At ArtHop this September, JSA Gallery is presenting Drivebys, Keith Seaman’s enthralling collection of stitched panoramas captured out the window of his moving car. Witness stories unfold frame by frame, and delve into a 16-year progression of Seaman’s fascination with uncovering the secrets of what streaks past our eyes as we drive.
Get to know JSA Gallery’s featured artist, Keith Seaman and find out what’s behind his series, Drivebys below. And don’t miss the show on Thursday, September 7th from 5:30 to 9PM.
Jeffrey Scott: First and foremost, let’s talk about your inspiration for Drivebys. Where did that idea come from?
Keith Seaman: It actually started when I was learning how to do stitched panoramas about 16 years ago, back when there wasn’t iPhone software that did it automatically for you. Before software got sophisticated, you had to take a series of photographs and change the camera position precisely so Photoshop could stitch it together seamlessly. At the time, I was doing 360 panoramas—one frame at a time. And there was an issue with parallax, which is what happens when the camera is moving; things in the foreground move more than things in the background. If you didn’t set the pivot point up on the camera properly, then things in the forefront would be out of place and the software wouldn’t be able to fix them.
But I think I first became interested in the idea of drive-bys while riding in the backseat of my parent’s car as a kid, driving on back country roads, seeing things whiz past my window—that was the effect of parallax and I thought, wow, that’s how people see things when they’re moving; I wonder if I could capture that.
JS: So, this interest in movement kind of grew?
KS: I started studying parallax. When I started, it was a huge experiment. And it still is. There’s a huge serendipity involved. When I go out looking for drive-by opportunities now I’m more knowledgeable about what to expect and look for. Originally, I would drive by stuff, and I’d lean out the window and click the shutter and wouldn’t know what I’d got until I pulled over and looked or got home.
Now I don’t do all of them while driving myself. I put the camera on a tripod in the passenger seat and put the flash head on the backseat, out the window. There are a lot of things I’d still like to do with the process.
JS: Looking through your work, a lot of your pieces seem occupied with place. Are you more interested in place? Do you think place is more objective than say, a portrait?
KS: A thing I don’t get a lot of is people, even though I’m a people person. I don’t want to frighten anyone. But I do get emotionally involved with some of the places immediately after shooting them. I drive by, and see some people who seem to be down and out—I usually try not to encroach but I might take photos driving by, and maybe they’re looking back at the camera.
I love to tell stories with the camera. There’s a cinematic quality, and storytelling that’s involved. There’s this photograph I took where there are doorways, and in one frame, a woman is staring at the camera and then in the next frame she’s waving. Then there’s a boy, he’s sneaking back into the shadows frame by frame.
JS: I noticed that some of the photos are perfectly aligned, and others are skewed and uneven. Is there a reason for that? My guess was that it mimics the motion of driving.
KS: The more recent ones are more aligned. I’ve distanced myself from the seemingly random placement, but for a very long time I was doing the handheld thing out the door, and when I was doing that, I was trying to look at the road while taking photos. My camera was almost always 15 degrees counterclockwise so a lot of them were captured at that angle and if I kept them at that angle, there was something common—a road, a bridge, a sidewalk—that I used to align them. So that’s one of the reasons I did it that way. Now, it’s different because I have the camera on a tripod.
JS: What about color? Some of your photos are the same color, except one is black and white or de-saturated. Is there a reason you chose to present the same differently?
KS: With my old camera, I could shoot automatic. It was basic enough that I didn’t need to use manual settings and it would very often show a different color each frame. And it would only shoot jpegs; it was like a 6-megapixel digital camera. So, I didn’t have a raw file and it was impossible to get anywhere close to matching the color in each frame.
There’s a chaotic aspect of it, and having the misalignment, and maybe some of that gets lost as I try to refine it.
The other thing is I don’t always like the colors I’m looking at. Every time I get something with a sky, I don’t like the color of the sky. The color of the sky is just a boring ass blue. So, I change it. Every time I change the color—add cyan, add green.
Another thing you’ll notice, is a frame overlap because it’s fun to stress the fact that there are different frames and there’s a transparency so you can see the bottom through the top. I used to layer them over white so it’d desaturate everything and then I’d build up the contrast so you’d have that desaturation and that made it more dreamlike.
JS: Let’s talk about you, for a little bit. How’d you get started in photography?
KS: I went to the Art Center College of Design in LA for three semesters, then I started assisting photographers in LA. I learned more, and more quickly from being an apprentice than I did in school. I was in school long enough to learn how to learn, and how to analyze art. I officially started as a photographer in Los Angeles in ‘74.
JS: Do you think working in Fresno influences your photography in a different way, than say working in a place like LA?
KS: One thing about being an artist is that you’re influenced by your surroundings for better and worse. Being a professional photographer in Fresno was great for family reasons; wonderful family life in Fresno. The expectation level in Fresno was rarely as high as it would have been had I stayed in LA. So, you have to challenge yourself more because you aren’t as challenged. That’s changing now. Especially in video. A lot of highly sophisticated work going on.
For a long time, people had expectations of work coming out of larger markets on a Fresno budget and we did some pretty cool work in Fresno. I’m proud of what we accomplished.
JS: You have a pretty prolific body of work. Do you have a preference for photographing people or inanimate objects?
KS: I love photographing people and environmental portraiture. There’s something wonderful about getting to know someone—even if it’s in a brief and superficial way—in their environment in a way that makes them feel like I captured their essence.
And people are challenging. It’s difficult to get people to relax in front of your camera. Sometimes I click with people and sometimes I don’t. But I do like photographing people a lot. I like working with teams a lot; working with good creative teams—that’s also why I like shooting food.
JS: What do you look for when you go to take a picture?
KS: I don’t know what I want, but I know it when I’ll see it.
When I go out looking for a drive by, I basically look for something that’s not necessarily predictable. If you just stick your camera out your car while driving along, it’ll be a lot of the same thing so I like a lot of change in a small space. Like, in one of my photos, there are these Producers Dairy trucks behind a chain-link fence, just parked in this funky parking lot. The antipathy of these happy cows staring out from behind this chain-link fence—there was an irony. I like humor. There’s a lot of humor in my work. I’ve done a lot of self-portraits over the years—just stupid ridiculous fun.
JS: What, to you, makes the perfect shot?
KS: I almost think that the perfect shot may not be the best shot. When I’m doing this, there is no perfection. It’s random and chaotic, but sometimes I tone it down, and sometimes I enhance it. The perfect shot is the right placement of the elements, the right light, the right emotional impact. You can feel the right shot and if you can’t feel it, it’s not working.