Visual Poet

October 1, 2011

By RF Staff

Hollywood projects a vibrant, bustling version of Los Angeles, a creative bazaar that can lift the talented up onto a pedestal and drown the throngs that didn’t make it. We think of gang wars, starlets, illicit drugs, controversial police, the stupidly rich and the violently destitute. But like everything we see on television, this is not the true story of L.A. Most people, even many who live there, haven’t seen much more than their own small communities and the freeways that they use to sluggishly move from one area to the next. Yet in reality, L.A. has great beauty, quiet moments and soft shadows, along with equal measures of sudden fame, tragic loss and brilliant lights.

Kevin McCollister seeks out all of these elements that make up his adopted city. With his open demeanor, intuition and persistence, he has built a body of work dedicated to all aspects of the City of Angels. To accomplish this, he has done what few in this city will—he has walked. He travels on foot, seeking out the images that make up his experiences, from the waves lapping at the pylons of the Santa Monica Pier to the innermost reaches of East L.A. In his five-year photographic journey of the city, McCollister has sought out places that others don’t frequent, and found the faces, culture, society, light and shadow that tell the story of the real L.A.

Though he is relatively new to photography and just starting out in publishing, McCollister shares many characteristics with the great photo documentarians. He is kind and accessible, trusts his instincts and, above all else, is passionate about his craft. His images are a reminder that our world is made up of a vast array of cultures, economies and personalities, and all you need to do to find them is open your front door and put one foot in front of the other.

McCollister’s photography is different from that of the many others who have tried to document the urban sprawl of L.A. because he initially approached it not as a photographer, but as a poet. “Without realizing it, I really was drawing off of the Americana of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and a handful of other writers,” he says, acknowledging a connection to the written word that he didn’t initially find with photography. In fact, when he first moved to L.A., he wasn’t a photographer at all. He had studied liberal arts and literature in college and at Harvard’s extension program, focusing on filtering moments down to sparse language that strikes directly at the heart of an issue. He only picked up a camera for his blog, which he began in order to communicate with his brother and sister-in-law in Taiwan. He started with a Nikon Coolpix, evolved through various other point-and-shoot cameras, and eventually landed on a consumer-level Canon SLR, but he admits that the tool is not as important to him as his intuition and the feel of the image. “I don’t have much, if any, technical expertise regarding cameras,” he freely admits. “It’s just a means to an end. I’m not really honestly that knowledgeable about apertures and focal planes and such. It’s just all content,” he says with a sincerity that is somehow enhanced by his slight Southern accent.

As he continued to take and post images of L.A., McCollister realized that he had found an art form that fascinated him and worked on much the same level as his poetry. “Anything that I was trying to do with a poem I really find much more efficient and get much more positive feedback by photography,” he explains.

Soon after he started photographing, he was hooked. And it wasn’t long before others began to follow his blog posts and comment on his images.

McCollister’s photography quickly transitioned from a series of photos meant to show America to his sister-in-law to his driving creative passion.

Nearly every day, McCollister pounds the pavement. He drives to an area that piques his interest and then abandons his car, preferring to take the time to find individual, personal, relatable images. His ability to walk unencumbered by fear or anxiety in even the most questionable of neighborhoods springs from his time working on the Delta Queen, a steamboat that only recently stopped her decades of journeys up and down the Mississippi River. McCollister used to start out in New Orleans and work all the way up to Pittsburgh, stopping in quaint river towns along the way.  “You can’t get much more heartland than the Mississippi River,” he laughs.

During those experiences, McCollister began to develop his intuition about people. He interacted with everyone, in every situation, and became comfortable with all sorts. “The people I met, both that I worked with and the people in the French Quarter of New Orleans, were much more colorful, much more accessible. If I ever had trepidations about who these people are or were, I sort of got over it. Even now, I’m not as reluctant as other people might be to go into parts of town and to approach people if my intuition says to do it, either for a photograph or just into a neighborhood that might be a little sketchy to other people.”

Even if there are moments when McCollister has decided not to stop and take a picture, his general approach to the people he photographs is open and warm. A couple of cigarettes can work as an icebreaker, so he always carries a pack.  Yet McCollister comes bearing more than just a smoke; he offers respect and conversation. “What I’m really cautious about doing is anything snide or condescending…a lot of them are just lonely.” The resulting images are sometimes odd, sometimes intimidating, and sometimes heartwarming—yet they always seem to emanate a true sense of the subject. In many ways, McCollister’s still-life imagery has that same considered approach, as though he has spent enough time in each place to find the peace amid the chaos.

Still, he cannot simultaneously cover the sprawl of the city and get to know each corner, so his intuition plays a huge part in his ability to capture the city. McCollister trusts his instinct. It might lead him down a side street, encourage him to introduce himself to a stranger, or persuade him to return to a new location at a different time of day. At the same time, though, he is humble, and doesn’t claim that his hunches guarantee a good image. “A place just pops into my head—whether it’s intuition or something—and sometimes I get a wonderful photo and sometimes I don’t.” Regardless of whether the photographs come out as he envisions them, McCollister follows his heart and continues the journey, even when it isn’t as fruitful as he would like. That persistence is his gateway to L.A. There is always another street, another corner just around the bend that needs to be seen. “L.A. is such a wide variety of everything—economically, culturally—it’s like the United Nations,” he explains. “There’s Little Armenia, there’s Little Tokyo, there’s a Filipino community. And all these people have different visual, cultural elements to them.” He adds humbly, “There’s just so much to deal with in L.A. I’m really lucky.”

But luck favors the prepared. As McCollister continued dedicating himself to documenting L.A. over the years, he gained a fan base for his photography as well as his poetry. In early 2010, Brooks Roddan, founder of If Pub, approached McCollister about publishing a book of his poetry. McCollister was torn. “I really had to take a deep breath, because on the one hand, it’s good news, on the other hand, I had to tell him, ‘I really can’t get behind a book of poetry right now. I’m fixated on photography and if a book of poems were to come out, it would be sort of incidental and maybe even intrude on what I really want to do, which these days is to take photographs,” McCollister explains, admitting he knew that getting any book offer was a wonderful opportunity. Yet he couldn’t back down from the work he had become passionate about. But luck was still smiling down on him. “I guess [Brooks] was familiar with the blog and was familiar with the photos and just turned on a dime and said, ‘Okay, let’s do a book of your photos.’ ”

The book, East of West L.A., was published in late 2010 to positive reviews. Since a photo book was a new type of project for Roddan, some of the choices made for the book are uncharacteristic of the genre. While the pages are somewhat thin, and the reproduction of the images is a little blocked up and not nearly as vibrant as the blog images, this makes the book seem like a sort of journal companion—a lovely little slice of L.A. that you can take with you anywhere you go. It couldn’t be more different from the highly produced photo tour books that L.A. offers her visitors; rather, it is a much more helpful, honest and beautiful representation of the city.

McCollister is thrilled with the book. “I guess there is some sort of intersection between the theme and its portability. As a coffee-table book this book would lose something.” He professed that he would love to see a sequel, though he has no idea if that is a possibility. But he is certain that he will have enough images to fill one.

Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography degree from Brooks Institute in 2009. She continues to create fine art images, teach photography and write regular contributions to publications such as Digital Photo Pro, Rangefinder and Photographer’s Forum. Her photographic work can be viewed at