The first time I stumbled over Bill Daniel’s work, I was 19 years old, on my first solo young-punk walkabout, and desperately in search of something I couldn’t quite name. I stopped into Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago, where I bought a copy of Bill Daniel’s hobo-graffiti manual Mostly True and copy of his legendary film Who is Bozo Texino?. Mostly True was exactly the type of low weirdness I craved - part investigation, part whimsical speculative history, part seedy how-to manual, all mischievously collaged together. It was an antidote to the self-assigned self-serious punk attitude that seemed pervasive at the time.
The film, Who is Bozo Texino?, should be assigned viewing for all young aspiring documentary filmmakers - it was partially responsible for leading me to study documentary filmmaking at Evergreen. It was my entry point into avant-garde film. Bozo daisy-chained my young sponge of a mind to the films of Vanessa Renwick, Agnes Varda, Robert Berliner, Guy Maddin, Bill Brown, Barbara Hammer, Robert Flaherty, and Craig Baldwin (more on him later), and many many more. It led me to Canyon Cinema, Light Cone, and Anthology Film Archives. It set a lot of things in motion. I owe a lot to that film, and a lot to Bill because of it.
It’s a joy, then, to revisit Bill’s work with his newest book Tri-X Noise: Photographs 1981-2016 (published by Radio Raheem Records). Bill, although being well-known for Bozo, has an expansive still-image based art practice that preceded and goes beyond his moving-image opus. Tri-X Noise has clearly been a long time coming. It’s a remarkable collection of black-and-white photos that he calls a “sprawling visual journal of a life lived on the road and after dark,“ and a “flash-lit scrapbook of an invisible vanguard”; skateboarding, performance art, punk bands, and motley experiments in off-the-grid living fill its chiaroscuro pages. And yes, there’s lots of hobo monikers to soak up! Given my own entry point into Bill’s work, and my own evolution between still and moving imaged-based practices, decoding Tri-X Noise has been a blast.
The book is a high quality vessel, with lots to offer the discerning reader. Bill shoots 35mm black and white Kodak Tri-X film, with an off-camera flash (held with the left hand, it looks like), with a “traditional” field of view (a 28mm or so lens, a popular focal length for traditional “documentary” or “street” photography). This gives his images a remarkable consistency through the years, and it ties them together in a way that they otherwise may not be. The images have no captions; a straightforward index of descriptions is in the back of the book, along with a short bio of Bill. This method of putting descriptions in the back, rather than alongside the image in question, really lets me enjoy the images for what they are, rather than reading the text and quickly glossing over the image with my eyes. It also saves the logic of the book’s sequencing for the end; the images start in the early 1980s, when Bill was photographing skaters and bands like The Big Boys, Butthole Surfers, and Bad Brains. It then slowly creeps up to the 2010’s, featuring bands like Black Rainbow, projects like Oakland’s Black Hole Cinema, and the hobo goings-on at the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture, taking plenty of detours along the way.
The dot that connects me to Bill is a San Franciscan one - infamous found footage maestro Craig Baldwin, who I apprenticed under, literally under Artist’s Television Access, years after Bill did a similar apprenticeship himself. This is my favorite detour: on page 72, Bill shows Craig in 1990, editing a film at a subterranean work bench, and on page 75, he appears 16 years later. Showing such a compression of time in the book, with Craig appearing as a younger man and as the gray-mopped deity I recognize him as, gives me an appreciation of the other time-travels I may just need to look closer to find. Because of Craig, I start to see and recognize San Franciscans from years past, either through their graffiti, their names in the index, or their hazy B+W mugs themselves. Bill’s perspective is an insider-outsider; while intimate and palling around with the people in front of the lens, Bill is nonetheless a “tourist in one’s own home”, to use Lucy Lippard’s phrase. He sees the meta-narrative; the historic value of documenting a scene while you’re in it and it’s still thriving.
One of Bill’s strengths as a photographer is getting close to his subjects. It sounds small, but makes a big difference. He doesn’t seem to worry about the distinction between candid or posed photos - he shoots as any of us photograph our own friends.
Only Bill and his closest friends can identify every single person and project within the pages, but as somebody a step or two removed from lots of the people appearing, it’s really nice to look deeply and find associations. Sometimes fun resonances are there to decode. On page 29, for instance, he photographs a skater named Clay Towry, in Bastrop, Texas, peeking over a dirty magazine, on the edge of a pool. His shirt reads “Made in San Francisco”, foreshadowing Bill’s own migration to the West Coast. It’s fun for me, as somebody born 7 years after this photo was taken in a totally different geography and culture, to imagine how the psychic pull of San Francisco might have been irresistible to a young skater in Texas.
Part of the pleasure of Tri-X Noise is that it functions much like a family album; for those of us who have been adjacent to some of these people and places, or ones like them, it’s beautiful to see a survey made by somebody sensitive to such underground currents, and who clearly loves every minute of surfing them.
Digging on the images themselves is a joy, especially because of how well they’re printed. The book itself is matte soft-cover, with semi-matte pages. The images are elegant, with rich blacks and bright whites. Kudos to the printer, who clearly took the time to get it right. Each image is bordered by a taught black line, which help them stand sharply against the alternating white and grey pages.
My only criticism has to do with the size of the book, which is 8.5” wide by 11” tall. Since Bill’s images are almost all horizontal and 4”x6”, they’re not well served by a vertical book. The only time the vertical space is utilized is when two images are stacked on top of one another, and this only happens a handful of times. I would love to hold a horizontally printed book of Bill’s work, so that I could mull over the detail of the images more. I would love to dig on that Tri-x grain, the shadows, highlights, and greys. Bigger isn’t always better, I know; but in my opinion, too much space is used up by the matting around the photos in Tri-X Noise. But when emailing with Bill, he mentioned to me that artistic choices aren’t the only choices an artist has to make - horizontally printed books are more challenging from a merchandising and shelving point of view.
This is my marginally critical comment about Bill’s massive artistic triumph. The book is clearly a love letter to the people who helped make Bill who he is. It has a spooky visual richness that gets better each time I revisit it. Bill Daniel is still one of my favorite artists. He’s got a consistency of vision, he keeps pushing himself to try new processes (despite maintaining his methods over decades), and he works to make himself and his friends happy first. His practice is one we could all learn from.
The final image in the book, a sneakered pair of feet that seem to belong to a stagediver, ties up the sequence of images by contradicting the previously ascending chronology from early years to recent ones. It’s labeled “D. Boon, Minutemen, Twilight Room, Dallas, 8/16/84”. This is a dedication of sorts, since Dennes Boon of the Minutemen died in 1985 on Interstate 10, a Texas-California route that I’m sure Bill has driven many times. It gives the book a somewhat bittersweet send-off, saluting a leap into the void, a tribute to Boon and the poetry of a friend taken away too early.
In Al Burian’s zine Burn Collector, Al talks about sitting in his kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island, and watching the lights on the radio towers in the distance blink in near rhythm. Every now and then, two lights would briefly blink in unison and synch up, before falling out of step again. Al sits, chews, and waits for them to line up again, enjoying the tension of waiting for them to line up before watching them just as slowly fall out of sync.
Al Burian poetically compares this synchronization to the magic found in certain eras of our short lives: the right group of housemates, the perfect band, the time when everything in your town just clicked. Finding those grooves and appreciating them while we have them seems to be the challenge and the pleasure. Tri-X Noise is a how-to manual for finding that groove, made by an artist whose practice is a lesson in deep-looking and holding your friends tight.