“I like that we have opposite personalities,” says photographer Patrick O’Dell of his friendship with fellow photographer Angela Boatwright.
“I drink and he doesn’t,” Boatwright says, “and apparently, Patrick likes Starbucks, and I don’t.”
“What?” O’Dell’s shocked at this accusation (it later proves to be only half true). The two attended the same high school in Columbus, Ohio, but met eight years ago in New York. Their opposite personalities, and their mutual respect for each other, is evident upon first meeting. Boatwright returns calls immediately and has the energy of an electric guitar or an amp cranked to 11. She is tiny, with dark hair and tattoos, cusses like a sailor, and is a legendary heavy metal fan.
It takes a combination of calls, emails, and texts to get a hold of O’Dell, but once contact is actually established, he’s genuinely friendly and all is forgiven. He writes with exclamation points, posts animal pictures on his blog, and is a doting uncle. So much so that his sister recently told him that if anything were to happen to her, she’d want him to take her kids. All four of them. “She said, ‘You have to take them, everyone else is crazy,”’ O’Dell recalls. “You know what they say,” Boatwright tells him, “If you don’t want to do the dishes, break a dish…”
Professionally, Boatwright is an acclaimed commercial and editorial photographer; O’Dell now produces and films Vice TV’s skate show, Epicly Later’d, which takes its name from his ong-running personal photo blog. When it comes to their personal work, though, there is more of an overlap, and in 2007, they collaborated on the traveling show “200 Troubled Teenagers,” which combined Boatwright’s photos of young heavy metal fans with photos O’Dell had taken of kids at skate demos. On a recent cold and germy afternoon, we got Boatwright and O’Dell together again, in New York’s East Village, to talk about photography and about how, yes, being a teenager sucks, and, no, you don’t ever really get over it.
Do either of you spend much time in Ohio?
PO: I always imagine Ohio as some weird backup plan, like ‘Well, if I blow it real hard, I’ll go back there.’
AB: But how hard would you have to blow it? You’d have to be like a herion addict in the streets to go back there. I guess that is an option.
Did you like growing up in Ohio?
PO: I didn’t grow up in Ohio, I moved around a lot, like over and over, so by the time I got to Ohio, I hated it so much. Now, I almost like it, I think of it more fondly, and remember it fondly.
AB: It’s pretty miserable. It’s the kind of place where everybody wants to leave. When you’re there, everybody is always talking about how they want to leave, and then they leave, and they come back.
PO: I lived in Hong Kong right before that, and it couldn’t have been more opposite in so many different ways. When I lived there, I could take a bus, a taxi, whatever. I went to an American school, and it was like living in New York basically. I really liked it, and then all of a sudden I went to Ohio and I was stuck at my parent’s house. I didn’t have car and I went to this all white school, and I was real grumpy about it for a long time.
AB: Your school was as white as it got, too. So was mine. I grew up there, I was born and raised in Columbus for 18 years. I hated it, I wanted out like a fucking bullet. A week after my 18th birthday, I moved to New York. My parents got divorced and they were both being totally miserable at the time, and I’m an only child, and I was just like, fuck all this shit. I still kind of feel that way. I’m not ever going back, the last time I went back to Ohio I broke out in hives.
How do you think your own experiences as a teenager affect your work?
AB: I think that one show came together because of the pattern: Patrick happened to have a lot of kids at skate demos, because if you’ve ever been to a skate demo, the kids are incredibly interesting. They’re always just out of their minds. And I’d been shooting kids at heavy metal concerts for the same reasons, like I just felt that the kids were more valid than shooting a band photo for a magazine, because they love the music. I was a heavy metal teenage girl for sure, and I always think photographers shoot what they want to understand. So when I’m shooting heavy metal kids, I’m just trying to understand that part of my youth. I guess I see a part of myself in these kids sometimes, I just remember being that age. I had a paper route, and I made $100 a month, and if I was going to go to a show, it cost me $10. That was a lot of money, but it was that important.
PO: I think when I was young, I was one way, but I kept moving and moving and moving and gradually became more isolated and kind of weird somehow, like I didn’t talk to people. Now, I relate to the kids trying to find their place, trying to find the identity they want to have, like “I want these pants because this pro has them, I want this shirt and this haircut,” but they end up weird, like Mr. Potato Head sometimes, you know what I mean?
Yeah, like made up of just different parts that don’t really make a whole.
AB: I’ve been Mr. Potato Head sometimes.
PO: And it’s interesting seeing what they come up with, but also just like I relate. This is a kind of goofy look that some of the kids have, but they’re trying to find their place. And I think more of my work is about traveling more and growing up and moving around a lot, I think that comes through a lot, being transient.
AB: It’s interesting that you say that, because I can see that in your personality.
PO: It’s nice to see the kids, because they’ve got so much enthusiasm. You know, you meet a lot of people and they get older and they really aren’t as enthusiastic about anything, but you see all these kids and they’re just fans—like fans of something and just really excited. And it’s refreshing, because people get a little jaded, and what I liked about the first show we did was at Max Fish, so on the walls there’s all these kids with all this enthusiasm, but in the bar, it’s just drunks.
AB: Who’ve seen everything and they take it for granted. It was really surprisingly refreshing to walk into the bar and it’s like just a wall of kids. Because it’s a bar, it’s 21 and over, and there are all these kids on the wall who are way cooler than you are, and you’re sitting there drinking your liver into the grave. Whatever, that was the best place to show it because it was so low key and you learn so much about framing.
PO: Yeah, mine were like the cheapest prints possible and the cheapest frames possible, and even though I sold stuff for so cheap, I felt bad, because then we remade stuff so much nicer and some people have the first edition. It’s like, that print was made at the lab next to Odessa and the frame was from like some Canal Street wholesale liquidators where I bought a bunch for like three dollars each.
AB: I have this thing where it’s like either top quality or quantity, so I can do like 10 photos that are framed and just like perfect, or you do like 150 photos and there they are, who cares. So we totally went for quantity.
Has being a photographer made you more of an observer or a participant in what you shoot?
PO: I’m more of an observer. Cause I even feel like sometimes with my blog, and I was saying this last night, because I was at this party and I felt like awkward and miserable, like where do I stand, who do I talk to...
AB: How do I hold my arms.
PO: Yeah, but I kept taking pictures of this funny stuff that kept happening. Like I would be sitting there, almost in a bad mood, but I would take a funny picture of something, observing. Then I was thinking that people are going to look at this and get a different idea of me. You know, more like just the reality, like they’re just going to think it’s, like, party wolf. But then afterwards, because the pictures were so funny, everyone else was like “That party sucked,” and I was like, “No, it was fun!” but that was because I got photos that were hilarious. I was thinking if I didn’t have a blog or if I didn’t take pictures, I would have hated it. And it’s just like those pictures of those kids at demos. I hate those demos. Suddenly you’re stuck at a demo and it’s like the 30th one and the skaters are doing their stupid tricks, like their uninspired demo tricks, so I would walk around and take pictures of the kids, because it was something to do.
AB: I guess I’m less of a documentarian, like I don’t go out and photograph my social life, but what I’m trying to do is create stories within my social life and produce it. Like this past New Year’s eve, a bunch of people were in town and so I rented a studio and an 8 x 10 camera and photographed portraits of everybody.
Do you think photographers have always shot their friends or is that something that’s developed more recently?
AB: I think everybody is influenced by what they are around. I think the best stuff that you are going to get comes from your own life.
PO: There are different kinds of photographers, but I think that there has always been a tradition of people who document their lives. But I was just thinking, there’s a part of it that’s my life, but there is a part of it that is someone else’s life, because I don’t feel like I’m that extroverted. It looks like it on my website, especially because it pushes all the parties together. Like I might go to three a week, so in a month there are 12 parties. But it doesn’t show me when I’m like in my apartment, all like, “I’m depressed.” But sometimes I look at it as someone else’s life, like I’ll look at it and think, who is this person? Like, that’s not me. It’s always of other people having fun, like who knows that my brain was doing.
So how did you start taking pictures?
AB: I used to be a bit of a glam-metal groupie, so when we followed bands around from city to city. We went to see this wicked San Francisco glam metal band, like glam metal to the ninth degree, but their music is phenomenal. It was the guitar players 24th birthday, and this was in ‘89, so we baked him a cake in the shape of a snake, because they liked snakes in their video. So we wanted to get a camera to document our snake cake...
AB: So I went to Gold Circle and bought one of those point and shoot cameras and it was basically like the shittiest camera ever. I remember going to the show and asking the T-shirt lady how to load the film. All of a sudden I realized like, “Hey, you can get really closed to the band if you’re taking their picture.” I shot the band playing live and then was like, “I have these photos of you and we have a cake!” It made me a lot braver: When you’re behind a camera, you can kind of just go for it.
PO: My mom gave me a camera to go to summer camp, and I didn’t know how to load the film and so I smashed it because I thought it didn’t work. I remember going on another trip and all my friends were like flipping middle fingers in the pictures, and my mom had dropped off the film and got it back and I thought I would get in trouble.
AB: Did you get in trouble though?
PO: Nah, but the next camera I got, we were posing skate photos. Like Thrasher has this thing caused “Poser of the Month,” where they like fake like they’re on some handrail or fake like they’re grinding a ledge, and I had tons of those.
AB: I used to take photos of Kirk Cameron: Like the pull out photos from a magazine, take a photo of that, and then tell my friends that I shot a photo of Kirk Cameron.
PO: I think back to photos that I took, and I don’t even want to see them again. They’re such bullshit, like barb wire and fire hydrants and the dog.
AB: Ha, screen doors. Do you remember Rick Kocks being like “Never shoot a photo of a squirrel for my class?”
PO: Yeah, he had that rule about pets.
Was that one of your high-school photography teachers?
AB: Yeah, he was out of his mind.
PO: He had this rule: No taking pictures of pets. Which now, because you always want to break the rules, all I want to do is take pictures of pets. To me it’s like subversive, which is fucked up. But like, I remember when the T4 craze was really big and stuff, a lot of people would photograph their pets and animals. There was lots of taking pictures of cats; more so than dogs, cats were popular. And I always thought—and I don’t know if this was the intention of the photographer—but maybe just knowing what Mr. Kocks said about no taking pictures of pets, I thought it was subversive. Like: Here are the rules of photography: NO PETS! And then, “Oh look, it’s this picture of a cat jumping.” But that just made it like a complete circle, going back to the photos a seventh grader would take.
AB: And he was also always like, “Don’t center your subject, or it’ll look like a passport photo.” I mean, centering your subject can be the most dynamic way to take a photo.
PO: That’s the other thing: the rule of thirds. Whenever I take a photo that has rules of thirds, I think it’s corny.
AB: Well, you can spot college photos a mile away, they all have a messy black border, you know what I’m saying? They’re all to the side.
PO: If you look at photos from a certain time period, everything is wide angle like a 24mm. Like the mid-‘90s, and then around 2000, when T4s and point and shoots came in, everything is like 35mm. So every photo that you got was 35mm because it was a backlash against the 24. So now, I shoot with a 24 a lot when I’m shooting film.
AB: You don’t mean a 24, cause I always shoot with a 24. You mean like a 20 or a 15...
PO: No, no, I would never shoot with a fisheye unless for skating. Or I guess, you shoot with a 24 a lot, but I’m just saying most of the photography that comes in is like the same focal length. So I always, like when I was shooting these photos recently, I just used the 24. It was like something that was played out before, but now it’s a backlash: I’m going to use the 24 because it’ll stand out. If you have a T4 and you shoot a picture of anything, it’s pretty interchangeable with an early Ryan McGinley photo. That’s the look.
AB: Yeah, overexposed, but just a little bit. No, it’s true. I’m so glad I’m not just getting into photography now, man. Because you see all these people, they’re coming in, and they’ll see people like Ryan McGinley and Juergen Teller and all that, and think “I can just point and shoot and it’ll look good.” But you don’t understand: Those people have been photographers forever, like they can do that because that’s what they found, they went through everything else. You can’t just shoot like that. That’s part of why Patrick’s blog is so successful is that he knows the rules of photography. You’re not just some dipshit who’s like “Ooh, I found a digital camera!” You know what you’re doing. He just makes it look easy.
PO: Photography’s pretty easy to fake, like “Here are 20 pictures.”
What do you mean it’s easy to fake?
PO: You can really not be much of a photographer, you can go “Here’s my 20 pictures,” and they look really good. But then someone’s like, “OK, here’s your assignment,” and it’s not very good. One of the hard things about photography is how easy it is. It’s like DJing.
AB: You know, it’s so true. Like when I would first get assignments, I would go in there and overlight things. It was the worst ever. It would look like a fucking toothpaste ad. And now I try not to outfancy myself. But it’s funny, cause if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t just load up your camera with this shitty film and go take pictures.
PO: The internet has changed photography more than anything. I feel like a photo that could have flown six years ago couldn’t fly now, because you look at it like “What makes this better than something that I’ve seen on the internet?” With my website, everyday I shoot a bunch of pictures and try to make a little narrative out of it. Beginning, middle, end: It’s one day. But you would look at pictures that people would send in for the [Vice] photo issue, and it’s like, how is this better than the photos on a blog?
AB: And people are looking at the blog, and they’re looking at that photo taken out the side of the airplane going to L.A., and thinking “I could shoot that, too.” But they’re not realizing that it is just one photo in a series.
PO: Yeah, because I do that to illustrate the transition. I feel I need a picture of the airplane or else I’m still in L.A.
AB: I don’t really blog, but occasionally someone will ask me to do something, and I always put the airplane photo in there too, because I think it’s a really successful element.
PO: Before the blog, it was these pictures and they were in a box on the shelf, and that’s not fun; no one sees them. I always thought of my photo series as narratives, but then you had to wait six months, and what are you going to do, show it somewhere? But now, it’s like you get to take someone into your little world. That’s why some of the sites don’t really work for me, like the party photo sites, because they it don’t add up to anything.
AB: That’s why kids are going to send you those kind of photos. They think it’s just as good as the one photo that was just an element in a narrative, but it doesn’t stand on it’s own.
PO: Some photographers take like the really awesome, killer single picture, but I always feel like I need a bunch of pictures. But that’s just me, because I’m not just Richard Avedon.
What’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve shot?
AB: I generally pretty pysched on what I do. Right now I’m sick as shit, I’m sick of being sick, so I’m not as enthusiastic about what I’m doing when I’m feeling a little run down. I like my job, almost anything I do I’m pretty psyched on.
PO: Mine is the Cardiel DVD [John Cardiel on Epicly Later’d], which it’s the most recent thing.
AB: And it’s a culmination of what you do.
PO: There are no photos...
AB: Weren’t you like fanning out on him?
PO: Hell yeah, I don’t know him. I mean, I do now...
AB: How did you approach him, just call?
PO: He’s like a hero of mine. We talked to his sponsors about other people, and I was like “What about Cardiel?” And they were like, ‘He’ll do it, we’ll call him!’ So I showed up, and it was literally like I met him and then filmed an interview with him and turned it into a documentary. I took a couple of photos, and it sucks too, with filming, because that’s the priority and there is no time for taking pictures...
AB: It’s a different headspace.
PO: Yeah, but a couple of times that day I took a break and I shot a few photos, and I loved them. I shot them with film, and there is one of Cardiel with a machine gun underneath a Bob Marley poster in his room. Bob Marley’s holding his guitar and Cardiel’s holding the machine gun, kind of mimicing him. And it’s not on purpose, he just happened to be sitting on a couch with his machine gun.
AB: Yeah, I was so bummed, because when I was shooting with that 8x10, we were shooting in a studio and after 10, 11 hours of shooting, all the guys were like, “Can we skate?” And they were skateboarding this wall and getting really high, and I was so out of my headspace that I didn’t even bother to pull out my 35mm camera—that I had on me—and I’m regretting it like crazy.
PO: Oh, I have so many photo regrets.
AB: Like a photo regret graveyard. That’s my biggest tombstone right there.
PO: I wish I could draw, I would draw pictures of my photo regrets. I remember there was this demo kid once, this girl at a skate park, and she had on this shirt that said “Boys Lie.” She looked so cool, but I didn’t want to come off as some kind of pedophile. You’re second-guessing your own place in the world.
AB: Yeah, I spent all these hours photographing people and making sure they didn’t move and were super-stiff; and the real soul of my friends, I blew.
So when you shoot the show, is it just you?
PO: I’m still trying to figure out how the camera works and everything, and it’s totally different, so I’m just doing that. Yeah, most of the trips, it’s just me. A couple of the shows, I’ll bring another filmer. But usually, I film it all myself, which is hard, like sometimes I find myself asking really stupid questions because I’m interviewing and filming. So I’m checking light balance and exposure and all this stuff. The guy who helps me out called me out on it, and I waslike, “Man you film and ask questions!” Because I end up being like, “So, uh...”
How long do you spend with people?
PO: Usually depends, like a day or two. A lot of my favorite ones were just one day, or two. But they don’t end...Like Jerry’s [Hsu] on his third episode. It’s kind of fun, because it’s been like 15 years of shooting photos, and you get in a little bit of a rut. So like you said, get a different camera. For me, it’s like a different camera. It moves. And it’s funny, because sometimes the shots are real crappy, and I like that. Sometimes in the show, it’s crazy. The mic thing is in the shot for a little while, or it’s orange because I’m fucking with the white balance. There’s a couple of scenes where I’m fucking with the exposure and the whole thing goes black, and we mix it into the show, because I don’t care.