Interview by Daniel Rolnik (danielrolnik[at]gmail.com)
The Heroes & Villains project got started in Los Angeles around 2005. Roman Cho (my co-photographer) and I knew it would be a long-term project and turn into a book, but we weren’t quite sure who would be in it. We just knew who the first people would be and it just kind of snowballed from there.
I was photographing a lot of street artists prior to the project because they were friends of my husband, who was an avid collector of Sheppard Fairey’s work. I’d go with the artists on their missions and because my husband knew them they didn’t put up too much of a stink about me being there. I went to their houses, hung out, took some photos, and it developed into where I gained their trust and was able to take their portraits. Because the street-artists didn’t want their identity revealed, I would always reassure them I was just taking portraits for a personal project and I was going to keep them to myself for now.
As time went on, Roman Cho and I were looking for personal work to do because I wanted to shoot more portraits but couldn’t find the time. Roman was assisting photographers and I was a pretty busy lady working full time at a day job as well as freelancing. We had worked together before when I was at an ad agency and we complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We felt that working with another photographer would motivate us more to finish the project. He initially thought of photographing comic book artists to compliment my portraits of street-artists, but we started to notice there was an overlap between the styles that was indefinable.
And Travis Miller, Jordan Crane... it was LA, it was a particular niche of artists all hanging out and doing their thing.
I actually ended up working with David Choe for a very brief time. He had a comic book for sale at an ice cream shop that I used to take my daughter to. My husband and I bought it and brought it back to the agency where we worked. The creative director loved it and hired Choe to illustrate something. I don’t know if he ended up working with them much more than a day. It was most likely his first and last foray working for the man. That was in 2004, a really interesting time because street-art was getting co-opted by movie studios who were trying to do subversive ad campaigns. It became pretty clear that the street-art movement was starting to get a lot more attention. I certainly wasn’t there at the beginning of any of this happening, but I was for sure at the right place at the right time to explore it to the fullest.
It’s mainly going to be in the form of a photo book but it will have an essay and about 15 interviews with artists. There’s a woman from Los Angeles named Amanda Erlanson who runs the blog Erratic Phenomena that we approached to do some of the interviews a couple years ago and she thankfully agreed. She interviewed about 30 artists and we’re picking half of them for the book. It won’t be text next to the images; the interviews will be in their own section.
I’m a mother so I don’t play favorites, I know better. There are people that certainly stand out as being comfortable in front of the camera. Liz McGrath is an amazing woman and the camera just loves her. She came with all sorts of really wonderful ideas and costumes, and Imminent Disaster an artist out of New York made a really wonderful background for her portrait. Each shoot is so unique it’s hard to say there’s a favorite. I loved photographing the guys because a lot of the comic book artists were all wearing penguins, so I felt like I was shooting an ad for penguin clothing.
They all art directed themselves without us having to do much. Shooting artists for me is the ultimate, they’re purely themselves - it’s not like shooting actors who say ‘tell me who to be’. Artists are who they are through and through and that comes across in their portraits. I don’t think we had any bad experiences, thank God. I would photograph every single one of these folks ten times over, and I plan to do so.
It’s not like cubism where it’s a particular type of technique, they’re all doing their own thing, but the themes seem to be similar. The artists that we photographed are from all over the world (USA, UK, Australia, Japan, South America, etc.), they just happened to be in Los Angeles when we shot them. We were privileged to be working with galleries where curators would tell us so and so is in town come on over and shoot.
The low-brow scene is certainly fractured into multiple genres and I can’t even keep up with the number of names it’s been called. It seems like year after year it changes. It’s not DIY, but it’s definitely people who have existed outside of the traditional strictures and structures of the art world. A lot of pop-surrealist painters have amazing techniques - they’re not just slapping paint on a canvass.
His technique is just astounding; he can do it on a very small or large scale and it’s all profound. He’s a really powerful artist and he is very much his own person.
All these people are characters and that’s what I love about being able to photograph them. I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I want to keep doing it. I started off in the arts but I left it for a long time and once I returned to a creative life it was like all this weight had been lifted off me because I understood that’s what I wanted to do.
We went to Billy Shire to photograph Shag and there was this small 1950s modern home in the middle of the gallery the he had built to scale. We walked up to it and said ‘can he sit in this house’, because he’s a really tall person. We thought it was awesome that this really large man had built this tiny house and that it would it be funny if he were sitting in it to show the scale. The house just screamed Shag, and so we actually got to photograph him in his creation. He always looks different every time you see him, now he has blonde hair. You always see him and say ‘whoa!’ what color hair do you have today. Thankfully that day he had red hair so it worked with the background.
We wanted to put the spotlight back on the folks behind the movement; to not forget there are actual artists, not just institutions who adopt their work to promote whatever they’re doing. We really wanted to do a different project than what was out there. I don’t like a lot of context when it comes to photographing an artist. I want them to stand alone as a human being first and foremost, since being an artist is part of your identity - but not all of it. It was important for me to take them out of their studios and show how they are as people without their art next to them.
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