Jesse Pollock has many irons in the fire. Under the umbrella of his Unpiano label, he runs a music blog and publishes art books. He is a fixture on the art scene, showing his photos in galleries, making zines, and playing music. His varied interests all come down to sharing. He likes, simply, “putting things in people’s hands and watching them freak out about it.” We recently sat down in KQED’s green room to talk about Unpiano’s latest release, a substantial black-and-white photo book featuring the work of Arthur Pollock, a long-time photojournalist for the Boston Herald, and Jesse’s dad.
The project began in the Pollock family basement. “I went through a thousand photos and 900 made my jaw drop. That’s just the kind of photographer he is.” Jesse first made a zine of the work, then showed some of the photos with Hamburger Eyes, sensing that his dad’s work fit in with their street photography aesthetic. But it was difficult to explain what that meant. “I’m still not certain my dad knows what Hamburger Eyes is. I’ve tried to explain it, but it’s a hard concept to understand when you’re a certain age and you’re far away.”
Jesse took the work a step further by publishing a book in which each of Arthur Pollock’s photos has a subtle dialogue with the next, and each one screams a story. “Everything is put together for a reason, whether thematically or aesthetically. I tried to go chronologically and snake my way through his career from the ’60s to the ’80s. Within that timeline, I tried to go with other sub-themes like crime or love.”
Through the photos, Pollock could better understand his dad’s experiences shooting for the press. “Early on he was involved in the unrest of the ’60s and ’70s and a lot of collegiate protests at Kent State. Protests are another theme in the book. He was deep in a lot of those movements, but I don’t think he was the guy to stand in front of the cop and spit in their face, he’d be the guy behind the camera taking the photo of it. That’s the way he found to be involved, which is something I relate to. It’s better than not being involved at all.”
Jesse says he doesn’t draw parallels between the book’s photos and current events, though a few do bring to mind images from the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. “I chose a lot of the photos because they’re continuously relevant. They’re still fresh in a way that doesn’t make them seem like they’re from ’60s. You could run a lot of them with no captions, and people would think they were taken recently based on the way they’re shot. Not all of his work is like that, but I curated it in a certain way and chose photos for that reason.”
Arthur Pollock might be surprised to see his work in a gallery setting when the book is released alongside a show of his photographs. Jesse explains, “photojournalists don’t really like to talk about their work as art because it’s more of a group dynamic; you’re on a team. It’s blue collar, like a firefighter. And you don’t say, ‘I’m the best firefighter.’ It’s hard for him to put his work out there like that. He doesn’t think of it as art. He’ll think of it as a photojournalism exhibition. The nearest art category you could throw it into is street photography, but I don’t think of it like that. It has a hard, journalistic viewpoint at heart.”
While Jesse is a proponent of photography, he has a stance on the immediacy of it in recent years. “I want there to be less photography these days. There’s too much, and a lot of it is mediocre. People are sick of pretty photos. Your iPhone probably takes better photos than I do, so pretty doesn’t count anymore. It’s all about subject matter and context, and I want to see more of that.” On the contrary, he’s also serious when it comes to good photographers keeping their work hidden. “I know plenty of people who shoot all the time but never share their work and it’s infuriating to me.”
When someone is staunchly obsessive about art and visual culture, has good taste, and is willing to share their discoveries, the rest of us benefit. Arthur Pollock’s photographs are arresting, and the book is further proof that his son is one of those obsessives that San Francisco is lucky to have.
The Arthur Pollock book release party is Friday, October 21, 2011 at SF Camerwork. A three-day exhibition of his work will be on view October 20-22, 2011. For more information visit sfcamerawork.org.
All photos: Arthur Pollock, courtesy Unpiano.