If you really would like to see what the downtown art scene has to offer, every third Thursday is the time to go. You can really get up close to the art, and talk to the artists about their work, without any of the First Friday crowds. That is when I ran into William, where he is showing at the downtown, Bokeh Gallery.
In a world where everyone is a photographer, it is always great to see William’s work, as his work is head and shoulders above the rest. Currently, he is showing his Drive-In Theater photos which are really terrific. They are monumental, and tell a part of Phoenix history that is slowly fading away.
These iconic images show a culture in transition. These drive-ins were once everywhere in America, and peaked in popularity at the same time that Phoenix was growing. Cars changed the desert, and drive-ins were a natural place to meet, hang out, all the while staying cool. But, with the advent of air-conditioning, new technology, and new forms of entertainment, these places are swiftly becoming a thing of the past. I talked with William about this show.
Could you tell us about your new show?
William: Let me start clarifying something, this show isn’t exactly exhibiting “new” work, I actually showed it before almost 2 years ago. With that said, I’ll start from the beginning… I first began working on what is now the “Intermission” series, because at the time (Spring 2009), I was attracted to places that people tended not to visit. I had an interest in showing them what they were missing. I enjoyed observing the evolution of the stories taking place within these environments, told only from the limited evidence and clues left behind by peoples past experiences. At the time I was focusing on work that examined the changes that specific places go through, especially within Phoenix. This probably sub-consciously attracted me to a more locally-focused and historically iconic kind-of place, like our remaining drive-ins.
I had been visiting the Drive-In in Scottsdale since I was a young teenager; I’m not really sure why one day I decided to bring my 4×5 along. At first I started shooting at night… after all, that’s when you’re suppose to go to the Drive-in. However, I quickly changed gears as I began visiting during the day, because I wanted to observe what was left behind. Again, I was interested in the places people “didn’t” go to. I wanted to see what could only be seen in sunlight, or better yet, the times in between shows, thus “Intermission”. As my explorations continued I became very interested in both the context in which drive-in movie theaters are represented in our memories, as well as the sort of American iconography and symbolism found within these particular places. I felt it necessary to start small and focus on shooting all the remaining drive-ins of Arizona. I guess I thought my audience would more easily be connected if they were able to relate to the places they’ve been to before.
I was surprised, and even somewhat bothered to find only six remaining. Upon doing further research and even taking a completely useless trip to Parker, AZ (which does not in fact have any remains of a drive-in left) I made the decision to focus on the last 4 in business (Scottsdale, Globe, Glendale, Tucson). The other location I thought about including was just off of 7th ave. here in Phoenix, next to Retro Ranch (a small “Drive-In” liquor store is located on the corner… this was at one time the concessions/projection building for the screen(s) located to the east, which is now an empty lot). I decided against it, as it didn’t seem to fit in with what I was interested in doing.
I worked closely with Mark Klett as the project grew and grew. The series began to take shape as my ASU career came to an end. After many edits, critiques, and meetings with fellow photographers, I sat down with Mark, we edited one last time, and the series essentially became what it is today. It covered “all my bases” in a sense, conveyed what I was interested in and represented the theaters of Arizona in their entirety. I exhibited them at Eye Lounge soon after, with an accompanying piece “99 Bottles; Their Caps On The Wall.” (this particular piece in part inspired later projects, and even my latest works)…
I feel the most important part of this series, is the examination of the tension between both time and change and the classic “image” we associate with these iconic places. I think it’s interesting to note, that even since I stopped photographing this series, 2 of the 4 theaters have closed down. That in my mind, sums up what this whole series is about… this sort of haunting reality that these places we’ve all loved so dearly are slowly dying. What remains is the evidence of our past interactions and the personal memories that have been experienced over years and years. Do I think all the drive-ins will cease to exist at all someday? I doubt that. But do I feel these images inherently hold a sense of “uncertainty” as do the theaters themselves? Yes, and that’s the whole point.
These photos at your show seem to have a sad beauty. Is the desert, for you, a beautiful or a desolate place?
This “sad beauty” you mention is definitely an underlying aspect, but I don’t feel that their creation in a desert environment solely constitutes this, only supports it partially. Is the desert beautiful or desolate? I think its a bit of both… One person could say its desolate because it is vast, open, and has little tree growth, others could say that it’s deprived of human contact. Well, in a sense, to me at least, both of these ideas are what help make it beautiful. On the other hand I could argue all day long that this desert is far from desolate to begin with. I hear it all the time… A perfect example is all these people that move to Arizona, and say, “I don’t get it? It’s ugly, there’s nothing here, nothing going on, and there isn’t anything that’s green.” To them I say, a.) you aren’t looking hard enough, and b.) its not gorgeous? What the hell is wrong with you? It’s drop dead gorgeous and there is a whole lot here if you take the time to open your eyes.
It sounds like you really love this place. How has it inspired you?
I’ve grown up in the valley, and have lived only a few other places in my life time, and can honestly say that this place attracts me. Sort of in the same way one is attracted to practicing art. You just don’t decide one day “to be an artist.” I feel art has it’s way of finding you and saying “you need to do this”. Do we question why? Sometimes, but do we enjoy not knowing the exact answer as to why we make work or what compels us to create? I think the desert has a way of playing this same sort of game with me. It tells me “you need to be here.” I enjoy this place, because of the forces the desert innately contains. It’s always been known as sort of this mysterious place, and I don’t think that has changed much, even after growing up here, and that excites me a ton. Now, do I think it appears throughout my work? Of course! I’m in love with this place, its home.
What else gets you excited?
I’m also constantly obsessing over thoughts related to the concept of “time” and what exactly “time” means. Even if it’s not art related, I find myself thinking about theories and realities of time. I guess that’s why I also have an interest in history and therefore narratives or stories. I’ve been told, I would be a good Phoenix tour guide, just because I know a lot about our city’s past. I appreciate the weird stories about certain people or places or businesses that have become somewhat symbols of our city. I enjoy thinking about what these symbols or icons mean in relationship to change. That would also explain my attraction to artifacts and things like antiques. I love antiquing…
99 Bottles; Their Cap on the Wall
47 x 57.5 inches, 2010
More recently though, I have been really into science, and scientific equipment, especially as a tool to generate work. Going back to what I said about my “99 Bottles; Their Caps On The Wall” piece, I really have a major desire to photograph things in a studio-setting. The particular piece was a major stepping-stone in a sense, because it made me realize the concept of using physical objects to represent a part of a place or a story within an environment. This new perception is getting pretty exciting for me. Plus, I’ve also begun exploring what microscopic photography has to offer. I’m getting some very intriguing results from that as well.
Do you remember when you first thought about being a photographer?
As a child? Hmm… I’d probably say I knew I wanted to do something creative at a very young age, mainly because my elementary school art teachers always gave me so much support. In 2nd grade I designed the school’s official “bookmark” for the library… I beat out all of the older kid’s drawings, and it felt pretty cool. It wasn’t till I grew older that I realized art wasn’t about competition (Haha… I was way into sports up through Middle school as well – probably had a lot to do with it). I use to think of myself as a drawer/painter/illustrator until I took my first photo class as a freshman at New School For The Arts at age 14. From there, I was hooked…
Are people or artists an inspiration for your work?
I couldn’t pick anything more inspiring towards my work ethic than Phoenix’s arts community itself. As a young teenager, I would sneak downtown to go to First Fridays (back when it wasn’t over-run with young kids like it is now) strictly to see the art. Yeah, and also because I could sneak to the back of galleries like 3 car pile up, and get my hands on a beer or some wine. But that aside, I was mainly influenced to check everything out by some of my earliest contacts in the scene; people like Kimber Lanning, Jason Savaglio, and Hector Ruiz. I argue all the time, that Phoenix has major potential and if creative individuals of all kinds continue to help the arts community grow, it could really blossom into something amazing. Years of visiting the older galleries like Holga’s, Modified Arts, Anti-Space, Art One, and MonOrchid, all inspired me to be the artist hanging on those walls, to associate myself with the people making these things happen, and to support the excitement and the development of the downtown arts district.
Just the other night at SMOCA’s Fall Opening, I was discussing with a few people the theory that Phoenix as a city or should I say the majority of it’s population, doesn’t support the arts enough. It’s usually because most people are transplants from somewhere else, and don’t even know it exists here. What inspires me as an artist and probably even more so, an arts community member or supporter, is the drive to make people appreciate more of what our art’s scene has to offer and in turn help the valley artists to grow, whether it be in Phoenix, Tempe, or Scottsdale.
What are you working on, or thinking about now?
Well it’s funny, ironically I’ve mentioned a lot about Phoenix, Arizona, the desert, etc. during this interview… In a way, part of me is actually trying to break away from some of these threads to expand a little further on some other interests of mine. I’m actually playing a battle right now in my head and have been for the last year or so. I’m purposely trying to think about ideas that don’t relate to my older work, but at the same time it’s hard to break away from something I’m so passionate about. I feel there is a need for me to explore some other paths and some other concepts that I have been keeping in the back of my head, and only in the past 6 months or so, have I begun developing some new routes to take.
One path in particular, stems from my interest in the fusion between science and art. While working as an artist for years now, I have also worked extensively in both the coffee and bartending industries. These experiences have contributed to developing a huge fascination with beverages, the methodical processes in which we craft them, and the chemical make up to the liquids themselves. Mix that with the microscopic photographing equipment I mentioned before, and you can imagine why I’m quite excited about this new found subject matter and method of examination. Actually, the first piece I’ve created from this series was exhibited at this year’s Chaos Theory. I’m really stoked to start utilizing the microscope more, particularly to explore fluids other than those we consume.
What will we see from you next?
Now, back to that battle I was talking about. While I am struggling with separating from the whole “Arizona-themed” work, I have made a decision to do something different with it as well. I started sort of a non-art-related side project, designing and printing tee shirts. I’m calling it The 1912 Project. For anyone who doesn’t know about this yet, they should check it out, especially if they’re proud to be living here in AZ!
But what I’m most thrilled about… I am currently working very hard on something totally new for me. I will be curating my first exhibition, and not just any exhibition. Together, with friend and fellow ASU undergrad, Phoenix Transect member; Jason Roehner, we are in the process of putting together a collection from artists creating work that referencing specific topics related to Arizona. Focusing on our state that is about to celebrate it’s 100th year of statehood, we are working with a group of photographers as diverse as the population of Arizona itself, some native, some transplants, some merely passing through, and many of which you probably already know. People like Andrew Phelps, Matthew Moore, Mike Lundgren, and Jesse Rieser are just a few of the artists we are in the process of collaborating with. I won’t give away much more info than that, but be ready come our states centennial (Feb. 14th) for something special!