“A CHAT WITH THE MASTER OF THE FOUND PHOTO” – INTERVIEW WITH POPCULT MAGAZINE
From PopCult Magazine
A Chat with the Master of the Found Photo: Charles Phoenix
by Kim Mellen
We called him Randy. Imagine, if you will, a cross between Chuck Norris and Robert Goulet. He leaned toward the camera with his weight on his right arm, looking confident in his wide-collared polyester chest-hair-revealing shirt and powder blue blazer, which contrasted nicely against the woodland backdrop. It was a softly-lit professional portrait, a glamour shot–that’s right, glamour with a “u”–but the airbrushing couldn’t hide decades of fast living: the smoker’s face, the alcoholic’s girth. My housemate had found the photo on the street somewhere, or it might have been wedged into the nether regions of the thrift-store couch. We attached Randy to the fridge with a complimentary magnet from the auto parts store, and he became our celebrated house mascot/muse/hero. Was that mean-spirited? Or would Randy enjoy his position in the house of co-eds? We would never find out.
You may ridicule or covet the fashions and decor in any old photo, but the allure of the found photo goes beyond that: it poses a mystery that is essentially unsolvable. Who is this person? Who is the photographer? Where are they now? Would they care that a stranger is looking at them? Why did this image end up in my hands?
Collecting found photos, along with found notes, poetry, sounds, art, has become a small movement with an attendant legion of websites. Los Angeles pop culture historian Charles Phoenix is one such collector. While he dabbles in other people’s 8mm home movies and prints, his obsession is slides, and he’s rescued scores of them–20,000 and counting–from thrift stores, estate sales, and the like. And what else do you do with slides but have slide shows? Phoenix has reclaimed the living-room exercise in familial torture and turned it into a cottage industry. God Bless Americana, as Phoenix had dubbed his found-photos slide show, currently enjoys packed houses at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre and gushing reviews from local critics.
Phoenix’s lifelong obsession with collecting retro ephemera and his former career as a classic car dealer led to him authoring four books on mid-20th-century Southern California, Hawaii, and Las Vegas. These pursuits certainly primed him to appreciate other people’s discarded treasures, but, as he tells it, it all began as sort of a fluke.
Phoenix was, as usual, in a thrift store. It had not been a good shopping day, and he was exhausted, wondering to himself whether he should be looking for more out of life than one more objet de kitsch to stuff into his already crammed house. He was ready to throw in the towel when he spotted a blue shoebox from clear across the store. On examination, he discovered the box, marked “Trip Across the United States, 1957,” was full of old 35mm Kodachrome slides. He made a mad dash for the cash resister, fearing someone would stop him and inform him the slides weren’t for sale.
Phoenix quickly amassed more collections and gathered his friends for old-fashioned slide shows at his home. This led to a public show at a map and travel store, which in turn led to the Egyptian run. Phoenix narrates the shows himself, stringing together the few facts he has gleaned from the slides’ annotations with his vast store of pop-culture trivia, plus the occasional storyline constructed from juxtaposing slides from different collections.
God Bless Americana is actually split into two shows–the first is structured as a road trip around the U.S.; the second focuses on Southern California. For those of us who can’t make it to L.A., part one is available in book form, and Phoenix says he’s eager to take his show on the road, perhaps with a part three showcasing foreign travel. He also runs a “Pic O’ the Week” club, which anyone can join through his website www.charlesphoenix.com.
Though God Bless Americana is as much about the timeless romance of the road trip, and about ogling at the tourist attractions, signage, fashions, and food of yore (ambrosia, that delectable concoction of canned fruit cocktail, marshmallows, and Cool Whip, shows up again and again), what makes it magical is the people. We meet “Violet,” the middle-aged woman who never changes out of her bright purple suit during her entire trip along the East Coast with her husband. There’s “Mrs. Polehugger,” who always poses next to signs, her hand grasping the pole. We meet a group of nubile young southern ladies lounging around on their Florida motel beds, smoking and being silly. In one slide, a man is standing outside in broad daylight, holding a cocktail. He has a sports jacket on, but no pants. In another slide, a mysterious stranger points a revolver straight into the camera. Who are these people, and why would anyone toss them away?
I recently spoke with Charles Phoenix over e-mail about God Bless Americana and giving new life to discarded memories.
Why do people sell these slides? Why would they sell family photos and why would they even think a stranger would want them?
Tons of old slides (and photos and home movies for that matter) get thrown away. I’m not too proud to say that I’ve dug ’em out of Dumpsters a time or two, so I’d much rather they be made available for sale. I never ask why the slides are for sale. I just buy them. A lot of people don’t care about looking at old slides even if they are of their own family.
Have you had any interesting interactions with slide-sellers?
They always, always, always ask, “What do you do with them?” To that, my stock response is “I’m an historian and I learn history from them.” That always puzzles them.
Has anyone in your audiences randomly recognized the everyday people in the slides?
One time while showing a slide of Mr. Scheffield and the San Pedro Drama High School Drama Club of 1957, a woman yelled out “He was my Drama teacher!” I said, “What can you tell us about him?” She said, “Well, he lived at home with his mother and never married.” I answered, “Perhaps that’s why he took so many pictures at Muscle Beach.” And the next slide was one of his Muscle Beach slides. It was great—the audience went crazy!
Have you invited the slide owners to see the show? If so, how have they responded?
No, I think most of them are probably dead.
It’s clear that you have a true affection for the people in the slides. But are you ever accused of capitalizing on (semi-) private moments? If you are, is that a bad thing?
I’ve never been accused of that and I hope I never am. My slide shows and the God Bless Americana book are lighthearted and genuine.
Did you have to learn the archivist trade to manage such a huge collection?
I’m still learning! Do you know anyone who wants to come over and sort slides? I need all the help I can get. Editing, categorizing, and cataloging all the slide collections I come across is a huge task.
Do you have an absolute favorite slide or set of slides?
That’s impossible to say. One of my all-time favorites is an amazing shot of a White Front store. I met the Brady Bunch in the White Front store in my hometown of Ontario, Calif., when they were promoting their Christmas Album in 1972. I love great shots of old cars, signage, early theme parks, especially Disneyland, Las Vegas, world fairs, tourist attractions, city views, amazing home interiors and of course the most interesting thing of all: the people.
What does God Bless Americana part two have to say about the Southern California mindset of the time?
It speaks of SO many things. The mood is up, prosperity rules, and the standard of living is flying high. The rapid growth after W.W. II, the early days of our great theme parks, old Hollywood landmarks, behind the scenes on the set of The Ten Commandments, fast food restaurants, shopping centers, bowling alleys, buying a new car every year and moving to a new tract home in suburbia, BBQs, and swimming pools and much, much more!
What are the weirdest slides in your collection?
A bondage/Christmas party in Los Angeles, 1957. The women are bound and gagged and wearing their bras on the outside of their dresses while the men smile.
I imagine in such a huge collection, there’s a lot of sameness, especially in tourist shots … is this the case?
People’s photography skills and habits tend to be the same. I’m always looking for the unique and unusual. The most photographed place is the Grand Canyon.
Do you have people who try to photographically break the mold in the same old tourist traps?
Oh yes! And those are the slides I’m looking for. I recently found a spectacular shot of the Statue of Liberty that was taken from a most unusual vantagepoint–standing up close right in front of her looking up her skirt. It’s now part of the USA tour.
You were an arbiter of the whole ’50s/’60s Vegas swing/lounge cocktail culture revival before it was cool, and it seems like you’ll be there after Urban Outfitters has put its kidney-shaped ashtrays into the bargain bin. Did the trend cheapen the era?
No, I don’t think so. That stuff is all interpretations of the original stuff. There is NO substitute for the genuine article.
Would you say your shows transcend cheap nostalgia?
Definitely! What I’m showing audiences and readers is the real thing. Something that not even Hollywood can reproduce.
Do Americans have too little respect for the past?
In general, yes. The culture of this country, the productivity, the products, the consumerism, is staggering. It’s a huge part of our heritage. However, nostalgia is big and “retro” things are cool these days. Certainly the media has picked up on the trend and helped to spread it. And collectors and collectibles have gotten a lot more respect in the last decade or so.
If you could time-travel to any era in American history and just walk around for an afternoon, when and where would you choose?
Difficult to answer that one, but I guess I’d have to say for one afternoon it would have to Las Vegas, 1958. The last great ’50s hotel casino on the strip, the Stardust, opened that year. Plus my favorite cars of all time–the ’58s and ’59s–would be brand-new… heaven!!! There are so many other times and places I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. Well, maybe I won’t. Let’s see… Disneyland in 1959 when the Matterhorn, Submarine, and Monorail were added to Tomorrowland. There would have to be a trip to the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs. Actually, I think the 1939 New York World’s Fair would be the ultimate. It really did predict the future even if the people had to wait until after the war to get it.
What things from today do you think will be looked back upon fondly and nostalgically? (Can these things be predicted?)
Hard to say. I don’t really think in those terms. One thing I know for sure is that I won’t be the one collecting it!