|Photographer Austen Risolvato at Paper or Plastik Café|
5772 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (West L.A.) 323-935-0268
Originally from Atlanta, Ga., photographer Austen Risolvato knew she was destined for a life in Los Angeles from a very young age.
"I came out here on a family vacation when I was 11 and went to the Beverly Center. I was tripping out because I had never seen a mall that big," she recalls. "Atlanta has big malls, but Beverly Center's a whole block, and Clueless had just come out – which was all L.A. shopping. We were going up the escalator at Beverly Center, I looked at my mom and said, 'I'm going to l live here someday.' Eight years later, I moved to L.A."
Although Austen has spent blocks of the past nine years traveling around the world as the official tour photographer for bands like Daughtry, 311 and Porcelain Black, Los Angeles has served as her home base for the majority of the time. She especially loves the city for restaurants and cafés that she can frequent at late hours since her schedule is so hectic.
"I work really long hours, so coffee is a big part of my life. There are a couple of coffee shops in Atlanta that genuinely care about the coffee itself, but it's not been my experience that it's on the level that it is here," she says.
Austen takes me to one of her favorite coffee spots in her neighborhood, Paper or Plastik Café. Owned and run by Anya and Yasha Michelson and their daughter Marina, the café prides itself on using single-origin, eco-friendly beans sourced from Intelligentsia, Ecco Caffe, Handsome Roasters and Coava and teas from T Salon and Kusmi Tea. While their beverage selection that includes pour-over coffees and seasonal teas is their main attraction, they also serve house-made sandwiches, salads, soups and pastries from organic, locally sourced ingredients.
She recently decided to convert to a vegetarian diet supplemented by meat that has been sustainably and humanely raised, and she's found a few other places besides Paper or Plastik to frequent.
"There's a place down the street called Bloom Café that I just went to for the first time, and it's pretty great. They have a Three Grain Vegetable Burger that tastes more like a sloppy joe. It's awesome. There's a sushi place that I love called B.A.D. Sushi. They have a roll called the B.A.D. Salmon Roll, which is amazing. It's basically sushi crack. There's Alcove Café in Los Feliz and Real Food Daily, too. I do miss bacon, though. My friend Alex Carpenter has a song about bacon that I listen to and cry myself to sleep to at night for how much I miss bacon," she admits as she starts to sing the song. "As much as I miss bacon, I just have more energy and feel better not eating meat."
In the nine years that I've known Austen, her body has slowly become adorned with more and more tattoo art, so I have to ask what her latest piece looks like.
Yer Cheat'n Heart in Gardena. Other than my back he's done everything, and he's amazing. We're working on my Disney sleeve [consisting of Dumbo, Ariel, Dopey, Bambi, Peter Pan]. My side panel is the outline of Georgia with a Coca-Cola bottle cap and a negative space heart over Atlanta, a peach and a teddy bear for my grandma. We have to finish the California and Italy areas. I've had the linework for them on my side for six years; I'm just a wimp. We have a deal that as soon as Dave finishes my right arm I can't get anything else until I let him finish my side."
It just so happens that Paper or Plastik's industrial yet warm and inviting atmosphere is being used as a shooting location for a production the day that we conduct our interview, and as Austen sips on an iced version of her usual latte, she remarks, "There are some very pretty people here today."
Anya and Marina curate the Anyash Design & Gift shop at the location, and Yasha serves as the artistic director for the MiMoDa dance studio, which is located behind the café. It's definitely a place that a coffee-lover and former dancer like Austen would feel at home in.
"Before shooting, I was dancing a lot: 20-plus hours a week, that was my focus. I also spent time studying science because I thought that I wanted to be an epidemiologist. I wanted to work at the CDC with Ebola. Instead, I live on tour buses," she says with a laugh. "My mom likes to tell the story that Dumbo was my first friend. I wasn't a kid that you could just park in front of the TV, but if you put Dumbo on, I was sold. Anything that was visually intense was my gateway to photography, long before taking a single picture."
The first camera that Austen had, a Kodak Photo FX, was actually the one she used to shoot a concert for the first time in 1997.
"They were a band called the Reruns. My best guy friend, Gunnard was the drummer, and I was like that really annoying friend who was always taking pictures of everything whenever everybody was hanging out. They were playing a show, and Gunnard asked, 'You're always taking pictures, why don't you do it when my band is playing?'. The Reruns were friends with a bunch of other bands, and I started shooting them all. It was cool because some of them went on to be influential in different areas of indie rock, like Ben Eberbaugh, who was in the Reruns, ended up being in the Black Lips. I grew up around all these people who were playing music, and I ended up taking pictures of all of them."
She eventually began studying the craft at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and since music was always a part of Austen's life growing up, it's no wonder that once an opportunity to tour with an established, multi-platinum selling band presented itself, she didn't hesitate to pack up and go.
"My mom and step-dad are big music people. I grew up listening to Patsy Cline, the Beatles and Carolina beach music. My first concert was New Kids on the Block with MC Hammer, and I still visually remember it. That was the first time I saw a show the way I shoot it because it was a pop show; the visuals were a production," she remembers. "Fourth grade was a big year, I saw Janet Jackson, the B-52s and the Grateful Dead all in one year. It was the Janet Tour with the wall of fire, her walking through it singing 'If.' That was one of the best shows I've ever seen."
Although she's met her and seen her perform live, Janet Jackson is one musician that Austen would love to work with in the future. Other than Janet and her brother Michael, Austen feels like she's photographed pretty much every artist that she's wanted to so far.
"I've been really lucky, the top five on the list of people that were alive during my lifetime that I wanted to shoot, the only one I didn't get to was Michael," she says. "Green Day's my favorite band, they have been since I was 10, and I've shot them. The New Kids got back together, and I got to shoot some shows. I shot No Doubt twice."
"My favorite band to shoot live is the All-American Rejects. There's nothing better than doing what I love, documenting a show, and having it be my friends doing what they love. I've been shooting them for six years, and they're still fun. That's not a knock on anybody else I shoot, but it does get repetitive. However, it doesn't get repetitive with the Rejects. Tyson Ritter on stage is like a cartoon character, flailing across the stage. They're one of the only acts where I can say that each one of them is that fun to shoot."
Whenever Austen leaves Los Angeles to tour, there is one thing she misses the most.
"Anytime I'm away from Disneyland too long, I start to twitch. When I walk into Disneyland, it's a living organism. Walt Disney said, 'Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.' It's always evolving," she says. "I look around at this totally absurd existence that is happening there, and it's the embodiment of the idea that no matter who you are, where you've come from or how big your dreams are, they can come true. When you look at how much Walt had done before Disneyland opened and how long it took him to build up the park, his big dream – it's a constant reminder for an artist who makes their living off their art, which is difficult at times, that when Walt was my age he was successful and broke, but it doesn't mean that it stops. There's no such thing as being too old for your dreams to come true. As long as you keep putting your work out into the universe, the universe is going to give back to you. Disneyland is a living, breathing reminder of that."
Austen even uses a setting from her favorite Disneyland ride, Peter Pan's Flight, as a metaphor when explaining her decision to switch gears photography-wise and stop touring.
"I've been living on buses since I was 18, and it's cool, like Neverland, but I just can't do it anymore, I'd like to put down some roots in this city," she confesses. "A lot of my close friends are getting married, so it's been cool to document a special day in the life of people I really care about by doing their wedding photography. I've started shooting video. I did a music video and some mini documentaries."
Portrait and commercial work is something Austen first gained experience in while working as an archivist for famed photographer David LaChapelle.
"When I went to work for David, my motivation was threefold. David's the reason I started shooting color film when I was a teenager. I was in love with black and white, I thought it was the only thing that could truly capture emotion. Then my parents got me a copy of Hotel Lachapelle, and it was like my head exploded. His colors are so rich, the tones are so deep. Some of that had to do with the fact that he was shooting film, but most of it had to do with his lighting technique. I left art school to go on tour, so I never learned how to light in a studio. A big part of being there was learning how to light in the studio which would allow me to, when I was ready, stop touring and transition my business into one place."
"David is not just a photographer, he's a brand," she continues. "I came away understanding how to make that happen, and if I wanted that to happen. I mean, I didn't sleep the whole time I worked there. It gave me a better understanding of photography as a business. Doing commercial photography allows you to do whatever you want; David is a model for that. He found a way to do commercial photography without sacrificing himself and used it to fund what he really want to do, like his film Rize."
As Austen bids farewell to life on the road, she begins a new chapter in her journey as a photographer. She has started work on a few photography projects that are very close to her heart. One is a Disneyland series where she visits locations at the theme park that her grandfather had captured on film in the past to do comparison shots. Another is a Neighboring Forestation series, where she captures the 'public face' and then the 'friendship face' of her close friends.
For more information and to view some Neighboring Forestation photos, visit austen.la and youtube.com/austenrisolvato.