With a graduate degree in film from NYU and his motion picture background informing his approach to constructing visual narratives, the Montreal-born, L.A.-based photographer whose interest lies in documenting humanity’s impact on the world – both the intersection of nature and industry, and the narratives of people living at those crossroads – plumbs his own psychological depths only to discover what makes him love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? I think that would be Jean-Pierre Melville, a famous French film noir director. I went to film school and he’s one of my absolute favorites and he also seems like a fun person to hang out with.
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your first sale? My first sale was in the late 90s. I had one solo show at a commercial gallery in Chicago, but I don’t remember buying anything specific. Since they were probably limited proceeds, they must have gone towards the rent or maybe a bag of weed.
What words or phrases do you overuse? The word that I overuse the most is ‘awesome.’ It’s my go-to word for most situations. I like to think that I say it with a tiny bit of irony and self-awareness, that it’s a bit of a cliche, so sometimes I’ll also substitute ‘excellent,’ ‘outstanding’ or ‘beautiful’ – all with an exclamation point!
How do you know when a work is finished? The thing that’s different about a photograph, is it’s a moment of capture. I tend to generally take a series of photos, exploring the subject until I feel like I’ve captured at least one or two that portray what I’m interested in. But a photo isn’t finished until it’s printed and that will often be a process that takes me a couple of days with 1000s of tiny decisions. Really. Absolutely. And I know when it’s done when one looks just the way I want it to, and then I walk away and don’t think about it again.
When and where were you happiest? I’d have to say I’m happiest right now – in this very moment. I am enjoying our conversation, but I was thinking more loosely. I can’t argue with this being the most happy moment, though. Why not?
What is your ideal escape destination? I’m an adventurer/traveler, so the further and more intriguing and different the place, the better. Right now, the top of my bucket list is Cambodia. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively, and it’s something I love to do. I’ve been to Africa six times, I’ve lived in London, Paris and Brussels, but have only been to China and Japan in the Far East and am eager to see more of that.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? I’ve been blessed with mostly good jobs. The most challenging and tiring was being a substitute teacher for kindergarten through sixth grade in Harlem for the New York City school district when I was in film school at NYU. I made $86.11 a day for what seemed like only 6 hours, but also felt like three days when you got home.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I really am not into getting older and if there was some immediate way to address that problem, I think I’d like everything to stay the same, but without having an older person’s aches and pains. I’m 54 and enjoying the heck out of it, but it also hurts like heck to get out of bed.
What is your most treasured memory? My mom died when I was 13 and I have some memories of her that I cherish. Usually when I think about those memories, it’s linked with a lot of sadness and laughs, and I want to always remember the way she was.
What makes you smile? I tend to smile most when I’m looking back at a friend who’s smiling with me. That’s a really joyful place to be – when you’re with a good friend and something makes you both crack up. As a photographer, I knew that if I wanted my subjects to smile, I would smile at them. We tend to mimic what we see as far as facial expressions. I think it happens on an unconscious level. When I smile, the subject smiles and it doesn’t hurt to say, ‘You look marvelous’ at the same time.
What makes you cry? I’m not much of a crier, but I feel sad when personal relationships fall apart over time, and it’s even worse if it’s family. Those are the things that make me the saddest. I have a very good relationship with most of the family, but someone who’s been a very long-term, good friend and someone who you have nothing left to share with – that’s sad.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? I do not watch TV. I watch less TV than anyone I know. My mom just had an extreme aversion to TV and thought it poisoned a child’s mind. Growing up we were only allowed to watch ½ an hour of TV a day. One of the foremost things about me is I’m pretty illiterate when it comes to popular American TV culture [but] I’m big on American film and used to go to the cinema once or twice a day for years.
What is your go-to drink when you toast to a sale? Celebrating usually calls for Champagne, but my signature drink is a rum and tonic. I had one last night at my place. I’m a fan of Cuban rum and Nicaraguan rum. I like to drink and I do enjoy alcohol, and [while] gin has flavors – Bombay Sapphire has something going on – but what I don’t understand is how people can like one vodka over another. I wish I was a better whisky drinker.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? I am a nightowl, and went to bed well after 2:30 last night, but I can’t say I remember the last all-nighter I had. I do remember back in the day that I liked to go to the Pantry, but I haven’t pulled an all-nighter outside of travel. I do only sleep about 5-6 hours a night, but I like to get a little shut-eye before dawn. Morning starts with a cappuccino, and I also like to eat something. I had oatmeal today.
Who inspires you? I am very inspired by the contemporary art scene in L.A. In terms of individuals, there are far too many to call out individually. But people who inspire me are my close and talented friends. I would say Catherine Ruane, Kim Kimbro, Miles Regis, Scott A. Trimble. These are all close friends I see regularly and whose artwork I collected a lot of.
What’s your best quality? Being an active listener. It’s the best [trait] I’ve worked actively on and it didn’t come naturally. I am proud of the advances I’ve made about being curious, about what makes other people tick.
What’s your biggest flaw? I am very much a perfectionist. I’m sure I have some uglier flaws, but that is the one that is the most noticeable and probably the one that impacts my life. I’m a workaholic perfectionist. They tend to go together a little bit. As perfectionism, generally, can serve some good purposes, but generally holds you back and prevents you from experimenting. I’ve worked hard to embrace flaws, but flaws can also be beautiful so I try to embrace them to the best of my ability.
What is your current state of mind? I’m very positive. Everything is going super well and I’m very happy right now. I definitely believe that happiness is tied to our social connectivity in real life.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? The least pretentious thing to say about myself but still be truthful, is that I’m very proud of my artistic practice right now. It’s not only the work itself, but the way that I embody, I guess, the work of being an artist and all the things that go with that. One of the things about part of my practice is being interested and trying to help as many fellow artists as I can, and that’s something I’m very proud of.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I would like to try another planet. I’d like to be some sort of sentient being in a cosmos far, far away.
Cover photo: Teodoro Maniaci High & Dry: Land Artifacts
Zen Psychosis, written by Shana Nys Dambrot with photography by Osceola Refetoff, published by Griffith Moon, has just been released. For more information on Refetoff, visit his website here.