Photography, History & Accounting 101
Learning with Henry Rollins, us the shareholders.
By Richard Whittaker,
3:41PM, Thu. Nov. 3, 2011
Henry Rollins doesn’t have a work ethic. He has a work metabolism. Coming into Fun Fun Fun Fest Sunday, the singer/poet/author/publisher/raconteur is now a travel photographer, with his new book Occupants establishing him as punk’s great ambassador/multi-tasker.
Austin Chronicle: Listening to your earlier spoken word stuff, you’ve talked about the places you’ve been, but it’s been about expressing the stories of the people you meet there. At what point did you decide, “I can use the camera as well”?
Henry Rollins: The camera for me, its role in my life changed. For many years I’d bring one with me, normally a small point and shoot, to take photos so I could write about it later – so I wouldn’t forget. You quite often travel on a certain amount of sleep deprivation or there’s information overload. You see so much you can’t process it. The first time I went to India was like that: I came home and remembered very little because I'd seen so much.
Anyway, I started taking a lot of photos so I could write about it later. I saw that I was very lucky to be seeing the things I was seeing. At one point in Iraq I was traveling with a photographer from the New York Times and I said, “I want to up my camera gear, considering I’m seeing some incredible points of view. What would you recommend?” He said, “Do you have some money?” and I said, “Yeah, I don’t want to go crazy, but I can buy a better camera,” and he suggested a medium model, which I got.
You can start taking photographs straight out of the box. It’s kind of like a dignified point and shoot, and that really helped me get turned on to options, what you could do with a camera. You can play with F-stop. You can shoot in manual. You have a palette and colors. That’s when I started realizing I liked some photographs and photo books because of the way the room was lit, or the F-stop, or “How does he make the camera do that? Oh!”
I get photographed a lot, so I would ask photographers, “How do you get that?,” “Oh, that’s F-stop 32,” or whatever. They’d say, “Henry, get yourself a camera book. Learn something.” So a guy suggested a camera book to me, and I read it. Read it a few times actually. A professional photographer who shoots me a lot, who’s thanked in the book, this woman Maura [Lenehan], she said, “Let’s get you some better gear. You’ve got some money, lose this camera, give it away. Let’s get you some lenses and a body that you can really switch lenses and let me give you some lessons.” I said okay and took the plunge.
You spend a few grand and you get a camera that you can really move things around. She gave me some lessons that were completely intimidating, because you’re looking at the real math of photography. The sliding scales of light, film speed et cetera. I said, “I’ll never get my head around this,” and she said, “You will, to the point that you don’t even think about it. You’ll just be dialing in settings without even looking at the camera.” She was right, although it took a while.
So I started going on trips with nothing else but wanting to take photos, where you have a camera at the end of your arm for eight hours a day. That’ll learn ya. Boy, after the 7,000th shot you start getting it. And for a guy like me, who’s basically devoid of talent, I’ll never figure out the short cut, so I have to go the long route and I get better at things by repetition and learning the hard way. It takes me about four times to learn that lesson. I’m basically thick in a lot of ways, but at least I know it.
So basically I’d go around the world with a back pack of camera gear, a couple of [camera] bodies, a few different lenses, and I was able to make the image that had moved me in the first place, because it moved me when I saw it. That was what made me see that I wanted to do a book.
Coming from the independent music world and do-it-yourself, you get an idea and you just do it. Like Lou Reed said many years ago, and it’s a perfect quote, he said, “I’m so small that I just do what I want. It doesn’t really matter what I do. The same people check it out and by and large no one really cares.”
Not to put Lou down, but he’s right. He’s not David Bowie, in that he’s going to sell a lot. He’s Lou Reed. The Lou Reed fans are going to buy a Lou Reed record and he’s free to art out. If Lou Reed goes way out there on a record, you’re kind of happy about that. You say, “Yay, Lou’s gone weird! We like that!” It’s guys like me, who buy all his records because we’ve been doing it for 20 years now. Or The Fall. Mark Smith can really do no wrong, because he knows I will always buy a Fall record.
So I’m not trying to talk about buying, buying, buying, but what I am saying is that a guy like me, I’m very small of fame. It’s not like I’m anything special or well known. I don’t have big records. I don’t have an entourage. So it allows me to do what I want. At one point I went, “Well, I put photo inserts in my travel books, why not just do a photobook?”
AC: It sounds like this ongoing intellectual curiosity-slash-fear of boredom.
HR: That puts me in a nutshell – slash-workaholic, afraid of starvation and failure. I’m curious, like many of us are. Whenever I’m off the road, I can do about 72 hours at home. I live well, I have a nice house, and thanks to the construction there the roof no longer leaks. All my books are there. My records are there. It’s nice. One guy, me, lives there. It’s not a mansion, but it suits me fine. All my stuff is there, I can work out, I can eat, I can sleep. I can be pretty content there. But after about three days or the second time of getting the groceries, I start to feel that life is passing me by and I’m getting old.
I don’t care about age, what are you going to do about it? But when I’m on the road, when I’m touring, when I’m traveling, I feel like I’m being brave. I’m being intellectually brave, and I’m engaging, and I’m living at the speed of life. When I’m off the road, I feel like the clock is ticking but somehow I’m on pause. The older I get, I can’t stand it.
AC: Seems like you’ve reached the point where the biggest frustration in your life is fitting everything in.
HR: But isn’t that a great frustration to have? I’d rather have that frustration than, “I’m flipping burgers, but I want to be a world traveler. My life is going by and I have a job that makes my feet swell.” That frustration, to me, would be unendurable.
So the frustration now is how do I synthesize these ideas? How do I connect dots? Right now I’m reading a book on Lincoln because usually I have one or two books on Lincoln at any given time. It’s called The Fiery Trial and it specifically addresses his relationship, politically and philosophically, with slavery. The guy has taken a single hair off the camel and put it under the microscope. It’s a hell of a read. It won a Pulitzer prize. It’s really amazing.
I’m reading that as well as reading a book on the history of Haiti, and that is their history – slavery and slavery revolt. It’s just interesting how it went from slavery into almost a slave class, and how feudal lords and landowners treated the help in Haiti and America, and look at 2011 America.
Yesterday I was reading at breakfast with the iPad out and the notebook out and a fork and a pen. This is how I live. I’ve always got to be doing something while I’m doing something. So I’m starting to connect these dots about where I think the country may be going to where America has been at one point. This is probably history 101, no great revelations here, but I try to tie that into what I see in Haiti. I spent the rest of the day in frustration, going, “Okay, I know there’s some way to tie all this together. Some historical time line – sociological, socio-eco similarities.”
That’s what I’m going to be doing today on my flight to Chicago. That’s what I was doing last night at dinner. Same hotel, different restaurant, with my Steno Pad trying to figure it out, re-reading the pages of the Haiti book, trying to spark something. So far I’m getting there.
This is what I try and do. This is what I bring to these audiences. As I said to a crowd of people the other night at an in-store, at the risk of being trite of disingenuous, I feel like I am a publicly traded company and you are my shareholders where I account to you.
I need to show you some kind of profit, I need to show you that I am a worthwhile investment. That’s one of the reasons I travel. I bring you back good quality photos, good reportage, these crazy stories. I burn lean tissue, and you allow me to do it.
Henry Rollins performs on the Yellow Stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest Sunday, Nov. 6, 7pm.