The photographer and curator relives time spent on the road in making his sequel to ‘American Xerography'
I was watching a video you made while you were in America — an interview with [American experimental filmmaker] Bill Daniel. There’s something nice about the transparency in the way you just set up the camera and let it roll…
I wanted it to be a conversation. I’d never really done interviews before, and I was gonna do it all ‘Nowness’ style, but to be honest I don’t have the time or the effort, and I’d rather just sit with someone and have it like a podcast, do you know what I mean? Like, you know Aaron Rose, who did Beautiful Losers? They’ve [released] the raw footage and they’re really good — some of them are twenty minutes long, some of them an hour, and some of them are drivel — but it is really interesting seeing that. The Ian McKay one’s really good.
This is a good talking point, because Aaron Rose sort of helped build a scene from the ground up, and I like the fact that [Raw Footage Film Archive] releases all the b-roll and stuff you wouldn’t usually see, behind the scenes.
Yeah, I wanted my videos to be like that. I did seven photographers; I was trying to find people who just documented America, who had never really expanded their practice out. So people like Bill Daniel who very much comes from that punk scene and doing DIY shows, where he’d just pack everything into a van and set up wherever and do an exhibition. And these girls who do a zine called Apple Sauce, who are born and raised in LA. Pete Voelker, who’s in New York. A guy called Will Mebane, who does a lot of journalism stuff. And then Mimi Plumb, who’s just put a book out called Landfall, through TWA, who are a really cool publisher out of Oakland. They do beautiful books. So I went round to her house, she’s in her late sixties. She’s one of those photographers who shot all this really good work when she was young, and then life took hold… but now her archive’s coming back around.
Do you go to the States a lot?
I try and go twice a year. I either do the New York or LA book fair, but I also try and go out to just drive around. The last trip was September/October and it was the first trip I did on my own. I did thirty states in two months.
Whoa! In a car?
Yeah, it was kind of a dream trip. I’d never really done the northern states — places like South Dakota which are a lot of nothingness, just farmland for miles and miles, but also has Mount Rushmore, and then you can jump down into joining states like Washington and Portland, which I did and then took the ‘1’ all the way back down to Oakland. It was long — my longest drive was about twelve hours.
So were the interviews that you were doing on that trip a continuation of the American Xerography project?
Yeah, so I made American Xerography first, which was about four years worth of stuff of California, mainly west coast. So the idea was to go back out and shoot a colour version which was more expansive. I was going to try and find independent print places as I went and make copies of American Xerography on the road, and then sell them at the New York fair as I went through. And I found nice cool places, met some nice guys who were running small ‘mom and pop’ style places. I found this one place, ‘Robert’s Copy and Fax’ that just had this spray painted sign, real basic and just, like, a photocopier in the living room of his house. So I knocked on the door, went in, had a chat to him for an hour — it was a really small town, there weren’t really places to work and stuff — and he had made this brochure that he was going to try and get people to advertise in, and he’d done this huge Democrat campaign in the middle of it. I taught him how to do Japanese book binding, which was really cool, and took some photos of him in his little spot.
In the next town I parked up in the car and there was this woman selling handbags with Michelle Obama’s face printed on them. I asked her if she knew where I could get some photocopying done, and she was like, ‘you need to speak to Tom’. So we went down to this shopfront, with an antique/thrift store shop in the front and this guy out in the back, in his sixties… white pulled-up socks, beige shorts, blue polo, white Reeboks, classic American. Anyway I was like, ‘hey are you Tom? Someone told me I could come get some copies made’. He was a bit spun out at first, but he said sure, and I managed to get him talking. He’d moved to the town and found the shop, and basically the people who had previously owned the shop had left all this printing equipment out the back, from the early 1930s; huge big metal cutting and pressing machines. So Tom moved his print shop there, but all he was using the cutting machine for was cutting circles in, you know, those menus that you hang on door handles. And he had the biggest collection of letterpress I’d ever seen! It was nuts, all this old stuff from the ‘50s.
Anyway, I made a copy of the book there. And that was the plan, just make stuff, shoot colour film, and try and get an overview of America. American Xerography was made with this idea [of imagining] if Americans just upped and left America… what they left behind. Their imprint… on the landscape, or with architecture, road structures, the development of national parks and that kind of thing.
Like, human impact on the environment?
Yeah, so there’s no humans in the images. And going back [to America] was just to do another version, but in colour. In the original one I wanted it to feel like I’d just taken pages from history; it’s really heavily Xeroxed and degraded, but with this one I wanted to try and make a very traditional American road trip.
That’s what I also asked people in my videos. As someone from England I grew up reading, like, Calvin and Hobbs, and I’ve always had a fascination with things like white houses with white picket fences, and how the landscape changes so much in one country. I’ve just always had this intrigue. And with that legion of photographers who documented the dust bowl, or migration through America, I’ve always loved that. Plus I love driving, being on the road.
I think there’s a tendency for people like us, who aren’t from America, to romanticise it. But for you, doing that trip, driving through thirty states in two months, it must’ve been brutal at times and also mundane. Does the romanticism still stand? Do you think people will find it in the project?
I have a personal romanticism with it, but I was trying not to make work that was ‘Americana’. That romanticism was with me the whole time, but when I talked to American photographers about that I asked them if they had the same thing, even though they see America every day. And a lot of them said, you know, because it’s so vast, and changes so much, they still feel like a tourist. In the States a lot of people don’t have passports, and even though they do move around, a lot of it is coast to coast. And that’s why America has had this heavy interest for photographers, because you can travel so far and see so many different things that even for Americans it can be romanticised. America is built on that.
Is there a subtext in what you’re doing? In the way you’re conveying America?
This is the issue I’m having at the minute. I’m trying to figure that out.
Like the book you shot on Yosemite, Those Who Kill. I found it interesting that you could’ve presented Yosemite just through its impressive natural beauty, but by calling it Those Who Kill you’re drawing attention to something else — a tribe of killers.
Yeah, there was a tribe of renegades that lived there. And the surrounding Native American tribes called them Yosemite, which means ‘those who kill’. It’s really interesting. The book is all cropped details, I wanted to show the extravagance of the rock, but it's interesting how the national park has been built, to make it easy for all the tourists to get to all the main spots. I printed that on the Risograph.
With the new American Xerography imagery is there a through-line or narrative that you’re trying to create, cover to cover?
Not really, I play with images until I think it works as a flow. I kind of want the images to stand alone, they’re not really meant to take you on a journey like some books do.
Now that you’re back in London I guess the task at hand is to finish the colour publication?
Pretty much, yeah. But I don’t know if it’s finished. You have these amazing books that people worked a decade on, and I did this in two months. So trying to find out what it’s trying to say — if anything at all — or whether it’s just a book of images of a trip… I’m trying to figure out if I need to go back and do more, try and cover more states, try and build something around that… I don’t know.
A lot of the inspiration for colouring has come from old National Geographic mags of the ‘70s. I printed it on colour Xerox recycled paper and then rescanned them, so if you blow them up big you get this texture that you’d get in like dye-transfer printing, which Eggleston used to use.
Right, yeah looking at these photos the colour definitely has that Eggleston quality. Maybe it’s the light.
Yeah, because as I was driving it was Autumn time, so there were these rich oranges and beautiful blues. Even jumping between the desert and the forest I saw these similar type of colourings.
I’m interested in your other ongoing project, Photocopy Club. What’s the underlying thought behind that?
I started Photocopy Club in 2011. And the whole idea with it was to make a submission-based photography project that was accessible to as many people as possible, and was low-cost to run, but also made people get their work offline and print it. I felt using a black and white Xerox would make it accessible to as many people as possible — in any country you can find a photocopier, and it’s cheap. So the idea was that everyone would post their work to us, we’d do a one night exhibition, and then the work would be for sale at the end of the night for five pounds. And that way people could also buy one-off pieces at affordable prices, and hopefully get people collecting, and looking up new photographers who they hadn’t seen work by — all the work was signed and printed on the back, so you didn’t initially know who’s work you were looking at. You’d be buying it solely off what you liked about the image.
We did six shows between Brighton and London over 2012, and then it just blew up. We were getting about three hundred submissions per show, every show was super busy. Then we started doing stuff with photography festivals, and doing more themed projects, whether on skateboarding, or protest photography, or the open road. We did one in Hong Kong called The Open Ocean. Did one in Berlin, and Johannesburg. Throughout 2014-2016 we always had people getting in touch wanting to do workshops and stuff like that.
When I started at Doomed Gallery it slowed down a bit, but now I’m trying to get it back up and running, doing more workshops and stuff like that, and publishing more photographers’ work.
So the idea is to operate as a platform — a publisher, an exhibition space…
Yeah. Publishing, exhibiting, and teaching. At the minute the main Photocopy Club thing is going into universities and teaching kids about the history of zines. And doing stuff with brands… I mean, from a zine point of view this is completely selling out, but you can just take their money and do something better with it…
Hey I wanted to ask you, why did Doomed Gallery close last year? I never really got the scoop on that.
It just reached the end. There wasn’t any reason other than that. Ken had lived in the space for fifteen years and we were just burnt out. We’d done the gallery for five years — I’d lived there for two. It just became intense trying to make money to keep the space going. Having upwards of thirty people in your living room every Tuesday or Thursday. And just the time — not having time to focus on other stuff. We wanted to be like the Sex Pistols — just go out at the top of the game, instead of dragging on and becoming degraded. It’s best to leave on a high note.
Do you have any other exhibitions planned? New work?
Yeah, I’m working with Helen Ralli at her spot Hart Club in Waterloo. She’s doing Hart exhibitions which is all around working with people with disabilities and Alzheimer's, so she’s focusing on that, and then I’m helping out with getting other people in to fill the space — whether its a book launch, or a one day show, to fill up the gaps. Then we’re planning to do screen printing in the basement and ceramics upstairs, we’ll do workshops, there will be a Riso machine… me and Helen are both into the ethos that the space should be somewhere where people want to hang out. A community space in the heart of London. And with it being in Waterloo hopefully it can bring people together from every borough, rather than being just an East London thing.Other than that, just trying to get this book done. What do you think? Do you think it’s done?
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