Empty supermarkets, masked protestors, and offbeat moments on the streets of Austin all define photographer Sandy Carson’s newest book “Pretty Much.”
Shot entirely in the year 2020, Carson’s images reflect the city’s unrest, from the COVID19 quarantine to Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and its resilience, from decorated front yards and uplifting graffiti. Select photographs will be incorporated in the Contemporary Austin’s second iteration of the “Crit Group Reunion” show, opening Nov. 20 at the Jones Center.
Carson is a Scottish photographer and cinematographer who has been living in the U.S. since the 1990s. His years as a BMX rider and musician inform his photographic career. He currently lives in Austin and runs Family Band, a film production company with his wife Karen Skloss.
“Pretty Much” is available through independent contemporary art publisher Aint Bad and on Carson’s website. I recently spoke with Carson about his photographic process, creating during the pandemic, and editorial decisions that went into shaping his book.
Mary Cantrell: I found the cover image of the book — a small, potted pine in transit, secured by a car seatbelt, to be kind of a familiar image, having used that “technique” when moving plants myself. What made you choose this kind of, humorous, seemingly mundane image to be the cover image? A spot typically saved for really glorious, high impact imagery?
Sandy Carson: That was a first for me to use a car seat belt on a potted plant, actually. It’s usually reserved for cat carriers, kegs of homebrew and humans of course. We were taking the pine to my father in-law’s nursing home to replace his old one that’d died. I chose this for the cover and do think it IS a really glorious, high impact image that IMHO sums up the book and its contents, pretty much. ‘Seemingly mundane and humorous.’ That’s a great tagline for the book, thanks!
MC: When did you start working on the book and what time periods does it span?
SC: I didn’t consciously start working on a book per se, I just take photos all the time and always have some sort of camera on me. The work was made during the calendar year of 2020.
MC: How do you know when you have enough material for a photo book and when do you start working on the format of the book
SC: I guess you just know, you know. It’s a gut feeling. My previous book projects have been made over at least a decade but this one accumulated much faster obviously. I had a lot of spare time to shoot during 2020 and have more than enough for two books since I shot so much in a year. I started working on the format after editing and scanning film around March of this year with printing a wide edit out and arranging on the floor of my living room.
MC: Do you act as your own photo editor, or seek outside input? What are some of your reasons behind certain pairings? Juxtaposition? Aesthetics? To show the passage of time?
SC: I did all the editing and pairings on this project, whereas in previous books I work with a trusty photo editor and have some peer’s have a gander. It just felt right this time to do everything and buckle down as a solo project since I spent a year wandering around mostly by myself with not much contact with people. With the pairings, yeah I wanted the images to talk to each other as a visual commentary to match opposing pages whether it be family life, social issues or just whacky observations juxtaposed together or even contrast at times. Some pairings are downright one liners that hopefully lift the spirits, cos we sure as hell need it from a book made in 2020.
MC: I know you spent a lot of time taking photos on foot or by bike, can you tell me a little bit about the process of discovering things via those avenues?
SC: Life just moves slower on a bike or on foot and I see most of the stuff via those avenues that I wouldn’t see by car, or would have missed an opportunity to make a photo. I can get into more nooks and crannies on bike and hoof too. Movement always brings clarity to making photos and seeing for some reason, for me at least. Its always been a mental escape and meditative headspace to ride bikes and I found that if I rode around long enough I would find something to photograph.
MC: Were you intentionally seeking to capture trends? I am thinking of your photographs that illustrate the way people were communicating with their neighbors through their front yard decorations and funny signs, etc.
SC: Not intentionally, but I did see some trends when I was out and about, especially in people’s yards. People had a lot to say in 2020. It wasn’t ’till editing though that I realized how much of that content there was in signs and decorative messages.
MC: Any thoughts of photographing graffiti? It’s interesting how it kind of provides the photo with a built-in caption. The pairing in the book of the “united we stand” graffiti on a brick wall next to the photo of someone power washing the same wall, was that happenstance or intentional?
SC: I’m a fan of photographing graffiti, I don’t know why but I’ve shot it all around the world. People making public announcements is a sign of the times. In the case of the book, yes it did provide captions to compliment or punctuate. There was a shit ton of graffiti in 2020. Austin was spray painted like I have never seen before. That particular spread was an uncanny happenstance on the Police HQ wall on two different cycles around downtown.
MC: As a creative person, did the pandemic challenge you to make work differently than you are used to?
SC: It definitely made me shoot more than I was used to as it was such an unprecedented and historical time in the world. I had a lot of free time to shoot more with less paid photography work coming in due to the pandemic so it went into this project head first as a reaction to the times. Making photos felt really immediate and in real time so I really used my time wisely, going out when allowed.
MC: One of the things that unifies these photographs, is this sort of uncanny spirit, a focus on things that are traditionally out of place — office chair parked in front of a cemetery, pair of chicken’s on someone’s noggin. What draws you to those moments?
SC: I’m just drawn to out of place moments, off kilter things and interesting people that the general public don’t have much time for or skim past. It’s probably from being Scottish and growing up in another culture that gave me a nosey dark sense of humor. But I mean how could you not see these moments?