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FOLLOWING: @jamieleecurtistaete

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Welcome to FOLLOWING, a series of profiles and interviews of the art world social media accounts that make us think, laugh, cry, love, or sometimes just “like.” 

By now you might’ve seen the infamous photo of a woman protesting the coronavirus lockdowns with her “GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH” sign in front of a Baskin Robbins last week. It’s “gone viral” (no pun intended) and has popped up everywhere from countless memes to a Washington Post article about the right’s resistance to social distancing.

A poignant snapshot of our absurd times, it’s as good an entry point as any into the Instagram oeuvre of photographer Jamie Lee Curtis Taete, where the tragicomedy of contemporary life is laid bare in real-world visual puns that speak the language of memes.

I caught up with Taete (social distancing-style) before the image went viral to talk about his work, which has been published in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Vice (where he is a frequent contributor of both images and words). If you need inspiration to stay home, dive into his online archives of consumerist misery. The British-born, LA-based photographer and columnist has an uncanny knack for capturing moments that remind us we’re not missing much in the cringe-worthy streets of late-capitalist dystopia.

From crowds of disillusioned adults glumly strolling Disneyland to weirdly specific niche subcultures obsessed with celebrities to right-wing religious and political groups, Taete has documented a broad spectrum of absurdly tragic candid moments. Although these images possess the ironic quality of a well-made meme, many speak to a deep sense of alienation and the often-bizarre ways individuals seek a sense of belonging or emotional connection within pop culture, uncanny-valley-skiing surrogate bodies, fringe politics, religion, and/or consumerism.

 

Michael Anthony Farley: There’s a great sense of immediacy to your work that I really appreciate. Could you describe your shooting process? 

Jamie Lee Curtis Taete: I feel a little silly getting so serious about my funny photos of weird signs, but the thing I most like to take photos of is late capitalism and the weird things we do while living under it. So I try and go to places where I think I might see late capitalism in action: malls, tourist spots, theme parks, conventions. 

And do you have a studio practice? Or any post-production that goes into these images? 

Not really. Just small things like changing the brightness or colors.

I think I first started following you when I tried to live in LA a few years ago because so many of my best friends ended up there and I hated it. I went out to a lunch meeting at Cafe Gratitude and recognized it immediately from having read your VICE listicle of “Reasons Why Los Angeles is the Worst Place Ever” (still one of my absolute favorite VICE listicles in the history of the genre). I remember thinking “Wow, LA is exactly like this person described. I bet this person is so observant in such a funny, critical way and their Instagram is fantastic.” And I was right! Do you think moving to LA from London changed your practice? 

Firstly, thank you. But honestly, that’s not even how I feel about LA. I love LA! I wrote that because my then-boss asked me to, and at the time I was way more of a troll than I am now. It made people extreeeemely angry at me. I still occasionally get emails and tweets about it now, eight years later. Though I guess I do genuinely think that Cafe Gratitude is dumb. 

Well, even many die-hard Angelenos agree with your observations. I think most people have love/hate relationships with most cities, no? One thing I really missed about other cities when I was there was “normal” public space. LA is much less a conventional urban environment with street life as I knew it—anywhere there’s real potential for people-watching or chance encounters aren’t really spaces of chance encounters. They’re sort of manufactured social situations that are engineered for tourism and consumption to varying degrees. Some of my favorite photos of yours are from Disneyland, which would be one extreme end of that phenomenon—but in a sense so is almost any street with pedestrian life in LA. It feels like a city even locals experience as tourists. I always felt like the only time you see other people in LA is when they want to see and be seen and participate in some enactment of being “in public” as a spectacle. I imagine that informs the implied social contract between photographer and subject? 

I definitely miss living in a “real” city. I work from home, and constantly find myself going for walks in the few areas of LA that have a lot of foot traffic, just to remind myself that there’s other people out there. Or I did before a global pandemic made everyone avoid areas that have other people in them. 

From a photographic perspective, I wish there were more people around because it makes it easier to take photos unnoticed. I find that in New York or London you can move pretty freely with a camera and no one cares. But in LA, there’s always ten feet of space around you at all times. You’re very conspicuous. 

There’s definitely a vaguely anthropological eye in these photos that I appreciate as someone from the United States who chose to leave. I sense a bit of remove and alienation that I can relate to.  

I think being in the US has changed the way I take photos, yeah. Being an outsider here makes it a lot easier to spot weird little moments that other people might miss. I also just love the way things look here. The businesses and the colors and the people are all things I grew up seeing on TV. It still feels kind of glamorous and exotic, even though I’ve spent about ten years of my life here. 

Now I’m going to switch from embarrassingly serious to embarrassingly emo: I think I feel a bit removed and alienated wherever I am. I don’t think this world was really made for me.

What are interactions typically like with your subjects?

Pretty minimal. I don’t usually ask if I can take someone’s photo. If I do, it’s usually just, “Do you mind if I take your photo?” and “Thanks!” Weirdly, people almost never ask me why I want to take their photo or tell me no. They just say sure. 

Sometimes people get mad at me for taking their photo without asking, which always makes me feel weird and terrible. A couple of months ago, there were two days in a row where people threatened me in the street, and it threw me off for awhile.

Whoa! What happened? 

Oh, nothing that exciting. One guy (mistakenly) thought I’d taken a photo of him and got in my face and started screaming at me to delete it. I was actually listening to the audiobook of Holly Madison’s memoir when it happened, and my phone froze and wouldn’t pause, so I was struggling to hear what he was yelling over the sound of Holly Madison recounting her relationship with Criss Angel. Which added an extra layer of panic and chaos. 

The other guy followed me on his bike for a couple of blocks while yelling that he could “become a threat, real fast.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how your work feels almost site-specific to Instagram, though I assume it’s not. I suppose I mean to say you take photographs that feel like memes and distribute them on a platform that was made for photography and now has been usurped by memes. You know? 

God. I hope it’s not site-specific to Instagram because I don’t get paid to take pictures for Instagram. Memes are a big inspiration for me. There is nothing that makes me happier than when one of my photos pops up in a meme someone’s made.

I’m sure there’s a way to historicize this phenomenon in the lineage of the Pictures Generation, etc… I’m curious, do you see your work as informed by that history? 

I guess? It’s not something I think about a lot. I love photography, and I look at a ton of it, and a lot of it inspires me. 

My favorite type of photos are ones where I just happened to find myself in weird or surreal situations, when I just happened to be in the right spot to see multiple elements brush up alongside each other and create a totally ridiculous juxtaposition... The kind of things I look back at and go, “Huh, I can’t believe I saw that in real life.”
Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

In a sense, you kinda synthesize the “Post-Photography” sensibilities of the Pictures Generation and net artists with more traditional modes of photography—street photography, portraiture, etc.—and I think part of that has to do with the ubiquity of printed images/text in our world that you end up capturing in relation to the landscape or body. 

I mean, if that were my intention it would certainly make me seem a lot smarter and considered than I actually am, so let’s go with it. 

Hah! Like, the condition of the contemporary street scene in this fucked late-capitalist dystopia is the landscape or body willingly made meme—whether that’s by someone wearing a T-shirt with a hateful political slogan or slathering themselves in logos and branding that end up in these ironic juxtapositions with the utter misery of reality. 

This is definitely something I’m going for, but I wouldn’t have been able to verbalize it that concisely. I’m probably going to steal those words to sound smarter and more considered, haha. 

But you’re a great writer! I’m wondering how much your career as a writer informs your photography practice and vice-versa. I feel like, in both, you toy with a journalistic/documentarian sensibility but also the absurd and/or the personal…. 

I’m lucky in that I only usually have to cover things that I’m personally interested in. So I guess the things I take pictures of and the things I write about are probably similar. 

What’s your all-time favorite photo you’ve ever taken? 

I’m not sure I have one. My favorite type of photos are ones where I just happened to find myself in weird or surreal situations, when I just happened to be in the right spot to see multiple elements brush up alongside each other and create a totally ridiculous juxtaposition. Like Halloween decorations outside the Church of Scientology. Or Michael Jackson fans weeping at his grave on the anniversary of his death. Or a person who printed a bit.ly URL on their shirt. The kind of things I look back at and go, “Huh, I can’t believe I saw that in real life.”

What’s the meanest?

I don’t really set out to take mean photos. I definitely take photos that have an edge and are meant to be funny, but I’m trying to poke fun at the systems we live under, rather than the specific people in my images. I think sometimes people perceive my photos as being quite mean, but they’re often perceiving my photos in a way that wasn’t intended. 

What’s the saddest?

A few weeks ago I was out on assignment for the publication them, shooting a queer club called Catch One. The next morning, I saw on the news that a woman had been stabbed to death on the club’s dancefloor about 20 minutes after I left. When I found out, I looked through my photos and saw that the woman who had been killed was in the background of one of the last photos I’d taken before leaving. I guess it would have been about 25 minutes before she died. It might be the last photo that was taken of her. 

Are there any photos you’ve published on Instagram or elsewhere you regret? 

Definitely. The coronavirus apocalypse is making me way too anxious to want to think about that for too long right now, though. 

Who are some of your favorite artists on/offline? Who else should we be FOLLOWING?  

Some of my fave IG accounts right now are @michellegroskopf, @lucia_buricelli, @chrismaggio, @kyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle, @photodre, @tom_brenner, and @kristaschlueter. Every time @eiji_ohashi_photographer posts one of his incredible vending machine photos it makes me want to cry for not thinking of the idea first. 

There’s some mind-boggling statistic about how humanity has taken more stupid photos in one year of the past decade than in the whole history of image-making since cave paintings (or something) and “X” number of them are probably of Kylie Jenner’s boobs or whatever. What do you think the future is of image making in this context? How do we even assign meaning to anything? 

Honestly, the whole coronavirus thing is making me too anxious to think about the future for more than a couple of seconds at a time. I really hope people keep taking stupid photos, though. I love them. 

On the topic of the coronavirus, I’ve really been enjoying the Instagram stories you’ve been posting that are (I’m assuming) just cropped screen captures of headlines. Can you talk about those? I think it’s an interesting adaptation for your practice in the absence of human interaction.

There’s been so much weird news during this. The actual apocalypse is happening, but the content machine has to keep churning. So the Daily Mail and TMZ are filled with headlines like, “Mike Tyson Reveals He Is ‘Looking Forward’ to Death” and “Evangeline Lily Won’t Self-Quarantine, Values ‘Freedom’ Over Her Life” and “Singer Keri Hilson Bizarrely Blames Coronavirus on 5G Network and Radiation.” Truly incredible stuff. I was screencapping them and posting them on my IG stories, but I’ve mostly stopped because I’ve been trying to look at the news/my phone less during this quarantine, because every time I look at the news or social media it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. 

Maybe I’ll pick it back up. Seeing truly unhinged word salad like “EXCLUSIVE: Amal Clooney’s fashion forward sister served time in PRISON for drunk driving before being released and selling $138 designer leopard print coronavirus masks and hand sanitizer pouches” might lift my spirits.  

Any plan to archive/display them somehow? I think they’re brilliant and kinda get back to that “Pictures Generation/Post-photography” vein I was talking about. We’re living through some really wild times and this gesture feels important for posterity. 

I will create a story highlight, just for you. 

So I have Spotify on while I’m scrolling through your Instagram, and I just passed your image of the “BOB IS DEAD” sign at the same time that Miss Kittin & The Hacker song “Frank Sinatra” came on. I bring this up because it occurred to me that your photography feels like the contemporary visual analogue of turn-of-the-millenium electroclash music without the glamour. Or rather, the lack of glamour in the world is laid bare. Does that even make any sense? 

I’m not sure if this is an insult or a compliment, but thank you either way!

It’s definitely a compliment! I’m thinking of artists like Ladytron and their sense of dark irony that almost feels like a guilty pleasure… this sort of ambiguous relationship to the mainstream and its capitalist values where there’s almost a pre-emptive nostalgia for the kitsch of the present? But with a critical eye like the Situationists and a kinda punk sensibility that infiltrates and appropriates the language of consumption…This might be a random association, but that other Miss Kittin song “Madame Hollywood” feels like a good soundtrack to your photos of LA streetscapes… 

I’m probably going to steal these words, too. Thank you for setting me up to sound smarter than I am!

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