If the power of a photograph could be reduced to one thing, the ability to stop time would be it. However, the freezing of a perfect second is elusive, and few photographers can claim the ability to do so consistently, banking instead on occasional brushes with luck.
One of the few is Lyle Owerko, a man whose ability to capture the times we would relive forever (or, in the case of his famous shots of the twin towers on 9/11, the seconds that seemed to last forever) has established him as one of today’s most significant photographers. We caught up with Lyle to chat frames, fascinations, and Boomboxes, the NY-based artists latest project.
“For years I’ve been using this phrase ‘cool don’t pay the bills.’ It simply doesn’t. I think the new creative mindset is to do work for a corporation, but to turn around and use the capital to build your own personal visions”
Format: You are insane with a camera. How did you get that way?
Lyle Owerko: This is one of the most interestingly worded questions I’ve ever been asked.
I chase my visions. It’s as straightforward as that. The camera is just a tool in the creative pursuit to express myself. Having explored so many other artistic mediums, they all melt together into one stream of consciousness when I’m using a camera.
Format: What are you normally working with?Are you toting around lighting on location or do you collaborate with natural elements?
Lyle Owerko: Low budgets require innovation. I use a lot of elemental conditions and natural lighting situations. Sunlight is my greatest co-conspirator.
Format: Typically the subject matter that photographers select reflects what is most dear to them, if only for that period of time. Would you say that is the case with you?
Lyle Owerko: Definitely. Reality, dignity, and authenticity are what inspire me. I am fascinated by sub-cultures, countercultures and tribal cultures. They all mash together into one main subject in front of the camera tying into my deeper interest in the human condition.
Format: So, Boomboxes. Where oh where did you find those amazing specimens? Did you refurbish them at all before shooting?
Lyle Owerko: I am fascinated by Boomboxes. They used to roam the earth breathing sonic thunder to all who crossed their path. I’ve found so many of them in the oddest of circumstances. From garage sales, to flea markets, to thrift stores and electronics outlets. Some are from my home, Canada, others from my travels to Japan. Others most recently entered into my life by way of eBay. I’ve done very little refurbishing to them. I prefer to leave them in the state they were found in.
Format: Why boomboxes?
Lyle Owerko: Why not? They are deserving of celebration. They are referenced in so much pop-culture that I thought it would be interesting to focus in on the root of the fascination. I also thought it was time to share my collection with the world in a manner that celebrated a new point-of-view and creative vision.
Format: You experienced and photographed one of America’s most historically significant events of our time. That’s a big testament of your passion; you ran towards those buildings with your camera instead of away from them. What were you feeling right then?
That whole day was intuition. I’ve been quietly shooting in Africa and Third World places for years — experiencing and building a body of work as a large project that illuminated an aspect of the planet that I thought had not been focused on. All of that work prepared me for 9/11, giving me the wits and fortitude about how to act and react in that situation. I’d do it all over again in a second.
Format: When you talk about the days leading up to Sept. 11, right after returning home from Africa, you mention that you were almost loathing an upcoming advertising shoot. It’s strange to me that someone so artistically successful would still shoot ads – why do you?
Lyle Owerko: As I’ve stated, my personal projects are things I’ve quietly been doing for about ten years now. Those projects required a means funding. Applying for grants and funding or scholarships was not successful in raising capital. I resorted to commercial work to fuel my outside projects. For years I’ve been using this phrase ‘cool don’t pay the bills.’ It simply doesn’t. I think the new creative mindset is to do work for a corporation, but to turn around and use the capital to build your own personal visions. Being an artist requires a huge commitment and often the most successful endeavours have yet to generate any major capital in the short term. I definitely relate to that. Commercial work, for me personally, has helped bridge the transition to being a full-time artist.
Format: Can you tell us about the Thorntree Project?
Lyle Owerko: The Thorntree Project was founded by my friend Jane Newman. She introduced me to the Samburu after I’d gone to Kenya to shoot a project for the Millennium Promise organization. The Thorntree Project’s mission is to bring education to the Samburu tribe of Northern Kenya.
The Samburu live in one of the most barren and desolate places I’ve ever travelled. As a Nomadic people they were searching to bring a future to their people; education is that light. The work I shoot is an artistic partnership with them and the Thorntree Project to generate a funding stream to the education projects. I play a small part in the Thorntree initiative by documenting the Samburu and their history in order to preserve their culture and to bring a better tomorrow to the children of the tribe.
Format: You direct music videos as well. Is that as fun of a process as the finished product makes it look like?
Lyle Owerko: Music videos were a blast. I wish I could do them all of them time. It’s a tough industry to break into and required a lot of hustle and timing. I worked with great songs and great bands. Unfortunately, no one had a huge hit so most of my work was never seen in the mainstream. Eventually when budgets shrank and the commissions became too few and far between I gravitated to shooting stills. It gave me a form of expression as it’s hard having ideas for music videos but no way to produce them. Stills are such a spontaneous way of actualizing your ideas. It’s the gravity of the medium that is so exciting as stills require no client, yet produce such intrinsic results.
Format: The most fascinating thing to me about photography (and film) is its relationship with time – it’s the only way to stop it. There’s power and some pressure in that; once a moment is gone, it’s gone. As a photographer, what do you feel like your is in that process?
Lyle Owerko: Time is the tightrope of photography. It’s the connective thread that requires balance and focus. You can see balance and focus in the work of those that walk the tightrope with confidence and skill, splitting seconds effortlessly like they were plucking petals from a flower. I really think time is what separates the photography from what I enjoy from what ceases to hold my attention. As I look around my apartment — the art I see is all a celebration of time –everything of value here is defined by craft, split seconds and the decisive moment. In my own work I know of one picture that I shot in 1999 that defined the difference between simply clicking the shutter and freezing a moment in time. I’ll never forget that shot. My pictures were never the same afterwards.
Thanks, this question has helped me remember the power of revering time and it’s importance to the craft of good photography and outstanding art.
Format Mag: What are you currently working on?
Lyle Owerko: I’m about to start a book project with a major publisher. It’s super exciting. I can’t wait to announce the deal. The book will launch in the spring of 2010.
In the meantime, 2009 will be a busy year. I hope to do a number of exhibitions and shows with my work. All the pieces are coming together now. I’m excited. I’m also excited about the support that Getty Images has given to my archive of pictures and to the products that Gelaskins has been offering with my art. I hope to see a lot of people sporting Boombox skins on their mobile devices in the New Year.
Thanks for a fun interview.
Format Mag: Thank you—and hell yes, we love those Gelaskins.
More Info: http://www.owerko.com