documenting the circus of american life with john kilar
He's shot fringe groups and subcultures from communes to Coachella.
John Kilar approaches his photography the way any of us might approach our Instagram accounts. "I started having this passion to share more. My visions, my experiences," he explains of his progression into taking pictures. The difference between Kilar's photography and our filtered feeds, however, is that, besides having grown into being a professional by trade, he has an innate talent for capturing moments that are not traditionally or conventionally "beautiful," but are all the same pretty glorious. From teens with extreme body modifications on Venice Beach to an angelic Charlotte Free, Kilar's snapshots show the circus of American life.
Kilar's journey has been spontaneous and unplanned. He says he doesn't seek subjects or events out, doesn't have an image in mind. A native Californian who's been shooting for about five years now, he goes about his life and shoots what he finds — or what finds him — along the way. "My work is a reflection of everyday life. I try to experience new realities every day."
Kilar's "realities" can be glimpses into new worlds for the viewer, his images often capturing scenes of fringe groups and subcultures. "I'm obsessed with counterculture," he says. "It's about what's different. I try to find all the weirdos. And then I just go with the flow."
Kilar keeps a home base in Venice Beach and calls LA his comfort zone. He attributes his love for the city to a love for the beach, the art, the weirdos and what's left of the community, as well as the artistic opportunity there and the chances to collaborate with other inspiring, talented artists. "I do feel the rat race in LA, and I want nothing to do with that, so that's when I want to be in nature. But then I'll be in nature and want to go back to the city to work with other artists and collaborate. I want to maintain a balance." Kilar says he believes certain aspects of being in that urban environment along with aspects of being off the grid in nature at times is what can make a great artist.
For that reason, the photographer has adopted a nomadic lifestyle. "I got rid of most of my possessions, freed myself up so I can travel wherever whenever." On knowing when it's time to go somewhere new and where that somewhere might be, Kilar says "I'll get an itch. I'll get somewhere and decide I want to stay longer, to really experience the vibe there, or I'll suddenly realise I want to get onto somewhere new, or I'll want to go where my friends are. It's all in the moment." So far, he has been especially excited by what he's encountered in places like New Orleans, Hawaii and the northwest region of Northern California, Oregon and Washington, and plans to explore more of middle America and its national parks next.
Counting nature as one of his biggest inspirations, Kilar loves to go venturing off on his own into new landscapes, and his photographic documentation of these escapades are stunning. People have especially connected, though, to his portraits, his subjects ranging from members of communes to the homeless population of LA. Sometimes his photos are of his own friends, sometimes they're of passers by. "I use a 35mm point-and-shoot," he says. "I've developed a technique where I can take a photo in half a second. I'm like a ninja." His approach is sometimes sneak-attack, or sometimes comes after having struck up a conversation with a new potential subject.
The festival circuit is a gold mine for magnetic subjects. A lot of Kilar's work documents the scene, capturing the atmosphere of thousands of people from all walks of life coming together in one open space for the music lineup and the party. Kilar calls his surroundings at these weekends "visually fascinating," naming the "great sense of community, good energy, positive vibes — people having fun and getting silly," as draws. Kilar finds that when festivals get too big and commercial, they lose their magic, so he seeks out the smaller events. The touring Rainbow Gathering with its mixed reputation of peace, love and happiness and a seedier, more dangerous contingent is one of his favourites that has kept its edge, and Kilar still visits Burning Man for its sheer craziness and weirdness.
The setting at festivals encapsulates Kilar's biggest inspirations and the most prominent features in his work: both nature and counterculture. His photos are striking compositions of misfits against natural landscapes. Kilar wants to start focusing his work even more on nature, with plans to "keep traveling and focusing on projects with more substance, that could potentially bring about environmental change." He hopes his photos stir a similar urge in viewers. He wants his work to "inspire people to leave their own little bubbles, to trust, to be vulnerable, to experience what life has to offer. Don't conform to societal norms; do beautiful things. Question more, experience more."
Text Courtney Iseman
Photography John Kilar