Interviewing the Unorthodox: The Photography of Phil LoPresti

By Amy M. Vaughn

Philip LoPresti’s photography is stunning, bleak, and deeply beautiful, though perhaps not for everyone. Besides usually being in black and white, there isn’t much of an objective unity to his style. Some shots seem posed and others found. Some have intentional lighting and some natural. Some use hard contrasts and some are blurred, and some are both. 

What holds them together is a raw, discovered quality and a coherent mood. All of which says nothing at all about the subject matter, which is similarly varied and similarly held together by a theme, a way of life and a way of seeing life.

I am obviously gushing, and that’s only going to get worse here. In Philip LoPresti’s often tragic photographs, what I see is love and suffering, and that love made deeper through suffering. There are higher notes, even some that could be considered lighthearted or funny. But it’s a depth of soul that ties these pictures to one another and that sometimes grips your heart and takes your breath away. 

Okay, I’m finished fangirling. Let’s go talk to Philip.

CONTENT WARNING: Contains candid discussion of and one photograph displaying scars from self-harm.

Amy Vaughn: We’re gonna dive right in. I’m no expert, but your photographs seem to have more of a coherent mood than a consistent style. Would you agree with this? If so, is this intuitive on your part, or is it something you consciously cultivate? For individual images, do you know the feeling you want to capture first and then apply the techniques that will best allow it to manifest?

Philip LoPresti: I would agree with that to an extent. My work definitely shares a mood throughout its various styles, I think that just happens because I’m the one taking all the photographs, naturally, but I think if you break down all the photographs you could fit them into three or four categories. The biggest two I return to more often than any other is the more grainy and high contrast look, and the more straightforward street/documentary style photography. The feeling that my work may embody or evoke is not something that I’m consciously aware of at the time of taking them though. I move more on instinct when it comes to my work as a photographer, even between the two styles I mentioned above. I don’t even think about the technique applied too much either. I decide right before I begin shooting whether I’m going to apply the right aperture and shutter speed according to the light available (street/documentary photography) or disregard it all (grainy/blurry).  Once I decide, I usually stick with it for the day, rarely switching between the two techniques. Am I even answering the questions now? I’ve lost myself.

“Untitled” (from The Body is Beyond Language)

AV: Cutting, as in the act of self-harm, features prominently in both your collection The Body is Beyond Language and your noir novella, The Things We Bury. Was the act or aesthetic of cutting something you were drawn to explore? Or did the subject have deeper roots that eventually needed an outlet? In other words, what led to your use of depictions of cutting in your art?

PL: It was more than just wanting to explore and something I had to and will continue to do. I’ve been surrounded by it my entire life. I’ve never been much of a cutter myself but growing up I had friends that did it and they would confide in me about it. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties/early thirties though, when I met the woman I would be with for the next eight years, that I realized what a real addiction it could be. A lot of people, myself included, often think it is something angsty and depressed teenagers do as a cry for help. People have that “They’ll grow out of it” outlook. Even myself, who has lived with depression nearly my entire life, thought like this. Truth is, it is not only for the confused and attention-seeking teenager. Adults do it as well and they are better at hiding it. It’s no different than looking to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol in an attempt to dull the edges of the pain you’re suffering, and it was my relationship with this woman for eight years that led to the series The Body Is Beyond Language (although the series does not only feature that subject) and the depictions of self-harm in The Things We Bury. I watched her mutilate herself for years. And there were a few close calls where phone calls had to be made.  I would wake up some mornings and have to clean blood from the kitchen knives. I’d worry all the time about hidden razor blades. It is something I carry with me still, even though we’re not together anymore. That kind of stuff stays with you. 

“Kid with Paper Mask” (from series Waiting for Babylon)

AV: Can you talk about Waiting for Babylon (which I unabashedly love)? What is the impetus? Who are the people? What does the name mean in reference to the collection?

PL: Waiting for Babylon actually started as a way for me to personally document the area where I live, and I never really intended to share it with anyone. The more the photos grew in number though, I saw a pattern and theme emerging about the poverty and desolation in Upstate NY (and other rural areas) and the odd characters that inhabit them. Some are people I know like friends and family, some are people I just come across while out with my camera. The title is a reference to the city in the Bible which is given a sinful reputation but is also known for its amazing architecture, for its teachings and culture, its formation for the code of law and of course The Hanging Gardens. In my head, it’s about how these small areas are seen as just full of the poor and drug addicted and the ignorant but how they have so much more to offer in terms of teaching the rest about life in general, and how if people just stopped judging and listened something bigger and more beautiful can be birthed. I don’t know if that comes across, but in my head that’s what I see. I don’t even know if I’m making sense. (Note: I am not a religious person but I’ve always loved religious imagery and I use it in both my photography and writing.)   

AV: Being multi-disciplined—a photographer, a fiction writer, a poet—do they ever work together, feed off each other? Do they ever get in each other’s way?

PL: Both, all the time. There are story ideas that have sprung from poems where I explore the idea more. There are moments I’ve captured in a photograph that help with forming words for poems and even fiction, and sometimes just the mood of a photo will put me in the right place I need to be to write. I steal from myself, using lines from poems as dialogue in stories. It all definitely works off each other, but they do also get in the way. And it happens often. I’m amazed I’ve ever finished anything, but have been getting better at balancing it in the last year. I usually wake up early to work on my fiction before I have to be at work, and then in the evening I’ll work on going through the pictures I’ve taken over the weekend. Somewhere in between I still work on poems, but I haven’t been focusing on that as much lately. 

“Untitled”

AV: Finally! The background question that usually comes first: Do you have any formal training in photography? How did you get started in it and who are your strongest influences?

PL: I have no formal training whatsoever. I have always loved images and when I was a kid I played around with a Polaroid camera that my family had, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties and I bought a camera for myself that I really started getting into it. The more you do something the better you get and I carry my camera(s) everywhere I go. Even if I have to run to the store for milk I bring it because I fear I may miss a shot that could be the greatest image ever captured. I’m also just a hardcore fan of photography and I am constantly pouring over the work of others, both world renowned and amateur photographers I meet through social media. As for my strongest influences, I have so many I love, but the two that are the most obvious are Michael Ackerman and Sally Mann. Anyone who sees my work then looks at theirs will see it right away. 

AV: What’s next for you and for your photography?

Philip: Well right now I am working on a new book titled Where It Hurts and For How Long. I’ve also recently completed a fifteen-thousand-word novelette called Tried in Ruin, but I’m not sure what I am doing with that yet. I’m also working on putting together a new series of photographs titled Lost Somewhere Inside, and I’m going to be finding ways of promoting my webstore where you can purchase prints of my work. I’m also researching some well-known publications to submit some of my photography works to. It’s hard to get the visual art world to pay attention. It is a different beast than the writing/literary world (although that’s no walk in the park either).

Phil LoPresti

Philip LoPresti’s photography can be seen on Instagram at philip_lopresti and on his website, philiplopresti.com


Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space (Filthy Loot). Her forthcoming books include Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel (Thicke & Vaney) and The Shelter (Cabal). She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691.