How has your work experience influenced your photography? I went to school to be a graphic designer. When I graduated college (in Jacksonville, FL), I moved to Memphis and got a job at a book publishing company. I was designing and photo-editing these 200+ page hard-cover photo essays about cities. I had to look through thousands of images, and the entire design process from concept to completion took about 3-6 months. What I learned there definitely helped me understand editing and layout. It takes me just as long to put together one zine. Mainly because I do it on weekends and nights. If I didnâ€™t have to work for a living I could probably knock one out every 2 months.
Your design background shows in the juxtapositions and layout of your zines. Does your sorting / editing process mostly happen on the computer, or is it more of a hands-on stacks-of-prints-on-theliving-room-floor kinda thing? I used to strictly edit on light tables because I shot all slide film. That was the best way to get it done. But the more digital photos I use, the easier it is to put photos together right on the page in InDesign. I still print out contact sheets and cut up the pieces and play with them that way, but it’s not a mandatory part of the process as much anymore. I do go through about 10-15 iterations of my zine before I am happy with it. I print out copies and see what works and what doesn’t. Mark it up and cut out pages. Let it sit for a few days, go back to it. It comes to a point of “that’ll have to do” or else I’d never be done with it. I would probably still go back and change things in each issue if I had the chance. But, they are as perfect to me as they will ever be and I just have to let it go.
Grabbing a shot of something can get you into a sticky situation sometimes. Have you ever gone to TroubleTown over a shot? Sometimes I feel like I have a neon sign over my head that says “guy with camera.” In Memphis I would drive around in some pretty scary neighborhoods to shoot hand-painted signs and deteriorating buildings. The trickiest was when there was something I just had to shoot and people would be standing in front of it. It’s not like I could stop and say “excuse me, could you guys move so I can take a photo of the ‘no loitering’ sign behind you?” A few months back I was in Phoenix and there was a ridiculous American flag tile mosaic on the outside wall of a McDonald’s. I went over and took a couple of shots and a McDonald’s employee came running out asking “my manager wants to know what you’re doing?” I told her I was taking a photo of the tile flag and she looked at me like I was a terrorist or or something. I’ll never understand the fear and suspicion that people have of cameras. The photo I got wasn’t even worth the hassle.
All photos: Geoffrey Ellis
The art of loitering: classic noble leisure activity or pastime of the feckless and depraved? It’s definitely a pastime of the depraved. No Loitering signs in Memphis are so ubiquitous that they have lost all meaning. Okay, why is it okay to dally, dawdle, lounge, linger, lollygag, or dilly-dally, but not to loiter? Maybe we need a better word for loitering with malicious intent— skulk? lurk? slink? I can see the signs: No Skulking. No Lurking. Any suggestions? Maybe it should say Get The Fuck Outta My Parking Lot? Loitering is such a vague term. How long before it’s officially considered a loiter? If one is waiting for a ride under the eaves of a convenience store during a rainstorm, would the cops be called? One of the funniest parts of no loitering signs in Memphis—besides the invariable misspelling of the word loitering—is when they say “No Loitering, MPD” (Memphis Police Dept). Like it’s an official sign endorsed by the MPD? The other funny part is that people are usually leaning next to them.
Hand-painted signs: you’ve captured quite a few in Sad Kids 4. What is it about the vernacular that you’re drawn to? I just love that they are pure and authentic. There are no layers of bureaucracy behind them like in so-called professional signage or advertising. No copywriters, no brainstorming, no fonts, no training. It’s the painters’ raw interpretation of what the shop owner needs. Memphis has quite a few sign painters. I spent some time tracking them down and have a photo of one of them (Alfred) in my zine. Alfred is not well off and has a drinking (and possibly a drug) problem. I hired him to paint a sign for me for my wife’s birthday. It was around Christmastime and he was happy to have the work. He said the money came just in time and would go to help buy presents for his kids. He was really happy to have the money and I was really happy to have the sign. Another really prolific sign painter in Memphis is Brick, who I have never met. For being so prolific, he’s not that easy to track down. I wonder sometimes if they know how refreshing their signs are to people who are sick of being inundated with cookie cutter signage and billboard ads? All I know is I get excited every time I drive past a new sign or one I haven’t seen before.
Reminds me of something David Byrne talks about in the introduction to Sensacional: Mexican Street Graphics: As true perfection appears on the horizon, as the fruits of the enlightenment and of centuries of scientific progress appear within grasp, we take a bite of the perfected tomato or a huge flawless strawberry and realize that something has been lost. Flava. Soul. Humor. Funk. Perfection, one must conclude, is not acutally perfect at all. In fact, it is almost the complete opposite. Perfection is bad. But bad is good. But bad perfection is not good, only good bad is good. It’s all very simple.
It is simple! Bad is good, but only certain kinds of bad are good. There is bad that is bad—for real. Not everyone can get it. All I know is if someone believes in what they are doing and it comes from a deep place of desire to do that thing (not for wealth or fame or hot women), then usually it shows in their work. It has an earnestness that an over-thought piece of work will never have. David Byrne has a great point: in striving for perfection, heart and soul is diluted.
What kind of stuff do you collect? I used to collect everything. I have thousands of records, a bunch of 16mm films, old 35mm slides, books, toys, posters, signs, magazines, cards, old packaging with cool designs. I ran out of room. The only things I collect anymore are photos I take of the junk I don’t bring home (and mp3s, which also don’t take up any space). Film, cameras, negatives, contact sheets, and zines take up a lot of room as it is. So you’ve moved from collecting things to collecting images of things.You could almost say that your photos and zines are serving as a supplement to your memory? A supplement to my memory definitely. And also a way to share my memory and experiences with others. Until they figure out a way to view or save someone’s thoughts or memories (God forbid). It’s a good way to tell stories too. There are always stories behind photos. You describe your photos as part-art and part-documentary. Sadkids 4 is all about Memphis. The city and surrounding areas are
constantly evolving. Places are torn down, signs are painted over, businesses fail. So many of the photos in the issue are of things that don’t exist anymore. Every time I visit, I drive around and see what’s new and what’s gone. I feel an compulsion to artfully document as much as I can before it disappears due to gentrification or neglect. So I now do with junk what I used to do with an absurd sign I couldn’t have—I capture it on film. Reminds me of Vacant Eden, a collection of photos of motel signage along highways in the SW. From the photographers’ statement: We sensed a profound loss of originality and adventure which travel once promised. On the interstates, everything—restaurants, motels, gas stations, and rest stops—seem to look, taste, feel, and smell the same. Even the signage has become standardized so that no matter where you go, you’re always in the same place. We felt a sense of urgency… we realized we were pursuing a dying species.
Capturing dying Americana is a duty to those who can see its worth before it’s gone. There will always be those who don’t care or don’t understand why it is important. It seems obvious, but if you think about it, everything was new at one time. It’s interesting to see what is cherished and what is discarded. I shoot at a lot of flea markets as well and see so many things that once had value and were once loved. It’s easier to be a culture of consumers ready for the next big thing. I think it’s important to take time to remember where we came from and savor the older things—signs, architecture, and objects— we so easily dismiss. It’s hard to recognize what is being lost until one day every place looks the same.
Themes in your zines: signage, type, thrift shop hodge-podge.
Right. If you could visit any city in any era…
I have been photographing old signs and typography for as long as I can remember. While doing graphic design, I was taking photos of that stuff for reference. Then I started to concentrated on composition. I would take two shots of something— a detail of the sign, and a composed photo. Lately I have been shooting indoors. Tons of old bars with years of collections on the walls. Gives me a great excuse to go to a new bar and have drinks with my wife on a Saturday afternoon. We’re not drunks if we are being productive, right?
Driving around is one of my favorite things to do. I love to visit places I’ve never been. I drove from SF to Portland in August and stopped at nearly every town on the I-5. I would go back to Memphis and the South as much as possible. It’s still (for the most part) unspoiled. I have yet to visit the Midwest, but plan to eventually. North Florida is also a great place to drive around. Dozens of small towns waiting to be discovered. If I had the time and the gas money, I would take roadtrips constantly. The US is so diverse. It’s calling me. I need to respond.
Do you find yourself revisiting spots? I thought about revisiting spots a long time ago. Years back I saw a book by a photographer, Mark Klett, called the Rephotographic Survey (thirdview.org/3v/home/index.html). He went around and re-shot nineteenth-century western survey photographs. You can see the geological changes in the American West from the same vantage point over a 100 years later. Nerdy, but really cool. William Christenberry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Christenberry) also rephotographs places year after year. When I notice someplace that has changed a great deal, I try to re-shoot it. I’d love to be more organized or regimented about it. Dollywood versus Graceland? Never been to Dollywood, but much prefer Memphis to Nashville. I love Dolly, but Graceland is incredible in its opulent tackiness. Memphis is rock, soul, and blues—gritty and steeped in the mud of the Mississippi, old money, and abject poverty. Nashville is typified by new money, country music, and bible-belt conservatism. Neither seem to care much for their own history, but Nashville seems to be trying to be something it’s not. Memphis is what it is. Doesn’t seem to be progressing much, but I think it’s figuring out that what it has to offer is not an embarrassment. Hopefully it will embrace its history instead of white-washing all of its unique characteristics.
If you could have any kind of super-power… Maybe invisibility? So I could be more inconspicuous when I want to take a photo in a crowded place. But the camera would have to be invisible—a floating camera would attract some attention. If you are invisible, can your clothes and things you touch become invisible too? I’m not sure. Maybe we can ask Wonder Woman. I’m pretty sure that if you have the powers of invisibility, you can accessorize with invisible stuff. I mean, Wonder Woman’s plane is invisible, right? Her plane is invisible, but she is not. Is there no room in the world for both invisibility and invisible touch (is that what the Genesis song is about)? If it’s my chioce then I say me, my clothes, and whatever I am holding is invisible. And if I want something to be invisible I can make it happen. Used for good and not evil, of course. What excites you when you wake up in the morning lately? The sappy (but true) answer is that I’m excited to wake up next to my wife every morning. The cool answer would be that I wake up with a million ideas and can’t wait to get to shooting. On the weekends, it’s true. Not the million ideas part, but the fire in the belly to get out and take a good photo. I know it won’t always be there, so I feel like I have to do it while I’m young enough to still care. But I also get excited when I wake up and it’s cloudy outside. Then I can laze about and not feel so guilty. ¤
Published on May 15, 2011