Gail Butensky has honed her unique photographic style over decades. Her hard fought for angles and shots at thousands of live concerts over the years has served her more recent work of equally fleeting moments: shots of the desert shifts or of trains or of flora. Hers is a style rooted in nature and chance. When shooting photos of bands like Big Black, The Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Fuck, The Minutemen, Husker Du, Virginia Dare or Pavement, you can see the connection between subject and photographer. Sure, some wacky poses or taking the piss out of photo shoot antics is at play, but you won’t find much in her canon of work that utilizes anything other than natural light, stumbled upon flowerings, or abandoned settings. She is not a set decorator, she is a gum shoe on the fly. In her first commercially available book Every Bend which it out this week, Gail has shorthanded her life in twenty six photos with commentary about each photograph. It is as weighty and personal as any poetry or revealing autobiography that I have read, tricking the reader/viewer that it is all happenstance, really nothing at all. You, of course, will know better. Good photography has the ability to stop you in your tracks. Her work does that.
Your photographs have appeared in and on a myriad of magazines, record covers and books by others over the years. You mentioned when we first started this project that you had put together small books built out of the same cloth of Every Bend for friends, minus the writing that you did in this book. Was it a similar process putting this book together?
The books I put together in the past were each for a specific trip- more as a souvenir and thank you to whoever I traveled with! They had words, simple captions, with the photos pasted into a sketchbook. This book was different because the photos were from a long stretch of many different times and places. For this book I spread finished prints all over the dining room table and ordered and reordered and edited until I had what I thought was some sort of semblance of a cohesive ‘story’. Then I made up words. A general overview travelogue.
You have done quite a bit of commercial work for magazines, record labels, bands, but that work is near impossible for me to sort from your work as an artist, a photographer shooting what and how she likes. Do you approach work on the commercial side in a different context?
Maybe sometimes…. It seems a lot of my ‘commercial’ work ( I even hesitate to call it that) is published by happenstance. Photos I may have taken anyway, I was there, I took pictures, now someone wants to use them. In the small amount of time I was more formally assigned to shoot something, I pretty much shot it all the same way. No studios or set ups for me. Mostly on the fly.
A number of artists harden, get set in their ways with age. I love in the work I have seen of yours from the last few years that you continue to play with the medium of photography. There is a playfulness and inquisitiveness in your early work that is still very much alive in the present. Once photos are taken, do you play with filters, process et al still?
Oh I’m an instagrammer now! I do miss the darkroom and real film, very much, but without that access (and time), I’ve had a good time playing around with digital toys. Not much in real retouching or photo shop (I never did that on prints anyway), just fun stuff. And since I ‘ve always had a camera in my pocket, now I just have my phone. The only difference is its a little bit lighter… and I probably shoot even more because you can delete and save so easily. Maybe too easy?
Does your eye disrupt your day to day life? Do you find you have to stop what you are doing to snap something?
Ah, it disrupts me when I’m not feeling lazy…. Driving a lot in LA, I do sees stuff and think ‘pull over!’ But I’m usually in a rush to get someplace. I may note the spot and think on going back, but…. Walking is much better. I stop to take pictures a Lot. I’m usually behind anyone else I’m walking with… (except Greg- he’s a slow poke).
What is likeliest to catch your eye? Make you stop what you are doing and snap pictures?
So many different things! I’m obsessed with square hedges lately. Why???? Still trying to come up with the acronym for my hashtag. But whenever I’m out walking, a lot more these days, it can be a view, a small strange thing by the side of the road, a juxtaposition, who knows… it’s so easy to stop, look, take a picture. Sometimes it doesn’t translate, and I can save or delete, but sometimes it’s even funnier in the relooking!