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Brown Owl Press Dispatch #7: Mark Murrmann

Mark Murrmann is about as perfect an interview subject for us as is possible to be - a photographer, zine maker and collects punk records. Fun fact: the first fanzine I ever picked up was Fracture #16, the first column in that issue was by... Mark himself. So technically he's to blame for Brown Owl Press...

Introduce yourself! Who are you, where do you come from and what do you do?
I am Mark Murrmann. I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, currently live in Oakland, California. I’ve lived out here for the better part of 24 years. My day job is photo editor for a magazine called Mother Jones. Sometimes I also teach documentary photography. Aside from work, I take photos, make zines and collect records.

Is your City Slang series all taken around the same city? Is it ongoing or is it finished now? Have you had any critical responses from locals?
The City Slang series is mostly from San Francisco and Oakland, but really the photos are from all over, anywhere. It came from an attempt to edit a book of my street photography. I wasn’t comfortable with a book of the work. It felt too final when I was still making work and I just didn’t feel like I had anything to say with a book, or maybe not enough to say to make a book. The work is admittedly reactive – see something, make a photo – rather than focused on specific idea or theme or project. I stepped back and started thinking how there were different ways this big pile of photos I’d accumulated could be edited together.

I started making zines of the work, which felt more true to what I was doing. The zines small, a bit rough around the edges, easy to carry around, all edited around a loose concept based on the title of each zine, all of which are taken from songs. I kind of thinking of them as editing notebooks. Some of the earlier issues aren’t very successful, but the later ones I’m quite proud of. I have thought about reprinting them all (and redesigning a few of them) and releasing a set of all 12 issues. Or maybe finally doing a book. But really, does the world need another book of random street photography? I still don’t think I have an answer to the question of “why a book?”

I don’t consider the series necessarily finished, though thinking about it, it probably is. The way I’ve been shooting lately has changed a lot. The areas in which I’ve been walking around to make photos has changed. I used to carry my camera with me as I commuted into San Francisco to work, making photos on my way to and from work and on my lunch break. I work from home now. That has changed a lot for me. I’ve made a couple new zines called FLATLANDS which are a stark departure from the City Slang series. They’re all color, hardly any people, all shot in Oakland. The City Slang series has generally been well received from locals and non-locals alike. I haven’t received much critical feedback – that is critique or criticism on the work. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I suspect people are maybe just being polite.

You’re well known for your music photography, do you feel that your project based work and your music feed into each other at all?
Yes, the music photography and street photography and even my photojournalism and documentary work all feed into each other. That’s kind of how City Slang came about – looking at all my photos together, not siloed off in categories, made me feel for the first time like I had a voice as a photographer, that the work can and does all fit together. The photos are like pieces of a giant puzzle that can be put together in multiple ways. The first iteration of this was a zine I did with Hamburger Eyes called “Sweat Stains.” It drew on my music photography as well as photos I made on tour, on assignments and just generally having my camera on me. It was kind of a revelation. But yes, it all feeds into and from each other.

Do you intend every body of work you make to end up in a zine? Do you have any favourite zines you’ve made?
It’s not the intention to make zines of everything I do, but that tends to happen. It’s what I know. And really how it usually happens is more from an editing exercise than setting out to do a project. I look at photos I’ve been making and see something in them that ties them together. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s obvious. I pull a bunch of possible images out, start cutting them down, put them in a layout and make a zine. The “Sweat Stains” and “Mess Me Up” zines I did with Hamburger Eyes are two of my favorites. Mess Me Up is all Bay Area bands. Both were designed by Mike McQuade, an amazing graphic designer. Of my own, the last in the City Slang series, “Human Car,” was really good. “Your Pretty Face (Is Going to Hell)” I liked a lot. “Cig Machine” has been popular. The first in the series, “Rat Crawl,” was a cool idea – all “street portraits,” presented in a very small zine. One I wish had turned out better was “Dot Dash.” I was trying to edit panoramic street photos I made with an XPan along with standard 35mm images. The idea was that I’d edit them in morse code (dots being 35mm, dashes the panos). It was really difficult to do that without expensive accordion binding or something more than I was able to do. A good idea with lackluster execution. The morse code edit spells City Slang.

For anyone thinking about making their first zine, do you have any advice? Anything you wish you knew when you started?
Oh, this is tough. I’ve been making zines since 1991. I didn’t start doing photo zines until the mid/late ‘90s though. So, there’s just so much more information available now, just technical information that I learned through trial and error in making a lot of bad zines. Advice? I’ll loosely quote the British DIY punk band Desperate Bicycles here: “It’s easy, it’s cheap go and do it!” Really just put something together. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to reuse images in zines if it makes sense for the edit. Don’t let yourself get hung up on technical difficulties. Those are easy to overcome if you’re willing to dig in and learn (or find someone who can help you). Make sure the zine fits the work. Putting work in a book form – or in this case a zine – impacts how people see and interact with your photos. But really the biggest piece of advice is just have fun with it. It’s not critical, hopefully it’s not too expensive. Zines are a great way to push yourself to see and interact with your own photos in a different way.

Do you have any idea about what your next project will be? Or are you focusing on existing ones for now?
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on this new work, FLATLANDS. I have done two zines of that work and just had a show at Alto Beta gallery, near Pasadena/Los Angeles. I’m not sure if I’ll do much more with that or not. I have a new zine ready to go called “Burned Out,” all just photos of skidmarks, donuts, burnouts from around Oakland. A simple little fun zine. Not sure beyond that.

Tell us about any artwork/music/podcasts/books you’re enjoying at the moment.
I’m constantly listening to music. Lately it’s been a lot of ‘70s hard rock & metal, ‘60s and ‘70s country, surf music and ‘60s garage. And punk. Always punk in there. Reading has gotten harder for me as I’ve gotten older for some reason, but my good friend Tristan Spinski lent me “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which has thoroughly sucked me in. It’s nice to get lost in a good novel again. My photo book input has reached a bit of a saturation point, so I’ve stepped back a bit, though I’ve found recent inspiration in Paul Graham’s books. I always love Morten Andersen’s books and am digging his newest, “Satyricon & Munch.” And christ, I went stupid and bought Gilles Peress “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” Everytime I open it, I get inspired. It’s massive, too much really, but just filled with amazing photos. I’m very picky about podcasts, but found the new season of “Cocaine and Rhinestones” thoroughly engrossing. It digs deep into the life of the country musician George Jones.

If you could interview anyone, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. I don’t like interviewing people as much as just…having a conversation with them. Looser, without a direct purpose. Having a beer with them or something, getting to know them a little, more than pulling information out of them. I think that’s partially because I’m not great at interviewing. That said, I’ve corresponded with the Norwegian photographer Morten Andersen a fair amount. I’d like to get to have a beer and listen to records with him. If you include people no longer living, I’d like to talk with the writer Lester Bangs about music. Or hell, have a beer with Harry Crews, a writer whose work I really like. Maybe cliché, but Walker Evans, I would have loved to have a conversation with him.

Do you feel hopeful for the rest of 2022?
For the most part, at least personally, yes. It’s been a busy year so far. Hell, I’ve had photos in three shows, one a solo show. Traveling a bit. Generally living a decent life, I guess. I always feel like I could and should be doing more. Pushing harder. Thinking more broadly, the political landscape in the US looks dark. Taking wider national and international shit into consideration changes my answer a lot. But on a micro level, yes, I feel hopeful.

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