Erica Allen: Interview

Recently closed solo exhibit, “Untitled Gentlemen”, at Melanie Flood Projects featured photographs by artist Erica Allen. Allen, originally from Oakland, California, is now based in Brooklyn. She received a BA in Studio Art from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2003 and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in 2008. The work in “Untitled Gentlemen” consists of photographs parsed from various found sources, including barbershop photos, studio portraits, and historical images. These fictional photographic portraits explore construction of identity and open new meaning in otherwise one-dimensional single-purpose photographs.


Brandon Johnson: Tell me a little bit about the show in particular. Is this its own body of work of is it from a larger series?  How is it organized in relation to the rest of your work?

Erica Allen: This is its own body of work. There are basically two series. The first series is a black and white series that uses historical images for the bodies and barbershop posters for the heads. The second series is using all found color vernacular photographs and studio portraits. I’ve been working on it for about three years and am still adding to it, but it really differs from the rest of my work. I’ve never used people before or found photos.

B: So these are primarily found photos?

E: They’re all found photos. Yes.

B: Did you do research to find them? Were they in archives or something looser than that?

E: They are all found randomly on an individual basis, from estate sales, thrift stores, vintage shops. Each piece is unique. I re-photographed the heads in some of the black and whites from weathered posters that were actually hanging in barbershops, which is why I kept some of the weathering and paired them with historical images that had similar aged effects. But the colors I actually found the posters and scanned them in, just like I scanned the found photographs.

B: Where did you find them? Were they all in New York or various locations?

E: Yes, all in New York. Over the last three years.

B: In Brooklyn specifically or did you find them everywhere?

E: I found them everywhere. I started in the city, because I was living there. But when I discovered the posters, I went to barbershops all over Brooklyn and anywhere I could find them.

Melanie Flood: Did you see the barbershop posters pre-New York? Because you’re from California. I’ve only seen them in New York.

E: I’ve only seen them in New York. I was doing street photography and I caught a corner of one of a guy with this big pompadour who looked like he was about to cry. I thought it was so weird. Then I started seeing them everywhere.

B: Where was that at exactly?

E: It was at 1st Ave and 20th St, I guess? And I lived a couple blocks away.

B: Where’d you get the idea to start documenting them? Did you just start collecting them or seeking them out?

E: It was just out of curiosity. I thought they were really remarkable. They all shared a very weird expression on their faces.

B: Yeah, there’s definitely a distinct look to them. No one is really smiling.

M: Were you only interested in barbershop pictures? There are also salons with more guido types of hair styles like the pompadour. Are you more interested in these types of haircuts? Or is it just about the face?

E: The haircut wasn’t important. When I started getting the actually posters from this cutlery supply store in Jamaica, there’s all kinds of crazy hairstyles, but I wanted people to see the face, the individual. I felt like it was such a balance to put them together—matching the backgrounds to the bodies, because I don’t want people to be distracted by what they’re wearing or the hairstyle, I really wanted to give the attention to these guys who have had their identity stripped. Giving that back to them. Even though you still don’t know who they are.

B: Right. Whereas the original purpose is to showcase the haircut.

E: Yeah, and you’re not supposed to care about who they are at all.

B: So the focal point is changing from the style to the individual.

E: And to put it in a frame we really recognize as privileging the individual subject. So people would automatically recognize it was a portrait of someone and that they were supposed to care who it is. You have no idea, because there are so few clues. You have to think about what you are projecting, who you think this person could be.

B: There’s an anonymity and at the same time alluring mystery as to who these people are. That’s what first struck me when I saw these photographs, I was thinking “Who ARE these people? Where are they coming from? Where do they live?” Because when you first see them, they strike you as bizarre.

M: They all have such a blank look on their faces.

B: Expressionless.

M: Empty, soulless individuals.

B: The guy in the red seems to be subtly displaying the side of his head to show the particular cut of the crew cut that he has going on.

M: Yeah, it’s cool.

B: How did you two meet?

M: I first saw Erica’s work during this Daniel Cooney auction online. Do you know Daniel? He has this gallery in Chelsea. He shows photography and he does these emerging artist auctions. Erica’s rainbow guy, titled #14, was in the auction, and I was going to bid but couldn’t figure it out. Then I forgot about it and when I went back I couldn’t find it. So I got irritated, and emailed Daniel directly to ask about the picture. I ended up just emailing Erica directly about it, asking if I could see it. I didn’t buy it, but only because I don’t have any extra money. Then I ended up showing you my photographs, which was weird.

E: Because I asked.

M: Totally bonkers, but I was like okay, if you want. So, that’s how we met.

B: Then you were like “Hey, guess what? I kinda run this gallery out of my apartment . . .”

M: I thought it would be a fun show to do, especially because it’s in Brooklyn, and I live in a great multi-cultural neighborhood [Clinton Hill/Fort Green] where there are so many barbershops. It fits very well. There’s also the selfish aspect where I get to look at the pictures for a long time and have them be mine for a month. I also liked Erica’s personality. I thought we could be friends or whatever, so I thought it would be cool to do a show and voila.

B: I haven’t seen any of your other work, Erica. What else do you do? Is it mainly photography?

E: For the last ten years I’ve done photography. Before that I did a lot of painting and drawing. I would photograph found textures and urban landscapes and things like that. But as soon as I came to New York, it was so saturated with imagery.

B: When was that?

E: I came here three years ago now. I went to graduate school at SVA.

B: You came from California?

E: Yes, from the San Francisco Bay area. I started working with found photos as soon as I got here. And I had been collecting them for years, but never thought about using them in my own work but when I came here, photographing around the city, it was impossible to take a photo without other photographs in it. So, I started looking more at the images that surround us—what we pay attention to and what we ignore. That intrigued me, even more than going out and taking straight photographs.

B:  As you said before, there’s a vernacular. A New York vernacular in how the images are presented. There’s a certain subculture in which these images exist, in the barbershops. A New York phenomenon, especially. There are similar trends. There are the bodegas with the great names. Once you start noticing something, it’s everywhere.

M: To return to the photos, the bodies are from found photos and you put the heads on. What about the backgrounds? Are they from the body photos and you just put the heads on?

B: Will you explain the construction process? These images are compiled from multiple sources, correct?

E:  I’ll go and find school portraits, you get a hundred or so from a thrift store, and I’ll like a sweater or something. I’ll find another one with a rainbow in the background. Then I’ll find a face  It ends up being seamless but also weird enough to not look quite right. So, sometimes it’s two images and sometimes it’s three.

B: And it’s all done digitally?

E: Yeah.

M: Were you working on these while in SVA? What was that like? What was the reception among your peers? I’m curious.

E: I did the first black and white series and I was just re-photographing the faces and I kept showing the faces and everyone didn’t get it, they thought they were mug shots, a bunch of sad men. It wasn’t until I put the faces in the context of the studio portraits with a body that people realized there was something else going on. They recognized that it was a person, even if we don’t know who it is. But I abandoned the project for a little while. I think some people enjoyed it. Others just didn’t get it.

M: It’s especially difficult with found photos, with appropriation and ownership. It opens up a whole conversation that can get really annoying, especially in an academic atmosphere.

B: “So, what does it mean to use a found photos . . .”

M: Exactly. What other artists influence you or do you look at? It can be films or other mediums.

E: I’m totally not going to say the names right.

M: That’s fine.

B: Don’t worry, it won’t come through in print.

E: There’s an artist named Johan Schmid. He works with found photos. John Steegetzer. They’re both guys that work with creating archives of found photos or layering photos on top of each other. I’ve looked at them, but didn’t know their work before I started working on this series. Also Eric Kessels.

B: There was this interesting outlet at the NY Art Book Fair the other year called Specific Things I believe who have a website and a print publication archiving found photographs in certain categories like “guys with glasses eating sushi” and whatever other categories. I thought that was an interesting project.

M: What do you think it is about found or old photos, like polaroids, that make people want to look at them. Do you think because there is no ownership? Because they’re anonymous people. It has an old feeling, warm and fuzzy.

B: Nostalgia?

M: I like looking at my own old photos, but not necessarily other found photography unless it’s categorized in a certain way because there just seems to be so much. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Spade and Partners on Bond Street make these books. Like one will be called “Bikini,” and you open it up and it will be polaroids of girls in bikinis. Another would be “Shorts,” and it’s guys on the beach with shorts on. They’re nicely curated and organized. It makes it easier to look at. There are more people working with found photos these days.

E: Yeah, definitely. It’s becoming more popular. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s projection. People project their own experience or own visual identification with images. I know when I’m collecting found photos I’m looking for something that seems out of the ordinary. It reveals something that it’s not supposed to. Like the picture is failing in some way. It’s an amazing picture but it wasn’t meant to be taken. Like the person taking it was such an amateur, not that it’s a happy accident in the decisive moment, but it shows something that they never could have anticipated. Like an expression or someone in the background. More than the photographer or subject was anticipating.

M: I’m wondering where these poses [in the barbershop portraits] come from?

B: Right, like who’s art directing this?

M: What are the rules? Because they all have such a similar feeling, in terms of the faces.

B: They all seem to have their chin nodding downwards to display the tops of their heads. The hair is in the center of the photograph. There must be some kind of science behind it. There must be some unknown great barbershop photographer out there somewhere. A master.

E: There are different posters with different faces. This is definitely a conscious edit. Generally, they were probably told not to project. What you really see is this lack of projection. What you see is this kind of interior moment. Maybe we’re actually seeing them, rather than what they want us to see.

M: It’s funny how we think this is so important. The dissection of photography. Why do we think it’s so important to dissect it like this? When I saw these photos, I just looked at them and thought “I just like these.” Not to take away from you as an artist, but it was enough for me to like them in that way. Whereas some photos you have to stand in front of and try to figure them out, like the MOMA show that’s up right now with the young photographers. Those require so much deconstruction. Whereas these, it’s so obvious, the meaning. it’s sort of intrinsic to the photograph. It came so naturally, which is in part what I think makes these photos good.

B: They have a mystery, but they’re not being aggressively difficult.

M: Exactly, there’s a lot of heavily conceptual photography that requires you to work hard at them. Why can’t they be immediately aesthetically appealing?

E: I think accessibility is important. You really limit your audience when you start getting uber-conceptual. I think using found photos nods to the democracy of photography.

B: Right, it’s not necessarily a part of popular culture, but more like everyday culture.

E: Things we’re familiar with.

B: So, was it a conscious effort on your part to choose guys that were posing in that way?

E:  I can’t say that it wasn’t conscious on some level, but I don’t think in making them that I was only looking for faces that were only looking down or in a certain direction. But I definitely think that there is an inherent and unavoidable emotional quality to the expressions. It’s not something you can avoid.

B: They seem forlorn.

E: I’ll leave the interpretation up to the viewer. I did my own editing in constructing them, though.

B: Anything coming up that should be everybody’s radar?

E: I have a piece in the upcoming Center for Fine Art Photography “New Visions” show.

W: Where’s that?

E: Colorado. Also, Still Life, curated by Jon Feinstein, which is currently up at Camera Club of New York until December 19, 336 West 37th St, Suite 206.. I’m working on new website for found photos to go along with my current website,

B: And Melanie, you’re going to Miami?

M: Yes, and we’re doing a show of Jason Polan’s work. It’s two books of drawings he’s done over the past couple of months during road trips in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine. I’m also doing Conversations with Melanie Flood, a monthly interview series printed on broadsheet. Still working out the details on that. I think I’ll be interviewing Anna and Tess Knoebel from Abe’s Penny, Jason, Polan, Philip Toledano, Erica, and others. So, that and 48,000 other things.


-Brandon Johnson, December 2009