Jul 21, 2011

Rumbles In The Barnyard

When WNYC announced the removal of Ai Wei Wei's Zodiac Heads at the Pulitzer Fountain recently, a wave of shock went through me. Was it government-related? Part of some nefarious plot? No, it turns out the time of the Heads was up and they were off to their next destination in Los Angeles.

All good things, it seems, must come to an end, and sometimes those endings aren't as dramatic as we initially believe them to be.

A week tomorrow, I'm going to be returning to Toronto. The reasons are, I suppose, somewhat dramatic; I've a family member undergoing a third round of chemotherapy, and I've been unable to secure reliable, paid, full-time employment here in New York. Much as it's horribly depressing in the most theatrical way, it is also hugely, soothingly logical. Emotionally, I'm pulled between falling into a huge vat of overheated self-pity and rising above it all in the cold, clear knowledge that this could very well be the sort of vision-over-visibility issue I've been rattling on about for a while now.

Consequentially, Ai Wei Wei's Zodiac Heads have been on my mind a lot. The first time I saw them was entirely intentional, while the second time I had an appointment locally, and the third was totally by accident. Each time, I observed the people there, laughing, posing for photos, snapping away blithely unaware of the plight of the artist behind the dead-eyed sculptures.

Each head represented an animal in the Chinese zodiac, and seemed to be innocuously bland and possibly, to quote an artsy acquaintance, too blatantly, inoffensively commercial to be rendered artistically interesting. But, in my mind, the placement of the heads said a lot about them, and one's reaction to them. Sometimes the context in which an artwork is placed is nearly- or just as -important as the work itself, and in this, Zodiac Heads was certainly no exception.

The Pulitzer Fountain isn't that hard to find -if you know where the Plaza Hotel is. And the world-famous Plaza isn't hard to find if you know where Fifth Avenue is -that mecca of retail exuberance and commercial worship, that temple to spending and decadence. Emerge from the swirling heat of the New York City subway and you're confronted with high-end (or wannabe-high-end) stores, tottering divas, ogling tourists, fast-walking assistants, immaculately-suited business men, and over-make-up'd teenagers. Ai Wei Wei's Zodiac Heads was situated at the end of this zoo of humanity, where Central Park starts.

Far from being a simple "retail bad/art good" dialectic, Ai's work has a whimsical, laughing quality that lives in perfect harmony with its darker undertones. There's a hollow stare to these animals and their coy expressions; the pig head that was nearest to the Plaza has an eerie grin, while the rabbit head was benign if air-headed, and the strong ox looked dazed and overwhelmed.

Zodiac Heads' proximity to the retail mecca of Fifth Avenue underlined the transactional nature of the art world, as well as its paradoxically community-building ethos. People who posed with the Heads may not have know who Ai Wei Wei is, but they certainly had fun with the heads - picking out their own animal, or, failing to know that, their own personal favorites. Acting as counterpoint to all this personalizing, the political (not to mention their historical context) can't be overlooked. China's economic relationship with the United States gains particular heft in such a commercial environment where transactions -whether in clothing or real estate -are a microcosm of not only trading relationships but of supply, demand, and ideas around credit and... owing.

To what do we owe Ai Wei Wei then? Or the Chinese government for freeing him? Anything? Ai Wei Wei's recent release made me re-consider my own position as an artist -here in New York, and indeed, back in Canada. What is the definition of "home"? Where do we find ourselves, truly? To whom do we "owe" our freedom? I wonder how Ai's creativity has been shaped by his captivity in his homeland and how much he's been able to balance his need for freedom artistically with the rules around his release. When and if he figures it out, I'm sure the results will be spectacular.

Until then, I'll keep thinking about his Zodiac Heads. Sure, we're free to figure out "sign," but it remains to be seen whether that's a sign in and of itself, or signifying larger connections and relationships, seen and unseen, real and unreal, factual or mythologized -and the nature of those transactions, their value in our lives, the payment they demand, and the freedom they do and don't grant us. Does it matter? Should it? Some things are choice, others things are necessity; how we negotiate what's in the middle is what makes us better artists -and human beings. Yes, we have an "animal" side, a side that wants glamour without the payback, fabulous without the bill, excitement without anxiety, success without responsibility. But remembering Zodiac Heads, I want to believe in more, in that ever-changing art of the possible. Now, it's up to me to me to live it, and figure out my place in the stars -and here, in the barnyard of earth.

Photos taken from my Flickr photostream (lots more Zodiac Heads there!) ...

Jul 12, 2011

Louder Click

Photography has always been a great love of mine. I stood on O'Connell Street bridge years ago, with friends holding each ankle,trying to capture a rapidly-setting smudge of sun over the spires of a dull, charcoal-sketched Dublin. I loved walking around with my old SLR Minolta snapping bits of graffiti, odd sights, small moments and cherished ephemera.

The camera was put away at music gigs. The dance of sound, motion, and drama made that beloved piece of equipment feel like a demanding, distracting, high-maintenance lover I didn't want to deal with. Even with the advent of digital photography, my non-photography stance at concerts remained resolute. I'm just not one of those people who pulls out the camera (or phone) to snap away when a favorite performer takes to the stage - I prefer to absorb the magic of the moment directly, taking a mental photo of that time, not just sights but smells, sounds, the pressing of excitable people and the slow-fast shuffle of feet.

Aaron Richter, however, is another breed. An accomplished music and fashion photographer as well as the art director for music magazine Self-Titled, his work is at once universal and yet very intimate and personal. It has an immediacy and vibrancy that points to a deep appreciation of both music and the modern, urban culture from whence it springs. Aaron's work is being showcased at the W Hotel Times Square now through August 12th.

I had the privilege of exchanging ideas about music and photography -and the strong connections therein -with Aaron. His answers are sure to delight both photo and music enthusiasts.

How did you first get interested in photography?

I first started taking photos as a kid, doing B&W stuff in darkrooms, and, from probably senior year of high school till about two and a half years ago (I'm 27 now), I didn't really take photos at all. I just sorta stopped for some reason and started focusing on being a writer instead. I moved to New York after college to be a writer and editor for magazines, and that's what I did for about three years.

I started a magazine called MusicMusicMusic with friends and it was real cool. We only did one issue. But the model Erin Wasson was dancing to LCD Soundsystem on our cover in a photo shot by Kenneth Cappello. I also worked full time at a magazine called GIANT that had an incredible art department: iconic creative and art directors and amazing photographers—both well-established (like Ellen Von Unwerth) and up-and-coming (like Ruvan, Miko Lim and Cameron Krone)—shooting for us. I fell in love with that part of the job, and after I got laid off, as everyone working in magazines eventually does, I spent my severance on a camera and have been taking pictures ever since.

How does your work at Self-Titled influence your visual output?

Since I was young I've always sorta thought musicians were the coolest people in the world. And I think a lot of what gets lost in the over-blogged coverage of music these days is any sense of the artists behind the music being legitimately cool anymore—at least a sense of cool that's actually captured and conveyed through the coverage, if that makes sense.

We know so much about musicians now because there's more and more demand for more content and more interviews and more analysis of the music, so there's less mystery, or maybe less intrigue, which makes it seem like you know all your favorite musicians all too well. Imagine if Kurt Cobain had to give a million blog interviews every week and had a Twitter account? We'd have probably all thought he was just a total dickhead, albeit one who wrote incredible songs.

So a lot of what I try to do with Self-Titled is present musicians in a manner that takes back that sort of cool exclusivity, unattainable yet aspirational—this very unarguable, visceral and immediate visual sense of "Wow, fuck! that's cool!" Whether we achieve that from issue to issue, I dunno (it's tough). But as far as my photography is concerned, that desire to make musicians look cool (whatever that means might change from band to band) is always my top concern. To a large extent, I miss that element of music, so I've take it as my job, both as an art director and a photographer, to bring it back as much as possible.

Who are you favorite photographers?

Cass Bird, Ellen Von Unwerth, Tim Barber, Guy Aroch, Ruvan.

How much is a relationship with your subjects important to you? I especially like your shots of Bootsy Collins & Kareem Abdul Jabbar at Bonnaroo.

Every photographer will tell you this is one of the most important elements to a good shoot. It just makes sense. If a subject feels comfortable around you, your photos will be better. My Bonnaroo photos are a weird example here. Most of the work we did in Tennessee for the festival was done very quickly and within a five-minute block of time while an artist was en route to another obligation or about to head onstage. Getting subjects comfortable was something that had to happen almost instantaneously.

You mention Bootsy Collins and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Both were instances in which I really didn't get a chance to develop any sort of relationship with the subjects at all. Bootsy was great because we met up and he was immediately just a total ham for the camera. Kareem was tough. He's notoriously a tough subject. He really didn't even acknowledge me at all while I was shooting. And I sort of felt like a paparazzi stealing photos that weren't mine. I actually connected with him pretty well only after we stopped shooting. I noticed he was carrying a book about chess and asked him if he played, and he loosened up considerably once he was able to start talking about something he loves.

As far as the rest of my Bonnaroo photos are concerned, two of my favorite series of images are with Smith Westerns and Alexis from Sleigh Bells. The guys in Smith Westerns were very welcoming to me coming into their space and hanging out with them while they got ready to play live, and they let me come up on the stage during their set to shoot. They're very comfortable in front of the camera and are generally just sort of adorable. Alexis from Sleigh Bells I've known for about two years.

I shot Sleigh Bells' first press photos but haven't really seen either Alexis or Derek from the band since then, though we've kept in touch. At Bonnaroo, meeting up was sort of like a little reunion and I got to spend a longer bit of time (maybe 30 minutes) with her backstage. There was no need for any, "Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Aaron. This is what I'd like to do..." and we were kind of just able to casually catch up, with me every once in a while taking a photo, before I had to head out for my next photo obligation that night.

What do you think of the resurgence of interest in celluloid photography?

It's great that people love shooting on film. Whatever you feel most comfortable with taking photos is awesome. I shoot pretty much entirely digital--probably 90 percent. And I prefer it.

Film is fun, and not having the back of a camera to look at to check to see if the photos are turning out is an incredibly liberating limitation that does wonders for enhancing the mood of a shoot. But with film, I usually prefer point-and-shoot, and in general, I tend to concentrate too much on and get obsessed with imperfections in the resulting photos to let myself be OK with an out-of-focus or weirdly lit photo the way a photographer like Cass Bird can. One of my friends, Bryan Sheffield, has made the shift to shooting film almost exclusively, and his portfolio has just exploded with incredible work since then.

Another photographer I hire for work in self-titled is Caroline Mort, who shoots a very unstudied amateurish style of photography, quite often with disposables, that has such incredible heart and emotion to it. Pretty much every issue, my favorite photo is one of her shots. Again, I've always felt that film, especially the way I've been able to approach it since my darkroom days and compared to shooting whatever-mega-megapixels of a digital camera, is somewhat of an imprecise medium, and there's this awesome charm to a photographer being OK with and having confidence in an image's imperfections. Cass Bird is probably the best at this. Her Urban Outfitters catalogs lately and her T magazine stories... incredible.

Who would you like to photograph that you haven't yet? Why?

Elle Fanning. My goal for 2012 is to become best friends with her. So my thinking is that if I somehow get to photograph her, I can spark our long friendship and then we can hang out all the time and watch Netflix and eat pizza and stuff. That's not weird, right?

Chris Owens, from the band Girls. He's seems legitimately genuine and honest, and he's easily one of the best songwriters we have. All I'm asking for is a week crashing on his couch to follow him around and take photos. Also, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. The epitome of rock-and-roll cool to me and kind of totally a mystery.

All photographs © Aaron Richter.

Jul 10, 2011

To Be Able

I love this video. And I love this song.



Gavin Friday's last album was Shag Tobacco, from 1995. It was sexy and scintillating, but it was equally thought-provoking and deeply soul-searching. Gavin Friday has always been a favorite artist of mine for his ability to balance these elements, and to merrily juggle the clever, the absurd, the arch and the painfully personal. His latest is catholic, available through his website and iTunes.

Being the sensualist I am, I want to go and get a physical copy. There's something about the direct, tangible nature of the experience -finding a music store (no mean feat in this digital age), coming upon the album, paying, opening the packaging, leafing through the booklet as the CD plays. It's all so old-fashioned, from another era, but outside of concert-going, it's how I enjoy the artistry of music-making most.

And it feels right for an artist like Gavin Friday. The Irish-born singer/songwriter/painter/actor excels at integrating sounds of the past and present into something both classic and futuristic, with a heavy nod toward exploring the sensual aspects of life:

She's upstairs, I'm downstairs,
Drinking coffee in the kitchen
Spoon in the sugar, knife in the butter... I want you.
Do you love me? Say you do.

I'd like to see you undress...

The first single from catholic is called "Able." With its thought-provoking lyrics and stirring electronic swirl driven by heavy beats and Gavin's beautifully low voice rumbling throughout like a sort of world-weary anchor, it's the the sort of grown-up pop that keeps me awake at night, writing and drawing and thinking and returning to volumes of poetry I haven't read in ages. What with the attempts lately to balance practicality, sensuality, desire, want and progress in my life, "Able"is the right song (and video, directed by Kevin Godley), at the right time.

I wanna be able
to hold my own
to breathe without drowning
to find a home.
I want you to love me
don’t want you to lie.


Excelsior, Gavin. It's been too long. Next stop, Manhattan, please.



Jul 6, 2011

It Happens

Today marks the 104th birthday of Frida Kahlo.

I've expressed my love and admiration for her work in past posts. But lately I feel a particular kinship with this most incredible of painters. She was many things through her short 47 years: wife, artist, daughter, sister, rebel, political figure. She was a supremely feminine figure as she reveled in masculine archetypes, and played with gender roles, power roles, expectations of what and how a woman "should" look and express herself, and always, always, she seemed driven by love: of craft, of country, of ideals and desires and of joining the utterly ethereal with the deeply earthy.

She was a victim of ill circumstance, health problems and outright tragedy... but she was never, ever a victim. Her paintings are so alive with her life, her experiences, her... Frida-ness, they draw you into their present moment, drowning you in a gorgeous rush of blues and greens and reds and always, always black.

I thought about Kahlo and her fierce spirit recently. A few weeks ago I had my cell phone stolen. It was taken stealthily, right out of my bag. As is to be expected, I felt stupid, angry, and violated. It was the start of me looking at New York in a different way. I've been coming here for years, reveling in its culture and creative spirit; I've never once been the victim of a crime. Why now? Why did it coincide with my three-month anniversary here? What was the universe trying to tell me? As I kept telling people online and in-person, that phone (which I got my first week living here) contained over 3,000 photographs, a visual diary for all of my experiences. Maybe it was time for the gritty sheen of the city to fade; maybe it was time to wipe the ego-driven slate clean. Maybe it was time to return to Toronto.

As I looked out over the green carpet of Central Park this past July 4th (my first in the Big Apple), two thoughts came to mind: I want to drink champagne up here, and, I want to paint up here (also: why can't I do both?). The roars to resume painting again are growing louder, and I'm not sure what to do. All my equipment's back in Canada. Artists have relationships with the tools of their craft, and you can't simply go and use someone else's and have everything be just fine. It may be a kind offer, but it's like giving me a size 0 dress and expecting me to be comfortable. Since my phone's been stolen, the howls to get back to using my own tools have been more shrill than ever. I come to understand my experiences through both words, and, I've discovered, images. The act of expressing them, moment to moment - whether photographically or with paint -is what matters, not the finished product.

So the shapes, faces, moments, all the "you would"s and the street art - all the stuff I lost and can't leave behind - isn't what brings comfort at the end of the day. "They're just passing fancies... and in time may go..." This sense of living squarely in the moment (is it something akin to love?) has most keenly been experienced via culture for me -in a theater, through hearing music, seeing film, staring at art -those things that have an alive "present"-ness within them. One gives so much to art, and one gets back so much in return. Not so people; sometimes people simply take, whether figuratively, or, in the case of my long-gone phone, literally. Why cry over the past? Why cling? Seems like a recipe for terrible art, if not a terrible life.

And so, I thought of Frida: a victim of a awful circumstance, but not a victim. Horrible things happen, period. Lately it feels as if they've been happening to me more often than not, but there's always tiny stars of goodness to balance it out: invites to the ballet or the theater, or the gallery or museum are always met with a sense of jubilation and glee. They feel like home - a new home, an old home. This home, NYC.

New York,
you're a drag, a dig, a drab bitch of skulduggery
and wait-for-no-one, can-do, keep-up perversity.
You're ragged, you're filth,
you're falling apart and put back together in gilded thread for the billionaires in the black SUVs. You're thunder, lightning, sunshine, wind and rain.
I think I'll weather you just a bit longer.

Now, if only I had my paint brushes and easel, and access to that beautiful view all the time.