Today find ourselves on the streets of LA, with Kevin McCollister.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a baby boomer. Many years ago this meant I was young, but now it means I’m old. When it comes to photography, I’m self-taught. I’ve been in a darkroom exactly once in my life and it held no appeal to me at all. Now, however, I think the ability for one person to take a picture of something and to show it to another person is an an absolutely astounding thing to do.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than twenty years. I have an office job related to the film industry, but it has nothing to do with the creative end of movie-making. I was born in Ohio, lived in New Orleans while working as a deckhand on the Mississippi River. There’s no doubt that working on the Mississippi had just as much of an impact on my photographs as my college work in that it meant living in the heartland of the U.S. for years. Lots of small river towns, Evansville, Indiana, Natchez, Mississippi, Cape Girardeau, Missouri…real Americana, not the Disneyland version and I feel fortunate to have seen them. And added to that, me and everybody around me, was involved in this very basic project of simply moving people and things up and down the river just like it had been done for the past five or ten thousand years. I should also add that all this time I felt like a writer and at some point I would put all the pieces together and write it all down.
After that I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I studied drama and film at Harvard’s night school. Two years of “The Canterbury Tales”, Chekhov, the early films of Roman Polanski left their mark on what I do now, I’m sure.
So combining my work as a deckhand with studying lots of non-contemporary literature clued me into something about the timelessness of being alive right here in the moment. And even though my photographs are centered on a definite socio-economic area of Los Angeles, I like to think that a lot of what I do has that sense of life as its always been lived regardless of what’s happening in the early part of the 21st Century.
How did you get started in photography?
In the beginning I just wanted to show my sister-in-law pictures of Los Angeles and a Nikon Coolpix seemed like a good way to do it. And just prior to that, I had a friend who wanted to pass out food to the mentally ill and from that I started to see that, although I had lived in Los Angeles for ten years, there was a whole other side to the city I knew absolutely nothing about.
So I got a better camera and then a better one and now I use either a Canon 40D or a Lumix GH2.
And at this point I just really love photography. I love the emotional responses it can generate. It doesn’t require analysis, it’s absolutely immediate but there’s also some pictures that can be wonderfully meditative, almost calming.
Did your family and upbringing affect your decision to become an artist?
I don’t think my family had much to do with it. As for my upbringing, yes. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. As just about everybody knows, it’s an industrial city, or was, and not, until very recently, an attractive city. So I think I have some affinity for let’s say a rougher look of cities.
Which photographers and other artist work do you admire?
First of all, I admire every photographer from the earlier days of film. Their work has a sense of meticulousness and care and technical expertise that I can’t begin to imagine. I’m talking about Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, all of ‘em.
I guess its possible that some people haven’t heard of Vivian Maier, a street photographer of the Fifties and Sixties whose work was discovered in a storage locker shortly after she died. Very observant, incredibly “in the moment”, but if you can judge her personality by her photographs, and I think you can, she may have not been the warmest of human beings.
And, no surprise, I also like the street photographers – Robert Frank, Diana Arbus, Lisette Model. I also like and admire photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti for their subject matter. I think it’s easy to see their admiration for working class life has carried over into what I do.
And what about their work inspires you?
I’m not sure if this will answer the question but I think it’s very important to have a similar feeling or appreciation for another art form as I do for photography. And for me it’s been painting. To see someone who is far, far superior to what I can do such as the portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, is like a target, or maybe goal is a better word, for the emotional response I’m aspiring to. (And what I do is much, much more about emotional content than it is about technical expertise.)
And poetry, too, especially Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Both of them convey the beauty and variety of American life. I’m trying to do with photographs what they did with words.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
Toughest question so far….I’m not sure I’ve done anything consciously to develop a personal style, but I agree it’s there. Just to define things I’m going to say that, at least for today, I see my personal style as a sort of lyrical or romantic depiction of lower and lower-middle class life in Los Angeles, which is sometimes harsh, and sometimes it’s almost sentimental. Sometimes it’s done with portraits and sometimes its done with random street scenes, a lot of which has to do with Catholic and Hispanic images. But I hope it’s all done with empathy. I try to remember that I’m a visitor to most of these places. I try to avoid anything snide or exploitative although there’s probably a number of people who think I’ve not been successful at this.
Anyway, I also have in mind about five other people who don’t live here but might be interested in the photos I take and since that time I ask myself unconsciously if the picture I am considering would be interesting to these five people. In other words, I think its important to keep your audience small and not got overwhelmed with how many other people may or may not be looking at what you’re doing.
As for when it developed, because of all the years I spent writing, I’m grounded in what does and does not interest me.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
Time. As I write this, I’ve got food cooking in the toaster oven, laundry now in the dryer, Chet Baker playing in the background and I’m sneaking over the kitchen window where I’m taking a few photographs of flowers, which is a sideline of mine. I have also given up on taking this computer, which is full of an insidious adware, to be repaired today, maybe I’ll have time tomorrow…Plus, this morning is heavily overcast, very rare for LA and perfect for taking photographs, but I just can’t take the day off from work.
Also, my technical skills are not great regarding Photoshop. I use Elements 9, nothing more complicated than that. But that’s as it should be. If I were to take the kind of photographs that I take with a crew and a Hassleblad, that would almost make the photographs a lie.
How do you overcome a creative block ?
At this point, all my creative blocks have been related to writing, not photography. I think this might be because I don’t read the critical or academic essays related to contemporary photography. I’m only slightly knowledgeable as to what’s going on right now in the photo world, so I’m not asking myself if what I’m doing is correct.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
Not much to tell, I have a medium-priced PC (tower), many external hard drives and, in addition to Photoshop Elements 9, I use Nik software. Not much else. I usually have the tv playing an old movie with the sound turned off as I review my work. And I have a cat that of course likes to get between me and the monitor. In other words, its very relaxed, no creative tension whatsoever.
Also, for the past year I’ve used a Lumix GH2 with a fast lens (1.7). Love them both.
How did the your book, East of West L.A, come about, what was your inspiration?
“Somebody up there likes me” is how it came about. Actually, Michael Lally, a poet and actor living in LA at the time, liked my unpublished book of poems and forwarded them on to a I guess you could say LA patron of the arts, Brooks Roddan, and Brooks wanted to publish the book. At one point, this would have been a dream come true but I had to tell him I honestly couldn’t devote time or energy to it, as everything is going into the photographs which I was by that point finding much more fulfilling than writing. (And much easier than writing.) So Brooks was flexible enough to say he liked the photos too, so let’s go with a book of photos.
As for the inspiration, all I can say is that it was surprisingly difficult for me to collect the photos I had at that time into a coherent book. Just like you have to be a little ruthless about editing an individual piece, you have to be the same for a book. To do just straight documentary seemed boring and I didn’t want to leave out the unusual people I had come across, but I didn’t want it to be heartless freak show or too “edgy” which always strikes me as kids stuff. In the end, I think we came up with a true sampling of the odd and yet beautiful people and places of Los Angeles. I was able to include “L.A. River” and “Betty and Darla” without it seeming like too much of a stretch. I’m very happy with it and hope someday to do more.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
Not terribly. I’ve certainly never sought it out as I’m not a super-gregarious person by nature. If there’s at least a slight autobiographical strain in everybody’s work and if what I’m doing is about the lack of community in a lot of people’s lives, it doesn’t make sense for me to be hanging out with a bunch of people. It might sound like it’s been a conscious decision to stay out of a creative community, but that’s not the case. And I might be wrong for not being part of something larger. I just don’t know.
I post my photos on my blog, on my East of West LA Tumblr and Facebook pages. So whatever feedback I get, is from these places. Again, I have about a half-dozen people who I keep in mind as possibly being interested in what I do. I try to keep it simple. That’s about it for the community aspect of it.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I guess I have a typical Irish-Catholic outlook on life, pessimistic, stressful, grim, etc. Whether I’m doing my own work or looking at the work of someone else, art works really well at alleviating that outlook. Getting back to your earlier question, the community part comes from presenting the work itself and from looking at the work of other artists. Ideally, that’s when I have the sense of a kindred spirit being in the world.
Plus, photography works for me in that it gets me out into the world whereas looking back on it, writing was just too isolating, too introspective. Going out to find a photo remains really exciting to me. It’s an adventure. Writing involves thinking which to me can turn into brooding in about five seconds. Even writing these answers down has been slow and tough, lots of coffee and fake granola bars.
Is there another type of photography or subject matter you would like tackle?
Flowers. I’ve posted some on my blog when I start to get worried that I’ve gone too far in the opposite direction, but right now I think of them as being my Basement Tapes, something to hold on to, maybe for no particular reason. But I do like the challenge of actually seeing different qualities from the same flower with just some slight changes in angle or lighting. And I do them all here at home, in my kitchen with early morning light before I go to work. Most of the shots are complete failures as they end up looking like flowers, no drama.
To learn more about Kevin McCollister and his work please visit his site at Kevin McCollister.
Thank you Kevin for sharing your work.