NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Moby is many things. Best known a musician and DJ, indeed he's here at Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about his music and to perform. Today, though, he joins us to talk about photography. Last year, Moby released a book of photographs called "Destroyed" to accompany an album of the same name. It's a visual journal of a touring musician's insomnia. Isolated and disoriented by jet lag and strange hotels, he shows what it's like to roam the world at hours when most of us are sleeping. Since then, he's turned his lens toward the architecture in his adopted hometown, Los Angeles, posting the pictures and stories about their meanings online.
We want to hear from the photographers in our audience today. What story do you try to tell with your pictures? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Moby joins us in the ballroom of the Hotel Jerome at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We've got several of his photographs on display for the audience here on a screen in Aspen. If you're not with us here today, you can find a gallery of Moby's photographs on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Moby, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Nice to meet you in person.
MOBY: Oh, thanks. I'm still a little distracted by the name Stolen Valor.
CONAN: Stolen Valor, yeah.
MOBY: It sounds like a Bruce Willis movie, doesn't it?
CONAN: It will be next week. I suspect you're right about that. Your blog serves as a kind of love letter to the city of Los Angeles. What story are you trying to tell?
MOBY: Well, when I was growing up, my uncle was a photographer for The New York Times, Joseph Kugielsky. And when I was around 9 or 10 years old, he started giving me his hand-me-down photo equipment, and so I've actually been doing photography for as long as I've been doing music. And one thing - one sort of ethos that he instilled in me is the idea that if I'm gonna be a photographer, I should try and take pictures of things that other people either haven't documented, like things that I exclusively have access to or quotidian things that I see in a different way. And...
CONAN: Like what?
MOBY: Like, for example - I mean, like, we're in Aspen, which is a very beautiful place and, you know, I grew up in New York, which is also very photogenic and beautiful. And as a result, I'm not all that interested in taking pictures of photogenic beautiful places that have already been documented. And it's one of the reasons I love L.A. because the beauty in L.A. is a little harder to find and it's a lot more idiosyncratic. But as a result, when I find it and I can document it, it's a lot more challenging.
CONAN: Los Angeles is also one of those places that people say does not have any theme. It is a mishmash, a jumble, a potpouri, a mélange, I could go on and on.
MOBY: Yeah, and that's one of the things that I love about it. So I was born in New York, I grew up in Connecticut, and I spent most of my life living in Manhattan, which is, you know, very small and very cohesive. And LA is the exact opposite. It's vast and has no cohesion whatsoever, which is disconcerting but aesthetically really fascinating. You know, you can go down the street in Los Angeles and have every architectural style from the last 300 years represented on one block, usually badly. But...
CONAN: Are those pictures you like to take or do you like to take examples of good architecture?
MOBY: Both. I mean, I love - In Los Angeles specifically, like, I love documenting the banal and the mundane.
CONAN: Oh, you've got a canvas.
MOBY: Yeah, and there's a lot of banality and mundanity. But I also love - I mean, there's so much remarkable mid-century architecture, you know, whether it's Pierre Koenig or Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, like a lot of mid-century architecture went to L.A. because land was cheap and the climate's nice. You know, so they didn't have to think about putting in tiny little windows to keep out the cold 'cause it never really gets cold.
CONAN: The theme of "Destroyed," the album and the book of photographs, was a struggle to sleep essentially. It's a story of places that you visit as a touring musician. You struggle from - with insomnia anyway. Of course, it's exacerbated when you're flying all over the place and staying in strange rooms.
MOBY: Yeah, I - when I was growing up, I always thought that being a touring musician would be the most glamorous job in the world. And I won't complain about it because I can't complain about traveling around the world, playing music and meeting people, but it's really not glamorous. Like, it's disconcerting and strange. And especially with the insomnia, I'll find myself in ostensibly beautiful, glamorous places, like Paris or Berlin, at 4 o'clock in the morning taking pictures of garbage trucks.
CONAN: There's a picture of Berlin that I think we could recognize as a picture of Berlin. An office building that looks like a rabbit warren and it's perfectly framed, it's very formal composition.
MOBY: Which is germane to what you guys were just talking about.
CONAN: Indeed, about the office culture that we were talking about and about how to change it. But there are pictures of Paris that are pictures of hallways. They could be anywhere.
MOBY: Yeah. That's - because when you're on tour, you're in a different city or different town every single day. And again, I don't want to complain because there's nothing worse than a whiney musician. But everything sort of looks the same. So if you're in Auckland or Tokyo or Milan or San Francisco, the hotels kind of look the same, the venues look the same, the airports looks the same. And every now and then, you sort of have to like look at the tour itinerary to remind yourself where you are.
CONAN: And there's an interesting aspect. You also - speaking of taking pictures of things only you have access to, you take pictures of your audiences. And other than the lightning and maybe a little about the venue, they look, a lot, the same too.
MOBY: Yeah. There is - I mean, an audience in Latvia is very similar to an audience in Sydney, Australia even though they're about 12,000 miles apart. And the thing - taking pictures of an audience, I mean, if the audience pictures do look quite dramatic and glamorous, part of that is because I've taken out my camera. It's similar to when you're at of party and someone takes out their camera to take a party picture. And even if everyone's depressed and bored, the moment the camera comes out, they're going to look like they're having the best time in the world.
CONAN: So the Heisenberg principle of law.
CONAN: So this is things that are observed suddenly change their character.
MOBY: Yeah, yeah, like Schrodinger's cat. So the audience is sort of like that. Like, the moment - I mean, hopefully the audience is having a nice time to begin with, but the moment they see a musician on the stage taking a picture of them, they amp things up a little bit.
CONAN: Same as a TV camera goes on at a protest or a demonstration, suddenly they are much more excited.
MOBY: Yeah, especially if they're paid protesters.
CONAN: Indeed. Those are the most excited kind. We're talking with DJ, musician and photographer Moby. He's here at Aspen Ideas Festival. We want to hear from photographers in our audience. What stories are you telling with your pictures? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Ron. And Ron is on the line with us from San Francisco.
CONAN: Hi, Ron.
RON: Hi. I've been a photographer for quite a long time, and I've taken a lot of pictures on vacation and location stop. And I agree with what your guest is saying. It tends to just kind of like tell a very limited story. What I've started doing is a project where - photographing neighborhoods, actually photographing only the people on a plain white background and photographing the people, starting with the Haight-Ashbury. And I'll do the Tenderloin and what not but doing it in the style of yearbook of a high school and describing the neighborhood via the people, only the people.
CONAN: Is it easy to take pictures as bad as high school photographs?
RON: Well, there's a certain nuance and quality to a photograph that sort of takes somebody out of their environment, puts them on a plain white background. The amount of information you can get from that is really pretty astonishing.
CONAN: And what have you learned collectively about this people?
RON: I mean, having lived in San Francisco for quite a long time, I know the neighborhood. So I bring to it sort of my own, you know, my own personal observations and subjectivity in this format. It's sort of like - it's whoever will fit for me, I'll photograph them. And it sort to takes me as the subjective observer out of that equation somewhat.
CONAN: That's interesting. All right. Ron, good luck with the project.
MOBY: I mean, it reminds me, there was a...
RON: Thank you.
MOBY: I know Richard Avedon did a similar project. And it's interesting because everything was completely de-contextualize. You know, the only context was the subject, their clothes, their hair, their teeth. And it is - going back to what we were talking about, how, on a global level - like if you were to take a person of someone in New Zealand and take a person of someone on San Francisco against the white background, you might have had a hard time telling them apart.
CONAN: The photographs that you take, at least the ones I've seen, they tend to be of objects, buildings and hallways and escalators and sort of thing.
MOBY: Yeah. People (unintelligible) comfortable.
CONAN: There is one picture of a nun at an airport.
MOBY: Yeah. There's - it's a nun, and I think she's on her laptop checking her - like checking her text messages on her phone as well. So she is the nun of the future.
MOBY: I'm convinced that she was a time-traveling nun.
MOBY: These are the things that I tell myself when I'm sitting in airports, when a flight has been delayed for hours to keep me from going insane.
CONAN: Here's an email from Carrie in Jamestown, New York: As a photographer, I always try to capture the past and present of any object, building or person. It's almost like an investigation when I photograph objects that show a little history. I like to reveal evidence that may provoke my audience to think about the story behind what they're looking at. The interesting thing is how differently people respond to one image because they form their own stories based on their own life experiences. And that's sort of the object that you're - you may be thinking you're telling a story, but you may be telling another?
MOBY: And it's - it - not to sound too much like a grad student, but it's sort of like semiotics 101. It's trying to understand, like, the meaning, collectively or subjectively, we attach to an image in context. And that a lot of the pictures that I've tried to take, especially in the book "Destroyed," were very de-contextualized. And it can be unsettling.
There's a lot - and I'm not going to malign any types of photographers, but a lot of photographers and people who create images in general want to create images that we instantly understand. You know, if you see a picture of a monk in monk robes sitting on a road in India, we all understand what that means. And we can very quickly have a, sort of, like conventional response. But if you can sort of document something to which you can't have a conventional response, I think, that's a lot more interesting from a semiotic.
CONAN: Your uncle who took pictures for The New York Times has taken pictures of the first sort. You're taking pictures of a different kind.
MOBY: Yeah, and I think my uncle had to take pictures like that. You know, when you're a photojournalist, you have to document something in a way that reads instantly. But as a sort of like as an art photographer, you have the freedom to sort of play with people's expectations and reactions.
CONAN: We're talking to - with Moby, photographer for his book, "Destroyed," an album of the same name, which is just remixed for 2012. He's here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a question from the audience here at the Hotel Jerome.
LARRY WOODSTON: Hello. My name is Larry Woodston(ph). Moby, I have this question for you. You talked about how you received photographic equipment from a very early age. Have you noticed a difference in the style or type of compositions that you get? It's - obviously, you probably have moved on to digital from reel film now. In other words, have you noticed a change that the type of equipment has allowed you to make?
MOBY: Well, I love that question partially because in 2012, calling myself a photographer, especially a musician/photographer, I instantly feel like a cliche and a dilettante because, you know, anybody with, you know, an iPhone can take really good pictures. But the fact that I grew up, like mixing chemicals, processing film, developing, you know, on RC papers.
CONAN: With chemicals? That's why you have no hair.
MOBY: That's - I think that's inbreeding.
CONAN: Oh, good. Good.
MOBY: Probably inbreeding and bad chemicals. But, yeah, basically when I was growing up, buying chemicals, buying paper, buying film was really expensive and we were really poor, so I would shoot very sparingly. You know, I had to think about something for a long time before taking a picture of it. And oddly enough, even now that digital photography is essentially free, I still shoot like I'm a Depression-era photographer. Like I still probably think a little bit too much. Like I have friends who shoot digitally, and they just - they'll shoot 200 images of the same picture. And I still shoot like some guy who has to like process his own film and buy his own paper and...
CONAN: Well, processing your own film is one thing. Do you process your own digital images?
MOBY: Yeah, which really is not the hardest thing. You know, you put them on a computer. There's a program called Lightroom, and taking an OK-looking digital image and making it look better, it's not the hardest thing in the world. I mean, again, there are some people who are really, really good at it. I think I'm OK at it, but it's not nearly as specific a skill as spending time in a dark room with chemicals and paper.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Kevin, and Kevin's on the line with us from Charlotte.
KEVIN: Yes. Good afternoon.
KEVIN: First, great show as always.
CONAN: Thank you.
KEVIN: Love it, listened to it for a long time. And, Moby, I apologize. I've not had the opportunity to really take a look at any of your work, but I have heard amazing things about it. So I'm looking forward to taking that time.
MOBY: Thank you.
KEVIN: You had asked regarding some of the subjects and the stories that are told. And as I was speaking with your person there, something struck me a number of years ago. I was always a nature and an architecture photographer - same thing, film-based. And due to some personal circumstances, ended up spending a lot of time with aging parents and extended care situations. I went to the classic nursing homes.
So ultimately, with all of those - what turned into every weekend for years of visiting and seeing what has become all too often this throwaway generation, in some cases, I just started asking, you know, a few folks if I could snap their pictures and then sit down and talk to them and get their stories, and that's what became really the point of fascination. And not only the greatest generation, but centenarians, in some cases, that - it's a pretty phenomenal work, and yet the hard part for me was seeing people that were pretty much left alone for the latter part of their lives.
CONAN: And what have you done with these pictures and stories?
KEVIN: Right now, I'm trying to get them compiled. I - as with many people who, as Moby said, consider themselves photographers, I had a really hard time transitioning away from film and into digital and have really moved into that as the medium. So now it's really just a matter of cataloging them and cataloging the stories and trying to get them to some point where I can get them out into the free world as it is.
CONAN: Well, good luck with the project, Kevin. Thanks very much for the call.
KEVIN: Thank you so much, and thanks again for the great show.
CONAN: Thank you. And, Moby, just a few seconds left. I wonder. You've moved to Los Angeles. You were in search of a dog and a girlfriend and a lawn. Have you found that you're sleeping better?
MOBY: I am sleeping better because I'm not touring as much, so I get to sleep in the same bed very night. And so far, my quest for like a lawn, a dog and a girlfriend - I have the lawn.
MOBY: Still no dog or girlfriend, but, you know, hopefully that'll change over time.
CONAN: Well, good luck with your quest.
MOBY: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Moby joined us here on stage at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado. He's a musician and photographer. His most recent album, "Destroyed Remixed," is out now. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. I'll talk to you again on Monday back in Washington and Studio 3A. Have a great weekend everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Aspen.
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