THE INTERVIEW: Photographer Sterling Andrews on his new book Gooseberries

Sterling Andrews is a California based photographer who’s recent project, entitled Gooseberries– a series of portraits taken of musicians in the local Silver Lake & Echo Park area along with hand painted backdrops and props, is about to be released as a limited edition set of 11”x11” prints along with a DVD of time-lapse videos and interviews through Eenie Meenie Records. The project features unique whimsical photos of bands such as the Silversun Pickups, Rogue Wave, and Great Northern and will be issued in LP packaging. A sample of Sterling’s work can be found on her website www.shutterface.com and for a glimpse at the project check out the Gooseberries blog HERE.

Gooseberries is such an interesting project that is truly multi-media from painting the set to photographing the bands and producing the stop motion short films- where did the idea come from? How about the name?

I began painting my own backdrops early last year. Something like that is actually pretty difficult to pitch to a band – when one hears ‘backdrop,’ one is apt to think of glamour shots or laser portraits or something – so I made a time lapse video and kept it on my iPod. When I approached someone with whom I wanted to work, I’d show them the video. The project was meant to draw attention to the process of creation as a driving force in all artists – which we so often forget when we’re tweaking and twisting and obsessing over the final product. There’s a short story by Chekhov in which a man discusses his uncle, who – after years of miserly living and dreaming of having a farm with gooseberry bushes – finally harvests a plateful of these bitter, yet somewhat bland berries. The story is a gorgeous way of illustrating that sometimes it isn’t the thing itself – rather, the idea of the thing – that truly drives us.

What was the process like in creating each one of these pieces? How long did it take?

I started with a color palette for each shoot. I knew I wanted Great Northern’s to be red and black. I knew I wanted Earlimart’s to be shades of blue. I knew that Afternoons ‘needed’ green with flecks of red. I don’t know why, but those colors just made sense – and in my mind there weren’t any other options. If Rogue Wave had told me that they wanted to be shot with purple and orange (I used yellow and black) I would have drawn a blank. Once the backdrop was painted, I’d build from there. Each shot in Gooseberries is the final product of about two days’ work – one day of prep (painting took about 4-6 hours, dressing the set took an additional 4-8 hours, including shopping and driving around town to borrow or purchase props). All of the images were shot between May and August of 2008.

It’s great to see a photographer pick up a paintbrush- what is your background in fine art and photography? How different is this from your previous work?

I’d taken a few art classes while growing up, and worked for a friend of the family who was a trompe l’oeil artist when I was in my early teens. I also worked for a children’s musical theatre company for a few years and painted many of the sets for the kids’ productions. Painting was always something I liked doing, but I never thought of myself as an artist. It was sort of the same thing with photography; I didn’t think of myself as a photographer until I realized I had boxes upon boxes of negatives and proofs in my closet and a camera with me at all times.

How much of a plan did you have going in to each shoot? How did you plan things? Were there any happy accidents?

I knew what I wanted from the beginning – it was just a matter of getting the right positioning and expressions. When I shot the Pity Party, I had originally imagined doing a sort of Lawrence of Arabia meets deco heiress/ Rudolph Valentino in ‘The Sheik’ theme, but I hadn’t the time to find a costume for M oddly enough, he and Heisenflei had a very similar idea, and M brought a scarf and headband with him – and they were completely ready to do some of the over-the-top theatrical poses I had in mind.

Each band’s photograph appears very individual, was that done intentionally? Do the backgrounds you created relate specifically to the bands at all? Did the bands add any input?

The concepts had little to do with the bands themselves; I had these images and these colors in mind, and I wanted to use fun, creative people as my subjects – people who knew one another and had more of a bond than a mish-mash of models. That was, admittedly, a bit jarring to some of the bands at first – most of the time when a photographer is shooting a band, he or she is working for the band, and the band has a lot of artistic freedom. This was different – the shoots weren’t about the bands, they were about the project. I really wanted the final products to have the same feeling as those stiff, posed oil portraits which were commonly commissioned in Europe by elite families in the 18th and 19th centuries, so I kept my subjects moving in ways that felt very unnatural, and didn’t really ‘represent’ the bands the way they might see themselves. Of course, that makes for a miserable shoot, so we’d shoot for about twenty minutes, then take a break and have a drink and relax for a half hour, then go back to shooting.

How did you choose the bands to be photographed? How close-knit are the Silver Lake & Echo Park music scenes (I’ve never heard of them)? How did the bands like the photographs?

I had already worked with about half of the bands, the rest – like Le Switch and The Henry Clay People – were people I’d met and seemed as if they’d be fun to work with. The only band I didn’t know was One Trick Pony; I saw them open for Rademacher while I was in the middle of shooting Gooseberries and really loved what I heard, so I asked them to be a part of it, as well. The Silver Lake and Echo Park scenes are integrated enough to where I’m no longer surprised when I find out that someone I know from, say, my old apartment building in Korea Town is close friends with one of the bands I just shot. When people think of Los Angeles, they often think of Hollywood – so competitive and cold and snarky. But the creative folks on the East Side really enjoy being inspired by one another. They play on one another’s records, they talk about their projects without trepidation, and are genuinely excited – not threatened – by the creativity around them. They’re very supportive; sometimes the bands even liked the photographs more than I did.

How exactly is the final product being put out? It seems like an interesting format? Vinyl?

I didn’t want to make just another coffee table book; Gooseberries is a collection of loose prints in a gatefold LP sleeve, and the included DVD is mounted on a hand-painted vinyl 12″. I feel as if the importance of the tactile experience is waning in the digital age; remember what it was like to buy a record and tear it open to reveal photos or fold-outs or fun surprises included in the packaging? This project is sort of an ode to that. Open it up, pull it apart, have fun with it; that’s what it’s for!

The stop-motion films of the shoots are really fun, where did that idea come from? How much of a collaboration were they?

When I showed my first time-lapse video to Rademacher, they suggested doing a music video. Brad Basmajian (who was in Rademacher at the time) used the time-lapse footage from their shoot to make the video for “What I Want.” We liked working together, so we made one for Henry Clay People and Earlimart as well. My friend Ryan Reichenfeld stepped in to co-direct and edit the video for “Like I Needed” (Rogue Wave).

How do you feel about the finished product? Are you particularly proud or happy with any of the photographs in the series?

I really love the image of Le Switch with the silver ping-pong balls, and the Death to Anders shot with the pears makes me smile. I also thought that Jeff Mizushima did an amazing job of shooting and editing the short documentary for the DVD; that guy is so talented.

What’s your advice to young artists and photographers out there? How did you break into the industry? What’s your creative philosophy?

Admittedly, it’s much more difficult to ‘break in’ now than it was when I started shooting. Back then, digital photography was a very new thing (my first digital SLR was 5 megapixels and cost $1500 for the body); if there were any other photographers at shows, they were shooting film, and film is expensive. Now, almost everyone is taking photographs with their iPhones or ‘prosumer’ digital SLRs. When I was starting out, I always tried to be nice, and to pay attention. I networked with other photographers and compared my shots to theirs. If they looked virtually the same, I thought about what I could have done differently. I never thought that a camera gave me the right to be intrusive. I made friends with tour managers, stage managers, security guards, venue staff, and the people who waited for hours in line to get a spot at the front of the stage. If anyone asked me not to shoot something – even if I knew I had the right to do so – I wouldn’t. At least, not until they weren’t looking.

How long did the whole project take? What did you learn from this process? What was most rewarding about it? What’s in store next for you?

The whole project took about a year to complete. I learned a lot about taking risks, pitching ideas, collaborating, and – surprisingly enough – event planning. Putting together the release show for Gooseberries was a lot of (exciting/fun) work; I almost felt as if I’d gotten married. I’ve just begun the research phase for my next project – and I’m having a gleefully childish time doing so. I plan on using my newfound collaboration and planning resources to get involved with some charity and fund raising events in the coming months. There are so many great organizations that are hurting right now. I mean – really, if one can help – why not?

Tim Needles

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