Recently, I happened upon an interesting photo blog with the odd name of "Purple Time Space Swamp," and I was immediately drawn in. The photos are of Houston, but the photographer captures a vision of this city that is unique and that other people might pass over or in some cases consider unsightly. Abandoned gas stations, rundown storefronts and concrete expanses create urban landscapes that we all interact with living in Houston, but mostly ignore or consider to be a form of blight that must be endured but certainly not enjoyed.
However, the photos in Purple Time Space Swamp command the viewer to look at these scenes in a different way, and I found them to exude a certain strange beauty. The blog is mysterious, leaving the viewer to form his or her mind about the photos, without offering any commentary other than the pictures themselves. At the top of Purple Time Space Swamp is a mission statement of a sort. Three sentences that read:
"This is a visual archive of Houston for public use. All images are by the author of the blog. Copyright will not be enforced."
Beneath that is a link that says, "Ask me anything."
And ask I did. I got a response from a friendly gentleman named Sebastien Boncy, who was kind enough to talk a little bit about his work and the motivations behind it.
Boncy says that he's lived in Houston for about 20 years but is originally from Haiti. Asked if he feels that gives him a perspective on Houston that's different from a native's, he says, "You know, it's a weird thing. When you're an immigrant long enough, you don't quite belong to either world. It's definitely going to color how I see things, but I don't know what the ratios are. I don't know how much of this is coming from the Haitian in me, and how much of this is everything I've learned to be and love from being here so long, which is pretty much my whole adult life."
Boncy's background in photography is lengthy and involved, as he explains.
"I have two degrees in photography, one from the University of Houston, and one from the University of North Texas, and so this is something I'm all in. Most of my income comes from teaching photo classes around the city, and it's what I've been doing since around '98."
When asked about the types of images he chooses to capture, Boncy says, "I'm a big fan of the city, and I choose to stay here. Even when I was getting my grad degree, I knew every single day that I was coming back to Houston. Basically, you don't exist unless you're imaged, and people have ideas about Texas, and about Houston, but they don't really know because we're not imaged."
According to Boncy, Houston is different because it hasn't been extensively documented like other big cities.
"You know, the great cities have been imaged powerfully, places like Paris has had Versailles, and New York has had Friedlander, and the West Coast has had people like Henry Wessel. So these places are allowed to exist in the imagination in a very rich way because they're imaged. So I just wanted the opportunity for Houston to have that. I'm here now and making these photographs now, so they are very current, but maybe with an eye towards the possibility of Houston existing in the vernacular imagination in a more interesting way."
Boncy feels the frustration that many Houstonians do when it comes to people from elsewhere complaining that our city is ugly.
"We had a film critic come to town a few years back, I think to WorldFest, and he complained about the city being gray. And this is someone who used to live in New York, and New York is gray. It has great architecture, but the city is gray, and Houston...Houston is green. I think that his limited imagination about Houston got in the way of him actually looking at the city."
Boncy describes how he decides to take a photo as a combination of several factors. He says, "On one level, I'm very conscious that this city is huge and goes on forever. So to try to make an accurate portrait, I feel, might take a couple of decades. I live north of the Beltway right now, and that section of town has been heavily documented. I try to think of other spots that I can visit one by one, so right now I'm very interested in Westheimer far west, which is the first area that I lived in in the '90s. The Medical Center is interesting, but there are Homeland Security issues there, so I don't know how to work around that yet."
One thing that's evident in many of Purple Time Space Swamp's photos is a sense of isolation. Most don't capture images of people or human interaction, and it's an interesting perspective on a city that usually seems so crowded. Boncy explained that this is by design.
"People get weird when you pull out a camera, but people also get weird when you're not even shooting at them. Sometimes I've had them ask me why the hell I'm shooting the back of a gas station, or something like that. People are just weird about cameras, and we're not a walking city, so sometimes when it looks like I'm alone, I am. But also, I'm not interested in performance, right? That's another thing about taking photos of people. I don't buy into those ideas about existentialism or capturing a person's personality or spirit. You're capturing a performance. Some people are good performers and most people are horrible performers, but personally I have very little interest in performance."
He believes his work captures a truer sense of who a person is when the camera is focused away from him or her, and on that person's surroundings or possessions.
"I feel more comfortable capturing people through their stuff in a way. If I try to take a picture of one of my neighbors, they might look at me funny. But if I take a picture of their mailbox, or if they have a really nice slab and I take a picture of that, I feel that can give a much fuller picture of that person and their priorities than a photograph of the performance that they would give me."
Boncy says he has no expectations from the blog, but enjoys the freedom that the format affords artists, and the break from a traditional gallery setting.
"The whole thing about having your photos on the wall of a gallery is someone has to choose what's up there, and that someone isn't me, and might possibly not be someone I believe in or respect. So on some level, I wanted to bypass that. It was my training; that's the world I came up in with seven years of art school, taught to go to this or that curator, and if you're a good boy, maybe they'll give you a show. But I wanted people to see my pictures, and I was also interested in seeing what they might do with them, which is why I don't enforce copyright, and I consider them to be free files...Open source files. So I take myself out of the whole commercial aspect of it."
Boncy says he hopes his photos are useful to people, and that they can do what they like with them. He is also interested in other ways his work might be seen around Houston.
"I have about 50 mounted photos, and they're going to start going up here and there in spots around the city. And they can stay where they're found, or if people want to take them home, that's fine too, but yeah, they're going to start going up."
Sebastien Boncy is documenting Houston in a way that most photographers do not, and through the unique vision he captures, perhaps this city will be thought of much differently in the future.