Capturing Silence

Kevin McCollister is about as unassuming as artists come. He’s quiet, has peppery gray hair and is dressed comfortably in jeans and a sweatshirt when we meet up. But what you can’t miss about him is the camera in tote; he’s just spent the morning photographing the streets of Boyle Heights.

Kevin McCollister is about as unassuming as artists come. He’s quiet, has peppery gray hair and is dressed comfortably in jeans and a sweatshirt when we meet up. But what you can’t miss about him is the camera in tote; he’s just spent the morning photographing the streets of Boyle Heights.

For McCollister, the once-poet-turned-photographer, it’s not about the medium, or how other artists would categorize his work, but it’s about the subject matter. And for a guy living here for nearly 20 years, his recently released first book, East of West LA, is about shooting Los Angeles: all of it, especially the parts of it those living West of the 405 often forget exists.

East of West LA, published by If Publications, is a portfolio of about 50 of McCollister’s best photos. The pages are covered in the sights that struck the artist’s attention as he walked — that’s right, got out of his car — through the streets of Los Angeles. It’s filled with culture: Visions of a taco truck at night, a traditional mask from The Day of The Dead, a warehouse, the LA River, to name a few, and the people that live in these neighborhoods — the immigrants, the street performers, the news vendors. Or, as Publisher Brooks Roddan of If Publication’s describes, McCollister has captured silence in his work. “They just sit there without words, like everything he’s seen and done as a poet is in them and silence is in them as well. It’s like he’s found silence, which is no small thing,” says Roddan.

The idea for the book — If Publication’s seventh release — began when McCollister was introduced through a mutual friend to Roddan. Roddan launched If Publications in 1999 with the money his mother had left him. Also a writer, Roddan was a fan of small presses that favor experimental, progressive work and so began his world-class publishing company here in Palos Verdes.

When Roddan was introduced to McCollister’s work, he was immediately struck by its sense of walking. “They were walking meditations of neighborhoods in LA and I thought, ‘this guy is actually walking, feeling, paying attention to stuff everyone else is just passing by — and usually in their cars,’” comments Roddan. He was in the middle of shaping McCollister’s poems into a book when he realized it was clear, McCollister’s photos were his poems and the finished product would have to be photography.

McCollister made the move into photography four years ago, by accident. He started a blog with photographs of LA to keep in touch with his brother and sister-in-law who lived in Taiwan, and has been shooting every since. “I started getting visitors and comments on my blog more and more. It’s really a digital success story; it just fell into place,” he says, seemingly still stunned by his achievement.

McCollister spoke again and again of the role digital cameras played in his success, otherwise, he’d never be able to work in the medium — he’s only taken one photography class and compares a digital camera to an automatic versus stick shift car. He never really saw it coming, and doing photography took baby steps. But since he started, he’s basically put poetry aside because now photography is his sole creative outlet. “I don’t want to say it’s addicting, but it’s kind of like an obsession. It’s an unhealthy aspect of being fixated on it and it’s been a blast,” he says.

But McCollister is humble. The real success lies in his subject matter, which is inspired by his poetry and his compassion for what others don’t see living in the South Bay. McCollister is moved by the lack of wealth and the homelessness he sees on his walks. “There’s a real gritty side , a Raymond Chandler sort of thing.” First and foremost, McCollister is inspired by empathy and the sense that some things that are not traditionally beautiful — and are considered quite ugly — are also quite striking. “My stuff is not like Ansel Adams, perfect and pristine,” he says. “It’s more about the content.” Secondly, he is inspired by the smorgasbord that is Los Angeles. “There are still plenty of shots that if I was not taking them, I wouldn’t associate them with LA.”

So what inspired this non-native — born in Ohio, lived in New Orleans and Boston — of the LA area to walk the city streets? Mostly, it’s been a springboard to get him out of his comfort zone. And though he’s reluctant to tie it into what he likes about poetry (for fear that readers eyes’ glaze over at the mere mention of poetry), it’s about the urban nature of the city. He cites some of his inspirations such as Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, poets of Americana, the working class and city life.

McCollister can feel the transformation as he crosses the line from West to East. And he says in a city so vast, there are still so many sections he has yet to explore. “There must be every culture in the world here,” he notes. “It is so easy to just stay in my own little square miles, between the Hollywood Hills, the 10 and the Ocean.”

Though McCollister has taken an interest in other photographers since he began his adventure in 2005, he mostly admires throwback photos, those taken in the city streets in the ’50s and ’60s, over contemporary work — think Robert Frank and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Coincidentally, his penchant for the simplicity of these artists’ works goes back to the love for his favorite poets. He actually says when it comes to comparing photography to poetry, there are more similarities than differences. And in both mediums, McCollister will always seek out the gritty, the ugly, the non-traditionally beautiful.

Learn more about other cutting-edge Los Angeles artists, visit www.LifeintheSouthBay.com.

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