Gillian McCain "Dressed for Cocktails"

Gillian McCain "Dressed for Cocktails"

an Interview 

1. One of your fairly recent projects, Help Me, initially portrayed as an exhibition in New York as well as a printed book, incorporates many found photos—pictures of people you’ve never met. How did you find these photographs and what were the criteria for their selection, if any? Do you have any favorites from this collection?


Those photos were curated from approximately four thousand vernacular “found” photographs (Check Some Out). My co-curator, Megan Cump and I spent days going through my entire collection, just picking out the photographs that popped out for each of us. Then I would go through her selections, and she would go through mine, and we would do another process of elimination.

One day we were sitting on the floor, trying to come up with a “theme” for the show, and Megan noticed a funny drawing Legs McNeil, my co-writer, had made, in which Help Me was scrawled in crayon. Now that we had the theme, we began another round of elimination, now curating with the “help me” theme in mind. From the collection that ultimately became the show and book, one of my favorites are probably the mug shot of a hippie girl named “Kathy Stoner.” But there are so many. Buy the book and see!

I started collecting found photos the first and only time I ever went to the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. I walked by a table and these brightly colored snapshots caught my eye. They were everyday shots of a retired TV actress. Her jaded expression was priceless, as were her clothes—Pucci knock-offs, etc. She definitely “dressed” for cocktails! At the same table I found a beautiful 8x10 of an elegantly dressed teen girl. The guy selling it said it was an heiress to the I. Magnin department store. I don’t know if that was true or not, but it started my fascination with putting stories behind the photos, real or invented.

2. What is your relationship to the lost or discarded pieces of other people’s personal histories? How do you feel about inheriting these artifacts?


I feel a need to take care of them. It’s really difficult—sometimes I’ll get a batch of five hundred photos from EBAY for a set price, and they often subsist of two or three families. First off, figuring out which photo goes with each family is no easy task, and some families you fall in love with and others you don’t. Either way, it is so hard to separate them. Then the question becomes, am I collecting photographs, or stories? Sometimes I will just take the best photographs from each family but then that’s hard—one photo may not be a strong photo but it presents a subtext. Then there are the photos within the group of photos that stand on their own, that I would keep even if they weren’t part of something bigger. So Megan has set up an elaborate system on Bento that categorizes and tags the photos—therefore a great image can go into multiple categories.


Here are some of my categories: the obvious: siblings, couples, families, portraits, costumes, Halloween, Christmas. Sometimes they are categorized by format: tintypes, photo booth, Polaroid, cabinet cards. Then I get into some sub-categories like “It Girls” which would be divided by decade as would “teens.” I have “60s mod chicks” which often crosses over--- is it the teen category, or should it be “mod girls?” A lot of people help me (!) figure it out. I have had a succession of amazing interns over the last few years—many of them into photography, archiving, library science—or photographers themselves. My interns have become my friends. It’s hard to meet people in New York!


3. If another one of your projects, Please Kill Me, offers an “Oral [and] Uncensored History of Punk,” as the title states, what affordances do you see in multimodal or multi-genre presentations of a life or an era? What are your feelings about hybrid texts?


I just looked up “hybrid Texts” (I’ve been out of the academic world for over 25 years, hahaha). If you mean a work in which photographs, drawings, and experimental “topography” are integrated into the written text—Please Kill Me doesn’t fit that definition. Originally I wanted the photos in Please Kill Me to be integrated more into the text and I am so glad our publisher said it was too expensive! Those photos would take away from the text—and an oral history is like a novel, you are imagining the characters. Maybe the book provides an image of them, maybe it doesn’t. I love photography, and I love non-fiction, but I’m not as much a fan of the hybrid text as I thought I would be. You can’t read a photo book in bed. When does one read the text in a photo book? If a book is designed in a collage-like way, they’re often really sexy, but where does your eye go? Probably the image. You will probably read the excerpt of text that has the most appealing font to you… or is the right font size… it may have to do with vision literally. I mean, when does one actually read the essays in photos books? When one is drunk or bored? Out loud, when guests are over? You certainly can’t do it on the subway or in the bathtub. I’m ranting now.


4. Not a secret—you also write poetry! How does the act of collecting or archiving pieces of history influence your own writing? Which projects have most informed or changed your writing? Are you writing any poetry currently?


I’ve been working on some long poems, all based on the same characters/setting/era. The look of the thing has stalled me for years. It was inspired by Frank O’Hara’s longer poems, so each “stanza” often has a different look to it on the page, and I started separating the parts and got too much into it visually, and then I started changing things around like they were cut=ups, and almost all of them worked! If I put the stanzas on recipe cards one could have thrown them in the air, or shuffled them, and the poems still worked. Which have me so many possibilities--- too many. I have decided between Xmas and New Year I am going to finish it. I am going to put it back into … it will probably be two parts about 12 pages each. Then I am going to self-publish it. Then I can let it go.

            History definitely is a big part of it. I kind of went about it in an Ed Sanders investigative poetry kind of way. Its set in Topanga Canyon [in L.A.], so I did a lot of research on the history of the canyon, homesteading, botany, natural disasters, squatting. The poem is definitely influenced by photographs I’ve seen of L.A. during that time. You know, what Ed Sanders would have called the “lumpen hippie.” The sense of entitlement that was so prevalent during that time, whatever your social strata was.

5. If you had control over the presentation of your own history, how would you like it portrayed?

As a hybrid text hahaha! With quotes from friends, photos, letters I wrote and received, I guess in this day and age it would have to include texts and emails. I don’t think I would want my diaries to be included… not because they are so soul searching and sentimental, but because they are so shallow! Shallow in a Joy Division kind of way, hahaha.


6. If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?


Uh, Gillian?

When I wrote that I meant, uh, Gillian?

But now I’m seeing the actual title to be Uh, Gillian?