2020 as told by photographer Sandy Carson – Lines of Sight
Empty supermarkets, masked protesters, and quirky moments on the streets of Austin all define photographer Sandy Carson’s latest book, “Pretty Much.”
Filmed entirely in 2020, Carson’s footage reflects the city’s unrest, from the COVID19 quarantine to the Black Lives Matter protests, and its resilience, decorated front yards and uplifting graffiti. Selected photographs will be incorporated into the second edition of Contemporary Austin’s “Crit Group Reunion” exhibition, which opens November 20 at the Jones Center.
Carson is a Scottish photographer and cinematographer who has lived in the United States since the 1990s. His years as a BMX rider and musician have influenced his photographic career. He currently lives in Austin and runs Family Band, a film production company with his wife Karen Skloss.
“Pretty Much” is available from independent contemporary art publisher Aint Bad and on Carson’s website. I recently spoke with Carson about his photographic process, his creation during the pandemic, and the editorial decisions that shaped his book.
Mary Cantrell: I found the cover image of the book – a small potted pine in transit, secured by a car seat belt, to be a familiar image, having used this “technique” to move plants. What prompted you to choose this kind of humorous and seemingly mundane image for your cover image? A spot usually reserved for some truly glorious, high-impact imagery?
Sandy Carson: It was a first for me to use a car seat belt on a potted plant, actually. It’s usually reserved for cat carriers, homebrew barrels, and of course humans. We took the pine tree to my father-in-law’s retirement home to replace his old one who had died. I picked this for the cover and think it’s a truly glorious, high impact image that IMHO pretty much sums up the book and its contents. ‘Seemingly banal and humorous.’ That’s a great slogan for the book, thank you!
MC: When did you start working on the book and how long does it span?
SC: I didn’t consciously start working on a book per se, I just take pictures all the time and I always have some kind of camera with me. The works were carried out during the calendar year 2020.
MC: How do you know when you have enough material for a photo book and when to start working on the format of the book?
SC: I guess you know, you know. It’s an intuition. My previous book projects were done over at least a decade, but this one has accumulated much faster obviously. I had a lot of free time to shoot in 2020 and I have more than enough for two books since I have toured so much in a year. I started working on the format after the film had been edited and digitized around March of this year with the printing of a large edit and the arrangement on my living room floor.
MC: Are you acting as your own photo editor or are you looking for outside contributions? What are some of your reasons behind some couples? Juxtaposition? Aesthetic? To show the passage of time?
SC: I did all of the edits and pairings on this project, whereas in previous books I work with a trusted photo editor and have peers peering out. This time it felt good to do it all and devote myself to a solo project since I spent a year mostly wandering alone without much contact with people. With the pairings, yes, I wanted the images to speak to each other as a visual commentary to match the opposite pages, whether it was family life, social issues, or just wacky juxtaposed or even contrasting observations at times. Some couples are downright double liners which hopefully lift the spirits because we really need them from a book made in 2020.
MC: I know you spent a lot of time taking photos on foot or by bike, can you tell me a bit about the process of discovering these avenues?
SC: Life just goes slower by bike or on foot and I see most of the things through these avenues that I wouldn’t see in a car, or I would have missed a photo opportunity. I can get into more nooks and crannies on my bike and hoof too. Movement always brings clarity to take pictures and see for some reason, at least for me. It has always been a mental escape and meditative headspace for cycling and I found that if I rode long enough I would find something to photograph.
MC: Were you intentionally looking to catch trends? I am thinking of your photographs of how people communicated with their neighbors through their front yard decorations and funny signs, etc.
SC: Not intentionally, but I saw some trends when I was outside, especially in people’s backyards. People had a lot to say in 2020. It wasn’t until editing that I realized how much of that content is in the decorative signs and posts.
MC: Have you thought about photographing graffiti? It’s interesting how this provides the photo with a built-in caption. The association in the book of “united, we stand” graffiti on a brick wall next to the photo of someone washing the same wall, was it accidental or intentional?
SC: I am a fan of graffiti, I don’t know why but I have photographed it all over the world. People making public announcements are a sign of the times. In the case of the book, yes, it did provide captions to complement or punctuate. There was a ton of graffiti in 2020. Austin was spray painted like I’ve never seen before. This particular spread was a strange coincidence on the wall of the Police HQ on two different cycles around the city center.
MC: As a creative person, has the pandemic challenged you to work differently than what you’re used to?
SC: It definitely made me shoot more than I was used to as it was an unprecedented and historic time in the world. I had a lot of free time to film more with lower paying photographic work due to the pandemic, so he went into this project head first in reaction to the time. Shooting was really immediate and in real time, so I really put my time to good use, going out when I could.
MC: One of the things that unifies these photographs is that sort of weird spirit, a focus on things that are traditionally irrelevant – an office chair parked in front of a cemetery, a pair of chickens on someone’s noggin. ‘a. What attracts you at such times?
SC: I’m just drawn to out of place moments, offbeat things, and interesting people that the general public doesn’t have a lot of time for or ignore. It’s probably being Scottish and growing up in another culture that gave me a curious black sense of humor. But I mean, how could you not see those moments?