Monday, January 30, 2012

Interview Series #9: Elizabeth Gordon-Tennant

Elizabeth Gordon-Tennant, or simply Beth to me, may have a limited palette when it comes to color, but her photographs never skimp on substance. It seems like Beth has been wearing black since birth, and her passion for fashion probably started then too. She earned her degree at Sarah Lawrence College (where we met, and even lived together), concentrating on costume history and visual art while interning for high-end fashion designers downtown. A year in Florence meant admiring art, architecture, and lifestyle all while further honing her design skills. She's been working in the fashion industry now for ten years: beginning with those hectic intern days and slowly but steadily moving up through the design world. 

Merging her long-term love of art and fashion with a newer love of photography, Beth's been on a roll this past year, snapping photos left and right. But she plays the game differently than most: she almost exclusively takes pictures with her blackberry cell phone, which comes as a surprise to many viewers. She's already had her work featured in an NYC gallery as part of Carriage Trade's Social Photography exhibition, and she's currently preparing her first solo show, which she's planning with the help of a few college pals and her own artistic intuition. Beth may (admittedly) be one tough bitch, but that didn't stop me from peering behind the lens to understand her latest creations.
Quick Look
Birthday: January 16
Living in: Brooklyn Heights, New York
Originally from: Long Island, New York

No-Alternative: Let's talk about your photographs. How did you begin taking them and what was the initial spark of inspiration?
Elizabeth Gordon-Tennant: It started kind of as a joke one afternoon. I was just fooling around and taking pictures on my blackberry of coworkers. Then, over the course of doing that, people just connected with them. A few of my colleagues approached me and told me I had an eye for it, which I found kind of funny because I never studied photography, so I replied, “Oh come on, I’m just fucking around on my blackberry!”

What sort of things capture your eye or attention? And what is the aesthetic you’re most attracted to?

Initially I was just taking pictures of people in my environment. Obviously I have a genuine love and interest in fashion: that’s my typical environment at this point, so a lot of the photos do focus on fashion. But I don’t want to be limited to that, I think it’s just based on my surroundings.

There is definitely a certain anonymous element to it…honestly I think that’s something that transcends photography. What interests me in general, and in the art I do, is the idea of the individual. For example, by not capturing a face and, rather, focusing on someone’s shoes, you can still grasp the identity. What they’re wearing, how they choose to present themselves, and the environment call tell you a lot about who that person is without it being so obvious…which I like.

How many of your photos are purposefully set up or manipulated by you, and how many are chance observations? Or does a blending of the two occur?

I would say the majority are taken by chance. I’ve been playing a bit with conceptualizing and staging certain photos but for most of them it’s an organic process. People who see my photographs do think they’re staged, but usually they just happen. I’m in a certain place, surrounded by certain people whom I find interesting and cool, so it’s a really natural thing. We’re just hanging out and I just happen to be documenting it.

Sometimes people think it’s this huge production and it’s not. And I like it that way. I’ve earned a certain level of trust with people because, afterall, I’m not gonna make anyone look busted (laughs).

Do you think that taking your photos with a phone has something to do with that level of trust?


Would you consider using an actual camera?

I’ve been asked, and I have on occasion…I usually take a camera with me when there’s a really crazy event that I’m going to. I will start off with the camera, but then I always end up going back to the blackberry. People put on a persona when you have a camera and I’m not interested in that. I’d rather just observe. It can be intimidating to have a camera pointed at your face. But that’s the most beautiful thing about my process…that people forget they're having their picture taken.

What specifically inspires you as an artist and as a person?

Fashion, of course, but more so a sense of style…you can have style wearing a paper bag; it’s all about who you are. And definitely music. For me, music evokes feeling, and  I love it because it’s something that I can’t do myself. I have no idea how it’s done. I can live without a TV, but I can’t live without music.

How does music relate to the photos you’ve been taking?

I think my photos evoke certain feelings too. To me, all the photos are minimalist, beautiful, yet kind of fucked up. And there’s a certain mood that’s created with that. Music can create the same thing…the music I enjoy is post-punk and electronic: simple, beautiful, and fucked up.

Your solo photography event is taking place on February 6th here in New York. Any hopes or expectations you’d like to share?

Ultimately I want it to be very much a celebration of the people and places that I’ve photographed, but I also want it to be identifiable as me and my work. I want to people to come and go, “That was Elizabeth.”

I know this photography exhibit doesn’t have a title or a directly implied theme, but I was wondering if you thought there was any one theme to be found within the work you’ll be presenting.

I don’t give a fuck, to be honest. The event is supposed to be kind of a love letter to the people I have photographed. That’s what it is. I had someone ask me too if there was a theme or what the bigger picture is in all of this. Someone else answered for me: "She’s just documenting her life." And they were right…fashion is part of my life. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by creative people, so it’s just natural to be inspired by them.

The large majority of your photos, and all of the ones that will be displayed at the event, are black and white. Do you literally see images in black and white when you take them, and do you think you’ll ever depart from this stylistic choice?

I wouldn't say it's how I see it, but perhaps it's how I would like to. I don’t think I’ll depart from black and white any time soon. A lot of the photos, or any of the series, tend to play out like a diary. They're supposed to tell a story, essentially. People do say, when they see the photos as a series, along with the words I use to title them, that they feel like they see them the way I see them.

Let's switch gears and discuss your visual art. What sort of artwork have you been working on in the past few years? And why is art, in and of itself, so important to you as a person?

When I was in Florence, I concentrated on painting. My art has always been focused on a fashion element, but then I’ve also done portraiture for quite some time. And there was a point when I'd sit on the floor and paint faces for hours. For me, my interest in clothing and portraiture are aligned in the sense that, again, it’s about this idea of the individual and who they are.

In general, art is something I have to do for myself. You have something in your head and you can't rest until it's created.

And how does painting differ from photography, for you? Or are they really not so different?
In terms of art as a process, you feel something that has to come out on the page. And the photography is different because if I see something that’s cool and I miss taking the picture, I feel like it should have been a picture and I lost the moment. So you feel cheated, like, “Oh fuck the train doors closed two seconds before I could take my blackberry out!”

Fine art, for me, is more controlled, whereas the photography is more instantaneous. I don’t have any control if someone throws their hair a certain way or what someone’s wearing or if the train doors close…you either get it or you don’t, it is what it is, and it’s a 2.5 second thing. But if I need to paint one day…I could be painting for three hours and then hate it at the end, but I still always get to paint it.

You have your feet in two seemingly different worlds --- the corporate world and the artsy world. Do you have any advice for people who also straddle these two worlds?

Hey, everyone has to earn a buck at the end of the day, and the most important thing is to stay true to who you are in the process. I have been fortunate to work for some amazing places.

When it comes to art or fashion, do you have a personal motto of any kind? Or something that you highly believe in, no matter the trend, year, or circumstance?

I’ve written it a lot of places: You were born an original, don’t die a copy (John Mason).

(all photos by e.gordon-tennant)

Friday, January 27, 2012


I made it out of 27 alive! Goodbye golden year, hello 28. Here is my inspiration for the day:

And tonight, Pyramid Club on Avenue A...a place where the woman pictured above 
partied and performed in the '80s. Authenticity. 


I channeled her using clothes I already own and wear. I call this look: early-'80s-Madonna-Amy. Though the only authentically '80s (and possible early '90s) thing I am wearing are my old snap bracelets. And I'm not wearing my pink fingerless lace gloves in this photo! 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

José González's Covers

Sometimes you discover an artist and cannot believe they haven't been with you for the past few years. Such is the case with José González, whose music would have perfectly suited many personal moments since he released his debut LP, Veneer, in 2003 (though it didn't come stateside until a few years after).

And, sometimes you become so familiar with a particular song that you cannot believe it when you discover it's a cover...or, a song you love takes on an entirely different meaning when placed in the hands and voice of another musician. Therein lies some of José González's magic (side-note, he also sings for the band Junip, though it's his Elliott Smith-esque solo work that really strikes something deep). Somehow, José -- who is Argentinian but grew up in Sweden -- can take electronica tunes and soften their sharp edges, while still retaining their potency. On Veneer, he transformed fellow Swedish band The Knife's oh-so catchy "Heartbeats," and on his second solo album, In Our Nature, he took on Massive Attack's most well-known tune: the moody and sensual "Teardrop."

I am already a bit obsessed with good cover songs, which are actually pretty hard to come by, and I only wish I'd known José González when I made this list of best covers in 2010. The wonderful thing about his versions of "Heartbeats" and "Teardrop" is that they are in no way comparable to the originals, so both versions can exist separately, in harmony. It's as if he swallowed these songs, digested them for awhile, and then spat them out acoustic-style with parts of his musical soul firmly attached. And that voice...oh what a voice.

Another new discovery is José's song "Down the Line" from In Our Nature...a song which I had actually attributed to The Gutter Twins, as it appears on their first album, Adorata. But how wrong I was! Here, The Gutter Twins covered José, and while they certainly worked their own hard-rock magic on the track, the original version wins the beauty contest.

So now, compare...and then do the same with "Teardrop":


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The West Memphis Three.

One of the best things about this past summer was the release of The West Memphis Three after nearly two decades in prison (and, for Damien, on deathrow). If you don't know the story, I suggest you look at the Free the West Memphis Three website and watch both Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, which gives in-depth looks at the trials of the three teenage boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 

When the directors set out to make the original Paradise Lost, they admit to having believed that the teens were guilty of slaughtering three eight-year-old boys. The whole town believed that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley had performed a Satanic ritual that resulted in the deaths of the three little boys. At the time of the murders in 1993, the accused were 18, 16, and 17 respectively and had been known to "wear black" and "listen to Metallica." As Berlinger and Sinofsky began documenting the case, they soon realized that not only were the accused completely (and pretty obviously) innocent, but that the town was conducting a modern-day witch hunt, right out in the open. People suspected and downright hated the West Memphis Three simply because they stood out in a crowd...especially intelligent and soft-spoken Damien, who was sentenced to die when all three were found guilty of murder. 

So-called "experts" testified that Damien worshiped the devil, based on books they found in his room, his long dark hair and dark clothes, and his interest in Wicca (which, incidentally, doesn't even believe in Satan). The guys were found guilty on almost no substantial evidence...not a single fingerprint, footprint, weapon, soiled clothes, or drop of blood, let alone DNA or, hey, any kind of valid motive. The police also contaminated the crime scene, performed shoddy autopsies, and didn't look into any other leads (even when there was a man bleeding, muddy, and dazed in a nearby bathroom on the night of the killings). 

The most the lawyers had to work with for their convictions was a false confession from Jessie (who has an IQ of only 72) after 12 hours of questioning without the presence of a lawyer or family member (despite being a minor), faulty "witnesses" who said they heard Damien admit to the crime but didn't accurately remember anything else, and the sheer fact that the boys were "freaks" in their backwards Bible Belt town. "Just look at them!" one woman said when asked if she thought they did it. 

The WM3's situation seemed dismal, brought on by outright scapegoating and fear (Damien made a very good point when he said that people would rather believe that a Satanic cult killed kids than a parent of one of the children -- which, in this case, began to seem more and more likely). They couldn't believe they'd been proven guilty at all! 

But luckily for them, the film directors only gained momentum in their coverage, and the debut of Paradise Lost caused quite a stir. It's safe to say that very few people would have known about the WM3 at all if not for this documentary and the subsequent one in 2000. Within this time, the 'Free the West Memphis Three' group started up. They tried to work with lawyers and experts to appeal the case, and also tried to get the general public to understand the larger consequences of what had happened. After all, if something like this could happen to these boys, it might happen to anyone who doesn't fit the mold and doesn't have the power to appropriately "fight back."

This, naturally, led me to wonder about myself as a teen. What if I was caught up in some kind of situation, unfairly blamed because I was "weird" and "misunderstood" and had some troubles, and then cops searched my teenage bedroom and presented what they found to a jury of Southern Christians with closed minds? Would they have labeled me as "Satanic?" And even if I was, would that automatically make me a murderer? And not only a murderer, but a murderer of little kids? What would they think of the following objects, all found in my bedroom:

-Ouija board under my bed (with my full name written on the back in permanent marker)
-CDs/cassettes by Marilyn Manson, books about Marilyn Manson, a Marilyn Manson winter hat
-pictures and posters of dead musicians and a Rage Against the Machine poster of nuns with guns
-books about Charles Manson, and his CD to boot
-a long black coat
-combat boots
-books about astrology, numerology, serial killers, and the occult
-dark lyrics written all over things
-notebooks filled with dark poetry and drawings
-moth wings in a box (no lie)
-horror films 

Yeah, I'd probably have been screwed. Actually, Columbine happened during the second semester of my freshman year in high school, and I remember getting a few odd looks now and then when I was decked in Manson gear, black coat, and Docs. In my opinion, being able to identify with the WM3 is one of the things that got so many people invested in trying to help them. I myself purchased a 'Free the WM3' T-shirt and sticker several years ago. But whether or not you can identify with them (or whether or not they even identify with their former selves), no one should be convicted for a crime without any viable evidence and solely on the basis of prejudice, unfairness, legal loopholes, and hearsay. I think that's pretty much a no-brainer.

So, all of this being said, I am more than excited for the world premier of Paradise Lost 3, which airs on HBO tomorrow at 9pm. And if anyone needs proof of how two film directors and the public can actually effect change and influence lives, then turn to the Paradise Lost series. These directors were not just trying to make a name for themselves...they spent hours upon hours to create awareness, yes, to document important events in our country, yes, but more importantly, to free the WM3. And their work paid off (even if the men had to enter Alford pleas). If that's not an example of how art can impact lives, I don't know what is.

(photo of me in my childhood bedroom was taken in early 2006 by Samuel Velasquez).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

NYC Spotlight: Third Rail Coffee.

Like many cities, New York is filled with places to get fresh coffee without having to rely on *groan* Starbucks or D'D. In fact, it really bothers me when people purposely seek out a chain store for coffee rather than pay a teensy bit extra to support local business (and probably drink better coffee!). I am far from a connoisseur and don't even drink coffee every day, but I like what I like and luckily what I like is just a stone's throw from my apartment (NYC is all about location!). 

Third Rail Coffee opened a couple years ago and it makes me feel like I live in an actual neighborhood rather than a tourist/drunken frat-kid trap. The guys and gals who work here are cool and down-to-earth, carrying none of the pretension one might expect from a coffee shop near the West Village. This place feels more like a community than a mere cafe, and these dudes are totally my people! They play great music, eagerly stamp your card with a star (9 drinks and the 10th is free) and are just really passionate about the art of caffeine. One of their baristas, Mike Jones, actually placed 2nd in the Northeast Regional Barista Competition. And recently, after my klutzy self spilled an entire iced tea on their floor (I probably buy iced tea more than coffee, actually), not only did they clean it up, but poured me another one (for free) and assured me I shouldn't be embarrassed.

While Third Rail is a bit too tiny for staying and chatting or staying and writing (though many do), Washington Square Park is a block away and, on nicer days, the perfect spot to sip whatever you've got. They serve a wide range of coffees, with fancy shmancy ones like Americana and Kilamanjaro (I always save my free-drink ticket for those!) and they use slow-drip Chemex coffeemakers, which are simple and elegant. They even have liquid sugar (both brown and regular!) for cold drinks. Then of course there's the selection of scones, muffins (pumpkin apple walnut for the win), croissants, etc. 

Cooler than even the ever-changing blackboard out front and the staff in general is the art that adorns its walls. Changing every few months (at least to my observation), the art adds to the overall ambiance. On the walls most recently is Ashley Gilbertson's contemporary exhibit of photographs from Occupy Wall Street in NYC. Maybe it's the Gilded frames or the sepia and black-and-white tones, but I originally thought the photos were from protests of the '60s. Very inspiring!

Third Rail Coffee
240 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10012

-a.d. [photo of blackboard by me, photos from OWS by Ashley Gilbertson]

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hit the Shiny Things.

First post of the year! Expect a little more regularity from me in terms of's a resolution!

To kick off 2012 9 days in, here are 2 new music videos of interest.  The first is "Hit the Ground (Superman)" from The Big Pink's forthcoming album (the better song, in my opinion). I anxiously await this album, called Future Bliss, which will be out on the 16th, as I loved their 2009 release, A Brief History of Love. The second is "Shiny Things" from Fanfarlo's new album, Rooms Filled with Light, which will be released next month (the better video, in my opinion). Let's do some rhythmic gymnastics while we make our faces look malformed!