Chances are, if you’re looking at an image of an iconic L.A. artwork from the last decade, Josh White took it. Frank Gehry’s in-house photographer for most of the decade, White quickly established himself as the go-to guy for the documentation. And it wasn’t just because he was fast, cheap and out of control. With a genuine passion and curiosity for the art he was recording, White was as likely to be found bartering his services to cash-poor grad students as hob-nobbing with the elite.
Not that he was any stranger in the company of greatness. The son of Willie Nelson’s longtime road manager Vernon, White’s first job at the tender age of 12 was as a guitar roadie and substance gopher to Kris Kristofferson’s tour band. Over the next four years, he traveled across America and Europe on Kris’ bus, hanging with heavyweights like Nelson, Kurt Vonnegut, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. “It didn’t faze me,” recalls the spry, ex–punk rocker. “I was into Black Flag.”
It was Black Flag that served as his improbable entrée to the art world. After dipping into CalArts’ photo program and working briefly for the Firesign Theatre, White hooked up with Gehry, which you’d think might do the trick. But it was gallerist Stuart Regen — who happened to be renting a visiting artist live/workspace from White’s in-laws — who started the photographer on his path to total regional domination by offering to trade White’s photographic services for original drawings by Black Flag’s guitarist’s brother Raymond Pettibon.
Soon White was burning the candle at both ends, holding down his architectural day job, then shooting Charles Ray sculptures and Murakami installations into the wee hours, racking up a fine art portfolio (and tidy little collection) in his spare time, which most photographers would take a lifetime to accumulate.
Although the days of Jagermeister-filled supersoakers are behind him, White’s manic edge hasn’t diminished. Steidl’s just-released 300-page Jason Rhoades: Black Pussy Cocktail Coffee Table Book consists primarily of White’s output as photographer-in-residence to the late artist’s bacchanalian installation-cum-nightclub magnum opus. Other impending book projects include Rizzoli’s catalog for the Hammer’s survey of visionary architect John Lautner, and a selection of the more than 1,600 black-and-white images White recovered from the estate of ’60s Culver City commercial photographer Wally Blake, documenting puppet shows, meat sales, carnivals, Mexican bandito characters and private model auditions in hotel rooms.
So what does he do with his spare time since going full-time freelance in 2000? White recently got back from a two-week journey through the South with his partner, painter Sharon Ryan. In between stalking Wilco, they visited landmarks of the photographer’s latest obsession. “We went to Memphis to see the Taco Bell drive-thru that stands where [on the site of] the venue the Pistols played in ’78,” admits White with fan-boy awe. “Then we drove to Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa to see the hole Sid punched in the dressing room wall.”
You can take the boy out of the greasy, drug-addled rock & roll road show, but …
Photo by Kevin Scanlon