozen millisecond, without much depth. But that’s also why I love it.
So I think it was those artists that pushed me to, if I feel the need, to paint or write on a story on a print. A bit of context can really help a viewer understand where you the photographer are coming from. Ideally the photo works on its own, but sometimes if the meaning isn't as readable, or in cases where the first obvious meaning was not how I saw the photo, then some text can help set that straight, and help the viewer see it from your headspace.
What do you use to color? Is it watercolor? Or photo oils? Sorry to ask a technical question
I have no secrets! I use acrylic ink, watered down, so it's essentially watercolor, but I think it dries more stable. On a fiber print it’s almost sublimated into the print. I have also colored prints by soaking them and applying the ink while it's wet.
I keep waiting for hand coloring to have a revival. But it keeps staying underground. Vivianne Sassen has been doing some cool stuff with it. And Boris Mikhailov. And outside of that...??? It's pretty dead now.
I'm a massive Boris Mikhailov fan.
You ever fuck with prints during the exposure process? I mean in the darkroom?
Um, not as much. I mostly make pretty straight prints. I have done some after the fact toning before, blue toner, which I liked. But during the darkroom process, not as much. I tried paint on emulsion once. Would like to do that more. And I have tried to expose a wet paper once. That looked pretty trippy and could possibly be cool if you had the right project for it.
Sometimes I spritz water on areas of the paper before exposure. It can look pretty funky. Fixer too. But that's way harder to control.
I think if I had the right series, it could be a great thing to do. But I have 20 future series in my head and at only 47 years old I'm starting to think I'll never get to most of them!
In the old days they would handwrite the caption directly onto the print before exposure. I'm not sure how. Maybe on the negative, or on a glass covering? Anyway, it looked beautiful.
They use a clear film with the writing in opaque ink. Then you lay it over the paper while exposing and you get the white letters burned in. I tried that too!
It looked exactly like those old photos you see! You could do all sorts of designs in theory. I did it because I love the old look of that on historical photos. It's never been in a book or anything, just a few prints in some shows I did.
So we are talking about experimenting, and printing techniques, and maybe this is a good time to circle back to photobooks. In particular your book Deformer, which I bought in maybe 2010 (?) and was my introduction to your photos (and your life story, etc). That book has a little bit of everything in terms of photo experiments. Plus every other art form. Can you tell a little bit about the process of making that book? How did it come together? And how did it reach a publisher?
That book along with Wires Crossed were my first ideas when I started. I wanted to document skaters, then quickly after that wanted to do a series about growing up in suburbia and how family life and environment ”deforms" you into who you become. The book was originally supposed be published by Greybull Press who was run by Roman Alonso and Lisa Eisner. (Mike Eisner was the CEO of Disney at the time, and Lisa was married to his brother.) But right before it was about to go into production they ran out of money. Lisa arranged for the book to be shown to Rizzoli, and we started talking and it was going to be published by Rizzoli which in many ways was a massive upgrade, Rizzoli is huge and would have really got that book into more hands. When it came to the "lawyer" phase things got weird. I had a call with the lawyers in NYC, we each had a book dummy in our hands, and we went through image by image and they had me describe the situation for each image. Was it public? Are the people underage? etc. Although most of the book was shot in public, for the lawyers it boiled down to 3 or 4 images that they were worried about. Some young kids smoking a cigarette inside a park was the main one. They thought it wasn't public enough, and that the kids, being underage, would expose them legally. At the exact moment when I had to figure out what I was going to do Aaron Rose came along and said, “Do Deformer with me.” He had a multi-book deal with the Italian publisher Damiani. They had already done a Barry McGee book, a Mike Mills and Ari Marcopolous book. So I was able to walk from the Rizzoli deal, and the Damiani lawyers, if they even have one, never asked me anything.
Haha, that's hilarious. All the crazy stuff in that book and the lawyers get hung up on some kids smoking!
The book was in production for a long time, 5 years I think, and it changed a lot over that time. I'm glad I had the time, because at first it was a "kitchen sink" type of book (put everything in!) For many, it probably still seems that way! But believe me it was way bigger and more chaotic at the start. I was really able to focus in and edit out a lot of stuff that was extraneous to the central idea. Even though looking at it now I still see so many photos that probably belong to other projects. Part 1 is me showing ephemeral items from my upbringing, my shitty dad who beat us and left us (he just died recently I found out) and my grandfather’s attempts at fathering me (so lucky to have a father figure from his generation in my life) and my meeting Deanna. Sort of making the case, "This is what I was dealt and dealing with" and the second part is my look at life in the suburbs, and from travels. Sort of "Here's how I see the world" in light of what shaped me. I still can't fathom what made me the person I am considering my upbringing.
What I love about Deformer is that it’s such an honest book. It's so open and unguarded. In the same way that the best literature is. Like here I am, take it or leave it. And you wind up taking it. And most photobooks, frankly, feel pretty mediated in comparison. They tend to feel contrived or have some ulterior motive.
I do these chaotic exhibitions with massive clouds of images, and the book was supposed to be an echo of that. But then I tried to narrow down the scope to what I described above.
You said, "I still can't fathom what made me the person I am considering my upbringing." Surely you must have fathomed it...and reached some conclusions?
I have considered it. It really is just a genetic slot machine at birth. Some people are born with different capabilities and understandings. I used to be tortured because I thought my brother who had a similar upbringing turned out so different than I did. I was able to extract so much from my dad leaving and from my grandparents’ influence. It's probably about 90% their presence in my life that put me on the path I am.
What's your brother doing?
My brother married a woman pastor, (second wife) and they live wherever the church posts them. He's in Algoma, Wisconsin now. He's a handyman and helps out at a nursing home. Nice guy. I think I understand his life better now so I'm not haunted by the idea that he got some "short end of the stick" or anything. We all have different takes on how the world works based on our particular mix of environment and genetic draw. I watched my nephew in-law turn into a complete fuck up right before my eyes and I still can't figure it out. I think it’s genetics. He was just born stupid and no amount of family love could help it.
During the period you were making Deformer were you into photobook collecting at that point?
Yeah, I started collecting around 1994, but it only got crazy over the last 10 years when you realize the collection is a bit out of control. I like too many styles and genres, so I want too many books. I was exposed to Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust by my friend Thomas Campbell. He had a copy that he wanted me to hold for him while he went on a trip. And I had already had some art books, and a few photos books. But I think that book and Nan's Goldin's ‘Ballad’ really pushed me to start looking. I would hit bookstores whenever I could and only pull down books by people whose names I was unfamiliar with. I feel like I was getting a photo education through looking at books. Teenage Lust and Tulsa probably influenced my work, and Ballad too, because they were shooting their own lives. That made me want to shoot my life and the people around me. No doubt my title Teenage Smokers was influenced by that.
|Teenage Lust, Larry Clark, 1983|
(This is Friday, September 18, around 4:40 PM...)
Oh shit! Ruth Bader Ginsburg just died. We are so fucked!
Oh shit. My heart just skipped a beat. We ARE SO FUCKED. Can 2020 get any worse? Our country is fucked for a generation.
Yup. Everyone around the country right now is having that same realization. Holy Shit. It's sinking in right now. The future of the country!
Fucking McConnell and that whole Merrick Garland thing. Fuck this is major bad news.
I was going to ask about photobooks but all that stuff seems kind of minor now. I dunno. Kinda shaken up.
Me too. Trumpers rejoicing, the Religious Right jumping in the streets no doubt! ABOLISHING ABORTION is in our grasp.
Things are going to get bad. Just gotta hold on and stay positive.
I'm shocked by how many of my IG followers fall into this camp of "both sides suck" and they can't see that politics has always been about incremental steps and you have to vote for the best choice out of the two since there’s not a viable 3rd party. My blood boils when people say they can't deal with Biden. The supreme court is EXACTLY why to vote for him.
Well he hasn't made that case very well. Trump has.
The environment. Abortion rights, Health care. RGB’s last words were apparently “Don't replace me until a new president is installed" This generation is so stupid. We shoot ourselves in the foot to prove our wokeness.
What do you mean?
Look at the case of the governor of Virginia. Northam? A Democrat. He was exposed as doing blackface and the left was screaming for his cancellation. He stuck to his guns and didn't resign, knowing he would be better for the state than any replacement. The black community there agreed and he has already passed so many progressive laws. If the hairtrigger left had cancelled him then the cause would have taken a major step backwards. Al Franken was another case.
Yeah. Obama even called the hyper progressive left a "circular firing squad.” We spend time attacking our allies for not being "pure" enough. Everyone has warts, and makes mistakes, we need to be practical and pragmatic to win.
I do a lot of political messaging on my IG. I get shit from both sides when I do. I did a special benefit deck for my company Toy Machine with proceeds going to BLM charities and got SO MUCH shit. The whole gamut from "you're doing it right" to "You're doing it wrong" to "Virtue signaling" to "I'll never buy Toy Machine again" I don't need racists buying Toy Machine. But you’re damned either way. Social Media is the problem. I post voter registration message every week, and it's very clear where I stand on many issues. I have blocked hundreds of trolls. I block immediately now. I don't need that in my life.
Social media has fostered polarization I think. Everyone finds their community of like-minded people, and so we all tend to live in these bubbles. I'm as guilty as anyone. But what are you gonna do? Be friends with antagonistic trolls? I don't know. My instinct is generally to find common ground. I don't like conflict. But I think the fact we've been bubbled off just helps the country stay divided. It’s less common to interact with people from different viewpoints. Like I've never met you before last week. But I just assume you're a Trump-hater. Because most people I know are. That signals a potential problem.
So true. But at this point if you are a Trump supporter after 4 years of his BS, then there's really no common ground. You are either willfully ignorant or straight evil. It's pretty easy to assume that anyone with compassion or a brain would hate Trump.
My wife's family in Maine are mostly Trumpers. So that's my reality check when I visit with them. I love them dearly. But politically we can't have any real conversation. But they aren't evil. Or even ignorant. Just tuned in on a completely different wavelength. It’s kind of like talking to a born again Christian. You can connect but only up to a certain level, and once you start talking about humans walking around with dinosaurs, it's like, where do you go from there?
I see the Trump lawn sigs in my tract. I can't help but think they are either Religious Zealots, Racists, Make over 400K a year and are greedy, or are just plain stupid, (ie: Watch only Fox News, believe all conspiracy theories).
None of those labels would fit easily on my wife's family. I’d call them semi-Libertarian, anti-regulation types. But their views come from an honest place.
I should have added "Business deregulation nuts!” I know these people don't disappear when Biden is elected (IF) and we have to work with them, but the willful ignorance is rough to deal with.
I'm drawn to people with alternative views. I like talking to the guy on the street corner who's been abducted by aliens or tells me 9/11 was an inside job. So Maine is fun for me to be around. It’s like visiting another country or something. Of course that's my perspective as a white male with less to fear directly from Trump fascism. If I were on the bottom of society I might view it with less humor.
Exactly. I tell Deanna, We'll be fine, we just have to wait this out. Speaking from my nice suburban white home in a conservative area. But marginalized people are suffering right now from these policies.
Maybe where it intersects with photography is I could see some major censorship happening in the near future. Books like Deformer or Teenage Lust might be forced underground. Abortion might become illegal. Nudity illegal? Protesting illegal? Who knows what might be next?
I'm already feeling a sort of growing resistance to street photography. The iPhone and social media has made it too easy to ridicule someone or expose them in ways never dreamed of before. So now even being in public is dangerous. I can see laws like the ones in France coming here, where you can't even post or use a photo even if it was shot in public.
I can definitely see something like that here. Maybe within 15-20 years. Or sooner? These might be the glory days of candid public photography (except for the pandemic, haha).
Not sure how long it will take. But I see people wanting to control their image and wanting recourse if they get abused or used online.
I’ve faced some of that shooting BLM protests. For the first time ever I was asked to blur faces or hide identifying features. I think those impulses are the same ones behind the French laws. And now they are turning up here. And I can see where things are going. I'm not sure if the Supreme Court will bear on that directly. But the general course of public photography seems clear.
Yeah, the BLM stuff (not identifying protesters in your photos/posts) is so police won’t be able to come after the protesters through online snooping. I see that. Sad that we even live in a world where that has to be a concern. But the tech is making everything sketchy. A photo of a couple kissing is innocent when the only place it will be seen is an obscure photobook or a gallery show. But posting that image to thousands of people on social media might expose that kiss as a cheating husband or wife inadvertently.
People can't seem to wrap their head around my shots of people on the HB pier on IG. Mostly because so many of my followers come from skating and not the photo world. It's interesting to see how non-photographers see pure street photography.
My view on all that stuff is pretty biased. I don't give a shit what happens to any public photo of me, so that's my attitude toward the ones I take. Which is a pretty privileged position I realize.
Me too, I've been in the public eye as a pro skater, my life is an open book, nothing to hide. I use my real name on Insta, etc. So if I do anything fucked up there's no hiding.
I think it’s important to keep making public photos. Just to get it out there and show people that it can exist and is ok. The same with photos of kids or nudes or all the material which is slowly being filtered out of social media. It's important to make those photos to keep the drum beating to keep it alive. Says me the white male guy behind the camera, haha.
Yes, for sure. Photographers will do it no matter what. You might just have to go to galleries or forums to see it.
Well I see it actually being sifted out of fine art photography, which has taken on a more conceptual bent lately. It's not so much about reality anymore. Maybe it never was.
I'm trying to keep it reality based! I'm halfway through listening to a podcast with Sam Harris and John McWhorter and they talk about this idea of always seeing ourselves as a certain color and how bad it actually is to live that way. But of course that trend is only getting worse in these political days.
Why is it bad to see yourself as a color?
Oh man, I'm gonna suck at trying to paraphrase these really smart people…It’s about this new anti-racism movement becoming a “religion” in that these new ideals are turning into a gospel which can never be questioned or discussed without being shunned as a heretic. A simple black or white issue with no gray areas, which racism in America is not. I think they are saying the only way forward is to NOT see race, as opposed to hyper-seeing it, the same way you don't think differently about seeing a blond or brunette person because you know there's no difference. But these are really intellectual people talking and I’m never 100% sure I’m following it properly.
I don't agree with that. I’m not sure race and hair color have the same implications. But I should listen to the podcast to learn more.
Yeah, it's very interesting. They joke about getting cancelled for even talking about it. McWhorter who is black, is writing a book on this subject. There's little room for deep nuanced thinking or discussion regarding thorny subjects anymore.
Maybe that's where photography can provide some common ground. It's a non rhetorical language. People of any political stripe can digest things visually. Or maybe that's just me trying to justify the existence of my artsy-fartsy bubble.
There's a gospel of "this is the correct thinking" and if you stray from that gospel you are a racist, even if you are on the progressive side.
The circular firing squad you mentioned.
HA! There is a way photography can work like that. But the firing squad is real. Take the recent case against Martin Parr.
He kinda got a raw deal. But he has no one to blame but himself. He walked right into that situation. Do you know him?
Yeah, I know Martin. People were trying to cancel Parr for taking part in lending his name to promote a book by an Italian photographer who shot London in the 60s. There's a spread with a photo of a black woman paired with a gorilla in a cage. Some people decided to take one singular reading of that spread, call it racist, and then attack Parr for his involvement in it. Then after Parr denounced it and apologized for it, the photographer’s family came forward saying that his spread was a purposeful critique of British society and the treatment of black people there as he saw it. Now there's another reading. Art is supposed to be used in that way. You can see it as racist if you want to choose the worst possible take, but are there other possible readings? Do you really think the Italian artist back in the 60’s was a white supremacist? Martin should have talked to the family first, and then maybe stood by the work instead of caving to the twitter mob.
I don't think his curation was consciously racist. But he should've foreseen the reaction. To me it’s kind of a generational thing. He’s maybe a bit out of touch with current identity politics.
Totally. Even this Kessels case. And I'm not sticking my neck out for him on this one. But there may be another reading if you use his project as a springboard for thought. Although in this case I think he should have "read the room" and considered how easily most people could see that as kinda fucked up. Plus, if Kessels, the Breda festival, and the skatepark are all standing by the project, then it pretty much falls into the category of art I ignore, like most art I see that I don't like. I don't actively look for art I don't like and then spend energy trying tear it down, I just ignore it.
I see why the Kessels project was canceled. But I think the broader idea is awesome. Put some photos down at a skate park and then watch how they morph and evolve over time as they get abused. It could make for some serious abstract art. Just use some imagery less culturally loaded.
Yes, there probably is a project where the skatepark idea would have been great. Maybe if he just added men? Maybe if it was actual photos instead of algorithmically built portraits? Maybe if he was a skateboarder? Yes, he should have read that and been ready with a response, or just re-edited it.
I dig all sorts of art when it's applied in a public realm. Murals, graffiti, skate parks, etc. Art should be out there in the world interacting. Not in some stuffy expensive museum. See here we are in our bubble agreeing with each other.
And the readers are probably in the same bubble!
(All photos above by Ed Templeton unless otherwise noted)