Interview: Cynthia Connolly

words by Jackson Ellis | photo by Cynthia Connolly
| Friday, March 15th, 2002

CynthiaOriginally published in Verbicide issue #5

Since I’ve been publishing Verbicide, I’ve rather enjoyed working with record label publicists who are in charge of purchasing ad space. I find them to be some of the nicest and most interesting people that I get to work with, and Dischord Records’ radio and zine publicist, Cynthia Connolly, is no exception to this rule. I found that besides having very interesting stories, she is an incredibly accomplished freelance photographer. What follows is a phone interview that took place shortly before Christmas, 2001, and examples of some of the finest photographs taken in the last decade.

How long have you been taking photographs? Can you remember the first camera you ever owned?
I guess I took photographs when I was a kid, and I probably had a Kodak 110 camera — one of those pocket cameras. That was probably the first camera I ever had.

What equipment do you use now?
I have an Olympus half-frame camera — the EED — and other Olympus half-frame cameras; a Lyca R5; and I use a Polaroid Land Camera, the 180, which has the adjustable shutter-speed and adjustable f-stop on it…and it has a glass lens as opposed to a plastic lens.

Is using a Polaroid your preferred method of taking photos?
No…Polaroids are kind of handy…I shoot with Polaroid positive/negative film — Polaroid 665 — which makes a negative. So on one side you get a positive, which is the print, and then the other side is actually negative, and you have to continue to process that and then you have a negative, so you can make more prints from that. And from that I would make photo prints. So I actually don’t use Polaroid film the way you would think I do. You probably wouldn’t even know that it was being used, I suppose, because it’s printed larger and you wouldn’t realize it was a Polaroid.

So do you develop all of your photos yourself?
The black and white stuff I do, and then the color stuff I don’t; I have that done at a one-hour photo place that knows how I like my photos printed. Basically, my two most favorite ways to do photography is the color half-frame — on occasion I do black and white half-frame — and black and white 35-mm, and I shoot practically everything black and white in an R5. Almost always, my half-frame has color film in it, and almost always my Lyca has black and white film in it.

Do you prefer black and white photography?
It’s about 50/50.

What is your job at Dischord Records, and what is it like working there?
I do advertising and promotions. Originally, when I worked at Dischord, I did mail-order in the early ’80s, and then I went to art school and didn’t do work for a really long time. Then, I came back in the early ’90s and started working with zines, because zines became more and more of a phenomenon…before there weren’t really that many. They would ask for promos or ads, so I started just doing that randomly when I had time — while also working another job. Somebody else was doing radio promotions, but when they stopped working for Dischord, I ended up doing both radio and zine stuff. Basically, my job is trying to keep up with everybody. Also, my job is to tell people we don’t send out very many promos! (laughter) Which is a lot of my job!

Has working for Dischord given you opportunities to develop your talents in photography?
Yeah, because a lot of my photographs end up being printed in zines, I suppose because people know they can find me here. And when there’s no work at Dischord, I just leave and do other things, like my art. It sort of fluctuates. For a while now, it’s been really busy at Dischord, but I’m kind of psyched that soon I might have some more time for artwork.

One thing I love about the Dischord website is the fact that every time the main page reloads, three different photographs appear. Are those your photos?
I think most of them are, let me look…well, the color ones are — each of those images were taken with my color half-frame. The black and white ones…so far, I keep on seeing Henry Rollins…and there’s a photo by Pat Graham…yeah…oh, man, that’s a good one! (laughter) I gave them a zip file with a bunch of images to use on the website, so when they designed the site, a lot of them were used.

What do you enjoy more: music-related, or non-music-related photography?

That doesn’t mean you don’t like the music-related…?
Music-related photography is okay, I just think it’s more pop culture. People like music-related photography because of the person in the photograph; they don’t like the photo because of it’s artistic merit. It could be both, but non-music photography, to me, is more challenging because of the fact that if somebody is interested in it, it’s because they’re really interested in it…it’s not because somebody famous is in the photograph — which is fine, but I guess it goes both ways. I enjoy doing music photography. But I definitely don’t take photos of live bands.

Do you ever work with bands doing promo photos?
On occasion, if I like the band, but I don’t really do it very often. I don’t really have time to do that…actually, Blonde Redhead just asked me. I took photos of them in the mid-’90s, and Kazu [Makino] has always wanted me to take more photos of them. That would be really cool to do, just because I like their band a lot.

Have you ever had your photos published in anthologies or books, and if so, what?
The photos I did of people in bands with their cars were published in a lot of zines and magazines. They were originally published in Speed Kills, which was a zine from Chicago in the late ’80s/early ’90s. It was all old-car oriented and hot-rod oriented, but also indie music oriented, so it was pretty obvious to take pictures of people in DC with their cars — and everybody in DC, at the time, had all these really weird, old cars.

When was that exactly?
I think it was published in 1993. Maybe ’92… My landscape photos were printed in a Japanese publication, Hitori, which means — well, there’s no direct translation, but it means “singular,” or “one person.” But it really means more than that…“lonely,” but it doesn’t really mean lonely. The feeling of being on your own. I don’t know the exact definition, but if you see it used in Japanese, you can see it used in proper context. That was the name of the zine — but it wasn’t really a zine, it was a hardbound book about music that expressed that kind of feeling. They used a lot of my photos in that book. There were a lot of bands featured and reviewed in that book that I actually like, so that was cool. It was a really obscure concept and it was all in Japanese, but I really like the way it was published…that was a few years ago.

More recently I’m working on a book with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. He asked me for a photo for the cover — which is a color photo — but it will also include 12 to 14 pages of mostly my photos I’ve taken in the desert, and I laid out the pages, so I’m excited about that.

So what else is going on in that book?
It’s Lee’s poetry and my photos, called Lengths and Breaths.

There was a book released last spring called Dance of Days, by Mark Anderson and Mark Jenkins, about the history of the DC punk scene. Were any of your photographs printed in this book?
I think there’s a Rites of Spring photo in there that I took.

I figured there had to be something by you in that book!
Yeah, there’s that one photo!

Do you ever take part in or put on your own photo gallery exhibits?
I started by doing my photo show of people from DC with their cars. The first show I ever did was in Australia. It was a crazy incident; a friend of mine worked for this company and she had to spend all this money by the end of the year, so she bought me a ticket to Australia so we could just hang out. I had been writing to this guy who did a zine there, and when I told him I was coming in like two weeks he said, “I’ll set up a photo show for you.” So I framed all these photos of people with their cars, and I brought them to Australia.

Then, Pat Graham — this guy who did a lot of live DC photography — and I decided that we should do this as a tour. So it became people from DC with their cars and also them playing live in their bands. We toured in the United States, moving it out west, showing the photos in one place for a month and moving to the next place. It became a huge undertaking that we didn’t realize how much work it would be — having to set up and take down each gallery, shipping it by UPS to the next location…that was done between 1995 and 1999.

That’s a pretty long tour.
It went on forever! It took over a year just to get it back east from the tour out west.

In what kinds of places were your photos shown? Art museums…?
No; in art museums you need like four years advanced booking. Plus, I don’t think they’d be interested or understand the relevance of it at all, I’m sure. We did our shows in cafes, coffeehouse-type places, and record stores. We did some shows in “art spaces,” some of them were co-ops…some were shown in restaurants, movie theaters…

Can you tell me about your “Ice Boxes in a Box” postcard collection, and where people can buy these?
I started doing photography when I was in art school, starting in 1981 to 1985, but I really didn’t do that much photography after about ’82 until 1993. I started driving around taking photos of stuff that I really liked, and for some reason, a lot of my photos were of ice machines. It wasn’t until I did a photo show in Seattle — which was like the hugest project I’ve ever done — and that was where I framed a whole bunch of ice machine photos in three big frames. Each frame had about 15 photos in it, and that was where I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought ice machines were interesting! (laughter) Each photo had a caption telling what city and state it was taken in, and the date…people actually found that really interesting.

One day I was talking to a friend on the phone about the ice machine photos, and he suggested that I do “an ice box of ice boxes!” I had to do it after he said that; you can’t deny how cool that would be! So that ended up being a project I did full-bore. It took about three months to come up with the complete concept, find a box manufacturer, and get everything printed. And then we collated everything ourselves at home.

Do you have any other themed collections of photographs or postcards for sale?
I have the deckle-edged color postcards that I shot with my half-frame camera — there are two images on one postcard. Whenever I print new batches I arrange them into bundles that you can buy from me. Then there’s the old postcards of people from DC with their cars that I still have. I ended up making four different groupings of postcards; there were seven in a pack that cost $2.50. It was pretty cheap, but I just wanted people to use them. I named the four sets A, B, C, and D…I still have set C and set D, but set A and B are gone. Those which were the original photos that appeared in Speed Kills.

If you had an entire year to just travel and take photos, where would you most like to go?
Well, I’d probably go to this area in California called the Salton Sea — it’s this body of water that is really polluted now. It came into existence in 1905 when this guy, Mullholland — who Mullholland Drive in Los Angeles in named after — tried to divert Colorado River water to LA for people to use. The channel that they created to bring the water in broke, and it filled up this valley that is below sea level. I think it was called the Salton Basin before, but when it filled up they called it the Salton Sea. It actually created a lake that is still there. They didn’t have any agriculture there before, but now they grow grapes, grapefruits, and oranges. The runoff from all that agriculture goes into the Salton Sea, so it’s polluted with a lot of fertilizer and chemicals. Because of the fact that the ground is so salty, they have to flush a lot of the salt into the lake to keep it from killing the agriculture — making it way more salty than the ocean.

It’s a really weird place…in the ’60s, a lot of people bought land there and promoted it as a great place to invest in and live. Now, all these streets are vacated, and nobody wants to live there because the water is so polluted. It’s really a disgusting place. I wouldn’t mind going there and documenting what’s going on.

Sounds like a ghost town.
It totally is…it’s such a no-man’s land. I would go there, but I also want to go to Italy…the southern part of Spain…back to Death Valley and spend a lot more time there.

Are there any photographers that you admire or find inspiring?
Robert Frank is one. This woman, Sally Mann, I really like the way she prints her photographs. There’s a lot of photographers that I like whose names I don’t even know, but I see their photographs and enjoy them! I’ve always thought Pat Graham’s live band photographs were amazing. I just can’t do what he does. Another friend of mine here in DC, Lely Constantinople, is a great photographer. Marina Chavez, who lives in LA, takes a lot of band photographs that are really amazing. She took the Sleater-Kinney photos that were all over the place; they were used in lots of posters.

Describe your single, most favorite photograph that you’ve ever taken.
It fluctuates. There’s a photo I took of the Salton Sea I really like, but it’s probably not my favorite. Then there’s the photo that Lee Ranaldo is using for the cover of his book, which was my favorite for a while. It’s a half-frame color photo, so there’s two images on one print. On the right is a photo of the bottom of a “fake pond” that was painted aqua-blue, and you can see the shadow of a shrub, so there’s two shades of aqua-blue. On the left is a photograph of a salmon-colored rose, and the colors are so vibrant. The rose is incredibly sharp; the image is unbelievably in focus. With that camera there’s no way to focus except to set the focal distance, so I have to guess that, say, I’m three feet away from an object, and I just snap the photo. So sometimes when it comes out really sharp, I’m like, “all right!”

Then there’s a photo of this tunnel in Tucson, Arizona, which is probably another place I’d want to go to and hang out for a while. There’s a tunnel on Fourth Avenue that goes underneath the railroad tracks. It’s really old-fashioned and weird…the pedestrian walkway is higher than the “car path,” and there’s an old chain attached to huge pillars that hold up the roof of the tunnel. I took three 35-mm black and white photos of the tunnel that go together, and it’s one of my more favorite photos because of the lighting, and the fact that it turned out! It really expresses what the tunnel is. I used 3200 ASA film and it’s really grainy. There’s a lot of photos that I really like for different reasons, but I suppose those are some of my favorites.

What do you aspire to do in the future with your photography?
I’ve always wanted to make my photos really huge, but I’ve never had the room to do it. I think I’d really want to do something like that. I’d like to take more photos of landscapes, wide open spaces, and deserts. There’s a movie that I really like called Touch of Evil that has really great scenes of driving around in Mexico and California that, to me, is the essence of some of the space that I really like. It’s an Orson Wells movie from the ’50s, maybe ’60s. It’s black and white and beautifully shot. That’s sort of what I want to express, but more contemporarily.

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