Ray Potes | Self-portrait

Documenting the Strange and Familiar: Talking about Hamburger Eyes with Ray Potes by Daniel Makagon

May 10, 2022

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

There has been an explosion of documentary and street photography photozines in recent years. Social media provides exposure for photographers and web stores have expanded opportunities to sell the zines to international audiences. Ray Potes has witnessed the transformation from the pre-internet days of DIY networking to this current cultural context. Hamburger Eyes and the variety of offshoots are now foundational documentary photography zines, while remaining unique and exciting. Ray and the photographers who feature in his zines document the strange and familiar features of everyday life. Their photographs represent qualities of the human experience that are joyous, painful, odd, mundane, and simultaneously unique and repetitive. Of course, Hamburger Eyes has changed in many ways since Ray started the zine in 2001, but the central goal (to document the human condition and everyday experiences) remains the same.

Photo by Ray Potes

Daniel: I know from following your social media that you have some interest in alternative types of music. Can you talk about your early interests in music before we get into photography?

Ray: I grew up in San Diego listening to all kinds of music, but tons of my friends were in punk bands, and I was in a few punk bands, garage bands. I can’t say we were any good or that we knew what we were doing. [laughs]

I actually have a specific memory about punk. I just went from elementary school to junior high—seventh grade—and I knew this girl who was a year older, so she was in eighth grade. Her locker was right next to mine. In elementary school everyone’s kind of the same, right, but in junior high people are doing different things. By this time, she had a mohawk, a leather jacket with a Pushead design on the back of her jacket, Doc Martens up to her knees. She was full punk. Her name was Sam. I was like, “What happened to you?” She said she was dating some dude in high school who turned her on to punk. And then she said, “Listen to these tapes” and she gave me a Minor Threat tape and Metallica’s Kill ’Em All. This is day one of seventh grade. Those two tapes changed my life. Then I got more into punk through skateboarding in seventh and eighth grade.

Daniel: That was it. [laughs] Were you already skateboarding by that time? And how long before you started playing in bands?

Ray: I was already a full-blown skateboarder and was looking at magazines and stuff like that. My dad always played guitar and I had relatives who played music, but I never played music as a kid. I wasn’t in a band until twelfth grade.

Daniel: I have a lot of questions about your photography and the work you do with Hamburger Eyes, so let’s shift to talking about that work. At what point did you start making photographs?

Ray: Probably around that same time. I got really heavy into skateboarding and my dad had cameras. I just started playing with them. I was mostly shooting my friends goofing off. And then it wasn’t until eleventh or twelfth grade that I got in a dark room.

Daniel: You obviously spend a lot of time looking at photography, which means you’ll have a sense of good photography and photography that’s not so good. Looking back, did you have natural talent as a photographer?

Ray: Actually, this is a weird thing. I feel like my publishing skills have surpassed my photography skills. I think I’m a better photo editor than a photographer. Laying out and sequencing photos comes easier to me than shooting my own photos.

Daniel: But do you feel like the photographs you make now are better than the photographs you made in the past?

Ray: I think they got worse, actually. [laughs] I think I got so comfortable being…When I was younger, I wanted to work for a newspaper or magazine. I was trying a lot harder. Fast forward to now; I don’t know if I really care to be a “working photographer” because I’m having so much fun being a publisher. I feel like my photos may be lazier. I take a lot of cell phone photos. I have cameras and I do love going out with all my different cameras, but I’m a lot more casual. Also, my idea of what a good photo is has changed compared to back then. Back then, when I wanted to work for New York Times or whatever, I might be shooting with a very specific style or shooting a specific subject to build up my portfolio that I could possibly send them. Whereas now it’s almost come back full circle: I’m just shooting for fun and I’m just shooting photos of what’s around me—my friends goofing off and stuff. Sometimes I sit on them for a while. Sometimes they need to come out right away.

Photo by Ray Potes

Daniel: And by come out you mean that you post them online or that you need to release a zine?

Ray: Post them or publish them either in Hamburger Eyes or in another zine. I prefer publishing them than posting on the internet. But I do that: I have a blog and I have an Instagram account.

Daniel: Although Hamburger Eyes is your zine, I don’t feel like you overload the zine with your own photos.

Ray: No, I purposely don’t do that. In the beginning, I did when it was more mixed, when everybody’s photos were mixed up. Like I said, I think that a lot of the submissions, their photos are better than my photos. So, I definitely don’t want to overload the magazine with my photos.

Daniel: I want to ask a follow-up question about sequencing in a moment, but first I want to return to zines more generally. When did you decide that you wanted to make zines?

Ray: That also happened in high school. The older kids had zines. Punk zines and skate zines. And then I made a couple of things in high school, which had a little bit of everything: photos, writing, drawings. Then, in the middle of my senior year in high school, I had to move to Hawaii. My dad’s from there and we were already going there every summer. “Can I finish high school first?” And my parents were like, “No.” But when I moved to Hawaii, I really got into zine making. I made a few zines while I lived there. Then I moved back to San Diego, got an apartment, and I started taking more photo classes at the community college. It just became a thing where it’s like, “How do I get these photos out there? What’s the best way to share them?” Making zines. Also, there were always friends giving me stuff and I’d just throw it in a zine. I actually worked at Kinko’s for five years. I figured I’ll just work at Kinko’s since I hang out there so much. [laughs]

Daniel: This is the twenty-first anniversary for Hamburger Eyes. Can you talk about the ways the zine has developed? And to return to your earlier comment about being a better editor than photographer, did you learn about layout and design in your photo classes, or did you teach yourself?

Ray: I didn’t take any classes. All trial and error. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco, and by issue five, that I started using a computer to make the zines. Even to this point, I wouldn’t say I have any design skills. You’ve seen it; it’s just photos smashed into each other. I have a template and I just jam it with photos.

The first issue of Hamburger Eyes was all photos and drawings. By the second, third, and fourth issues it was still xeroxed, but it was all photography. Issue one probably had ten photographers. There were probably like fifty photographers in issue five; it was friends and friends of friends. Also, by issue five, we had switched to offset printing. My brother David Potes was working at some college in SF in the reprographics department. He had connections to different printers in the city and knew this guy who worked at a print shop. We made a couple things with him, including an issue of Hamburger Eyes.

I feel like the twenty-one-year anniversary thing is kind of misleading, because in those early years maybe one came out per year. There are even a couple years where we didn’t publish anything. In the beginning it was me, my brother, my friend Stefan Simikich, a handful of people. There was never any money and there still barely is. People have to live their lives, you know, so then it was just me.

Daniel: How did the name come about? And was it mostly a San Francisco-based zine in terms of who was contributing and who was purchasing it during the early years?

Ray: The name was just a funny thing I heard one of my friends say. He said, “You should go talk to that girl; she’s giving you hamburger eyes.” I just thought it would be funny name for a zine. But I didn’t know Hamburger Eyes would make it this far. I had so many zines, all different titles.

Even when it was xeroxed, I had friends that had spread out: in Washington, in New York. I was getting photos from everywhere. When it was xeroxed we could make hundreds of copies, so I’d send two hundred copies to Washington and stuff like that. By the time we were spending money on printing, we already had a pretty large network.

Daniel: I discovered photozines through punk: My Rules, the Murray Bowles zine with Maximum Rocknroll, and the MRR zine with Trust. I wasn’t aware of street photography zines until I was much older. Were you familiar with documentary photography photozines? Or was this a case where you knew about photography and you knew about zines, so you were going to use your zine as an outlet for documentary photography?

Ray: It’s more of that second description. I liked photography and I didn’t want captions or to read about the photos. I just wanted the photos. I followed skateboarding and most of the magazines would do a photo annual, which was just photos. I thought they should just do that every month. [laughs] But I didn’t know it was going to be a business. It wasn’t until like issue twenty when I thought: “Should this be my job?” I worked at Transworld Skateboarding for five years, was always trying to freelance, and I was always doing odd jobs.

Daniel: I haven’t seen the early issues of Hamburger Eyes. I try to pick up older issues when you list them on the site, but those issues aren’t going back to the beginning. What types of photos did you include?

Photo by Ray Potes

Ray: If you add it up, there are probably a lot of pages with beach photos, travel photos, and portraits. I’m hesitant to use the words “street photography” in general but also about that period. I like to show all kinds of photos. At that time, I was purposely not showing skateboarding and punk photos because it seemed like half my friends made skate zines and then the other half made punk zines. I wanted to do something a little bit different.

Daniel: Historically, documentary photography was rarely included in galleries and museums. Magazines and books were the outlets for photographers. Did these types of publications influence how you thought about Hamburger Eyes?

Ray: I think that’s what it was like at the time. There were tons of photobooks coming out when I was at San Diego City College. I had a teacher who introduced me to all that stuff. She brought in fifty books. Whoa. That’s where I learned a lot about how people present their work in the published form.

Daniel: We talked earlier about design skills, but we didn’t talk about sequencing images. Can you discuss your process when creating an issue of Hamburger Eyes? You continue to include a lot of photos and I can’t remember seeing an issue where you have a single image spread across two pages.

Ray: I used to. It depends on the print shop we use if the bind can open flat. If it could open flat, and without help, then I’ll do two-page spreads. I’m always in search of new printers, mostly for cost. Sometimes the paper is thinner and cheaper, which will hold open. Then, sometimes I have to use a thicker paper and you have to use your hands to keep it open so the two-page spreads wouldn’t work. As far as how many images I can include, it’s mostly down to horizontal versus vertical photos. A vertical photo will take up a whole page. Horizontal, you need two to take up a whole page. That’s mostly what dictates the design.

Daniel: Do you ask photographers to send in specific types of images in terms of content? Similarly, do you make requests about vertical or horizontal to maximize or minimize the number of images per issue?

Ray: I just get what I get. The magazine has evolved over the years. It used to be fifty photographers and everybody’s photos are mixed up. It was one hundred and fifty pages and took me a year to lay it out, or a year to make it for whatever reason. Now I try to put out an issue at least every couple months. I’m trying to do more than that, but I don’t know if I can. I thought my ideal schedule would be monthly, but I think the better schedule is bimonthly, six issues per year with a couple special issues. Eight things per year, I think that is my premium, my ideal work situation. But I got lucky with what I’m able to do.

And now we have eight photographers per issue and they each get twelve pages. I think before, photographers would send me thirty photos and then we published one. They’d be bummed, which is totally understandable. I like to give everyone a fair and equal amount of space, because this is about them. It’s not so much about one single photo, but it’s about the photographer and their twelve pages. I ask for twenty to thirty photos. Let’s say they’re all horizontal photos, that’s twenty-four photos for twelve pages.

Daniel: What’s your process for sequencing the work of multiple photographers? Also, do the photographers leave it to you to sequence the images or do you do that in conversation with them?

Ray: I sequence them. For each section I try, if possible, to have a beginning and an end. Almost like a story. Sometimes it’s just impossible. Then, in these twelve pages I’m trying to have an intro, a middle, and an outro into the next section. It’s the same thing with the issue as a whole. I’m sequencing the photographers—this photographer shot landscapes, this person shot subway stuff, this photographer went to France—so I’m trying to have this imaginary narrative throughout the whole thing. That does not always work, so it’s often freestyle. It also depends on the deadlines, you know. [laughs]

Then the front and back cover are just kind of what jumps out. Usually, I’ll pick a photographer to be the first section and I’ll pick a photographer to be in the last section. That’s not always dictated by a possible cover image. Sometimes we have a weird cover and that’s just because I wanted that photographer to be in the first section. Sure, the cover is important, but it’s not always the most important to me. Probably to my detriment. [laughs]

Daniel: Well, I guess it depends on how sales happen. Covers matter if you’re selling at newsstands and bookstores, but people who mail order know the zine and the reputation for interesting photography, I assume.

Ray: I would say, probably eighty percent of sales come from our online store. Especially because of the pandemic. With all the stores opening back up, I actually have a newfound interest in getting it in more bookstores. We’ve always had handfuls of bookstores in all the major cities, but now I have a new thing where I want to get that more developed.

It’s great to get that email being like, “I found your magazine.” It’s funny, a lot of this happens through thrift stores: “I found Hamburger Eyes at a thrift store in Florida and I decided to send you some of my photos.”

Photo by Ray Potes

Daniel: The zine is well established among photographers, so how often do you work with photographers who you contact and how often do you receive submissions from people you haven’t worked with before?

Ray: I would say ninety percent of submissions are new. We have open submissions on the website. Once someone’s been in an issue of Hamburger Eyes, now they’re my friend. We email back and forth because of their feature, their pages. And it’s always like, “Hey, send more photos in the future.” So, someone like Ruben Radding has been in it like five to ten times, maybe.

Daniel: Conservatively, let’s say you have ten years of regular releases of the zine, and you work with some photographers who are very prolific. I assume the photographers like working with you. This means that any given issue could include nothing but photographs from photographers you’ve worked with in the past. How do you balance bringing in new photographers but also continuing to work with people who are regular contributors to Hamburger Eyes? Do you have to turn down submissions from friends?

Ray: It just works out. I will always say yes to friends. There are also other things happening. The photographer, especially as they get more established in their own work and in their own practice, they start self-publishing. Ruben has put out a bunch of stuff he self-published. Then they start exhibiting, which might lead to working with other publishers. Sometimes they come back and sometimes they don’t. There’s no hard feelings either way. Someone like Mark Murrmann has been in it since the xerox days and he does his own zines.

Daniel: Returning to the idea of the twenty-first anniversary, that’s a long time for any zine but especially for a photozine.

Ray: I feel like we started at the right time: pre-internet, pre-Instagram. If we had started in this era, I don’t know if it would have lasted as long as it has. Social media helps for sure. I’ve deleted it a couple times and I noticed a dip in sales when that happens. So, it’s worth it to have a presence. I just feel like there are so many distractions nowadays, whereas before someone could just go to Tower Records, sit in the zine section, and then be turned on to something there. You had to go there and find it, whereas now, you can just Google it and five hundred things will pop up. I don’t know if a kid today can type in black and white photography, and we’ll show up. Also, San Francisco is crucial. I feel like I was in a good place at a good time when the zine started.

Daniel: Why did you leave San Francisco for L.A.? And did that change how you work?

Ray: I’m actually more productive here. I think it’s because I go out less because of the car lifestyle versus pedestrian lifestyle. You have to be more specific: I’m gonna get in my car and go photograph this specific spot for a few hours. This can make you more focused on what you’re doing that day, but there is more planning. Of course, a lot of staying at home is thanks to the pandemic.

I had a big studio in San Francisco and I got priced out of it. It was the Hamburger Eyes headquarters, and it was a dark room rental facility. We had black and white and color darkroom rentals; three thousand square feet of space. Then eventually they wanted to raise the rent and I was like, “I’m out of here.” I moved to L.A. and now I work out of the dining room. Again, now it’s me doing all the editing and putting it all together. Every now and then I have interns who help go through submissions and the mail stuff.

Daniel: Earlier you discussed making a variety of zines with different titles before Hamburger Eyes stuck, but your historical release schedule shows this desire to do something different wasn’t a habit you could shake. [laughs] There are years when you released very few issues of Hamburger Eyes but did a lot of other zines with other names, such as Ray’s Reports. Then recently you’ve been on a run where you’ve mostly released Hamburger Eyes. What’s the inspiration for the different types of releases—and how have you historically decided when you’ll release a zine under a different name—and when you use Hamburger Eyes?

Cover of Ray’s Reports, No. 19 | Photo by Ray Potes

Ray: Hamburgers Eyes is thick, but it’s also kind of short form. The other zines are longer form, and the same with the books—since we publish books with other publishers. You mentioned Ray’s Reports. I actually have a couple issues of those coming out because those photos don’t really make a good story for an issue of Hamburger Eyes. I have all these random—mostly cell phone photos—and then I’ll just put them in a zine called Ray’s Reports. So, Ray’s Reports are all my photos.

Then we also put out other things. About a year or so ago we made this book called Cellybrain, which is all cell phone photos. Cellybrain was a website I made for people to submit cell phone photos. I took the best ones and we made sixteen issues of a zine. Fast forward ten to fifteen years, those are all Blackberry photos and Nokia flip phone photos, and I thought it would be kind of fun to revisit those zines and publish them in color because those came out as black and white zines. Then I just laid them out back-to-back and made the book.

Daniel: You also published books with other publishers, as you just said. What inspired those decisions? And what was the production process like for you compared to your normal work with the zine?

Cover of 2020—The Year in Pictures | Photo by David Catalano

Ray: The Hamburger Eyes book with powerHouse happened because they said they wanted to do a best-of everything published. I was like, “We just got started,” since that was 2008 or something. “Best of?” We don’t even have a record out yet. We’ve only put out like two singles and one mixtape, you know? [laughs] So I put out a call to photographers and I’m like, “Hey, we’re working on this book; it’ll be basically like a big fat issue of Hamburger Eyes.” I wanted to use photos that we hadn’t run before for that book, and it was cool they let me do that. I thought they would be more involved. I gave them a layout and they’re like, “Oh, this looks good.” Wait, that’s it? [laughs]

SF Eyes was different. Hat & Beard wanted to make a book about SF. I didn’t even live in SF; I had already left. I said we should make a different book, but they really wanted to make a book about San Francisco. I put out a call. Half the photos were stuff we published and half of them were newer things. This time I just gave it to them, and they laid it out and edited it. That’s why it looks a little different and has a different vibe. I kind of wish I was a little bit more hands-on, but they had some deadlines where I was like, “You know, just do whatever you gotta do.” The guys are rad and made rad books, so me saying I wish I had been more hands-on is just me being hyper nerdy about little sequencing things. I’m happy with the book and people like it. The printing came out great.

Daniel: And then you just did a book focused on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders called Picture Us.

Ray: That was my friend Valerie Bower’s idea. She was going to do that but then asked if wanted to help. Sure. Then eventually it became this thing, “Do you want to publish it?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” [laughs] But then I said we’ll be co-publishers.

There are also things like the Arthur Pollock book we have in the web store. I’m just helping sell it. My friend Jesse put that book out; it’s a book of his father’s work. I had a stack of them and been having them on the website for a while now. It’s a good book.

Daniel: We already talked about this a little bit but with these other projects you’ve done along the way, how do you decide when you’re going to repeat something like Cellybrain and when a project will be a one-off thing? Also, is the print run for these other zines the same as Hamburger Eyes?

Cover of Hamburger Eyes, Issue No. 52 | Photo by John Brian King

Ray: There’s just a rhythm to it. I made the first Ray’s Reports then I decided why not have an issue number two. Then, why not have an issue number three? The first Ray’s Reports was not listed as number one. There’s something weird with me. Pre-Hamburger Eyes, I would just make a zine with a different name every time. And then with Hamburger Eyes I started doing an issue number two, number three. Now, I have to do that with everything. For example, I made a beach zine called EZ Beach right when I first moved to L.A. Then I ended up making five issues of that. I didn’t have to, I just did.

Even though everything’s “limited edition,” because we’re not a corporate publisher, I don’t put too much weight on that. I’ll make more copies if it’s selling good. Small batches. And then I’ll stop making more copies when it’s time to put the next one out. I always try to sit on twenty copies for book fairs or zine fairs. That’s one reason why there’s a bunch of old stuff on the site right now. It’s taking up too much space; I have these boxes of crap in my living room. From habit I save all this stuff for future zine and book fairs. There’s normally three to five of those per year. Because of the pandemic we’ve had zero for two years.

Usually, the first printing is two hundred copies. But there’s a paper shortage right now (March 2022). It might be coming back to normal, but in the last few months it’s been really hard to get anything printed in a timely fashion. For the latest issue, number 52, it’s a very small batch: I think it was seventy-five copies because I needed them quicker. The print company was like, “Hey, we’ll just bust out these real quick and when you need more…” I already have the order in for the next batch, but I have no idea when it’s coming. [laughs] Also, I try to have something fresh on the web site every month. Even if it’s just a T-shirt or something.

Daniel: Earlier you said that you wouldn’t call Hamburger Eyes a street photography zine. How would you describe the type of photography you want to publish?

Ray: We have a subtitle for Hamburger Eyes: “The continuing story of life on earth.” I used this even when it was a xerox zine. I’m interested in documentary style photography. That includes finding stories, travel, autobiographical stuff. I really like seeing the photographers in their hometowns. I’ll get stuff like this Australian photographer went to France and then sent me the photographs. The photos might be rad, but I’m more interested in the Australian photographer shooting photos of the Australian mail carrier. Their story. Local stories, those are what I look for when I’m editing photos.

I would say National Geographic and Life magazine, those are the magazines that influenced Hamburger Eyes the most, more than skateboarding and punk. We happen to have photographers who listen to punk music and shoot punk bands. And we have photographers who worked for skateboarding magazines, who love skateboarding. But that subtitle—the continuing story of life on earth—is what it’s always been about. As a teenager getting into photography, that whole sense of exploring and the sense of life as wonder. Maybe that doesn’t come off sometimes, but I always try to put that sense of curiosity into Hamburger Eyes.