I picked up Jason Tippet’s Heading to Bill’s for Cigarettes after reading his interview with Blake Andrews back in February 2020. It sounded like the sort of project I’ve been slowly formulating (but not shooting for or starting on in any way shape or form) for some years, and so I jumped on it. As usual with swerdnaekalb’s recommendations, it’s a good one.
Tippet worked on Heading to Bill’s… for four years, photographing around Atwater Village as a sort of preparatory offshoot for an abandoned film on horse racing, like a day in the life of 21st century track and the people who visit. (I cribbed this from his interview with B.)
The book is sortof like a day-in-the-life of Atwater Village, or a day spent walking around it, anyway. The light shifts throughout, from morning to afternoon and it ends up at home, feeding the dog after a day of wandering and shooting, meeting people, fetching cigarettes from the local bodega. I have some faint inklinlings of a fantasy of making a similar-ish project here in Irving—taking and mapping long walks around the town and making photographs—but to do it, I’d actually have to leave the house…
I’m not too good at that, and Covid-19 has nothing to do with it. I did make myself get out and shoot some around Old East Dallas back during my 365 days in 2012, and I had some panic attacks and rarely ventured more than a block or two, never even got to the corner store, and while I’ve changed some since, while I’m regularly forced out of my shell due to my responsibilities as a husband, I’m still not one for getting out like that if I can help it, so vicarious thrills like Heading to Bill’s are probably as close as I’ll get.
Just the thought of photographing strangers from a foot or two away, of asking for portraits and directing poses is terrifying to me. Not so Tippet. Heading to Bill’s… contains a near-majority of posed or quick-grab portraits, and all the subjects seem happy to pose or wholly unaware. Tippet and Andrews talk some about this:
Tippet – People are aware of video cameras, and people don’t trust them.
Andrews – Do you think still cameras are more trustworthy?
Tippet – I rewatched this short Heavy Metal Parking Lot recently and people are sticking their heads in the shot to be on camera. You can’t make that the same way now.
Andrews – I don’t know much about filmmaking. But I feel that way about photography. People are very suspicious of my camera.
Tippet – Yeah, people are still suspicious…But I think still cameras aren’t as intimidating… and when they do notice I’ve taken a shot, I always compliment them on something. “I love that hat” or whatever drew me to take it. I use a camera that looks pretty amateur so people usually don’t care.
I’ve heard that same thing, some variant of “people usually don’t care” and/or “use a camera that looks pretty amateur,” and I’m sure it’s true… shoot. It’s true in my own experience, when I’ve shot on the rare occasions where I find myself in public places, theme parks, festivals, and the like. Still, I can’t internalize it, can’t make it true for myself day to day, though it’s not this fear-of-argument that keeps me indoors and only dreaming of trying to make my take on a book like this.
One fascinating thing: the denizens of Atwater Village seem to have better things to do than stare at their phones all day. Some smoke or carry dogs, do cartwheels or wheelies, balance cans of soda… some even just simply walk! It’s crazy. Almost everyone I see in Irving (mostly through car windows) has their heads buried in a phone. I suppose a lengthy series on reckless drivers, on driving while YouTubing or effbooking or TikToking (almost nobody seems to be texting in Irving… I guess they’re taking a limited reading of the state’s “stay alive don’t text and drive” campaign) could maybe be a decent project, but probably not.
Tippet’s book is a good example of straight photography and I’d like to say it’s inspiring—it is, in a way—but I suspect I’ll never actually walk my camera around my locality. It’s everything I’d like to do: he shot on film; the book is smyth-sewn, allowing it to lay flat; the layout tells a story without being heavy-handed about it. There are repetitions, but they seem wholly natural and unforced: he didn’t go looking for crude drawings or little dogs or faded Halloween decorations, but there they are. It’s really good stuff.
Overall, I rate Heading to Bill’s for Cigarettes a solid 4 stars.
I know I spent most of this talking about my own town and failures and personality, and very little actually talking about Tippet, his book, or his photography. I make no apologies. Go pick up a copy of Heading to Bill’s and see if it doesn’t make you want to go out walking your camera, photographing the seemingly inevitable strangeness that you see around. I’ll bet it does, and even if not, it’ll be money well spent.