By 2018 I had been shooting my #findthebumdog series for four years. It's not something I did everyday, or even once a week. It was a hobby I shared on Instagram and Facebook, and I'd only shoot if I found something interesting. Then, in August, the Wandering Art Gallery in Denver contacted me and asked if they could show some of my photos in their upcoming show.
Bill Miller and Naomi Jacobi Reyerson stand with my photographs displayed on the walls behind them in the Wandering Art Gallery in Denver, Colo. Both are wearing Bumdog T-shirts.
I sent them some photos to choose from. They picked 15 of them. And just like that I was a REAL photographer. I had never called myself a photographer before, because I really didn't care, and I was nowhere near as good as many professional photographers that I personally knew. But now I could say with all pretentiousness that I was a photographer.
I had a funny thought of me pushing my shopping cart up on some photographer in the middle of a photo shoot in the street and saying (in my snootiest Anglo-Saxon accent), “I’m a photographer as well. My work has been shown in a gallery...has yours?”
The gallery displayed my photographs for several months, and sold several pieces. They said I had become one of their most popular artists. The photos were priced around $20-$40, and they always gave me all the money from them. But they closed for winter — because Denver is no place for an art walk in December.
I started thinking that maybe I could find some place in L.A. to put up some of my photographs as well. I had my photos printed out and shopped them around. I pushed my shopping cart up to a few places in the neighborhood that I thought might be lowbrow enough to accept my stuff: galleries, some coffee houses and a furniture shop.
All of them said my photos were alright, but also gave me vague future times as to when they might be willing to display them.
One afternoon I struck up a conversation with a woman who, as it turned out, ran a gallery. I showed her my photos. She said she liked them, but it wasn't the right fit for her place. However, she offered me a few bucks to buy a couple prints out of sheer pity. Pity money? I'll take it!
After that, I started selling my photographs alongside DVDs of my movie and custom-made BUMDOG T-shirts. Sometimes I would find a good spot to put down a sign that read “SUPPORT BUM FILMMAKING $10 PHOTOGRAPHS, $25 DVDS, $50 T-SHIRTS.” But most of the time I would just meet people on the street, and if they were photographers too, I would show them the photos I had. That's how I crossed paths with Nita Lelyveld and Al Seib from the L.A. Times and met Matthew Forresta who would later write the first article about me in LAist.
LEFT: Some photographs I printed out. RIGHT: (Left to right) L.A. Times photographer Al Seib, Chef Alberto Lazzarino and L.A. Times columnist Nita Lelyveld, who I bumped into on Beverly Boulevard, looking over some of my photographs. Nita would later buy some photos and mention me in her column.
In January, I had to have an operation on my hip, and was laid up in an East L.A. rest/recovery home for five months. I left right before my birthday on May 25, back onto the streets in the Fairfax district.
I was feeling incredibly depressed since my operation and decided the best thing for it was to immerse myself in a new project and upgrade from my iPhone and Sony Nex-3 to a better camera. I was just gonna spend $300 on another simple point and shoot. But I saw for a little more money that I could get a better USED camera, and if I could stretch it some more I could get a....etc., etc., etc. After about a month of researching, checking and rechecking eBay, Craigslist and various weekly sales flyers I ended up begging and borrowing enough to buy a brand new mid-range camera, the Panasonic LUMIX G85.
My new camera, the Panasonic LUMIX G85, on my shopping cart.
It was my first professional camera…and It scared the shit out of me. I mean I wasn’t dealing with a simple point and shoot anymore. I began to see why they call it a “professional” camera. You really had to know shit to use it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I'd look through the viewfinder and press the button, and all this quantum physics would pop on the screen and attack me. I’d frame up a shot on someone, try and focus, and all of a sudden, I’m zoomed in on the leaves of the bushes right behind them. What the….?!?!?!
Despite my difficulties getting started with my new hardware, I had this idea for a shoot. I had previously taken some photos as part of my Insomnia Mirror series in a parking lot off Melrose that was famous for allowing street artists to paint murals in it. There was a mural there of two twin girls holding signs which read, “I AM THE FUTURE” and, “If one man can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it?”
Murals in a Melrose parking lot.
I thought it would be interesting to photograph these two sets of twins I knew in front of it: Betty and Adair Angel, and Selah and Soren Wright. In a strange twist of fate, these two sets of blonde twin girls not only lived in the same neighborhood, but lived just two doors down from each other. I sent the mural photos to their mothers to pitch them the idea. They both agreed.
Betty, Adair and their baby sister Dot, were my first photoshoot. I couldn’t have been more frustrated. I still had no idea how this camera worked. Half the shots were out of focus, the other half didn’t come out at all. Working with the twins was like herding cats, and the Dot was in the throes of the “terrible twos.” But I still had a lot of fun. I love being a part of the creative process on any level.
There’s a saying in the movie industry: “Never work with children or animals. If you don't know why you’ll find out.” In the background, there are four pioneering women surrounded by the words “COURAGE HAS NO GENDER.” Posing three small girls in front of the mural was supposed to create a photo symbolizing the future sisterhood of feminism; instead, it degenerated into absolute chaos.
(Left to right) Betty, Adair and Dot, the three B.A.D. Angels as their mother likes to call them, getting their angel wings.
For my next photoshoot I worked with Pam and Zachary Brown, with their daughter Noa and son Asa. Even though I was more prepared and more knowledgeable about my new camera this time, it was still frustrating for me. But after three or four attempts I was getting the shots I was after.
Noa with her little brother, Asa.
(Top left) Pam in the foreground with Zack holding my Insomnia Mirror; (Top right) Zack in the foreground with Pam holding the mirror. (Bottom) Noa and Asa pictured.
Next, I shot Mike and Allison Wright’s twin daughters, Selah and Soren. My shots were getting better. Not good, but better.
This mural is what I had originally had in mind when I asked the twins to pose. Soren (left) is under the girl holding a sign which reads, “I AM THE FUTURE.” Selah (right) stands under another sign: “If one man can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it?”
When I posted the photo on Instagram one of the artists commented, “_hero_ LOVE love love this! This is what @amysmithart and I were hoping to see.”
Allison was pregnant with her third child at the time, and she didn't like photos with her in them. I told her, “One day you’re gonna look back at these years, and marvel at how beautiful you are, and regret you don't have more photos of yourself.”
The fourth time was the charm, and included my third set of twins in the same neighborhood: Devin and Ethan. I would see them every weekend in Starbucks with their father, Eric. I showed Eric the previous photos I had taken of the other twins and asked him if I could photograph him and his daughters in the same style. Being an amateur photographer himself he said yes. This was the last series in this parking lot. I wanted to do more portraits with parents and their children, but I just wasn't able to arrange it yet.
Ethan and his twin brother, Devin.
Eric flanked by his two sons.
Eric holding the insomnia mirror in front of Colette Miller’s wings on Melrose, with Devin smiling on the left and Ethan frowning on the right, a symbolic representation of the Chinese yin and yang.
While sitting on a bench in front of Escuela Taqueria on Beverly, waiting for the burrito I ordered, one the local homeless schizophrenics sat down on the bench in front of me. With nothing better to do, I took out my camera and started shooting. I was immediately impressed by how well the photos looked in the dark. This is after years of not being able to shoot anything after a certain time of night with my iPhones.
The next morning I happened to wake up early, and I saw the crescent moon from the alley I was sleeping in. As frustrated as I was with not being able to use the camera correctly, I was also starting to appreciate its abilities.
I was on the street talking to Pam Brown, with Noa and Asa. As we were talking I was also trying to photograph the kids, but none of the shots were any good. I noticed the sunset and tried to get a shot of that. It was overexposed so I turned the wheels and pressed the buttons, until the brightness was so far down the only thing that was showing was the sun itself, and the silhouettes of the buildings. Although I knew it wasn't a professional shot, I liked the effect.
From then on, I would set my alarm for around sunset, and take shots of the sunset with the ISO all the way down, and with the aperture and shutter speed all the way up. Although to be honest, I didn't really know what I was turning up and what I was turning down. I just liked shooting these sunsets like this because they were the only shot I had figured out not to screw up.
One evening I had just missed the sun setting below the buildings when I noticed the sliver of the moon through some tall trees. The moon is always closest to the sun during a new moon, and always farthest away during a full moon. So I stopped chasing the sunsets and began going after the moon at sunset instead. But to catch the moon with the sun still out, it had to be a little past the new moon and a little before the full moon, or I wouldn't get the light from the fading sun in the sky.
Two (not quite) new moons at sunset.
Two (not quite) full moons at sunset.
TThe almost-full moon in front of me, with the setting sun at my back.
On one of my full moon hunts, I ran into Hassan camping next to Highland.
With this new camera I could finally take photos of simple street sights that interested me, scenes that wouldn't have come out well with a lesser camera.
“YOU MAKE ME SMILE” and “SAY YOU LOVE ME” alongside my shopping cart. I was actually trying to photograph the woman to the side. But as soon as she saw me she started screaming at me, “You fat-headed retard!”
These old school street lamps remind me of my childhood.
Now that I had a real camera, I finally decided to check out the Leica store in Beverly Hill, where they treated me like a wet food stamp (as we used to say back in the day). I thought this was somewhat hypocritical considering they exhibited so many street photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, who specialized in photos of the homeless and people on the streets.
But man, these people were such SNOBS.
However, when I left I was still inspired to photodocument the experience by pushing my shopping cart in front of their door and shooting this.
After a while I was able to “improve” as a photographer to the point that I could take a photo, and it would be fine. But then I’d take another photo with what I thought were the exact same settings, and it would look like shit. I kept thinking the camera was broken. I went back and forth to Samy’s (where I bought the camera and paid extra for a two-year warranty) so many times, that as soon as they saw me coming they looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Each time they explained to me there was nothing wrong with the camera; I was just using it wrong. I had to stop going back, it got so embarrassing. Eventually I was able to attend a class on Panasonic cameras that Samy’s taught for free. Although I still didn’t grasp everything that was being said, I learned enough to set the settings to minimize my frustration.
I started to concentrate on portraits. Tattoo Artist Mike spent most of his life in and out of California prisons before he finally stopped drinking and using drugs, and concentrated on creating art. Last time I heard, he had moved off the streets into an apartment in Koreatown.
I saw this quartet coming out of the Open Sesame Grill on Beverly Boulevard. They struck me right away as distinguished-looking, so I asked if I could photograph them. They were open to it, and they even let me “arrange” them in line. After I found out they were a photographer, hair stylist and wardrobe and makeup artists, I understood why they were so amiable to direction.
I caught a shot of Crazy Blue while he was recycling. At first, he said I couldn't take his photo. Then I reminded him that he owed me five bucks, and I would squash it if he let me shoot him, so he said alright.
Chag Sameach! I was sitting on a bench on La Brea Ave at the beginning of Sukkot when my friend, Boris/Burach, stopped by to chat with me. He is also a photographer. As we were talking, I took out my camera and asked if I could take a picture of him. He said of course. But then he looked behind himself and said, “There is nothing behind me in the background. It's gonna be overexposed.” I told him it would be fine. And it was.
I had been trying to get a photo of Laura for a long time, but she was always in a bad mood. Always. I tried to offer her money, but she was never interested. What she really wanted was weed, and that's all she would ask me for. I didn't have any because I don't smoke, so she kept blowing me off. One morning I saw her leaning against this parking meter from across the street from the Saban clinic on Beverly Boulevard, and I knew it would make a great photo. I walked over and told her I would give her money for weed if she let me take her photo. But it wasn't that simple. She also wanted me to go buy it for her at a weed dispensary; she couldn't get it herself because she didn't have an ID. I said OK. And took the shot.
I thought the dispensary was only a couple of blocks away. In fact it was all the way UPHILL to Santa Monica. I had to sign up and register in order to buy the dope and give it to her. I am now a registered drug dealer. But the shot was worth it.
A random Persian woman stopped to give me $3. As we were talking, she was a little taken aback by me pulling out my semi-pro camera and photographing her.
With this camera I could definitely take better portrait photos. Liz works in the Pan Pacific Park in the morning. She isn't homeless now, but at one point, she was evicted from her place and was actually living in the park out of her pickup with her dogs for several months before she found a nice house to rent. I showed her my prints, and she got on me to take a photo of her. I told her maybe another time, but she was persistent, and so I shot this.
D-Rock Deeds was squatting in a large abandoned apartment building off of Olympic Boulevard. It was a beautiful 1920s art deco building that they were, of course, going to demolish. Before they demolished it, they gated it up with him still in it. He wasn't happy about it.
When I take a photo of a fellow homeless person I always give them something for it. Here, I gave Henry all the change in my pocket.
I walked by him on the side of the fire station on Third. He was just sitting there snorting lines. He said he had just found a bindle of straight cocaine.
And here we see the effects of the cocaine on him.
“Chad in the morning sun.” I met him in the alley on Christmas Eve. I was waking up and collecting my blankets together when he walked up to me and asked me for a light. His features struck me, but I didn’t want to ask him if I could photograph him because that early in the morning there still wasn’t enough light to take a good photo. He walked off down the alley and I started pushing my shopping cart in the other direction. When I looked back at him on the next block, I noticed him walking past a shaft of sunlight coming through the buildings. I yelled out at him to hold up. When I caught up to him, I told him being a photographer was my hustle, and I’d break him off if I could take a photo of him in the light.
I found Victor while he was looking through the alley for some things that had been stolen from him. A former pornographer, he made very good money making custom specialty porn. But he got burnt out on it, and said he had to stop when the thought of sex didn’t get him hard anymore. I asked him what kind of “specialty porn” he made. He started giving me examples. After the third example, I told him to stop, I didn't want to hear anymore.
“Devil Dog” Will. One of many White Boy/ Übermensch/Hobos I've met in my lifetime. A real Wolf Larson type. “But if he was such a Nietzschean Superman why was he a bum on the street?” you might ask. Because he was intelligent and conscious enough to know that real power has its source by being in contact with life at its most primal. Even in his mid-50s, he was incredibly strong, and loved challenging anyone he came in contact with to a fight. This would come back to him regularly as in the few years that I've known him he has been shot, stabbed, poisoned, had his head busted open and been run over by a car. But age seems to be mellowing him. Recently he said to me, “I'll tell you, Bumdog, I used to live for shit like this. It used to be my high. But I'm getting old. And to be honest, I'm really getting tired of people trying to kill me.”
A street vendor selling vegan tamales just off of Fairfax. I really liked his shirt. He said “Home Alone” was one of his favorite movies. I never saw “Home Alone” so I didn't know what the shirt was referring to, but it was a cool shirt.
Craig. I took this photo of him while he was sitting in a doorway next to 7-Eleven. When I rolled up, he asked me if I had a pooky (pipe) or some meth. I told him I didn’t. Then, even though I was pushing a shopping cart, he asked me for some change. I said, “Yeah, sure,”, and could I take a photo of him. He said yeah. I asked him what he wanted out of 7-Eleven. He only wanted a Coca-Cola and pack of Reese’s Pieces. I went in and bought him that, came out gave it to him along with $5, and took the pictures. He was completely in the dark. It took a lot of work in Photoshop and Lightroom to pull his face out of the night. And when I did, it no longer looked like a photograph. It looked more like a Rembrandt chiaroscuro painting.
I was looking for someone to shoot in front of this store for a while. I just couldn't catch anyone. I ran into “Payback” several blocks away, I told him I’d give him $5 if he walked down to the store, and he let me photograph him. He said OK. But as I was shooting him, you can see from his expression that he was still suspicious as to what I was gonna do with the photographs.
When I told him I print them out and use them to panhandle on the streets, that got a (slight) smile on his face.
Scotty, another fixture on Fairfax Boulevard for as long as I can remember. An alcoholic in the first degree, he has been dead drunk for so long that if he stopped drinking tomorrow, it would still take him a month to get sober. Scotty actually is Jewish, but he only observes the Jewish holidays in order to beg in front of the temples in his yarmulke and Tallit. He says it's his tradition.
Old black men are often referred to as OGs, or “Original Gangsters.” But this is a REAL OG. Tyrone “T” started the West Boulevard Crips back in the 70s. Gang banging, drug trafficking, bank robbery, he did it all. Once he came up on a lick for $1 million in CASH. He always made sure he took care of everyone in his neighborhood. A true ghetto legend.
Tyson. Coming down the alley on La Brea I see this guy sitting on a couch. I asked him if I could take a photo of him for $5. He was suspicious, but he said yes. But when I took out my LUMIX, he saw how good my camera was, and he changed his mind saying, “No, no, I don’t want any identity photos of me, They got plenty of pictures of me in prison.”
At that I backed up, “OK, brah, it's cool if you don’t want to. I understand.” He said he just didn’t understand why I would take a photo of him. I said if he wanted I could show him my other photographs. He said yeah he’d like to see them. I pulled out a bag of photos that I had printed out. Turned out he was an old school Hollywood Dog and recognized several people I had photographed. “Hey you’re a good photographer man. These photos are so good you should make a book out of them.” I’ve heard that from a lot of people, but standing in that alley, coming from one of my own it meant a lot more to me.
I photographed “Weto Mike” while he was sitting next to a gas station. I asked him what happened to his face. He told me he was in a fight the day before.
I’ve been seeing Anuschka for years on the streets in Fairfax. She told me she was from Switzerland. Must have been a beautiful woman in her youth because even in what I believe are her seventies she had an incredible bright smile and eyes. She was every drunk’s girlfriend, even at her age. A kind of Box Car Sally, dementia has made most of what she says incomprehensible. But she always says it with such bright eyes that I often just stare into her eyes while she rambles on.
I hadn’t seen her in over a year, and when I did, she was in a wheelchair with a sign: “HUNGRY PLEASE HELP.” I was told she had two strokes and couldn’t walk anymore. But her smile was still bright. As were her eyes, although one was now blind to the world she lives in and the other seemed to be seeing into the world she will soon pass over into.
When I saw Anuschka she was with Ernie. Ernie had been in some semi-successful rock bands in the early 70s. He was the one who now looked after her.
Originally from Missouri, Kyle is pictured here working on his make up. He has been sleeping on Beverly Boulevard since I’ve been back from Thailand. He is striving to become a clothing designer one day.
I ran into Antonio on the street, who I hadn’t seen in almost two years when he was still homeless. He got himself together, sobered up, is working and now lives with his girl in West Hollywood. He was upset because it was his estranged grown son’s birthday, but his son wouldn’t answer the phone, because of all the stuff Antonio had put him through while he was on drugs. Antonio finally decided to just leave a voicemail message. Here he is trying to express himself into the phone.
I was sitting across the street from the park when I saw this Latina walking by herself, talking out loud as if she was having a conversation with someone. Tweaking hard. She crossed the street at the light, headed straight for me, still talking into some unseen ear. As she got closer, I got the feeling her conversation was addressing me. She was small, thin and flat-chested. She sat right next to me. Her shirt was cut above her stomach, which despite her thinness, signaled the birth of more than one child. In the middle of her stream of words she quickly interjected, “Hey, can I hang out with you?” I say sure, and she moved onto some other subject as if we had already established camaraderie long before now.
Her face was attractive with very small, sharp, distinct features, but her hair is matted, and hands nearly black with dirt. She hasn’t bathed in at least a couple of weeks. She also doesn’t stop talking, I can’t tell if she is high, or the drug (meth obviously) had scrambled her brains to the point that she was like this even without it. But even within the babbling you could tell she was very intelligent and sharp. However, the not bathing in AT LEAST two weeks was killing it for me. I walked her across the street to the shelter that had been set up there for the virus. I tried to pawn her off on some old school South Sider, but he wasn’t taking her. We sat on the grass, and I took several photos of her, gave her five bucks and left. I asked her name several times, every time she gave me another answer. Carla is the one I remember most.
The three other faces of “Carla.”
Back around Christmas, I was pushing my cart down the middle of the street (long before the coronavirus made it fashionable), when a truck pulled up to me and the guy asked me if I smoked weed. I said no. He said he would give me some to sell. I said I wasn’t interested in that either. Then I said, “Well, I guess I could give it to my friends.” He reached over to the passenger side, and I saw that it was filled all the way to the roof with packs of weed. He gave me four packs. I thanked him, and he drove off.
A couple of days later I gave one of them to a friend of mine who I knew likes to smoke. Afterward, he told me that it was some good stuff, and that it probably cost $25. After I heard that, if I wanted to take a photograph of someone on the street I’d tell them I could give them $5, or I could give them some of the weed I had left. I was coming down La Brea Boulevard when I saw this guy in a wheelchair in front of a weed dispensary. Even though I was pushing a shopping cart, he asked me if I could spare a couple of bucks so he could get some weed. I told him I’d give him some weed if he let me take some photos of him. Needless to say he readily agreed.
I saw this guy in the alley talking to himself while looking on the ground for cigarette butts. I asked him if I could take a photo of him for $5. He said yeah. To be honest, he looked really scuzzy and tore up. But when I took the photo, I was surprised how much he looked like Brad Pitt through the camera. Whoever he was in his life before the streets there were still traces of it.
One of my favorite women to photograph, Myisha, has been staying in the park for a couple of years now. To say she can take care of herself on the streets is an understatement. Over six feet tall, statuesque with striking features, she could have easily been a model. But sometimes life has other plans.
I saw this beautiful girl sitting on a concrete wall on the corner of Beverly and Orlando, drinking a cup of coffee. I strolled up with my shopping cart and asked if I could take a photo of her. She laughed and said sure. I took out my LUMIX and started shooting. After a couple of shots it was obvious how photogenic she was.
When I asked Cory if I could take his photo, he said yeah and that he knew who I was, and had been seeing me around for years. I vaguely remembered seeing him several times, but really just out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t recall any of that until he mentioned it. I'm often amazed how some people show up so well on camera. If he wasn't homeless, he could easily get a job as a Calvin Klein model.
I run into the Angel girls every once in a while. This time, about six months after I first photographed them, with a camera I barely understood, I now knew my camera well enough to capture them with more justice.
Betty offered me a flower.
Dot’s “I'm just a girl in the world” look.
Dot in full reincarnated gangsta mode.
All three B.A.D. Angels, in the official B.A.D. Angel wagon.