A N I N T E R V I E W W I T H J O H N N Y D E G U Z M A N
By Alex Sinclair
DISCLAIMER: I’ve been to Chicago twice in my life. Both times I never set foot outside of airport property. I say “property” rather than “terminal” because while I was there during a layover on my way home from a New Orleans wedding, I was really sick and regularly alternated between navigating the ice rain outside and the bleach-blonde tiles of the bathroom.
* * *
I met him at the corner of Walton and Michigan. He wore a plain black t-shirt, narrow jeans and his shoes look black too, but matte black, like charcoal. He had just finished work and we were meeting up to talk about David.
This was my first time meeting Johnny, and I’d never met David, the subject of his latest photo-series, À Tout Le Monde. I only had a couple of hours in town before I had to run back to O’Hare and catch a flight to see my cousins in Louisiana. We didn’t have long but I think that may have helped the matter. With complicated issues such as these, it’s almost better to be forced into confronting them. Address the subject. Get the answers. Understand things a little better.
“With David,” he’s scraping an errand piece of green gum from the bottom of one of the charcoal shoes, “photography will always be connected to him.”
We walk east, I don’t know how far, or where we’re going exactly but it’s east. I don’t know the area but Johnny is walking as though he does so I follow his lead. This is his city. I’m nearly 6,000 km from mine and I could feel every step of it.
“At the moment, most of À Tout Le Monde is referent to the past. This has been the first year of the project and I suppose I let myself slip into a heavy dose of nostalgia.”
I’m curious about why he says “at the moment” and I wonder how/if the project will grow to become something else. The sun is awkwardly low and it keeps cutting in and out of the gaps left by smaller buildings as we walk. There is a scratch on the left lens of my sunglasses because the TSA guy wanted to double check there weren’t any explosives in them. Explosives. In my sunglasses. Between the sun strobes and the scratch, it’s just easier to remove them and resort to squinting.
We stop at a corner store and I’m briefly relieved of the sun’s annoyance but the security guard decided we were of significant threat to the overpriced food stock so there’s a new annoyance and his name-tag reads “Terrence”. Johnny buys a Fiji Water. He says he doesn’t drink pop. I find it both weird that he calls it “pop” and that he doesn’t drink it. I settle on some crazy Mountain Dew derivitave because it’s not available in Ireland and I’m always keen to try new fizzy drinks but it’s immediately clear I made a poor choice. I didn’t know you could actually make something Aspartame flavoured. Johnny offers me some of his drink after he sees me very quickly dump my bottle in the nearest bin.
“It’s perhaps because I’ve not really encompassed myself with this much consideration of everything since 2005 and 2006.”
He pauses and screws back the cap on his water.
“… which was the immediate time of David’s death. In one way or another, everything in the project is inherently referent to a point in our adolescence. I can be making a photograph that involves subject or object matter that is very much so present of the now.”
The David in question is David Mess, a childhood friend of Johnny who passed away at 16 from a suspected heroin overdose. In the project statement that Johnny wrote, the word “unintentional” prefixes this. I read his 178 words repeatedly on the flight over. 178 words. I counted them. I thought memorising it might help pass the time too. It didn’t. I don’t ask if he has any doubts regarding the intention, or unintention, of his friend. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to upset him, it’s because I knew the answer. I’m sure he does doubt, or at least at one point did, because that’s how humans work. We doubt.
Johnny recently graduated from Columbia College here in Chicago and he points at it down a busy side-street, asking if I wanted to see it. I politely decline. I’d spent enough time already in airports this week and there’s always a similar vibe between most big buildings. So instead, we settle on just talking about it. He sits on a curb and he wipes his brow with the hem of his shirt.
“Now that I’ve been out of school, although only for a few months now, I can definitely see myself prone to making more risks and playing loosely with the aesthetics, assessing my own aspirations and presenting several options.”
That answer sounds rehearsed or contrived but it’s emblematic of anyone’s time in a creative education scheme. While Columbia may be different to my college back home in terms of funding and facilities, I’m sure the ethos behind it all is similar. The sentiment he just expressed certainly hit me a little weird, a little like how déjà vu feels.
Johnny’s phone vibrates and he opens an app I don’t recognise. I feel awkward for a minute because I catch myself looking at his phone and it’s clear he’s reading a message from his girlfriend, Alyson. That’s the girl he calls his muse. She’s in a lot of his less-structured work, the stuff he posts on Facebook or Instagram. Some of that stuff is so mind-blowingly awesome that I find it difficult to do similar things myself. It’s negative inspiration. Not that my own girlfriend, Lauren, is in any way lacking. It’s more that photography plays a different role in Johnny’s relationship with Alyson than it does in my relationship with Lauren. That’s our thing though. Lauren was a classmate of mine at college, so we’re both photographers by trade, and photographers hate having their photo taken. I guess I’m a little envious of Johnny’s ability to document a relationship so easily.
“First and foremost, it was a common interest where we both built upon a friendship that became a romantic relationship. When our relationship blossomed into said romantic relationship, I became a sap and couldn’t stop making photographs of her.”
I push him on what he sees in the photos compared to what he sees in her but he’s hesitant, lacks confidence.
“How I see it is this, if I am incredibly infatuated with this moment that I could stare at forever, then anyone would have to give it a glance. And somewhere within those glances there’ll be someone that will empathize with our moment. These answers probably need a bit of editing.”
There’s a small park with some benches and we both naturally gravitate to it in search of shade. We sit on a bench under a sycamore and wait for Alyson to arrive because she’s bringing a copy of his prints from À Tout Le Monde. It’ll be easier to talk about the series when we’re actually looking at the photos. Worried about damaging the prints, I suggest relocating to a café or something but the idea is quickly dismissed. Apparently, they’re only work prints or duplicates or something. I’ll admit that I don’t really remember. There was a young couple, white as the sun is hot, sitting on a bench across from us. It was distracting. I think the guy forgot to do something, or attend something. I couldn’t really make out what but I quickly realised I was prying again. Don’t stare at Johnny’s phone. Don’t attempt to decipher why the white woman seems irrationally mad at the white man. Etiquette. Please.
Thankfully, Alyson appears at the park gate distracts me before I get too mentally lost in the notion that maybe I’m too nosey (or too solipsistic). I’ve barely ever seen these two as a couple in real life but there’s an odd sense of familiarity because of the intimate photos they share online. It’s not quite like thinking you’re friends with Hugh Jackman because you’ve seen all his movies, but it’s close.
After the introductions and handshakes, Johnny spreads the photos out in a constellation form on the pavement in front of us. It’s not like looking at them online. These aren’t exhibition grade prints at all. There are dogeared corners. There are colour correction issues. They’re imperfect and real. As such, they’re perfectly suited to the reconnected memories Johnny is trying to compose. Seeing the various iterations that didn’t make the cut or had technical issues, this is suddenly becoming clear how important they are to him. These are the ones that went wrong, the collection of almosts. I hunker down. I want to admire every blemish and misprint. Alyson takes Johnny’s hand in her own. I pick up a dark print showing TV static.
“I still think there’s a long way to go within the work, though, I would say that I’ve learned more about him than I did while he was still alive and I’m at a loss as to if that makes me feel like I’m closer to him or more distant.”
Johnny De Guzman currently resides in Chicago, IL and can be found online at the following:
Main Site | Tumblr | Instagram
This is a really awesome interview/piece of fiction combo about Johnny’s work.