Cosmic Rock


Today our guest interview on CR is the respected photographer Chris Boarts Larson. Out of Richmond,VA Larson is well known in underground music for her excellent photos for many years. Today we discussed many interesting aspects of her history, photography and inspiration.

1.Hey Chris. Tell us a little about your background. Did you grow up in VA and how did you get into photography?

No, I was born and raised in Pennsylvania — State College PA to be exact.  I got into the hardcore punk scene as a young teenager in the mid-80s.  My interest in photography directly correlated to the first shows that I went to.  I took a photography and darkroom class in high school — but also got instruction and support from both of my parents which included building a darkroom at home.  I started my fanzine Slug & Lettuce in 1987.  I was 16 and decided that a zine was my way of contributing to our local punk scene. 

2.Growing up did you have any favorite artists or photographers that inspired you and in what ways?

I was definitely a student of photography from the moment I picked up a camera.  I looked at band photography in zines and looked at magazines and books and studied the history of photography.  I was always interested in documentary and street style photography.  The decisive moment.  Capturing what was in front of me.  Margaret Bourke White, Mary Ellen Mark, Andre Kertez. I went to college and majored in photography at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and have a BFA in Fine Art.  I took photography and art classes at Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, Museum School in Boston, and the Art Institute of Boston. 

3.I know you have spent many years around underground music culture. Are you also a musician, did you play in band as well as follow many with your photography?

Nope - not a musician or a performer.  I’m a behind the scenes person, not a stand on stage person.  Photography was and is my way of documenting what I see and participating in the punk scene and music scene.  I’ve been an avid participant since day one, but as a documenter and archivist.

4.In what ways do you feel photography enriches your life?

I live through my photography.  I see photo stills constantly.  I enjoy composing photos and it’s almost painful if I am unable to do so because I still see the moments and the still images.  It’s also a wonderful way of preserving my experiences and memories.  I have thousands and thousands of photos — of bands, of places I’ve been, of people I have known, of family and friends and bits and pieces of life.  It’s hard to imagine NOT having those moments captured.  I often wonder if I would forget things if I didn’t have the endless archives.  There are a few shows that I did not photograph over the years and I don’t remember them the same way. But likewise many of my childhood memories are also captured in photos.  I can’t imagine a life without photography.

5.Do you feel more interested and inspired with certain themes of your work?

Sure things come and go.  I’ve never stopped photographing bands.  I’ve always had an interest in back alleys and hidden corners.  I love brick and mortar foundations especially when things deteriorate.  I love the way bricks and stone and wood weather and age.  I like timelessness and details.  In more recent years I have become obsessed with photographing trees especially vines and roots that grow out of old foundations and unexpected places.  I like to capture a detail that becomes something new.  When I was photographing the Lower East Side of NYC and the squats I was totally inspired and obsessed and that became a project of transformation.  When I started to search for old abandoned farm houses and barns in rural parts of the country that also became an inspiration and obsession.  Now I can be just as stoked with  tree roots in a parking lot or a majestic 500 year old tree.  I still get totally inspired by bricks and weather wood, peeling paint, rusted metal, crumbling stones, new sprouts of trees, a nice linear design, finding a transformative detail.  And of course there is nothing like an energetic dynamic band that I love when they are playing in front of me.

6.I have seen many of your music photos over the years, great work. I also saw some still life style nature photos that you took that are very cool, can you tell us about your work in that area?

Yes, that is the other side.  I’ve always been sort of obsessed with urban and rural decay — old weathered barns, peeling paint, rusted metal, burnt up and crumbling buildings.  I also love nature — trees, flowers, mountains and the organic natural world.  When the two come together I’m in perfect heaven.  A weedy tree growing out of an old shack, colorful flowers in front of a dilapidated building.  I like the contrast and the juxtaposition.  Trees often capture all of that in one — peeling bark, gnarled roots, and new green growing leaves.  I’m completely obsessed with trees.  There is something about the twisted and gnarled root and vines that endlessly fascinate me.  For the last few years (almost 10) I’ve been doing a project photographing trees — it started with instagram — looking at trees with a new perspective — focusing on the details and turning the frame into more than just a tree.  I’m still working that and there are trees everywhere and they all have stories to tell.

7.Are there certain times or day or environments you feel most inspired or creative with your photography?

It all depends.  I’m definitely very affected by light.  That is photography after all.  So anything dramatic or dynamic will speak to me.  Sun through trees, sunsets, moon light, shadows, light patterns, stage lights or spot lights, are all going to move me.  Environments — wild nature, urban decay, peeled layers of hidden things, altered perspectives.  I can find amazing quality of light at any time of day.  Early morning or dusk can be more alluring, yet sun through trees at mid day can be stunning.  Likewise a street light, or moonlight at night can be just as amazing.  At this point, inspiration can hit at any point and I will stop, pull my phone out and snap away, and my son can attest to just how annoying my inspiration can be. (smile).

8.In this digital era of people with cell phones for quick photos and compact equipment do you use more old school gear or prefer to stay up with the latest?

I’m not a tech person.  I am pretty lo-fi and like to stick with what works, rather than trying new gadgets.  I like consistency more than experimentation.  That said — I no longer shoot film (though I was a long hold out).  I now use a SLR digital camera and that is especially wonderful for band photography.  Knowing what works and what results I’m getting on the spot enables me to really get what I want in the moment.  Plus — film, processing, and printing old school photos was/IS expensive.  Being able to shoot 10x as much digitally for no cost is amazing.  I also love my iPhone — it takes amazing photos and I LOVE having the ability to snap a photo literally any and all the time.  It’s a life changer and one progression that I would not go back on.  I miss the magic of the darkroom, but I do not miss the chemicals (or the expense).

9.Any news or cool projects in the works?

This year Vans licensed one of my photos of the Lunachicks to use in a retro ad campaign.  The photo was taken at CBGBs in 1990 and featured the guitarist Gina.  The photo was used in the NYC subway and on the side of a few buildings in Williamsburg Brooklyn.  That was pretty amazing.  I didn’t get to see any of it in person, but a lot of people took photos.  It was really exciting.  The Avail reunion shows had also had me digging through my archives - pulling up photos of them from 20 years ago — both life and promo band shots that I did for their Over the James album.  A few of those have been used here and there in conjunction with the promotion of the shows and a couple are being used on Avail t-shirts.  All very exciting.  As to new projects…. nothing else on the table right now.  But I’m always looking to do new things and always hoping to manage to get together a book of my photos.

10.In what ways do other art forms like music and film inspire your photography?

Considering that I photograph a lot of bands, in that way, music inspires me.  I try to capture the energy of the music and the moments that I feel.  There are definitely some very artistic and creative aspects of film in movies and tv that sometimes inspire me - usually montage or depth of field or perspective things that make me see a single image and want to create a single image.


11.Any favorite books or films?

Absolutely, but it’s hard to narrow things down to short lists of favorites.  I am an obsessive book lover and avid reader.  Currently I’ve been on a Scandic-Crime novel binge — working my way through all of Jo Nesbo’s books.  I love the Steig Larsson “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” series and the historical fiction of Erik Larson (and not just because those are the names of both my husband and son!).  Marion Zimmer Bradley and her Darkover books and the Mists of Avalon are long time favorites.  I like historical fiction that teaches me about rad women who did amazing things or gives me a new perspective.  I have always liked books about downtrodden people overcoming adversity.  I prefer fiction and a story that hooks me and keeps me unable to turn away.

I love going to the movies.  I love the whole process.  As a teen I worked in a movie theater.  I don’t feel like I keep up with current movies and while I love movies and films — I don’t have any films or directors or artist that I particularly love or follow. 

12.What is one life skill you think everyone should have?

Communication.  Being able to talk to people and express yourself. Embracing the philosophy of Doing-It-Yourself.  Everyone should feel empowered to be able to act and do things themselves.  Sometimes we have to reach out for help to learn how to do said task.  But the drive to want to learn and do is key.

13.I had a friend who photographed the same street scene locations every day for many years in a historic journey theme. It was very interesting to watch his project unfold. Do you have any certain singular original, personal projects like that which stand out in your photo history?

That is such a cool idea.  I enjoy seeing progression series like that.  I’ve seen projects where people do portraits of themselves every day that are fascinating.  I can’t say that I have ever done that.  I’ve had short bursts of that sort of thing — trying to recreate a photo with a person and a place either on a regular basis or sometimes on a one-off.  I recently saw a similar thing where a photographer tried to find people they had photographed years ago and put them into the same place and pose today.  All very inspiring - but nothing I can claim as my own.  I will always try to revisit a tree or a building or a place though if I have the opportunity and in doing so I have a few places spots with that legacy.

14.What other creative pursuits do you have? Painting, writing, music?

I’m a visual artist.  Occasionally I will dabble with painting or collage and I’m interested in just about all arts and crafts — I like making things.  I’m not a musician or a performer or a speaker.  I’m a watcher, an observer, a documenter.  I have been a writer while doing the zine, but even then I never really considered myself a writer.  I really want to put more time into creating art out of books — repurposing old books - painting or collaging and otherwise turning old books into new art.  I’d also like to get into making my own bindings for books.  I spend a lot of time with books — I work with the Friends of the Richmond Public Library on huge booksales.  I spend most of my free time sorting and organizing boxes and bags donated books and preparing them for resale.  It’s like a treasure hunt and really a lot of fun.  Stacking and sorting and surrounding myself with books.

15.Do you have any photography goals you look forward to reaching (photos in a certain place, artist, events etc.) after all your experience so far?

I’ve been trying to publish a book of my photos for so long I don’t like to talk about it that much.  It’s something I just need to do.  I’d like to do a book of all the photography that was in Slug & Lettuce.  I’d like to do a photo book about NYC in the early 90s — that would cover the bands and punk scene but also the lower east side, the squats and the time.  At this point I could also do a book that just focused on the last 20 years in Richmond.  Or I could do one that is just trees or just instagram trees.  I love organizing into collections and book ideas and series in that way.  Hopefully at least one if not all of these projects will come to be.  In the meantime I just want to keep pushing myself to use my camera in new ways and learn to keep up with digital technology.  I see the world in single frames, so I find continual inspiration for taking photos.  I would like to do a 20 years of Richmond photo exhibit with all the bands I’ve photographed in Richmond and the changing streets of RVA and coordinate a few live shows to go with it of some of my favorite bands.  I did do a few small installments of band photos from RVA - so next up would be trying to pull together a bigger all encompassing show.


Thanks for the interview Chris, keep us updated on your news – G



Chris Boarts Larson (photographer)