Photograph by MANDERSSON & MASSAUX
At what point did you recognize that you were a visual artist?
When I was told by an elementary school teacher that I was a “a fresh little boy” when during a word problem exercise, you know… a car is traveling to the nearest city that is 26 miles away… at 35 mph how long would it take to arrive? and I raised my hand and wanted to know the make, model and color of the car. Everyone laughed. I wasn’t kidding. Knowing that detail would have helped me figure out the problem. I needed a clear visual. I’d gotten into a lot trouble because of this natural approach I had to figuring out riddles of all sorts.
I made myself. I saw ideals I was drawn to and adopted them. It’s a great approach to art as well. I never liked art that I was told was “important.” In fact, if my first reaction to art is perplexing, it’s a good indication.
When did you notice that you were seeing the world in a different manner from other people?
Well, variably, I guess the first signal, a very early memory of mine, was being upset by the story of the Three Little Pigs. I interpreted the story as the pigs being the bad guys picking on the wolf. It was a numbers deduction…three of them, one of him. The wolf didn’t seem so bad. Creatively, any noticeable difference doesn’t surface right off, rather it’s simply part of an authenticity in oneself. If one can see it then one doesn’t have it.
How would you characterize your writing?
Truthful and American in its accessibility. Writing is mystifying. I tend to edit as I write, so it’s rare that I pick it apart to any great extent once it’s on the paper. To be an effective writer in any sense one must be interested in a genuine way in human beings. I’m fascinated by language and how people use it. Some of the most interesting ways I’ve heard the language used comes from the least expected sources. There’s no pecking order to interesting in my reality. It’s very democratic. Highly educated folks think they own the market….they don’t. I take in a lot. On the street, where I spend more time than I do in my apartment, and often on my bike, I’m like a human net, capturing bits of conversations, phrases, arguments, words, all in an audible drive-by at 15 mph. I absorb these things and somehow a percentage of this stuff assimilates, I becomes its host….and it magically spills from me when I write.
Explain how your sense of identity has affected your outlook on art and life.
My self-identity is portable in some ways. I don’t know really where I came from and who my biological parents are. I’m not the guy who gets on a cheesy talk show and cries about this stuff. If it sounds more like a scene in a David Lynch movie, and then it might interest me. I’ve never belonged to anyone by blood, so my idea of loyalties and love and family are made up as I went along. I made myself. I saw ideals I was drawn to and adopted them. It’s a great approach to art as well. I never liked art that I was told was “important.” In fact, if my first reaction to art is perplexing, it’s a good indication. The responsibility of art isn’t to make you feel good, or spurn a reaction in any way.
Describe the artists to whom you have been close, and how they have helped influence your thinking.
I became friends with Ross Bleckner years back. I had never been to an artist’s painting studio. I remember the first time I went to his studio, the smell of paint and the feeling that something serious was happening. It felt like church. I worked for Cindy Sherman for a year back in the 90’s. I was a personal assistant. I never worked with her in her studio, no one does. Cindy’s wonderful. A good person. Very compassionate. Smart, generous, attractive for sure. She’s really stylish. But, my favorite artist whom I’m friends with is, Ed Ruscha. I once saw a sign in a Poughkeepsie diner that read, ‘Serve Spaghetti Nights.’ The We had faded, and I went into a Ruscha haze. I finished the spaghetti and walked outside with these words in my head, a glazed look in my eye, until the sound of a car horn blasting alerted me to my approaching death! Ha. Ed has that affect on me. I nearly died for Ruscha! That’s funny.
Being an artist is a compulsion, not an ambition. I’ve always had the good fortune of drawing and being drawn to people who have been wonderful to me.
What books, films, television shows have most shaped you?
I don’t watch television. David Cronenberg is my favorite living director. He’s a rare example of a man with a vision, a unique style of making movies and a good storyteller. But I see a fairly wide range of film genres.
How does your personal style reflect your sensibility as an artist and writer?
Style obviously is about how you conduct your life. I hope it would include being gentle, intelligent and compassionate….with a great moth bitten sweater…that the moths are leasing to me by the week.
What has kept you going as an artist, even when recognition has been elusive?
Being an artist is a compulsion, not an ambition. I’ve always had the good fortune of drawing and being drawn to people who have been wonderful to me. I feel as if I’ve had the greatest life here in New York, a very unique experience for which I’m grateful, all on negative bank balance.
On which side of the camera are you most comfortable?
Hmm, that’s tough. I like being photographed and have been in that spot many times. I like being in movies. I also like the relationship between photographer and subject. A bond, even momentarily holds them together for as long as the image exists and perhaps further. It’s psychological, it feels sexual in some ways, as it’s tense, a certain dance, and then it’s over. Though I’m about to embark on a journey of people portraits, so I’ll have to get back to you on this topic.
I faced many closed doors. I didn’t take most of it personally. It’s the climate we are in, and it may be here to stay.
What impelled you to turn your voyage into a book?
I’ve always liked books, how they look, the decisions that go into the design and font and so forth, so it seemed like a natural goal once I developed the film.
What did you discover about yourself? about America?
After a month on the road, I discovered that I’m good at reading maps and keeping notes. I’ve got a fairly good sense of direction and know how to prepare for the unforeseen. It’s astonishing in some ways that America is one country. In many ways it feels like small countries with vast amounts of land between them. Yet, people everywhere have a common thread, a sense of self-determination and a distaste for being governed. I relate.
Why did you reject commercial publishers for your book?
There weren’t any. If there were any they certainly had the wrong number. I faced many closed doors. I didn’t take most of it personally. It’s the climate we are in, and it may be here to stay.
You were told you would never publish your book. Why would someone say that to you?
Well now where getting into slamming doors…that’s the nature of having an uncompromising personal vision. Most people are supportive. All one really needs is vision and drive and a solid dose of self-reliance.
Tell us how you found the printer for Follow Me.
I had no idea how to approach this. I did know that I didn’t want to print overseas. I wanted to be hands-on throughout the entire process. A printer within a hundred miles or so was ideal. I wanted to also learn about printing. The bottom line for me is… beautifully done. I simply found the books I most thought were nicely done. Bruce Weber’s books are made beautifully. I contacted the company that makes his All American books. The company is called Finlay. I had the good fortune of working with David Lorczak, a wonderful guy who took great pleasure in schooling me on the printing process. It was fascinating for me.
Before RRL came along, what was your plan for selling Follow Me?
I didn’t have a plan beyond maybe contacting a few small book stores I like. I thought about offering it in hardware stores, ones I like, or simply any sort of shop that I felt had an honesty to it. It sounds crazy, but I like that approach. Then for a moment I decided I might load up my car and take all of the books to a small town in a state that doesn’t support gay people or planned parenthood, or some cause or people that might benefit from attention and help. I would sell the books in a friendly little shop or out of the trunk of my car, in a strange little town and give the money to a much-needed group of folks under attack. I’d still like to help a cause in the future with another book or project.
I left in the more personal excerpts because I wanted to be brave and talk about things I mostly don’t talk about.
How did you finance the printing of Follow Me?
When I came back to New York after rambling all over the place, I went back to work on a sign-installing job. My good buddy Johnny Rivera owns a company that has a wide variety of light construction, sometimes heavy work, a bunch of manual labor tasks, painting, plastering, sign installation… I didn’t have much skill in these areas, but I learned and did my best to assist the guys who knew a whole lot more about this line of work. It helped that the boss is good friend. Johnny, is also a furniture designer and a photographer, a creative guy, so he was an ally for sure. I saved money from this job to pay for the printing. At the same time, my best friend, Jose, has a skill for finding and selling important vintage Chanel and Hermes handbags. It’s an amazing skill actually. He’s very much a guy’s guy, masculine and with no indication he would know about such a high-end delicate line of women’s fashion. It’s the coolest hidden trait I’ve ever come across. He started this small business and he does very well. He contributed to a large part of the printing costs of Follow Me. I dedicated the book to him. I like that a book that has so many trucks, tires and road kill, was funded by recycled Chanel and Hermes…I also like that I’m talking about this with you, Amy, who most folks would never imagine has been on any road but Madison Avenue. I say that lovingly. These seemingly polar attractions are truly and completely a New York story! New York is never what any of us thought it would be, and so it continues that way. Gratefully.
What images did you edit out of the book and why?
It was a very natural selection process. It took me about an hour each day for 3 or 4 days. I shuffle things around with actual photographs on the floor of my apartment. I would take one or two images away. Sometimes I would place them back in. But the story seemed to be dictating itself to me. I just listened carefully. I would then bring the negatives to a friend I hired, Marcus Andersson. He scanned the images and put together the book according to the order I wanted the images to flow. He also brought a lot of cool ideas to the design, alternating black pages as well as some other details. Collaborations only work when the vision of the artist is supported by the people who are participating. I like the idea of something starting as a strong vision but allowing another person to add their ideas to it.
What essays did you edit out of the book and why?
I left in the more personal excerpts because I wanted to be brave and talk about things I mostly don’t talk about. These more personal thoughts seem to lend themselves in a more cohesive way to the images I selected, and created a strangely yet familiar solitary mood.
I guess I’m just a lucky American guy, hitched for the perfect American marriage.
Why does Ed Ruscha appear at the end of the journey and the end of the book?
Ed was the only familiar face at the end of the journey. I hadn’t thought of a book when I photographed him. I simply figured hey, I might as well document the only person who knows me after a month of being the stranger everywhere. Symbolically Ed represents a lot of western ideas for me, for a lot of folks. Particularly a California ideal that comes through in some of his work. Ed Ruscha-California Jack Kerouac-Massachusetts, seemed the perfect book ends. Ed and Jack, restless explorers, a unique writer and a unique artist, two cool guys and two of my favorite Americans.
What does the Michael Heizer earthwork, Double Negative, featured in two Follow Me photographs, mean to you?
I had long been fascinated by land sculpture, so I made a special detour and it was the only pre-planned location to visit on the entire cross -country trip. Finding Double Negative was hard work and worth it. His commitment to his work is humbling. His diligence in creating massive earthworks can easily make the most dedicated guy feel like a slacker or a poser by comparison.
Why did Double RL choose to sell Follow Me in an exclusive arrangement? What would you hope would come about as a result of this partnership?
Alfredo Paredes at Ralph Lauren, saw the book and liked it. He brought it into the company, where many of the people who worked there also liked it. He wanted to do something with it. A book event through the RRL division was offered to me. They were thrilled when I told them that I had no other distribution deal in place. So, they asked if they could fill that role and I happily agreed. I was really pleased by this because I like the brand. I wear the clothes. The people there have been a true pleasure to work with. The book and the brand compliment each other in magical ways. The perfect outcome?… Well since marriage is on everyone’s mind these days, The Nuptials should read, Follow Me-RRL. I guess I’m just a lucky American guy, hitched for the perfect American marriage.