14 Jan The Perils of Tweening
I have been a professional artist for 30 years. By professional I mean that I have been occasionally paid for my work ever since I first had images published in The Sun Magazine in 1987. I was still in high school and it was a big deal to me. I kept making images but I also started to pour my energy into playing a band in 1989. We were kind of a punk band, and kind of a pop band, and kind of a rock band. We were in between a lot of genres. This was the beginning of my tween purgatory.
While playing in the band I documented the world I was part of. It was a world made up mostly bands that had no intention of “making it big”. There was a focus on passion and originality. Occasionally I got paid to shoot a band, but mostly I did it because I loved to do it, and I knew that for the most part, no one else was. Then I started to make movies about that world. While the films were about underground bands the aesthetic wasn’t aesthetically challenging. There was nothing all that radical about the approach we took. However, since the subject matter was underground culture, the films weren’t embraced by mainstream film festivals. We played them at underground fests, but they weren’t radical enough to be really embraced by that world either. I have a good friend whose art is very much about look and feel. He’s always frustrated by my approach. I appreciate work that has a strong aesthetic, but for me, it often overwhelms the “story”. When the work looks too good I become very conscious of the process that went into creating it. I like things a little sloppy. I like my music to be a little bit off.
In our cultural system work moves into the public consciousness by either being a part of the mainstream or challenging the mainstream. There are very few people who are interested in hitching their cart to the in-between. Yet as far as I’m concerned the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.
Just before starting the band I drove across the country and took pictures in malls. I shot from the hip for the most part, partly because I was shy and I worried about being kicked out for taking people’s pictures. However, I also was drawn towards experimenting. With both the music and photography ventures my impulse was towards the emotive over the professional. I appreciated strong images and strong songs, but I was also drawn towards things that were messy, noisy, and challenged accepted norms. For my first 10 years as a photographer, I had cheap Nikon and an even cheaper lens. The lens gave my images a softness that sometimes bothered me but I just accepted it. I didn’t even realize that it came from the cheap lens. When I got a point and shoot with a sharp lens I was shocked- and disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a better lens earlier. In the end though, while the soft lens wasn’t always great for the mall images it worked well for the band photos I had started to shoot.
When I set out to take the mall images I was thinking about the street photography but I didn’t want it to feel like I was copying what had done. Part of the reason I shot from the hip was that I was excited about the possibilities of what I might capture when I wasn’t trying too hard to control the moment as much as experience it. I got a lot of blurry, underexposed shots, and poorly framed shots. However, I also got a lot of magic. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t really the kind of magic that people were looking for at the time, and it took 25 years before people began to appreciate the images. This was kind of true for the band as well. None of us knew how to play when we started so we had to learn how to do it by ourselves. We are still waiting to be discovered. In the last few days, everyone has been posting 10 albums from their teenage years that made an impact on them. Not even a guy I know who had our drummer as his history teacher listed my band. I don’t take it personally. We didn’t make the kind of records that shocked anyone with their innovation. We were… kind of in between. I’d like to think though that this kind of work holds up a little better over time. Happily, someone is re-issuing a couple of our records, and I got an email today about putting out a book to go along with a re-issue of our first film, “Half-Cocked”. The mall photos keep going viral, and our last film “Who Took Johnny” -that we couldn’t buy a review for (and believe me I tried… just ask all the film writers I know)- is tearing up Netflix. At some point, most of the things that were mainstream go way out of fashion. Those things that were somewhat radical hold part of their power even once they become co-opted. Those things that were in between…. they tend to hold up better on average.