Phil Donohue

December 12, 2017

Hi Phil and welcome to Pixsoul. How did you get into photography? What do you do for a living?

“My name is Phil Donohue. I’m from the suburbs of Phoenix and currently reside in the Greater Los Angeles Area. As for my profession, I’m a filmmaker. I grew up around photography. My mom used to make my bathroom into a darkroom but I didn’t start until I was about 13 or so. My cameras of choice back then were of the disposable variety.

It wasn’t until my friend’s mom accidentally left a Canon Elph APS camera in my luggage — during a trip to NY — that I started shooting more consistently. Once that camera crapped out I moved to digital for a bit but never quite took to it. When I decided to get a bit more serious I picked up a Leica R4, and since that camera I’ve gone through a number of other cameras including the Leica R6.2, Olympus Stylus Epic, Fuji GS645Zi, Minolta X-570 and couple of others that I am keeping to myself for the time being.

I work for myself but I also have a production company, The Umbrella Company, that my partners and I will be launching in 2018. I’ve been makings films since I was 13 so a little while now.”

You seem to shoot a lot of vintage places or architectural buildings, is that primarily what you’re interested in? Can you explain what you like to shoot, and why?

“When most kids wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut, I wanted to be an architect. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I lacked any vision or ability outside of my appreciation. While my interests are architectural, in a lot of ways I’m exploring the obsolescence of our throw-away culture. Growing up in the 80s there was a transporting feeling that those spaces still had.

As I grew up I saw that feeling slowly dissipate as chain restaurants and big box retailers sprung up all over Phoenix in the early 90s. You move with the times but I was so painfully nostalgic for what was. I was drawn to what was left, what stuck out in the cultural void — but as I grew older and less sanguine — I came to the realization that a lot of what I was nostalgic for was demonstratively mediocre. The malls, the way things were, everything was, then too, just a store, just a place. My photography, in a lot of ways, is about confronting nostalgia and trying to reckon with the past in the present.”

Tell us your thoughts on how you feel about old buildings versus the new ones that are coming out. How much of the architecture has changed?

“I think new is mistaken for progress in our culture. Every single aspect of our lives has become a commodity to the point that nothing else really matters. If you look at what architects like James Wines did in the 70s with big box retailer Best Products — you realize how regressive commercial buildings have actually become.

The most prominent retail concept of our time is the “Lifestyle Center” — a faux-Main Street designed to feel like a Main Street that, most likely, still exists within the community itself. Developers are more interested in creating cheaply built, Disney-like versions of real-life places that, even in their neglect, will most likely outlast the Lifestyle Centers made in their image.

And yet our history, in general, is fairly problematic and architecture isn’t immune from this. The old signs and motels that line Route 66 hold a certain resonance despite the fact that many of the towns along the route were “Sundown Towns” — with this knowledge can one simply romanticize a past that was built on discrimination, simply because one appreciates the building materials or yore? It’s nice to see people engaged with the past and attempting to save what little we have left — but we also have to confront certain realities about our past that we are sadly still contending within the present.

Ultimately as long as we continue to have a bottom line view of everything in our society, the erasure of the past will be so far reaching that we will no longer have experiential points of reference — only the pictures will remain.”

Can you name a few photographers that you find influence in?

“When I went to the MoMA in NY for the first time in 2003 (the same trip I commandeered that Canon Elph) I discovered a lot of my favorite photographers; Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Andreas Gursky among others. While I had an interest in photography at the time — I had never seen work that profound, especially not in person.”

Has your work after seeing works like Stephen Shore influenced how you view your subject matter and how you shoot your photographs? What has changed after seeing their work?

“At the time I was really interested in the work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. I love his composition and relationship with light — and how, through photography, he was able to preserve architecture in a way that time, or even conservation, cannot — but when I came across the work of Shore, Sternfeld, and Eggleston in particular, my entire thought process around what photography could be was upended.

I was struck by how they were able to create artistic tableaus from everyday life by using natural light and not staging the work… or at least making it seem that way. Ever since my pursuit has been one of purity to this idea, using only natural light, letting the subject reveal itself as opposed to staging it for my own purposes — capturing something as it is as opposed to how I want it to be.”

You recently joined Andrew Kovacs as he transported a model his office made, how did you get that gig?

“Andrew and I have been working together on a couple of projects starting this year. In January I documented his traveling studio, “Concrete Jungle: The Junction of Panama City,” in Panama City, Panama. I also recently completed a film, “Life of a Model,” which documents the construction of a model his office built for the Chicago Architecture Biennial. The film is currently on view at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, playing on the model itself.”

Can you recall a place that has been your favorite to shoot? And if you could just pick one photo that’s been your favorite, which is it?

“I think Carousel Mall was my favorite place to shoot. I started photographing the mall in 2008 and was able to shoot there, without any interference, until its closing earlier this year. With most malls I’m lucky to get a few minutes in before someone is trying to escort me off the premise.

There are some photos I’m more partial to but, generally speaking, I’m never really fully satisfied with my work.”

Phil thanks for taking the time to swing by and answer our questions! Excited to see more from you soon!

“Thank you and hopefully there is something of value above. All the best✌🏼”

Written by Yung Tsai. Photos ©Phil Donohue.
Follow him on Instagram or visit his website to see more work by him.

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