MIRON ZOWNIR

/ SCOT SOTHERN

in conversation

February 14, 2017

©Scot Sothern

Hey Miron, I think our common denominator is that we both hold dear to the outlaw photographer handle which is something people seem to admire but usually from a distance. I’m new to your work but I really like it and I’m a little surprised I wasn’t already familiar with it. Like me, you’ve been around a while though I think you’re probably a lot more prolific than I am. I’m guessing most of what you do is improvisational photography which is what I’ve always done. Along with the photography we are both writers. We should probably talk about that. Do you think photography has informed your writing and vice versa? Also, It’s difficult getting by as a photographer and writer when you are drawn to the kind of sordid subject matter we both go to. I worked a lot of jobs I didn’t really want and I‘ve been supported by wives, past and present. Have you managed to make a living from the arts? All for now. Let me know if this format works for you. This could be fun.

Hi Scot, 

Nice to meet you too. I’ve been aware of some of your work since those two little booklets from One Giant Arm in which we’re both featured. I’ve started to photograph in the late 70’s in Berlin and London always on my own account or budget because I assumed nobody would be interested in those motives I chose from the very beginning: The homeless, down and outs, punks, freaks, creeps, outlaws and so on. Probably similar to your subjects and motives. The reason we have not been aware of each other sooner is definitely because of the content of our preoccupation and output. It’s just about a couple years that I’m able to live from my work. And in the last two years the interest in it has multiplied. But for more than 30 years I’ve been living more or less on the edge. It was an adventurous, interesting and sometime dangerous life full of uncertainties, pleasure and pain. Since I don’t regret it, I don’t have anyone to blame. But still, I must say I’ve met more cowards in the cultural Establishment than brave ones. And that I lasted so long without compromising is a miracle. And yes I also was always supported by the women I lived with. And there was always someone in charge of a gallery, magazine or whatever who appreciated my work. When and how did you start? Did you always work in LA? I’m writing dirty crime novels and short stories. What about you? Your advantage is that you’re writing in English. I’m writing in German and the only translation I had so far was into Bulgarian. But I also do films which are all subtitled in English but no mainstream subjects either. Of course photography has influenced my writing to a point but not predominantly since my writing is as fictional as it is based on real events. OK Scot, looking forward to your response. Take care, Miron.

 

Hey Miron, 

I absolutely relate to laboring in obscurity for thirty years both as a photographer and a writer until just a few years ago. I think that without the internet I would still be sitting in the dark cursing the world for its unfairness. I have a two-foot high box full of rejection slips from galleries, museums, curators, magazines, editors, literary agents, publishers, and a wide range of assholes. The thing that used to piss me off most was being told I’m too dark or too over-the-top, and at the same time seeing a Robert Mapplethorpe selfie with a bull whip stuck up his butt, go for a million bucks. I knew there was an audience for guys like us but it required being in the right place at the right time, or worse, an MFA in photography at some school for privileged pussies, or a big deal fashion photographer who dabbles in art and specializes in tits and ass. I know that sounds bitter and laced with envy but I like to think I gave that up years ago. You know, I did what I did and I knew it was good and fuck all the rest. If I didn’t respect someone’s work I wouldn’t go see it and I wouldn’t let it make me angry, though I’ll admit this is an attitude that came with age. One thing I should add to that, in all fairness to all the galleries who rejected me over the years, I do understand how few people would want a large picture of a naked crack whore on the living room wall. But still, maybe they could put it in the guest room. Oh yeah, and back to bullwhips and buttholes, you have a really amazing open air photograph of a guy with his pants down pointing his round asshole squarely at the camera. I love stuff like that. My father was a small town portrait photographer in the Missouri Ozarks and when I first started working in the darkroom I had to stand on a chair to reach the trays. I mention that because that’s how I came to photography and when I left home at seventeen for groovier climes, photography was the only thing I knew how to do. How did you fall into it and was it love at first snap of the shutter? I was going to write more, I guess we can rattle on as much as we want and edit later if need be, but I’ve been busier than usual this week. I did want to address the writing but I’ll get to that next. Later, Scot.

I do understand how few people would want a large picture of a naked crack whore on the living room wall. But still, maybe they could put it in the guest room.

Hi Scot, 

This is a docu about me. If you’re interested you could download it. Of course I could send you a DVD but it might take too long. 

https://bit.ly/2XBKe4a

I mention it since it is a much better presentation than the one from Kiev. The interview started out with a stupid question and I was pissed off during the whole interview looking like I was high on amphetamines. And they wide angled my look, kind of out of proportion. I can completely understand your frustration for being rejected and underrated. The difference to me is that I didn’t approach anyone other than my first Gallery which triggered almost everything afterwards. But even so I had a lot of exhibitions and praise, I always stayed underground. And the cheaper my photos were the less buyers I got. The people in charge of the big hype and dough like to get in charge of your personality, attitude and creative output but I never budged. I was one of a few or probably the only heterosexual photographer at the time who documented the fuck piers at the West Side Highway. And I also photographed beautiful and so called ugly women. Hetero Sex. Homeless people. Bums. Psychos. You name it. But in order to cultivate a lobby you had to concentrate on one topic. Beautiful or ugly. Black or white. Rich or poor. Sane or Crazy. It wasn’t politically correct for a white guy to document crime in Harlem or for heterosexual gays banging each other. All those stupid and ridiculous taboos I didn’t give a shit about. I was always fully aware of that and sometime pretty fucking angry about that small minded codex. But if you refuse to play the game you can’t win the superbowl or any other contest. A heterosexual with a bull whip stuck up his ass would have never gotten any or only negative attention. But in the 70’s the gay scene was still liberating itself and it was a brave and important gesture from Mapplethorpe to shoot this self -portrait. I give him credit for that. I like your description of being a kid in the darkroom. That’s early passion and determination. And that might have been quite an adventure. Seeing those images develop out of a white piece of paper. Magic. I was more of a dreamer developing images out of my head without the smell of chemicals drifting slowly into that hallucinatory state between sleep and awakening. That sounds a bit over the top but the fact is that I had never any affinity to the technical necessities of photography. I always preferred a fast camera without too many extras. I never learned how to develop negatives and even in the darkroom I always needed help from my girlfriends. But nevertheless I always found it fascinating to see a print develop into a recognizable image. The guy you are referring to, showing his ass, was a street hustler hanging out at the piers. He had a lot of swing and the right attitude. “I might be insignificant and ugly but I have more fun than anyone!” I guess that’s what I liked about the 80’s especially in NYC. Any creep with charisma and style was encouraged and welcome to exhibit himself. Until Aids began to scare the establishment, and NYC and the rest of the world began slowly to become more and more restrictive.

© Miron Zownir

I started out doing photos with a camera I borrowed from my girlfriend at the time who studied Photography. I started after I got rejected from two film schools. Right from the beginning I concentrated on the down and outs as ever. What about you? How did you develop your style? How did you start out? As a studio or street photographer? I guess you didn’t last too long in Missouri. Talk to you later ps: what’s the best forum to see your photos? Miron

 

Hey Miron, No I didn’t last too long in Missouri. My dad was primarily a portrait and wedding photographer and I was groomed to take over the family business. I left at 17 in 1967 shortly after graduating from high school. I came immediately to Southern California looking for sex and drugs, and holding my middle finger high. I pretty much found what I was looking for. I moved around a bit after that but Los Angeles has become home and I’ve been here most of my life. I do like the photo of Mapplethorpe with the bull whip up his ass and with great admiration. It was just frustrating to know that kind of work could make it big and for some reason my work couldn’t make a ripple.The magic of photography came late for me. I started out doing a lot of gimmicky stuff in photography just to make enough money to keep going. I used to drive around Southern California suburbs knocking on doors where I would find housewives at home with their kids. I’d talk them into letting me come and set up a studio background and photograph the kids, then come back a week later with prints to sell. We called that Kidnaping and I went from one con to the next for a while. In the 1970’s, in North Florida, when a well-known local photographer died I had keys made to his huge studio in the basement of a local mall, and moved in, telling people I had purchased it from the family. Somehow I managed to stay for three years without paying rent. The dead guy was a talented photographer who worked exclusively in black & white so I had to learn, quickly, to imitate his style. That was when I fell in love with photography and when I learned I could actually make a statement and use photography as a form of expression. It was also when I stopped making much of a living with a camera. You know, patrons are less likely to pay for a portrait when I’m determined to make something other than a flattering likeness. I had to leave Florida in the middle of the night and went back to Los Angeles, looking to be an artist. Probably the best place to see a sampling of my different projects and photography styles is on my web page: www.scotsothern.com. I’ve never stayed with a single style and in commercial terms, I probably should have. From 2013 to 2015, I wrote 52 stories with pictures for a couple of columns at Vice magazine. You can see those here: http://www.vice.com/tag/scot%20sothern Your films look amazing, though most of what I’ve seen are trailers. Is it possible to find them in their entirety online? My photography has always been hit and run, it looks like you spent more time getting to know the people you photographed. Do you still see people from your images? A lot of galleries, museums, and magazines are showing conceptual photographs, occasionally I see things I like but more often I don’t care for it. I find more power in your pictures and have always felt a good picture should kick you in the nuts. What’s your take on this? The photographer now, whose work I absolutely love, is Roger Ballen, who is impossible to categorize. Do you have favorite photographers or filmmakers? People in the arts who influenced you? Later, Scot

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Hey Scot,

Just read that you started to make photos in the 60’s and had your first exhibition in 2010. That’s fucking tough! You mean nobody in 40 years gave you a chance? I could have introduced you to a hundred galleries that would have exhibited your work. Maybe small ones but at least you could have gotten an earlier exposure. Well congratulation at least they caught up to you. Even if that doesn’t make up completely for those lonely fucking years. Best, Miron

 

Miron,

Looking back I think I need to take some responsibility for my years of rejection. I always worked very much in solitude, I didn’t socialize much nor did I seek out relationships with other people working in the arts. In 1990 after making the Streetwalker pictures I was kind in a fuck-it mode. I got married, for the third time, and had custody for the next few years of my then 7 year-old son. I became a stay at home father and pretty much stopped taking pictures. I spent most of my spare time reading and teaching myself to write. I continued to submit stories, projects, and collections out and for the most part it wasn’t so much that the taste makers didn’t like my work but I couldn’t get them to look at it. When I did find people there were any number of reasons they rejected the work. The curator at the top photography gallery in Los Angeles (at that time) told me after looking at the Streetwalker pictures, “The pictures are great but nobody knows who you are.” A New York literary agent after looking at my first novel told me I should put my typewriter on the top shelf of my closet and then nail the door shut. This did nothing to assuage my Fuck You attitude. Anyway, in 2010 when I got my first exhibit at drkrm Gallery here in LA I was 60 years-old and knew my wife wasn’t going to be able to work forever, so I made a concentrated effort to change my luck. The internet and social media made a big difference in getting my work out into the world and I started meeting people who I admired and things began to change. Now, I’ve had a bunch of solo shows of my work, three books of photography and stories and my first novel, to be published, comes out next year. So yeah, I had way too many years of rejection but I put some of the blame on myself. Much of what has motivated my forward motion since my 1960’s adolescence has been anger at a world, and country, that’s fucked up, stupid, greedy, and without empathy. I see that in your work as well. I also see compassion and touches of humor. Do you think other equate that to your work? Do you think the shock value and visceral reaction of your work overpowers what you are trying to say?


Hi Scot,

No wonder the magic of Photography came late to you being the son of a wedding photographer. As a matter of fact that it came at all is rather surprising. I guess it wasn’t more intriguing to you than being the heir of a funeral parlour. In 1989, after 8 ½ years in NYC I moved with my ex-wife to LA too. We were driving in a Dodge Daytona equipped with the rest of our cloth, books and a bottle of Bourbon. A couple of month before we left, our apartment was broken in and my camera equipment and everything else was stolen. We arrived at the 3rd of December, my birthday, stayed at the place of a drunk who was just left alone by his wife and woke up in the middle of the night due to an impressive earthquake. It was as if LA was telling us from the start you’re not welcome here. And as a matter of fact I didn’t shoot one single photo there, had to give up a movie project I was preparing for two years, got hooked on crystal meth and got almost beaten to death by the LAPD. We lasted about a year on extra jobs in Hollywood and went back to the East. It was a time so fucking insane that I nevertheless must say it was worth the experience. To imitate the style of a dead photographer and carry on his business has something of a Mr. Ripley. So you fell in love with photography as an imposter. But at least you didn’t have to kill him. In my case I didn’t know enough of the technicalities of photography it was all intuition from the beginning. Nobody would have ever hired me to make portraits of them because my vision, aesthetics and taste was rather peculiar, kinky and morbid. I wouldn’t have tried to cover any shortcomings and shape them into something presentable or flattering. In this way I was always too stubborn, something like an iconoclast by passion. Of all my films “Bruno S. estrangement is death” was probably the most successful one. It’s a portrait about Bruno S. who spend 30 years in an Insane-asylum. Later on he was the protagonist of two Werner Herzog movies, got famous, forgotten and spend the rest of his life as a painter and backyard musician. It debuted at the Berlinale and was shown in many international festivals. But unfortunately we didn’t manage to commercially distribute it and you couldn’t even order a DVD yet. My first full feature film “Phantomania” you can download under: https://www.realeyz.tv/en/phantomanie.html My last full-feature film “Back to nothing” is just premiering at the “Achtung Berlin festival. I can send you a Vimeo link where you could watch it. Street photography is hit and run but when you venture into some one’s private world it might develop into something like a relationship. Especially when you don’t pay them you got to convince them with your empathy and charisma to open up. If someone is at ease with you he might stop posing at some point and you catch the real thing. An unrehearsed moment of authenticity. But I like your photos too even if they have a completely different approach. Those drugged out hustlers posing in front of your camera as if they rehearse for a role in a Zombie movie are very authentic. It’s so fucking Hollywood. You could even get a LAPD cop to drop his pants in front of your camera if you’d promise him a part in a Hollywood gangster movie. As for art, I guess I’m not that up to date. My heroes are all dead. And many of them got famous or recognised posthumously. My favourite photographers are the usual suspects like Weegee, Don McCullin, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Kertesz, Bruce Davidson and so on – all b/w photographers. My favourite filmmakers: Bunuel, Eisenstein, Keaton, Fassbinder, Murnau, early Polanski, Melville, Pasolini, Bergman, Clouzot, Kubrick… But it’s hard to say who influenced me because I was always full of imagination, pictures and nightmare images. And I wanted to go out and live an adventurous life of my own account and free as a bird. But if you’re mentally free and poor you’re always in danger of losing the track of legality. And you might end up in a prison cage as trapped as any Zoo animal. What about you? Roger Ballen reminds me a little bit of Witkin and sometimes his images look as if he was the set photographer for “Freaks”. But sure I like him. Definitely intense and strange pictures. Except for LA I never had a creative out time. If I wasn’t doing photos I was writing or filming. Considering that I only twice had a budget my output in films is ok. But I could have done a lot more. At least 7 of my full feature scripts projects never got realized. On about eight novels and 2 books of short stories, only three got published so far. But most of them I’ve never shown anyone. The one publishing house I’m working with can’t handle more than one or two books in 2 years. And Germany is very limited in brave or innovative publishing houses for dirty novels. So I still have some work to be discovered. Was anger the strongest motive for my creative output? Probably not. I can’t say that I was too frustrated for longer periods at a time. During some shorter intervals of being underrated or ignored maybe but I always had good relationships, emotional back up, creative interaction with other artists, confidence in myself and enthusiasm for my projects regardless of anyone’s acknowledgement or praise. But I had my share of anger, defeats and chaos. And my short temper and impatience got me into a lot of fights and trouble. Which of cause was also a kind of release that prevented me from suffocating resentments or self-pity. But I was always suspicious of the Establishment or any Government I lived under. My empathy for the down and outs is for real but I don’t have any general prejudice against anyone regardless of his reputation. I prefer to deal with individuals. You can find everywhere an asshole or someone cool. But the underprivileged have a hell of a lot more reasons to be angry or unreasonable and sooner or later they will claim their share of the good life. Power and wealth is so unjustly distributed in our world that it is only a matter of time till we enter a new phase of helter-skelter. Yeah sure some of my photos are hilarious but not too many people share my humour. Others are of cause very disturbing or sad. Beyond good and evil or hope. If that shocks that’s natural but not my primary intention. My photographic range covers all kind of emotions. What disturbs people the most are their own moralistic prejudices. If you go further than others and focus on the shady side of life you will always stay controversial. In your street photography you’re also very close to the action. How do you avoid trouble? Do you go around by car or on foot? Just reading Curb Service. Funny story, I like your style, no bullshit, you’re a smooth writer: I’m sure you got a lot of shit from this moralistic morons for paying those hookers. But that’s honest and real and the American Way. What else can you expect from a prostitute? I never had the dough to pay anyone and I got away with a smile or a complement. Maybe I looked a little bit like a hustler myself. Tall, bald, wearing leather pants and sometime even Make Up. But that doesn’t make my photos more legitimate than yours. They would have crucified me in Germany in the 80’s if I would have paid them. Miron

@ Scot Sothern
© Scot Sothern

Hey Miron

I watched half of Back To Nothing a while ago and will finish it later this evening.  I gotta say it’s fucking insanity at its best.  I’ve been mourning the demise of underground filmmaking and now to my delight I see it is still alive, orchestrated and conducted by you.  Your visuals are amazing, there’s a bit where Muck (Rummelsnuff) is pulling a tattooed and multi pierced guy by chains hooked to the guy’s nipples that is as great as any still image I’ve seen.  There is no doubt you will never be mainstream but have certainly found a niche that is yours alone.  The story and dialogue is funny and compelling and best of all entertaining.

Interesting how we have taken different routes to a similar end.  In spite of the work and the tough guy persona I think I’m like a lot of photographers, writers, filmmakers, and artists, there is a dichotomy going on.  I do interviews and talk to people who seem to think I’m out every night hanging with junkies and whores, fucking and getting high but I spend most of my time at home with my wife of twenty-five years, watching television and playing with the cat. I’m a good father and prone to acting a bit goofy.  I used to go to a lot of readings of novelists I like and it seemed the guys who wrote the most hard core, dark and edgy stuff, guy’s like Russell Banks and Irvine Welsh, were the sweetest funniest and most unassuming writers around.  I think that’s pretty normal.

I went through a two-year period, 1985 and 1986, where I didn’t take a single picture, except for what I was paid to do.  I had a gig as an optical camera operator in the Paramount building in NYC, Times Square. I was working night shift and would get off work anywhere from 2 to 5am. I was out roaming the streets nearly every night and saw a million pictures I didn’t take. It was an okay experience and in retrospect I don’t really know why I didn’t bother to make photographs. I guess just being a part of it was enough.

It’s easy for me to note photographers who influenced my work, and while I really love contemporaries like Roger Ballen and Joel-Peter Witkin, the guys who molded my work are old dead guys like Edward Steichen, William Mortensen, and Arnold Newman. I’ve been in love with so many writers but I can’t really name anyone who has shaped the way I write.  When I’m writing memoir or the little stories that accompany my photos I’m not purposely writing in any style other than my own.  When I read those stories, however, they sometimes remind me of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles based stories.  My fiction, I think I can say really is my style alone.  My first novel to be published, BigCity, is still a year from its release so I have to wait a while longer to see what the consensuses will be.

I think that no matter what we do or how outside the system we are, we still want our work to be noticed and to some extent praised.  We need to have big egos to do what we do, especially facing the rejections, you know.  I have to believe they are wrong and I’m right.  I have to convince myself I’m fucking brilliant in order to continue doing what I do. My loftiest goal has always been to have a nice little cult following, making just enough money from books and prints to supplement my social security, which with my work history isn’t all that much. I’ve got to keep working at it a while longer but I think I might just make it.  What are your goals at this point and how do you feel about where you are in your creative life?

I always liked to get up close for photographs but a few years ago I started making images from the shotgun seat of the car, Drive-by Shooting, with someone behind the wheel taking direction from me.  More recently, though I’ve gone back to getting out of the car and mixing with the subjects.

I’ve noticed we are at close to 5000 words in our conversations.  I’m thinking a few more paragraphs from you and we might wrap it up.  I can splice it all together, then we can both take a look and do any editing we might want to do and call it a day.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and I love what you have accomplished.  Your work is up there with the best.  I hope we keep the conversation and friendship going for a long time.

All best,

Scot

© Scott Sothern
© Scot Sothern

Hi Scot,

I’m just reading “Farewell my Lovely” and yeah, Chandler is a good comparison to your style. You’re more contemporary of cause, a bit sleazier and more personal. My earliest fascination was literature but I guess I mentioned that before. Other than you I’m not really the family type. I always had close relationships but no kids. And my girlfriends were not the homy types either. I don’t know how many people would refer to me as a nice guy. I have my angles and twists and I’m as easy to get along with as potentially difficult. Society made life very complicated (it probably always was) and some people just don’t know any more how to be themselves. I’m very allergic to moralistic prejudice and one way opinions and I have a very dialectic approach to life. You could see everything from a completely contradictory angle as Nietzsche proofed and you never find the ultimate truth because life is not that fucking simple. And with the overpopulation in years to come the future will not be more peaceful, healthier, civilized or easier to get by. The individual will lose more and more personal freedom and art will become just another merchandise. So free thinkers and iconoclasts like you and me are an endangered species. If you are aware of that it’s not that easy to get along with everybody if they like your artwork or not. Your drive by shooting is an interesting method but in a way very adapted to LA. You wouldn’t get anywhere if you’d tried that in NYC or Berlin. In my creative life I’m at a point where I’m not saturated in a long run. It’s still too early to draw a balance-sheet. I’d still love to do a couple of full feature movies, write a couple of more books and photograph in the hot spots of the world. And I hope I still have some adventures, thrills and unexpected surprises ahead that will inspire me when I feel I’ve seen and done it all. But that’s anyway impossible. You’ve never seen enough until you’re dead. Sure we can wrap it up anytime. Otherwise we could go on forever and we might empty our guns before the final showdown. Of cause I also very much enjoyed our conversation. I always get along with free spiritual minds and on top of it I really like and respect your work. You really connected your photography with your writing in a very intriguing way. And your photography as well as your writing is good enough to stand on its own. I always made distinction between my writing and my photography. I think I would space out too much in my descriptions and the words might compete too much with the image. I prefer to keep the mystery of the unknown and rather like to trigger questions. It’s just another approach. If I get a budget I will come this year to an extensive photo trip to the States. After all this time I’d like to work on something like a modern day “The Americans” like Robert Frank’s book. Even if the title is too pretentious. Either way I’d stop in LA and would love to meet you. By the way why do you walk with a stick? Do you have a serious handicap? Take care and talk to you soon,

Hey Miron,

Yeah I have been walking with a cane since 1990. I fucked up my cervical spine on a motorcycle when I was a senior in high school, 1967. I had chronic pain in my back and neck which I dealt with and tried to ignore as much as possible. Then in 1990 after years of misdiagnoses I had bone spurs grow on my cervical spine into my spinal column causing permanent damage and hindering my walk and a few other odds and ends. I’ve had three surgeries and I get by and try and not let it keep me down. Congratulations, I see you have a new solo show at Hardhitta Gallery. Very cool. Is that a part of Taschen Publishing? Hi Scot, Wow that sounds tough. Years of misdiagnoses and you probably can’t sue anyone because you don’t have enough money. That you managed anyway to make all this photos is great. Congratulations. Bene Taschen the gallerist is the son of the famous Taschen publisher. The show is at the publishing house of Taschen in Cologne. In May I’m having the biggest exhibition of my career at the house of photography at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. Looking forward to see the transcript of our conversation. Take care, Miron

Hey Miron,

It’s been a delight and a pleasure. Scot

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