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BEST OF 2014, Jeff Frost
Anaheim, CA
Jeff Frost makes hundreds of thousands of still photographs in the highly charged landscape of the American West, among a variety of other locations, to incorporate in his otherworldly fine art films.

© Jeff Frost

© Jeff Frost

“I’ve never worked this hard on anything in my life. It took me two years and more than 300,000 photographs,” says Frost about Circle of Abstract Ritual, his most complex film to date. “It started as a film examining the idea that creation and destruction are the same thing. Along the way, it became something more than that. It became a way for me to create a piece of my own personal culture as a conscious, creative act. It became a way to change not just myself but my whole lifestyle.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jeff Frost: Four years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JF: One year.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

JF: When the Los Angeles chapter asked me to teach a short workshop on time-lapse post-processing, I negotiated my membership as part of the pay, because I recognized the value in belonging to a professional organization with the vast resources of ASMP. As a person starting out I wanted to be connected with other professionals who already had a handle on the hurdles I was sure to encounter.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JF: Recontexualization.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable pieces of equipment?

JF: Google and my portable generator.

ASMP: What is unique about your style, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JF: Probably the cinematic end product that my work eventually becomes. My photos aren’t just photos; they’re paintings with motion and sound which are pieces of a larger narrative structure.

ASMP: Do you identify yourself more as a photographer or as an artist?

JF: Oh, definitely artist. We all know photographers are scumbags.

ASMP: You formerly lived in Anaheim, CA, before deciding to embark on your current nomadic lifestyle. What are the benefits and drawbacks to a traditional lifestyle (as opposed to a nomadic one) in practical terms? How about in terms of your creative process? Do you have thoughts or plans of returning to a more traditional lifestyle again in the future?

JF: Jumping off the nomad cliff may have been the best decision I’ve ever made. There’s something about taking that seemingly senseless leap of faith. It feels almost as if the entire universe responds; people certainly do.

A few days ago, I found myself in the San Francisco area badly in need of a break. I contacted a person I had met earlier in the year at the Palm Springs Photo Festival who had mentioned offhand — half a year ago — that I was welcome to stay in her guest house in Big Sur if I was ever in the area. Not only did she graciously host me, she cooked nourishing meals and even scored inside passes to an incredible and excusive day spa. Just walking into this place was an experience. We were greeted by huge flower gardens complete with birds chirping and large colorful butterflies floating past our noses. The natural hot springs was housed in rock structures built high on the side of the cliff, where we relaxed to a vision of the sunset. The vast overview of the ocean was breathtaking. I thought places like that only existed in movies, or for the very wealthy. All I had to do to be there was get naked. Okay, it was clothing optional.

Nomad benefit packages include: large quantities of freedom, lack of rent, deep relationships with people you’ve just met, a life that resembles a Kerouac novel. Drawbacks include: running water further away than five feet at any given time, occasional sketchy characters, “clever” quips about living in your car from family members.

ASMP: Your work process is quite involved and includes photography, filmmaking, painting and music. How did you come to develop this process? What’s your biggest inspiration? When did you first start shooting in the desert?

JF: One of the chief catalysts for my process arrived via the vehicle of failed rock stardom. Carried inside that vehicle was a trunk full of random chaos. Prior to my life of art-crime, I was playing in unknown bands all up and down the Sunset Strip. I worked hard at music, but it never worked out professionally.

That failure was a huge gift; the notion that talent would get me anywhere had been annihilated. I worked like a madman when I went back to school for photography. I treated every photo as if it could eventually wind up in my portfolio, and I didn’t wait for the relevant courses to learn technical skills.

The other main catalyst was a long bout of depression. I had some good days, but for the most part it was continuous for two full years. At some point within those two years, three friends attempted suicide and one succeeded. That’s really what drove me out to the desert. It hit way too close to home to see someone struggle so hard, and lose him or herself completely. I had to get out of the house and decided to go camping.

In the desert I was able to reconnect with nature. I had grown up in an extremely rural place where long hikes, exploring Native American ruins and camping under the stars without a tent were long-held family traditions. When I looked at the stars, I felt very small, but that meant that my problems were even smaller. It had a grounding effect. Plus it was fun to stumble around in the moonlight, stoned, yelling at the moon and waving flashlights around in front of the cameras I had borrowed from school.

ASMP: You look for abandoned buildings in the desert and then use the walls as a canvas on which to paint optical illusions. Are your paintings preconceived or do they happen organically once you’re in the building, given its specific character?

JF: An optical illusion is not an end in itself for me. It’s just a tool to imply the existence of something unknown or hidden, so it’s very important to me that my optical illusions interact with the architecture of the building. Come to think of it, it’s very important that they interact with the soul on some level. They are somewhat planned out but, once I’m in the building facing the physical reality of paint on walls, they often change. It’s part of the fun.

ASMP: Your painting process is recorded with stop motion and time-lapse photography. Do you consider these films as finished pieces in their own right or are they merely components of a larger project?

JF: The films can stand alone as finished pieces, certainly, but I consider them components of a larger set of work. I carefully cultivate still portfolios for prints and books. They’re meant to add a contemplative dimension to work that would otherwise just zip right by on the film. It’s a way to slow things down.

ASMP: How much time do you generally spend on a film in terms of the whole process; conceptualizing, organizing crews, shooting, painting, filming, music, etc.?

JF: It’s all over the map. Flawed Symmetry of Prediction took six months, start to finish. Circle of Abstract Ritual took over two years. War Paint for Trees took two months.

ASMP: You are an extremely prolific still photographer, which you incorporate into your films. What elements and themes do you tend to photograph the most?

JF: I’m drawn to contradictions: violence, beauty, power lines, nature, riots and the Milky Way. One idea that I seem to return to is creating non-reality out of reality. Recontextualizing riots into a larger narrative framework of a world nearing its end, for example, or as a friend put it, “making art out of news.”

ASMP: What types of equipment do you use for your stills, motion and time-lapse work? What other equipment do you always have on hand? What types of painting materials do you work with?

JF: Home Depot is my art store.

ASMP: You recently started working with a technique you call Reverse Light Painting. Please describe how this works and the tools you use for this technique.

JF: This is a new technique in motion control and time lapse. The concept is pretty simple: In regular light painting, lights are waved about in front of the camera. Reverse Light Painting is the opposite: cameras waved around in front of lights. Sometimes I refer to it as ‘light painting with civilization,’ although I’m starting to use it on stars as well. While the concept is simple, the execution is rather complicated since I’m also creating time-lapse clips out of the Reverse Light Paintings.

ASMP: Your Web site notes that you’ve taught workshops in nighttime time-lapse photography. What do you find to be the biggest hurdle or stumbling block faced by still photographers with no experience in this technique and style of working?

JF: I used to teach guitar lessons to people of all ages. It was obvious that they had the desire to rock out, but each week they came back and replied “once or twice” (read: not at all) to the question of ‘How much did you practice’? It was like Groundhog Day, and we would start over from square one each time. Not everyone was like that, of course, but the main stumbling block to learning most things is pretty clearly work ethic. Time lapse and night photography is no different in that regard. The basics are easy when you shoot with any regularity.

That said, I consider it my job to empower people in workshops. It’s important to me to fit some sort of wonder in along the way, instead of purely focusing on technicalities. I find it utterly fascinating that light takes a full 100,000 earth years to travel from one side of our Milky Way galaxy to the other, or that time stops in a black hole, or that it’s fairly likely that my body has atoms in it that have been around since the Big Bang. Capturing photons of light on the sensor of your camera is almost like a personal tree ring in a sense. There’s information in that light mixed with your own memories, and on a moonless night it’s a link to something incredibly mysterious and ancient.

ASMP: You also create the original soundtracks for your films. Do you have a background in music?

JF: I started piano lessons at eight and eventually taught myself how to program synthesizers. Somewhere along the way I picked up drums, bass and guitar.

ASMP: In 2013, you did a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project Modern Ruin (now called Circle of Abstract Ritual). What strategies did you use to promote this campaign and exceed your $10,000 funding goal?

JF: Essentially I polished the Kickstarter campaign itself. I put creativity into the rewards, and made as good a video as I was capable of. I promoted the project to my press contacts and everyone else. However, the project was clearly very far along when I started the campaign. I think it was easy for people to see that, and it instilled confidence in the end product. It’s probably not a good idea to do a Kickstarter at the start of a big project. Do it when you’ve already done a crazy amount of work and have some progress to show.

ASMP: In your five-minute film Story of Abstract Ritual, you talk about your process and experience of making the 12-minute film Circle of Abstract Ritual, with long grueling hours and many people involved. Please describe what the Circle of Abstract Ritual is about, how long it took to make, your filmmaking process and your future goals for this piece.

JF: At this point I really just want people to see the piece. It’s being released publicly on Vimeo, September 15 (if I can keep my deadline). I’ve never worked this hard on anything in my life, and the making of this film has changed my entire lifestyle. It took two years and over 300,000 photographs! I shot time-lapse footage of riots, wildfires, stars and my own paintings in abandoned houses amongst othera.

Circle of Abstract Ritual started as a film that examined the idea that creation and destruction is the same thing. I mapped out a narrative structure to the film very early on, and for the most part it follows that structure. Along the way, it became something more than that examination. It became a way for me to create a piece of my own personal culture in the form of a dogma-free ritual, and it became a way to change myself.

The circle of trees shown in Story of Abstract Ritual still stands. I go there frequently at night. Sometimes I have no purpose and I just want to walk around the trees at night. Sometimes I’ve got a specific problem or thought in mind. I’m not thinking about magic when I’m there, not the supernatural kind at any rate. I’m thinking about physics and the deep mysteries of the Universe. It’s a respite, for me personally, from thinking that it’s necessary to hold on to beliefs while enjoying a sense of ritual and wonder at the same time. If nothing else, it’s an incredible place to be, regardless of what you do or do not believe in. It’s open.

ASMP: You recently took firefighting courses in order to go out with the fire crews and document fires in Southern California. What kinds of challenges have you encountered in the situations you’ve photographed to date?

JF: In May I was in San Diego County, where I shot the fires for two nights. One night I hiked several miles to the top of a hill where a mansion was precariously perched. My pack had three cameras, six lenses and probably weighed about 60 lbs. I also carried a full size tripod in each hand.

I could feel the heat from the fire even though it was on an adjacent ridge, and it made a roaring hiss sound as it pulled in oxygen to feed itself. I shot until 5 a.m. Then I had to hike back out, which took about an hour. It took my body about five days to recover. I had headaches that wouldn’t go away, lungs coated with hours of smoke inhalation and diarrhea, but the worst effect was in my mind.

I couldn’t stop thinking about everything and everyone affected. I couldn’t stop working on the photos. I obsessed to a very unhealthy degree on it for about ten days. In that span of time I edited some 8,000+ photos, made a short film including the soundtrack TEMP: Cocosfire and created a smaller scale Kickstarter (something I had not planned previously) to help cover travel costs. I’m pretty sure I was experiencing mild PTSD.

Looking back, TEMP feels rushed. It has an underdeveloped photographic identity and could use polishing, but it’s also authentic to what my experience was at the time. Since then, I’ve shot at least another half dozen fires (ten, if you include the “busts”). I’ve found much firmer ground mentally and artistically, and I crave the adventure of chasing down a blaze. I still stay up all night and usually don’t manage to find more than a few hours of sleep in the day.

ASMP: During a September 2013 interview about your work, you said, “There’s also the challenge of going to a place with no road map. Once a film is finished the challenge becomes figuring out how it fits into the world and finding its audience, and that can be tough because no one really knows what to do with me including myself. If you figure me out, call me.” Has this self-assessment and your sense of your work changed at all in the past year?

JF: I’ve tried many things, but I put everything into the art. Obviously I need a point person (gallery, agent or such). A number of people have expressed interest, but none really seemed like the right fit, so I passed. I’m sure someone out there could do quite well if they had the right mindset and knew where to plug me in. I have some ideas that I think are pretty creative and could be financially appealing.

For example, I’ve recently come up with a strategy for prints: editions of one. How it works is I hand pick selections from a time lapse or stop motion sequence — some selections are very similar, others are radically different. I ask collectors to watch the films and note the time of the scene they’d like a print from. Then I send them a catalog (digital or hardcopy) with the selection of images from that scene. They pick the one they like, and then they’re the only person with a print of that particular photograph. They have their unique art object. Eventually I’ll have scene selections, complete with catalogs in PDF form on my site, available to browse.

ASMP: Given your statement above, how do you determine when a particular film is complete, or do you simply consider everything a work in progress and subject to revision?

JF: I have the opposite of the over-precious hoarding mentality that so many artists reflexively adopt. Get it done, put it out there and move on. It’s a relief to stop working on a project, because that means that I can fully focus on new work.

ASMP: In 2012, Blurb approached you about publishing the book Flawed Symmetry of Prediction to debut Blurb’s new electronic book format. Please describe the process of working with them on this project.

JF: Blurb is great! Eileen, Dan and company are some of the brightest people out there and they always have great ideas. They set me up with the software to create the book and left me to it, for the most part. The first step at that point in time was to create a physical book, and then convert it to eBook from there and add multimedia files. I set up the eBook so that each portfolio photo was accompanied by an actual NASA audio recording. You might be listening to the ambient sound of a meteor shower while looking at a photo of a painting, for example. I really enjoyed the process and don’t have enough good things to say about the experience. I’m very proud of that book, but I still don’t own an iPad! Sometimes I look at it on friends’ devices.

As previously mentioned I’m working on print catalogs, which I’ve been printing through Blurb. I’m also working on another full size coffee-table book for Circle of Abstract Ritual. It would be great to release it as a hard copy in limited edition, but it may just be available as an eBook. I’m not sure yet.

ASMP: You’ve given a number of talks about your work. How do you go about lining up such opportunities? Is there one particular talk you’ve given that you’ve felt was most successful? If so, where was it and what were the elements related to its success?

JF: I miss being onstage from the music days, so it feels like a very natural thing to do. Some of those opportunities have come knocking on my door out of the blue, usually because they saw a film of mine online somewhere, and others have been procured by reaching out to universities and professional organizations.

One in particular, at the Orlando Museum of Art for Snap! Orlando, was actually quite cathartic. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and it connected with the audience. A successful talk stays in people’s minds after they leave. I’m aiming for that — some insights and a few wild tales from the desert.

ASMP: There are many articles that have been written about you and your work. What kinds of opportunities have resulted from that exposure?

JF: It makes my parents feel validated. That’s probably the biggest benefit.

ASMP: Which artists, photographers, filmmakers, or works of art (contemporary and historical) inspire you?

JF: My list of influences is huge. I’m a junkie when it comes to the consumption of documentaries, music and art. I tend to think about art in musical terms. I tend to think about abstract painting in terms of portraiture. Does that make any sense? Probably not, but here are some of my significant figures nonetheless: Josh Homme, Trent Reznor, Richard James, Diane Arbus, Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, Lee Friedlander, Banksy, David Lynch, Caravagio, Andy Warhol, Henry Rollins, David Choe, James Turrell and many others.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

JF: It was from my former professor, commercial photographer and mentor, Steve Anderson, who said, “Be pure of heart.” Meaning: people can smell bullshit from a mile away. The second most valuable piece of advice also came from Steve, “Be as creative with business as you are with your art.”

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

JF: My overhead reduction program: Nomadness.

ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time?

JF: In five years, I’d like to be absurdly wealthy, travelling the world, represented by high-dollar galleries, featured in museums and taking rides on the International Space Station. What?

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

JF: Determine if photography is truly your path, or if it’s merely the path you want.

ASMP: What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any set plans for upcoming projects in the works?

JF: I have two projects in production right now. Both were previously mentioned: the fire film, and a film called Circuit Board Species, which employs the Reverse Light Painting technique. Circuit Board Species is essentially a celebration of man and technology, while the fire film is a tacit condemnation of our bad behavior (largely a byproduct of technology). I mentioned that I get a thrill out of high-level contradictions, right?