Picture this. You are sitting in a windowless, grey room. It's empty, apart from a chair and an old leather sofa. You hear a knock at the door; someone's there to fetch you. Five minutes later, you're standing in front of a cheering crowd of 30,000 rabid electronica fans. What does that do to your brain?
This is the question that electronica whiz Moby sought to answer in his latest project, a book of photographs that accompanies his new album, both entitled Destroyed. As it turns out, Moby is no stranger to photography: he's been taking pictures for over thirty-five years.
The book is a carefully curated set of photographs that he shot while on his last world tour, three or four years ago. They document the strange emotional experience of touring: shots of thousands of ecstatic fans, lit up in yellow, purple and red are interspersed with deserted vistas of airport tunnels, city skylines and cold hotel rooms.
Last week, an exhibit of Moby's photography opened at Culver City's Kopeikin Gallery.
Moby hung out at the gallery to make sure the installation process went smoothly: cueball head, coffee in hand, sporting a t-shirt from Trails Café. He explained that this project stemmed from advice that his photographer uncle gave him when he was young, along with his first camera (a Nikon F, for those interested).
“When you're taking pictures, try and take a picture of something that someone else doesn't see. Sometimes, that might be seeing things in the mundane and the quotidian that people might otherwise overlook, like a lot of the empty spaces in the book. On the other hand, I actually have access to something that other people don't; crowds of 50,000 people,” he explains.
The photographs in the gallery show a Moby who is a nuanced photographer, and takes lively and beautiful shots of cityscapes. There isn't a particularly good way to create a formally composed shot of thousands of fans, but those photographs are compelling to look at because of their technical aspects — the precision and detail with which each fan comes across captures the energy of the concert as a whole.
Don't expect the same gorgeousness in the book. Moby deliberately used a cheapo Canon PowerShot to take photographs that felt more like snapshots. Some of them are grainy; others have unexpected light flares in them, such a great shot of journalists in Prague wildly snapping away at an invisible subject, also with camera in hand.
Moby says that he admires photographers whose work appears spontaneous and accidental, such as Wolfgang Tillmans and André Kertész. However, most of Moby's photographs are still formally composed. “I'm not so good at [being spontaneous]. I'm sort of a rigid, uptight Virgo wasp from Connecticut, and I find myself, in terms of a visual language, feeling a kinship with other uptight artists from New England, such as Edward Hopper and Edward Steichen,” he says.
The story surrounding the collection only becomes stranger once Moby explains that it also stemmed from his chronic insomnia, which means that many of his pictures of cityscapes are taken in the very early hours of the morning. He explains, “In the same way that I find a lot of Edward Hopper's architectural paintings to be really calming, I find being awake with insomnia at 4 o'clock in the morning in a new city to be really calming as well. The volume dial of the city has been turned way down.”
Other things that Moby finds calming include airport hotel rooms, brutalist architecture and large office buildings that have their lights on at 5 a.m. for the cleaning crew. They're all anonymous building blocks of his world on tour, which is mostly dominated by empty, nondescript spaces.
Moby adds, “As an architectural metaphor for being on tour, when you're on tour, it doesn't matter where you are. You could be in the most beautiful place in the world, but you're still in an empty, soulless dressing room, getting ready to go stand on stage. It's this repetition in all these empty places that could theoretically be in the same location.”
This doesn't yield a photography project that's conventionally pretty. Destroyed is a book that you have to understand in its proper context, since at first glance the low quality of the shots obscures Moby's technical prowess as a photographer. It's very much a tour project that allows fans to understand his so-called “depressingly monastic” experience of traveling and music-making. It's also a visual record of what Moby was seeing when he composed the album of the same title, alone in his hotel room at 4 in the morning.
So what's his favorite picture in the book? He flips to a shot taken in Paris out of his hotel window in the early hours of the morning. It's a picture of a courtyard, surrounded by an office building and a postwar apartment block whose steel 60s fire escape listens in the street lighting. Moby talks through the composition:
“I love all the different light sources. Older concrete, aged, in fluorescent light, in the middle of the night — I think there's something so beautiful about that. With this picture, I remember that I had the worst insomnia that I've ever had — I was so tired, it was 5 o'clock in the morning, and I just couldn't sleep — and I'd been up for about 48 hours. I was so unhappy that I couldn't sleep, but I still love that photograph. I like when beauty doesn't necessarily knock you over the head with the fact that it's beautiful. For me, that's much more interesting.”
“Destroyed” is on display at the Kopeikin Gallery, 2766 La Cienega, until Oct. 22.
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