Cross Country - Cynthia Connelly

Loud paper interviewed Cynthia Connelly, not because she takes pictures of punk bands, but because her postcards caught our eye in a bookshop in Oakland. They have deckled edges and look like motel cards from the 50s, but rather than showing tourist spots, they traces a magnified tour through the backroads of America. We bought them and sent them out to friends and later learned of Cynthia’s amazing images of American landscapes. We wanted to see her show in Seattle at Milky World gallery, but missed it. Instead, we talked to her about photography, space and why cars can be foxy.

L.P. What kind of camera do you shoot with?

C.C. Leica R5, about three different Olympus half frames and Polaroid land cameras. The 180 is what I use now. (It has a glass lens!)

Many of your images depict cross-country trips. Do you travel with bands for Dischord, are they personal trips or are they photo tours?

I have only traveled once for about five days with a band and that was with Fugazi in 1995 to get a ride home. I actually don’t like travelling with bands. The shows are such a priority and I like to stop and take side roads and get into concentrating on photographing and understanding the landscapes passing. You can’t do that with a band trying to get from point A to point B. I try and incorporate driving someone’s car on trips that involve a photo show somewhere. So I fly one way and drive back and use the other one way ticket another time and drive back again. That way I get to see the roads and take more photos. The most recent one was from DC to Seattle in late April in a driveaway 1992 BMW 325is. I love using other people’s cars and recently I’ve been really into incorporating the car in the landscapes. I hate cars in one aspect, as they are so consumptive and symbolize just that. But they are also amazingly designed and some are actually foxy to me. Like that BMW. I think this could have something to do with the fact that I grew up in L.A. and spent most of my childhood in a car driving around. You can’t help to notice other cars on the freeway and what they are and how they look. I did once, on one of my trips, get stuck. I was stuck in Seattle in October of 1998 with no driveaway car to get home. There was a 1987 Camaro...but it was such a piece of junk that I knew it wouldn’t make it. I was excited though thinking about how to incorporate that car into landscapes from Seattle to DC. Too bad it was such a piece of shit.

When did you first start taking photos?

In 1980 in LA I took photos of my friends hanging out with my mom’s Canon. Then that got stolen and then I got another Canon. I went to art school at the Corcoran School of Art in DC from ’81-’85. I took photography for one year, and then majored in Graphic Design. That’s where I got into the use of TYPE. I didn’t take photos at all from about 1983 ’til 1993. I was burnt out...hated art really. I had to get through a period where art school burnt me bad...then it was the inspiration to take photos of people with their cars for the zine, Speed Kills that got me into taking photos again. It was really hard to get into the swing of things again. I realized that photography was also all about building a stockpile of "footage," of images that can be used later...together in groupings. I never saw that before.

There seems to be two themes in your photos, 1. Community (people) and 2. Empty of people, except traces (remains) of people. Is this intentional?

I really like the lack of people. I like big wide-open spaces. But then I fight that in myself and try and take people. Usually faces aren’t there as I hate invading peoples space, but also sometimes a face isn’t the important part of the photo to me. Who said it should be? It’s just a face, right? Nothing is really that intentional. If I think too much about it, then I get overwhelmed and then I will stop. I have to sort of "go with the flow" and not think of what and why I take photos. It just makes me happy when I can get an image that later I will be happy to look at, a space that I want to document for future starings, future gazings and thinkings...

The postcards are amazing. They looked so cool on the rack that we had to buy more than one. They belong in sets. Do you have any comments on postcards as a medium? Part commodity and part souvenir.... What’s up with the nostalgic scalloped edges, etc?

I used to collect postcards when I was a kid. I love postcards. They are so cool. I love when it’s a photo of a dam and there’s all this bullshit technical data that you really don’t need to know. Really overboard. It’s sort of an expression of when America was really into: ’PROGRESS". It’s the progress that’s really damaging everything and I just laugh at it. I love it. We are so proud of what we build (like the cars) but it’s our ultimate demise. We have made things so convenient, that we will have to pay for it all later, in decades to come. We are speeding up the destruction of our own lives. It’s all part of it. The deckle edge to me is funny too. Deckle is the edge of the paper when it is made and it’s the rough edge before being cut. Then, I guess in the 1940’s or 50’s, some person thought, in order to be so "modern," they would make a die that would CUT the paper to "LOOK" like the rough edge of the paper. Basically, the rough edge is cut off, and then the postcards are printed, then the rough edge is CUT ON, but the rough edge looks nothing like real deckle...but they call it that. It looks like some dude at a drawing board did some scallops with a ball point pen in like 15 seconds and said, "Make a die out of that, Ralph, and we’ll use it to make the deckle edge for postcards." They were they in a big hurry and they didn’t notice that it really didn’t look like deckle. In any case, it’s the same die today as the original one. You can take my card and put it against something from the 50’s and it’s the same one. God bless the guy who did that!

Do you see yourself in line with people like Dorthea Lange and Robert Frank? They come to mind when looking at your work.

Gads, I never thought of it like that. I actually never think of Dorthea Lange as an influence, but she is, actually. I’m fascinated with immigration of people to the US, and the move west from the east, so, I guess she’s an influence...and Robert Frank and also Sally Mann, since her photos are so immaculate.

Whose work inspires you?

I’m into the way Ray and Charles Eames worked together and created stuff. (They did displays and furniture design, etc.) A lot of random architecture inspires me... can’t explain what that is... probably another L.A. influence. I love modern stuff and old stuff. The only stuff I hate is the 60’s and 70’s garbage low-end stuff built. (Does anyone know what I’m talking about?) But then that amuses me in a way. I can’t believe that crap was built, you know? It’s all falling in the ground now. It’s all made of cardboard and stuff. What a rip off for the people who bought houses like that. It’s really a crime.

The names of the images have a feel of almost a documentary. The naming of the picture gives audience opportunity to visit site, is this intentional? Why so specific in the titles?

I think you need to be specific. It is to document it as is... the date and everything really is important to me. I think it could be sort of the expansion from those postcards that give too much information. I figured someday the date will be inter-esting, if it isn’t now. It will be. Things change and dates are good, but the location is really important so that other people can find it, too. That makes it real with a real location.

A few issues back, we talked with Catherine Opie who said much of her work is documenting a time and people because she saw things were changing. Your images of people in the punk scene, along with your involvement in the Banned in D.C. book, have a documenting quality as well. Are you specifically trying to capture a time and place?

Yes, like I just said, actually. Times are changing fast and things do change. The Fourth Avenue tunnel, which is my favorite photo I have taken. I knew that place was going to change and I knew that if I liked it so much, I would have to take a photo of it and I went back there a year later to take a photo of it. Since then, I have heard that it will be converted and "redone."

I really go on my intuition. Things that are old get torn down. Things that are old get redone. Things are changing all the time...and I think that’s what I’m trying to do is save a bit on film. I took photos of all these houses being torn down around here. It’s an amazing bit of photos just to see. And I ride my bike by there all the time. And it’s just empty lots with big old trees. The trees were part of a person’s yard. And it’s strange how quick people forget what was there.

Is there a logical tie-in to art and punk? What connections do you see?

Well, I hate the regular business of art. I hate making slides of my work and submitting them. I hate applications I hate all of it. I like to do things where people just ask me to do something because they know who I am and they know how I work. And that is usually always through some punk rock way. I really enjoy that, and there are a lot of people doing things that way, and honestly, I see the best art coming from people like that. I don’t know why.

Are the Dischord ad pics yours?

No, because I shoot in a 35mm format which is rectangular. And the ads are square. My photos really can’t be cropped; you lose something in the photo if you make it square. I like the rectangular format way better than square.

Do you have any upcoming shows we can tell people about?

I’m trying to set up a tour of me and my photos in Europe that showed in Seattle in May 99. I’m going to print RC prints and not frame them. They are going to be taped to the wall in different ways. It’ll be about seventy photos, about 120 prints. I can’t wait to do it. It’ll start in Italy in October and will hang in each city for about three days. I don’t have any dates yet, though, but I’ll go to Italy, Germany and Switzerland.