Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Q & A with Jason Tippet

Jason Tippet is a filmmaker and photographer based in Los Angeles. 

(An abridged version of this interview was published originally on the Photo-Eye blog.)

Blake Andrews: I first learned about you through a mutual friend, Aaron Wessling. And then when I got your book I noticed he's acknowledged in the back. 

Jason Tippet: Oh get out. Such a big fan of his.

Yeah he's good. He prints at my darkroom, PDR up in Portland. He's one of the founders actually.

Ohh, ok! Yeah, guy is so talented, I love his attention to detail. His notes on my book were by far the most specific and detailed and helpful and really appreciate his taste.

How do you guys know each other?

Let’s see.... I was directing a show in NY and he was taking photos for the show and I was asking him about his Pentax 67 he was using.....then he mentioned he was gonna take a trip to Coney Island over the weekend and I asked if I could join. We'd walk around and take some photos and stop into bars, found this Russian dance hall that had a live band... such a good time with that guy.

Small world. Yeah he's cool. And he's a master pumpkin farmer if you ever need like an 800 pound pumpkin for anything. Maybe a film prop?

Haha, I saw that! Oh my... that shot of the pumpkin in the back of that truck makes you realize how big that pumpkin was. Sorry if I'm all over the place. I had this dream last night that felt so real and I never remember any of my dreams.

No, man. Go all over, no worries. Maybe the pumpkin was just a dream?

It's possible man!

What was the dream?

I was walking with my mom home from dinner and we got mugged and we were trying to run... and in dreams you can't really run too well, it turns out. Woke up so gross and sweaty.

Chase dream. I think that's a pretty fundamental archetype. Can't remember what it signifies. The usual shit, I guess.

My girlfriend was worried, I woke up yelling... she was like, "holy shit, you're soaked.” So that's the cool shit I have going on.

Wow, sounds intense.

Can you remember your dreams?

Sometimes but just briefly. Because I don't write them down. I should but I don't. Too lazy.

I can only remember one other dream I've had.... I never remember them.

It helps if something wakes you up artificially. Like an alarm clock or loud noise. Then I think you're more apt to remember. But I could be wrong just a theory.

Ha, oh yeah.

Anyway, about the book. Congrats on getting it made and published. 

Thanks man, feels good to work so hard on something and finally have it out there.

What is the book’s origin story? How did it come about?

Well, I wanted to make a documentary that followed these two older guys going to the Santa Anita race track... shoot over a period of months but cut it to feel like it happened in one day. I grew up going with my dad and my uncles and it's something that's fading away, for a good reason, but still breaks my heart a bit looking at old photos of that place packed... but couldn't find funding for that film and my buddy Carl McLaughlin was going out shooting a lot during that time, so I'd join him. He was taking these really gorgeous night shots of Chatsworth, CA and developing and printing at his house. He had these photo books out and I'd look through those. I thought the idea might work better as a book because I could bring a film camera in no problem... so started that project, but that felt like it was going to take a while, so started bringing my camera around where I lived.

What were some of the photo books Carl had that inspired you? Do you remember a few?

He had a Fred Herzog book Modern Color that really stuck out to me.

Yeah, I can see some commonality.

Then I became really interested in Martin Parr.

You had some good models!

Every time I'd leave my place something slightly off was happening and I just really enjoyed capturing it and showing friends at first. Then Carl showed me there was a great community of photographers online and that's when I started to get motivated about turning these projects into books.

Did you wind up photographing the two guys at Santa Anita? Are they in the book?

Yeah, they'll be in the book. Have you been before? 

I've never been. Is that the track where the horses died? 

Hah, yeah, that's the track. Going now it feels like an abandoned cruise ship... empty rooms everywhere, vacant stands, feels like it's on its way out. it's terrible.

So was the idea to film a documentary there based on the deaths? Or unrelated?

No, nothing to do with the deaths... or making a comment on horse racing. Fredrick Wiseman has a film called Racetrack he made during the heyday of racing and I thought it might be a nice juxtaposition to see it now when the sport isn't as popular.

Now I'm browsing through the book trying to guess which guys are on their way to the racetrack. Maybe the guy in the pink polo shirt?

haha, yeah.

And the guy chomping the cigar in front of Bill's?

I just see that guy around the neighborhood, but he's got a cigar in his mouth walking around every morning. You see the same people everywhere... I don't know what that says about me, but I see these same guys at the bars I go to and run into them at the track, small world.

There's only about 50 people in the world. They just keep recirculating to give the illusion of more. Pet theory.

I believe that. The same 50 degenerates.

I'm still not sure they do the optics on those big stadium crowds to make them seem like more than 50. Must be Photoshop magic.


So you set out to make a film but wound up making photos instead. How do you think those processes compare? What do you think a photo does that a motion film can't?

It's a different challenge to me, I don't look at them as the same thing other than technically I understand shutter speed and ISO and film speed, that transfers over.... Some things work better as moments, and might not need a whole story. And it's so difficult to try and explain a story in a photograph, catching a moment at the right time so you understand what someone wants or what they're dealing with, people’s expressions... and doing it before they realize you're taking a photo. People are aware of video cameras, and people don't trust them.

Do you think still cameras are more trustworthy?

I rewatched this short Heavy Metal Parking Lot recently and people are sticking their heads in the shot to be on camera. You can't make that the same way now.

I don't know much about filmmaking. But I feel that way about photography. People are very suspicious of my camera.

Yeah, people are still suspicious…But I think still cameras aren't as intimidating... and when they do notice I've taken a shot, I always compliment them on something. "I love that hat" or whatever drew me to take it. I use a camera that looks pretty amateur so people usually don't care.

Is it a T3? Looks like it in the last photo. Great camera.

Ahah, yeah man, good eye. A T2.

So the shooting process has some similarities. But I think the output is different. I tend to think of photographs in terms of what they leave out. The more a photo crops out or obscures or avoids the more power it can have. At least for me. But for filmmaking I think it's maybe the opposite? Another pet theory...

I think it can be similar.... this new film I'm making I'm playing around with just holding on close ups through a whole scene instead of showing other people talking around the room.

When you shoot a documentary film you're trying to tell a story, shot by shot. Maybe a photo book can work like this. But I think individual photos kind of work the opposite. By hiding information.

Yeah, having to tell a story is usually my least favorite part of making a movie. 

Haha. I think narrative is like brain candy. 

I’m so much more interested in subjects or the people you're documenting. American Movie wouldn't be anything without Mark and Mike Shank. I feel like a lot of what I see now is so story heavy.

Is your book Heading to Bill's meant to tell a story of some sort? A story of the neighborhood?

There's this documentary Tchoupitoulas that takes place in one night shot over a few months.... but I liked the idea of someone feeling like they got to spend a day hanging out with me around Atwater Village. It’s supposed to feel like starting your day til the end when you go home. 

I hadn't noticed the lighting before. The photos go from morning light to afternoon to dark.

It's me out running errands, getting food, stopping by the market... getting cigarettes. It’s more of a feeling. A lazy day. And for some reason photos can bring out those feelings more often for me. Tree of Life gives me a similar reaction.

That's a trippy film. Isn't that the one with the big dream/surreal sequence in the middle?

Ha, yeah.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes.. That refers to you? Is that your spot for cigs?

Yeah, I'm usually there once a day. Beer, cigarettes, laundry detergent. The other thing about photo books I appreciate is, people have to concentrate on just that. You can't open your computer and do other things while you're flipping through a photo book. well you could. People throw on Netflix and don't pay attention to half of it.

I'm flipping through your book as I type this. But I know what you mean.

Haha, yeah, I might be wrong about this. I just appreciate giving proper attention to something, and for me photo books relax me and slow things down.

So a photo book is more self-contained than other content. Anything that might come through a screen nowadays is by nature open to distraction. Because that's the nature of anything digital. Anything on your phone is always in a fight with other content for your attention. Is that right?

Absolutely, it isn't given the same level of respect as something tangible for some reason.

I kind of feel that way about movies. You walk into a theater and you are in that world for 2 hours, nothing else exists.

Completely.... I went to see The Irishman in theaters cause I knew I'd be stopping it and get distracted at home.

But photographs! Holy shit they are at the bottom of the totem pole. No one pays them much attention, or values them, or looks for more than 2 seconds. Perhaps a book makes photos different. I'm not sure. That's part of why I like identifying as a photographer. There's a certain persecution complex inherent. We get no respect, haha.

I know what you mean. We see so many photos throughout the day it takes a lot for us to stop on one and appreciate it. It's a challenge to take a photo that stands out nowadays.

I see lots of strong work online every day. But also a lot that just floats by without sticking.  When you were making the photos for the book were you also shooting film footage at the same time? I'm asking because I saw a few snippets on IG which seem to go along with certain photos.

No, I made those videos afterwards to promote it. Those guys are such characters... The Italian guy —I’ll probably make a short about him. It's incredible what people want to get off their chest if you put the time in to listen. I love it, and the reason for this is meeting people, I love meeting people like that. 

That goes back to what I was saying earlier. If you make a photo of that guy it's one thing. The photo gains power by making you wonder about him. But if you spend a few minutes shooting footage of him it transforms into a flood of information. It works in an opposite way I think.

Yeah.... It's tough to tell in a photo that he thinks his landlord is poisoning him.

Yes, to convey that in a still photo is a great challenge. perhaps Arbus could do it.

Haha, Jill Freedman's books have also had a big impact on me. Her book on Fire Fighters.

She was rad.

That's how I'd like to approach future projects.


Picking a subject and following it along, similar to how I'd shoot a movie but with photos. Her picking that firehouse.

So you plan to make future photo books?

Oh, I'm hooked. I have another smaller book ready to go.

Do you see yourself shifting from filmmaking to still photography?

I'd like to stick with what I'm excited about, and right now that's photography. I work in the film industry. It’s something I still want to do and mainly do for work right now... I'm sure one day I'll get excited about it again.

What about applying Drunk History to photography? You get really smashed then go out shooting?

Hahaha, I'm into it. I don't usually shoot with other people, but my buddy Carl and I will take the train downtown and stop in at a few of our favorite bar and then wander around and take photos. You definitely feel a bit ballsier. Might take that shot instead of hesitating and overthinking it.

Yeah there's a balance. Slightly buzzed makes more confrontational and usually better photos. But completely drunk? Then the photos are a crapshoot. Speaking of drinking, Oscilloscope's press release compared you to Eggleston: “The Eggleston Of the Instagram Generation." Kinda catchy. What do you think of that description?

Ha, I mean Eggleston liked to have a good time and enjoyed getting into memorable situations. I think as far as my work, I have a long way to go. I just enjoy saying yes to things and seeing where it takes me. oh, like putting myself in an uncomfortable situation for a story.

I think Eggleston must've been half-cocked to see some of the stuff he captured.

Haha, oh absolutely. 

What's the smaller book you mentioned?

The smaller book is called, My Cousin's Second Wedding. It’s really unflattering, bright flash, bad wedding shots.

Cool. From your cousin's wedding? Did you shoot "bad" photos on purpose?


I'm not even sure what "bad" is.

Right. I guess I went in trying to take photos most people wouldn't like... people eyes closed, people heads cut off

Curious to see it. Have you seen Ian Weldon's wedding photos?

No! I should take a look.

I don't have the book. But it looks good from what I've seen online.

These Ian Weldon photos are incredible.

Weddings are a potential goldmine. As are "bad" photos. Will Oscilloscope publish this one too?

It might be, I love working with them. I think it'll depend on how these books sell. But right now they seem to be selling which is exciting. Have you made a book before?

I've never made an official book. Made some handmade small edition stuff, that’s it.

That's how I'd like to do that wedding book.

How much oversight/editing did they provide with the Bill's book? Did you pretty much come to them with product ready to go? Or did they shape it?

Putting out movies with them and now putting out a book, it's the same process working with Oscilloscope. They want the artist to be happy with what they're putting out. They have great taste so I'd ask for their opinion, but in the end they let me make exactly what I wanted to make. I hope they keep putting out books.

The Smyth Sewn binding is novel. Was that your idea?

Dan Berger who runs Oscilloscope sent over the Smyth Sewn option and it stood out to me. Even though it was a bit pricey I'm so grateful they went for it. It feels nice to flip through and the pages stay open.

Yeah, it's cool. But maybe hard for the book spine to be noticed on a store shelf? 

Oh yeah... yer right. Didn't think about that.

Well it works with the book. So that's the key thing. Glad to have a copy.

Still can't believe it's out, I was working on that for a while. Actually, a few years isn't so bad, Rob Hornstra spends years documenting these people and places.

How many years were you working on yours?

...including shooting, 4 years.


Haha, yeah.

Must be a lot on the cutting room floor. But well worth the time. 

(All photos above by Jason Tippet, except book spreads by me.)