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A Desire to Stop Motion :: Photographer Shawn Bush on Shooting California's Absurd

A Desire to Stop Motion :: Photographer Shawn Bush on Shooting California's Absurd

By Brock Brake

I met Shawn Bush and a group of his friends about 6 years ago at the DC King of Chicago Contest. They were smoking blunts, shredding, and passing out beers to all the judges and skaters. Most importantly, they were bringing the whole community together. They called themselves The Beerics, and Bush was basically the brains behind the operation. He filmed it, edited it, made the website, built the ramps, and took tons of photos. It was during this time I learned just how creative this dude is. At a young age, high school or even middle school, he made videos that a lot of skaters in the Detroit area consider local classics. He had photos in some of our favorite magazines during high school. Before I fully understood the meaning and importance of true craftsmanship, this dude was building his own darkroom in his house, making hand-bound books and building ramps. Shawn has always been the DIY King in my eyes. He learned how to build a website by locking himself in his room and reading a bunch of free how-to-code websites.

In the interview below, Shawn discusses how he left home after high school to pursue photography, his by-chance stint with Playboy, his fixation with the landscape of California as a photographic subject, and modern man’s devastating and often absurd effects on it.

“I AM JUST FRAMING OUT PARTS OF THE WORLD THAT I BELIEVE SUBTLY CARRY WEIGHT”

BROCK BRAKE: When did you first pick up a camera?
SHAWN BUSH: I first picked up a camera around the time I picked up a skateboard. I used my parent’s home movie cameras to make skateboard films. That eventually grew into a desire to stop motion and think about the world differently, which brought me to photography.

What was it like growing up in Michigan?
Growing up in Michigan was pretty normal. I grew up twenty minutes outside of Detroit in a very average suburb with a very normal life. My parents were generally supportive of my endeavors though they had their doubts about some things. That is their job though.

I knew I wanted to leave as soon as an opportunity arose and moved to Chicago after high school to pursue a high education and have not moved back since. I have a weird yin/yang thing going on with home. I love the state but have no desire to live there anymore; I just miss the people and Coney dogs. The section on my website entitled L-Town chronicles the years since I have left and my disconnection with the place called home.

What was The Beerics and how did that start?
The Beerics was a “collective” space that was run by a couple of hands full of my friends and I. It started as a drunken idea while camping and that manifested into much more. The initial idea was to press against The Berrics, which at the time was brand new and was starting/a part of the online skateboard retail revolution. The way I perceived it was that these two pros were taking money away from core and even non-core shops that struggle to survive in the economy. That being said, we setup a website and tried to play off the stuff The Berrics was doing but in our way, which is where you got 5th Try Fridays.

The space itself was transformed into a large mini ramp with extensions and all sorts of fun that had rooms bordering around it. I stupidly chose the load in zone that had one wall as a garage door as my humble abode. We threw lots of music shows, art shows and skate jams. The goal was always to promote whom we like and do what we love. It was a great time with lots of stories. People woke up under the ramp often, someone died on the front porch and more general debauchery went on prolifically. I recently made a book about this time called Somewhere Between that chronicles the more lifestyle aspects of this time without a focus on skateboarding strictly.

In Chicago you worked as an assistant to a photographer at Playboy. A lot of people might assume it was an amazing job, but I know it was super hard work with long hours. What was the job really like?
That was a great job that did have its good and bad times. I got the job on a whim when selling a view camera on Craigslist to the studio manager. He came over to buy it and I was living at The Beerics at the time and we started chatting a bit about this and that, which grew into him asking about the space. I walked him around the front wall that covers the view of the ramp and he was very surprised and asked if I built the ramp. I said, “Yeah,” and he asked me if I needed work and wanted to come into Playboy and start assisting and building sets.

I obviously took him up on the offer and slowly started a week or two later. I started to work more and more until I was working 4-5 days a week for two and a half years. There was a little bit of stress, but I was always behind the scenes importing images, holding a fill card, building a set, putting my handprints in sand, setting up the lighting or doing something that was out of the spotlight so I never felt the heat. There were some 18-hour days when we needed to knock something out for web or print but you just bite the bullet and work, it’s no big deal. The best part of working there was the opportunity to work with Zach Johnson the studio manager/photographer and learn some lighting techniques that were new to me.

“ONE MAN [IN LA] OFFERED TO GRANT ME PERMISSION TO SHOOT ON HIS PROPERTY FOR SOME ANAL SEX. I DECLINED.”

Any crazy stories from the job?
Nothing too crazy. I went on a College Girls shoot in 2012 and that was a good time. I normally get treated like I look and people were bringing out different bottles of wine and cuts of steak for us to try and just look at, it was great. Zach and I would go out and cast girls at shitty college bars (that means we got a beer, gave the bouncer a ton of flyers and then left once a large group of people came in and got drunk elsewhere) then wait for the emails to come through.

One night we went to a club in Milwaukee and the manager got us a booth and a few bottles. He would bring up a girl every 30 minutes or so to chat and give her info if they were willing to pose. Some girls would come in drunk and REALLY oiled up. One girl left a nice big grease mark on the bed frame. She didn’t get casted.

In your upcoming exhibition [opening July 11] at Athen B. Gallery, you focus on California. You’ve been here for about 3-4 years now. What does California look like to you?
California is amazing and more beautiful than I could have imagined. Being a snot-nosed little kid, all I ever thought about was all the places I could skateboard out here, but as soon as moved I was transfixed by the landscape. The Midwest is unbelievably flat so the mountains and the different species of trees and plant life fascinated me immediately. I began to start to explore the state on long weekends with my fianc'e, and even though it is such a large state, a 5-6 hour drive didn’t seem so bad because of all the beauty that lies between home and the destination.

Then I began to concentrate on the landscape and how modern day man is meshing with it while referencing my own perception of being an outsider in this idealistic land. Driving around the LA area really brought this to life for me.

Seeing oil pumps in McDonald’s parking lots sucking up the crude oil while greasy food gets fried and pumped out to the masses only a matter of feet away from each other made me laugh and reflect about our position in this environment that to many is thought as a Utopia. That “West” has been glamorized for years but the general public only sees the beautiful crane shots that accompany your favorite television introduction or film. Visiting places like the Paramount Ranch only beat the reality that this is all a facade into my head and the only thing that is real is what is in front of you.

An oil pump in a McDonald’s parking lot.

“THE AMOUNT THE LANDSCAPE CHANGES IS STAGGERING”

Where are some of the cities and sites you’ve visited during the process of your project on California?
There are really too many to list; I try to stop as much as possible when I take trips. Recently I took a solo 6 day trip and drove around the state from Yosemite to the border of Mexico. I even sat in the same chair George Bush sat in at a diner in Turlock while munching on a cheeseburger.

One thing that is apparent when driving across the state is that the amount the landscape changes is staggering. Towns like the ZZyzx and Cerro Gordo are fascinating because they once were bustling with commerce and community, but after the land became bastardized and barren, the residents and tourists uprooted and left, leaving the land to slowly wither away.

On the other end of the spectrum, visiting LA County and seeing modern American ideals everywhere is really something to look at. While out photographing, I encounter all sorts of different people, from hicks in the middle of the desert, to tourists taking selfies in front of dead whales. One man offered to grant me permission to shoot on his property for some anal sex. I declined. The next night I fell asleep to sweltering heat and the purr of a machine gun going off for hours in the background at Slab City. The whole state is amazing and has lots to explore but my heart is in Northern California.

What is your intent behind this documentary project? What is it you hope the photographs show your viewer?
My intent behind this project is not to save the world through making these photographs. Photography is an artistic medium and you can say or not say as much as you want. I want to say, “Look at what this looks like and is happening here,” but not show it directly, be too linear or in your face.

Playing off cultural ideals of America is important for me to touch on as well. We all see the same TV shows and movies that are projecting the same idealistic view of what life is life here in America and I like to poke fun at that. There needs to be some air and room for interpretation or else I feel that my images lose their impact. I photograph very loose in terms of theme/subject matter and make pictures intuitively to keep myself open and motivated. This leaves me with a collection of diverse images that range significantly in meaning.

Viewers need to get that I am not a superhero and don’t want to be. There is no S on this chest. I am just framing out parts of the world that I believe subtly carry weight and speak about the culture of California and the subject of Americana as a whole. Retracing what we are told through the media and ideals and looking at the reality of what lies beneath that fog.

How has California changed the past handful of years you’ve lived out here?
I can really only speak about the drought and the impact of that because that is all I have been around for and have witnessed. The effects are staggering.

I am a avid camper and love to explore the outdoors and have seen the effects first hand of how much in the few years I have been here just by revisiting places. One example of this is Lake Sonoma, which is about 2 hours north of San Francisco. My fianc'e, dog and I take a small raft to a “boat in” camping in spot on the lake to and you can see the water line is at least 20 feet below where it should be. Last time we went to launch the raft, we had to walk it through 200-300 yards of mud that was all water a month before, about 5-10 vertical feet of water missing in a 381,000 acre lake which currently sits at 180,000 cubic feet. That is significant and only a small pimple on the greasy face of California’s list of problems.

Driving through the valleys and the coastline, you encounter many vineyards and farm lands that are very beautiful but it is apparent that many businesses simply cannot function, whether that is at full capacity or at all. In some places, this is causing the land to return to its natural state.

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See more photography by Shawn Bush at his website sheenographs.com.

Shawn will be a part of Athen B. Gallery’s SUBJECTS photography show, along with Jason Henry. The opening is this Saturday, July 11, at 1525 Webster St. Oakland, CA. See you there.

Shawn will also be showing work at 1111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco. The opening will be July 31 at 7pm.

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