Sam Thompson has been a member of AS220 Media Arts, and a member and instructor at the Paul Krot Community Darkroom for over 12 years now. He’s having his first gallery show ever on Saturday, November 5th at the AS220 Main Gallery! We sat down with him over beers to pick his brain about a variety of subjects.
So please introduce yourself, for the record.
I am Sam Thompson. From the AS220 photo department. From Attleboro, Massachusetts. Most places in southeastern Massachusetts. I’ve never strayed far from that.
How did you first encounter AS220?
My first experience with AS220 was, probably, when as a kid coming to Sunday hardcore shows. Back then, the liquor stores were closed on Sunday, and I wasn’t old enough to drink in bars, so my friends and I would grab whatever beers we could get, and throw them in a box, and come down and see, like, uh, like Minor Threat tribute bands, and stuff like that. It was just a great way to spend a morning with a shattering hangover, while having people screaming at you. That was Richmond Street, when they were upstairs from the Rocket.
Did you go to shows at The Rocket?
Oh, yeah, all the time! I was mysteriously old enough to drink in the Rocket, but not in the old man bars that were open on Sunday morning.
Do you recall what was the first show, or anything like that, or any early like experience that stood out to you here?
At AS220? Those were all pretty forgettable bands. I’m sure it was an important time in their lives, you know. But it was all kids. It was all high school kids, and stuff like that. There was … I don’t remember seeing anybody memorable. I used to go to the Temporary Autonomous Zone parties…were those sponsored by that commie bookstore down the street?
Those were thrown by Newspeak.
Yeah, Newspeak! That’s it! Oh, my god, I loved that place. Pre-Internet, so, if you wanted to find weirdness, you really had to look for it, and you had to go to places like Newspeak, and there was another one that I’m also forgetting the name of — or maybe that was just the second location of Newspeak. All the record stores on Thayer Street, like that. You had to find addresses on the back of the weird Answer Me! magazine, and stuff like that, that you were buying, send away for catalogs, and then get all your weirdness through the catalogs.
This is grumpy old man complaining, I guess, but I really do miss all those books, and magazines, and, well, you remember, like, what work it was, when you had to stay up all night, once a week for a chance to see the video for Big Electric Cat, or something like that. Like, that was amazing. Or Suicide or seeing Blondie on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, or, it was — I saw Fear on Saturday Night Live when I was in second grade, and it scared the shit out of me. But, yeah, I was in second grade. My parents were divorced. Nobody cared what I was doing. I just stayed up all night and watched SNL and Don Kirshner. It was like my own little secret garden. Then I would come into school the next day, and nobody understood what I was talking about. Maybe that’s where my outsider status began, I don’t know.
So, at what point did your interest in photography develop?
That was around the same time, actually. SNL, the original cast left, and it was just a repeat every week, it seemed like, for a year, or something like that — they just kept repeating — usually my go-to was the Creature Feature on Channel 56, but I mostly just liked Kaiju movies, you know. I wasn’t really into any of the Hammer films back then. So, if it was Dracula, Son of Dracula, whatever, I’d start flipping the dial, and it landed on Channel 38, and back then, when the first cable boxes were coming out, the VHF stations were, were trying to find a way to compete, and what TV 38 would do, was, they would run arthouse movies uncut late at night, when they could get away with a little bit of profanity and nudity, and I landed on what I later found out was the film Blow Up. It’s this great swinging 60s thing, this awesome photographer is just living this playboy lifestyle, and doesn’t give a shit about anybody…and winds up solving a murder via photography.
I just remember watching when that piece of paper, he enlarged onto a piece of paper, and then the piece of paper slid into the developer, and the image appeared, and I was just hooked immediately, as, like — I had to get into this. It just looked like magic. So I — at the time, in the summer back then, I went to a program called the Charles River Camp for the Performing Arts. Something like that. It’s like a rich kid’s summer camp. But my grandparents were footing the bill, and they had a photography program, and it was not much more than a closet, and it was really hot, and really sweaty, and it was packed with kids all the time. But I think just the stink of the dark room, you know, got on me, and never completely left. After that, I didn’t have access, I did that for a few years, and then I didn’t have access to a dark room, and I was never really in a place where I could afford to get into it, like, to build my own dark room, until digital photography came around, and pretty much decimated the market for analog photography equipment, and then I started developing my own film at home. And that proved to be kind of a drag.
Did you follow AS220 as it progressed, were you around when the darkroom started?
I was not. I was off in my 20s, trying to make money like a fool, wasting my time going to work every day. I would occasionally drop in for a show, if there was something really big. I can’t remember too many bands I saw during that period. I mean, I’d just drop in once every couple of years. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is the only band I can clearly remember from that period. And then, I think I was probably, maybe, like, 12 years ago, or something like that, I was — I was just looking for something to do — the kids are getting bigger, and I could get out of the house more. And that’s when I took a photography class, which. The first one I took was taught by Scott Alario, and I think I took the — that was the Intro to Darkroom. And then the second — the intermediate class that he taught, and then I took Danny Floyd’s Intro to Alt Processes. He had one for cyanotype, and Van Dyke Brown, and then another one for gum bichromate.
So, you’ve told me recently that you’re considering getting out of film, and shooting digital.
I think, really, the most compelling reason, now that the quality of images is comparable, is dust and scratches. Every final print I make, never mind all the sheets of paper it took me to get there, and all the hours in the darkroom, but then all the hours I’m going to spend spotting it, it can be a real challenge, and it’s not my favorite thing to do. I don’t think it’s anybody’s favorite thing to do, because it’s so easy to screw up. And also, honestly, all the cameras that we’re working with are so old, and so worn out. There’s dust, and flecks of, like, the black paint that’s inside the camera — it’s everywhere, it’s all the time. Every time I use a camera, I have to clean the lens. Every time I use an enlarger, I have to take the lens out and inspect it. I’ve ruined so much work because it was just a fleck of crap inside some — especially using a twin lens reflex camera, because you’re not actually looking through the lens that’s making the image, like you are with an SLR, so I wound up shooting ten rolls of film with a big black fleck of crap right on that lens, and it’s, like, one of these portraits that I’m doing now, and it landed right in the center of the model’s forehead. Yeah. I can’t take it anymore. I know people dedicated their entire lives to doing it this way, when they didn’t have any choice, but, now I have a choice.
Is this your first show?
It is, yeah. It just felt like I was creating these images for years, and I had to stop and ask myself: “why am I creating these?” I don’t have room in my home to hang them on the walls, certainly. I put a little bit of stuff online, but I was never happy about that. It never really made me feel good. I wasn’t sure why I was putting it online. And then you’re also just part of this community, and you’re looking at all your friends’ work, and all your friends are really supportive of your work, and would probably like to see it at some point. So I just decided it was time. The other thing was, is deciding when your work is good enough to show. I was at a house party once, and I was talking to a young woman who had graduated from RISD a few years earlier, and she was a painter, and she was going to have her first show, and I was telling her, you know, “I’d love to put together a show, but it’s like, every time I make a new print, I look at my last print, and I’m, like, ‘Jesus, that’s crap. I can never show that to anybody.'” And she just informed me what should have been obvious, and what many people corroborated after I told them this story, is that every artist feels that way, and you should feel that way, because if your new work doesn’t make your last work look like crap, you didn’t learn anything.
How did you go from shooting your kids, or graveyards, to working with models – approaching people?
When you’re in a place like AS220, there’s no shortage of people who have done modeling, and who are perfectly comfortable in their own weird skin. There’s tons of extroverts around here, and it’s just — It’s not so much you have to have a sixth sense for who’s going to say yes. It’s just, like, you have to keep asking until they say “no”, and the hardest part is asking and not being a creep, or not coming off as a creep, and I don’t think it’s something I’ve always managed to do. Honestly, I started this project — I got hauled into the AS220 office in front of Bert, and Aaron, and somebody else I forget, and I had to prove that the model I’d been using was over 18, and not a student. “Here she is. She’s 21 years old.” I mean, that scared the shit out of me. But then, on the other hand, I felt like, like, “Wow! I’m on to something. If people are, like, actively trying to torpedo my mark, I must be doing something right.”
And then the project just wrapped up. Three weeks ago, I was talking to this young woman on the street, who I’d met out on the sidewalk about an idea for a photo, and there was just some guy listening to us talk, and all of a sudden he flipped out on me, and it turned out it was her boyfriend, and he wanted to fucking kill me. So the project begins with me being accused of being a pedophile, and ends with some jealous boyfriend trying to murder me, you know? So, yeah. It makes you think, like — OK. At first I’m, like: “Yeah! Fuck the man!” And then, I’m saying “Why am I doing this? [laughter] I’m going to get murdered, sooner or later.” But it does feel good, in a sense. If you could just provoke any kind of an emotional response, it’s actually pretty good.
Do you have a title for your show?
Yeah. The show’s called One Last Caress and that is —
Is that a Misfits reference?
It is a Misfit’s reference. It’s a very vulgar Misfits song. The song itself has nothing to do with it. I think I was just trying to think of a title one day, and that came on my shuffle, and I was, like, “Oh! Yeah! One Last Caress!” It means something on two levels. It’s: This is my farewell to film, basically. So this is like my love letter to film, which I love dearly, but it’s just not working out. [laughter] It’s like, “It’s not you. It’s me.” The other thing is, just because of the models I’ve been using for the past two years — they’re all friends of mine, or people have been really important in my life, in one way or another, and the nature of Providence, and people in their 20s being what it is, a lot of them have moved on, and I look at these images, and I miss a lot of them terribly. This is also just kind of my love letter to them. So, here’s that thing that we had together. Here’s that two hours we spent in the studio that Saturday night, and then we went out, and got a bunch of drinks afterwards, and had a ball. I’ve got a great memory attached to every one of those photos. Even the ones who aren’t speaking to me anymore, because it just ended badly. That’s happened a couple of times, too, but that’s the nature of human relationships, I suppose. They’ve all inspired me, in one way or another, and it’s because of AS220 that I am surrounded by people like this all the time, and there’s always new people coming through, and you’re always discovering a new person, and what they are contributing. It’s just a really fantastic, fertile, environment to be a part of, and I never would have done this without AS220, basically.