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Image by John Pope"I remember being in a college photography class and being so turned-off by the whole scene," John Pope says as he scratches his faint-orange goatee. "It was all about the gear, and it was almost always the guys. Who has the most expensive equipment? Who has the biggest lens? It was phallic."
Pope says the whole bigger-is-better philosophy that prevailed in his early years as an artist pushed him into minimalism. "All I use is a 10-year-old manual Nikon and a couple of basic lenses," he adds. "[Minimalism] has served me well."
He's even a little anti-tripod. "It's a useful tool, and it has its advantages," he says. "But they're restrictive. I like to walk around and see what's going on around me. Tripods kind of anchor you to a spot."
His fundamentalist photo-mechanical theory is reflected in his work. Of the two or three dozen pieces he shows me, about 95 percent are Gothic, black-and-white studies of urban decay and morbidity in nature. Boats and Sticks features a run-down harbor in Venice, Italy. Fifty or so twisted tree branches rise from the sea like arms, perhaps 10 feet above the water line. In actuality, the branches are used to anchor the village fishing boats, but Pope captures demonic, skeletal arms reaching from the netherworld toward the sky. It's like a still from a Clive Barker film. It's a little disturbing.
When I venture to raise the fact that the majority of his work runs toward the melancholic and the Gothic, I expect the barbed defenses of a misunderstood artist. But Pope seems genuinely pleased with my interpretation. "No, no, you're right," he assures me. "There's definitely a [Gothic] influence there; I don't like my photographs to look too happy."
In an age in which corporate pop-culture glossies such as Spin and Details drive graphic aesthetics (I'm handing out pennies for every overexposed or out-of-focus photo you can find in their current issues), Pope's work runs hard the other way. His photography is extremely fundamental, relying almost exclusively on shadows, angles and negative space.
"There's one school that wants to fuck things up as much as possible, like overexposure and washed-out portraits," he says of the look du jour. "That works for a while. But trendy photography can get forced real quick. Then you're just relying on the effect."
This isn't to say Pope has surrendered to calendar-ready landscapes; he's far more abstract. "Everything that can be shot has been shot," he explains. "The trick is to look for angles that give the [subject matter] a different perspective." Is there any subject for which that can't be done? "I think Ansel Adams killed Yosemite for everybody," he says.
Though a lot of Pope's work borders on the dark, everything else is abstract and ethereal. Photos of what seem to be landscapes are lush and broad (picture any Cocteau Twins record sleeve). While his darker work is foregrounded with harsh subjects—like spindly tree branches and dilapidated cityscapes—his lighter work is billowy and monochromatic, almost dreamlike.
So now you're probably picturing some brooding Trent Reznor-esque suicidal loner draped in black who's into bloodletting, goat sacrifice and journaling at the local coffeehouse, but you're wrong. Actually, Pope (who turns 32 in a few weeks) is more your classic, short-haired neo-hippie—he lives in a fashionable part of Belmont Heights with his wife, loves his Phish, and usually looks like he just finished modeling for the J. Crew catalog. In fact, you can't get a compliment past him without a heartfelt "Thanks!" in return. He's a genuinely sweet guy.
Is this contradictory? Perhaps it's more like psychological chiaroscuro. But it's probably a good thing that photography is Pope's outlet—or did John Wayne Gacy's clown paintings teach us nothing?John Pope shows as part of Exposure 2002, Hellada Gallery, 144 Linden Ave., Long Beach, (562) 435-5232; www.firstexposure.net. Opens Sat. Through March 31. Call for hours; opening night awards presentation at Lafayette Hotel Ballroom, 130 Linden Ave., Long Beach. Sat., 6 p.m.; Pope's work can also be viewed at www.JohnPopePhotos.com.