Saturday, July 31, 2010
Coffee + Stranger #10 - Coffee with Your Gestalt
Coffee with a Stranger isn't a project with a lot of rules. In fact, I'd say that most of the time there's a whole lot of improvisation going on, with maybe one exception: I always meet people at a coffee shop. Makes sense, right? It's a public space, a safe environment, and there's an abundance of coffee and snacks right at our fingertips.
Although simple and easy-to-follow, I actually broke my one rule to meet with Stranger #10. After several emails, some hemming and hawing on his part, and a series of miscommunications that led to me being stood up at a Starbucks near Lake Merritt, I actually met Bob, Stranger #10, at his home. And why did I break my one rule for Bob? Let's just say I had a hunch that he would be an interesting guy to meet, and he didn't let me down. What actually hooked me was Bob's website, or more specifically, the unusual opening animation featured on his website. You can check it out here.
Be warned, however! If you're at work with a puritanical boss lurking near your cubicle or if you're reading this with young children bouncing on your knees, you may want to hold off on exploring Bob's website. Trust me.
Bob, I might add, will likely not be happy with my giving you such a warning. He's not one for tiptoeing around sensitive issues or playing it safe. "America is so fucking politically correct that's it's ridiculous!" he told me.
Armed, by request, with a medium, non-fat latte, I pulled up to Bob's house one sunny, Friday morning. He lived in one of Oakland's older and wealthier neighborhoods, on one of those hills where as you climb, the houses get increasingly large and extravagant. In his small front yard he had a surprisingly green lawn, an immaculate rose garden, and some vines that crept along a railing and up a drain spout. His house was stucco and much larger than I originally thought. As I rang the doorbell, I noticed a statue, about knee high, of a man in a trench coat exposing himself to me. I gave him a little wave.
When the door opened, I was greeted not by Bob, but by two large dogs and a woman who I believe was related to Bob in some way. She led me to the back patio through several rooms packed with paintings, statues, photographs, trinkets, and figurines, many of which portrayed sex, breasts, and male genitalia. On a windowsill in the kitchen, I spotted a small statue of two pigs humping. The house was quietly buzzing with activity, as Bob's relatives, dogs, partner, and two Spanish-speaking housekeepers all went about their morning routine.
When I first sat down and started talking with Bob, he seemed suspicious and guarded. I got the impression that maybe he regretted inviting some guy with a tape recorder and a notebook into his home. We sat at a table shaded by an umbrella, surrounded by patio furniture, plants, and more art. Standing next to the patio door was a life-size statue of what I took to be a naked aboriginal man with a bowl cut. Placed in his hands was one of those rainbow colored dusters, which he wielded like a weapon.
"I photograph unusual people. That's what I do," Bob told me, as he took a few drags from a half-smoked bidi cigarette that had been sitting in an ashtray. He wore an inside out black t-shirt, peach colored shorts, and reddish-brown glasses that took me a moment to get used to - one lens was a square, while the other was a circle. His hair was short, dyed purple, and he had a red and blue yin and yang symbol tattooed to a bald spot on his head. I'd guess he was somewhere in his mid-to-late fifties.
"It's easy to photograph stuff like the Gehry Building or a beautiful sunset," Bob explained. "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building - wait, do you know who she was?"
"Sure," I replied, somewhat surprised. "I know Helen Keller." These kinds of questions were a common theme throughout my conversation with Bob. He believed that most people under 30 know nothing about culture and history: "This is not a prejudice," he said. "This is what I get from talking to people. Five years prior to their birth it's a blank thing - they have no sense or idea of culture or history beyond color films and video games."
But back to Helen Keller: "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building and it would be beautiful because it's not the photograph, it's the building," said Bob. "Anyone could take a picture of a beautiful sunset because it's not the photographer, it's the sunset."
So no buildings or sunsets for Bob. In fact, he mentioned a trip to Africa where he didn't bother taking pictures of "zebras and elephants and all that safari bullshit stuff." Instead Bob takes pictures of "unusual" people. Even if they look somewhat "normal," he prides himself in digging deeper and finding what truly makes someone tick. "I have a degree in psychology," he said, "and I like to do what I call getting between the psychological legs of my subjects. I really like to get in there. I mean, I'm fascinated by people. And that's one of the reasons why I like your [Coffee with a Stranger] idea, because it's a way of communicating and connecting with people in a way which is really human and that's kind of disappearing because of the internet. I like that."
When I asked Bob to expand on what he meant by "unusual" (and by this point, his initial suspicions of me seemed to have waned), he told me that it was the seemingly "normal" people who actually scare him the most. "Although I photograph unusual people, I understand that people who are unusual looking do that out of a need to be unique," he explained. "So when you see people with Mohawks and tattooed faces and all that, those aren't the scary people. People who are scary are the ones who wear beige or plaid. Those are the ones that people say: 'Oh, he was so quiet. I don't know why he killed his entire family.' The people I take pictures of are basically ordinary people who want to be, and who are desperate to be, unique."
Bob is currently working on a book of photographs that explores feelings of pride. "Pride is like a hydra," he told me, after asking me whether or not I'd ever heard of this mythological beast. "It's one of the seven deadly sins, and people are proud for many different reasons. Pride is really a hydra-esque kind of thing and it runs that entire gamut, from arrogance and egotism to sexual pride, religious pride, and family pride."
Bob showed me the prototype to his book about Pride. Entitled A Puff Piece on the Human Condition of Self-Love, Aggrandizement, Narcissism, and Ego Appreciation, the cover featured a full-frontal pose of a man wearing nothing but a shit-eating grin. He was also, ahem, well-endowed. "When I was living in Palm Springs, this guy came over to my house," Bob explained. "He looked like a gay Ricky Ricardo and he had these giant balls. He's what's called a penis pumper - do you know what that is?" I nodded - I've heard of these penis pumpers before. "Anyway, they use this vacuum machine and I was like, 'Wow. That's quite the set of balls you've got there.' And he's like, 'Well, if you let me, I can come back tomorrow and make them even bigger.' I said, 'No, no, no. That's okay.' So I put him in front of these drapes and took his picture. Ever since, this photo has always affected me as an image of total pride and self-love."
Bob had also been working on a book of photos called Net Men. Basically, this book has lots of photos of men Bob had found on Craigslist, gay chat rooms, and other corners of the World Wide Web. "I was always very direct," said Bob. "I would go into chat rooms, find someone interesting, and write: 'I'm working on a project and I would like to photograph you.' Then they would call me and say something like, 'Are you going to be naked, too?' No. 'Can I jack off in front of your camera?' Yeah, whatever you want. But then I say, 'Who are you. Tell me. What are you? Do you have any interesting fetishes?' I mean, I don't really get off on fetishes, but there's a fetish for everything." Bob picked up the barbecue lighter he'd used to light his cigarette. "I mean, there's even some people in the world who I'm sure get an erection when they see this."
"Net Men is the perfect paradigm for a book," continued Bob, setting the lighter back down on the table. "Because regardless of what they do in front of my camera, that's a portrait of them. If they come over to a stranger's house who found them on a sexual dating site and they only want to wear a suit and tie and sit in front of the camera and do nothing, well, that tells me as much about them as somebody who comes over and does something more interesting."
What's more interesting? "I had one guy come over at 4 in the morning," said Bob. "He came in a pickup truck with three giant suitcases filled with a giant bottle of baby oil, ties, dildos, and all kinds of stuff. He put on a show for me for an hour and a half and made a real mess of my bed because of all that fucking baby oil. That's the same thing, though, as the person who will sit there in a suit and a tie, because it tells me who they are."
Bob spoke most fondly, however, of a series of photographs he'd done of a man named Mark. You can check them out here on his website. "Mark's a friend of mine, probably my best friend, who I met in Palm Springs," Bob told me. "He's bi-polar and he has dementia, so he was on disability and was always available. He was a perfect subject because he's also a photo collector and he's really bright. He's a writer and a psycho, which is to say it was a long time before I would let him walk behind me holding an axe."
The photos of Mark are wide ranging. There are straight up portraits, graphic sex scenes, staged suicides, and the occasional tender moment. Perhaps most memorable and somewhat shocking, however, are the photos of Mark's alter ego, Candy-o. Named after a song by The Cars, Bob described Candy-o as "a really bad gender fuck."
"I'd call up Mark at 4 o'clock in the morning and say, 'Get up, come on over, and we'll go out and take photos of you at the Greyhound bus depot,'" recalled Bob. "One time we were driving through Palm Spring's gay neighborhood where all the hotels are and there was this bad paisley couch, and I mean bad, that someone had thrown out. There were two sections of the couch, one on top of the other, and I had Mark crawl between them as Candy-o. It looked like someone had murdered Candy-o and left him on the street inside this paisley couch. It's called The Death of Candy-o."
Although Bob obviously greatly cared for his friend Mark, I was struck by how much control he seemed to have over his subject. "I always tell Mark he's like a potted plant with a brain," said Bob. "He will do anything I come up with." In fact, Bob was very clear that Mark was not only his ideal subject, but that he seeks men with similar personalities for a lot of his work. For instance, when he posts an ad on Craigslist, he writes that he's seeking "submissive exhibitionists."
"I love photographing submissive men," Bob explained. "You never have to say please. They'll hold a pose forever until you tell them to move, and they get off on that." Here in the East Bay, he's also now working with a friend of Mark's who's manic, bi-polar, and a former alcoholic and drug user.
"Do you ever feel bad working with these guys?" I had to ask. "I mean, if they're manic, bi-polar, former drug users, do you ever feel like you're taking advantage of them?"
Bob was emphatic in his reply: "No. Absolutely not. Because I'm not taking advantage of them. I never take advantage of people. I use people. I believe in using people because everybody uses everybody. Nobody gives anything unless they want something in return. Even Mother Teresa wanted something in return. You just don't go out handing out birth control pills in Calcutta for nothing."
Bob went on to say that his work, and the idea that he could be "taking advantage" of his subjects, was all about perception. "It's the gestalt," he asserted, referring to a school of psychology that led to the coining of the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
"Gestalt is about perception and organization," Bob continued. "Let's say you see a picture of a man and a woman in a bedroom. She's in the process of either putting on or taking off her clothes. Depending on your gestalt, you either see her getting dressed or getting undressed. Or maybe you've seen those pictures that, if you look at them one way, it's a chalice. But if you look at it in another way, it's two profiles. That's all gestalt."
If I'm following Bob's logic correctly, then, if I look at his work and simply see him taking advantage of someone, I'm only perceiving and focusing on a certain part of his work. I'm not stepping back and seeing the whole, or the greater picture behind his work.
"I'm a very selfish person, okay?" Bob said. "But being selfish is not a bad thing. Just like pride isn't a bad thing, but you can take it to the point where you're arrogant. Selfishness is about taking care of yourself. Okay? You can't take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself."
I must have looked skeptical, because Bob continued, bringing me into his analogy. "You're selfish," he said, pointing at me. "I mean, you were determined to come here and get me to talk. In order to do that, with me or anyone else, you're willing to do whatever needs to be done, hopefully in a kind way or whatever, to meet them. You need to get people to show up and meet you so you can get what you need from them, which is what's in their head. But you could also turn it around and be doing this project for really horrible reasons. You could be writing terrible things about people. You could be a real asshole. So being selfish is about getting what I need for me, so I can give it back to them."
Then, as if to punctuate his entire argument, Bob looked me straight in the eye and said: "So I don't take advantage of people. They don't give me anything that they're not willing to give me."
Although I'm not sure I agree with Bob entirely, I do see some of the logic behind his argument. I am meeting people over a cup of coffee for selfish reasons - I want to write about them! There's a part of me, too, who wants the people I meet to be a little whacky and who hopes they say some outlandish things. That makes things more interesting, right? But at the same time, I try to be very careful, sometimes maybe even too careful, with how I portray people in these pieces of writing. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, especially since they took the time to meet with a total stranger. I don't want to be an asshole. Sometimes I might even omit something particularly odd that someone says, just because I don't want them to read my blog and think, "Holy shit! Did I really say that to him?"
Food for thought, I guess.
As for Bob and I, we parted ways on good terms. We even managed to fulfill both of our selfish, creative needs - I got Bob to talk to me, and he got to take my picture: