The renewed interest in vinyl that’s been growing over the last five years can be attributed to a combination of reasons, but generally speaking it all comes down to aesthetics. Have you ever gotten the same kick out of watching an mp3 download as unwrapping a record and poring over the sleeve? Unless you’re Bill Gates or possibly one of the women in the market for that iPod player that goes up your muff and plays music to your unborn child, probably not. The fondness reserved for vinyl is – besides the weird capitalist impulse we all have to define ourselves by our things – down to the visual aesthetic of it. The specific colours, considered artwork, and additional treats that can accompany a release if the artist or label in question has gone the extra mile to craft the physical aspect of a record into as much of an experience as the music itself.
New Jersey-based photographer Clay Rossner has been capturing the heart of vinyl collecting with his ‘Records’ series. Whether it’s Mac Demarco’s Salad Days surrounded by greenery and an ashtray full of stubbed-out cigarettes, or trinkets and diary notes dotted around Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, each carefully constructed image translates the often intangible feeling of a particular album into something visual. The 24-year-old first got into photography at the age of 12, when his older brother let him get his hands on his Nikon SLR film camera. Around the same time, his family relocated, he tells me over email, and every weekend would go visit his friends back in his hometown and return with a bunch of film to develop. The rest is learned history.
‘Records’ is a series that indie labels like Orchid Tapes have constantly supported, perhaps because the photographs somehow communicate the whole vibe of a record in an instant. In that sense they’re like one-shot reviews. We had a chat with Clay about the project, record collecting, and the relationship between music and photography. We’re also unveiling his latest portrait – Run For Cover’s combined release of Teen Suicide’s EP's Waste Yrself & DC Snuff Film – which you can check out above.
Noisey: Hey Clay! So, when did you start photographing records like this and why?
Clay: I started the series in the spring of 2014. I had just finished a year long project documenting my brother and a few of his friends living together, so I was looking for something different. At the time I was living with 7 of my closest friends and a few of us had record collections so it was great to be able to just spin different records all the time. Records were a big part of our routine, morning till night. Nothing better than Tom Waits with eggs, or blaring Ceremony with a beer.
No doubt. We're debuting your newest addition to the series today – Teen Suicide's Waste Yrself & DC Snuff Film. Could you tell us a little bit about this one?
I’ve been a Teen Suicide fan for a bit now and have photographed their first press of i will be my own hell because there is a devil inside my body, but the songs I really connected with were the more pop-styled ones on waste yrself. Those songs have a hushed private sound to them that I really love. The objects I thought about for a while. When I first saw the pictures I put in the photo I thought of this album. I included the empty tea mug because coffee and tea are usually what I'm drinking while setting up the photos and it just felt right. The disposable camera in the photo was referencing the photos Sam Ray, of Teen Suicide, used to post on his blog. A lot of the album sounds like it was recorded to tape so that’s why the tape player is in there.
Did you pick out particular records from your collection for the series or are you just doing them as you go along?
At first I was picking out my favorites, my friends’ favourites, or ones that were being played a lot in my house. It was exciting because I would set up a table and it would sit, and I would change it and invite other people's input and if it was their record I would learn how they felt about it. I still do my friends' records occasionally and sometimes it's hard. I've had to turn records away or give them back to people and that's tough, but sometimes certain music just doesn't click, I don't feel anything from it.
When did you start collecting vinyl and what was the first record you ever bought?
I started actually collecting in about 2008/9, but my first record was Weezer's “Hash Pipe” single.
My mum wouldn’t let me buy that record because it was about weed, even though I was 12 years-old and had no clue what a “hash pipe” was.
Haha! I had no idea what a hash pipe was either, and I think my parents knew that too. I had a slight Weezer obsession. I bought anything having to do with Weezer. My parents were great about accepting where my brothers and I wanted to explore in the music world, we would share a lot of it too.
The objects around each subject are so particular and so well connected. Do you have any rules or like a selection process for them?
I don't have any rules, but I am very particular. I sometimes will go to antique or thrift stores but rarely find anything, mostly it's items I already have. I live in a very tiny apartment now and it's sort of like a treasure hoard. I have a lot of stuff, and a lot of small collections. I'm a collector by nature so I just have stacks and shelves full of small trinkets and things, it's great.
One of my favourite aspects of the series is the different background pattern you use. It looks like wallpaper, almost. What is it?
Everyone always loves them, I do too, and they are the most challenging part. I buy them at various fabric stores, thrift stores, and some of them are my mom's own tablecloths.
Many of the records in the series have been released by Orchid Tapes, who also take a lot of love and care over how they package and present things. What is it about that label that you like so much?
Warren Hildebrand and Brian Vu at Orchid Tapes put so much into each release, it's incredible. I really respect and cherish that. They also have an amazing artist line up so they really hit all the right notes for me. They really boosted my morale when I first started the project, and continue to be supportive.
If you look hard enough you can find some not-so-obvious references, but do you ever hide any personal references in there?
There are personal things in all of them and I have a lot of fun putting the not so obvious references in there. I listen to the album nonstop before making the photo so I get to know it pretty well.
The increased interest in owning vinyl over the last 5 years has led to criticism that it's actually hurting smaller labels. Do you have any thoughts on that? I’ve noticed that you mostly photograph independent releases.
The increased interest in vinyl records definitely has hurt smaller labels. All the record stores I go to have a big section just dedicated to "Record Store Day" that’s just records no one is interested in. Record Store Day should be for bands still making records and independent small businesses. Not that I don't think more people should be interested in owning records, it really is fun. It's just hard when a pre-order goes up in June and you get the record in November. I have heard from multiple bands that don't have records when they tour because of delays at pressing plants. I couldn't imagine that frustration. [For the series] I haven't picked independent releases intentionally, they’re just my favorites. I relate with those more and get to see those bands live often. I have photographed The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, though, so I wouldn't be opposed to photographing another "major" release.
In this day and age we don't really need to buy vinyl, to be honest. You can find most records online. Why do you buy vinyl?
Because artists put a lot into their music and the way they choose to release it. I think it's important to support bands and labels, even if it isn't the most convenient format. I enjoy the ritual of listening to records, and how that can make a night. The artwork and physicality of a record gives it value.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I also take a lot of live photos of bands and really enjoy that. It is a challenge to take live photos, especially at house or DIY spaces but that’s part of the fun. I am also working on a new series about myself but I am not sure too much about any of it to really talk about it yet.
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