(Berkeley, 1991. Image Copyright Hamish Reid. Click image to see a bigger version).
I don't usually do this sort of thing. I keep saying my photography isn't art, it's just reporting
, but that doesn't mean I'm a photojournalist or press photographer in any sense. What it usually means is that I'm mostly just a rather passive recorder of what's happening around me, or of what I see in cities or landscapes as I walk or drive, or of faces and bodies I know in one way or another. I don't go out of my way to photograph events (unless I'm paid to, of course).
But this time it was all happening on my (then) home territory -- Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley -- and the Peoples Park riots and their aftermath affected me daily. I've told the full story (badly) elsewhere, but this wasn't so much an event I could chose to go to or not, as a daily landscape, something that I could record (had to record) without becoming a photojournalist.
The rioters were mostly unseen, a shadowy presence much bigger in the media than in real life. But the protests, the protestors, and the resulting police were very visible -- and very much the real story for a week or so. I had to get it -- so I spent a few hours each day for a while taking photos just like a photojournalist. No one ever asked me what I was doing, or tried to stop me from taking photos, and I just stood around taking photos with my little all-manual Nikon FM2 35mm camera with a fixed 28mm wide-angle lens. I seemed to have been basically invisible to all sides; I think it helped that I just acted like I knew what I was doing and wasn't obviously just taking snaps or something; at one point the police herded me in with the other "real" photographers to a press conference. I would lie or kneel down in the road to get a shot, or -- as with this one -- walk right up the the police lines and crouch down and take a few quick shots looking up at the police. The news photographers from the Chron and the Trib basically took shots looking the other way (at the protestors) or of the rioters (who I never saw, at least when I had a camera with me); with a few exceptions I may show later, I didn't get to take shots from behind the police lines (even though the police always let me do so, often quite cheerfully). I had the advantage of being a local, with intimate knowledge of the streets and shops in the area.
This image was grabbed Saturday morning after a night of riots and during a lull in the protests, just before yet another round of rubber- and wooden-bullets were fired at the protestors (myself included). Everything surrounding this time was unstable -- due to deliberate police tactics, we never knew which part of the street would suddenly be declared off-limits (and thus make you liable for arrest for being there, regardless of the fact that you might actually just be trying to get home), and the police were at that time over-reacting to almost any provocation, unintentional or not.
There's a lot I like formally about this image, never mind the emotional or cultural associations: the overall dark black-and-white tone suits the atmosphere perfectly (and, in fact, it was one of those low-overcast glarey days so common during a Berkeley non-winter); the way the perspective emphasises the way the police are rearing backwards; the particular moment caught when they're almost surrounded by the (unseen) protestors and are looking in each direction to see what's happening next; the reflections on the visors obscuring the faces; the V-sign over the shoulder of the nearest policeman; the unruly little tuft of hair escaping from under the helmet of the woman in the middle; the neat cursive script of the "Young" on the policeman's uniform; the way they're gripping the very phallic batton handles; the cheap plastic ballpoint pen in the CHP officer's top pocket; the different textures of the uniforms; how small the woman police officer seems; and, basically, how human they and the situation really are under all the uniforms and equipment.
But for me it also works to evoke the feelings of what we came to call The Occupation -- what it's like to have an utterly faceless and somewhat unstable (and destabilising) police presence in your neighbourhood for a week or so, always asking you where you're going, who you are, why you want to walk down your own street, or telling you that for some unkown (or just completely arbitrary) reason you can't return to your friend's place just yet. And what it's like to have to answer to a bunch of anonymous out-of-town police who basically know nothing
about your neighbourhood except what they've seen on TV or read in the morning's papers, or (as is inevitable with Berkeley) what they "know" about Berkeley's image. One of the (out-of-town) police chiefs involved in putting down the riots and protests commented that the protestors were "faceless out-of-towners" "hiding behind the mask of civil rights". The irony...
And what were the riots and demonstrations all about? On the face of it, some volleyball courts being built in a ratty little park off Telegraph for UC Berkeley students. But there was more to it than that...
The Mariachi band
I finally knew I'd never be a real
photographer when I heard a Mariachi band start playing at a wedding across the road at St Joey's The Worker church in Berkeley, and I just couldn't bring myself to take any photos. It was a dozen years ago now, but I remember just soaking in the busy familiar sound, the sheer delight on the kids' faces, the enthusiasm, the riots of colour and movement, the whole event
. I failed as a photographer -- I couldn't spoil it by capturing the moment rather than just (!) experiencing it. A fatal failure in anyone who aspires to be a Photographer rather than a dabbler...
(Sydney, 2000. Image Copyright 2001 Hamish Reid).
A boring day at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney. Or rather, a day of (mostly) mildly-boring art; the people were good. A friend of mine was working for the Gallery somewhere deep in the building's catacombs at that time, and took an hour or two off work to join me and another friend for lunch in the Gallery's restaurant (on the house, of course). I took a lot of snapshots with my DC290 that day; this is the only one I really saw
in a serious way. After a good bottle of wine and a very good lunch, there it was -- the artiest damn thing I'd seen all day. I swear I've done virtually nothing to this image except a little cropping -- the glow was there in real life -- and it's remained in my mind (and on my wall) as just another bit of industrial domestica. And that's all there really is to say about it.
(2002(ish), Berkeley, CA; image Copyright 2003 Hamish Reid)
A reworking of the old cliche about bodies and landscapes... (bodies are
landscapes, just more intimately surreal than the ones Out There).
This is how I
remember it: K. came over to my Berkeley studio to get some publicity images for her dancing career. She barely knew me at the time. She had strong opinions about what would make a good photo, and of the sort of thing she wanted. I had a more mixed idea of what I wanted, a more complex and less articulate set of motivations, based mostly on the strange unusual beauty of her face, her body, her clothes, and her jewelry -- her image
, which she changes completely over time while never being anyone but K. -- and a more generic wish to keep my little Body Surrealisms series going.
The session produced a riot of images, both intended and accidental. But K. didn't much enjoy it at the time (and even now she's not particularly enthusiastic about the images I've made of her or with her) -- she typically wanted direction from me, she wanted to be told how to look, she wanted to know what the final image would look like and why I was taking this or that shot. Me, I didn't want her to be a fashion horse or strutting model, I wanted to let herself show over time, I wanted a set of images that would surprise me later, images that would be about her and her strange beauty, and the surrealism inherent in the familiar, and not so much about her dancing. I think she (reasonably) saw the session as just another step in getting some publicity prints; but for me the session and the images it produced were the beginning of a process that's still going on.
So by the time I took this shot she was tired, and getting a little impatient at my vagueness. As we finished up, K. asked what I would do with all the images I'd taken that evening. I had to say I didn't really know, which was true, but the question irritated me (and my typically vague answer really annoyed her) -- I rarely know what I'll do with an image when I'm taking it. I just see things, record them, then often see them differently later. I'm always restless with images, I revisit them again and again -- I used to rework them obsessively in the darkroom, now I just use Photoshop. I have literally tens of thousands of uncatalogued images that I might (or might not) do something with -- see something in -- some day. Or not.
The straight version of the basic image didn't make a big impression on me when I took it, and while it made the final cut for printing straight (as a black and white), it wasn't what I was looking for out of the session. Plenty of other images were, and I concentrated on them. But a few months later I realised I wanted to juxtapose K.'s body and wariness in this image with another landscape that would be equally unfamiliar to most people, a harsh landscape that was mostly about straight lines and colour. The original shot of K. was a low contrast colour image (done with a little D100 and studio strobes), but I felt for the final image it needed to be black and white, and high contrast. I knew I wanted a strong blue cast in the overall image -- I have this thing
about colouring bodies blue, mostly, I think, because it's pure abstraction. There really aren't any naturally blue human skins out there, and the blueness draws a little of the natural strangeness of human bodies out, it makes it harder to see the familiar as familiar.
So I played around with Photoshop's layer modes and opacity controls and a bunch of likely blue sky landscapes beneath the original. It didn't take long to come up with the final image...
You can see a version of the original Saline Valley
image on my old Pandemonia site. For me it's a familiar landscape, very evocative of the heat and quiet of Saline Valley, of the beautiful harsh Californian desert light I like to surround myself in sometimes.
As for the final image, nearly everyone thinks it was a projected setup that I took the way you see it, which surprises me (I just wouldn't have the wit to do it that way, and the results would have been quite different). Everyone comments on the "cross" and asks about its significance: the only significance for me was the angularity and colour of the underlying poles, and how they contrasted so well with K.'s smooth surfaces and curves. The image is now part of a growing series of layered images that may turn up here sometime. But as always, it's hard for me to look at it and not think of the way it all unfolded, and the strong reality of K. in person (which inhabits this image for me), and of the collision of the memories of Saline Valley and Berkeley.
This is still my favourite image from that session. Even K. rather likes it, which is a victory of sorts, I guess.
(Y. asked me what motivated my photos, but I can't articulate that -- it's not motivation, it’s compulsion
(on a banal scale, for sure); I can't stop myself from doing it, even when nobody notices... and the word "communication" doesn't come in to it at all).
(2002, North Berkeley; image Copyright Hamish Reid)
I wanted to do this shot for a long time. I tried it once
with Xiola, but we were too nervous with each other at that time to get what I really wanted, and I left it alone for a few more years.
The photo itself was done at the end of a long session in my (then) North Berkeley studio, and, unlike the majority of the session's shots, was done with my little 3MP Kodak DC290 snapshot camera, with some studio strobes sync'd in. This was one of those shots that as soon as I'd taken it I knew would work (I think it's one of the two or three really good shots from that evening). It's one of the very few photos I've ever staged (as opposed to just let happen). I knew exactly
what I wanted with it: the contrast between the unfamiliar rough, scarred, incomplete and discoloured mannequin, and those other smooth familiar surfaces (the fact that in this case the colours matched was a bonus). But I also wanted to let it suggest something about emotional intimacy, distance, and dependence (as Y., the woman in the image, once said about it later, "that could be half my relationships..."). Frankly, though, it was mostly an exercise in the erotics of texture and surface, all shape, implication, and suggestion -- an abstraction, an image that could stand on its own without the emotional baggage or story (I didn't want it to be too
telegraphic or hectoring).
But it's hard for me to look at this image objectively, abstractly, to see it as a bunch of shapes and surfaces, to ignore the history behind it or the women involved (both directly and indirectly), or to talk about the tangle at the heart of this image.
A photographer friend of mine, Maggie Miller, gave me the mannequin more than a dozen years ago as a jokey birthday present, and I've been entranced by it and what I could do with it photographically ever since (she'd found it in a local garbage dump; it comes with a very ... odd
... head that also sits in my studio). The mannequin's been with me continuously all this time, usually propping up one of the walls of my studio or acting as a lightstand. But Mag moved away a year or so later -- to Atlanta -- and disappeared without trace, leaving me wondering....
Xiola also moved away, across the country and back, and settled in a place I tend to think of as like Portland (Oregon) without the charm (or the rivers), or Sacramento with bricks and tornadoes. The last time I saw her she was as unsettled as ever, and seemed to be wasting away into the vast backgrounds of that city (a place that could be any one of several dozen American cities, I suspect). But she's smart and creative (she could just as easily have done the shot herself), and the image still has her in it in some strong way for me.
I'd known Y. for a year or two when I took this shot. We wanted to collaborate on some images for her, and she came up from the great Southlands to do the studio session. Towards the end of the session she saw the original Xiola image on the wall, and asked about it. I said I'd been disappointed with the results for the obvious reason; Y. took a close look at it, and ten minutes later she'd done the retake (and a few others that'll eventually emerge here, I guess). Like me, she just knew
what it needed. We've done a lot more over the years.
My photography is mostly driven by little obsessions with particular themes or things -- the abstract shapes of domestic items, for example, or the found surrealisms of everyday life. If I had a single obsession it'd be the monomaniacally egotistical urge to show people how strange the familiar is, how much everyday life involves the surreal, how odd the little banalities of life can be. But mostly I do it because the world Out There is stranger than fiction, and I've got a burning desire to show this to people (Yes, I know, it's the old middle-class-white-boy-bourgeois-naif-hits-brutal-reality-and-treats-it-as-an-aesthetic-experience syndrome, but it's worked so far). And besides, photography provides the sort of instant gratification that writing doesn't. And it's a hell of a lot easier than either music or painting.