Interview with Zoe Nauman about her latest series: The Lower Bottoms

by Erin Keever August 2, 2005

Like a number of photographers before her, Nauman's work exposes a very
specific group of people that some would describe as fringe or

Zoe Nauman... Butch's Burnout, West Oakland Riot... 2001...Gelatin silver print...16x20 inches

Similiar but different to work by other contemporaries, like Nikki S. Lee—who disguises herself to infiltrate different groups of people—Nauman is an integral part of this group; these are her friends. In addition to being compelled to document her surroundings, she gains inspiration from the people and things that she photographs.

Should I get the whole who your father is and how/if he's influenced you question out of the way?

Dad…let's see. My dad definitely influenced me in many ways. I've always looked up to him so much. Sometimes when I'm just messing around in the studio I'll come up with stuff that reminds me of his work. At the same time, I'm glad that what I'm doing is so different from what he does, which makes it harder to make comparisons.

When I was in high school, he would set me up in his studio with assignments, playing with lights and objects and how they work together. He gave me his 35mm camera. I also got to photograph the filming of one of the clown torture videos. That was fun. I got to keep the goldfish from that one. I also got to keep the rats from Learned Helplessness in Rats. We named them Bill and Bill. Anyway, he was always incredibly supportive in whatever I wanted to do. (Zoe's father is Bruce Nauman.)

Then how about some background on your work, for example, how long have you been taking pictures?

I started taking photographs in high school. I loved it and it was pretty much the only thing I wanted to do. I studied in Colorado and San Francisco. After I left school, I started wandering a bit. I discovered underground San Francisco, worked in nightclubs and joined a band. I spent a year touring the country and always had a camera, but it wasn't my main focus at the time.

Zoe Nauman... Fight Party #2... 2004...Gelatin silver print...16 x 20 inches

After that adventure, I got more serious about the photography again. I tried doing some commercial type stuff just to pay the bills, but it wasn't my strong point. I even did a couple weddings, but don't have the people skills for that kind of stress. I worked for a friend photographing at his nightclub, and really got into the nighttime grittiness. Over the last five or six years I've followed that path and evolved from there.

I found the group/scene shots particularly fresh, especially the intimacy they convey. Tell me more about this series.

I'm really glad that you picked up on the intimacy. In putting this show together, I was trying to show a brotherhood. As crazy as they are, and behind all the stupid shit they do, they always have each other's backs. The people in the photographs are also my friends, and the series really started from me just taking pictures of my friends, because that's what I do. The bike club and the nightclub work were both coming from the same place, and part of the same world, so seemed to go together nicely. Because I am close with my subjects; I feel I am able to catch that intimacy. Leaving the show I was struck by the big group shot in the night club ("the pit"). The diversity of the people reminded me a bit of Austin, but at the same time different, and peoples' "looks" didn't read as "fashion-y" rather (using the term warily) "authentic."

Do you want to tell me about that one?

The band is called Plan 9. They're a Misfits cover band. The lead singer is in the East Bay Rats. The venue is 924 Gilman, an infamous volunteer based, all-ages, punk rock club. Gilman was (and still is) an institution in the East Bay music scene, going back to bands like Operation Ivy and Green Day (when they were less pop and more punk). It's alcohol and drug free and I'd say the average age in that pit is about 15. And they know those songs by heart. I think that's what makes them seem so real. They're kids, and they're there for the music and only the music. While every place has a scene aspect, they're not necessarily there to be seen.The band actually asked me to come down and photograph them for an upcoming cd. I think I got a little too involved in the crowd. I have about four rolls from that night.

Okay now that we've covered your experience with the club, what about the motorcycle club? Can you explain your connection to/characterize it a little more?

The East Bay Rats have been like brothers to me. I also married one of them. I feel they would be there for me like they would for each other. I actually knew them before I met my husband and before he became a member. He likes to say that instead of them telling me not to break his heart, they told him not to break my heart. So they are very much part of my family. A lot of people will often just dismiss the club as a bunch of dumb guys who drink too much beer and whiskey and like to blow shit up and do stupid bike tricks. While they certainly like to do that stuff, I thought it was important to show that there's more to it that that. My statement on the work says this about it:


Zoe Nauman... 15th Street, West Oakland...2003...Gelatin silver print...16 x 20 inches

I put these photographs together because they tell a story of friendship built on a commonality and a basic desire to enjoy life no matter how it presents itself. Living in West Oakland's Lower Bottoms, the ghetto, there is sadness and depression all around. But here, even the most down and out will stand up and cheer at the sight of a bunch of crazy bikers dragging burning Christmas trees up and down the street. Being in a motorcycle club means always having someone to get your back. It means always having a brother, someone to talk to, someone to ride with.

The guys in the club are pretty diverse. They come from any number of backgrounds. Some have families. They range in age from early twenties to 50-something. The Rat refers to the rat bike, which is the complete opposite of the shiny new bright Japanese bikes. Take that bike, strip off all the fancy stuff, paint it flat black, ride it almost to death until it's held together with duct tape and baling wire.

What's up with the fights?

The fight parties were originally small things; everybody would gather around a mat and a couple guys would wrestle. More recently, people have started boxing. There are gloves, safety equipment, referees and 3-minute rounds. It has received quite a bit of attention lately. A Current Affair did a highly sensationalized bit about it and there will be a show on the Discovery Channel coming up in September or October. My own (domestic) life is pretty calm most of the time. My husband's kids live with us full time. I love to cook. We've got a couple dogs. It's a good life. My husband owns a motorcycle performance shop called Godspeed, and I help out with that.

Also, what are you working on now? Are there more series in store? Is there anything outside of your immediate surroundings that you're drawn to?

I'm doing some fight party only projects right now. I hope to be going to the Bonneville Salt Flats this year and next. My husband will be attempting a few speed records, so I will be documenting that. Outside my world, I love carnivals and boardwalk-type places, and have done some work over the years that I might turn into something.

Zoe Nauman: The Lower Bottoms was on view at Gallery 68 (at Flatbed World Headquarters)

Images courtesy Dwight Hackett Projects

Erin Keever is a writer living in Austin.

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