David Yellen :: Photographer
Whether his subject be barely clad heavy metal groupies, bloody wrestlers, flaming haired psychos, 50 Cent, or Barbara Walters, photographer David Yellen (www.davidyellen.com) is uncompromising in his devotion to the hard, jagged, sometimes hyperextended essence of real. His photos have appeared in such diverse publications as Details, Spin, Time, Forbes, Life & Cosmosgirl. Gothamist spoke with David recently about a few of his favorite and not so favorite things spanning underweared parents in Queens, tornadoes and bare-titted chicks in Indiana, and soon-to-be-puking Gotham marathoners.
What do you like most about what you do?
I like that I have a lot of freedom. People usually only hire me for what I do, so I can take on my [commercial] subjects like I would any of my personal work. That’s the most exciting thing.
If you weren’t a photographer, what do you think you would be doing instead?
I’d probably either be working for my family, doing some weird fashion job, or – how’s this for a bold statement? – I might be dead. Because at the point where I discovered photography was during a very bad rough time. I was at a crossroads. And photography just pulled me right out of it. It saved my life and soul.
Speaking of your parents, is it true you photographed them in their underwear?
Not only did I photograph them in their bedroom in their underwear, I’ve also photographed them in their bathroom. Hanging out, putting on makeup, sitting on the toilet…
Don’t you think people might think that’s, like, maybe a little bit… weird?
It’s not work I show everybody. But it’s part of the whole story. I started photographing my family as a way of being able to be around them. Because at the time I started photography I didn’t have the greatest relationship with them. So it was a middle ground where once or twice a week I would come over and take photos and we would be able to be around each other. It put me in a position of power over them in a way that levelled the playing field.
You’ve been photographing them for a while now…
More than ten years. Over time they’ve become convinced that they’ll become famous from the photographs. Now they pretty much do anything I say. I went so far as to interrupt Thanksgiving dinner last year by doing super close head shots of everyone as soon as they finished their meals. So, they’re all a little queasy and a little spaced out. And here I am five inches away from their faces with giant flashes and big cameras telling them not to move.
You grew up in Queens back in the ’80’s. How did that influence your work?
I think a lot of things I shoot now are things I had an interest in back then. Like the book of heavy metal fans that came out last year [Too Fast for Love]. Growing up I wanted to be Johnny Thunder. I was one of them. I could have been in that book if it was shot in 1986… 1987, ’88, ’89.
Or the Polar Bears at Coney Island. I used to go with my father when I was real young and watch them go swimming every Sunday. It was like a tradition. Go to Grandma’s house, go to Nathan’s, get a hot dog and watch the Polar Bears go crazy swimming in the water freezing their asses off. I always thought it was kind of hysterical and then fifteen years later I’m out on the beach with them freezing my ass off and taking pictures of them.
So, kind of like the way they say writers write what they know, you photograph what you know…
Yeah, absolutely. Like my latest project was of fishermen and their trophy catches. I mean, my main obsession in life is not photography, it’s fishing.
What’s your biggest catch? Favorite place to fish?
A 250 pound Mako shark caught, while bluefishing. Pretty much it swallowed the fish I was actually reeling in. It took a few hours but I somehow managed to get it in. My favorite spot to go out of is Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
You must have had some pretty good barbecues afterwards.
Oh yeah. I like to cook a bit. Throw some fish or steaks on the barbecue and feed a few hundred of my favorite friends.
Do you find that by shooting what you know you’re able to relate more to your subjects?
Yes. For everyone I photograph I like to put myself in their position. Like if it would be embarrassing for them, then I would feel embarrassed putting myself in that position. So if I don’t feel embarrassed putting myself in that position I assume that they’re not going to be either. Like if I’m shooting the Polar Bears out in their Speedos in the middle of winter, if I needed to get out there in my Speedo in the middle of winter to make them feel comfortable, I would.
Hold on now. Look, I saw a photo of yours of this guy with his hair on fire. So are you saying you would put your hair on fire to make that guy feel comfortable?
You know… I don’t think so. There are certain lengths that I’ll go, I’ll pose a certain way, but I don’t think that doing bodily harm is going the distance. I don’t need to take it quite that far. If someone is going to do bodily harm to themselves they’ve got more issues than having their photo taken.
That picture was Steve-o from Jackass, right?
Yes. It was a story for British Esquire and they wanted to capture his essence. I followed him around for the day and he was thinking of some really crazy stunt to do and first he was going to do a back-flip with his head on fire in my living room. Now my ceilings were only ten feet high and I was thinking it’ll probably burn the whole building down but then we we were thinking, well, what can we do and he said, well I can light my head on fire…
And ditch the back-flip…
Right, and I’m like hmmm… so you’ll light your head on fire and you’ll hold for the photo and, wow, that’s amazing! So he starts doing it and I had to shoot polaroid to make sure that I can capture his head on fire so he actually had to do it for the shoot maybe ten times. We had a half, or I’d say maybe it was a whole, salmon of lox that my father had just given me for Christmas and every time his hair was getting all torched out and it was fraying and smelling we’d put the salmon on his head to put it out. Needless to say, at the end of the day we weren’t about to eat that salmon.
There’s another photo of yours, a photo of these very haunted looking and, uh… very underdressed women that you took back when you were doing your project on heavy metal fans. What was that photo all about?
There was this band Cinderella that was there and the girls were backstage. They were just kind of hanging out there by the door. I had one of them knock and as soon as the door opened the band was just kind of standing there to see who it was. It was just this perfect moment and it comes pretty close to summing up the whole project.
You had the wardrobe on hand to give them, right? I mean, they didn’t just go out dressed like that…
No, no, they were definitely going out dressed like that. The strange thing was they were there with their husbands and kids.
Where was this? Sounds like some underground place in the East Village.
Evansville, Indiana. It was definitely not the Village. And they were definitely not hipsters. Though they might be in Evansville.
It was actually that night I almost killed myself driving into a tornado. I was travelling with my [ex-]wife and what we would do is photograph a show and then drive to the next city that same night to settle in. So that night it was raining a little. But I thought nothing of it. And I hop in the car and start doing like 80 miles an hour cruising to the next city. Maybe fifteen minutes out of town there’s a really bad thunderstorm and the car starts swerving, I see a few flashes of lightning and then all of a sudden I realize we’re about to drive directly into a tornado. And pretty much as soon as I noticed it, it spun the car around and it did like a 180, basically just turned me back around and I just accelerated and wobbled down the middle of the highway doing like a hundred miles an hour to run away from it.
Sounds like a hell of a trip. Anything else memorable about it?
Well, there were a lot of girls who would flash me, show their breasts…
Ha! And you thought you were the one with the flash…
And they would do it at the most inopportune times. Somewhere in Tennessee I was taking pictures — there were two girls who had already flashed me — and a cop was, like, if anyone else shows their tits in front of you you’re going to jail. So I would tell everyone, look, whatever you do, please do not lift your shirt. That’s not what I’m looking for. That’s not what I want… and here comes this girl, totally wasted out of her mind, and she’s like “Okay! I’ll show you my breasts.” And she lifts her shirt and… of course I take the picture, you had to take the picture, and BOOM, this guy slams me up against the wall, he’s got my hands behind my back… he was this close to putting handcuffs on me.
From heavy metal groupies to wrestlers, fishermen or Polar Bear Club members, a lot of your subjects are really off-beat, off the beaten path types. Are you looking in some way to glamorize them?
It’s not about really glamorizing them. It’s not about making them do things that they wouldn’t normally do. I like to expand on a performance. Make a persona a little more than what it is, bring it out, but I don’t like to alter it like in fashion, where’s it’s all about fantasy and you come up with these crazy concepts where the model can be doing anything. I mean, I like to have a concept, but I like my concept to be based around who the person is.
So who would you rather shoot, Naomi Campbell or Lili Taylor?
Hmmm. Naomi. I’d love to be hit by a phone.
But Lili is more your typical type of subject, no?
She’s more quirky, but I think Naomi Campbell would be funnier because I’d like to show her how she really is and get her being really intense.
So would you like to do more fashion work?
If I don’t have to change my style or approach, I’d like to shoot everything.
And what is that style? That approach?
Edgy. Aggressive. In your face. I don’t pull many punches. A friend of mine called my style “Balls out” which I thought was a really interesting way to put it. I don’t make things prettier than they should be. I don’t make them pretty at all actually.
I concentrate on making people look real. When I get an assignment and I have a little time to prepare for it, I Google my subjects and research them, find out what they like and don’t like, read interviews with them… I find out as much as I can so that I can know how to shoot them. One thing I hate is when people are misportrayed in a photo.
For instance, most of what I shoot is medium or large format because I like to see the crispness of someone’s eyes. I’m not into blurriness. I’m not into a lot of motion. I like it sharp. If a person’s eyes are not in focus, it doesn’t grab it.
So how does one capture realness in a photo?
It’s about a moment. Not necessarily when a person is staring at you or staring off in space. It’s just this moment where they finally let go, where they let their body go. In certain situations I’ll create a little bit of tension with my subject, where I’ll have them hold in a spot a little longer than they really should be holding. And in that process they might get annoyed or they might… usually, though, they just end up letting go.
I mean everyone gets a little tense in front of the camera sometimes or they put on their fake camera face, but I’m always looking for that moment where they let down their guard. It’s really just about being there for that moment and capturing it.
What are some of your current personal projects?
I think I’ll hang with fishermen for the next couple months and I’m going to start photographing a family on Long Island. I’m also going to photograph [NYC] marathon runners right after the marathon, when they’re beyond exhaustion and comprehension.
What kind of moments do you think you’ll find there?
Probably a lot of people passing out. Throwing up. Probably not a lot of people wanting to stay still for the photos, but I’m somehow going to convince them anyway.
Originally published in Gothamist on October 18, 2005
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