Friday, August 7, 2020

Matt Stuart: Into The Fire

Matt Stuart's book Into The Fire was recently published by Setanta Books. 

BA: How did you discover Slab City?

MS: I discovered Slab City through the advice of a friend Jared Iorio. He lives in Inglewood, LA and I was desperately looking for a project that I could really get my teeth into in America. He lent me his VW T3 camper van and sent me off to Salton Sea with a rough idea of how to find Slab City. So off I went on this adventure.

Did Jared go with you?

He kept on threatening to, but never actually made it. He had a weekend job at the time and various commitments with his kid, it was a little too far to travel for his timetable.

Wasn't that the van he was living in? (Didn’t it get stolen later?). What did he live in while you borrowed his van?

Jared has lived in a boat, a van, a tent... but at this time he had and still has an apartment in Inglewood so he was cool letting me use the van. It did eventually get stolen (on his watch) but was returned a month or two later by the police.

When did you go? 

I went from February to June 2018. I made 5 trips in total I think. Staying in the van or nearby motels to freshen up once in a while.

What did you expect to find in Slab City before going? 

I had no idea about Slab City at all. I didn’t Google it. I just went. Jared said I should and I really trust him, so off I went with no preconceptions. He said it can be a little eerie at night but he wasn’t worried about me. (At least that’s what he said.)

You knew nothing at all?

I mean, I knew about Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain but nothing about Slab City.

What was your first impression?

Hot & dusty, really dusty...The first place I went to was Salvation Mountain and a guy there suggested I go to a place called the Ponderosa which is a hang out in Slab City. It’s a good first stop as it is run by a friendly couple called Shannon and Spyder. I had a few beers there, met a few locals and also got to meet their kids who feature in the book. Spyder wasn’t his real name. I realized that people who didn’t have normal names usually changed their names as they didn’t want to be found for various reasons. I was given a Slab name "London”.

"London", as in "When a man is tired of London..." Do any photos in the book show Shannon and Spyder?

They aren’t in the book, but their kids are. Timmy and Kasey are their kids and Daniel is Spyder’s kid from another relationship. Timmy is the boy in the canal with ginger hair and Kasey is the blond girl that I think appears three times in the book. Daniel is the kid smoking in the Ponderosa photo. There is a poster of Spyder on the wall in that photo, also a painting of George who appears later in the book.

Did you explain right off at Ponderosa that you wanted to make a photo project? Or take a little while to immerse in the scene first?

I turned up with a camera and told them I was a photographer and I was going to make a project, straight away. I think it’s pretty important to be upfront about your reasons for being somewhere, especially when you have a camera.

How did they react initially? I mean, it's this place where people go to escape and change their name, and lay low. A photographer might seem to intrude on those things.

They liked my accent. I think they thought I was quite exotic. I was something different and people were keen and kind to oblige. 😉

Your accent branded you an outsider too in a way.

To be honest the accent has been extremely useful in America and the Netherlands (where I now live). It disarms people. I have been in some quite sticky situations in America because of my curiosity, for instance walking into a man’s driveway in Texas to photograph his car that I liked... He wasn’t too happy until I spoke and told him that we don’t have vans like that where I come from. He told me it was a truck not a van. Perhaps if I had been American he would have been less forgiving!

Yes, I think travel allows some flexibility. Sometimes in other countries I play the clueless tourist card. If someone wants to know why I'm photographing, I just act like a dumb sightseer. And I can't speak the language so it's not worth their bother.

You see not knowing the language has its benefits!

How did you get power and water while living there? 

I had a solar/rechargeable battery pack for my phone and the van to pick up water and supplies. There is no sanitation or electricity in Slab City. Everything is run off solar or generators. Water is usually these big plastic cubes that people fill up from the nearest town and bring in by van (truck…)

Where did you live exactly? 

I lived in the VW van, which had a broken lock on the slider door, so security in the van was pretty poor. I bought a padlock and chain in order to keep it more secure, Jared also gave me a pick axe just in case, although I think I would have been pretty useless... and then some days I would stay at the roach infested motel 5 miles away.

Is there a sense of property boundaries at Slab City?

People do make boundaries, you can see in the book there are bottles or sticks that people use to show their territory. Security and theft can be an issue there. Luckily it was never an issue for me, although after my first stay I met a guy who almost became my fixer/security which was super nice. I would park my van near his camp at night and had the extra benefit of his dog's bark as security.

What was a typical day like for you there?

I’d wake up super early, especially in the van as I usually slept quite light. It was quite surreal as obviously people are up at all times of night so some nights you might hear dogs, or fights, or music/dancing or even the US military bombing the site next door!……seeing the early morning sun come through the van window was always really memorable. Then I would drink some coffee and go and see who is around, awake... and work out what to do about breakfast, then just go about my day with the camera in hand looking for old and new friends. It was great to live in a city where you could get to know all the inhabitants!

All of them?

Not all but lots of the Slabbers who lived there all year round. The place is quite transient. People come and go, lots leave and a few stay during the heat of summer.

Do Slabbers feel like they're part of a community? It’s been called "The Last Free Place in America” so I'm imagining a lot of residents are pretty independent-minded. But perhaps there is also a sense of common cause? 

I think there is a group of elders who keep an eye on the running of the place, all strong characters in their own right and people who had spent enough time there and done enough things to be respected. If there is a particularly troublesome person they may get asked to leave by the community. However everyone really just does their own thing and minds their own business. I think the common cause is to drop out of normal society, for various reasons and try to live their lives the best they can.

It’s like real life "Survivor". With people getting voted off the island.

Yes, some people literally got run out of the Slabs. That happened rarely though. In general it is a very welcoming open minded community.

I noticed in the pictures a huge amount of public art and public visual expression. With graffiti, tattoos, signs, ceremonial sites. Did you notice people spending a lot of time on those activities compared to "normal" society?

Some of the graffiti and art was absolutely stunning there. People would travel from far and wide to make art and express themselves on the concrete. East Jesus which is next to Slab City has constantly evolving art work on display. East Jesus is a colloquialism for “the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services”…The photo of the crashed plane is from East Jesus.

And there was some sort of open mic night with public talks and performances and music?

Yes, open mic music at the Range on Fridays and Saturdays and a Karaoke night on Monday.

I'm assuming there was no typical 9-5 or structured labor. So perhaps it allowed more time for creative arts?

There is no 9-5 in Slab City...

9-5 is probably the exact hours you stay inside. Because it's too hot then.

It gets extremely hot there in the summer, can reach 120 degrees F.

Was there some part of you which was tempted to drop out and just stay there forever?

I like the idea of Slab City tremendously. I found that people were very kind and generous there, far more so than in conventional society. I think the heat would have got to me though, so dropping out yes, but not when it got over 100 degrees!

Did you basically have your camera 24/7 while there? Or did you set aside some time to interact non-photographically?

I had my camera with me the whole time. I took a bashed up SLR with me and it got dusty and had things spilled on it. It even got puked on by someone once... and survived. To be honest though the dodgy lock on the van was the main reason to always have my camera and valuables with me.

There are a few photos in the book of people brandishing guns. What's going on there? 

The pirate looking chap lived in a camp called "Pirate Camp" this was a group of guys and girls who dressed like pirates and drank lots of rum amongst other things. He is wielding a musket which I don't think was active. The lady with the mohawk hair was brandishing a starter pistol the gun was a 357 snub replica pellet gun Co2 propelled, she used it as a visual deterrent. She contacted me recently and mentioned the gun had been confiscated by the Sheriff.

You're still in touch with people there?

Yes, I try to keep in touch with people.

What do they think of the book?

They haven't seen the book yet as they don’t have addresses as such, although I'm planning on sending a few copies to a PO box.

How aware are Slabbers of current events in the outside world? 

They have patchy internet so they are well up on the news. Coronavirus is obviously an issue there as it is all over the US at the moment and recently there was a huge fire in Niland, the adjoining town to Slab City. Mainly I would say Slab news is the most important thing. If there is a fire, is it a safe fire or does everyone need to run with buckets and sand to put it out? Etc etc. Slab news takes priority over most stuff that we worry about from the real world… whatever that is.

Where did the title Into The Fire come from?

The title comes from 3 different inspirations. 

1.)"Out of the frying pan into the fire", (to do with the heat)

2.)"Into the Wild" Christopher McCandless —aka Alexander Supertramp— travelled through Slab City before heading to Alaska, 

and of course... 

3.)Duran Duran..."Dance into the fire”. 

How did you wind up connecting with Setantabooks?

My friend photographer Niall McDiarmid kept on telling me there was this bloke called Keith who would like to publish my Slab City work. During the beginning of lock down I had nothing better to do so Keith and his designer Tom and I got to work. It was fun to make a book remotely. I’ve never actually met Tom in real life! I really like Keith. He is a doer, and we made the book from start to finish in ten weeks.

So they found you, not vice versa. I wonder how they knew of your Slab City pictures. From your website? Or Instagram?

I think Instagram. Instagram has been a very useful tool for me this past year. I’ve had a few jobs from it and now a book published.

Instagram can sometimes seem trivial and and silly. But you can’t argue with real-world results. 

Yes, and a really positive experience as far as the publishing is concerned. It was also great to have Tom who put a great initial edit together which we worked from. Editing your own work/book can often be a bit daunting, so having a kick up the arse from these two was really liberating. What cover did you choose, btw?

I chose the sunglasses. I think almost all of UP group chose that one. Or else both covers.

The sunglasses is selling mildly better than the dolls.

You might think this is funny. I was Googling your book this morning to see what had been written about it. And I found this title on Amazon.

Wow! Great minds and all that...

Here's a review. I think it's cover blurb material, typos and all!

"One of the worst books I ever read tempted with good revews. A lot of bad written porn, poor detective line, characters like going dolls. In the end you din't get the answer. I wonder what was the point of all of this? I'd like to have my money bak."

Haha! great review... Nasty and abominable! lol

And it mentions dolls.

Indeed... I don't do refunds!

The photo of the snake, did the snake drink the IPA?

That’s the snake that almost killed me... Dan (my fixer/security) took its head off with a spade, I drunk the IPA and almost trod on the …poor thing. 

Oh, and you can ask me about the cave photo...A guy called caveman lived in there...Ex military, had decided to become a caveman...Lived in a cave for 4 years in Slab City. Still lives like a Caveman. He’s currently in Portland, with his dog Buddy.

Wait, he’s living in Portland? Doing what?

Being a caveman.

He found a cave in Portland?

No he's living rough, I think he's found a squat for the time being. He doesn’t have an email, but he is on Facebook.

Do you know the book Broken Manual?

Alec Soth.

Yes. That was about men living in caves and getting away from society. I think there's maybe a part of Alec Soth which secretly envies that lifestyle. That’s what I was getting at with my earlier question. I was curious if there was some part of you which maybe wanted to drop out and join the cavemen.

I think Alec is more adventurous than he lets on, or at least he has ambitions to be more adventurous than he lets on!

Definitely he's adventurous. But I think he's essentially an introvert. So a cave might suit him.

Ask me about the exposed boards on the back cover.

OK, what about the exposed boards on the back cover?

It was Tom’s idea. He wanted to keep them exposed so that when you are holding the back of the book it felt like a slab of concrete, exposing what was beneath the gloss, but also to have a rough fragility to the book. I quite like it, or at least it feels different and I think trying to add any form of extra sensory activity to a book is a good thing.

I like it too but didn't really think much about it. I have a few other photo books with exposed cardboard covers where the pages run flush with the edge. Not a huge fan of that style, so I'm glad you didn't do that.

The sequencing was pretty ocd... There is a horn/tooth section, there is a high as a kite section, there is the nightmare section...

I noticed a primary color section too.

Yes, the high as a kite section…

It goes Blue Red Green Yellow... and then there's the Shit In a Cardboard Box section.

Ah yes... that was just to remind the viewer that that is a reality... Shit in a box.  

I know there must be long stories behind each of your photos. But that's kind of the beauty of photography, right? All I know as a viewer is what I see, and I have to guess at the rest of it. But I think for you these photos probably trigger deeper memories and feelings. Since you know the personal histories and context, etc.

The guy on the page before that was a serious fellow.

I'm guessing addiction issues might be a problem there. And petty violence, theft, etc. And you mentioned coronavirus. All of which is to say that you can't really separate out your paradise from society and all's well. The basic problems of living follow culture into every corner. So utopian experiments always fail, I think. But it's still fun trying. That's sort of what the world is facing now, in a nutshell. Everyone has been forced by COVID to retreat into their homes and small social circles. It's a globalized version of Slab City. And I think it's driving us all crazy!

Addiction issues and mental health issues are amongst some of the problems there, but I think the same happens in all societies. Its just so much more condensed and the proximity to everyone living there is so much closer than a normal town or city. It was certainly an amazing learning experience for me. I expect the Slabbers will have Covid under control far quicker than most other small towns or cities. It probably isn’t the last free place in America but I expect it will be Covid free far quicker than most!


  1. Best box photo of all time! Others sure don't look bad neither...

  2. I'm guessing that you and Matt Stuart had fun putting this interview together.