Sunday, March 6, 2011

Photography: Jim O'Connell, Surly Bastard

Jim O'Connell, a photographer now based in his hometown of Williamsport, PA, spent the previous decade living in Tokyo, Japan. His photographs have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and other publications.

me
Surly Bastard
self-portrait, Jim O'Connell
That's the official story. In 1988,when I met Jim, aka Surly Bastard, (currently his favorite moniker, as well as the name of his website), he was about to quit an office job to work as a bike messenger, and appeared to exist exclusively on Camel cigarettes and vast quantities of a fairly awful mash of potatoes and onions. Over the decades that I've known him, he's experimented with line drawing, piano and guitar compositions, jewelry making, extensive blogging when the world wide web when was young and nubile (think 1995 when blogs were just web pages), fiction, memoir, on-stage story telling, and mastering culinary treats well beyond that potato mash.  Weaving through and bleeding into his artistic leanings lives his love of technology and gadgetry, from rewiring found stereos to computer programming (which led to working at Six Apart when it was start-up).  He speaks Linux and mac. Recently, he picked up a paintbrush, curious as always.

When he threw himself in photography in Tokyo, he did so with his characteristic blown-open throttle, so I can't say I was surprised to find his photos in the The New York Times not all that long later. His intense focus sponges up information and puts his own unique spin on it, crunching on the bones, spitting out splinters, blood and beauty. His work often zeros in on innocence seen in unlikely places and simple moments made central to a larger stories, stark at times, almost painfully idealistic at others. His sensibility is romantic, deeply intuitive and, despite his surliness, deeply kind. In other words, his work reflects his character.

Given all that, I was immensely pleased he agreed to answer my questions on photography and allow me to display some of his work on Artful Mistakes.

And now, Jim talking about photography. For those that are paying close attention, you may notice similarities to the questions I asked Christine Tomaszewski, Satirenoir, which provides a layered discussion of the way photography and personality intermingle, a conversation I hope to continue. 

Sweeten the deal, seal the deal
Sweeten the deal, seal the deal
Jim O'Connell
Cyn: Why photography? What was your initial draw and what continues to pull you in?

Jim O'Connell: In junior high school, I was offered a choice in advanced-placement workshops: Calculus (or some other useless math thing, forget…) or photography. I chose the latter. The problem was, I didn't have a camera, so one of the advisors to the program offered to loan me his. I imagined that I'd be getting some sort of "cool" professional camera that was black with a motor drive and a lens as long as my arm. To my dismay, it was this little silver thing (uncool) in a brown leather case (more uncool) with a stubby little lens (unthinkably uncool). Despite these obvious flaws, it did seem to take pretty good pictures. It was a Leica. Years later, I spent a small fortune on almost the same camera.

Hitomi
Hitomi
Jim O'Connell
C: Who are some of your favorite photographers? What captures you in their work?

J: I respond much more to individual photographs than certain photographers, but I really get jazzed when I catch a glimpse of a photo I haven't seen, but know instantly who took it—that level of mastery is rare and refreshing. The subject is almost irrelevant. What I look for is some kind of unspoken communication between me and the photographer; if I feel that I know what he or she was thinking, what they were trying to communicate, *and* that that thing they are trying to say is worth hearing, I'm going to love the photograph. Too often though, people only shoot a few of these in their career.


Old Bike, Beijing Hutongs
Old Bike, Beijing Hutongs
Jim O'Connell
C: What are the commonalities in photographs you love (yours or others)?

J: I try not to be influenced by other people's work and don't look at it much for inspiration. The exception is a site called Them Thangs which is an aggregation of really great images picked from all over the web without the constraints of little things like getting the rights holder's permission. It's a brilliant collection of images, one after another, usually with no attribution, something I would normally be opposed to, except this works on a transcendent level.

Koreatown, 3:00 AM
Koreatown, 3:00 AM
Jim O'Connell

img894
img894
Jim O'Connell
C: What do you look for when assessing photography quality?

J: Does the photo grab you and not let go? Can you remember it a day later? A year later? Does it haunt your dreams and shape your view of the world?

C: Have to ask it: digital v. film. Advantages, disadvantages, snob factor?

J: I was a huge film snob for a long time. I shot most of my work on black and white film that I rolled myself and processed myself. I used old cameras, Nikon F, Mamiya Press, Bronica, cameras that were state of the art around the year I was born.

Shooting to meet deadlines changed that for me. There were times I would get an assignment in Tokyo in the morning, shoot it that day and be expected to have it edited, captioned and filed in New York before the editor finished her morning coffee. Pretty impractical if you're shooting film. There's one or two people who shoot for the NYT using Leicas and B&W film, but certainly not grunts like me.

The thing is, I didn't resist the switch to digital. When the cameras got good enough, there really ceased to be much difference. If the subject dictated that the final image be shot on a grainy black and white film, I can produce those qualities in digital. The bulk of my work lately is like this. The difference with shooting digital in uncompressed RAW format is that you have the option to change your mind later. I've had occasions where I set out to shoot black and white with my digital, make all of the settings on the camera and computer so I never see the image in color, but while I'm editing, find an image that I'm glad to be able to have in color. If that was film, I would have limited myself unnecessarily.

In the end, though, a strong image is a strong image and will look good even if you run it through a Xerox machine.

C: Does equipment matter? Why or why not? Any favorite cameras, films, software, printing papers, lenses, filters?

J: Lenses matter far more than camera bodies. My standard camera these days is a Canon 5D Mk II with a 50mm f:1.2 lens. Good stuff for sure, but given any camera, I feel confident I could make competent images.

C: What is your relationship with the editing process (Photoshop, cropping, printing)? Do you view it as corrective, exploratory, both or otherwise?

J: It's probably eighty percent of good photography.

Whistle a little tune, say Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik". In that little whistle, you can get the gist of the piece, but if you're the composer, there's a million different ways you can take that tune and turn it into a memorable piece.

In photo editing, each photo in a body of work should work with the other photos to express an overall idea. They don't all have to follow some rule, but there should be a certain intention to how they are presented.

As for individual pictures, editing will make or break a photo. Henri Cartier Bresson used to delight in showing the whole frame of the photo, even filing down the negative carriers he held the film with in his enlarger, so you could see that he used the whole frame. Personally, I have no problem with cropping, repositioning, whatever I need to do to have only the elements that matter appear in my photos.

As for color, people react to it so subjectively and strongly, even without realizing it, that you can't not work with your colors to bring out what you feel. Black and white is perhaps the most extreme example, but it just works. In other cases, you might bump up a color almost imperceptibly or draw down a range of hues to make the photo look like the image you had in your head. You can do this by choosing a type of film or processing or do it on the computer.

Either method is equally valid in my book.


clouds
Clouds
Jim O'Connell

Ginza
Ginza
Jim O'Connell

my avocado plants
My Avocado Plants
Jim O'Connell


Dance
Dance
Jim O'Connell
C: What are some obsessions in your work? I've noticed portraits, obviously, and the strippers, black and white, atmospheric vaguely 50s or timeless blur. Do you look for particular content, scenes, shapes, colors, or wander into what captures your imagination?

J: I've never set out to be a nostalgist, but some would put that label on me, because I used old cameras and films. When I was using the old cameras, I was using them because they were better than the digital gear I had. When I started the nighttime project in the red light district, film was far more forgiving of bad exposure, so I used that. Flashbulbs (the single use kind from the 1950's) are still brighter than any portable electronic flashes so I used those. That lent a certain quality to the images that people either liked or felt was contrived. If I was to start that project again today, the gear is different and I would use digital and the subtle effects would be different. Still, the things that I cared about then wouldn't change.

As for obsessions, I simply adore the female form. I was given a unique opportunity to work with the dancers and strippers on Tokyo, granted almost impossible access to them to the point where I was welcome both in their dressing rooms and even on stage with them while they performed. A chance like that can't be squandered.

caduceusloft0794
Caduceus Loft 0794
Jim O'Connell

Img23043
Img23043
Jim O'Connell

Dancer
Dancer
Jim O'Connell

Untitled
Jim O'Connell

In portraiture, I like to get close and invade someone's personal space to help them drop their personal preconceptions about how they should appear and even what they look like. When you can do that well, you get a peek behind their mask, some kind of rare honesty that gets me really jazzed.

Makoto-chan-4
Makoto-chan-4
Jim O'Connell

Makoto-chan-3
Makoto-chan-3
Jim O'Connell
Kabukicho, the red light district, was a bit of a long departure for me. When I first happened upon the place, it felt to me the same as when I used to go to New York in the early eighties—it was dark and grimy and infused with a feeling of sexuality and danger. I realized that first night that I could never shoot Times Square or 42nd Street like that again, so here was a second chance. One day, Kabukicho will be cleaned up too, but I'll have a good document of what it felt like to me at the time.

img807
Img807
Jim O'Connell

img802
Img802
Jim O'Connell
When I'm completely burnt out, I force myself to shoot an arbitrary subject when I see it. To get through the last really bad slump, I vowed to shoot certain subjects every time I encountered them: puppies and transvestites.

Ginza
Ginza
Jim O'Connell

skirtguy
Skirtguy
Jim O'Connell
C: How does motion play into photography? I mean this both in a technical sense - how do you catch the moment just the way you like - and more metaphorical, - how do you feel about the static aspects of photography versus, say, the fluidity of movies?

J: I rarely shoot actual motion, though I'm certainly capable of shooting it. I like implied motion, perhaps the sense that the subject has just arrived or is about to depart.

I feel like a lot of my stuff is straight-on and flat.

Girl on a Bike
Girl on a Bike
Jim O'Connell

We are all, at times, translucent
We are all, at times, translucent
Jim O'Connell

C: Shooting people - what are the challenges and rewards?

J: Like I said, I like to get close and find some understanding of that person. Taking a good photo of someone is sharing an intimate moment, like making love.

Laura
Laura
Jim O'Connell

A Praktika Girl
A Praktika Girl
Jim O'Connell
C: Best shooting story, success or failure?

J: One of my favorite photos was shot on an old twenty dollar Nikkormat (like a Nikon for students in the late 1960's) with a decent lens and the wrong film for the situation, grainy film that I used at night, primarily, but this day I happened to be at the beach in the daytime. The camera's viewfinder ring had fallen off that day, leaving the rough threads of the eyepiece exposed, which was scratching my rather thick glasses, so I took them off, leaving me rather blind. Still, I happened to notice a scene and shoot it mostly by instinct. I shot four frames of a grandfather and granddaughter jumping off a wall and they all were perfect. The one of the actual jump is perhaps the best thing I've ever shot.

Till glädje
Till glädje
Jim O'Connell
C: How do you feel photography fits into the larger world of visual arts?

J: There are visual arts beyond photography?? Do tell…

Actually I just did my first painting, which I quite liked, so tried another, which is an abomination. I can't draw and my (motion) film attempts have been overwrought and tiresome.

I really don't know much at all about the other visual arts.

C: What's the oddest thing about your approach to photography?

J: I never wear pants when I shoot.

Typical Shibuya Morning
Typical Shibuya Morning
Jim O'Connell
Truthfully, when I'm shooting, I become a total hippie, philosophically—I get superstitious and believe in things like the Muse and relying on the blessings of the deities in order to have my work matter.

In life, I'm much more pragmatic.

Nobody Loves Gutter Bear
Nobody Loves Gutter Bear
Jim O'Connell

Hang in there, Baby…
Hang in there, Baby
Jim O'Connell
C: How do prints compare to your experience reviewing photos on screen?

J: I hate prints.

I hate doing them and never know what to do with the ones I have. Even when I was shooting all film, I scanned the negatives and looked at them on screen.

If I make a print, maybe a hundred people will ever see it. If I put it online, thousands of people will see it.

That said, I used to get a real kick out of seeing my photos in the Times—it was like a game of abstraction where I'd go shoot 500 photos, edit them down to 25 and the editors would pick five or ten or one to use and stick on a page in the paper. Seeing it laid out like that with all of the text around it was always a fun experience, kind of like seeing a childhood friend who's become a cop or joined the army—here's your old friend, all done up in uniform…

Tokaien Hotel - 7
Tokaien Hotel - 7
Jim O'Connell
Joy of Color Film
Joy of Color Film
Jim O'Connell
C: The rule of thirds - do you follow it religiously? Do you have photos you love that break the this or other rules of photography?

J: There are lots of "rules" and you should study them all and be able to break them with brilliant intention.





The "Rule of Thirds", however, is a handy thing for any photographer to keep in mind, as reliable as a good tripod for improving your photography quickly.

Man reading magazine in a Tokyo convenience store
Man Reading Magazine, Tokyo Convenience Store
Jim O'Connell
C: On that note, how conscious are you of composition when shooting? When cropping and editing?

J: I once asked a large group of photographers which was their dominant eye and what "handedness" they were in an effort to understand composition. The answers were all over the place, but I came to realize that my subordinate eye was better at seeing composition, but looking through the camera with that eye just about requires an eye patch over the dominant eye. Cameras where both eyes can see the subject are just about ideal for me, be it a waist-level finder like a Hasselblad, or something like an iPhone. My right eye does all the arty stuff like composition and my left does all the dull stuff like checking the focus points and exposure.

In editing, I find I usually crop to 4x5 proportions. I don't know why, it's just more pleasing to my eye.

Ben behind the bar, just before 5:00 AM
Ben behind the bar, just before 5:00 AM
Jim O'Connell

Yasukuni
Yasukuni
Jim O'Connell
C: When you are in photo-mode, how does your view on the world change? For instance, when I'm out taking snapshots, I find I pay a great more attention to my surrroundings, but that I also tend to chop it up more, considering what fits in a viewfinder, so I experience the world more as detailed parts, rather than holistically.

J: When I'm really "on" I am in a different state of mind completely, but it's a precarious and difficult state to maintain. The best I can explain it is like when you are trying to view one of those "Magic Eye" photos at a mall gift shop, the kind that are a blur of static until you concentrate and suddenly you see a dolphin appear. If you get distracted, it all falls apart. Shooting can be like that where you keep that focus for shot after shot and when you're done, you're exhausted and fulfilled.

C: How does art and photography impact other aspects of your life?

J: My studio is in an artist's collective in an old factory in Central Pennsylvania [The Pajama Factory], so I'm blessed—I get to be around some really creative people at any hour of the day or night. This keeps my mind thinking about art for long periods of time.

Pajama Factory Studio Space-3
Pajama Factory Studio Space - 3
Jim O'Connell
C: Where do you see your work going next? Do you have experiments or projects in process? Do you have particular elements of craft you're looking to nail down?

J: Oh, I wish I knew. I wish I could get an assignment far away from everything I've ever seen so far and fill my camera with new and different things. Still, for now, I need to be here and I'm happy with it. I've even come to terms with putting the camera down for long periods without guilt.

C: [Create your own question and tell me what you want to say about photography]

J: The biggest lesson I've learned is this:

Look through your camera or at the screen or whatever.

If it looks good, push the button.

If it doesn't, don't push the button.

It may sound like I'm taking the piss, but that's really the most important thing to do to take good pictures.

Currently, Jim is working on a personal photo project focused on portraits. Check out http://www.surlybastard.org , http://www.mmdc.net and http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimoconnell to see more of his work. 

Nikon F
Nikon F
Jim O'Connell

9 comments:

  1. Great interview with a dear dear friend.
    Peppered with just the right amount of the patented O'Connell bullshit so you know it's really him ;-)
    He is sorely missed in Tokyo.

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  2. brian. most excellent sir
    i wish i could have hung out in tokyo
    sounds like a surly bestid

    thanks for sharing this !

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  3. Back in 2007, this Surly Bastard sent me his Yashica Electro from Tokyo. He got me into shooting, developing and rolling my own film.

    "If it looks good, push the button. If it doesn't, don't push the button." All you'll ever need.

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  4. my favorite, of course, = Skirtguy

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  5. @ uchujin, I may have to steal the phrase "patented O'Connell bullshit."

    @ photocorylum, Brian? I'm guessing you're thinking of Brian from Magnesium. (Artful Mistakes is written by me, Cynthia) Thanks for reading!

    @ nathalie, SB is a generous soul in many ways, and certainly adept at converting folks to art...glad he passed the photo bug on to you.

    @ gin, Knew you'd love skirtguy! Gutter bear tickles me. Wait, that sounds wrong.

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  6. Wow, this guy is so full of himself. I am not impressed. He is definitely not a photography god like this holds him up to be.

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  7. Anonymous, I suspect you may have missed some of Jim's humor (the "patented O'Connell bullshit" that uchujin referenced), but I'm just guessing. As for your take on his photography, well, all I'll say is art is subjective. Obviously, I like Jim's work, and I'm not alone in that. That doesn't mean you have to like it.

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  8. Anonymous - Just curious, what struck you as me being full of myself?
    I thought I was just being honest, nowhere claiming to be anything special.

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  9. I liked this interview, non-standard questions, even more non-standard answers;)

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