Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to catch up with Vann Powell and talk to him about what is going on in his world these days. Prior to this conversation, he took it upon himself to mail me a copy of his latest project, Cousins. It is always such a nice treat to receive a printed book in the mail. It is even better when one comes without asking for it. After spending some time with the small, intimate publication, I knew that I wanted to chat with Vann and learn more about the project and the process behind the final product. Today I am happy to share a long overdue interview with Vann Powell as well as some input from his fellow collaborators on the project.
Vann Powell is a documentary artist living and working in Durham, North Carolina. Vann’s photographs have been exhibited and have appeared across the U.S. and internationally. Currently Vann is focused on making work that looks at the processes of historicism, in particular how history and place help formulate contemporary identity.
Kameron Neal is a video artist, performance-maker, and multidisciplinary designer based in NYC. His video art has been featured in music videos and performances by Billy Porter and Rufus Wainwright. Kameron’s work has also been seen in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, among many other avenues.
Alex Powell is a photographer based in San Diego, California. Alex works as a soil scientist and can often be found exploring the Californian hinterlands.
Cousins is a collaborative small book project between Kameron Neal, Alex and Vann Powell. Alex and Vann Powell present photography made during a 2019 road trip up the East Coast of America as a series of images sequenced in an order that underlines the visual rhymes present in their work. The two artists start from the literal familial meaning of cousins, and move toward a less specific, figurative meaning of cousins in the visual realm as the Powell cousins play on similarity and nuance in each other’s frames.
When I first sat down and looked through Cousins, I immediately noticed that there is some collaboration with family going on in this project. Can you speak a little about how collaboration, and specifically collaboration with family members has shaped this work?
Alex: As the title eludes, “Cousins” was a collaboration between… cousins! We had accumulated a fair stack of photos hanging out together in the summer of 2018. Vann had the great idea to distill those images down to a story reflecting not only the times, but a shared experience of our family tied relationship. Initially we were intending to include more personal additions such as dialogues during creation of the project as well as old family photos. However, I like the end result which omitted that and left a more ambiguous offering of the genetically derived lens.
Vann: First off I’d like to start by thanking y’all for having us. We appreciate this opportunity to speak about our work. My cousin Alex and I have always had a good relationship and we continue to grow closer as we’ve gotten older. The idea for a collaborative project came about in 2019 when Alex and I took a trip up the east coast from Durham, NC, where I live, to NYC to visit my brother some friends. Initially there wasn’t a strong apparent structure in mind just an idea to create something out of the images we made during the trip.
As a publisher, I am always drawn to physical objects. What made you want to take this project and turn it into a hand-held object? What was this process like and what did you learn from it?
Alex: I was quick to be on board with the creation of something physical. Images in physical form just hit a bit differently. It is also more a timeless offering which contrasts well with the creation of something that serves as a time stamp.
Vann: I’m quite interested in working with other artists to create something tangible. You can look at images on a screen but the experience of having it in your hand and being able to touch it is something else entirely, something that I have a lot of respect for and greatly appreciate. As for the process, at times I wasn’t sure this was actually going to come into being. It took a while to get all the moving parts in sync. Alex lives in San Diego, Kam lives in New York City, and I live in Durham. Aside from being physically apart we all have jobs that keep us busy for the better part of the day. Essentially Alex and I chose the work that we wanted in the project, we edited those images down together based on what we thought worked and complimented the images. I did the layout and sequencing with input from Alex. Alex and I are both admirers of my brother’s work so we knew right away that we wanted Kam to make something for the cover, it just had to be.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while creating this book and then turning it into the final physical form?
Vann: I’ve made smaller projects before but never used indesign like I did for Cousins so learning the software was probably the biggest learning curve that I faced, that and actually getting the money together for printing. Theres never enough money for artistic pursuits, but you learn to deal without and make livable compromises.
The cover of the book is really eye-catching. Can you speak on that a little bit? Was this also a collaboration or did one person take the lead here?
Kam: I work as a graphic designer and video artist, so I was excited when Alex and Vann asked me to come up with something compelling for the cover. They had the idea of creating a pattern using their faces and I ran with it. I started making printouts of their faces and put them through a series of distortion processes by manipulating them on a flatbed scanner, digitally altering them, and printing them out again. While the cover is intentionally in visual contrast to the photos inside, it still plays with the idea of the malleability of time, a motif present throughout the book.
Alex: I would say working in collaboration to find a common theme required a lot of back and forth over a long period of time. We would have to navigate our schedules and time zones; have a meeting, poke at it, let it stew, repeat. I think that process had its benefit as it allowed for a lot of contemplation on image choice and theme.
So this Fall you are starting the next chapter of your career at graduate school. Are you excited? Nervous? What are you most looking forward to over the next few years in your program?
Vann: Thats right! Ill be starting my MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. Excited is an understatement, Ha! If I could start tomorrow I would. I’d say I was more nervous that I wouldn’t actually get into any programs, so at this point I’m just ready to meet my cohort and dive in. The MFA EDA at Duke has a strong foundation in analogue methods so I very much look forward to learning and incorporating alternative processes into my practice.
Do you think that you will continue to produce small-run publications within your practice?
Vann: If I don’t, someone needs to come and smack some sense into me! But in all seriousness, yes, I’m currently working on a small zine that includes the work of photographers who are friends of mine and who I have a lot of respect for. And then, and this is kind of a teaser, I’m working with a small independent publisher on a project that is near and dear to my heart and should be coming out later this year.
Do you still have copies of Cousins available? If so where can our readers find them?
Vann: I believe there are around twenty copies left. If anyone is interested in getting a copy they can go to the shop on my website or you’re more than welcome to DM me on instagram with your address, ill shoot you my PayPal or Venmo and you’ll have a copy in about a week or so, depending on Uncle Sam.
To view more of Vann Powell’s work and to grab a copy of Cousins, please visit his website.