A witness to the weird the world-over, Tod Seelie, is perhaps best known for his engrossing photo book Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York, chronicling 15 years of DIY subculture. This time, Seelie’s wanderlust has landed him in Los Angeles to explore the freaky nooks and overlooked crannies of Southern California in “Outland Empire.”
We caught up with the photographer for caffeine and a candid conversation about his upcoming show, in addition to Nan Goldin’s enduring influence, what it means to be an asset, ‘Rude Photographers,’ and what it was like to cover the Gathering of the Juggalos.
You’re known as a New York underground art-punk extraordinaire. What’s your relationship with LA?
Tell us about the body of work going up at Superchief, ‘Outland Empire.’
It’s what I’ve experienced in Southern California, between the desert and LA. Put together, it’s a sampling of different things—landscapes, people, punk shows.
Do you have a favorite moment of them all?
[Last time I was here], I tagged along with some people who were going out to Death Valley for their own projects — I just got a ride out there and camped. And when you’re a bunch of weirdos that just show up in the desert, the locals are going to hear about it and be like, “What’re you doin’?”— there’s not much else going on. [I met this guy out there] who makes a living collecting geodes at a secret spot. He used to make glass eyes for a living until that industry disappeared. He lives in a trailer with a really old dog. He had the best stories and was so friendly. That’s a photo that was truly a very enjoyable experience… in the middle of nowhere.
Is this the beginning of some deeper exploration here?
Hopefully. The thing with living in New York is, you have to be working all the time to afford it. So it’s hard to go away for a while. Part of me wonders how much longer it’s worth being buried under that grindstone in New York—of making rent, affording expensive food and everything. At a certain point, you realize you are being held back by the cost of living. Granted, [NYC] is so exciting and there’s so much going on and this is what my work is about. But a lot of my friends are finally getting pushed out, so it seems like the wave is cresting and a lot of people are dropping off. A lot of DIY spaces have dropped off too. So the question is, how long to stay on this wave as it’s headed toward the beach?
These days, we expect more and better imagery, and we digest it so quickly that it really takes a special something to make you stop for more than a few seconds. Your photographs often are of that arresting ‘it’ moment.
You could say that’s my style. I want the photograph to feel as much as it feels like to be there as possible, to capture a throbbing, loud, insane moment of movement and force, sound and smell in a still image—that’s the challenge. It’s very much what my eye is seeking. That idea informs what I’m shooting, what I’m attracted to, what I chase, when I decide to push the shutter and then it also informs the editing. You might have a really pretty photo, but that doesn’t capture it for me, so you have to keep looking.
So you’re trying to get the truth out of it?
The reality— what it was really like to be there. Documenting is kind of easy. It’s just learning to take a competent photograph. I don’t really consider myself a documentarian. I’ve never considered myself a straight photojournalist either, even though, that’s what I do. It’s more like that’s just what I do now. That’s not my work; it’s the job. And then when the job’s over, I go do my work.
It’s all approached from the angle of art. The idea is to create a compelling image that not only grabs your attention and causes you to stop, but also gets your mind going, trying to understand what’s happening. It has to be visually intriguing to pull you in and make you care, and then it needs to have some element of narrative— implied narrative, mysterious narrative—that really makes you to want to dig deeper.
That’s what always interested me in the great photographers that I admire. I’d look at their photos and think, “What is going on?” So that’s always what I’ve considered the goal of a photograph. You have people like Lee Friedlander, just driving around in a van, taking photos of whatever the hell you find— that was more where I started. Just wander and see what you see. [William] Eggleston did the same thing. He’s just like, “Here’s a parking lot,” and he can make it look amazing. But, then I saw Nan Goldin’s work. She had the ability to [make you wonder] within her normal everyday life. How she worked was very influential to how I work.
In many instances, you’re documenting something that’s very high energy — an event, a show, people coming together to have a good time — but there are also elements of darkness. There’s definitely celebration and revelry of some kind, but in the same moment there is something sordid happening.
I think that can be very poignant. If everything is smooth and wonderful and happy, it’s kind of like a Teletubbies episode—it’s kind of boring. Real life doesn’t work that way, so there’s no point in pretending that it does. You know, shit happens, shit goes down, not everything’s cool. In the end, these are the elements that make up my reality. So there are tender moments of my friends on a raft and then there’s the burning car outside my apartment. There’s everyone climbing a building together and enjoying an amazing view, and then there’s the street fight down the block from where I live with a dude [holding] a board with nails in it. Those are all happening at the same time, so I’m not going to only show you the good parts. That would be dishonest on a certain level. I’m going to show you the whole thing.
You’re somewhat of a social chameleon. You can be at the Gathering of the Juggalos and then the desert in California and then Big Freedia’s booty bounce show in NYC very seamlessly. Does that skill come naturally?
It’s not something I’ve intentionally worked on. But I’d say it’s extremely advantageous. Ultimately, I try to have the most non-judgmental, open mind that I can. I’m never going anywhere to judge — that’s never the purpose. If anything, I’m going places to understand. That doesn’t mean I think everything I see is okay. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m there to ‘fire and brimstone’ everyone because they’re wrong. I think that’s the main key.
You do a really good job of breaking down the participant/observer dichotomy that documentary photographers constantly have to negotiate. Can you describe your approach?
As a photographer covering anything from an event to a show, you should always be an asset to have there. You should never be a disadvantage. That means not getting in the way or obstructing things happening naturally. I try to be a fly on the wall, as invisible as possible but at the same time be an asset. So, if a band needs help loading their equipment, you go help. This is not happening for you or your photo moment. The band up there is playing for the fans who paid to be there. You’re lucky to be there, so act like it.
I actually used to have a photo series on my Flickr called Rude Photographers and if I was at shows and [a photographer] was really crossing the line—like standing on stage in front of the band—I would just take a photo and post it. I never identified the photographer because that’s too much. If it gets back to them, then I have achieved my point, which is, “look at what you look like to everyone else.” And you know, multiple photographers in that set who I’ve met later have said, “Thank you! I had no idea how bad I looked.” It’s happened more than once. It’s just offering perspective. People get behind the camera and they feel they are invisible. But they’re not. They’re actually more obtrusive than a person without a camera.
When it comes to documenting subcultures and things that are underground and proud, how do you toe the line between being an asset and exploitation? What if the underground wants to stay that way?
Part of my approach is to talk to the people that I’m shooting. Have a conversation. Introduce yourself. Don’t be the weird guy who shows up with a camera, says nothing and then leaves. Be a person. That’s important to being welcome where you are. You’ll have conversations with people and they might say, “Hey, this is a concern…” Or if I’m shooting on the street and somebody starts giving me shit, I’m like, “Okay, what’s up? What’s the problem; What’s the concern?” Sometimes, they’ll just keep screaming at you and that’s all that will happen, and then sometimes they’ll have a conversation with you and give you a really good reason. Exploitation is easy to do when you don’t have a connection or relationship with your subject, or you don’t have an understanding of it.
I also don’t post photos of people doing drugs. Don’t even really take them anymore. It’s not worth it. I also don’t really take photos of people who are really hurt. I’ve obviously been around a lot of people who’ve maimed themselves. It’s a combination of not wanting to celebrate my friend looking or feeling like this, and I don’t want to amplify it. Because by taking a photograph and sharing it, you amplify [the subject matter]. You are promoting it on a certain level; you are celebrating it on a certain level.
While I tend to try to be as subtle as possible, I also try to be really obvious that I have a camera out. So you know I’m taking photos. When I shot the Gathering of the Juggalos… I just wanted to keep it open. There had been a documentary made there, two years before called The Gathering, which was an extremely [negatively] biased take. And of course, everyone there knows about it and is really on guard [in the presence of] any camera now. When people came up to me, it was always the same questions: “Who are you? What are you here for? Are you here to make us look bad?” And the answers were, “I’m here from Front Magazine; I’m not here to make you look bad. I’m actually here to make this look awesome.” And that’s exactly what I did. I want to have those conversations. I try to open the opportunity for dialogue. I feel like that only benefits both sides.
What’s next for you?
I am in talks with two different publishers about some future books. Summer is my biggest travel time, typically. I have some [plans] floating around, not sure what’ll stick. August is terrible in New York, so I’m always gone in August. It’s not worth it.
By Marnie Sehayek
Marnie Sehayek is a Los Angeles native, where she is a creative professional by day, cyclo-punk by night and taco enthusiast always. Her second home is Tel Aviv. Between the cultural enclaves of California and Israel, she finds no shortage of creative exploit, urban adventure and natural revelry – which she photographs and writes about. Follow her on Instagram at marniewashere.
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