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Photography Spotlight: Paul O’Neill

25 year old freelance photographer Paul O’Neill and I chatted – give it a read.

Mecca, California

Qornerstone: What sparked your interest in photography? 

Paul: It’s surprisingly difficult to remember what exactly piqued my curiosity about photography as a form. I remember once expressing disdain for it, repeating the sentiment that it “wasn’t art” because anyone could do it–granted, I was in high school and disliked a classmate of mine who was a photographer, but there was something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. It struck me as lazy, as vaguely parasitic: while the painter labored to recreate something beautiful, the photographer simply took a picture of what they saw. Know what I mean? The photograph was merely a record of something seen, not the fruit of a respectable process.

I don’t at all think this way now, of course. For one, good images are rarely simple records–they’re the sum of countless variables and small decisions made by the photographer. Secondly, even if it’s granted that they’re “mere records,” a record of something can still be unparalleled in its expressive value…

Thinking more about it now, I’m inclined to say that it was summer, and it was color that made me start taking pictures. It was 2015, and I had both a shitty, early-model smartphone and friends that wore vibrant clothing. I was a year into college and newly amazed by what life could be. So this–that was the beginning of it. Reverence, color, cherished things captured on trashy JPEGs.

Q: Do you remember the first camera you acquired? Why was it special?

P: The first real camera I ever used was a Pentax K1000. If you ask every single person who’s shot a roll of film on an SLR, there’s a decent chance they used a K1000 at least once. It’s a workhorse and a good starter camera, especially because the light meter is pretty reliable…

What made it special was that it was a gift. A friend of mine, a photographer, a stoney, creative guy, had me meet him at a cafe around my 21st birthday–he’d gotten me something. It was that Pentax, and I remember him telling me that he liked my phone photos, but that I should try this. We sat in the cafe as he showed me how to load the camera, explained the exposure triangle, etc., and it went entirely over my head. (This friend’s work can be viewed at forrestxavier.com).

The disappointment I felt when developing my film after a trip to New York is something I still remember. Of ten or so rolls, only 30-something images were even visible, and even then, only one image was worth keeping. I still love that image, but learning how to actually take pictures with this box of metal and glass…there was much punishment in that process. (The special image, the first I was ever proud of, may be viewed below).

New York, New York

Q: Your work creates a very direct presence of existence…I feel like I’m there with you while looking through your imagery. Once you develop your work, do you feel that same feeling of being present with the specific moment again?

P: Without fail, yes. One of photography’s greatest abilities, in my view, is the potential evidenced in the question–it’s sort of about the nature of context. 

The first-image-I-was-ever-proud-of, inserted above, takes me back to an August day, to a house in Columbus, Ohio, to a moment where one of our friends was dying…it’s a very potent memory. But the image doesn’t communicate that. It communicates something, just not what it means to me.

I consider other images I’ve taken, though, to be far more communicative. Ones where the context is not only evident but embodied, visually, tonally, etc.–and these are some of the triumphs of photography as a form. The image translates a feeling, a moment, into the world’s most mutually-intelligible language: seeing. 

Ocracoke, North Carolina
Kansas, I-70

Q: Do you equate your film with memory? For example, if you were to lose a roll of film, would you inherently lose the memories as well?

P: Yes and no. I’ve lost some rolls that I was particularly attached to before, and it’s inevitably disappointing. It always hurts more than you think it should. But not having those visual triggers doesn’t mean the memories are now untouchable; they’ll just need to be found through other means. 

Slab City, Utah
Roselle, Illinois

Q: There is a certain stillness in your work that also converges with activity and room for thought. What trigger goes off in your head when you know you want to capture an image?

P: This is a challenging question. To a degree, I feel like it’s almost impossible to describe…once you start using cameras, taking pictures, etc., there’s almost a spiritual muscle that develops between eye and finger. It rarely starts as a conscious, considered thing, but something that arises through looking. Paying attention, I suppose. It’s different for everyone, but that muscle flexes when it needs to. It’s Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment–we all have our decisive moments.

It’s also worth noting, though, that my decisive moments are born twice before they’re visible. First, they’re born in the impulse, the instant where the camera takes the photo; then, they’re born again once the film is developed, when specific frames are chosen from a roll, particular crops emerge, etc. One of the few things I can say I’m truly confident in, photographically speaking, is the curation of my own body of work. I take a lot of garbage pictures, but I think I’ve gotten better at finding the good ones. 

Chicago, Illinois

Q: Let me change it up. How many times do you think you’ve been captured by someone else’s photo? Does that delight you or frustrate you?

P: No, not off the top of my head. Someone came relatively close–a guy I met on the internet who asked to come to my apartment and take portraits of me and my roommate, as strangers…those images were brilliant. But…I don’t know. They don’t quite feel like me. Then again, I wonder–isn’t it actually quite rare to feel truly represented in someone else’s photo of you…? After all, it’s much easier to see an image of ourselves and recoil than to see an image and be drawn to it. I may be wrong, but I think this is a pretty normal thing, isn’t it?

New York, New York
Page, Arizona

Q: If you were to choose one moment in your life that you had the opportunity to record all of, in whichever media you wish, what moment would it be? Why?

P: There was a period in my life where I was hiding away in New York…I was with a Russian woman, a delightful stranger, and she showed me countless things that I wish I could go back and take pictures of. There was also a time where, when crossing the Great Plains, I pulled off the highway to get gas…it was January, and the light was that very crisp, very cold, and very bright kind that shows itself in winter. The gas station was just a pump with an old mechanical tally (as in, the amount of gas we pumped was calculated via turning number wheels), and that was it. There was a grain silo and a building where someone lived. Beyond that, nothing but plains, plains, plains, and–most importantly–a dog.

It was an old lab, I think, and he was wearing a bandana. He was just sitting by the pump letting us go about our business. I took his picture and took his picture again when he started barking, and again when he took off across the plains, and again when I saw him meet another dog, far, far away on the earth… 

I later found that I’d fucked up the loading process, and the roll hadn’t been advancing frames. I still remember the moment clearly, but I wish I could go back and capture that. Dogs at play in Kansas winter. It was beautiful, otherworldly.

Q: ‘Could there be a light at the end of this tunnel?’

P: If photography has taught me anything, it’s reverence. 

I believe that there is.

Wakefield, Virginia
Walsenburg, Colorado
New York, New York

Check out (!) Paul’s Instagram & stay tuned for his upcoming zine

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