When not traipsing off with rock stars Kyle Cassidy vacillates between serious documentary photography and works of sinister whimsey. His critically acclaimed 2007 photo book "Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes" won praise from a broad swath of reviewers from the Washington Post, to Vanity Fair, to Field & Stream. It won amazon.com's "10 Best Art Books" and "100 best books" medals the year of it's publication. His most recent book, "War Paint: Tattoo Culture and the Armed Forces" (Schiffer, 2012) documents the tattoos and stories of American war veterans. Kyle's spent five days photographing the Dalai Lama, a week photographing the opening of tombs at the Great Pyramids in Cairo, another week in the sewers underneath Romania photographing homeless orphans, and his "In the Hive" project allowed him to trip the shutters of cameras carried by 25 people all across America at random times and photograph whatever happened to be in front of them. In addition to this he photographed the covers for the Amanda Palmer albums "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" and "Map of Tasmania" as well as being one of the principle photographers for "The Big Book of Who Killed Amanda Palmer". He's done numerous projects which you can read about at kylecassidy.com as well as see an awful lot of photos of his cats.
What is the current project you are working on?
Right now I'm finishing up the Bed Song Book with Neil Gaiman, that's something coming together this summer (2012) that will be done & out probably in September. It's a limited edition art book available only though Amanda Palmer's kickstarter as a $1,000 reward. It's a script by Neil that I photographed based on a song by Amanda.
I'm also working on a huge portrait project of roller derby players -- you can see some of that at rollerderbyportraits.com. I was inspired by the individuality as well as the athleticism and I'd never photographed sports before. After seeing a game last year I was really motivated to try and capture some of the personalities. That's really the big thing. I've been traveling all across the country working on these portraits and it's coming out really well.
How do you balance your professional and personal life?
It can be tough. I"m away from home a lot which is difficult but my wife is an actress and she's got her career and is very supportive and I actually think that celebrating one another's accomplishments while apart has been a good part of our relationship. Being away means you get to come home more. Also, a lot of the time the two collide so it's exciting for me to hang out with actors and go to my wife's opening nights and cast parties and things like that and she's often along while I'm working so there's a constant flux of rock stars and models and writers and playwrights in our lives.
I think one key to having a public life is to be very decisive from the beginning about what's public and what's private and drawing those lines very distinctly and not going over them.
Do you prefer to use a digital camera or film camera when taking photos?
Digital. I don't like having to wait a week to see if I screwed up the lighting. That said, I have a lot of film cameras that I love -- I've never had a love affair with a digital camera the way that I have with film cameras, sadly, they've become just tools -- the romance is gone but that's not a bad thing. Taking photos because you like holding cameras is sort of like having babies because you like naming them. If you're not in it for the work, for the final product, you're probably not doing the best work.
How do you measure success?
Well, there are a lot of ways, it's not as simple as counting up Twitter followers and the number of people buying your books -- I remember the day I found out that Kurt Cobain had killed himself -- he was one of my idols and really, it seemed to me, at the top of the world. Realizing that I was happier than him, sharing a one bedroom apartment above a noisy tire store, living on $5,000 a year -- that had a profound impact on the way in which I measured how well I was doing.
There's a formula that includes "how much have I produced?" and "how happy am i?" and contrary to popular belief it's not just "how happy am I?" either -- I'm pretty happy sitting on my sofa and watching Frasier on Netflix. And I'm certainly miserable standing in the security line at an airport with 50 pounds of photo equipment strapped to my back trying to take my shoes off wobbling about on one foot -- but the discomfort there is rewarded in accomplishment -- so you give up some happiness and you get back something you produce, the work, and hopefully you realize that the discomfort is temporary and important to the final thing. It hinges on that. I'd rather sell 50,000 books and be happy in moderate obscurity than sell twenty million and be like Kurt Cobain.
There are other little things too -- the number of times you get recognized on the street, people who send you meaningful letters about how you've affected them, those are all points along the way. And, invariably, you compare yourself to your friends. I think that's inevitable. You're sitting at the dinner table looking across and your friends trying to calculate if they've been on the radio more last week than you or if they got a better review than you or some fancy gallery show, but that internal nagging monologue is motivational, and it's entirely human; it doesn't go away but you try and recognize it for what it is.
How do you handle rejection?
Usually with astonishment, but also great resilience. By the time you've gotten successful you've been rejected over and over and over and over so you're used to it, but you get to a point where it stops happening with any regularity because you know what works, and you know what you're good at and you know how to package things. So when something does get rejected I'm usually really surprised, but you bounce off of that and charge ahead because you've read all those stories about how many times the Cat in the Hat was rejected or whatever. I don't usually spend a lot time thinking about that, but just where to go next. "No" just means you haven't asked the right person, so when you get rejected you try again right away with someone else.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I wanted to be a reporter first. Which is still kind of what I am sometimes.
What is the best thing about being an artist?
The company you keep and the realization that at night when you go to bed something beautiful exists that didn't exist that morning and wouldn't exist at all without your having made it.
What is the worst thing about being one?
The worst thing is that people seem to think that artists don't need to get paid. We live in a society surrounded by artists that undervalues what they do.
What is the estimated number of projects you've worked on?
I couldn't really say, and it wouldn't be a useful number anyway. I mean there are things that you knock out in a day and there are things that take years to finish and there are ones you're not even sure if you should count. But there are usually three or four going on at a time.
What is one piece of advice you can give to someone who also wants to become an artist?
Bring art into your life and study it, make it a part of your every day, surround yourself with artists.
What are some of your favorite American films? Foreign films? Television shows?
Jaws, The Exorcist, Troll Hunter, Lost, Breaking Bad, Rare Exports, I'm really liking Game of Thrones right now.
How has social media changed the art industry?
It's allowed artists to very easily stay in touch with the people who like their art. It's helped to cut out the middleman whose job used to be "make sure fans know about this"
What's your opinion on crowdfunding?
We live in the world of ten-dollar Medici's. It's a good thing and a bad thing. It serves to democratize things but that's not always where art flourishes best -- sometimes you need the one person at the studio who says "nobody wants this film, but I believe in it and I'm going to fund it!".
How does independent differ from the mainstream?
Usually one's built upon spectacle and the other from story. Spectacle is easy to understand, it's made of broad strokes and loud sounds and flashy costumes. There's time and place for both. Independent often requires much more work from the audience and more of an understanding of not just the work you're looking at, but related works. You don't go home from watching Speed talking about the difficult questions of life. But independent isn't necessarily a synonym for good, it just means "less money". Sometimes there's a reason for that. And mainstream doesn't necessarily mean bad.
You could go back in time and see any piece of art created for the first time? Which would it be and why?
The Sphinx. I would have liked to see the planning that went into it, the architects, the artisans, the craftspeople and the laborers working together. I wonder what that construction site must have looked like, how everybody got fed, who might come in and look at things and say "thin up the beard" or whatever.
Thank you so much for doing the interview Kyle. I'll be sure to check out your artwork when Amanda & The Grand Theft Orchestra come to Boston in August. I will check out & spread the word about your roller derby portrait project.