Centerfold Artist

Mr. November, Larry Cook

Centerfold Artist is happy to present Mr. November, Larry Cook. Larry is a DC- and Maryland-based artist who focuses on video and photography portraits. This year, he has been a finalist for the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize and was awarded the Hamiltonian Artist Fellowship. He currently teaches photography at George Washington University and Project Create, an art development program for impoverished youth in Washington, D.C. And he has a solo exhibition coming up at Hamiltonian Artists Gallery in January 2014. To learn more about his work visit his website.

We wanted to know even more, so we sent Larry a datasheet, recorded ourselves talking about it, and then invited him to our studio to for an interview. Now it’s all right here in this post: audio, images, and text. Enjoy!

CENTERFOLD ARTIST: How did you get started with photography?

LARRY COOK: I was always interested in commercial photography. I would look at magazines and go online, and I liked what I saw. So when it was time to pick a major for college, I knew I had to pick something that would keep me interested. I was always into filmmaking and photography, and the school I went to had photography.

CA: What was your first camera?

LC: A Canon Rebel thirty-five millimeter.

CA: You say that with such longing eyes.

LC: It’s taking me back. The camera actually got stolen.

CA: Ooh, that is sad. What was your first good photo?

LC:  I think it was back in Photo 1. I remember we had this assignment where we had to go around and take pictures of anything we saw. The teacher was walking around helping us to develop pictures and she saw my negatives. She was like “Larry, this is like…” I don’t know if she was gaming me to be a Fine Art major or just being a teacher. But she made it seem like I had a good eye.

CA: What was the photo of?

LC: The photo was of this alleyway between a house and a post office. There was snow in the foreground, and it lead down the alleyway to a tree that went up into the background.

CA: Do you still have a copy of the photo?

LC: I do.

CA: We’ll we need to get a signed print later. After the interview perhaps. So, I assume, since you listed it as your favorite camera, you shoot with a Bronica Medium Format camera?

LC: Actually, no. I don’t own one, and I haven’t shot a lot with it. I borrowed it from my mentor, Chan Chao, to work on a project, and I was in awe. I love the sound the shutter makes and really everything about it. Shooting with it just feels good. I don’t know how to explain it.

CA: You also used a 4 x 5 camera for some of your other projects. How did you get the opportunity to use the 4 x 5?

LC: I wanted to get under the hood, in the ‘hood. Chan Chao told me he had a camera I could use, and he showed me how to use it. And it went from showing me how to use it to Can I hold on to it? and I ended up shooting this project, The Red, White, and Blue Klan’s Men Blood and Crypt. I always wanted to print large scale, and it gave me the chance to do so. Since then, I’ve wanted to show all my photography large. I had this experience once where I had one photograph in a show. I had my C-print, my oak frame, and I was like “I am going to win this.” It was twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches, and they put it in the back corner, and everyone else’s work was large and mine looked so small. I am not going to let that happen to me again. So I print large.

larry cook datasheet

CA: The artwork photo you gave us on the datasheet, who is that guy?

LC: He is a young man from a neighborhood I used to live in, Capitol Heights, MD. That area is pretty rough, and he is a sweet guy, but because of the environment he has to be a certain way. I did this project where I invited a bunch of kids from the neighborhood to pose in front of this backdrop and he was one of them.

CA: What gang sign is he holding up?

LC: Oh no, it’s no gang sign. He is just throwin’ it up. It’s just his pose.

CA: It seems like he’s doing something fancy with his hands.

LC: Trust me, I asked him about it, and it didn’t mean anything. It’s probably just something he’s mimicking some rapper he saw, and it probably has some kind of meaning for that person. But for him it didn’t mean anything.

CA: When you go out to the neighborhood, how do you organize your photo shoots and get all of the people to participate in projects? I bet it can be tough.

LC: Yes, it can be. Early on, when I was doing street photography, I had to develop a thick skin because people tell you “no” with no hesitation. Sometimes, I’ll go into an area and I’ll have some type of connection to the place. Maybe I’ve lived there, or I know someone that lives there, and that will be my entry way. Or, it might be that I just hang out somewhere and come around and frequent the area and people see my face. Then I’ll come back with my camera, so they know I’m not working with the Feds. Then, at some point, I’ll introduce myself and start talking about what it is that I am interested in and start building some type of connection and see if they want to collaborate.

CA: Wow. So by the time you take people’s photographs, you’ve become a part of their lives. How do you get your subjects comfortable?

LC: I try to insert myself into the area. It could be something very simple like someone may like my shoes, so we may start a conversation about Air Jordans or, maybe, tattoos. Even though I have an MFA, I still look like these people and/or I’ve lived in the neighborhood. Also, I explain to them in detail what the project is about. I don’t want to trick anyone. I don’t want to feel like I’m exploiting anyone, and ultimately I want it to feel like a collaboration. So I give people agency in terms of how they want to pose or what they want to wear. Another thing I always do is give the person a copy of the photo I take. Having people know that the photo is something they are going to own helps get their guard down. Then the shoot almost becomes an event, like the guys with the white backdrops (like the guy who is not throwing up a gang sign), I had them in a show, and then I came back around showing them that the images were in a gallery and that a lot of people were seeing who they are. That kind of thing makes people feel a certain type of way, so the next time I come around they want to be a part of it. One kid had his image on the front page of the art section in the Baltimore City Paper, so I came back around and was giving copies out, and now he is like a little celebrity. When you build that type of rapport, it goes a long way.

Untitled, archival digital print, 20" x 30", 2013
Untitled, archival digital print, 20″ x 30″, 2013

CA: Found photographs turn you on. What is it about them that you like and where do you find them?

LA: I like family photos. If someone has left a photo album at a thrift store, I use those. I like the strategy of appropriation, using images that exist in their own right and then placing them in a different context.

CA: Just to clarify, you like when artists use found photos in their artwork as well as found photos in general?

LA: Yeah. I really like Joachim Schmid, a German photographer who is most known for collecting and taking photos at one of the largest flea markets in Germany. When I discovered his work, I thought, man, this is a different way of working in photography that I had never really considered. Also at the time I had two uncles who had just come home from prison. Both did ten years, and each had collected these photo albums. They were so proud to show me these images. Looking at them and thinking about the work of Joachim Schmidt, I was like, man, this is art right here.

CA: Who were the pictures of in the albums?

LC: They were pictures of themselves and other inmates.

CA: They could take pictures in prison?

LC: Yeah, actually they have prison photographers that go around and take photos.

CA: What are the photos like?

LC: You have the yard pictures, where the photographer runs around the yard and shoots pictures of guys in groups. You also have the visiting room where family members or friends or whatever come to visit. The visiting room has painted backdrops with fountains and castles or things like that. You can take pictures with your loved ones in front of the backdrops. So the albums are a collection of those types of images and also a lot of collaging with inmates’ own images. They’ll cut out magazine, text, or porn images and paste them onto their own photographs. So you have this layer of people creating their own art.

CA: It seems like what you are describing is a need to create.

LC: Absolutely. Those painted backdrops with the castles, someone had to create that. So there is this network of art and artists that is already working. I really wanted to show these pieces in an art gallery. I wanted to have artists that are totally unknown showing work in a gallery space. Maybe the artists had thought of showing their work; maybe they hadn’t. And that was the show I had at Pleasant Plains Gallery in D.C. a few months back. So, yeah, that’s how I became fond of found photographs.

CA: Do you ever leave photographs for people to find?

LC: I do not.

Maria, C-print, 20" x 24", 2010
Maria, C-print, 20″ x 24″, 2010

CA: So, we have to ask, because Zac is a framer: What’s up with your frame collection?

LA: I guess it’s wanting to save money and knowing how important frames are and being a photographer and being an artist. All that makes me a collector of frames. Whenever I come across a place where frames are for the taking, I’m going to grab one.

CA: Your motto on the data sheet is, “Commissary is very necessary.” What does it mean?

LA: It’s really about the prison system. It’s about making sure you put money on the books for a friend, loved one, or whoever is in prison. It’s so that they can go to the Commissary and purchase whatever it is that they want to purchase, whether it be deodorant, noodles or whatever it is. Having had uncles in prison and sending money to them, even if it’s five dollars, in there it’s a lot of money. It’s important not to forget about your people when they are down.

CA: What exactly is the Commissary?

LC: In the prison system, it’s an area, kind of like a store, where you can buy special items that you couldn’t get normally. Let’s say the prison gives out a standard soap bar, and at the Commissary you can buy Dove soap. You can buy Snickers, or depending on the prison and how it’s set up, you get your photos, different types of toiletries, magazines, movies, and things like that. Pretty much anything that is available in the free world that doesn’t come standard in prison, that’s what the Commissary is for.

CA: Sounds very necessary.

LC: Yes! It’s necessary as hell! Because it’s not so much like, “I need to have this type of soap.” It’s the idea that someone on the outside is not forgetting about you. And about taking the time even if it’s only a couple of dollars. It’s the gesture that’s important: Don’t forget about people. Especially if it’s people from my circle, if it’s my family, friends, people that helped me along the way, or kids back in the neighborhood, etc. Don’t forget about them.

Video Portraits (still), video, 3 minute loop, 2012

CA: Can you describe the best Long Island Iced Tea situation that you have had?

LC: I’m sure it involves a female. Gosh, does this really have to be in this?

CA:  Guess not. So LIIT is your go-to drink?

LC: It’s my go-to drink, and it’s my favorite.

CA: Where do you get a good LIIT in this town?

LC: I wouldn’t say I’m a connoisseur. I just know that it gets me to where I need to be.

CA: That’s exactly what we were saying when we saw it on your datasheet. It’s a get-me-to-the-next-stage drink. And maybe that’s the next stage with a female. Larry, thanks so much for being a Centerfold!

Annette Isham makes art work and lives in Washington, DC.

Zac Willis, born in southwest MO, is an artist living and working in Washington, DC. An avid collector of toys and an obsessive documentarian, Willis redirects his energies toward amassing the stories of others in Centerfold Artists.