Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2003
By James Verini
I saw Mike Slack’s book of Polaroid photographs in Book Soup. I liked the name: Mike Slack. I thought, “A book of Polaroids?” I liked the idea that someone named Mike Slack would publish a book of Polaroids. So I bought it. I found myself looking at it a lot.
I especially liked a picture of an electric-tangerine-orange wall with a beat-up parking meter in front of it, and one of a drainpipe with some weeds and pebbles. They had a sunburnt, somnambulistic quality to them, like your grandmother’s old vacation photos. So I called Mike Slack and said, “I want to talk to you about your book of Polaroids.”
He said OK. I picked Slack up at his West Hollywood apartment one Sunday morning. Lanky and fair, he has a mop of bright red hair. I told him what we’d do was he’d talk to me about the art of photography as I drove to the places where he’d taken the Polaroids I especially liked. He said, “Oh, no.”
Slack, who is 32, does not like to think of himself as a photographer. That his book, “OK OK OK,” a collection of 41 pictures, is doing a brisk trade in art bookstores around town; that his work has appeared in Harper’s magazine; that he now has what might be called “clients” for whom he is doing commissioned art — none of that makes Slack, by trade a sales representative for a publishing company, want to call himself a photographer.
“I just want to be a guy with a camera,” he said. The first thing I wanted to see was the orange wall with the beat-up parking meter next to it. The wall was outside a video store on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Colby Avenue on the Westside. I drove west.
“You can make a great picture out of anything,” he said. “Like this one” — he pulled a shot of an orange trash bag on green grass out of his breast pocket. “Why would anyone want to take a picture of that? It doesn’t mean anything. And yet everybody likes that picture.”
This thing about Slack not wanting to call himself a photographer isn’t purely out of modesty. There’s a style to it. There’s a dilettante’s style to Mike Slack, cultivated or otherwise.
We arrived at the corner of Santa Monica and Colby. There was the orange wall, and there the parking meter. I realized I’d seen this wall a dozen times. We stood next to the wall and pondered the unearthly hue of orange. Who invented this color?
“I like the backs of buildings,” Slack said as we left the orange wall. “A lot of L.A. is too photogenic.” Our next stop was another back of a building — this one a warehouse off of San Fernando Road in Glendale. He’d found it when he made a wrong turn on the California 2. He was very excited about it. We couldn’t go to the drainpipe with the weeds and pebbles that I liked because that was in Arizona. I headed east.
Slack’s style begins, of course, with his name: Mike Slack. Note the two syllables. The consonance. The obvious connotations of the last name. He sounds like a farm league pitcher with a lazy curveball. It’s his real name. Then there is the camera. Slack is an avid student of art, and he knows his way around a darkroom. His wife, Gretchen, is a former professional photographer. He could make his own prints. He could probably paint or sculpt. But he chose a Polaroid instant camera.
Then there are the images. The orange wall, the drainpipe — you could find these anywhere. But Slack’s compositions (Russian Constructivist-style formality), the lack of depth of field and the suffusion of light he manages to get imbue the images with a familiarity, a kind of faceless nostalgia.
It’s no accident they look like your grandmother’s old vacation photos. For years, Slack has been studying his grandmother’s albums, marveling at the accidental beauty of hotel room curtains, empty curbsides, lampshades, close-ups of loaves of bread. Like his grandmother, Slack rarely shoots anything more than once.
We got off the 2 at San Fernando Road, and from the exit ramp we could see the warehouse. “Look at that,” Slack exclaimed. “That” was a 15-foot-high white stick figure in an orange panel that the owners of the warehouse had painted, for no clear reason, on its back wall. It was a wonderfully useless touch.
“I want people to look at them not as images or as photographs, but as Polaroids,” Slack said of his pictures. “It’s a very specific format, and each one only happens once. Each one is an object; you can’t copy it.” He considers what he’s said for a moment — Slack pays close attention to words — and added: “I also like the borders.”
Indeed, one of his conditions in publishing “OK OK OK” (the title comes from one of the pictures, in which those words appear, spray-painted, on a patch of pavement) was that the white Polaroid borders had to be reproduced with the images.
We wandered around the warehouse, enjoying the metal and concrete. When he was at the University of Indiana, Slack supported himself working at night at a gigantic UPS hub. It was one of his favorite jobs. “I loved the repetitiveness of it,” he said.
Here’s how Slack got started with the Polaroid. His job takes him to Phoenix a lot. He used to find the drive boring. One day, Gretchen returned home with a Polaroid 690 she’d bought at a camera store lot sale. It sat in their kitchen for a while, until he took it with him on the drive through Arizona. He snapped shots through his side window. After a few trips, he rolled down the window. It was a gradual process. Now he looks forward to the drives to Phoenix.
“It’s like I’m doing some kind of unspecified research now. Collecting data — for what I don’t know.” He considered this. Our last stop was in Ventura. Slack had some shots of a piece of blue corrugated aluminum with a big rip in it. It was in a back alley in Ventura. The setting sun gave the blue metal a lovely sea-like tone. Set against the sky, I thought it would make a nice shot.
“Don’t you want to shoot it?” I asked him.
“I already have,” he said, showing me the still-white Polaroid.
On the way back to West Hollywood, Slack told me that as a child he had trouble sleeping. He was nervous. To calm himself, he would listen for hours to the sounds of a nearby freeway. He remembers the sound fondly. These days, he sometimes likes to listen to the hum of his refrigerator. “I like white noise,” he said. He thought about this. “Maybe my pictures could be called visual white noise.” I told him I liked that idea.