DIRTY BOY: DEVIN ELIJAH

BEANTOWN PHOTOGRAPHER (AND BUTT TOWEL STAR) DEVIN ELIJAH SHEDS A FEW LAYERS FOR DIRTY AND TELLS US ABOUT WANDERLUST, WORKING FOR MARC ECKO AND GETTING RECOGNIZED IN THE LOCKER ROOM.
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY Paul Bruno

 

 

DEVIN ELIJAH: What’s up?!

DIRTY: NOT MUCH! – HOW’S YOUR WEEKEND GOING?

DE: Good, nursing my sick boyfriend… drinking red wine, post Harry Potter flick.

 

D: HOW WAS THE MOVIE?

DE: The usual eternal battle between dark & light, loved it!

 

D: WAS IT IN 3-D?

DE: No… all 3-d technology makes me nauseous.

 

D: LET’S START OUT AT THE BEGINNING – TELL ME WHERE YOU WERE BORN & GREW UP.

DE: I was born in a city outside of Boston, called Brockton, also known as the hood. I eventually became one of those somewhat self imposed orphans passing through different towns throughout my teens. So I grew up everywhere and nowhere. But the easy answer is Boston.

I’ve been in New York for 4 years…it was an education, like Carey Mulligan had… so in some ways I grew up in NY as well.

 

D: BY SELF IMPOSED ORPHAN, DO YOU MEAN TO SAY YOU WERE SORT OF OUT LOOKING TO BE INDEPENDENT AT A YOUNG AGE? WERE THERE ISSUES AT HOME THAT SENT YOU OUT SO YOUNG?

DE: (Laughs) Asked like a true journalist. Digging beneath the surface?

 

D: ALWAYS SIFTING!

DE: My mother passed away in 1990. My father raised me and my three siblings — I’m the youngest, I was itching, ya know? From very early on to find a gay identity, an artist identity. I split at 15 without looking back.

 


 

D: SO YOU BOUNCED AROUND BOSTON UNTIL ENDING UP IN NYC?

DE: Bounced around the Bean… then wound up in Southern California, where I took a semester of photography classes, then migrated to New York.

 

D: IS THAT WHEN YOU STARTED SHOOTING, WHEN YOU WERE IN CALIFORNIA? OR WERE YOU SHOOTING BEFORE THEN?

DE: It was around that time. I picked up my first cheap 35mm maybe a year before… I thought I would be a writer. Or a RAPPER! (Laughs)  I kind of stumbled into photography. There’s the age old idea that we inherit the character traits of our parents for better or worse or in between. I think the “worst” thing that I inherited from my father was a sense of rootlessness, he was the quintessential San Fransiscan ’70s hippie, young, black, eccentric and I’m probably some modern day black, gay, Jew facsimile of him. At the age of 27, I still wonder how well I understand the concept of home. On the flip side, that said sense of rootlessness is at the core of my work, so it may equally be the best thing I inherited from him. That and the aforementioned cheap 35mm camera.

So to come back from my tangent, I started shooting when my father gave me my first camera around age 18.

 

D: DESCRIBE FIRST ARRIVING TO NEW YORK FOR ME — YOUR FIRST DAYS HERE.

DE: My first days in New York? Cliché, I know, but Madonna-esqe maybe? I came with $100 In my pocket, slept on a friends floor for three months, got a job at an artist facility at their front desk and subsequently got robbed at gunpoint by a man in ski mask.

 

D: OOF! AROUND WHAT YEAR ARE WE TALKING?

DE: Early 2007.

 

D: MAKING YOU HOW OLD?

DE: My 27th birthday was in early December.

 

D: A PUP! SO AROUND 2007 YOU END UP IN NYC.

DE: Yea… just a babe in a bassinet.

 

D: HAD YOU ALREADY CREATED AN EARLY BODY OF PHOTO WORK BY THIS POINT? WHY DID YOU LEAVE CALIFORNIA?

DE: Yes. I hadn’t even stepped foot in a studio, I was still kinda fumbling my way around a camera, but it was all hands on learning from my genesis in the city. California was just a pit stop. I had to go there, to make it to here. All that “life is not linear crap…,” it’s not really crap, just sounds like it is. (Laughs) I didn’t know I would end up in New York, but what did John Cameron Mitchell write? “New York is where everyone comes to be forgiven.” It sounded too romantic to pass.

 

 

D: HOW HAS YOUR WORK GROWN?

DE: It’s become more technically refined — maturation of self, hence maturation of art. There’s usually an element of darkness… darkness with a purpose. Anytime I photograph someone, even if just a snapshot, I’m searching for myself in them. Like the photograph is, or could be, a physical manifestation of how my world is spinning at that moment. My work is self reflection, my means of teaching myself about or reminding myself of who I am.

To be more literal in regard to changing, my work has shifted immensely from digital to analog. I’m learning much more about the moment and appreciating lack of control form shooting polaroid.

 

D: DO YOU CONVERSELY LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF FROM YOUR SUBJECTS?

DE: No doubt a true portrait may not exist without verbal exchange. Whether the final edit comes form the moments in which walls fall down or go up on either side of the subject/photographer conversation.

 

D: WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING FOR MARC ECKO? HOW’D YOU LAND THAT GIG?

DE: I’ve shot a handful of celebrities as well as Marc himself in the space of a few months. Doing Marc’s portrait on the roof of a Flatiron building with the Empire State Building as backdrop..it felt very “New York” to say the least. A far cry from getting robbed at gunpoint in Bushwick 3 years ago, which is quite “New York” in it’s own way.

I landed the gig through a combination of good timing and a series of creative projects. I got an email from them while I was in London asking if I had experience shooting video, which I honestly had absolutely none. But of course I had to fake the funk and tell them “yes.” So I literally came home to New York, drew up a rough storyboard, rented a camera, got an actor and shot and edited my first short film in a matter of a weekend.

 

D: I WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE BUTT TOWEL — HOW’D THAT HAPPEN FOR YOU?

DE: One of the fellas at BUTT rang me up to see if I would be part of the project; next thing I know I’m naked and holding my junk in front of a camera in a Chinatown photo studio. (Laughs) I suppose it went relatively viral. I literally had strangers from Germany and beyond messaging me online saying they were enjoying sprawling themselves out on “Towel Devin.” I wonder how I’ll feel when I look back 20 years from now. I think the possibility of future nostalgia is sometimes as good a reason as any to do some things.

 

D: DO PEOPLE RECOGNIZE YOU IN PUBLIC FROM THE TOWEL? LIKE OUT AT BARS, ON THE STREETS?

DE: Yes… they have. And in the locker room at the gym!

 

D: THAT’S KIND OF HOT!

DE: Hot. Comical. Or both?

 

 

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