Shawn Records is a photographer and teacher based in Portland. His recent monograph Hero (Aint-Bad, 2021) collects photographic odds and ends from the past decade, using Joseph Campbell’s archetype of the “hero’s journey” as a loose narrative framework.
BA: Can you tell me about your process making the photos that wound up in Hero?
SR: The process of photo-making for this book was simply the process of photo-making without a preconceived notion. What I mean is that these were all photos that I ended up with after I’d been shooting digitally for awhile, but hadn’t really considered them “serious.” Mostly because I’d been shooting large and medium format film for a long time beforehand mostly on projects with clear parameters.
BA: Do you consider them “serious” now that they’re in a book?
SR: They’re “serious” now in that they’ve been given meaning now. The parallel of photography and aging is the structure, that I hit 40 and dealt with the randomness of life by forming meaning in hindsight.
BA: When you say you made them without a preconceived notion, is that different from your normal process? Did you generally set out in previous projects with a preconceived structure before making photos?
SR: I’ve worked in both ways, but oftentimes when I shoot without direction, the lines get drawn somewhere along the way and I find myself shooting to fill holes and bridge gaps. In this case, every picture came out of the archive. Well, with the exception of one that was made a couple years ago, as the book was nearing publication.
BA: You had all of these odds and ends in your archive. When did you impose the Hero structure onto them?
SR: The question of when basically came down to this project starting as a gift to myself when I hit 40.
BA: In an Instagram post you said one of the big decision points in the early stages was choosing whether or not to put the “hero’s journey” structure out front or hide it. I think you wound up doing both. There’s a very deliberate table of contents with chapters describing the “hero’s journey.” But the photos have no captions and it’s sometimes hard to connect them to that contents page.
SR: Yeah, I felt like it was important to let the viewer in on the gimmick. The initial goal was to give myself a tongue-in-cheek gift of meaning for my life, by granting epic meaning to, what at that point, was more or less the last ten years. To your connection trouble… yeah, I get it. Each section references the literary device, yet ultimately, the sequence needs to work from picture to picture, page to page.
BA: Yes I can find little connections in the picture sequence too. Those are easier to spot. But tracing them back to the “hero’s journey” was harder for me.
SR: The choice to leave those page numbers in, to mark those chapters serves the artifice. The goal was to have them, but not have the volume too loud.
BA: Was 40 a big birthday for you? Like a mid-life crisis, or major milestone?
SR: Naah… I’ve been bald since my twenties so it didn’t hold that much existential weight, but there is something significant, culturally at least, about that milestone. You’re no longer becoming, you just have to start accepting.
BA: What do you mean you’re no longer becoming? You mean you stop evolving at 40?
SR: Evolution is one thing… We all keep growing, changing, etc. But at 40, for me, I was pretty deeply entrenched in some paths that won’t change—family, work, place, etc.
BA: You’re almost 50 now. Are those same pathways still entrenched?
SR: Those same pathways are there, but there’s grey in my beard. Plenty of small changes in the day-to-day, but photographically, what’s changed is maybe a lightening up. That is, when I first was learning photography, I took my camera with me everywhere, and every day would just go walk my dogs around the neighborhood and pay attention. I’m back to doing that these days, with a little nudge from Covid-apocalypse-times, and love it.
BA: I am biased toward that method too. It’s the only way that seems to work for me.
SR: Yeah, One thing that’s really interesting to me about the way that photography exists in the photo world these days is that curators, editors, gatekeepers, etc. often come across work via the same old online entry points that tend to reward a thesis statement supported by ten to twenty photographs that, oftentimes, are different versions of the same thing. Photography can be such a more complex language than that.
BA: Do you find yourself hitting the same old entry points sometimes, as you make photos?
SR: I’ve been doing it long enough that I find myself repeating myself weekly. Or, and this is maybe even worse, I find myself not even stopping sometimes, knowing that I already made a version of that picture twelve years ago and I don’t want to give it a fresh ten minutes.
BA: Been there, done that.
BA: What’s your relationship with the Hero archetype? Are you a Joseph Campbell fan? Is that stuff important to you?
SR: I wouldn’t say it’s important to me, but I would say that at the time I started this book, my kids were around 14 and 9 or so. And had been heavily heavily heavily influenced by Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha series, and others. So the idea of an “epic” formed in hindsight really appealed to me. But, interestingly enough, Joseph Campbell was one of the early things my wife and I really got into back when I was learning to be a grown-up. I remember renting the Power of Myth video series from the public library and we’d watch a couple each night so it’s kind of funny moving back and forth in time.
BA: “Learning to be a grownup”. I like that. Practice makes perfect. Or perhaps imperfect.
SR: I’m getting there. I don’t have it down yet, but at least I’m comfortable in the role.
BA: Once you’d decided to put the photos into a “hero’s journey” structure, did they sort themselves out pretty easily from there? Did certain photos naturally fall into certain chapters? Or did the edit require more finagling?
SR: This was the kind of project that took place in many versions, over a number of years. Initially, I’d build it up, play around, get excited, and then think it was solid and then time would pass, and I’d move on to something else. Each time, I’d tear it down entirely, and then every now and then, something would bring it back to the surface and I’d rethink/rebuild it.
BA: The crossing of the first threshold.
SR: Boom. Now you’re cooking with gas. I figure that it’s best to tear it down and if the sequence keeps coming back, then it’s got legs.
BA: It seems pretty normal for a long term project to shift. This one was like 8 or 9 years? What’s fun about books is they force shifting projects into frozen form.
SR: Yeah, though initially it wasn’t really intended for public consumption. It really was just this sort of fun personal project that I was making out of scraps.
BA: When did the project shift from personal to public? And how did it eventually reach publication?
SR: I feel like it’s worth noting that my day job for more or less the past 17 years has been teaching photography at a handful of colleges in the Portland area. That’s applicable because I see these patterns within the creative process. One of the trickiest things to overcome is doubt.
BA: Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Effort. The three pillars of Zen training.
SR: That’s perfect. So, whenever I’ve got a half-baked germ of an idea going I find myself wondering if I’m the guy in the back of the bus who is talking to himself and seeing things that just aren’t there. So with this book, I gave myself the gift of a year or two of just working on it by myself before sharing it with anyone.
BA: I think a lot of photobooks might fall into that back-of-the-bus-muttering-to-yourself meme.
SR: Sure. In this case, once I started sharing it, I got just enough positive feedback from people I admire to keep it up. But, that said, it took a while to find a publisher who was interested.
BA: That balance between faith and doubt is pretty tricky. Too much faith and you wind up in a Trumpian bubble. You fall in love with the smell of your own shit and no one can steer you away. At the other extreme is too much doubt. Nothing gets off the ground. There’s a fine line.
SR: Yes, but one of the things I see all the time, with students, friends, etc. is a fear of failure that really leads to paralysis. Too much doubt, as you write above. You asked if I hit the same notes over and over again, and one of those that I find myself playing with over and over is the idea of failure. This book has many individual pictures that play with it. And the structure is built on the conceit.
BA: Which individual pictures play with failure?
SR: Here’re a few that flirt with it.
BA: There’s a meta level to these photos. They literally describe the “hero’s journey,” which is not a straight path to success. Lots of road blocks and detours.
BA: You could almost create a Hero’s journey specific to making a photobook.
SR: Totally. That’d really be taking it to the meta-meta-level. But that gets to the fun of playing with a structure that comes off the rack, that’s just there for anyone to use.
BA: Why does the book put so much emphasis on vertical frames?
SR: In a sense, this project was a shift for me in the way that I photograph. Prior to this work, I was using larger cameras and more of a big-picture landscape approach. When I started shooting digitally, I started playing with different strategies—using sequence, repetition, and quantity to create relationships between pictures. Many of these pictures use a pretty “snapshotish” approach, emphasizing one primary subject, but the complexity comes in the relationships between the photos and what comes before and after. And then in book form too, I really love how important a blank page can be in giving space and pause.
BA: So the emphasis on vertical coincided with your transition to digital?
SR: Yep, the transition coincided with the move to digital. I also love the way that the vertical frame, especially when tight, removes context and emphasizes the detail. They’re scraps and details rather than the big picture. With exceptions, of course.
BA: You could frame just as tightly in landscape format. Just saying.
SR: I could certainly get tighter with a landscape orientation, but the singular vertical pics play off one another in book form, one to one to the next, in a way that doesn’t flow quite so smoothly with landscape-orientation.
BA: How did Aint-Bad get involved?
SR: Eventually Aint-Bad took a chance on it and, to their credit, had enough flexibility in their model that I could make it, mostly, exactly how I wanted. I had to cut it down a bit and couldn’t afford some of the options I had in mind.
BA: No scratch-n-sniff gatefolds? Darn.
SR: They had previously published a friend’s book, Alexis Pike’s Color Me Lucky, and I met Carson and showed him the work in person. A year or so later, I entered it in a publishing contest they were hosting and was among the winners. I really appreciate their publishing model in that it really is creating opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The costs to the artist are relatively low, and their presence creates a wider pool.
Hero was published in 2021 and is available from the independent publisher Ain’t Bad.