Shelby Orr is an artist based in Fort Worth, Texas working in photography, video, and sound. Her work has been shown at The Masur Museum, Houston Center for Photography, Spiva Center for the Arts, and, as a finalist for the 8th Edition of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award, was included in the 2016 Berlin Foto Biennale. She recently completed a three month residency at CentralTrak: The UT Dallas Artists Residency. Along with her photographic and video work, Orr writes and performs sound compositions and is one-half of the electronic music duo KITBASHES.
DRP: Hello Shelby, Where are you from and what do you do?
SO: I am a native west Texan who has been happily transplanted in Fort Worth. When I’m not teaching art to public school kids, I find time to make photographs, videos, and music.
DRP: Tell me, how do you develop conceptual, documentary or creative projects and then go out and shoot them? Do you tend to work under strict guidelines or more fluidly?
SO: Most of my photographic work comes from carrying a camera and seeing what sparks my interest or develops naturally. I really view the photos and make less as projects and more as collections. Projects naturally ebb and flow depending on what I’m inspired by at the time. I collect images until I have a giant pile of negatives and digital files and then start sifting through them. Each project has a slightly different method of collecting, which keeps it fun and challenging.
DRP: The particular project you are bringing today, the only millionaire, is of your father. Given the nature of your relationship, was it difficult pursuing this project?
SO: Although, we've struck a balance in recent years, my dad’s long absences and unpredictable lifestyle left us without a strong foundation for any sort of relationship. At first, the project was a way of documenting strange things he’d mailed to me as a way to prove to my friends that he actually existed and that I wasn’t just making up crazy stories.
I had not seen him in many years and, when I introduced the idea of visiting him with a camera to document his life and endeavors, he really took to it. It relieved the pressure of having to “rebuild” the relationship we never really had. Since then, the camera has acted as an armature, focal point, and even a mediator for us. It’s also difficult to see these strengths and weaknesses in a parent illustrated so clearly while observing his behaviors. It made me face the strengths and weaknesses in my own adult self. As I’ve grown, I’ve done less blaming and more appreciating.
This project provided a structure for communicating where I actually had a voice and the camera became an audience for him. Mitch’s heroes have always been like himself, cinematic and larger than life. Imagine an amalgamation of John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Bruce Willis, and Judge Roy Bean. Following him around with a camera made spending time enjoyable for both of us.
In my project, "The Only Millionaire", I attempt to explore the relationship between my aging father and the his reality. His nature as a polio survivor, alcoholic, and gambling Texas oil man, led to unpredictability and long absences in my life, such as his eight year stint in in Mexico to avoid the law. Taking photographs at this stage in our relationship has created an armature to build an understanding of one another.
Mitch has a way of leaving an indelible mark on the places he inhabits, often, without permission; from pouring concrete tables inside rented Acapulco bungalows to decorating someone else's Texas border motel with his original and difficult-to-move laser cut stone. His legacies are abundant, challenging, and ultimately overlooked by those just passing by.
I've witnessed his unorthodox lifestyle, translated his stories, and collected ephemera sent by mail as proof of his bizarre conquests. This collection of photographs begins to tell the story of my father's "works-in-progress" and reflects on his own enigmatic existence. He currently resides in Langrty, Texas on the border of Mexico. This town, population 11, was made famous by the legendary Judge Roy Bean, The Law West of the Pecos, who is my father's personal hero. Mitch can often be found riding his golf cart down the highway 67.
DR: I believe there are some playful qualities in the way you title your images. Could you elaborate on your approach towards doing this?
SO: I have notepads full of bizarre phrases and interesting philosophies I heard in phone calls during the years Mitch was on the lam in Mexico, so I was already in the habit of writing down things he says. While I followed him around with my camera for this series, I kept my sketchbook with me for that purpose. He would talk to me while I was photographing and I wouldn’t be able to divorce the image from the dialogue. I went with the titles to give the viewer a sense of unpredictability and quirkiness of the man I was trying to illustrate. Even after knowing my father my entire life, what he comes up with on a daily basis still surprises me.
Some of the titles have to do with my memory of him. For example, Business calls is actually a cropped image of the bathtub he installed in the office outside of some vacant horse stalls. When I was a child, he would sit in our bathtub for hours with the portable phone making all of his oil and gas deals. I have such a strong association, when I saw the half-installed tub in his office, I couldn’t imaging titling this image like anything else.
DR: Your framing carries that same playfulness. I find a direct correlation with your father's "way of leaving an indelible mark on the places he inhabits, often, without permission." How do you find the right composition when documenting these elements?
SO: It’s impossible not to come out with something a little wacky after photographing my father and his surroundings. His sensibility and aesthetic are byproducts of his method of living day-to-day on a whim. The environments he creates for himself seem to be proof of his existence. Once he’s left a place, the evidence of his existence is undeniable. It’s always left me scratching my head, wondering how he comes up with this stuff.
I think this is illustrated in the image Anchored (Modifications) which I consider the truest portrait of my father, even though he’s not present in the frame. The composition isn’t “correct” and the balance and weight of the image both make you want to look away and keep staring at the same time. The confusing composition and subject matter left me in amazement. It makes me contemplate his effort and achievement but also have great concern for its stability. The subject could all come tumbling down at any moment but it doesn’t and I am left wondering what is my role in saving it or if it even needs saving. It’s a bit like Wile E. Coyote, after he’s run far off a cliff into the air before he even looks down. My dad just never looks down.
DR: Do you continue to photograph your father?
SO: The last time I went to photograph Mitch at the motel in Langtry, Texas was a real turning point for our relationship. I will continue to carry the camera when I see him but I feel less of a need now. We actually have a relationship to build on.
DR: Are you working on any more projects or series?
SO: I have three or four projects in-progress and even more ideas in my head. In the way of photography, I am currently working on a self-portraiture project, recreating some really amazing found images from pre-internet publications of niche subcultures. I’m fascinated by enthusiasm for enthusiasm’s sake, especially before the art of social media self-promotion. It’s also been fun to take a more performative approach to making photographs given my interest and experience performing in other mediums.
See more of Shelby Orr's work on her webpage: