Photographer Austin Young is definitely a character. He sits on a very embellished sofa, halfway between a sprawl and casual sit, his work and influencers (like Bettie Page) stare down at him like patron saints. We’re in his studio, which also is his home, a beautiful multi-faceted spot in Silver Lake. “I never do interviews like this,” he says laughing, excited to share his unique and brilliant point of view.
Editor’s Note: Please be advised a few images may not be safe for work, etc.
Young grew up not too far from Los Angeles in the little town of Reno, Nevada, a place that seems like an oxy moron of hometowns, a place that simultaneously makes perfect and imperfect sense for him. “It was pretty conservative back then, as most things were,” he says sipping a cup of coffee. “I had a tortured experience at school being gay. I started collecting records and got lost in this pop culture world. I worked at a record store in the mall, where we’d get all the new records from London every week. I was really inspired by album art so, I’d get stoned and listen to music and stare at these covers for some time.”
After high school, he moved to San Francisco where he attended both USF and Academy of Art. “I was this kind of a goth, glam rock kid,” he said of himself. He eventually moved to Paris to attend Parsons but, after three years of school, he dropped out because he realized he hated school. “I just got all my stuff together and flew to New York from Paris and stayed there for a few years,” he said, “I started doing portraits right away.”
Here, his work began to blossom. It was also here that he started to focus his lens on the drag and transgender communities. One of his Paris friends was a drag performer by the name of Chicklet, who was one of New York’s Boy Bar Beauties. “Boy Bar was the happening place for drag in New York. It was about 1987, I think, but I would hang out there and backstage during their once-a-week show. Chicklet would do these really fucked up routines, where she’d do something like have a child onstage or stomp on goldfish, these extreme things… in an attempt to shock everybody. Everyone loved Chicklet. I met so many drag queens and trannies at that time and I started taking all their portraits and started to develop a body of work.”
Austin moved on from New York and returned to San Francisco in the early 1990’s. “I wanted a change from the New York club scene, which got really dark by the time Michael Alig murdered Angel. I had worked for Michael and was friends with a lot of the people in that club scene. I became a vegan and, eventually, a fruitarian. I stopped going out. I started playing music and writing songs. I needed to get back to myself. I refocused on my photography and moved to Los Angeles around the year 2000.”
San Francisco, while nice, was also becoming a little unliveable, too. “The economy was going crazy at the time with all the .com’s in San Francisco,” he explained, “and before the stock market fell, the apartment prices and real estate were tripling, artists were being kicked out of their lofts, it led to all these people migrating down to Los Angeles at that time since rent was crazy cheap in LA. Two bedrooms were about two, three thousand in San Francisco–but they were maybe under nine hundred here. Everyone knew to go to Silver Lake, too (because it was cool).
Moving to Los Angeles was like an escape for him but also a necessity as the artistic flock he was connected to migrated South as well. “I also wanted to amp up my career” Young noted. Los Angeles at the turn of the new millennium had morphed into an orphanage, a place for displaced artists and escapees to find solace. “All these great artists that I worked with moved down here, like Squeaky Blonde, Jer Ber Jones, The Steve Lady, who has since passed,” he said. “Interestingly enough, it wasn’t too long before 9/11 in New York and Katrina in New Orleans, which brought different kinds of people from everywhere. The art scene’s nature changed as a result.”
How did it change, though? “There were just more people,” he stated. The influx of new people en masse also was a catalyst for a shift in Los Angeles art that is still being carried over to this day. “In the past few years Los Angeles has shifted to the center of of the centers for art in the world- whereas before that it wasn’t that way. I’m just making a conjecture, though.”
“It’s funny: I don’t think my work was affected from moving to Los Angeles,” Austin says. “But, at the same time, I started working for Interview Magazine which probably had a big impact on my work. I worked for them for about ten years.”
His work mainly changed from being a free agent to having assignments, from shooting his usual cast of characters and subjects to including photographing celebrities. “Photographing celebrities is not my focus at all,” he says, pausing himself: “I’m into people. All kinds. And yes, specifically, gender, trannies and drag queens have factored big in my work.”
This interest in queer and transgender subjectivity is something that comes from Austin’s relationship to the drag world and a need to challenge traditional beauty. “We’re told who and what we are supposed to be when we arrive on this planet. To shift that idea is really exciting to me. I find that interesting, which ties into a lot of my recent work with Tranimal. I’m less focused on shifting your identity but, rather, shifting everything: who cares what your gender is or what you look like or what society thinks is beautiful–whatever society thinks, we should throw out the window and recreate it for ourselves.”
“My latest body of work is more specific,” he says. “I’m working on a series of pin-ups, questioning what is beautiful. I was inspired by the pin-ups I had in my room when I was ten or eleven, these posters of Cheryl Tiegs and Farrah Fawcett: I was supposed to be sexually attracted to these women. I forced myself to think about them as being attractive and I still have this carried over anger from it. I wanted to make pin-ups that people could put up on their walls, which would confuse viewers instead of tell them they are supposed to be attracted to this. Maybe they’d say, ‘What the fuck is that?’ when they look at it…” Austin noted : “I’m going to sell these pinup’s as a limited edition set, which will be up on my website soon.”
As Austin’s work relies very heavily on the subject, his pieces are by nature very collaborative. “It’s almost impossible to have a stylized photo without it being a collaboration between a lot of people,” he explains. “You have makeup and hair and stylists and all this incredible talent to make a good image. Now, when I’m working, I’ll call someone and tell them that I’m doing pin-ups inspired by the late seventies or early eighties and maybe we can work with bathing suits: I talk about what I’m doing and let them get inspired too, to maybe bring something as well.”
He’s also built shows around collaboration. “My work with David Burns and Matias Viegener in Fallen Fruit has really changed the way I collaborate and also invite the public to participate in my work. Most of my new work emphasizes chance, play, and participation. Like my show, YOUR FACE HERE, where I invited the public to come and be the subject of the show. Fallen Fruit’s Eat LACMA was year long show at LACMA. Fallen Fruit began as a mapping project. We mapped fruit in public space. We invite the public to make Jam with us. We make fruit parks, art about fruit. TRANIMAL, which was at the Hammer, is a project I do with Squeaky Blonde and Fade-Dra. We invite the public to be transformed into ‘tranimals’”
“I’m completely spontaneous when I’m creative. I’m in the moment,” he says.
He laughs, shaking his head. “I never actually imagined myself in Los Angeles,” he says. “I’ve always wanted the same thing: to make art and to be famous for making that work. I don’t know if that sounds retarded but I’ve had that idea since I was a kid.”
Los Angeles for Austin is a magical place that he came to out of happenstance. And he feels that it is incredibly conscious of the image it projects. “I think LA’s image has always been carefully crafted, which is probably why I never wanted to be here. In the seventies and eighties, it was marketed to the world as this beach town with palm trees and it didn’t seem exciting. I was more into urban environments. That’s funny because now it’s being marketed as this urban environment through all the films being shot Downtown, in this completely urban environment. LA has always carefully crafted how the world sees it.”
“I’m so glad I’m here,” he says. “I wouldn’t live in New York right now. The art scene is really exciting here. It’s just so beautiful and so happening.”
As far as the future, Austin sees bigger projects happening, maybe even a dabble into the movies. “I definitely want to do a feature dark comedy or a really fucked up musical, something like The Worm done as a musical. I think that would be fun to do–but I don’t want that to be my career. I just feel like my medium can change.”
Austin also doesn’t see himself leaving Los Angeles. But, if he was anywhere else, he’d probably be living in Mexico (San Miguel, specifically), living as an expatriate. “Maybe not, actually,” he shifts: ” I love Mexico. I could’t do anything else but be an artist.”
For more on Austin, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also watch episode eight and ten of The Worm, which stars Nadya Ginsburg. Fallen Fruit by Austin, David Burns, and Matias Viegener has it’s first public fruit park in Los Angeles at Del Aire Park, which will be debuting soon. And, finally, Tranimal with Austin, Fade-Dra and Squeaky Blonde, are collaborating with Mark Allen from Machine Project and opera singer Juliana Snapper at Salinas Art Center in Kansas on April 6 and 7th.