Kyle Cassidy: The Unpredictable Eye; Part 1

A master of the unexpected, his work ranges from gritty and compassionate documentaries of the downtrodden to flights of whimsical fancy that smash through the bounds of reality.

Kyle Cassidy has been documenting American culture since the 1990s. He has photographed Goths, Punks, Cutters, Politicians, Metalheads, Dominatrices, Scholars, and Alternative Fashion, in addition to what he called “less prosaic subjects.” In recent years his projects have extended abroad to Romania, where he captured the lives of homeless orphans living in sewers and to Egypt, where he reported on contemporary archaeological excavations.  His Photo-A-Week blog was one of the first photo blogs and now has an average of more than 150,000 visitors per week. He also maintains a relatively exciting twitter feed @kylecassidy.

Kyle’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair (DE), The Sunday Times of London, Marie Claire, Photographers Forum, Newsweek, The Boston Globe and numerous other publications. His documentary photography book Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes was listed in Amazon.com’s “Best 100 Books of 2007″ and was awarded a “Best 10 Art Books of 2007″ medal. Most recently he worked on the big book of Who Killed Amanda Palmer with Amanda Palmer (go figure) and the wonderfully talented Neil Gaiman. Some of his other interesting projects are In The Hive and American Rocker. Kyle is currently hard at work photographing war veteran’s tattoos and science fiction author’s desks. To give you a better insight into this utterly fascinating, fearless, and (dare we say it?) brilliant creative photographer and his passion for Leica cameras, here it is in his own inimitably straightforward words.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: At the moment I’m using the original 1998 Leica Digilux and a Leica Digilux 4.3 (which came out in 2000) as a backup. One thing that bothers me is hearing people say, “Please excuse my bad photos; I don’t have an expensive camera.” I hear this all the time from people who want to show me their portfolios. So lately I’ve been interested in making photos with the most modest equipment I can find. For a while this was my cell phone, but the cameras in some cell phones have become remarkable. I always thought that the Leica Digilux — it’s twelve years old now — was a really beautiful camera. Odd and cleverly shaped, they feel good in the hand and the red dot logo has always been something of a talisman for me. I’ve had a really great time shooting with them.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: My art photos are a sort of collision of the extraordinary and the mundane. I like sedate settings wherein unusual things are going on.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: I was. Though those lines are so odd and blurry I don’t know that they’re useful at all. You see discussions like this online all the time on modeling websites or whatnot “what defines a ‘pro’ photographer” with lots of people who aren’t anything like pro photographers suggesting the definitions. I don’t know if there’s a good definition apart from “a pro is usually someone who doesn’t use the word ‘pro’ when describing themselves.” I see the distinction much more along the lines of good and bad. There are people out there who are full-time bakers who take really good photos and there are people who do nothing but take photographs to pay the bills and produce really unremarkable work. I mean if you work at Sears all day photographing babies you could say you were a professional photographer, but it turns into a meaningless distinction. And I don’t know that there are many full-time pro art photographers. Most of them do other things so that they can do art. So you may be a pro photographer who makes a living photographing politicians and musicians so that you can remain a serious enthusiast art photographer, but I don’t think the distinction is particularly useful.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: I grew up in the 1970s and it was a time during which journalists seemed to be in the thick of the world – Watergate happened and the Jonestown massacre and the Vietnam War. Magazines like Time and Newsweek were really in their heyday and there were movies about journalists that presented a glamorous image of them. I knew that I wanted to be the guy who witnessed things happening. I wanted to be a witness on record and I didn’t want history to pass me by without trying to grab a hand full of it. I think that any artist is pulled in a number of directions by various projects and probably by various forms of  expression. As you keep moving forward you wear out a comfortable space in some type of art. I know I was drawn to music and writing, as well as creating images. And ultimately, my creative world was influenced by a variety of different things, not just photography. My first images with a camera loaned to me by my grandfather were double exposed “ghost” photos and some action-freezing shots of large rocks smashing things and I think that really that first roll of film was a direct, straight line between my 13-year-old self and where I am now. I’m drawn to things in my art that show the world in a way we don’t normally see it. I don’t think I’d be satisfied doing only news or only documentary because there’s also a part of me that wants to create the image, not just always show it as it is.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: There’s a technical aspect of photography that I always tell people is relatively easy to learn. My grandfather was an engineer and when he handed over his camera to me he gave me what was probably a 20 minute lecture on light, lenses, the chemistry of film, the mechanics of  shutter and aperture and really that’s it. Whenever I find myself thinking about some mechanical aspect, it’s always in the words of that first introduction. After you know how to make it work, the hard part really begins. My college had three photography courses and I took all of them, but I learned a lot more by joining the school newspaper and the school magazine and doing a lot of assignments and developing a lot of film. Life in the trenches with someone else paying for your film developing is, I think, the best way to learn. And at the same time, in an environment like that, you’re surrounded by other people doing the same thing who can tell you why they prefer one developer to another or how they got the contrast they did in a particular image. My photography lumbered on in a technically adept but somewhat soulless manner until I got the chance to work with Mary Ellen Mark in the late 1990s and she was the biggest influence on me in so many ways because she was the first person who could articulate what was wrong with my portfolio. And, really, I think one of the best tools that any artist can have is someone who really knows how to tell them why their work is garbage. That dismantling allowed me to really restructure my artistic output with a much clearer view. Later, while working on this project called “Where I Write,” photographing authors in their writing spaces, I heard a novelist tell a student “do you want praise or growth?” and I realized how true that is — you need both, you need to hear what’s right about what you’re doing and you need to hear what’s wrong. And really the key is that you need to hear what’s wrong from someone who’s better than you. So do find a mentor and listen to them. Eventually you figure out what’s useful, what will help you grow and what’s off the mark.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc.)

A: My work is probably divided in half between straight documentary and some sort of Art of Sinister Whimsy.  I’ve done things like “Armed America” where I drove around the country for two years photographing people who owned guns to try and understand that part of what it is to be an American. I’ve done a big series of portraits of people and their rocking chairs, and authors and the spaces that they write in, and war veterans’ tattoos, but I’ve also done things like “Leaving Dakota” and fanciful album covers and images where werewolves run amok in suburban kitchens.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I’ve got this very DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to art. I like to be able to do everything myself and not have to depend on other people. In the late 1990s I started running an electronic mailing list dedicated to the PXL-2000, which was a toy video camera made by Fisher-Price for one year in the 1980s. And one of the people on that list was a New York Times art staffer and photographer. We met up at some point when I was in New York and during the course of the day he showed me his Leica collection. I’d been using my grandfather’s Petri 7s, so rangefinders made sense to me, but the build quality and the just … sheer mechanical joy of the Leica was like Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor Oz. That’s when I was bitten by the bug. And that connection was cemented, I’m a little ashamed to say, when I saw the movie “High Art” where Alley Sheedy plays a talented but reclusive photographer with a Leica M2. Whoever did the product placement for that movie is in good part responsible for pushing me over the fence. I’d like to meet that person someday and tell them “Thank You.”

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: That’s a good question because my work is really bifurcated. On the one hand, documentary and news photography is about truth, as much as photography can be about truth, and it really becomes a huge exercise in morality to take on that mantle. You realize, or at least you should realize, that photographs aren’t in and of themselves honest even if they tell the truth. A photograph’s bias begins when an editor decides what to send a reporter out to cover and then it’s biased again by the photographer’s choice of film, and his or her choice of lenses, and where they choose to stand, and what they choose to frame. Any competent photographer can go to a political rally and come back with a photo that makes it look like it’s a giant celebration or they can come back with a photograph that makes it look like an empty room populated only by a few irrational weirdos. Then on the other hand, I’m producing art images in worlds that don’t exist, filled with UFOs and people who can fly and Bigfoot and things like that. So it’s hard to lump them all together because photography has multiple meanings. It’s a tool that can be used to entertain or to inform.

Thank you Kyle!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Kyle’s work on his website, kylecassidy.com.