on being an artist
I was born on May 19, 1965 in Okeechobee, Florida. I was groomed to be a Pentecostal preacher, studying the bible and taking piano and organ lessons. I spoke in tongues. I learned to cast out demons. I was gay. I left home at the first opportunity.
A friend gave me a camera and I fell in love with light and image. Another friend gave me an enlarger and supplies for a dark room. In a closet under a stairwell, I taught myself how to make a photograph.
I made cash for photographic supplies in many ways. I worked in restaurants as a dish washer, busboy, waiter. I wrestled alligators at a Seminole Indian reservation. I was a santa for charity. I have assisted gardeners, photographers, and drug-dealers. I hustled sex for money.
Photography has been my highest spiritual practice. It is no coincidence that at a time when I was abandoning the god and the religious dogma I was raised with, I should discover photography as a means to interpret my life.
I have lied, cheated, and stolen so I could feel the erotic rush of watching an image magically appear on what was a blank piece of paper. I’m learning to cast “in” demons. I’ve always felt I would do almost anything to know the power of holding a split second in my hands, and look at it as long and as lovingly as I care to, to capture something as elusive as an emotion, and to feel the power of that emotion possess me each time I look at it. To feel the electric jolt of telling a lie convincingly and above all else, to experience the awe-inspiring, god-like power of creating and witnessing a truth
The Return depicts a loosely banded tribe of people living nomadically throughout the western states of Idaho, Nevada, California and Oregon. Traveling with the seasons, the subjects of The Return, utilize traditional hunter-gatherer skills along with the knowledge of indigenous food crops, to follow an ancient way of life known as “the Hoop”. The Return is a collaboration with the Native American ritualist Timothy White Eagle. From the beginning we held the intention of creating a kind of mythic portrait of a people, a place and an ideal. From 2006 to 2012 we traveled with a group of fierce individuals who wish to embody the ideal of living a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, based on the life way of early Native Americans.
“The subjects in “The Return” are predominately not indigenous Native Americans. Most carry European ancestry. And most come in one form or another from the disenfranchised margins of main stream America. Most are poor, some are queer, some are trans-gendered, some are hermits and some are politically radical. All believe that major shifts are needed in the way modern society interacts with the natural world. And all are willing pioneers, stepping off into uncertain terrain searching for something lost generations ago. These new Heroes are on a journey. Like all great heroes, what they desire is to simply return home. For them home is a wild garden; an ideal, a way of life, a return to what once was. The wild garden is a place the human soul knows. Every person has ancestors who lived in that wild garden, it is a universal thing we share.” - Timothy White Eagle
I Have Something To Tell You
“For beauty is nothing but the onset of terror we’re still just able to bear." — Rilke
I believe that one of photography’s greatest allies is memory, whether it is personal or collective, real or imagined. The illusion of the realism of photography has the potential to access emotions bound to memories, sometimes causing extreme physical reactions, at other times a nagging unease or the warm sensation of pleasure.
When I tested positive for HIV and was diagnosed with AIDS, I had an extreme physical reaction whenever I thought about having to tell my friends and family. Looking at this reaction more closely, I realized that it was the same reaction I had as a kid whenever I had to disclose something uncomfortable to my parents, fearing rejection or even abandonment if larger secrets were revealed.
It occurred to me that it might be possible to overcome this paralyzing fear by photographing my friends as I told them about my diagnosis. I invited each friend to come to my studio to have their picture taken, a simple head shot for a new project. They weren’t given any other information. For a backdrop I used the curtains from the living room of the house I grew up in. I put everyone through the same routine, creating a formal process that proved to be transformative. At the beginning of each shoot I would start by saying, “I have something to tell you”.
Each sitter’s reaction was unique depending upon their own experience of loss, illness and death, creating a portrait of unguarded, unsettling honesty. As a collective, the body of work speaks to the universal experience. The phrase “I have something to tell you” is often the preface for life-altering disclosures: pregnancies, deaths, love affairs, illnesses of all kinds, winning the lottery. The phrase becomes a kind of mile-marker in a life, delineating what came before from what comes after.
I printed the photographs on glossy paper for several different reasons. First because the surface is reflective, often creating a glare that distracts from seeing the actual image, not unlike what we do as humans creating facades to distract from what lies beneath. Also, the surface is extremely fragile. Scratches on the surface are like scars on a human body, speaking to the experiences of life that a photo has as an object. The skewed color palette while intensifying the emotional response, speaks to my experience with side effects from some anti viral drugs, which included hallucinations and abnormal dreams.
While these photos are probably the worst pictures ever taken of my friends, they are undoubtedly the most beautiful.
Orange Blossoms, Fire Ants, And The Tyranny Of Memory
In 2000 I decided that I would return to where I grew up, to photographically document what it was like in to live in a small town in South Florida at the turn of the millennium. After shooting for a month, deeply disturbing memories from my childhood began to surface, which triggered a nervous breakdown. When I returned home I went into therapy. It occurred to me that if I could make a photographic representation of these specific events from my childhood, I could own them outside of myself as an object and that these memories would no longer hold a shadowy power over my subconscious.
From 2001 to 2011 I returned to Florida at least once a year to make images with friends and family. I would either recreate specific events or I would stay present in my process for images to arise that could hold the emotional weight of memories that remained half shrouded. In the end what I remembered was my resilience and defiance as a child in the face of an overwhelmingly large and seemingly unsafe world. What that came to mean for me as an adult, was the realization that the spectres of my past had no real substance, as if they were only made up of vapor and light.
Beaster & Bear
This project is an ongoing collaboration with the photographer Steven Miller. Through the exploration of our trickster alter egos, Beaster and Bear, we are in the process of creating complex narratives that explore the politics of gay culture, spirituality, and man’s relationship to nature.