The PhotoBook

April 29, 2010

Kevin McCollister – East of West LA

Copyright Kevin McCollister, an ifpub book, courtesy the artist

Kevin McCollister is a poetic flaneur wandering the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles, with these visual poems assembled in his recent book East of West LA.

 In his Los Angeles walk-abouts, he subjects range from the many bridges, taco stands, hotels, buildings and details of architectural infrastructure to those who inhabit these same locations. He fares much better with the urban landscape than he does with his urban portraits.

 In the foreword by the publisher, Brooks Roddan, he writes; “It is the poet’s world then, the poet out walking – not one membrane separating the walker from the world he’s walking through – that McCollister lives in.”

 The city at dusk will eventually drift to a night-scape, becoming a surreal place. The few remaining lights create dark, haunting shadows with strange illuminated edges. These locations appear intimidating and scary, while yet still having an alluring feeling to them. McCollister appears to do his most aesthetically pleasing urban landscape work at dusk, with shapes and features looming out of the dim shadows. There is more of a playful and poetic combination of light and shadows during this brief period, which he appears to be the most comfortable with.

 Regretfully, his urban portraits are more than a weakness, as they border on being offensive. It is apparent that he is not connecting with most of his subjects, their eyes, facial features and stance portray a sense of intrusion and distrust. Almost as to say to us, “Why does this white guy want to photograph me??” It does not appear that any rapport has been created between the subject and the photographer. For me, what is made worse is when the subject is sitting on the ground and the photographer is standing over them, photographing downward from eye level, creating a strong sense of subjugating the (minority street-person) subject. These trophy portraits make me very uncomfortable.

 The book as a whole is as diverse as his subjects, running the gamut of black and white photographs, some with various amount of toning, and the color photographs range from saturated to desaturated to the point of becoming monochromatic. Most of the photographs appear unmanipulated while others show the effects of a Photoshop modification, such as of a slight Gaussian blur adjustment layer.

 My take is that this is a group of singular images around a general theme, specific to a place, nevertheless a confusing and odd mash-up.

 This small perfect bound book has stiff covers; the unvarnished pages are printed on a nice weight paper and reasonably priced. Strangely this book does not have a copyright indication or copyright date, nor information as to where the book was produced.

by Douglas Stockdale

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1 Comment »

  1. ” Regretfully, his urban portraits are more than a weakness, as they border on being offensive. It is apparent that he is not connecting with most of his subjects, their eyes, facial features and stance portray a sense of intrusion and distrust. Almost as to say to us, “Why does this white guy want to photograph me??” It does not appear that any rapport has been created between the subject and the photographer. For me, what is made worse is when the subject is sitting on the ground and the photographer is standing over them, photographing downward from eye level, creating a strong sense of subjugating the (minority street-person) subject. These trophy portraits make me very uncomfortable.”

    To say that a connection between photographer and subject is not apparent is one thing. To assume that the photographer is the one not doing the connecting is another thing entirely. I have no doubts that many of the people Kevin McCollister photographs are thinking precisely the thing you say. And I have no doubts that many of them do not trust him, that to at least some degree they feel intruded upon, and that these feelings are indeed deeply reflected in their faces. But to say that these things are caused by anything that the photographer does, or does not do, reflects an ignorance of what the lives of street people are actually like. These are not feelings which they have just for Kevin McCollister. These are not feelings which they have just for photographers. These are feelings which they have for all of humanity, even for eachother, and in many cases even for themselves. Yes, you can appease it temporarily by offering a few cigarettes or a couple dollars, but you can not simply remove these feelings as if they were leaves on your lawn, nor should you try. These feelings are just as much the subject of the photographs as the people who have them. Further, these are not normal portrait subjects. Mental illness is nearly universal in this population–there can be no deep, meaningful rapport as there might be for other street portrait subjects. But this is precisely why they make such great subjects in the first place…because despite all of these barriers obstructing efforts to connect with them, they are still very much human beings. Yes, for the viewer this causes discomfort, and it should! These are our fellow men and women, yet for various reasons our humanity is the only connective relationship which we can ever have with them. That should not only be discomforting, but stomach-churningly heartbreaking. Additionally, I personally take no issue whatsoever with the angle you call “subjugating”, as it appears to me to only be done when the mood of the photograph warrants it. And even that is not very often.

    I find that these portraits show us exactly what we would see if we didn’t avert our eyes when we walk by these people. Namely, that they are human. That is the connection…that they are like us, and that we are like them. Do I find that uncomfortable? Yes. But the only way in which these photographs could possibly be seen as offensive is by someone who does not see street people as humans. Someone who wants to keep them in the dark, behind averted eyes. Someone who would deny their very existence. McCollister’s subjects may not connect with him as well as you would like, but he certainly connects with them as well as anyone can. More importantly, he causes the viewers to connect with them admirably. And I would think that is entirely the point of making a portrait in the first place–to allow the viewer to connect with the subject in as real and honest a way as possible.

    Comment by Jonderson — May 9, 2010 @ 7:04 pm


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