We’re proud to introduce Devin Blaskovich, our newest LF Field Director. The LF Field Directors are a diverse group of individuals, typically from outside our industry, whose physically active, engaged lives give them a unique perspective on the world. Our good buddy Dev came through. We chatted in-depth on his life, scored some images of him in front of the camera, and got access to an archive of his art/work shown below.
On a scale of 1 - 20 how do you feel right now?
Probably like a thirteen. I don’t know, my family is going through some shit right now. It is also weird to be back in San Diego because there is nothing left of my room. We have a new dog who can’t climb stairs, so it just has a mattress on the floor. Laughs.
Other than that, I’m good, just working and trying to figure out my life. The jobs in LA lately have been funny/weird. I shot for V8 on spec. So they may not even use them but we all got paid so it’s fine. The images are floating in the ether until they possibly get used so I’ll never know. Laughs.
Where did you grow up? And what were early influences for your photography?
I was born and raised in San Diego, in a single parent household. My dad was in prison so it was only my mom and I. We’ve lived in Clairemont, Cardiff, Pacific Beach, Tierrasanta, Vista, and San Marcos, pretty much all over San Diego.
I did my high school years all in the same place, but I spent my grade school years at a new school each year. It wasn’t until high school that I found myself in a nice community of friends in the dance culture. The high school had a team of dancers, which was uncommon. We did tours around California and competitions, which continued on from high school into college. In college I joined adult teams on the east coast because I went to school in New York. The performances that I went to were all across the east coast, where I was in every major city for the first time doing dance. Baltimore, DC, Philly, Boston, Jersey, New York, and others. That is when I began documenting this journey and these people through images.
This was a pre-cellphone, pre-Instagram world of documentary. I bought some film cameras, a Canon AE-1, a Yashica rangefinder, and eventually a Polaroid camera. I was on Flickr back then because internet sharing for photography was still pre-Instagram. I won this competition on Flickr for Polaroid Week which was a picture of a woman on Discovery Lake’s dock with her camera. Classic. I won this competition and because I was back in New York they said that I could come by the office to pick up a camera and some film. When I arrived, they said they were hiring and that I should apply there.
So, while I was still in college I got a job at the Impossible Project which is now Polaroid, and that was how I started working within photography. I was not straight into freelancing, I was working for a company that makes the film. I taught workshops, commissioned portraits, and hosted gallery events. I was 19 and this was in 2012.
I did that for a couple years, then the gallery closed down. I tried to do freelance straight from that but I was completely inexperienced, I shot every job on film and quickly failed. I realized that I had to get another job, so I got a part time job at this flea market helping my friend open a camera store which is now Brooklyn Film Camera. Then, I got another job at Lomography and started managing that space full time.
When did you move to New York? And why did you want to move to New York?
I was Pre-Med. I got a Bachelors in Microbiology from St. Johns in Queens. They gave me a full ride and that’s why I went to New York, for college. Halfway through that, while I was dancing, I discovered photography. I did not relate to the people that were in pre-med and pharmacy school. I realized that I didn’t want to do it. I still finished, got the degree, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
How would you describe your foundational style of photography?
I think that it is always changing. When I first started, I shot a lot of Polaroids because I worked for them. They sponsored me, and provided me with a lot of film which can be prohibitively expensive in many cases. I shot simple juvenile portraiture; find a person, take a picture of them, and it looks interesting because “it's on film.” Laughs.
Analog photography was a medium that young people gravitated towards within early internet sharing. Early Instagram was a lot of patterns and colors and very environmentally/architecturally driven; reactionary portraiture. Then, I got into shooting musicians and models and stuff like that, which was used in small magazines for spec work/portfolio sharing etc.
The style of those kinds of images has always been changing. Right now, I am more interested in still life photography and immersive abstracted images. I also make some narrative work with more pointed concepts surrounding places, like San Diego as a military base/immigrant town that has a lack of culture due to its inhabitants of generational wealth that have moved here and displaced others. It is a complex net and I am attempting to make work out of that while being true to myself as an outsider looking into these environments.
I do commercial work full time, but I try to do my other projects that are more gallery or book oriented as well, the styles of which always change. With each project I try to apply a new visual sensibility in order for it to match the concept. I don’t think a fashion studio portrait is going to explain some of these concepts. I also don't think a black and white blurry street photograph is the best image for a brand. A photographer is always alternating between the needs of a client and what they think is the best visual signature or identity for a project based on its subject matter.
There are photographers like Richard Avadon who impose their will upon every photograph they take. All of the subjects from models to farm workers are all captured within his visual signature, which he imposes upon these people through his photography. He has a distinct motif that is easy to digest in any context, possibly requiring less effort to understand in that they are very easy to grasp, a reason why they are so successful. He is someone who has done both fashion work and narrative work in a way that is true to oneself, but is also very linear. It is a singular note of aesthetic which is what young photographers do as well. I think Avadon is someone that a lot of younger photographers look up to because they are all searching for their motif, their visual signature, their identity. They apply this as a foundation for everything that they do.
I, however, find that hard to do, especially in this age of social media. Fast factory media demands that a profile be understood immediately, that an individual can be digested for who they are in a glance. They know instantly what that person specifically offers based on their profile. I find that this desire to curate oneself to cater to the “client” takes away from a lot of nuance and context that individuals have to offer in their images, especially with trying to apply a personal touch to commercial work.
However, in the context of myself, I also see how that could be a problem, the question of what is brandable and what is not. The separation between personal and commercial work and the ways in which we curate ourselves in order to be understood.
Is there an opportunity for brands to find someone who can do all of these different things?
Certainly. But that is also a lot of pressure on brands, magazines, or companies who don't have the bandwidth to work harder to find a person that fits within that nuance, or understand that someone can have a diverse portfolio. Most brands are combing through hundreds of photographers to find the right one, and they don't have the time or energy to look deeper, most of the time. Some, absolutely do. But I think it’s easier to pick the low hanging fruit when you are easily describable, a hard thing emotionally to adopt because then you become a photobooth or a factory version of yourself. That is the death of creativity, but that is also the start of commerce. It all depends on what you’re aiming for.
What are some of the most prominent projects that have been the most valuable for you?
I did a shoot last year for The Cut, which is the fashion segment of The New Yorker. They run an accessories column called Finer Things. It was a really fun job because they met me halfway. The photo director at the time, Liane Radel, saw what I was doing with my own travel photography and asked me to implement luxury items into day to day scenarios. They gave me a box of expensive clothes and said drive around LA for three days and shoot however you want. We had a Valentino bag that was shaped like a rose so we put it on a bougainvillea bush and it was almost camouflage, and then we went to the beach with a Loewe bag that looked like a rock and we put it on the cliffside. These are sort of reactionary things that are creatively fulfilling because you are problem solving for each individual item, instead of making one set experience in which everything gets shoved in, where only some items land better than others.
I do think that carte blanche is a good concept, in order for the artists that brands hire to have the creative freedom to provide the best works they possibly can and experiment. However, brands may not be happy with what those experimentations provide, especially from an artist who has multiple varying visual aesthetics within their portfolio.
If you try to work in multiple sectors; like the gallery, the publication, and the brand, it can be hard to create singular works that speak to all platforms, so it makes sense to create work separately for each.
I think some people are better than others at separating their works, but I think one of the things about creative freedom is that some of these brands want you to implement this sort of higher-tier idea that you’ve been building for a book or an exhibition, and co-opt the aesthetics of that for what they have. That's one of the harder balances. Some photographers don’t even think about this because they only want to do commerce, and others only want to document subcultures and relatable parts of their own life, and want nothing to do with commerce.
How would you describe your time since being back in San Diego? As a photographer?
I have not been in nature for a long time. Laughs. A long time. California historically has its own sensibility for light, how the sun interacts with this environment, and how its inhabitants live because of it. Coming back here and learning about the nuances of the political turmoil here, what San Diego occupies as a ever-developing city, and the city’s contextual framework has been very interesting. I don’t think I’ve penetrated into that journalistic perspective as deep as I need to yet, but I’ve made a lot of work around the area to hopefully piece together some sort of visual identity of this place, although I don't know if it is successful or not yet.
I am living in LA now, so I am coming down periodically to take photos in this area and it's hard to focus on one specific point. San Diego is geographically massive; it takes so long to get from one place to another, and because of that it has so many subcultures. It is impossible to nail down everything. It has its own topographies and natural signatures that are also vast; beach, desert, forest, anywhere from Cuyamaca to La Jolla. There is a sharp contrast from rural environments to this weird beautiful natural landscape that is such an example of geographic class division.
Yeah, forsure. I also observed that you shoot a lot of the reflective work. What would you call that?
Surface light study. I drive now which has been very interesting to me (as a nyc resident the last nine years), I have been having this new crisis of interacting with car culture and how fucked up it is. The negative impacts on the environment and infrastructure is such a bizarre concept to me.
There are historic tropes of photography that circulate around car culture, like Stephen Shore’s New Topographics. But not many people have shot new cars. The current trend of amateur photography is vintage porn and hunting for old vehicles, mimicking the methods of Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore etc. which is ironic because back then they were documenting it because it was new. And now, people are hunting for that aesthetic and riding a visual trope without the context of time. There are not too many people shooting new car culture besides the commercial industry/imports etc. I’ve shot a lot of surfaces of new cars to try to figure out a way to interact with them as a subject matter that is not advertising, but is contextual within the landscape.
On another note of new work, I’ve been working with my family a lot to try to find ways to document home, the self, and family without too much direct reference. Ethics is so involved in photographing people now. You don’t want them to become appropriated objects just for a body of work.
You and I both are Korean-Americans, but we did not grow up under a culturally influenced background. I am beginning to understand that and I am trying to find a cultural identity that lies outside of the people within the family, but is also inherently tied to the family in its own way. That is also another project that I haven't quite come to terms with, but I am working on exploring. What is the search for self identity through images if not tropes of photographing something that, as an American, I think is Korean culture? It is an exploration of self-identity (or attempt thereof at least).
That’s a hard balance. You can stereotype what a Korean American is, but each person will have a completely different experience.
Of course. There is the individual person within the cultural self. There are a lot of photographers who document subcultures that have people exist as stand-ins, an archetype of this kind of person, which is impossible to describe because each story is different. In photography, you have some open ended license to portray your experience or what you believe culture to be, which is where you get into nuanced, non-narrative photography.
Where would you like to see yourself in a few years?
I would like to continue to develop the projects that I have here in San Diego. This heritage project that I’ve begun can move beyond a locality, to now live in a bigger city has more opportunity to cast a wider net, whether that is photographing Korean American people or cultures around that which still exists in LA.
With the ability to shoot people available again, I see myself returning to portraiture. I want to find a good balance, because it will not be paid work so I would like to do more commercial photography to pay for these projects and trips, where I can take weeks off and develop them further.
I have also been teaching and educating. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve taught one-on-one personal development workshops. I taught at the Venice Art Center a few days ago for a group teenagers, and I want to start an educational platform for photography on my own, but I don’t know exactly what that would be.
Right now, I’m archiving photo books that I have and starting to write about them. That's a non-image making aspect that I am working on. My main goal in life is to make and teach about bodies of work and provide intellectual and cultural value into the ecosystem of photography. This would be a platform to help facilitate that outside of my own personal work, and it allows me to talk about projects that I would not feel ethically comfortable doing, but that I find are super important. There is a way to educate and explain how these certain books and projects can be applied to your own practice without having to do them.
For example, there are numerous bodies of work that are about the houselessness problem in Los Angeles. Personally, I feel ethically uncomfortable with photographing these people, both as someone who operates for commerce and for profit, and as someone who is not within that system of living. However, there have been projects historically that provide cultural context and nuance to those things, which I could write about or educate to help people on how to address these dilemmas within photography. Now, especially in narrative work, there is a huge dilemma on what is your licence to what you can and cannot shoot ethically, and what should be left alone. The problem with that is that it can lead to segregations of individuals isolated to only make work about direct experience, in conflict that if one does not do it then no one will (when talking about a group outside of your own culture). I think participating in more education will hopefully give license to those who can operate outside of those boundaries, and understand where that line is of appropriation and documentation.
What do you do outside of photography?
I still practice dancing/movement sometimes. I have been trying to find a bridge between these two seemingly tethered but always separate aspects of my life. I've spent the last few months talking with professional performance artists and dancers as well as videographers that work within the two disciplines. I am interested in archival footage of performers like Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham etc. as well as other famous dancers and performing artists who are not recorded in video as much but have a photographic record of performance. I want to explore how effective that is now, so I do movement exploration and research even if just for my own therapy.
That’s pretty much it hahaha photography is my whole life. If it is not actively taking images, then it is editing images, or trying to produce images for work or personal stuff, or reading about others who make them. There are so many projects that I want to do that I don't have time for. That stupid saying that if you love what you do, you never work, I don’t think that’s true. If you love what you do you work every single day all the time forever. I watch segments of dancing, watch films, read photography books, and other books, and think. I stress, I live with my anxieties. I drive.
Thank you so much, Devin.
View Devin's art / work profile at DevinBlaskovich.com
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