Big Al the Camera Man is a photographer, writer, and designer living in New Orleans. His work strays away from the familiar scenes of New Orleans photography and looks instead to threatened architecture, arcane graffiti, signs, and the possibility of humor and irony that infuse all the city's neighborhoods, not just the well-known ones.
How did your interest in your medium begin?
Jeff Wall’s “Sudden Gust of Wind.” Until then, Art to me was painting. It instantaneously upended so many of my notions of what photography was supposed to be. Staged, enormous, composed like something from the 18th or 19th century, mounted on a lightbox like a fast-food drive thru menu. Most of all, it was set in a landscape startlingly like the one I grew up in. I haven’t thought about Wall in ages. It took writing this to realize how crucial that was: I was able to imagine making a similar picture in the barren cornfield around the corner from my house.
From the perspective of a sixteen-year-old, there’s not much of photographic interest in the flat, gloomy, decrepit part of the rust belt I grew up in. That such a magical picture was made in such a broke-ass landscape was like a crowbar to my imagination. Wall’s Flooded Grave, Ventriloquist, Invisible Man, and Milk followed — all singular, symbolic, uncanny shit. For the rest of high school I was trying to stage photos, dragging my friends around, trying to make them contort like Robert Longo figures. Except instead of a large-format film camera, I was using a Nikon D70 and this silly 18–70mm kit lens.
Around the same time, I saw Duane Michals’ Illuminated Man. That photo could’ve been made in any old basement. It probably resulted from a happy accident. The title adds this transcendent, metaphorical element to it. And it lit my ass up. I saw it and shit you not: the very next day I got a Sharpie and a pair of ping pong balls, drew black dots on them for pupils, scotch taped them to my dad’s eyelids, posed him like Laurie Anderson on the cover of Big Science, and made these poorly exposed photos of him using my grandpa’s old Olympus film camera in our garage. I so badly wish I still had a copy of one.
How do you choose your subjects?
I’ll have a judicious little puff of marihuana to sharpen my senses, then wander around till sundown with a very loose itinerary, photographing everything unusual, extraordinary, endangered, in flux.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you’re a part of?
Not since high school. In the intervening years I was somehow cursed with this lone wolf-ness. I’ve been hapless at ingratiating myself into scenes, and most of my efforts at making artist friends fall comically flat. It’s a real and persistent bummer. My friends are at the point where they mostly tune out my endless ranting, so I very much feel like I’m working in a vacuum.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
I vigilantly try to avoid inspiration. I’ve too much of it already. Most of my life I’ve felt overwhelmed. The internet is such a blessing and such a curse. All culture could stop tomorrow, and I’d still never catch up.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
Oh, yes. But my answer to that spiraled into an entirely separate essay. Here’s a photo about that in the meantime.