Valerie J. Bower Interview

Valerie’s photography shows a side of Los Angeles that many people are unaware of. The first time that I came across her work, I immediately thought she would be a great person to interview for Snapshot Galleria. Take a few minutes to read her interview and then be sure to follow her via Instagram at: @valeriejocelyn.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what got you into photography.

My name is Valerie J. Bower and I’m a street and documentary photographer. I got into photo a few years after high school. Just playing around with the camera and taking all the typical starter photos everyone takes when they first begin shooting, like photos of friends, bands, cliche street photos. Ha ha. Then, about 4 or 5 years ago, I sort of had a mental break down. I was really fragile and I became angry with everything and everyone around me. All the personal issues I’d suppressed had finally reached a breaking point. During this time, I was still photographing, and photo helped me see how negative I was with everything. I would get my film back and see how ugly the photos were! Ha ha. Like, literally and figuratively ugly. Photo played a part in helping me deal with everything, by being a mirror for what was inside. I knew I had to fix that. Then, when I started to heal, my photos and subject matter started to change, again… Now, cut to a few years later and I’m here. At this point in my life, I know who I am and where I come from. I learned to develop my own style and find my lane as far as subject matter, and create work that’s true to me.

Can you give us some background about the project you submitted (series title, location, inspiration, etc…)?

These photos are from a Tuesday night hop that happened a few months ago here in LA. I got word about this earlier that day, so after work I went home, grabbed my camera and film and headed straight over. Night shots like these are my favorite. I use my flash and just keep shooting. I love how solid black the backgrounds are. It almost makes the subjects appear out of pitch black. The hops are so much fun, though. People can get so heated. It really is a competition and people want those trophies, belts, and money. I’ve filmed a couple of arguments on my phone for Instagram, but at the end of the night, it’s all good. On this night, I overheard one of the older guys say “This is fun for me. This is my life.” That really hit me, and I’ll never forget what he said. I wish I would’ve recorded that moment because he said it so candidly. It’s not like someone like me went up and asked him about it. He genuinely said it. There’s so much passion and love for these cars and lowrider events within the community. It really is their life and I have so much respect for everyone involved.

What draws you to the subjects you photograph? How do you approach documenting the people you come across?

I got inspired again within the last two years when people were connecting with my photos of the neighborhoods, cultures, and people of LA. After doing the Long Beach Zine Fest for the first time in 2015, I heard the instant feedback. Being a girl who grew up in Wilmington, which people perceive as a “bad neighborhood”, I started to look inward for inspiration and focused strictly on these overlooked areas and people in LA. It made me question why they were being forgotten or disregarded, and deemed unimportant. And now recently, with LA neighborhoods becoming more and more gentrified, all of a sudden these areas become hot real estate? It’s kind of a slap in the face. This all became motivation for me. I want to flip what people generalize as a bad neighborhood, and make art out of the real images we see, or grew up seeing, on a daily basis. I want to bring these environments to the forefront, into the gallery, and in the pages of a zine or book. I want people who grew up like me to see my work. Maybe it could motivate someone or change their perspective. That’s the inspiration for all the photos I’m taking. I have huge respect for all the people and places I photograph. I never want to take “ironic” photos, or make images that tease or humiliate a person or culture. It’s disrespectful. My work is all about pride, respect, and nostalgia. There’s a deeper meaning than just a “cool photo.”

Tell us a little bit about your workflow. Favorite film stocks, cameras, etc.

The main SLR camera I use is a Minolta x-700 that my dad bought for me at a swap meet years ago. I just bought new lenses and added an external flash for it. It’s my favorite and go-to reliable camera. I also use a point-n-shoot Ricoh camera that I found at a thrift store. It’s been working so well for me that I went on eBay and bought a back-up, in case this one (knock on wood) breaks down. For film, I started out buying generic brand color film I dug up at a local 99 Cent store. This was years ago. Then I bought film on sale at drug stores. I know film snobs right now are probably like “Oh, no”, but at the time this was all I could afford. Now I use Kentmere brand black and white film that I buy online from B&H. I also started with it because it’s cheap, but I ended up really liking it. Now, I use it for everything. I get the film developed at Fromex in Long Beach (I love that lab!), negatives only, and scan all the film myself. It’s really time consuming, so I usually scan after work or while I’m watching TV, and on the weekends when I have time. Photography is expensive, so I have to be smart about it and make do with what I can. That’s been the basis for my work flow, my choices of cameras, film, and creating zines.

In your opinion, what’s the best thing about photography in Los Angeles?

LA is and will always be home for me. I want to document it and dive into different areas, and cultures and scenes in LA. There’s so much to photograph here. You can do so many separate projects. I think that’s what I’ve slowly been doing. I try to come up with different bodies of work that connect with each other but are separate entities, all under the umbrella of Los Angeles. So far, I’ve made zines about East Los punk kids, a Bully dog show, Long Beach, the metro Blue Line, and so many zines about Lowriders. I’m not even close to being done yet. I want to show that LA is not just Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Malibu. I think there’s so much more interesting things going on, and people are dealing with real issues. But, who knows, maybe one day I’ll have to do a project on those rich areas, as contrast to the work I’m more passionate about… Hmm. Anyways, I’m always brainstorming.

Would you like to add anything else? (Upcoming shows, zines, projects, etc)

I’m working on a new zine called Girls L.A. Hopefully it will release sometime this fall. Also, I’ll be showing some work in San Francisco, as part of a group show called “If It Wasn’t for the West”. It’s happening at Debonair Barber, 520 Haight Street, on Friday August 26th, from 7 to 10 pm. This will be my first time showing in San Francisco, so I’m excited for this one! Other than that, I’m always trying to create and do something new. I post everything on my Instagram @valeriejocelyn, if anyone wants to see more. Thank you Snap Shot Galleria.