Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Stella Gelardi Malfilatre. Featured photograph by Pooneh Ghana.
It’s perhaps telling that Alex Cameron launched his solo music career with a high-concept act that involved adopting the persona of a failed musician. But since his debut album, which he released for free in 2013, he’s been anything but a failure, touring with acts like Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Angel Olsen, plus establishing a musical collaboration (and friendship) with The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. We caught up with him to talk family secrets, porn as inspiration and, of course, what he loves about Polaroid film. Cameron notes, “I write about the outlier, the table-for-one guy, the guy whose life is a constellation of microscopic tragedies. Failure has been underexplored in music. My characters come from a place where ambition, crippling self-doubt and tragedy intersect.”
You’re known for being a musician, but your style on stage and music videos show that you as an artist have a strong sense of cinematography and storytelling. How important is this for you and your work?
It’s really important. I’ll tell you how I know. When I was a teenager, I used to watch scrambled porn on my parents’ subscription TV. They hadn’t paid for the adult channel, so it was all static, but the sound was still there. And for me, that just wasn’t good enough. Or, when I’m on a plane, I find myself watching movies on other people’s screens, without the audio. Same difference. You think I like that? Sitting there trying to imagine what Danny Glover is yelling at Mel Gibson as they fall from the top of a skyscraper? Well, I don’t like it. I wanna be patched in. I want the full audiovisual experience. I can make do when they’re separate, but frankly, I prefer them together. Same with my work. The sounds and the pictures dancing together.
Where does your interest in visual storytelling come from? Do you have any memories of being a kid that you can see resonates with how you tell stories today? Making movies with your friends on your dad’s VHS camera kind of vibe?
That’s a nice vision. Here’s the thing though: old Peter Cameron never owned a single video camera. He’s a photo man. He has all these old Nikon that his dad, my popa, bought in Hong Kong. Now it turns out Popa Cameron wasn’t a straight-up white guy like I assumed. I only found that out recently though. I thought all our cameras and Chinese artifacts were from my parents’ honeymoon. Turns out they were family heirlooms. I asked my dad one time, we were eating fried rice on a bench in the city, “Dad what’s with all the swords and dragons?” He says, “Well my dad was half Chinese.” Which I guess makes me 4/32nds Chinese or something. I’m not saying all Chinese people take good photos. But this particular one did, and he was my grandfather.
You shoot a lot of Polaroid images. What is it about them that you love and why?
Buying a box of Polaroid film is like buying a box of fireworks. Same way shooting a good one feels like it could take your finger off. I can shoot a Polaroid, and watch it develop over time, and think, “Damn I don’t think I could have written that in a song.” I couldn’t have captured that in a jar. A Polaroid is everything I wish I could do in a song, but in a moment.
Also, I know that you often sell Polaroid images as merch when you’re on tour.
I’ve done a lot of things for money. I’ve delivered pizzas. Shredded documents. Assisted labs in scientific laser research. I even worked at Foot Locker wearing one of those basketball referee shirts. But music is the first job I had that didn’t make me wanna call up the mental health hotline at the end of the day. Thing is, the money is not as consistent as all those other jobs. Jobs that are rewarding and enjoyable don’t pay out as easy. That’s why I sell my photos. Cause I wanna pay off my debt. And I wanna pay my rent. And I wanna be able to fly out see my girl who’s a beautiful single mother and take her kids to Disneyland for the day. And I wanna be able to give people a piece of something real in the process.
Why is it that you are able to give them away and not keep them for yourself?
I heard once that a hungry musician is a good musician. I don’t eat all that regularly. I never had a massive appetite and my antidepressants seem to have slowed my metabolism even more. I guess what I take from that old saying is that the best way to excel at your trade is make sure that you have to do it. There has to be something on the line. You have to be playing music for your next meal. Or I have to be shooting so that someone can take my photo and hang it on their wall. The quality has to be good. And the spirit of what you’re doing has to appear. In my experience the spirit relaxes around necessity. I do all these things because without them there’s nothing else.
How do you choose your subjects and why?
My girlfriend is a particularly inspiring individual. She has motivated some of the world’s most famous photographers to pick up their cameras just by walking into the room. Then she starts to talk and you realize that actually, she’s the kind of beauty that you want to take on a road trip for months and spend all your film documenting a hopefully flourishing love affair. It has something to do with her eyes. They’re a denim blue. And she smokes cigarettes in a way that makes them smell good. I love taking photos of her. It happens so that most other photographs I take are in preparation of being with her again. If I take a landscape or a photo of a herd of cattle, I’m just framing shapes and trying to find a moment worth cherishing.
What’s in the pipeline for you? Can we expect more photography?
I have ambitions. I said I’d think about marriage once I have $70K in the bank. I’d also like to commission my own portrait. A series of paintings of myself. Let’s say five of them. Large. I’d like to tear up the carpet in this apartment. Feels like there’d be some kind of nice timber under there. I want to take Polaroid after Polaroid until I don’t have any more boxes left to fill. Then I want to buy more boxes. And I’m gonna make records until I make one so good people call up asking the radio to stop playing it cause they’ve heard enough and it’s actually starting to make them sad.
If you could give Polaroid Originals one of your images, which one would it be?
One of me dressed as a cowboy standing over a canyon dancing as the sun sets.