L.A.'s folk tribe
Devendra Banhart and Lauren Dukoff walk around the Space 15 Twenty gallery in Hollywood, giggling. Friends since they met at Malibu High School 10 years ago, the pair, who call each other Obi (Banhart’s middle name) and Lo, are also artistic collaborators: Dukoff has been photographing the indie folkie-turned-major-label-star since Banhart was spending his afternoons practicing piano in the high school music room.
The photos collected in her new book, “Family,” offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of Banhart and an ever-widening creative tribe that has formed here in L.A. (An exhibition at Space 15 Twenty, up through Aug. 16, features a selection of the images, along with original artwork by Banhart and others.)
Spanning the period from May 2006 until late last year, “Family” follows Banhart from stages around the world -- including a headlining gig at Carnegie Hall -- to private moments writing at his desk and playing guitar on the deck of his Topanga Canyon home, where sketches, lyrics and found art decorate every wall, and the crimson velvet couch was said to have belonged to Jim Morrison.
Wearing sandals, bell-bottom jeans and a vest in one shot, and suspenders and sunny yellow jazz oxfords in another, Banhart also reveals the original fashion sensibility that has inspired international designers such as Roberto Cavalli and Karl Lagerfeld and local names like Trasteverine and South Paradiso.
Although she’d taken hundreds -- if not thousands -- of photographs of her friend, it wasn’t until 2006 that Dukoff started to think of this work in professional terms. She was working for Autumn DeWilde, a photographer also known for her intimate portraits of musicians whom Dukoff considers a mentor, and when Banhart was invited to curate the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England, DeWilde asked her why she wasn’t going. “I said, ‘Why would I go?’ ” Dukoff remembers. “And she said, ‘To shoot it!’ ”
As a credentialed photographer, Dukoff captured Banhart roaming the dunes at Camber Sands during his down time, and then shirtless and sweaty backstage, with his arms around his fellow band members and a wine glass dangling loosely from his fingers. Back in L.A., she also visited the homes of other musicians in this bohemian circle. In the pages of “Family,” Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro, who are two-thirds of Little Joy, relax in bed. Matteah Baim pulls a feathered hat down over her eyes in one shot and throws her guitar off a Malibu cliff in another.
Although their musical styles range from psychedelic blues to bossa nova, each of these artists has a uniquely L.A. sensibility as well, drawing inspiration from the histories of the neighborhoods they live in, the natural beauty surrounding them and the mystical currents that many feel are still reverberating from the ‘60s. This energy in turn has drawn even more artists and musicians to the West Coast.
Dukoff aimed to capture this “rebirth.” “It’s an energy you can feel,” she says. “People are being brought together by all this collaboration and friendship and art . . . and work! If they’re not recording they’re touring, if they’re not touring they’re writing. It’s nonstop. It actually makes me dizzy to think about.”
Much as one might like to pin a label on this group -- are they neo-folkies? Psych rockers? Hippies? -- it’s a bit simplistic to give one name to the host of styles and inspirations that’s at play. Even Banhart, once considered the “freak folk” pied piper (and shown above reaching to the sky), has recently been more influenced by Tropicalia and classic rock.
“I don’t even know what the word hippie means anymore, quite honestly,” Dukoff says. “I think the word folk -- and I’ve heard Devendra say this too -- folk is the people’s music. It’s not about a particular sound; it’s about making honest music.”
By this definition, Dukoff is a folk photographer, able to fluctuate from grainy black-and-white candids to a flamboyantly styled and posed homage to the Cockettes for Banhart’s last album, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.”
The musician stands studying this image of himself and his bandmates tarted up like the late ‘60s San Francisco performance troupe, covered in satin and glitter.
“You’re really good at interpreting the vibe of the music, the essence of the music, Lo,” he says. “To quote Francis Bacon, the duty of the artist is to deepen the mystery. With photography, you’re revealing something but you’re obscuring something at the exact same time. You deepen the mystery really well.”