Self Portrait

Tobin Yelland: Photos of Three People Throughout Time


Words by Dave Carnie, photos by Tobin Yelland

“I wanted to focus on three people that I have photographs of over a long period of time,” Tobin said, “and I’m one of those people because I shot a lot of self-portraits… and then that’s it. Basically.”

And then that’s it. Basically.

We’ll talk about Samuel Beckett in a moment because there is so much Tobin said in this interview that reminds me of Beckett. For one, that reads like a Beckett sentence to me: And then that’s it. Basically. In a sense he’s right. We really don’t need to go on from here. These are photos. They are photos of three people. One of them is the photographer.

The collection was displayed at Seeing Things Gallery in San Jose. You can stop reading here and just look at the photos. And that’s it. Basically. No need to go on. But you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Because, for those of us who like to talk about art, there is much to talk about when it comes to the photography of Tobin Yelland. So we shall go on.

I once lived with Tobin in San Francisco. I developed film and printed in his darkroom with him. I’m familiar with his mannerisms and the way he talks. He talks in short bursts, but rapidly… like the French writer Louis- Ferdinand Celine… he writes from the streets… in little bursts… Celine called it his “little music”… he separated everything with ellipses… which have gone out of fashion today, but I’ve always thought they were an accurate portrayal of… I don’t know… daily speech on paper… I haven’t thought about Celine in a while… but he comes to mind as I transcribe this interview with Tobin. Tobin talks like Celine writes. His photographs, also, are kind of like Celine, but for the eyes… little images of little moments… little music, the French man called it, little music.

Tobin Yelland.

“I thought the self-portraits,” I said, “kind of looked like pictures that were taken by someone who wanted to take pictures, but had nothing to take pictures of. Like, it was the middle of the night, and you were itching to take pictures of something, anything, but there was nothing around except yourself.” I’ve found myself in that situation before. Like when you get a new camera and you’re trying to figure out how to work the damn thing, you have to take pictures of “some thing”. It’s always in those instances that there is “no thing” of interest around.

“You know, that’s a part of it,” Tobin said, “but it goes deeper than that. Maybe I’m always in my head? Also as an artist… or a photographer… I’m working more when I’m going through something challenging in my life. And I feel like a lot of those self-portraits were taken in the middle of some kind of big transition… Maybe I’m just using my camera to help me kind of navigate through obstacles. So when I look at those photographs, I’m like, ‘Oh, that was when I was 18 and trying to figure out a  job… and it was really difficult… and figuring out how to pay bills for the first time… and that was super difficult… so I was taking self-portraits.’’

I found it interesting that Tobin went outside of himself to look into himself. As if he’s trying to see himself from someone else’s perspective… from “The Other’s” perspective. “In one of the photographs,” Tobin continued, “I’m looking into a mirror… and it was the first time I had ever taken acid… and I’m looking into this mirror trying to take a picture of my pupils being super dilated. I took that because I wanted to record it… I wanted to have this record of what it was like from that… I totally have memories from that morning… just like staying up all night and watching the sun come up and being kind of loopy and having these really weird words in my head, like Jabberwocky, and just being like, ‘What am I doing? I’m by myself! And I’m going to photograph myself in the mirror.’’’

Chris Johanson.

“The Unhappy Consciousness itself is the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its essential nature.”—Hegel I don’t profess to understand that quote, or anything that Hegel wrote for that matter, but I’ve always been fascinated by his work. If I can paraphrase what I do know, Hegel (as well as Kant) wrote that individuals become aware of selves through the eyes of another. Self-consciousness, then, is a social process that involves identification with another consciousness, a taking on of another’s perspective to obtain a self-image. Consciousness of self is always consciousness of The Other. Or something. The camera didn’t yet exist in Hegel’s time, but I would imagine he would agree when I say that Tobin wasn’t so much taking self-portraits, as I had originally assumed, but rather practising philosophy. Haha! Philosophy! Nerd.

“Also,” Tobin said, “when I was 18, I started to lose my hair. It was pretty traumatic… I’m 18… I’m trying to go on dates… and get a girlfriend… and look good… and so losing my hair was a big transition for me. I was really self-conscious. My friends were all making fun of me about it… fucking dicks… so there’s that part of being really self-conscious about it till when I was about 23, I just decided to shave my head… and just be like, ‘Fuck it, I shave my head now…’ So there was this long period where I wore a hat all the time… but then when I’m hanging out in my room, I’m not wearing a hat, and I’m like, ‘What do I look like?’ So I’m taking photographs of myself with different levels of hair. It’s just like: this is what I look like… but because I’m not letting anyone else see this… because my friends are making fun of me… and this is a self-portrait because I wanted to record what I looked like.”

I’m fascinated by this admission. I wanted to continue talking about bald spots, but Tobin, always the gentleman, or perhaps tired of discussing bald spots, steered the focus of the conversation on to the other two people in this three people exhibition. “The other photographs in the show are of two friends,” Tobin said. “I feel like part of my work is photographing the same people over a long period of time… just photographing people and their changes… like Tom Schmidt (aka Earl Parker)… he’s been so many different people during the 20-plus years I’ve known him. It’s really cool looking back at Tom when he was burning cars and just doing the craziest stuff. And that’s Tom when he got the advance from Spike Jonze’s first movie and blew it all on a camera.” “Burning cars?” I said. “I don’t really think of Tom as being an aggressive person, but he looks capable of violence in a couple of these.”

Tom Schmidt.

“You think so?” Tobin asked.

“Yeah. The first time I saw these I didn’t recognise it as Tom. He looks like a sketchy, gnarly dude.”

“I think I took that picture because it’s so opposite of who Tom is,” Tobin said. “Tom is a very shy, introverted, intellectual kind of person. But I know that I was hanging out with Tom and Vivian Oh, and we went to Photo Supply to get some paper or whatever… and we were just playing around… and so I took a photo… then I told Vivian, like, ‘Alright, put your arms around his neck…’ and he just went into this kind of actor face… like grrrr… very dramatic… Tom has a lot of characters inside of him… all the characters he dreams up when he writes… he’s so funny, man… he’s such a goofball… really fun to photograph.”

“Those photos of Tom on the floor, surrounded by the mess, that’s total Tom to me,” I said. “He always seemed to be on the floor working on a lot of things at the same time.”

“I don’t know if we were making stuff together or what,” Tobin said, “but I remember when he’d come up and visit me in San Francisco he’d get into his art mode and get canvases and paint and make stuff… and he was always writing… always writing… he was filling up every single moment of time with, ‘I’m writing this thing,’ or ‘I’m making this painting,’ or ‘I’m trying to have this new experience and go get lost…’ He’d go hang out with Chris Johanson and do speed and get lost in San Francisco and then write about the experience later.”

Chris Johanson.

Tom was “enamoured”, as Tobin said, with Chris Johanson. (“Also Julien Stranger,” Tobin added.) I suppose we all were. We were a loose-knit group back then in San Francisco. Anti Hero skateboards had recently been born. We were all drinking, skating, doing speed, and making art, but Chris’ talent stood out. I had known Chris while growing up skating with him in San Jose. His zine Karmaboarder was a huge influence on me. It was so crude and raw, yet smart and sophisticated. And then when Chris moved to San Francisco, all those concepts he was dabbling within his zine became Art, with a capital A… or maybe he’d prefer a little a… I don’t know. “I first met Chris in the early 90s just going to art shows that he did in San Francisco at Figure 5 Gallery,” Tobin remembers. “And we would hang out together, and I really liked how he found all the wood for his paintings.”

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