Courtney Coles is a photographer based in Los Angeles. In 2013, she obtained a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts Photography. Shooting primarily with film, Courtney captures a visual diary of herself, family, and friends. I spoke with Courtney to get an understanding of what it means to be a woman photographer, the emotional difficulties of capturing family on film, establishing trust from behind a lens, and her love of photographing rock concerts on film which lead to her recent photographical work with this year’s VANS Warped Tour.
ML: Would you consider yourself a self taught photographer?
CC: Well, at first I was self-taught. I don’t like counting anything before Christmas 2003 because it was after getting my first digital camera that I started really looking into being a photographer. I spent all of high school photographing my friends with the various point and shoots I acquired, but I never took a proper course. I purchased my first film camera in December 2007 and enrolled in a photo course at the community college I was attending the following month. Outside of the classroom, I went to a lot of concerts and I started reading every forum on Flickr about concerts and film.
I eventually joined my college’s newspaper as a writer, didn’t really like it, switched to photojournalism and I didn’t really like that, so I applied to an art school. Even in art school I noticed there were elements of journalism in my work. I completed my undergrad in December 2013 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography.
ML: I’d like to talk to you about what it means to be a woman photographer, to you. I know your work focuses on some incredible selfies, friends, and intimates of your family members, but what do you find important in your work and mindset when you’re out creating the photographs that you take?
CC: Being a female photographer means many things. It means working twice as hard as my male peers just to get half of what they have. It means never taking no for an answer. It means not apologizing for feeling every emotion all at once. It means finding comfort in knowing that it is okay to be emotional and sad and angry and none of that will detract from my work. When I was a teenager I taught myself to never let anyone see me cry because I told myself only weak women cry. I wanted to be as tough, if not tougher, than men, so I taught myself to hold in my tears. It’s taken a while, but I have grown to enjoy the fact that I am emotional, sometimes even making jokes about it and eventually making work about it.
I grew up in Los Angeles and it’s a chaotic place to grow up, even though my hometown is 30 minutes from downtown. Los Angeles is a fast paced city and it’s gogogo 100% of the time, making it fairly easy to overlook things. My work acts as a visual diary. When making images I take in the situation, and I read the room. I use film almost exclusively, and the process of framing an image and getting the exposure correct acts as a sort of meditative process. Even though my photos come off as quick snapshots (and some are), the key to all of it is slowing down and taking it in. The photographs of my friends and family came from me gaining their trust. That’s a difficult thing to obtain, someone’s trust, but after a while the camera becomes invisible.
Did growing up in LA impact your creativity as a photographer?
Growing up in Los Angeles definitely influenced my creativity as a photographer. I know every town has its own view of what the “magic hour” looks like, and every photographer influenced by the warm tones from that moment will chase sunsets trying to recreate them, but I no longer chase sunsets with friends. Instead I’m heavily attracted to warm moments in general and the best example of that is my photographs of my family and friends. I know there’s a sense of loneliness in some of them, but at the same time there’s a layer of, “this feels like home, my home” and I attribute that to my love of magic hour.
This city is always shouting something, fighting to be the next whatever, and instead of shouting back and fighting with the best of them, my work is quiet and subtle — usually something that’s overlooked due to it not being flashy. That’s not me downplaying my art, that’s me saying that in the hustle and bustle of this city, my non-flashy photographs take time to resonate with a viewer and sometimes (most times) folks don’t have it in them to sit with it. Just like people see the sunset and the light it projects over the city, but they don’t have the time to sit and enjoy it.
Is it important for you to be a part of a creative community?
I’m currently not part of a creative community, and it is taking a toll on my psyche. I didn’t think it was that important, being around other artists, until I went to art school and saw that I was my most creative when I was bouncing ideas off of individuals who not only made art different from my own, but worked with different mediums. I think it’s important to be part of a creative community because it’s like a family, and family is important. Whether it’s through blood or you formed your own with other misfits, family is important.
Who is MC Kernieflakes? Is this your alter super woman ego?
MC Kernieflakes, oh man! That came to me when I was in the dressing room of Forever 21 trying on harem pants. They’ve always looked like the pants that MC Hammer wore, so I thought I’d be a wise-ass and call myself MC Kernieflakes. The nickname “Kernieflakes” has been around since my sophomore year of high school. On the first day of school my Spanish teacher was giving us our assigned seats and she kept saying Kernie, but no one was moving. Finally she said, “Kernie Coles?” and I corrected her and said, “Courtney.” She looked me dead in my eyes and said, “Kernie.” I told my friends what happened and from that day forward, no one called me Courtney. The “flakes” part came from my love of Frosted Flakes and I started using “kernieflakes” as my handle on everything.
That is the best nickname origin of all time!
I know you’ve taken some recent portraits lately. Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
I have a few fun projects in the works! Some I can talk about and some I can’t. One project that I can definitely speak forever on is my ongoing series of photographs documenting my first year out of college. I’m using both film and my cell phone to capture moments in this transitory period. I eventually want to self-publish a book of my photographs and short essays at the end of the year. So far things have been working in my favor.
I truly am in the right place at the right time and I’m not taking any of it for granted.
As for past work: I completed my thesis book, this too shall pass, in December which took a lot out of me physically, mentally and emotionally. I was in a weird place in life and all the while, I had to make work in order to graduate. This too shall pass comes from the Bible and from the song “God Rest My Soul” by Dawes. Last year was a really tough year because my mother almost died and there were friendships that abruptly ended. Though I was in this dark place, I kept telling myself, “even though you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is there and all the hardships you are facing will soon blow over.”
My book is a documentation of my year from January until November of 2013, and I haven’t looked at it since December. It is quite possibly the saddest thing I have made thus far. I was challenging the selfie and its place in the contemporary art world and it put me in this dark place because I was asking questions whose answers terrified me. It took about a month after completing the project for me to get back to a healthy state of being. My work then has influenced the way I’m photographing things now because I am working in a much more honest way. Instead of making images because it feels comfortable, I’m now stepping outside of my comfort zone, and I have my thesis project to thank for that.
I’m currently working on my ongoing series titled, Back Home: sorry for making you art. The series started off as a way for me to spend time with my family without actually saying that I wanted to spend time with them. It quickly grew into my appreciation of the individuals I spent much of my adolescence ignoring. Since moving back home, everyone is well aware of the fact that I mean no harm when my camera is present and that I truly love and respect them. It’s strange to think about my family and our lives together as art objects and in a conversation with my mom, I whispered, “sorry for making you art” because I never intended to make my family “art,” I just wanted to show them how much they mean to me by adding them to my memory bank of photographs.
What moments do you find inspiring to continue your series? What makes you feel.. “Ok, this is it. This is the moment I need to get.”
I don’t over think anything. I know that most people don’t know my backstory or they don’t have access to an artist statement. That used to terrify me. Now I welcome it. The fact that people can look at my photographs and take them out of context was something I wasn’t okay with, that comes with being a controlling perfectionist. I am my most uncomfortable when faced with the possibility that someone won’t “get it.” In college I was advised to go with the flow, to photograph from the heart, and that’s what I started doing. So when it comes to finding moments that help me continue a series, it all comes down to constantly photographing. When I get film back, sitting with the film and editing them down in a way that’ll tell a story greater than “these are the people I call my family.”
Photographs of my mother in the hospital are both my favorite and the hardest to look at. At that moment, someone who was the glue to our family was ill and I couldn’t look at her, so I photographed her. Moments like that, where it’s hard to be present, are the moments that push me to make photographs. The same can be said about the self-portraits in my thesis book. Those moments hurt and I needed to express myself, so I grabbed my camera. That all came from advice from teachers who told me to find the thing that makes me uncomfortable and photograph it. When it comes to other projects, it all comes back to editing down. I work in a “this is now, this means something now” way and that has taught me to act swiftly. I mean, I primarily use a Mamiya 645e! That thing isn’t light and I treat it as though it’s an extension of my right arm! There is a great deal of trust with all parties involved when I am present with any of my cameras, and that’s important.
Any way you can talk about your experience photographing for Vans Warped Tour? What was it like to be on the road shooting like that? What were some of your favorite moments?
It was such an incredible experience! I was using a digital camera all summer with the occasional polaroid here and there. My main job was to photograph the bands that Hopeless Records had out on the tour and engage with fans via social media. My typical, “read a room for a few hours before you start shooting” method went out the window because I knew I only had X-amount of days to capture things.
In Buffalo I was on my way to get dinner when Natalie Dickinson from production and some of the guys in the band State Champs and Neck Deep told me I should go to Six Flags with them, even though I don’t ride roller coasters. Despite it being the wettest and muddiest day of the tour, sneaking off campus for a bit was really cool.
Of all the great things that have happened this summer, the thing that I constantly find myself thinking about is Holmdel, NJ. I met photographer Kara Smarsh in person for the first time that day. I’m always nervous meeting artists I admire and she and I hit it off immediately. We had a drunken heart to heart that I, to this day, hold close to my heart. Every part of me wanted to take her on the road with me.
Warped Tour was hard, but I found myself doing little things like waking up 30 minutes to an hour before I had to in order to scope out the layout of the venue while listening to music to keep me calm. I called my mom whenever I had reception or wifi to do so. Whenever something got under my skin I reminded myself that this is what I’ve always wanted and that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
If I do this again, I have a list of things I’d do differently. Starting with getting a mifi!
Well I’m happy you conquered your dream opportunity, sans mifi to say the least! Any tips you can provide us if we decide to take a camera near the pit?
Don’t be intimidated by the other photographers there. Don’t look at their gear and wish you had what they did. It isn’t the tool that makes the artist, but how they use what they have. Be kind to everyone and if someone disrespects you, alert security. Most of all, take your time, but hustle. Most venues have a 3-song rule so you have, at most, 15 or so minutes to get the photographs needed for your publication. Most of all, have fun! Stay positive and have a nice heart. It’ll get you places.
Any photographers that you admire or felt has impacted you?
I am inspired by Carrie Mae Weems, Autumn de Wilde, Lauren Dukoff (who I share a birthday with!), Cass Bird, Elinor Carucci, Nan Goldin and Tierney Gearon. Francesca Woodman influenced me in college and I’m starting to think I was attracted to the loneliness and sense of belonging in her work. Or maybe I’m making up that loneliness, but there was definitely a trace of it in some of her photographs. I sometimes wonder what she’d be doing now if she were still alive.
I’m also inspired by my peers Kara Smarsh and Carly Hoskins. The two of them are currently making waves in the music industry and I’m beyond excited to see where the universe takes them.
Carly has been touring with this band, Dads, for quite some time and the way she documents their lives on the road makes me feel like I know the guys. So much so that when I went to their show earlier this year, I felt like we were old friends even though we met one time before. I had to stop myself from being a weirdo. Kara’s attention to detail is simply beautiful. It has gotten to the point where I’ll see one of her photographs floating around the internet and before looking at the byline I know it’s her work. Standing out in the live music world is difficult and I applaud her for finding a unique look. I know she wants to venture into the touring world and now I’m just waiting for the day all three of us are on the same tour. Or at least the same city!
During my sophomore year of college a friend told me to check out Sarah LaPonte’s work and during my thesis year I was introduced to Stephanie Mill via a mutual friend. I fell in love with both photographers and frequently visit their work whenever I need inspiration.
My heart smiles (and sometimes I’m brought to tears) whenever Vivian Fu or Megan McIsaac publish photographs. I’m just thoroughly influenced by the way they capture their lives. I love the glimpse into their personal space they choose to share.
Such good mentions! I also love that self portrait you did in the spirit of Nan Goldin — it’s too good. You reminded me that I still have to check out Vivian Fu’s and Hobbes Ginsberg’s exhibit, BELONGING. But yes, all incredibly talented women. Do you have a favorite internet moment?
One of my followers asked if there was a way they could send me film because I inspire them and today I opened a package with two boxes of my favorite film. I nearly cried. I don’t have a huge following on social media, but my heart overflows when I receive positive feedback or when someone tells me that my fragmented memories inspire them. It means that even though they may not personally know me, something in my work sparked something within them and that’s probably the best thing Tumblr could ever give me.
Do you have a favorite book?
Whenever I feel like I’m in an artistic funk (which happens more times than I’d like to admit), I pull out Family by Lauren Dukoff and I remind myself that Lauren is where she is now because her friends believed in her and included her in their success. It keeps me hungry to make photographs for and with anyone who believes in me, and I them, because that mutual respect will eventually pay off for the both of us.
Non-photo books: I have a lot, most of them are about music, but I’ll just mention my newest favorite, I Don’t Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner. I read it on my flight back to Portland for my college graduation and I laugh-cried from start to finish.
What’s your favorite drink?
Peach Snapple! Or lemonade. I’m trying to quit drinking soda because my skin doesn’t like it.
Well I believe in you! And lemonade is always refreshing, so is a cold cup of OJ. Do you have a favorite food?
Potatoes (baked, french fries, home fries, hash browns…), pasta, strawberries, oranges. I have a lot of food allergies so I try to keep it simple.
What’s next for Courtney Coles?
What’s next for me? I’m still making photographs if not daily, then weekly. I’m still trying to figure out my work outside of art school and I keep finding myself re-reading old essays from college.
Courtney, thank you so much for the tips, and more importantly for letting me into your life for this interview. It’s been a privilege and I can’t wait to see what you make next!
Thank you so much for wanting to speak to me, Michelle!