Q&A: Patrick Gookin Talks LA Cellphone Street Photography


In engineering, a “surface street” refers to any ground level street that is not a freeway. The distinction can be lost on most of us, but the term is standard Los Angeles parlance—a place known for its gridlock traffic. Photographer Patrick Gookin has taken inspiration from these barren streets for his latest book, Surface Relations, which he’ll be exhibiting this weekend at Sunday Takeout.

Gookin offers up eerie portraits of side streets and city wanderers, shot on his phone. The images stand at odds with the Starbucks sheen of typical LA scenes, revealing a segregated city full of contradictions. They are reminiscent of his earlier work LA By Car (2014), in which he hired actors to portray lonely passers by, but nothing in Surface Relations is staged. Instead, the photos began as source material for LA By Car, until they began to take on a life of their own.

The Voice spoke to Gookin about isolation, technology, and why anyone in New York should care about LA.

How did you get acquainted with these spaces? They are not your typical studies of Los Angeles.

When I moved back to LA from Tokyo in 2010 I was living between Koreatown and Lincoln Park, working full-time by the beach and commuting more than an hour each way. Avoiding the worst of LA’s freeway traffic, I opted to take surface streets, introducing me to these wide stretches of seemingly empty spaces—populated by lonesome pedestrians and warehouses adorned with for lease signs.

Surface Relations seems to find its root in the term surface street, and also plays on the surface interactions that take place when you explore a city by car. How do you think photographing these moments plays with that dynamic?

True. Photographing these moments runs counter to the very nature of these fleeting, surface level interactions; it asks the viewer to look deeper than what’s reasonably possible from the car; to consider the anonymity of the bodies moving by.

The main ingredients of this book, a city, a car and a camera phone, are all associated with youth culture, but I notice most of your subjects are often older. Was there any purposeful distancing from the idea of young people celebrating in LA?

That’s an interesting question. Some of the pictures do allude to the changing face of LA over the past decade in various ways—in part due to the influx of young people moving here in masses. I’m interested in LA’s youth from at least that angle, and didn’t avoid photographing younger people entirely, but perhaps during the editing phase those pictures felt too one the nose, or possibly alluded to a vision of LA that was too optimistic for me to feel comfortable with.

Phones are increasingly being used to document moments and ideas, but there seems to be a divide in the art world. Could you speak to that? What are the difficulties of shooting by phone?

I think its a risky game in general—to partially define photographic work by the camera that its made with. There’s certainly a fear that the reading of the work might not get past that, and specifically when that camera is a phone that it might be viewed as a gimmick or a novelty.

It seems like most people reserve their phone photos for the web only. Why do you think that is? What made you decide to compile your photos in a book?

I would have to think that’s mainly because people have little use for printed pictures anymore. This type of documentation on the phone is still a very new phenomena where a pictures’ primary function is unambiguous communication of a simple idea—to share information more rapidly and vividly than was ever possible before. Naturally this sharing of information happens on the web. In using the phone I was making a conscious decision to work within the vernacular of popular communication and status-quo image making, though I was curious how these low-resolution images would hold up—visually in their transition to the printed page, but also ideologically in their placement within an art-photographic construct, outside of their more native placement in an Instagram feed. The book allows the pictures to evolve a portrait of Los Angeles—one that takes shape through cumulative relationships between the photos.

How do you feel these low-res images hold up? It seems like the viewer is being forced to reconsider not only these surface level interactions, but the phone’s camera itself, and the way they use it.

I think they work well for my purposes. There’s a very nice contrast between the lo-fi digital image with the thin, uncoated paper that we used. In terms of the objective qualities of the pictures themselves (sharpness, contrast, highlights, etc) some held up better than others. Pictures from some of the newer phones could likely be mistaken for those from a “real” camera, but older images, or ones that were made in less than ideal situations were more easily exploited for their faults and inconsistencies.

The idea of experiencing LA as a kind of ghost-city by car is really interesting. Do you think that idea would translate to New York? Manhattan certainly doesn’t have the car culture of LA, but some outer-boroughs might.

I’m not sure that it would. There’s something about the Western light coupled with the contrast of LA’s gridlocked streets with its barren sidewalks and wide open spaces that make it uniquely un-NY, and lend it that ghost-city atmosphere, palpable almost especially in the middle of the day. Bruce Davidson’s subway pictures are how I would imagine a NY translation to feel. His approach was rooted in experiencing the city’s transit system and public spaces as the average New Yorker does, and he photographed people who were part of that system—right there going through the motions with him.

What’s it like showing these very LA-centric photos in New York? Why did you decide to host a launch party here?

I hope that it doesn’t hurt that there’s a renewed interest in portrayals of Los Angeles within the art-photo world. Seemingly everyone has migrated out there for some amount of time in the past few years to make their LA work. NY is still the epicenter of American photography and publishing; it only made sense to bring the book into the world through that channel—to see it viewed by folks with a detachment that couldn’t possibly exist in showing this work in LA.

Who do you think these photos will resonate with the most?

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time walking in Los Angeles. Hopefully, it will also resonate with people who are interested in the existential baggage that accompanies the contemporary urban experience and the continuing saga that is the effects of technology on our day-to-day existence and relationships with one another.