Collin LaFleche interview

Adolescence, photo books and New York City – we meet photographer
Collin LaFleche.

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i. Right After: Henry holding Emily, New York, 2007 
ii. Right After: Will on the Q, New York, 2007
iii. Right After: Will and Alex Kissing, Brooklyn, 2007
iv. Right After: Graduation, New York, 2007
v. Promenades III: Malaga / New York, 2011
vi. Promenades III: Visalia / St. John, 2011

All photos © Collin LaFleche 2012

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston called Newton. I spent some time in Boston and Cambridge as a teenager but mostly I remember my childhood as a time when I could walk anywhere I wanted to go, which is probably one of the reasons that New York feels comfortable to me. I spent a lot of time outdoors, and a lot of time following baseball statistics, and a lot of time drawing. When I was 14 my neighbour and I built a tree house together.

When did you move to NYC?

In 2005, when I started at NYU.

"New York is macro and micro at the same time, all the time."

How did you find studying at NYU?

Bittersweet. The school has a lot of problems with its bureaucratic structure. You’re sort of left on your own, which I loved and hated at different times, but I guess on balance it was a good thing... It isn’t a 'typical' college experience for the most part. 

But being in New York was very important for me; it changed a lot of my thinking, or perhaps developed a lot of my thinking. It catalysed a lot of ideas for me. New York is macro and micro at the same time, all the time. The way that I observe people and events and objects has changed dramatically.

Did you know straight out of high school that you wanted to pursue photography?

Yes. I focused on photography in high school, and wanted to continue with it.

What led you to document the lives of high school seniors in your project
'Right After'?

Curiosity, and a subconscious need to process my own adolescence. The project started by sheer luck, when I met Will as part of a completely different project (environmental portraiture), and developed into a year-long investigation of Will and his friends, sort of split between his friends that had grown up together in Park Slope and his friends that went to school together at LaGuardia. I wasn’t looking to photograph teenagers. But I connected with Will, and many of his friends, and we got into a type of flow.

When I met Will I saw someone who was not all that different from me, but who had grown up in a place that was dramatically different from where I grew up. At the time I was only in my second year of college and had had a very tumultuous and melodramatic senior year of high school. Photographing Will was perhaps a way of processing this. I never thought much about it while I was taking the pictures. I was interested in exploring the adolescence of kids who on the surface were completely different from me but at their core were dealing with all of the same problems I had grappled with. I realised that teenagers are the same probably everywhere that’s exposed to Western culture. Everyone deals with sex and heartache and drinking and drugs and their parents and school. And then it culminates in this short period where you’re suddenly facing adulthood and having to take care of yourself. It’s exciting and frightening.

The project is not one I could ever do again and especially not now. It could only happen in the moment after I had left my own adolescence and had a mix of perspective and confusion. And I realised recently that it probably wouldn’t have worked with just any group; there was something about Will, and Emily and Matt and Ray and the others that show up in many of the images, that I was able to communicate with in a silent way. I’m very grateful to them for letting me into their lives for that year.

"Everyone deals with sex and heartache and drinking and drugs and their parents and school. And then it culminates in this short period where you’re suddenly facing adulthood and having to take care
of yourself."

What's your daily routine?

It changes a lot, but usually: wake up early, read the news, go to work, go to my studio, go home, try to work a little more but probably watch a movie, read, fall asleep late.

Tell us a little about your 'Promenades' series.

The Promenades series is comprised of images spanning the past six years. All of the photographs are originally Polaroids, which I’ve used for a long time as a quick way to take pictures while doing whatever – walking around, partying, travelling. I used them because they were relatively inexpensive, aesthetically compelling, and easy to return to and flip through and enjoy. In the beginning they were just sketches of ideas – things I found funny or strange or sad or beautiful. 

The images have been edited into the books, three of them now, although there are images not in the books that I would consider part of the series. The first book is made up entirely of images taken in Germany and Eastern Europe in the summer of 2008. It was about these places I was a stranger in, wandering through. The second book was all about New York and my personal life, my friends and family. It was about my interior world. The third book is a mix of the two – images taken in New York and all across the world, places I’ve been lucky to travel to in the past few years.

Over the three years of making the books, the photographs have changed from being sketches for other projects to being the project in themselves. The books are about the way that I take pictures, which is tied to how I explore spaces – by wandering through them over and over. The best photographs from Promenades were taken in New York and Paris, the two places I’ve spent the most time photographing over the past few years. But many of the pictures were made in places I saw once very briefly and will never return to.

What attracted you to self-publish your work? 

Full creative control. Working under my own deadlines.

How relevant do you feel photo books are in the internet age?

Photo books are sort of having a moment again, which is really interesting to me. I guess it’s part of the resurgence of the 35mm point-and-shoot aesthetic – a subconscious response to everything becoming digitised. That’s the romantic answer. The cynical and maybe correct answer is that photography, now finally being folded into the larger fine art market in a serious way, is becoming (has become) commodified, and books are an easy way of making photographs collectible, desirable and expensive.

What I find really strange are the photo books of cell phone images. I don’t understand that impulse other than as a way for somebody to make money. Cell phone images are interesting in a digital format, on a website or blog, which is completely open-ended both forwards and backwards. Digital images (and I don’t mean all digital images, I mean images that are self-consciously and explicitly digital, like images taken with the camera on someone’s phone) are interesting because they are not analog images (and vice versa). Taking them and printing and binding them is too easy – 'once upon a time these were just stupid images on a website, but now they’re important and worth looking at' – and feels somehow obscene. It is a less efficient, much clumsier way of looking at them. The difference in context is very slight, which just illuminates how wrong it is. It’s part of the 'I was here, I saw this' faux-celebrity culture, and it has very little to do with photography. It is also part of the larger movement in the art world towards irony and one-liners, which is itself a product of digital culture, so I don’t know how we’re going to get ourselves out of that. If you’re going to bring digital images into the three-dimensional world, at least use them to your advantage. Don’t make them conform to an old model. (There are of course some exceptions to this, like everything else.)

This probably sounds hypocritical coming from someone who maintains a frequently updated blog of photos taken using an iPhone (and before that a Blackberry). And it’s true that I enjoy going back every once in a while and looking through the images from long ago. But this has to do with nostalgia and a sense of time passing, and nothing to do with formulating some kind of narrative from the images and removing them from the implicit narrative of my life moving along. To me the images removed from that context are only more boring and banal.

Most photo books published now have nothing to do with photography or books; they are only about reproducing something that can be exchanged for money.

"If you’re going to bring digital images into the three-dimensional world, at least use them to your advantage. Don’t make them conform to an old model."

What are your inspirations?

John Berger
The sculptor and my teacher Fern Cunningham, who inspired me to pursue art seriously
Werner Herzog
Robert Frank
de Chirico
Gerhard Richter
The ocean
Fires and camping
Blizzards in New York
The sound of a flag being whipped by the wind
Playing pool
Tree houses
Andy Goldsworthy
Twin Peaks
The Larry Sanders Show
The Price is Right
The Three Stooges
Rocko’s Modern Life
And this video

How did you get involved in the Woolfy video clip, 'Looking Glass'?

My friend Charlie used to work for DFA and they released that single with Rong, and he asked me to shoot the video for it last-minute after their first one didn’t pan out. We made it overnight, literally, and it came out better than expected.

What have you been working on lately?

Thinking about sculpture. I hope to start making some in the summer. I was working on Promenades Volume III for several months and it’s finally done, but now I’m having trouble with the quality of the printing. Mostly I have been trying to read and write more. I work really slowly, usually too slowly.