Interview by ELISABETTA PORCINAI — Photos by AARON MCELROY
Up-and-Coming Style moves its first steps in the Big Apple and meets photographer and artist Aaron McElroy for an intense yet straightforward chat – a truthful insight on his art, his story and on his world.
Far from the pedantic or pretentious talk often afflicting the art world, in this interview, Aaron talks about voyeurism, street photography and stresses the importance of the editing and printing processes in producing his images, scrupulously crafted and juxtaposed to form an elegant jigsaw of colours, moods and sensations.
ELISABETTA P. — Hello Aaron, I’m afraid we are going to start off with a question you have probably answered a million times already: How did you choose photography? What brought you to start taking pictures? Was it dictated by an urge, a passion, or rather by some sort of aesthetic attraction?
AARON M. — It was rather random to be honest: at first, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the art world was until I actually started taking pictures.
I had always thought of photographs as something quite silly: if you think about it, if you can remember something, then why photographing it? That is what I originally thought about images.
It probably all started at the time when I was living alone in an old police station, the walls in my apartment were all empty and I just thought to myself I would have painted the walls, just to make the place livelier… so I just bought a camera on e-Bay and that’s literally when I started taking photos. After that I started taking a photography class, learning about film developing techniques and how to print my own work. From that moment on, I started spending about $12 a week printing photos and then just hanging them on the wall.
ELISABETTA P. — So your first urge was literally to ‘fill up the walls’, right?
AARON M. — Yes, exactly. After that I started investing a little, buying new cameras and equipment and also taking classes and courses. Once you get that ‘itch’ then you suddenly feel like experimenting all you possibly can.
Along with this, I initially got really impressed by Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’.
In the beginning, I was really intrigued by street photographers in Boston, taking pictures every day, and that was also the time I was a bike messenger, biking around Boston every day; that’s when I started carrying my camera around all the time.
One day my light meter didn’t work, so I just asked one of those photographers and we ended up getting into a long conversation about photography and he started telling me about different photographers – a whole world started opening up before me.
ELISABETTA P. — So that is when it all started to get more serious?
AARON M. — Serious? Well…I literally just wanted to take a lot of pictures!
I’ve never really taken family or ‘memory’ pictures, I just thought right away: This is what I want to do!
ELISABETTA P. — Referencing to what we were discussing earlier: we commonly say that a photograph captures reality; that is a record of time, of an impression. But then when would you say that a photograph becomes art? Is it about the aesthetics and composition? Is it about the purpose or the intention of the photograph actually being taken?
AARON M. — I think you get to a certain point where composition stops mattering, because you know what you want to do and you know what the outcome is going to be, or it just becomes so intuitive that the composition is just ingrained in you. Personally, I think it lays in the fact of creating a mood, in creating a visual feeling throughout all the images. At least I make them to then tie everything together.
ELISABETTA P. — So, your method is based on creating sequences of images that are tied together to form a bigger whole?
AARON M. — Yes, although they’re not necessarily tied together by anything tangible: I like to juxtapose pictures together, which is ultimately the thing tying them together. Usually contrasts, colour tones, moods, feelings.
ELISABETTA P. — From an observation of your work in general, it stands out that detail and close-ups are surely some of your distinguishing features, especially in your latest series. Is this an attempt of documenting reality in its details?
AARON M. — I think the way I started taking photographs got a really strong foundation in street photography, which has notably that connotation of fortuity and fragmentation to itself. So I guess I started identifying with that idea and that mindset, translating it in my personal life on a daily basis, and then stared photographing in that sense.
I try to take random images and then create a stream of ideas with them. Right now I am really focused on details and just into anything that I find interesting; I just photograph it.
ELISABETTA P. — Would you say that your work has been changing over time? You seem to have gone through a substantial transition, which went from the black and white, blurred and almost pictorial portraits characterising your early work, to a much more defined type of photography, where colour and the use of the flash seem to have become your new signature.
AARON M. — Yes, definitely. I believe it mostly has to do with the fact of having to complete what I’ve started back in photography school. I think that the idea of working in the darkroom and creating a sketch of what you want to do has probably laid out a foundation for my first approach, but it is also still showing in my latest work. My work has changed because I simply don’t want to be making the same pictures.
ELISABETTA P. — By looking at your pictures we can notice a recurring presence of the female body. Is there an implicit erotic or voyeuristic intent behind them?
AARON M. — Yes, I think it has to do with wanting the viewers to feel like they’re looking at something maybe they shouldn’t be looking at. This creates that voyeuristic feeling of them experiencing something personally, as they were actually seeing all these little details with their own yes. I think this concept plays with a lot of different ideas of what you should or shouldn’t view.
ELISABETTA P. — So you’re saying that your approach is oriented towards a much more ‘intimate’ typology of portrait…
AARON M. — I’d rather say that the difference lies in really trying to find and create an awkward moment: some people I photograph can get extremely awkward, even though you don’t necessarily see that in my photos, as they are mostly features of details of figures and bodies.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want a subject because he or she knows how to work out the camera; that is not interesting to me. I think that part of taking the photograph is about the authenticity of the whole experience.
ELISABETTA P. — What is your opinion regarding the increasing trend which sees fashion photography borrowing elements from street and art photography? Is it trying to go the same direction by pursuing or imitating its apparent random and raw character?
AARON M. — I think there is a big distinction to be made: although it appears to be quite a big trend now – of fashion photography getting on the fringes of being in between fashion and art – there is a very distinct feel to it, in fact; it looks more like a snapshot I would say.
I think my work transcends fashion photography, because there is so much more to it: I put a lot of effort into producing the final product, and the real difference for me is really about making the print; I think there is no photograph without a print.
I spend a lot of time working with my images, in order to give them the feel and for them to have the colours and tones that I want.
ELISABETTA P. — Notably, the use of flash is often considered as a rather ‘intrusive’ method that tends to be identified with a typology of image which is raw, irreverent and at times quite crude. Your images are instead characterised by a peculiar delicacy and elegance – which almost feels like a paradox. Is that something intentional?
AARON M. — I think I just have a sensitive approach to my subject; I don’t look at something or someone considering them simply as ‘a tree’ or ‘a model’, for instance – I don’t objectify them.
I normally do not really have a precise idea to begin with; everything appears in view of the editing process, that’s where it begins. I collect images continuously, almost compulsively, but then it’s when I go back to the computer or in the darkroom that everything really starts to come together
ELISABETTA P. — You’re thus saying that, when you take a photograph, you’re envisaging the whole process coming thereafter, rather than just the moment itself.
AARON M. — Perhaps it is a stage of my work at the moment, perhaps it’ll change, but I don’t really believe in the moment, but rather in the image-making process as a whole.
Literally-speaking, I don’t even consider photography in my work right now; it is not my main concern. I just want to make images and maybe, who knows, tomorrow I’ll quit photography and I’ll start doing something else, although at the moment it’s the format I love to work with. I love to look at photographs, I love to make them, I love working on them. The whole experience gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment.
ELISABETTA P. — You never seem to portray your human subjects with a definite identity; you never show their faces. Instead, you focus on details and close-ups of them. Is there a reason behind that?
AARON M. — When I first started, I was doing mainly series portraying faces, but then I started a transition that led me to the point of portraying only details about people, so eventually not making the work about them, ultimately, to not portray them. Particularly the fact of not showing their faces almost makes it an antithesis of a portrait; I think that is the main idea behind this.
ELISABETTA P. — So, you portray them not as individuals but rather as an entity, right?
AARON M. — Yes, an entity, a subject. Although I don’t really like to use the word subject; it is much more complex than that: portraits are very tricky. By obscuring the face you have no identity of time and place and everything is sort of blurred together; I think you play with time, really.
ELISABETTA P. — Would you say you have an obsession? Is there something recurring in your work? Does it tell something about you?
AARON M. — I don’t know if that can be considered as an obsession, but I’m really interested in photographing my own desires and curiosities. Ultimately, you want to make sexy images, period. My goal is to make sexy photos, whether it’s just a tree, or cement, or trash, or a figure, or a beautiful person, you want to make this vision compelling to look at, and then you want to make it your own and create a mood. I don’t normally feel like referring to movies, but I think in this case they can serve as a good example: David Lynch, for instance. In his films he creates this mood in lots of his disturbing imagery: they’re beautiful and they’re dangerous, they’re made to be tapping at the back of someone else’s brain. That is the principle: I almost want people to feel uncomfortable when looking at my images; safe pictures are boring!
ELISABETTA P. — So you’re trying to trick people’s mind by showing them an unconventional view of something.
AARON M. — People are more unconventional that they’d let other people believe.
ELISABETTA P. — Would you say you have – or have had – a main influence in your work and formation as an artist?
AARON M. — Perhaps one of the most influential photographers has been Daido Moriyama, together with the other street photographers: they make that kind of images that you just stare at, not really knowing what to think.
I get asked this question quite frequently, and to be honest, I always hesitate a little: it’s just that there is so much good imagery right now that I can’t even keep track of it myself!
However, I believe the first photographers got to know and love have been Araki, Moriyama, Bruce Gilden and all the street photographers; they really laid down the foundation for me and ultimately for my contemporaries. I’ve also always admired Man Ray; he holds the test of time to me. It is incredible how there are artists from the 50’s and the 40’s who are still incredibly contemporary today.
ELISABETTA P. — We know you have some of your work being published in a new book – can you tell us a word about it?
AARON M. — Well, if all goes according to plan, I will be featured in three books this year. One with Self Publish Be Naughty; another one in collaboration with AM Projects, a new international collective formed by myself and five other artists – our work will be published in a book called ‘Nocturnes’. Finally, ‘House and Garden’, a book which will be featuring my work together with artist and photographer Bill Sullivan.
ELISABETTA P. — Relating to the project Self Publish Be Happy: an increasing number of artists and photographers are choosing self-publishing as a solution against the mainstream and the difficulties that having one’s own work published entails – what is your opinion on such situation?
AARON M. — I believe it is a good thing. I think any way an artist manages to make their work visible represents a very positive thing, especially because we end up having all these unique objects being produced all the time. I just wonder how long it will last; I wonder if it’ll ever just take over.
I think this has been happening for a while now. People have been making their own books forever, and now I think that just because of web presence, people are finally staring to be increasingly aware and informed about it.
ELISABETTA P. — Is there a project or a particular photograph amongst yours which you’re particularly fond of?
AARON M. — The next one I make.
I don’t really know. Sometimes I get sick of looking at my photos as I’m looking at them all the time. There should be a window out of which to put your work when it’s still exciting for you, but paradoxically people are normally interested in that project you did years ago.