A Day in LA: A Conversation with Kevin McCollister
Kevin McCollister is a serious and shy man who spends his days working in a Los Angeles office and his nights walking around the city’s less stylish neighborhoods snapping photographs of churches, taco stands, mariachis, the homeless, and LA landmarks like the Fourth Street Bridge, Union Station, and Olvera Street. His photographs feature the LA that its natives know to be true, but fail to see after so many years of dodging street characters and fighting traffic on freeways just to get to their next location.
McCollister began his career as a poet, and in 2005, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, he decided to start a photography blog as a way of showing his friends the sights of his new surroundings. The mission was simple: explore the “easily misunderstood city” by foot, camera in hand, shooting the images that are counterintuitive to what people usually associate with the City of Angels. (Don’t believe that old Missing Persons song: people do walk in LA, and they’re not just photographers either.)
Nearly a year ago, McCollister’s beautiful, gritty images caught the attention of If Pub's founder Brooks Roddan, whose publishing company specializes in limited edition art and poetry books. After Roddan saw McCollister’s photographs, they decided to publish a collection of fifty-five photographs that would become East of West LA.
Tell me about your background. Where have you lived?
I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio. I think that's what gave me a taste for grime over glitz. Then for several years I was based in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and that was pretty wild. I was working and living on boats that went up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers—pretty much a total retreat from modern life. I saw lots of small, mid-American towns and, of course, the rivers themselves were fascinating. After that I lived in a place that was the exact opposite of New Orleans: Cambridge, MA right in Harvard Square. I felt at home there, more than in LA actually, but the weather was horrible.
How did you transition from being a poet to a photographer?
I went to school at Ohio University and Harvard Extension, but I'm not a graduate of anywhere, and I never studied photography in school. Whatever it was that sparked my interest wasn’t conscious, but it certainly was natural. I began to see that you can convey a lot of emotion within a photograph, and that photography doesn't come with all the alienating artsy-ness of poetry. Plus, it got me out of the house. Walking can be very meditative, at least for me.
Who are your influences?
It all begins with Walt Whitman; He's very city-centric and acknowledges the whole spectrum of being alive. He and William Carlos Williams deal in very concrete images, and there's very little that's grandiose about either of them. Whitman can get carried away with himself, but it’s clear the claims he makes for himself are true for everyone. Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler are two other poets that have been a big influence.
If you settled in any other city, do you think you would have felt compelled to photograph it the way you’re photographing Los Angeles?
I honestly don't know. I'd certainly try. The idea of living in a smaller, less mixed-up city than LA gives me the creeps. Here, there's certainly a place for whatever mood you're in. I can go to Abbot Kinney where I'm just another blip or to Breed Street in Boyle Heights where, until the crackdown, they had all the outdoor food stalls. I don't speak Spanish at all, so it’s pleasantly disorienting.
What do you find yourself drawn to photographing?
Well photography is a compulsion; I admit to that. Every so often, I go to Inglesia Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles, the Catholic mission next to Olvera Street. It attracts some extremely devout people. Outside the church there are street people who have absolutely nothing. It seems the church has a pretty tolerant policy about them. I also check in on some vendors and street people as I make the rounds. Some I see often, some seem to disappear.
**Who are your favorite photographers? **
I really respect Mexican photographers, specifically Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Tina Modotti. They're very elemental, uncluttered, and direct. I also like Helen Levitt and Lisette Model. Generally speaking, I'm much more in the Wegee world than the Ansel Adams one. My favorite photograph is "Main Street, Saratoga Springs" by Walker Evans.
What inspires you?
Knowing that someday all of this, especially me, won't be here anymore and that for all the jokes about being a city of wanna-be TV stars and models, there are a ton of people in this town who are doing great things.