In Jeff Turner’s words, he takes photos that are about the arrangement of shapes and underlying geometry of the image, where the ostensible subject is just an interesting prop. But his photos are an interesting document of Seattle’s explosive growth and dramatic gentrification. Be sure to check out his work on Flickr and Instagram.
I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects.
What got you interested in photography?
My exposure, if you will, dates back to early childhood, watching my grandmother develop studio-quality photos of her many children in a basement darkroom. I took my first photos as a child with a thrift store Argoflex. I got my hands on an SLR in high school photography class, really took to it, and was very active for a time afterwards, then slowly petered out to just the occasional really good vacation photos for many years. When I first got on Facebook eight or so years ago, someone mentioned in passing how much he liked my photography so I decided to go out and take a few new pictures just so I would have something to post, and here we are.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
I’m in the process of winding down the Hipstamatic Neighborhood project I’ve been working on past couple years. My neighborhood has become prosperous and dull, and not very Hipstamatic anymore. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Minor White’s “camera-as-brush” vs. “camera-as-extension-of-vision” distinction but I’ve tried to adhere to camera-as-extension-of-vision for most of my work so the Hipstamatic camera-as-brush treatment, which I have described as “fiddling with the image until it looks like a memory” has been a fun diversion.
Your photos seem to encompass the urban landscape, architecture, the banal, and things of historical significance. Do you see your work as documenting an ever-changing world?
Without really intending to I’ve been recording some of Seattle’s explosive growth from a middling town with delusions of grandeur to an actual large city, and my own neighborhood’s sudden and dramatic gentrification. For the most part though, my photos are really about the arrangement of shapes and underlying geometry of the image and the ostensible subject is just an interesting prop. I like to have fun with titles and may give something a faux-serious documentary title, like Endangered Surface Parking Lot and include a sober analysis on urban land use patterns in the caption, but the reason for making the photo was primarily aesthetic value; not documentation.
While I still take vacation pictures – and some of my favorite photos are from places new or unfamiliar to me – when I return home I usually say to myself, “Damn. You shoulda at least got a few street shots of what the place looked like, but this photo of a pile of dirty snow you did take will look great alongside all those photos of piles of dirt you already have.”
There are several interesting quotes on your Flickr page regarding photography and seeing. There is one from you: “The memory of it is better than any picture could have been.” Can you talk about this? And can you explain your moniker, Blinking Charlie?
I’ve left that quote up even though I now have no idea now what it refers to. Too bad I didn’t take a picture. So often looking at a photo from years ago takes me back to the otherwise unmemorable time I took it. As far as my “brand name” goes, some time before I had joined Flickr, after locking myself out of Yahoo! Messenger by not being able remember whatever fake birthday I had used to create my account, I just looked around my cubicle and took a new user name the last two words from this piece by Maureen Dowd I had pinned up, mocking former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s interview with journalist Charlie Gibson:
“We must not, Charlie, blink, Charlie, because, Charlie, as I’ve said, Charlie, before, John McCain has said, Charlie, that — and remember here, Charlie, we’re talking about John McCain, Charlie, who, Charlie, is John McCain and I won’t be blinking, Charlie.”
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
My worst photos are created reliably when I go somewhere with the intention of taking some great photos. I do much better when I keep my mind clear and just notice what I’m noticing. The low cost of digital and social media’s endless appetite for content are a trap I can easily fall into where if I haven’t taken any photos I like lately I start to feel like my “productive period” is behind me; no small matter in a place with over 300 cloudy days a year. On the other hand, being able to learn how to take photographs by taking photographs and then reviewing them critically happens much faster now than when I was using film. I feel a lot freer to experiment.
The peer review offered by Flickr (as opposed to automated appreciation from an endless series of like bots on Instagram) has helped a lot. I can’t tell you many times a photo I post thinking “this is a modern masterpiece!!” draws little interest where one I worry is somewhat cliché, or am just on the fence about gets quite a bit of attention. If I just kept my prints in a shoe box and entered the occasional contest, I would never have to accept that fellow photographers whose opinion I care about see right through some not-happening image I just really want to happen or perhaps that I need to be stubborn, conclude sometimes everyone else is wrong, and take the road less traveled.
Do you like the region or city you live in? Do you like your home? Do these affect your photography?
I live in the Central District of Seattle, as the name implies, right in the middle of the city. For generations it was the city’s ghetto for Black, Jewish, and Asian residents. We moved there right after September 11th because my wife wanted to be with her people, but today it is the kind of place where a white man who just recently moved to the area feels entitled to walk up to her standing in front of our house, ask her what she’s doing, and tell her she looks like she doesn’t belong there. The city’s rapid growth has been dislocating and alienating. It’s not unusual to feel lost in a part of town I haven’t been to for a while because so much has changed. On the flip side, I’ve always dreamed of living in a big city and didn’t have to move to one. The city came to me. If nothing else, boom times are interesting.
I haven’t made any effort to comprehensively document these changes. Partly that’s a free-time limitation but also an endless series old buildings with Proposed Land Use Action signs on them followed up with holes in the ground with rebar and tower cranes growing out of them followed up with a 4-over-1 with unleased retail space on the first floor or another glass tower is really not that interesting. I do recognize that the record of the scenery of my day-to-day life at this time may be of interest later and have been careful to record the location for every photo. My wife has been much more invested in this process with her work at the Seattle Public Library; funding a team to record interviews with remaining long-time Central District residents, which will preserve the memory of it better than any picture could.
Who or what inspires you?
If we mean inspires as in influences, seeing Walker Evans’ photography for so many years growing up created some paradigms for me. Houses and Billboards, Atlanta, 1936 is for me a perfect photo and lies underneath a lot of my better images. I also had a lot of exposure as a young person to historical architecture photography and vintage picture postcards. Often, my favorite shots consciously imitate the utter deadpan of a 1960’s motel postcard or commercial real estate flyer.
Stephen Shore’s photo Horseshoe Bend Motel, Lovell, Wyoming, July 16, 1973 – essentially a frame around seemingly random elements (in other words, a photo of nothing) with some underlying special harmony – I saw at a crucial point where I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do creatively. I knew immediately I wanted to take photos like that – photos of nothing.
As I try to break away from that, I’ve found some of Kahlil Joseph’s very magical motion picture work (https://vimeo.com/66703600 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fLKcHu-LJo) along with a variety of other people’s still work that is about feelings rather than things is probably my next “Horseshoe Bend Motel photo” or at least I hope so. Taking pictures of nothing is easy. Visually representing something that makes you feel some kind of way is a mystery to me, especially as I make an effort to avoid photographing people.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
There are number of people on Flickr whose work I greatly admire but I would say in that environment we probably travel in the same circles. Probably the exception would be Cameron Schiller whose work is nothing at all like mine.
I follow a whole different group on Instagram: Joonbug, and Jenoris Caba (monday.monday on Flickr) are both film photographers I always look forward to seeing. Ibán Ramón Rodríguez, Sam Kelly, and Carlos Bravo do the clean and spare landscapes I wish I was doing as opposed to the cluttered and too-close shots I am actually doing. Phoebe, Tony Gum, and Yagazie Emezi remind me I don’t have a very well developed appreciation for color juxtaposition or management on digital, and probably ought to work on that; and I’m always happy when a non-photographer I am following for reasons of general interestingness is in the right place at the right time, manages to avoid typical amateur pitfalls, and posts something really terrific.