21 September 2009
Talking to Devin Elijah is a complex, intricate and endlessly engaging process. Primarily a photographer, his wordsmithery however makes for both entertaining and thought provoking discourse. Raised near Boston, he now lives and photographs in New York, “a place where searching souls come to be found” and his intense, intimate portraits “of people on the verge” encompass both the hierarchy and glorious underbelly of the city. As a child his three fantasies entailed “an older hirsute gentlemen removing my knee length wool jacket as we lay down to share stories of New York.” It is our greatest pleasure to introduce Devin Elijah.
PP. You are based in New York. Have you always lived there?
DE. I’m actually originally from Massachusetts, the Boston area, Harvard, Fenway Park, same sex marriage and so on. The decision to move to New York was a combination of not being in a position to afford art school, as well as always having an intrinsic sense of being an orphan. My mother passed away when I was six and I moved out of my father’s home before I’d turned 16. New York City represented for me a crash course in the photography industry as much as a place where searching souls come to be found.
PP. How long ago did you move to New York? Was it scary? Exciting, or a bit of both?
DE. I moved to the city two and a half years ago. It’s strange to reflect back on because it seems at times like trying to recollect a dream just after you wake up, knowing that if you don’t remember it right away, you’re doomed to live with just vague images. Partially for that reason I find myself hanging onto ephemera that represents certain moments and relationships for me.
There was definitely an element of both though. The fear stemming from things such as: having just an air mattress in a friends apartment to sleep on, $100 in your pocket, and wondering where you’re going to get a job. The excitement coming from exploring the unknown in the avenues and the faces of strangers, and the idea that this city has nurtured so many legends and tragic heroes. I’ve fortunately never been homeless but I did take up residence in a catholic church in the city’s East Village for half a year to avoid being so and moments such as that can fill you with a certain degree of terror and equally reinforce the romantic notion of living in New York. I don’t think its beauty would echo the same way if it weren’t both scary and exciting.
PP. Two and a half years is not a long period. Can you call New York your home now?
DE. Oddly enough it feels like longer. A lot of folks who live here tend to say the same, I think because so much can transpire in such a short period of time. I’ve had three and a half apartments in three boroughs, three and a half jobs, an internship and all while doing my best to keep my camera in tow. Do I call it home? The short answer is yes, I think no matter who or where we are it’s a human need for that four letter word to be a part of our vocabulary. The long answer is home is something I’ve never completely attributed to my geographical location as much as finding solace in my own heart and the hearts of my closest relationships. That search for home I believe is an extended one for some of us, myself included. This city can be an endless source of inspiration, and an undeniably nurturing environment but only when there’s sincere reciprocity involved. When you start to feel you’ve been taking too much, or for too long, you have to pause and give back a bit.
I am beginning to feel a bit of angst in the form of stasis though. I plan to travel to Israel this winter.
PP. Where does your interest in photography come from?
DE. It’s a psychologically curious theory, but I’m certain that in some cases, the future that doesn’t exist yet is informed by the past we never knew. What I mean by that: My father was an aspiring young photographer when he was around my age, long before I was born, which he never told me until showing me old fine art photographs of his and giving me my first camera when I was 18. It just immediately felt right as if I were picking up exactly where he’d left off. It was an incredibly cheap automatic 35mm camera, a Casio or maybe a Sony, but it was the kind that you save up a cartons worth of Marlboro Cigarette points to get for free, really beat up with the Marlboro insignia branded on it. Growing up I always entertained the idea that I would be a writer, but writing was one thing that continually kept me in the confines of my own mind. However the minute that I started taking photographs I felt myself connected to the outside world that I was undoubtedly aching for, and in portrait photography I’ve found the thrill of intimacy often with complete strangers. As much of an oxymoron as that is, I’m sure the greatest truth is sometimes self contradiction.
To elaborate: I read a Woody Allen quote once, where he said “At the end of it all, your art doesn’t save you”. I suppose I’m trying to disprove that theory, that it’s possible for our art to redeem us from the inadequacies in our actions. That the honesty of our art, is an apology for our mistakes. That’s not where my interest in photography comes from but perhaps it’s an idea that continues to subconsciously drive me.
PP. Tell me about your portraits? Who are the people in your photographs?
DE. When I was nine years old I ran into the living room where my older brother and sister were, and declared “I might be gay when I grow up!” as if it were a profession, or future achievement yet to be reached. It was probably just a handful of years later when those first potent fantasies of love began to blister under the surface. They always involved: Living in a still undetermined big city; An older hirsute man; and of all things, a three-quarter wool overcoat.
In the last year my portraits have included transgender women, musicians, iconic NY drag queens, the co-inventor of the digital camera, straight men, gay men, burgeoning pop stars and both male and female subjects on the verge. The people that I shoot are definitely abstractions of my physical self as much as they’re a subjective visual representation of my inner self, at least at the moment of conception. The inner self that takes it cues from that nine year old kid, who was so early on at the edge of 18, as much as that young man who was convinced that a three-quarter wool overcoat would carry him 1/3 of the way to happiness. I think the subconscious mind is so powerfully persistent. I mean at some point I stopped reaching for that definitive fantasy only to realise that suddenly I was walking through the door of an East Village apartment, an older hirsute gentlemen removing my knee length wool jacket as we lay down to share stories of New York. My portraits and the subjects that reside in them, are time. The future wishes of the past suddenly, with little warning, becoming the present then becoming the past again.
One of the last individuals I shot, we swapped stories about his brother and my mother passing away from a similar condition, both years ago, and all that I could think of was the memory of that adolescent utterance “I might be gay when I grow up.”
PP. You images are in both, colour and black and white. How do you decide what would be the final outcome?
DE. I tend to have intensely vivid dreams at night, sometimes in colour and other times black and white. I’m sure my photographs are very subtle reinterpretations of the images that flood my head while I sleep. In other words I have no premeditated notions of how I’ll present a portrait and thus I go with my gut instinct. Wait for that quiet moment of intuition that tells me when to fire a frame, and that frame, or series will often decide for me, colour or black and white. Otherwise there’s a mood that I’m deliberately trying to set and my subject matter and/or possibilities for lighting will be the determination.
I’ve found myself influenced by those artists who have produced iconic black and white photographs like Avedon and Mappelthorpe. I’ve instinctively modelled a lot of my work on the timelessness of theirs in the process of looking for my own voice. However I’m also profoundly startled by photographers like Dan Winters and Martin Schoeller whose work is really defined by these powerfully intimate colour portraits. The latter I actually interviewed for an internship with about a year ago. His first assistant interviewed me and I met Martin briefly as he was wheeling his new born baby in a stroller out the door as I was coming in. I don’t even remember what exactly I talked to his assistant about, just that I was wearing combat-ish boots and a Crystal Castles t-shirt with a bruised/bloody Madonna image circa Like a Virgin/Material Girl. His downtown studio had gorgeous life size, saturated colour prints adorning the walls from his female bodybuilder series.
I love that t-shirt…I didn’t get the internship.
PP. Do you remember your dreams? For some reason I don’t.
DE. Yeah, sometimes my dreams are so acute that it’s dizzying. They have been for as long as I can remember. I’ve had the common flying dreams regularly for years, always barely getting lift off, or a brief thrill of unadulterated flight then losing air. I try to turn it into this metaphor albeit a cliché that contendness is as fleeting as anguish but it probably just reoccurs because it’s a stimulating nightly sequence for my brain. My brother did eight years in prison and during that time I used to dream of his death frequently. It always chilled me of course, but I never told him. Thankfully he’s alive, free and well.
PP. What was your last dream about?
DE. Hard enough to believe, the last dream I had involved my grandfather, who’s actually my father’s stepfather passing. I was in the presence of my grandmother and my cousins, aunts and uncles, all of whom I know very little. In actuality my mother’s father is recently deceased and we hadn’t seen or spoken since I was a child. My father is African American and my mother Jewish, so my siblings and I were products of a cultural divide, and whether literally or figuratively, we always seemed a world apart from either sides of our extended families.
I honestly don’t dream about death so often as it probably sounds, at least not as an adult, and in reality I don’t have any morbid fantasies.
PP. What happened to your brother?
DE. He was incarcerated when I was 16, just an example of misguided angst I suppose. At that age my brother turned his anger outward, and it manifested in violence and crime, some petty, some not so much. I turned my anger inward which, perhaps inevitably, transformed me into an artist. I remember being around 14 and him taking me into the woods along our apartment building to fire off some kind of a 22 calibre pistol. I was too scared to even go near it of course. He is still just 27 and a talented writer and poet amongst other things. I am confident that before long he’ll communicate that fully to the world.
PP. Where would you like to see your images, on a gallery walls or pages of a glossy magazine? Perhaps both?
DE. Ideally both. For the work I create to appeal to both worlds is a balance I’m still searching for. I think photography is most powerful when it’s transcendent, independent of any specific cultural, subcultural or market demands and thus it falls into place no matter where it lands. It’s the ‘Field of Dreams’ theory, that if you build it they will come. In my opinion if you take the intellectual and creative risk that are instinctive to who you are, the existential world may teach you a few hard lessons, but will embrace you just the same.
PP. What is your definition of success?
DE. I don’t believe in fear anymore. I think fear is really the physical manifestation of guilt, the betrayal of the wishes of our inner child. Success is often synonymous with money, status, professional achievements and I don’t disagree at all, but I think true success means finding your light.
There’s this idea, that there’s one moment of absolute perfection for an undetermined amount of time in your youth. Not so much traditionally speaking, y’know, how exactly you look, how “cool” you may be but rather a certain sense of self that holds an extraordinary velocity we can only harness for so long and at the same time are barely, vaguely conscious that it even exists. My definition of success is finding that moment of absolute perfection in adulthood, when it comes full circle, only this time being conscious of it. I believe that translates to ridding yourself of the guilt you hold inwardly, and subsequently being fearless.
PP. Can you imagine yourself in ten years from now?
DE. I only aim to be prepared to not make the same mistakes I made in the last ten years, and to be aware of subtle signs of sociapathy! I used to want to play my life out like a movie, imagine each scene long before it would happen, and speak in metaphor and witty dialogue but as I begin to grow up, I realise that as much as I’ve planned and attempted to configure the minute details of my life, so much is opposed to how I’d imagined it. That’s the nature of the individual human though isn’t it? To create ourselves tomorrow, as we aren’t today. Given that thought I aim to not become stagnant, to not fear reinvention at each stage that my life calls for it.
Perhaps to aspire to create that definitive portrait, that one single frame that reassures me that all of the beauty and pain and confusion of life is necessary, is OK.
Images: © Devin Elijah. Courtesy of the artist.
Text: © Predrag Pajdic
With special thanks to Christopher Stribley