“I don’t take photographs outside.” This, the most revealing answer of my interview with French photographer and inmate, Ralph. His black and white photos are raw, beautiful, and oddly the most pure depictions that I’ve ever seen. Free from pretense, judgement, and opportunistic voyeurism.
*Why did you initially start taking photographs inside of prison?
Ralph: First, for distraction then as challenge and over time it has become witness.
*Why black and white?
Ralph: Because there is no color.
*Who or what is your most interesting subjects?
Ralph: I love the “dirty faces”. I love the faces that tell a story. Faces sweaty and suffering, that’s my favorite subject.
*Have you taken any photographs outside of prison?
Ralph: I never take pictures outside.
*Is photography a distraction or a reminder of where you are?
Ralph: I’ve frequented the prison for more than 25 years. This is a very big part of my life. It’s like a family photo album.
*What moves, enrages, and inspires you?
Ralph: Love. Hate. Injustice. What inspires me most are the emotions in the faces and the expressions in the eyes.
*Do you believe God exists? If so, do you see him in the faces of the people that you photograph?
Ralph: I do not know if I believe in God. But, I believe in man. I believe in redemption.
Facebook: Man in Jail
I was born into the era of synthesizers and video games. Portable arcades and Casio Mozarts. Gary Numan wrote future samples. New Order infused synth with leftover emotion from Joy Division. Then grunge pushed electronica underground and I’m not sure it has emerged from the bomb shelter yet… at least not in America. But, in places like Germany, it continues to have a mass following. My theory is that European music just tends to be more precise and intellectually driven. It is not void of emotion but definitely more mathmatical. Zib Zeptumn/My Fantasy Robot Legion is everything and nothing electronica. It is a solid echo. The reverb from a snapped sound barrier.
*How do you create meaning in a song without lyrics?
The songs have meaning because they will themselves into existence. I just listen and put the dots where they’re supposed to go. The music comes from somewhere else.
I like to represent the emotions of the notes with different synth samples and sounds and yoga positions.
Isn’t that what everyone does?
* The late 70’s and early 80’s were the golden age of electronica. Everything before was very organic. How has the Internet and technology shaped the sound of synth?
Even though most early synths were capable of being molded into a vast prism of soundscapes, they were still limited by their design: heavy and very expensive.
Synths are more aurally malleable and readily available to everyone now, thanks to the leaps and bounds computers have have made here on earth so far.
Smartphones might not yet possess the high fidelity of older Moogs and ARPs, but they do offer accessibility and convenience. You can now compose on the train, or while simultaneously driving to work and eating breakfast, and definitely before you get to the studio.
When inspiration hits, or a distant alien being transmits the signal directly into your brain, you have the tools in front of you to capture it all.
* My first exposure to synth music was Gary Numan. Who do you credit with pioneering electronica?
I’d have to say German disco on the radio circa 1979, while living in Bavaria at a young age. Kraftwerk was also a major influence, of course.
* How do you create mood in a song?
It’s a combination of tempo and the selection of synths and drums.
I sample myself playing and then edit and sequence it into my iPhone or other device. When I record myself playing drums or sheets of stainless steel with a wire brush or squeaky cabinet hinges, I am already experiencing the mood.
It’s the same thing whether I’m playing bass, guitar or synth. I don’t usually set out to create a certain mood. If the song sounds really sexy then I was feeling really sexy when I channeled it from space.
* Why do you think electronica has continued to explode in places like Germany but has gone somewhat underground in America?
In my opinion, Germans, like other Europeans and Scandinavians, appreciate innovation and close involvement with technological creativity.
*Where do you get ideas for songs?
There is a deep core of memories inside us all, made of everything we have experienced in this life and possibly other lives before and after this one. I feel that these songs come from the dreams of these memories.
* The song Dragon feels like Tokyo to me. Was that intentional?
That’s an interesting perspective.
This song was my interpretation of a musical illustration of a dragon, starting from his nostrils, teeth and horns, then working all the way along his scaled, armored back, and following down to a long, spiky tail. My very good friend is a dragon and I did my best to write this song for him.
* Have video games influenced your music?
No, I don’t really think so.
Although I do adore video games and I grew up with them, I do not think they directly influenced my taste in music.
I mean, Double Dragon, Super Mario Brothers and Zelda had very moving, brilliant compositions, so… Actually, sure, why not?
It’s certainly possible that every song I’ve ever heard has also influenced this album.
The real musical influences for me were: James Brown, George Clinton, Aphex Twin, Pixies, Mozart, Squarepusher, The Ramones, David Bowie, and so many others.
* What emotion is impossible to convey with a synthesizer?
I’m sure there are plenty. Here are some:
1. Buyers remorse
4. Horny (is this an emotion?)
7. Social diarrhea (this has to be one)
* Define your music with a film.
One film? A film I’m making up in my head right now, or one I’ve already seen which has a great soundtrack that isn’t like my music?
For the latter, I’d say La Planète Sauvage 1973, Soundtrack by Alain Goraguer
Contact, record label, and lurking info:
My Fantasy Robot Legion by Zib Zeptumn is also available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, and just about everywhere else.
Instagram & Twitter: @zibzeptumn
Kirsten Opstad drives us down the coast of California with lyrics and melodies that makes us wish for a permanent sunset and hands that don’t remember letting go or holding on.
* What is your earliest memory of music?
When I was really little, my dad used to play the upright piano in our living room to let everyone in the house know that we were all running late for church. “Let’s stand and sing together,” he’d say then play a hymn as if he were broadcasting live what was happening at church without us. Remembering the sound of that piano unlocks a ton of memories from my early childhood. That and the sound of electronic doorbell chimes, which count as music in book.
* When did you buy your first album and record your first song? How did one influence the other?
There was a five year gap between when I bought my first album (Smashmouth’s Astro Lounge – I was 13) and when I recorded my first song (an untitled, almost-wordless musical ramble – I was 18). It took me a while to consider myself capable of songwriting. I was scared of sharing the songs I wrote because I wrote truthfully and at the time, the truth was really dark. I’m frankly glad that I didn’t start recording until later. I could barely sing and play at the same time. I made home recordings for my girlfriend in college, then I started putting songs up on Youtube. But the fear of being too dark or too real stayed with me – when I revisit those recordings, they strike me as kind of polite, as if I’m avoiding something. The music I loved at the time – Rilo Kiley, Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara – all had an emotional authenticity that I really connected with and probably mimicked.
* Do you see music in everything or is it parallel to life?
To me, that doesn’t seem like an either/or question. Music is in everything – just close your eyes and listen. But it’s also parallel to life. Because music is our most abstracted form of expression, it seems to exist on a different frequency. This is why so many people with different perspectives, emotions and experiences can intensely relate to the same song.
* Your music sounds very clean and light. Did your style develop over time or was it there from the first song?
It’s funny that you should call it light, I usually warn people that it’s pretty heavy. As far as style I want to say that it’s been there the whole time, but I don’t know. This is the first album that has really captured me accurately. The recording process on Stay Strangers was very innocent – we kind of just fell into it – it took me by surprise and helped me access some of my best performances.
* Without the ability to deeply connect with a listener, music floats on the surface. It’s the difference between listening to an album 20 years from now and forgetting about it in six months. Your music is a mix of childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. How has life shaped your music?
What a phenomenal line: childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. Recently, my music feels like a direct reflection of my life. All the songs on Stay Strangers are about real experiences. What’s great about songwriting is the insane amount of license you get to switch roles. You can write a honest, sad break up song from the perspective of the person whose heart you just broke. You can put yourself in other people’s shoes and pretend to know how their brains work. I use songwriting to understand my life. I think the laughter and heartbreak you hear is just me. Heartbreak is inevitable; isn’t it funny that we should hope for impossible things?
* What moment in your life, became the hardest song to write? The easiest song to write?
For me, writing about happy moments is incredibly difficult. I struggle with trying to write about falling in love without sounding like an idiot – partially because I think that the act of falling in love is kind of an act of willful ignorance. I am obsessed with Stephin Merrit’s songwriting, specifically on 69 Love Songs, because of the way he simultaneously celebrates and ridicules the cult of love. Angry songs are easier, because all the things I think but don’t say are just waiting in a bank in my brain, patiently organizing themselves into clever, rhyming pairs. Sad moments in my life, moments of heartbreak and loss, are for me both the easiest and hardest to write. They’re easy because the poetry is in the experience and it’s therapeutic for me to think through a feeling until the right image or phrase presents itself. They’re hard because in order to think through that feeling, you have to revisit it again and again. It’s messed up because it perpetuates the tortured artist myth, but I do think that it’s both creatively and emotionally productive to sit in those dark moments and go back to them.
* What do you want to write about but haven’t?
I’d like to write a song for my two year old niece, but I’m very intimidated by her.
* How long did it take to record “Stay Strangers” and what is your favorite song from the album?
It took about two years to make. The actual recording process, if you compressed the sessions into consecutive days, was probably only a few weeks but the songs really evolved in that time. Almost all the songs were written before we started recording. It’s hard to chose a favorite song because they’re all so dear to me. Each song has an iceberg-size backstory that makes me feel ten things at once. I think that my favorite song on the album is Money Now. It was the first song we recorded and it’s the most cathartic song on the album for me. I’m proud of the songwriting on that one, especially the words.
* I can hear/see California through your music. Were you born and raised in CA? If so, what childhood memories became songs or at least, music?
You caught me. Born in Torrance, raised in Orange County then in Claremont, the city of trees and PHDs. I left California for almost a decade while I lived in Boston and when I returned I found that a lot had changed. The song Frame explores the idea of memory being eroded by age. Visiting family in Long Beach and Garden Grove after being away for so long, it shook me up. I remember Long Beach looking different. I remember my grandma’s house being different. I remember those people differently.
* Music has the ability to take us away from or back to ourselves. Where does your music go?
It does both. I love that it can do both. That means I can keep doing it forever without staying lost. I use music to try to understand other people better and to be closer to myself. I sing things I would never say. Even when I’m singing about someone else, I am the most myself when I am performing my songs.
When I was 12, I decided to photograph my barbie dolls having sex, driving fast, smoking, and dancing on lighted mirrors that doubled as a dance floors. Dolls were never just dolls to me, they were a way to “live through” reproductions. When I first saw this collector’s photographs, I was amazed at how well she captured a girl`s secret life with dolls. Because we were never just dressing our dolls and braiding their hair, we were making them human.
*Have you always been interested in dolls?
Not really. A lot of my collecting acquaintances were early enthusiasts and kept their dolls pristine, but I wasn’t like that. Unfortunately, I was one of those children who drew on her dolls and pulled their heads off, or so my mother tells me. I liked them, but only as much as I liked my other toys. I just wasn’t a born collector. I didn’t start collecting until I was about 15. I was always interested in reading and drawing, though. I liked avatars, myths, metaphors, and other ways of recreating the world. I think that’s where it came from.
*What was the first doll that you owned?
Probably a load of fashion dolls that my older sister kept in a shoe box on top of the wardrobe. She didn’t want me to wreck them. I was allowed supervised play with them then back they went. Or maybe all of the chubby tween dolls that I inherited from my cousins — they had hair that grew in rows which appalled me. My cousin’s parrot had chewed holes in their heels. I called them all Susan, probably after Susan in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. I didn’t like her very much. I have vivid memories of my only childhood Barbie — “Pretty Changes”. I still have her.
*Did you view your dolls as more human and less toy?
As a child, I didn’t distinguish much between people and things. For instance, the curtains in my parent’s bedroom had a personality, so toys were always going to be pretty real to me. I think most children are like that it’s just that adults often forget how that felt. Actually, I still don’t make a clear distinction between people and things… although I don’t mean that in a “my dolls come alive when I’m asleep” way. It’s not something that I can rationalize myself all the way out of and I’m not interested in trying. Anyway, if you give a thing a face and a name, I think you must be slightly psychopathic if you are capable of viewing it entirely as an object. I’m very suspicious of Barbie torture artists.
*How do you seemingly capture human like interactions with barbie dolls?
To pose dolls, you need to be aware of how the human body bends and how it differs from a doll body. One of the main mistakes I see people make when they photograph dolls is to turn the head too far to the side. Humans can only comfortably turn their heads to just in front of their shoulder. It looks unnatural to take it further than that. It’s an empathy exercise. I think like… “How would it feel to hold myself like that?”
*Are any of your photographs replicas of people that you’ve known or observed?
There are many different reasons why people take doll photos. You could simply be showing off your collection or mimicking high fashion shoots/showing off clothes, illustrating something special and unique about a particular doll, expressing an emotion that you’re currently feeling, telling a story, trying to make the best photograph that you can, or showing something that has happened to you. I have photographed a few scenes from my life using dolls. It was a strange experience and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t do it often.
In my doll sharing circle, people (including me) have developed a habit of choosing doll avatars to represent friends in photographs. Mostly, they are people who live far away and won’t get to meet in person. It’s a different way of integrating someone you consider to a be a friend into your life. I think it’s cute.
*Dolls cannot change facial expression so how do you capture emotion without the human element of expression?
Well, that’s a challenge isn’t it! I love seeing how other people tackle this issue. You can do a lot with lighting, body language, camera angle, context and scene setting. Some doll head sculpts are more versatile than others. A lot of collector/photographers opt for non-smiling or half smiling dolls because it’s easier to assign multiple emotions to them. My favourite head sculpt is Mattel’s Mona Lisa faced “Lea”. I think Lea can easily be made to look triumphant, amused, sarcastic, angry, or wistful. It just depends on how you approach the picture.
*Would you like to see more “true -to -life” dolls?
No. If I was interested in true-to-life dolls, I would be a BJD collector. Some of those things practically breathe. I am always interested in improved articulation and I like looking at realistic dolls but I don’t collect them – not at the moment, anyway. Stylised, even cartoonish dolls are a more obviously an interpretation of reality rather than a replica and they say something about the concept of beauty at the time they were made… which I find interesting. Just because a Picasso isn’t a Titian or Vermeer, doesn’t mean it’s less enjoyable to look at.
*What is your favorite childhood memory of dolls?
I have a couple. One that makes me laugh: When I was about seven, I made a bikini out of red Easter egg foil for my Pretty Changes doll. It was quite risque because I wanted to see how my mother would react. She was good about it. I remember her first saying “That’s very nice dear, but isn’t it a bit brief?”
The one I think has the most bearing on how I ended up: I remember being in a department store at twilight on a cold day, just as all the lights were coming on outside. I was standing in front of this huge display of pink doll boxes, a tower of them three times the height of my head. It was breathtaking.
*Have you ever considered marketing your photographs as album covers or art?
Selling them? I don’t know about that. Some people fund or part-fund their collecting habit by selling a particular skill they have – making clothes, repainting doll faces in an attractive way, or re-rooting ( giving dolls new hair). Some people buy up doll stock from shops when they think a certain doll will be popular and try to sell it for profit but that is financially risky. Very, very few people make a living from their doll hobby, and there are a lot of driven and amazingly talented people out there so it’s a competitive field. I’m not a real photographer, I don’t even own a camera. I just take pictures of dolls and mess about them. If somebody approached me to do any of those things, I’d certainly consider it, but I doubt that will ever happen. Plus, you have to remember that Mattel, (the manufacturer of the dolls) have a fiercely overprotective legal department, so I’d probably get sued.
*What would you like to photograph in the future?
I’m just on the brink of getting my first doll room, which is a pretty big thing for a collector. This means that I can finally build permanent dioramas so I can take pictures of dolls in indoor scenes. This will mean that in the future, I will probably be doing more work on my “character dolls”- dolls with backstories and relationships. I’m quite excited about that!
The blog – http://www.barbiebeauties.wordpress.org/
Instagram – @intheplastic