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Corey Olsen Photographs the Blandness All Around Us

On the surface, Corey Olsen depicts a wholesome sort of American everyplace. Some of his portraits even look like the excessively bland pictures that might come in a store-bought picture frame. When I said this to photographer Bruce Gilden, he told me...

On the surface, Corey Olsen depicts a wholesome sort of American everyplace. Some of his portraits even look like the excessively bland pictures that might come in a store-bought picture frame. When I said this to photographer Bruce Gilden, he told me, "Yeah, but you throw those pictures away." I think that actually sums it up pretty well— these pictures play with the kinds of disposable imagery that surrounds us.

Having grown up in Maine, Corey is now a senior in photography at School of Visual Arts, in New York. It was there he first heard about City Island, a 1.5-mile-long spit of land off the Bronx that looks a little like a New England fishing town. Corey is interested in the interchangeability of images, the transportation of place, and the strangeness of constructing the aesthetic of a WASP-y New England town in the NYC borough that is home to the poorest congressional district in the US. Corey recently stopped by the VICE offices to tell me more. 

VICE: So, City Island is in the Bronx.

Corey Olsen: You take the 6 train all the way up to Pelham Bay Park. When you get off the train, you feel like you’re in The Bronx, but then you take an MTA bus over a bridge, and you’re on this quaint little island. It’s a strange mix between the Bronx, Long Island, and a New England fishing town. It’s bizarre and beautiful at the same time. 

Some of these look like photos that would come in picture frames. 

Yeah, I bought a frame recently at a church thrift store on City Island. It came with a picture of a man and a woman on a sailboat in it, and I was thinking about including that in the series. I just like it.

One of my teachers asked me if I was making fun of photography with the portraits. I am poking fun a little, but in the way you poke fun at a friend, because you like the off things about them.

Have you talked to people who actually live there?

Yeah, I have met a few people. Much the same as New England, there is a bit of a “locals-only” mentality. They get annoyed with tourists, even though the industry of these kind of towns is largely based on tourism. 

What are you trying to show in these pictures? What does it indicate that this one place looks sort of like another?

These are things that are familiar to me: photography, New England, and strange suburbia. I am using the aesthetic of photography itself to combine these elements, with City Island as a canvas. 

I have a love-hate relationship with Maine. I like the idea of it. I love it as a place to go for a little bit and come back. They call it Vacationland, and that’s accurate. Living there is rough; the winters are really hard.

Yeah, they have to be strong up there. Who are the subjects of the photos?

They’re my friends, mostly photographers. I like bringing people to this place. It’s like a little getaway, and I get to be a tour guide. I create a representation of their experience. Something I have kept in mind while taking the photos is the way a travel brochure looks. 

So you’re using your friends as subjects because it makes the photos more interchangeable. You’re not trying to say, “This is City Island”.

I want to do more constructing than photographing things that already exist. These pictures are slightly documentary, but I choose particular elements. These are not pictures of one place, but other places too.

Portrait of Corey Olsen by Rob Kulisek 

You have a long, braided rat tail. But you work seems to revolve around the way the aesthetic of wholesomeness is constructed by people in New England fishing towns. Please explain.

Wholesomeness is an important aspect of the work. I’m from Maine, and the aesthetic of Maine resonates with me. I pull influences from L.L. Bean catalogues that I grew up around. In Maine, there is an L.L. Bean store that is open 24/7, 365 days a year. They do not have locks on their doors. 

The photos themselves have an edginess at the same time as looking wholesome. The way this place looks leads people to have expectations about it, and certain elements of the pictures conflict with these expectations.

Corey Olsen is an NYC-based photographer. He is available for editorial commissions. 

Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.