Garrett Cornelison’s Instagram name is also his philosophy in life. He believes — despite everything — that the world is “Really Kind Of Amazing.” And whether he’s traveling to all 50 states taking portraits of people, or finding the beauty in his own backyard, his eyes are open to amazingness all around him.
Cornelison’s photographs are bright, warm, and filled with the vibrant colors. They have a certain magnetic quality that leave you feeling like you too would see beauty everywhere… if only you could just slow down a little.
Last week, Garrett and I spoke about his work and what struck me about him was how genuinely he loves what he does and the people he gets to meet. He’s incredibly easy going, letting the journey guide him to the subjects and places that he captures. We talked about about his start in photography, his wild trip documenting all of the United States, and his feelings of wanting to do more since the election.
So what would you say started your love of photography?
It was a photograph for an arts festival in Denver, Colorado when I was pretty young. You’ve probably seen this photograph before, but I saw the picture of the gargoyle overlooking Paris. It’s a pretty common photo in that arts festival world. But anyways, I couldn’t afford to buy it and so I decided that instead of trying to beg, borrow, or steal for that photograph that I would just go take that shot myself.
It started me thinking about that journey as a photographer. It would be a long time before I’d end up taking that photograph. But I think that was the thing that triggered my brain.
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When I was young, walking through an outdoor arts festival I encountered one of those booths. The one where the guy, with the sharp goatee and the funky glasses, the bright patterned shirt and cargo shorts had traveled all over the world and collected souvenirs. Souvenirs turned "fine art" from those self-guided field trips that started at $550 framed / $200 unframed. This artist had wrinkles that told of overnight cross country train rides. He had a smile that told of his countless conversations with strangers. He had hands that told of entire days spent in dark rooms processing old memories. He also had a framed black and white image overlooking the Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame de Paris. Something from that image spoke to me, or maybe it was just my adolescent fascination with gargoyles. Either way I had no means with which to purchase this cliched masterpiece. But instead the roughly $30 I did have, I solemnly swore, would go directly to taking that picture myself someday. That opportunity would finally come years later while studying abroad in college. A trip that I returned home from, with 54 rolls of undeveloped film I couldn't afford to process (along with a passion for photography that would one day become a career) As a Christmas present that year my parents gifted me those photos. And in that pile of memories was this image – and one of those gee-golly reminders that we really can do anything we set our mind to and that this image, if purchased from that art fair that day would have been an exquisite wall-hanging but without the experience of my overnight train trips and conversations with strangers it would've just been another photograph.
Did you go to school for photography? Or did you sort of learn it along the way?
I just learnt it along the way. There was a semester in college where I studied in Europe. My opportunity came to get that photograph from the tower of Notre Dame. I came back with that image, along with 54 rolls of film from my adventures and decided that I clearly had a problem that wasn’t going away anytime soon.
I went to school for advertising and marketing, and I did that for a while … Before going into screen printing and graphic design which came after school and after advertising. For six years, I helped a screen printing shop do design and custom screen printing and web design. But then I decided in 2012 that I would venture out with my friend, Theron, on a documentary project and book tour (which was a photo book of his dog Maddie standing on things) for a whole entire year where we would travel to all 50 states. (It was called) “This Wild Idea.” And so that was my big plunge into photography full time. So it started off with a lot of travel and documentary work.
I loved the day to day. Meeting people, strangers, and asking to make their portrait or shooting landscapes and watching the landscapes slowly change across America over the course of the year-that led me to meeting all sorts of people and opportunities started opening up from there.
With that project, how did you guys pick your subjects and how did you pick what places you were going to in every state?
Well, we had the framework for the tour … Made possible by the publishing company. They scheduled these book store signings and appearances for Maddie which would fill up all across the country. We had, generally, where we needed to be for the book signing. And then within that framework we would have to call ahead or publish to our social media saying we need a subject in Oregon and we’re going to be here for the next week.
We would just produce it on the road, on the fly. It was kind of hectic, but it was fun that way. And sometimes we would just roll into town and start asking around. We just pieced it together as we went.
What’s one of your favorite stories from that trip? And what’s one of your favorite photographs that you took?
One of my favorite places we went to is- we ended up hiking a glacier in Matanuska in Alaska. It was just Theron and I, and he’s got this bright orange, polar coat. Just walking through this beautiful frozen landscape of this slowly moving glacier.
I remember the day we went, we were very ill prepared to hike this glacier. And we were the only ones there! We had no one to look at and say “oh…we don’t look like them, we’re not dressed like them. We’re sorely prepared to hike up this frozen mountain.” I’m not even sure I had proper gloves. We’re just thinking “oh we’ll just go walk around,” but it was this pretty intense hike … made even more intense by our desire to photograph it. So we were pretty aggressively trying to get in and get up to spots, and see what was around the next bend, and see what was over the next crevice. We started hiking this thing and … long story short, Theron ended up sliding down this frozen mountain —
— to the rocks below. He got going pretty quickly down that icy slide. Probably fell 25-30 feet, and I thought we were going to have to helicopter him out, but he was just a little shook up. And we both made it out alive, but that was kind of exciting. It was the end of our trip so it was a symbolic place to be-climbing this seemingly impossible frozen hill –and then actually getting up to it … At the end of this long, long year on the road, it felt like this “we did it” kind of moment.
What projects are you working on right now?
Currently, the project that I’m most excited about is a color series with my girlfriend (who styles and has a really great wardrobe and loves to thrift shop). We’ve started charting colors in our neighborhood, Venice Beach, on Venice Boulevard — this busy thorough-fare in West L.A. I just started really appreciating the colors (on Venice). I’ve always loved color and shape … and figures. But I started appreciating them specifically on this strip that I would travel often. And I also think that as much as I love landscape photography and architectural photography and things like that, I always feel like those photographs are missing a beating heart, literally.
It’s always really important to me to have that human element and play with environments … and people together. So we started matching people in the same colors as these environments. And it’s a super simple idea but there’s so much to coordinate and think about in terms of getting a model, finding the exact color that we need for the wall and having that all come together in the right way. It’s like a mega-coordination effort, but when it happens it’s really rewarding. It’s been really fun … There’s a wall with a little four step stoop and a railing, and to match the shoes with the wall, and the pants with the railing, and the shirt with the shutters, it’s down to every detail. It’s been really fun to play with that and see how far we can take it.
We’re charting Venice now, but we want to expand it to different areas in L.A. And so eventually, I would love to see all of L.A. charted and what does that look like? Put colors down on a map and see what L.A. looks like by color, and have a photograph of that area to represent it. I think that would just be a neat way to look at L.A. It’s just such a wildly diverse city from mid city to Korea town to Echo Park to Venice. What do those neighborhoods look like in color?
What inspires you as a photographer?
Like I said, color’s a big one. I think it’s pretty simple. It, usually for me, just comes down to color and light. I’m not sure photographers see the world differently. I think we just stop and maybe stare at it a little longer. And I think we just inspect it further.
So if we see this dappled light on the sidewalk from the sun shining through the leaves, we might stop and look at that and take a video of it, or take a photo of it, or ask our friend to step into it and make their portrait. I think somebody else would walk past that, and probably see that too, but not really think about being able to use it for something.
If you’re doing it right, literally inspiration’s everywhere. Especially with this (color project), I’m constantly inspired now by dirty alleys that have color, you know?
Are you constantly pulling over the car?
Oh, all the time. Yeah, I’m the worst to try to get somewhere with. That’s the thing. Just being willing to investigate further. (Someone else)-they might not look at it and be like “Oh, I can make art from that.” But it’s just about taking a little deeper look.
That goes along with your Instagram name “Really Kind Of Amazing.” It seems like you see the world in-not necessarily rose-colored glasses… but that you see amazing things all around you. Can you talk a little bit about your Instagram name?
Sure. Yeah, sometimes I have trouble explaining it. Every once in a while somebody’s like “oh, is that what you think you are?” No! It was never meant to describe me or my photography. But instead, it was a reaction to another trip I took with another photographer. I was on a short-term sabbatical from my job. This was right before I sort of threw it all away to be a freelance photographer.
I went on a trip through eight states and it lasted for a month, and we lived in my van. And we just traveled around, met people, shook their hand, and photographed them. And we told their stories on a a blog called “Really Kind Of Amazing.” That was the term that a friend of mine would use, not ironically, she would (just say) everything was “really, kind of amazing.” And I was like “you know, that’s an oxymoron, right? Really kind of?” But it was.
And the people that we met along the way had such generosity. People, strangers, would open their homes to us, their lives, and let us document things and make dinner for us. It was just these small acts of kindness that we would encounter. Everything was really, kind of amazing. And it just stuck.
Has everything that happened with the election and everything that’s happening with the country right now affected your photography in any way? Or affected the way you want to present your art?
Yes, absolutely. The short answer is yes, but I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet.
I know my beliefs and my thoughts and what I feel is important , but I haven’t yet formulated what that looks like for me. I don’t want it to look and feel like the same as everyone else’s. I don’t want to just put out photos of handmade posters from a march. Which has become the visualization of what it feels like right now. And I think it’s important, but I also think we’re sort of awash with that right now. And, now you’re starting to see really heart-wrenching portraits of people seeking refuge. And that’s starting to get at the heart of what I would love to do. To document real life experience.
I feel like when I go back and look and my work, and when people talk about my work, they often say, “Oh, you, kind of showed, not what it was like to be there, but what it felt like to be there.” And I think that’s my job, as a photographer, as a documentarian, to just go a little bit further, and not say oh this is a clever sign and a group of protestors, but what did it really feel like to be there at that protest? What does it really feel like for that person seeking refuge to live in an America that doesn’t feel welcoming any more.
We don’t have the same levity of “oh, everything’s gonna be okay.” I feel that artists in general are feeling this task, kind of this responsibility to say “oh shit, I mean I always knew that I needed to use my voice for good, but now it’s imperative.”