The Photographic Journal

Moby

Interview 018 • May 29th 2014

Foreword

Goddamn was I excited to interview Moby. Read up on other interviews he’d done about his photography, listened to a few podcasts he visited, checked out his new album, read the New York Times article that talked about his house…I went deep. Which was fitting, as Moby himself goes deep when it comes to photography. He gives it the kind of thought I am both deeply respect and am more than a little in awe of.

Because c’mon, we expect artists to have a single specialty. We expect their dalliances in other art forms to clearly mark them as dilettantes. And yet here’s Moby, giving as much energy and consideration to photography as he does to music, producing a stunning body of work that instantly dispels any thoughts that he’s merely slumming it as a photographer. The following interview only hammers home that idea.

Interview

What is it that draws you to photography?

It’s a good question…it’s a very big question.

We ask the big questions!

The first time I really remember becoming aware of photography was when I was about, I’d say three or four years old. I grew up very poor, but my mom had one art book, which was Edward Steichen’s early work. It was a book of photographs from the late 19th century, early 20th century, and I would just go through it over and over and over.

And, yeah, from the time I was three or four years old, photography had so much power over me. There are some art forms, like some modern dance or some experimental music, where you kind of have to push yourself to appreciate them.

There are other art forms that are just so powerful you never even question why you love them, and photography is in that realm for me. From the moment I was three or four years old looking at photographs, I loved photography.

My uncle was a photographer for The New York Times. I spent a lot of time in New York in my teens going to galleries and the thing that amazed me about photography is, more so than other art forms, it had, and I would say it continues to have, the broadest utility of almost any art form.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Okay, what do you mean by that?

Meaning it can be Man Ray or it can be photojournalism in a war. It can be sports photography. It can be pictures of puppies. It can be anything. You don’t send a painter to Afghanistan to paint. Maybe you would, but…

You can but…it’s not as common.

Yeah. You don’t send a sculptor to the mall to sculpt pictures of kids going to the prom. Photography, because it is, in some ways, this could be misinterpreted, it’s not hard. It’s never been all that difficult, except at least in this century, to make OK-looking photographs.

And for that reason, there’s a whole…To paraphrase Woody Allen and Annie Hall, there’s an aesthetic criteria that is informed by the practical utility of photography. I first really started to become aware of that with Wolfgang Tillmans, who’s one of my big inspirations.

Because when I was growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, into the ’80s, half of the criteria for evaluating a photograph was craft. Was the grayscale, the contrast, the blacks, the whites, how well the person understood their equipment and their printing and the paper and the chemicals.

So in 1985, if you went to a photo show, you were looking at the image, but you were also looking at the craft behind the image.

The craft of printing.

Yeah. And then Wolfgang Tillmans came along, and others as well, and he implied that craft is interesting, but isn’t necessary to create a viable, compelling image. A snapshot can have more emotional resonance and more power than a flawlessly taken four by five. So for me the power, going back to your question, that photography has over me is that it does everything. And also that the weird magic that a thin, two-dimensional static image can have so much power.

I guess it’s that the power of photography is so much greater than the sum of its parts because essentially it’s just ink and paper, or pixels moving around differently on a screen. But still, it can make people cry. It can trigger memories. It’s such a remarkable medium.

And what do you find that your… I’ve looked at your work and I feel like there’s this progression from early stuff where you’re actually photographing crowds that you were in front of, to stuff that was more conceptual. Has your aim with photography changed as you’ve become more comfortable with showing it publicly?

Yeah, it has. A lot of modern photography is reportage. Even art photography, it still has a reportage quality where it’s documenting stuff that is happening or has happened. And that’s great, I like to do that as well.

But I also think photography has this ability to create worlds that don’t exist, and to somehow create this hybridized version of the two. Like taking elements from the real world and interjecting otherworldly elements, and it can be really wonderfully unsettling. Almost like the goal of the surrealists, to sort of experience art that somehow upsets the normal neuro-chemical trajectories, if that makes any sense.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Yeah, I notice that, especially in your most recent work, “Innocents,” because there are a lot of places I recognize. And yet, they’re displayed in a very unfamiliar way. I noticed some shots were at the Hollywood Reservoir (which I love), but the way you chose to depict them was a very different way of looking at that space and a very…in a positive way, an unnatural way of looking at this place that I tend to capture naturally.

I guess that it’s that ability, that photography can both make a statement and ask a question at the same time. It can take the familiar and present it in ways that are profoundly unfamiliar, and I think that’s really interesting.

Because I guess, at this point in my life, I’m not that interested in art that tells me or that triggers something in me that I already have experienced. Sometimes that’s nice. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down and have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and have it just be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But sometimes with art, it’s nice to be challenged. It’s nice to feel like you’re being prodded rather than stroked.

It starts entering the realm of semiotics, where people use signifiers to trigger very conditioned responses. The image I always think of is like a kid in Pakistan sitting by the side of the road. Then if you give him a rifle, that triggers one immediate response. Give him a begging bowl, that triggers another immediate response.

Give him a Gameboy or a Nintendo, some sort of handheld game, that triggers another response.

They’re very specific responses.

Yes, but it’s very conditioned. Everyone knows how to respond. Either like…

The pictures are telling you what to feel.

Yes. Sadness, fear, outrage, what have you. I think it’s a lot more interesting when you look at something and your brain wants to compartmentalize it and respond in a very specific way, but there is some compositional element that actually keeps you from having that conditioned response.

And that’s what you’re trying to achieve in your work, you think?

Yeah. To make things that are hopefully very benign but disconcerting at the same time. Maybe you’re drawn in by conventional…the components within the image have a conventional read to them, and it’s maybe structured conventionally. But there’s something, the end result is very unconventional.

And I wish I had a better understanding of neuroscience, because I think it would be interesting to watch, not necessarily even with my work, with anyone’s work, to see what parts of the brain light up when they’re exposed.

Because I almost think there would be, the first response is the reward response of, “Oh, I’m looking at something that has symmetry and it has color and it has conventional components,” it’s pleasing. Then all of a sudden, it’s almost like the gates have been opened by the conventional. Then the unconventional sneaks in and the brain doesn’t know how to process it.

It lights up the prefrontal cortex.

Exactly. When art is really interesting, it does that. Because it’s really easy to be just weird, and it’s really easy to be just conventional, but if you can combine the two effectively, that’s when art is really exciting to me.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Do you find that it’s different from your music? What are your aims with your music as they kind of…do they line up with that in photography?

Oddly…to an extent, but maybe not that much, meaning the music that I make, I think is more just…it’s just emotional. There might be some challenging compositional elements within the music, but the end result is something that’s supposed to feel nice. Whereas the end result with photography, it’s not necessarily supposed to feel nice. Hopefully it doesn’t feel bad, but it should be…I don’t want people to necessarily pause when they listen to my music, I want them to sort of relax into it, whereas with photography, I want someone to take a moment, and pause, and try to figure out what’s going on.

You want them to think as much as they would feel.

Yeah, and sort of enjoy that feeling of temporary dislocation, because we don’t experience it that often. Our brains are pretty good at understanding all the elements in our world and understanding how conventional they are. Even if they’re really weird, they still seem normal to us.

Our brains seek the normal in weird things.

Yeah, and almost gloss over the things that don’t fit in. There have been, I think, neurological studies done where you’ll put someone in a room, or put someone in an environment, and you’ll put something that absolutely shouldn’t be in that environment, and sometimes people don’t even see it.

Like that video of a crowd, and the viewer’s been instructed to count how many people are in the crowd, and none of the viewers recognize that the whole time, there’s a guy in a monkey suit dancing around the members of the crowd.

Yeah, because the brain just doesn’t care. It’s like, “OK, that’s an anomaly. We’ll skip over the anomaly because…”

Because It’s not attacking us.

Yeah. Unless it’s a threat, the brain is like, “Who cares? It’s a waste of our time to pay attention to that.”

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Do you think LA’s influenced your photography…

Yeah.

…and if so, how?

Because Los Angeles is, from my perspective, the weirdest city in the Western world.

You’ve been here three years?

About three years, yeah. One of my favorite writers was a writer from Louisiana named Walker Percy.

K, I know the name…

He was an existential novelist of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 20th century, and I was just reading one of his essays, and he was talking about…he’s in the South in the ’70s when he’s writing this essay, and he’s asking this question, “Why have so many great books come out of the South in the mid20th century, almost more so than anywhere else on the planet?”

You had Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, writer, after writer, after writer all from the South, and it made me think of the elements that you need for a place to be a creative hotbed. It’s this weird balance between structure and chaos. Structure, chaos, and an environment that leads to cultural and personal introspection.

Too much chaos and no one wants to be introspective, they just don’t want to get shot. Too much structure, which is, I think, one of the problems with New York right now, it’s just so solid. It’s so affluent and so solid. People aren’t being introspective because they think they’re winning.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Whereas the South in the mid-20th century came out of a period of chaos, and finally there was a period of that balancing structure and chaos in, let’s say, the Deep South in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. There was tons of evidence of the old way, the dying gasps of the old way of living, and the introduction of a new way of living that clearly wasn’t working.

It was like an area that was ripe for introspection and great art, and I feel like LA has that, meaning it has enough dysfunction to make people unsettled, and enough structure so you can go home and write about it, or go home and make music about it, or go home and take pictures, and there’s an audience for it. That’s a big part of why I’m inspired by life here.

Also, there’s a confluence of urban elements in Los Angeles that just don’t exist anywhere on the planet tons of people, tons of nature, tons of weird suburban hybridism, and weird wildlife, Latino culture, African American culture, Thai culture, Chinese culture, Anglo culture. It’s just all these cultures.

It’s not like New York, the idea of New York being a melting pot, like everyone lives and works in the same environment. Here, they do and they don’t. The “other” in LA oftentimes remains the “other” but you’re still aware of it. I don’t know any people from Thailand but we live adjacent to Thai Town.

We can walk there.

I can walk there. It’s not so much a melting pot. It’s staring at someone else’s culture. I drive through Thai Town, and the weirdness of it, I’m like, “I don’t know what that is. A Thai hotel? A Thai nail salon?” It’s dislocating. It’s disconcerting, but I think in a creatively, really interesting way.

That’s also why I…one of the reasons I chose to live over here, apart from the fact that all my friends live over here, is the strangeness of LA. The further west you go, the less strange it becomes. By the time you get to Santa Monica, it’s very pretty and very normal, which is perfect for them, but here, I’d say…let’s say Crescent Heights and east, it just gets weirder, and weirder, and weirder, and I find that…

Again, apart from the fact that my friends live here, I just find it upsetting at times but really inspiring, and the fact that there’s no other city in the Western world that has such an integration nature into the urban environment.

The way I describe it to people and the rest of the world is that London has 10,000 acres of park land, New York has 20,000 acres of park land, LA County has 2.5 million acres of park land.

[laughs] I didn’t know that was the difference.

The fact that I go for a hike and I see tracks, I go for a hike out my front door after it rains, and I see tracks, and I’m like, “Is that a bobcat? Is that a dog? Is that a mule deer? Is that a mountain lion?”

It’s an urban environment and you have to wonder about whether you’re going to get eaten by a mountain lion. I think that’s really interesting.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

So I know you have an architecture blog, as well. What is it about the LA architecture that you want to photograph as you’re taking your camera out?

The cheapness of it. At times, weird beauty of it. The randomness because the history or architecture…Architecture has served such a specific utility for tens of thousands of years. The goal was keep the outside world out, protect us, and give us a hole that smoke will go through and give me a place where I feel safe and clean.

That’s the basics of architecture. Then, over time, the Dutch started introducing elements like light. “Oh, we can put glass in our houses,” and suddenly introduce a little bit of light.

But most architectural forms had a very specific utility. Peaked roofs were invented in places where it snowed to keep the snow from crushing your roof but somehow it became part of architectural vernacular and now, we’re in southern California and people have peaked roofs.

Because it’s cool.

Yeah.

My house has turrets. I’m guessing it’s some medieval utility to fend off invaders.

Doesn’t happen so much right now.

The only architectural utility in LA is how to keep your house from falling down in an earthquake and how to not bake in the sun too much. Everything else is arbitrary and I love…I guess it’s that notion of the awareness of the arbitrariness of things. Again, it might be one of the reasons why I left New York, New York takes itself very seriously.

New York, like Zurich, like Singapore, like certain places really…They don’t believe that anything’s arbitrary. If you talk to a hedge fund guy in New York who’s got his G4 waiting on the tarmac at Peterborough and he’s got his house out in Montauk and whatever. None of it seems arbitrary to him. He’s conquered the world and he doesn’t want any introspection to challenge that.

Whereas here, we all understand everything’s arbitrary. You go to the farmers’ market, you’re like, “This is nice.” There’s no true arrogant pride of place in LA. People just generally like it, which is also funny because so many people in the rest of the world…

I think LA’s like a kind of mildly cognitively impaired golden retriever. Good natured and it likes everyone and it doesn’t understand that there are people in the rest of the world that don’t like it.

Oh, we know. We’re having too much fun to care.

Yeah. But it does, in a way, speak to the magnanimity of Los Angeles. People in LA, we know that people in other cities don’t like us very much but we still visit those cities. We know that people in San Francisco don’t like LA, but Angelenos love San Francisco. The same thing with New York. We love New York or London. We love the people who hate us.

It’s good for us.

Actually, you need to stop telling people how much you enjoy this city because then more people will come. We need close the doors.

Yeah. Luckily, it’s so big.

That’s also true, yeah. There’s always room.

There are so many crappy parts of LA that really…I’m not in favor of gentrification, per se, but certainly if people started moving to Panorama City or somewhere I’m sure the residents of Panorama City would be thrilled.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

Yeah, they wouldn’t mind gentrification at all as long as they could stay. So, what cameras are you using, now?

It depends on where I’m shooting. Mainly the 5D Mark III because the lenses are good. It works like a charm. I know it like the back of my hand. But I also have a Canon PowerShot that I have an underwater housing for.

Oh, okay, for the underwater shots.

Because I had an underwater housing for the 5D but it was literally this big made by this company Ikelite. To get a lens attachment was $1,500. I was like, “Why not just, if I want to shoot underwater and use the 5D I’ll just rent an underwater housing? I’ll bring my 5D to some photo place and they will put it in and make sure it all works.”

The underwater housing I have for my little camera, you pop it in and it works.

And you’re done, yeah.

It’s amazing. But the 5D, it’s just like trying to install a beast into this thing.

I want to get a better camera, like a Hasselblad or something.

Like medium format? Digital or…?

Digital. The 5D with low ASA, there’s enough information. My last show, the pictures were five feet by eight feet.

Yeah, I saw.

I didn’t have to do that much to them to print them that large. I had to work on it but it wasn’t like if you took an iPhone picture and tried to blow it up.

Yeah, the noise is insane.

I was able without doing that much noise reduction…There was enough information to get it that large. But it’d be nice to have even more information to play with. Instead of having a 20meg image have a 200meg image so you can really…Just like with the level of clarity.

Do you plan to continue focusing on photography? Do you just juggle the two, between music and photography, or do you have a conscious way of figuring out which one you’re going to focus on?

I’m doing a lot more writing.

Oh okay! What kind of writing?

I’m actually…I’m writing a book about my life in New York from 1989 to 1999.

In Manhattan?

Yeah.

How long did you live in Manhattan?

From ’89 until 2010, but this will be ’89 to ’99. It starts with…I was living in an abandoned factory in the middle of the AIDS and the crack epidemic. I was making $8,000 a year. I was involved in the hip-hop world, the dance world. All the worlds I was involved in were Latino, African American, and gay, which was funny because I’m a straight white guy.

It’s about the dance scene and then my own evolution. Getting a record contract, touring, and just watching New York go from being AIDS and crack and really impoverished to being P. Diddy and bottle service.

That complete transformation. That’s great. But you’ll keep going with photography and, I assume, music?

Oh, yeah. I have some weird ideas for the next series.

What kind of ideas?

I don’t know. They’re just fledgling ideas. They’re almost like little germs of an idea.

More conceptual stuff like “Innocents”?

I hope so. I love that. Basically telling a story, having a narrative, even if it’s not an explicit narrative, through still images. The fact that people are willing to pay attention to it.

Another thing I love about photography, it’s the least demanding art form for the audience.

Interview 018: Moby for The Photographic Journal

It doesn’t require that much effort to just go and look at photographs.

Yeah, it’s up to them how much time they spend. If you want to watch a movie, you have to watch it in the way that the movie’s been made. If you want to listen to a song, you have to listen to it the way the song’s made. If you want to read a book, you have to…It’s a huge commitment.

A photo can be looked at for an eighth of a second from across the room, studied far away, close. Like in those couple of pictures there [points to pictures on the wall]. Like, “Oh, a picture,” and you turn away from them. Or get closer. You spend more time with them. I think that that’s one of the reasons that makes it special and also beloved. It doesn’t impose itself.