François Truffaut once wrote, “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them. It may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation…and it will be enjoyable because it will be true, and new […] The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.” No art form captures the fragility and authenticity of life quite like photography and filmmaking and Malia James’ work can be seen as an unpretentious celebration of the fullness of love in its most universal form. Recording her life and the life of the people around her, the American artist opens up an intense narrative based around the sense of intimacy, tenderness and vulnerability of human experience. Malia James is not only an exceptionally skilled photographer, TV host and director. She also happens to be a wonderful musician. Nowadays, Malia is the new bass player of California-based band Dum Dum Girls who successfully directed the music video for the song “Coming Down” off of their second album, Only in Dreams. We were lucky enough to have her sit down with us and talk about her work, ambition and dedication to music.
Welcome Malia, your work encompasses a wide range of fields from portraiture to landscape photography and music photojournalism. How and when did you become interested in photography?
I started taking pictures when I was really young with a point and shoot pink Capri camera or my grandfather’s Polaroid. When I was in middle school I decided I wanted to make movies, but we didn’t have film classes, so I took Photography and started working in theater thinking I could combine the skills later. I stopped taking classes after high school and just learned by shooting after that.
My life and surroundings changed a lot as a child and nothing felt very stable or permanent, so I think I started taking photos to try and hold onto things a bit. I’m a memory collector.
Do you shoot predominantly with film or digital? What does your equipment consist of?
Though I was the last person I know to cross over, I’m mostly shooting digital these days. It’s not practical financially for me to shoot film anymore, sadly. Also, now that I’m shooting as much video as I am still, it’s nice to be able to travel with just my 5D and a Contax T3. I really miss using all of my film cameras though- I have quite a collection. I miss waiting to pick film up from the lab. I miss cutting up contact sheets and using bad frames as backgrounds in my journal. There’s a romanticism to film, but digital really does make life much easier.
One of our favourite series of yours is Last Days. There is something so familiar, still, gentle and eloquent about those pictures. They also fondly remind us of William Eggleston whose portrayal of everyday objects was charged with a deeper, inward significance. What can you tell us about this series?
I was estranged from my father’s side of the family for a long time and only got to know my paternal grandfather again in his last few years alive while he battled cancer. These photos are from Christmas we spent at his house, which I had never visited before. I knew, on some level, it would be my last time seeing him and took pictures of everything around the house, trying to piece together the story of who he was. I had so many memories of him as a child, but this was my first time seeing him in his environment as an adult.
Ironically enough, I was in a meeting recently and the woman said “this series doesn’t show any emotion or perspective to me. These seem very disposable.” I quietly laughed to myself.
Your photographs are often accompanied by a series of personal descriptions – see Last Days or Pulling Pigtails. Does photography inspire your writing, or vice versa? Would you sometimes consider the juxtaposition of languages, in this case words and images as an integral element of your photographic composition?
The titles always come after and it’s usually my way of simply reinforcing the message. Choosing a title is fun for me, so I’m happy to know someone noticed! I really enjoy picking titles for things I post on Instagram (@maliapjames).
What do you think is the best photograph you’ve ever taken?
I don’t think I have a best shot or a best anything, but I have a lot of “favorites” and “classics” sometimes for technical reasons and other times for the moment that I captured.
Malia, you’re also a musician. You’ve been involved as bassist in various musical projects with Little Death, Marnie Stern, The Black Ryder, Green Eyes and now Dum Dum Girls. How did you get started playing the bass? How is it different working on visual art projects compared to music? Do you think there is a difference? What are the advantages of each for you?
I spent the first part of my life working in every facet of music- managing, tour managing, publicity, photography, websites, etc. Music has always been so inspiring to me and, since everyone I knew was already so skilled at playing, I had given up on trying to become a musician.
When I moved to London at 26 and couldn’t afford to go out, I decided to finally commit to learning, but was still failing miserably at guitar. My friend’s bass player quit when they had some shows booked so I told him to teach me how to play. I played my first show with them two weeks later and have been playing ever since.
Music and visual work cater to two different parts of my mind and soul. I need to feed them both to really feel satisfied, but I have to alternate between giving both of them all of my attention, which can be very exhausting. Coming home from tour, I’d love to be able to just lay around and do nothing, but I want to be a director, so I have to jump back into writing treatments and shooting. No rest for the wicked.
Your photography gets as much attention as your filmmaking. You directed music videos for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo and Dum Dum Girls’ Coming Down and they all have the same dark and cozy intimate feeling of most of your photographic production. How would you describe each of them? How did they come about?
Robert of BRMC has been a friend of mine for a long time. He said he felt I was really meant to be working in motion. I got a text from him around 3AM one night asking if I had an idea for a video for them. I sent him some ideas by 5AM and in the morning he said “That’s perfect. Now, you have two weeks to get it shot and edited for TV.” I am very, very particular about all the details of my projects, so I spent a lot of time handpicking everyone for the video. I wanted to capture the raw feeling found in German cinema from the 60’s/70’s and the gritty part of rock n’roll while telling the story of this young man’s last night with his love before going to jail. I shot it over a few days and we spent 24 hours straight in an office editing it- with one break for food at the gas station across the street. I slept a few hours and then worked through the night with the colorist to get it ready for MTV Europe. Making that video destroyed my health for a while, but I secretly really love pushing myself to the absolute limit for a creative project. I’ve always been that way.
Directing this video was the best way for me to start my time in the Dum Dum Girls. Directing and Photography are my main passions in life and, in order for me to play in a band, I have to be involved in creating the visual elements. It was so wonderful to collaborate with Dee Dee as well. It established a beautiful collaborative dynamic to our relationship from the start. I have so much respect for what she does musically and her whole vision for the band.
Your video for Coming Down achieves some of its powerful and dramatic effect thanks to the use of an extremely simple idea and an extensive slow-motion sequence that brilliantly simulates the emotional distance between camera and the subject, Dee Dee. Do you think there is a need for contemporary photography or filmmaking to be simpler and more immediate in communicating a strong idea or feeling?
Limitations breed creativity. We had very little money, so it had to be something incredibly simple, but powerful. I don’t think there’s a need for simplicity in this day and age, I think an idea true to the subject is what matters most- and within the budget. Really, I can’t wait to work with larger budgets. I have so many ideas I’m waiting to bring to life.
You just released a new short film series entitled ONE/ONE. Tell us more about it.
This series, ONE/ONE, is my way of capturing the intimacy I feel in a still photo shoot with someone and an off-camera interview. I’ve only cut together two episodes, but this is something I hope to do for a long time with various artists and musicians I meet around the world.
If you could travel anywhere to shoot anyone, who and where would it be?
I dream of travelling the world with the man I love and photographing our adventures together, but first I must find that person.
Do you have any new art or music projects that you’re working on right now?
Dum Dum Girls will be touring a lot in the coming months, so that is taking up most of my time. I’m making 6 videos for the release of the next Black Rebel Motorcycle album and most likely a music video for The Ravonettes. I’m showing some photos in the Billabong Design for Humanity show in LA next month as well.