Robert Collins and Caroline Collins photo by Robert Collins

Worlds Apart, Worlds Together: Talking DIY Photography with Karoline Collins By Daniel Makagon

Part of the Seeing The Scene Series

Exciting photographs emerge from a combination of feel, technology, light, and perfect timing. Karoline Collins makes photos that reflect this blend in different measures. She was attracted to photography as a creative outlet to document people in the moment and wanted to develop that skillset by studying photography. During this same time, her active involvement with DIY scenes in Madison and Milwaukee, Wis. put her in a perfect spot to document punks being punks. She later balanced photographing bands on tour with efforts to document life at home, recording the strange mysteries of urban life.

Lungfish at the Fireside Bowl, 2003 photo by Karoline Collins

Daniel: When did you get into photography and what did you shoot early on?

Karoline: I like to shoot people. The cheesy, posed photo is my favorite. I had a Polaroid camera, and I had a Ricoh point and shoot. My dad had a Canon that I would always take around the house and focus, pretending like it was my camera. But I didn’t actually know how to use it. I went to Madison Area Technical College (MATC) and then moved to Milwaukee. There is also a Milwaukee Area Technical College, sister schools.

The photography program there was actually much more interesting in Milwaukee. When I started going to school for photography, one of my teachers was selling a Nikon N6006. But at this point, I’m just learning about photographers. “I like to take photos, maybe this will work.” I didn’t have a goal. I got the Nikon and a 24mm lens so that was big; it was like six hundred dollars at that point. Oh my god, it was so much money. I’m jumping ahead a little bit, but I had that point and shoot when I was going to see Sub Pop bands. I look back at some of those negatives and they’re so static; they’re not good photos. But I was trying, you know, “Does this work?” With the N6006 I could see what I could actually do.

I’ve been working on my photo archive during the pandemic. I’ll have a roll of film from a band playing at my house and there are four shots of the band playing and that’s it. Why didn’t a shoot the whole roll? My husband (Robert Collins) and I have been discussing this: (A) I didn’t have the money to keep blasting through rolls of film. (B) I was working the door, everyone was making food; I was interacting. Or I just wanted to watch the band. But it’s still funny to think about why I only took four shots of the band.

Daniel: Did you feel like your eye and how you were seeing photographs changed while you were in school? And did your vision of who you were as a photographer change?

Legion of Honor Museum photo by Karoline CollinsSan Francisco

Karoline: Absolutely. The first time I saw Diane Arbus’s work, and with age I realize that sounds cliché, but in 1989, it was like, “Woah, what are these photographs?” I’d never seen humans look like that or act like that. It hadn’t occurred to me that you can photograph someone like that. The classes only increased my interest. As far as my output getting better, I’m sure that was the beginning of, “No, you have to do it like this. This is the structure, so let’s see what you can produce for class.”

Daniel: You said earlier that portraits are your favorite photos to make. Did seeing Arbus’s work influence that interest? Also, as you’ve been archiving your old negatives, did you mostly shoot bands or were you documenting life in your scene more generally?

Karoline: It would have been that I have a camera, these are my friends, and I am taking a picture of my friends. There was not necessarily much thought behind it—documenting without knowing because you’re too young to understand and just want to do it.

I read the interview you did with Mark Murrmann and he said he wished he shot more of the crowd. I was shooting friends, too. Probably more friends than the bands. Schlong played at my house. There were maybe six pictures of Schlong but then I’d turn around and I have no idea what I was thinking but I tried to do a little bit of all of it. I honestly can’t say I had any strategy at all. We were just having so much fun: you’re meeting all these new people; you’re staying in touch with people. We would always strive to have food for the bands; it wasn’t good food: Midwestern make-your-own burritos or spaghetti or whatever. There was so much going on. I had always been a very shy person and I still am. I’m like an introvert-extrovert. But back then it was just trying to find my legs with all these people who I don’t know, having people in your house. Not until later was there any kind of goal: I’m shooting this band.

Daniel: There are a few different things happening when the show is at your house, though.

Karoline: We were so lucky. Nothing bad ever happened. It was just so exciting. “Oh my god, Spitboy’s gonna be here!” We were all so amped when someone came through town or maybe a little bit nervous when Paxston Quiggly came through because they were tough. But then they were super nice, and I didn’t know why I was nervous.

Daniel: We talked a lot in the interview we did for Razorcake #123 about your experiences working as a roadie. Can you talk a bit more about the photos you made when you toured?

Karoline: I started coming out to California. A couple of us had done road trips. That’s when I first met Murray Bowles. And “met” is loose. He was at Gilman and a very tall man. I’m very shy. I think this was ’92. I knew of his work. I went up to him and pulled on his shirt: “What kind of camera do you have?” He was very cordial, looked down at me, and said, “Nikon N90.” I thanked him and went to the back of the room or wherever. But I thought, “I’m gonna buy that camera.” Not because I thought I was going to take photos like Murray, but I wanted to know what a real punk photographer was shooting with. I saved up and bought a Nikon N90 and that camera went with me on my first tour with All You Can Eat. I remember when we were in New Zealand and I went to the express photo and got the photos back—I hadn’t seen what the camera could do as far as results went. “Oh, they look good,” which was so exciting. The Nikon N90 was my workhorse forever, or until it had an accident a few years ago.

Daniel: You’re going on these tours and you’re shooting. Are you documenting the whole thing?

Karoline: We had a lot of long drives, so there’s the “in the van photos.” We were in parts of the world I didn’t know that I’d ever be able to see, so there’s landscape stuff that in the moment it’s so exciting, but thirty years later you’re like, “Eh, it’s fine.” The memories are more exciting than the actual photos. On international tours, generally roadie means merch person. I wasn’t traveling with people who needed techs. I would try to run up, photograph the bands, and then go back to the merch table. In some places we might have our tour boss or tour host watch the table so I could go shoot a full set. Tour managers didn’t exist in our minds back then.

Juninho O Inimigo at 924 photo by Karoline CollinsGilman

The band All You Can Eat was super energetic. They’d jump all over the place. Even the drummer, one of his cymbals was up on this huge stand so he had to jump out of his drum stool to hit it. Even if you didn’t like this band’s music, they were so much fun to watch. That was when I realized, I want action shots. Any band that is just up on stage playing however proficiently, if they aren’t moving, the camera is back in the bag. It doesn’t interest me at all. The music could interest me but I never try to make a good shot out of musicians who aren’t moving.

Daniel: You have published your photos in Urban Guerilla and you share your work through social media. Do you have plans for publications, either photozines or a book?

Karoline: The short answer is that I’m an eternal professional procrastinator. As I said, I have used the pandemic to organize a lot of the older stuff and re-evaluate. It’s always that I want to do something, but the thing is never that easy to do, so therefore it’s just going to go over there for a while. It doesn’t lessen my enthusiasm for documenting. For example, I think about books. Do you need another person’s book of images? I don’t know.

I did one zine, which was for Conquest For Death. Devon from All You Can Eat is in that band and so is my husband. It’s for the 2015 tour and we wanted it to look more like a souvenir program you would buy at a rock concert. Like when I’d go see big bands at the Dade County Coliseum in the ’80s, you’d get the Duran Duran souvenir photo program. Or, I did anyway. [laughs] We did it like that. I took a lot of my images and Martin Sorrondeguy actually laid it out for me. It’s photos of Conquest For Death. We went to Africa, which was amazing, and Southeast Asia. Mostly band pictures. It was really cool to watch people because I was at the merch table and people would open up the pictures and be like, “Woah.” They’re a very active band, so lots of jumping shots. It was a great thing to be able to share with people. Martin was very hard on me, which I appreciated. He said, “These are snapshots, not photos” in the initial bulk of what I gave him to help with the layout. “And these are photographs.” And that really helped me be more critical of my work. Nobody needs to see all of your 1950s vacation slides. I really want to think about what leaves an impact in people’s minds.

Chrissy Piper got me reinvigorated about photography as daily practice in 2008. She had been participating in a series of group photo shows that Katherine Strickland had been organizing in conjunction with the annual Chaos in Tejas fest. A bunch of punk photographers getting together and displaying work at End Of An Ear Records, a café and later a pizza place. There was an opening event the night before the fest started and then the photos were on display for the whole month after the fest, which was really eye opening for me. The DIY ethic applied to displaying art! I had certainly been to gallery shows before, and punk art ones at that, but this was like that face-palm moment: “Duh!” Of course punks are doing their own little art events. These group shows were like, “Hey, I like the work you are doing, do you want to be in this photo show?” Each year a few more people were added to the lineup and it was really fun and exciting.

Chrissy was also instrumental in introducing me to Rich Jacobs who in turn introduced me to Tim Kerr. Through Rich and Tim, I have been part of quite a few group art shows—some in makeshift places, like a warehouse in L.A.; some in stores that also had gallery walls, like Needles & Pens, Ranch & Roll; and some actual galleries in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and the Chicagoland.

Phatima Rude at Stuffed Queens Night El Rio SF photo by Karoline Collins

Daniel: Having this conversation right now works to my advantage [laughs] because you have been immersing yourself in old photos. How are your photos similar or different when you compare your digital photography to the photos you have been scanning and archiving?

Karoline: They look different. A lot of the early stuff is such a tight focus on someone’s face. Or I’m crouched down and looking straight up at them. Now I learned how to use the bulb setting, well a while ago. (Bulb is an exposure setting on the camera that allows the photographer to hold the shutter open for as long as they want.) Chris Boarts Larson taught me about the bulb setting, but I wasn’t in environments where there was a lot of action.

Things that I learned along the way finally fell into place because shooting digital you can see what you just did. “Oh, that exposure is not quite right.” Suddenly there was an easy way to learn more in the moment. I had not spent enough time furthering my education with my own camera, if that makes sense.

Daniel: As you said earlier, when you were in New Zealand, you developed your film just so you could see how your new camera worked. With film, you might not learn the lessons for a few months if you don’t have a lot of money to develop film and make prints. One roll of film might be used for three different shows. By the time you develop and see contact sheets or prints, you’re two months out.

Karoline: I also had a really bad habit because I didn’t have a lot of money in the 1990s; Kodak and Ilford made color processed black and white, so you’d get this black and white look. But what you’d really get was a sepia toned or purple toned photo. Probably if individually developed the problem wouldn’t be as bad, but when you’re doing a bulk process at Walgreens or Costco, which unfortunately was my default, everything just looked brown or slightly purple. Why did I do that? I am getting some of those scanned and some of the scans look cool but I’m sure it will depend on your computer monitor. I haven’t had any printed, but it’s cool to see that some of those images looked fairly decent composition-wise; they just got overshadowed by how weirdly they got processed.

Daniel: You said that you like to shoot portraits and bands that are lively on stage. Are there other things that have caught your attention or ways that your style has changed when making a portrait or shooting a live show?

Garbage Jesus NYC 2016 photo by Karoline Collins

Karoline: Once I got the digital, I suddenly felt more confident about doing some street photography. Again, as someone who has been very shy, sometimes I feel it is hard for me to make the leap to have the nerve. I don’t want to get yelled at. There are ways to be subtle. There’s a great Robert Frank image where the guy was gonna come and smash Robert Frank’s face in, but he was like, “I was just taking a picture of that house.” I feel like there’s a real sweet spot when the iPhone was coming out and you could get a lot of stuff because people didn’t know that other people were taking photos all the time. Now, I feel like any time someone is holding up their phone: are they filming you? I’m not paranoid, but everyone thinks they’re a photographer. Everyone is filming everything all the time. Now it might be easier to have a regular camera because people are like, “What’s that?” [laughs] I really struggle with doing street photography that I like because I always kind of lose my nerve, but I’m still very interested in it.

Daniel: There are various approaches to street photography. One approach is an “in your face” candid, gritty aesthetic, which is very much a product of getting close to the people who are being photographed. But then there are other kinds of street images—isolating a specific person in a crowd, shooting changing environments, capturing the ruins of the city—but I guess if you want to shoot people close-up in the streets then you’ve got to be willing to take the shit that comes when people don’t want to be photographed.

I Don’t Love You Face Tattoo photo by Karoline Collins

Karoline: And sometimes I am. When we first moved back to San Francisco, we were living in Bernal, which is adjacent to the Mission. It was really easy to go out and walk and shoot. But now we live on the very southern end of San Francisco. There are plenty of people around but it’s a neighborhood. It’s like the suburbs.

I also went from working at the convention center in downtown San Francisco and commuting in between where it’s very easy to shoot because there’s all this stuff going on. The initial immersion with people, you’re on the bus with a lot of people. Then you’re at the convention center, which kind of empties out at night but during the day there are a lot of people, a full spectrum of abject, brutal homelessness and all these conventioneers. “This is humanity right here.” But now I am either in a car or when I’m on the bus it’s with people who are primarily going to work at the airport, so they are real quiet and focused on themselves, which is completely different.

Daniel: Absolutely, there is a theater of the street. If you are not in locations with a lot of people then you have to re-imagine the kind of street photography you will make. Now, I know that some of what you post on Instagram is photos you made with your phone. How does shooting with your phone differ from shooting with your DSLR in terms of the experience and the images you create?

Karoline: I really like it because you can just move the phone a little bit and suddenly the exposure looks better. I loved my Polaroid camera as a kid, because it’s an instant image. To me, it’s like a Polaroid camera. You’re probably not going to get any great motion shots, you don’t want to zoom in because it will be too grainy, but there are instant moments. Hence my love of Instagram, too. I hated processing film. After learning how to do it, I’d sometimes sneak out of the lab and pay to get my shit processed. I don’t like that process at all. It’s incredible but I didn’t have the patience for it. I love the instant hit with the phone as camera.

But I had started shooting more and just got a new camera in summer 2019, which I haven’t really been able to test drive yet. Like in the recent Urban Guerilla zines, my favorite thing right now is to go out and see what weird shit is in the street. I looked back at your Instagram, the found glasses in the baggie, I love that shit. Because San Francisco is so windy, stuff blows around. Who knows where it’s from. Humans are just weird. There’s underwear everywhere. It’s like a treasure hunt: “Look, underwear! Oh, no, it’s just a sock.” That stuff has always interested me but when it’s stuff you see on your walk, it takes on a different focus. Jugs of milk. Why did someone just throw a jug of milk out? Did they throw it out the car window? “Ah, street milk.”

Daniel: Some things make sense. If someone is housing insecure or unhoused then things will be left in the street, but that jug of milk would seem to be needed.

Karoline: Whenever you see your first jug of street milk out somewhere, you will never be able to unsee it because suddenly they’re everywhere.

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Fred Smith Concrete Park Beer Drinker photo by Karoline Collins