A talented multi-faceted artist, Argus Paul Estabrook draws inspiration from many different things and creates art by bridging his interest in poetry with other forms of media. In this interview, we pick his brain to discover what makes him tick, his inspirations, and artistic insights, among others.
Argus Paul Estabrook first captured our attention as @arguspaul, Lomography community member. Although considerably fewer than what his peers have, each of the photographs found on his Home prove that he has a good eye for photography. Two of his photographs were hailed Photo of the Day (1, 2) previously, while another one was crowned gold place winner for our Film Photography Day 2015 Competition. Estabrook himself was selected Newcomer of the Week in December last year.
Estabrook’s body of work shows his proficiency in documentary photography, whether done in straightforward or experimental style. Sometimes he cuts up his images and puts them back together, too. Having grown up in the USA and now living and working in Seoul, Korea, his photographs show vignettes of life in these places as he sees it. He has two specific series that showcase these: those he took in the USA while he pursued his Bachelor of Arts degree in Photography, and the more personal photo essay called Half Eye, in which he expressed the culture shock he felt in Korea as a Korean-American who knew nothing about his mother’s homeland.
But more than just taking photographs Estabrook, a self-styled emerging visual artist and poet, likewise dabbles in erasure poetry and paper cutting—and does so excellently. Inspired by Fluxus and Dadaism, he creates surreal looking paper cutouts that are a thing of nightmares but are nevertheless fascinating. Meanwhile, with erasure poetry, he displays an awe-inspiring skill in creating sensible poems by removing and piecing together words found on the pages of books.
In the interview below, we pick Estabrook’s brain to discover what makes him tick, his inspirations, artistic insights, and many others.
Hi, Paul! Before anything else, kindly tell us a little about yourself.
I’m an emerging Korean-American artist currently based in Seoul, South Korea. I first traveled here about five years ago for work because I realized this could be a great personal opportunity to learn about the culture, something I had missed growing up in a small rural community in the States. I decided to stay here for a while to creatively investigate my experience.
Not too long ago, we featured your work on paper cutting. We can’t help but wonder, where do you get these ideas from? Aside from the ones you already have, are you working on or do you have any other ideas in store for this series?
I tend to think artistic ideas are like music. If you hear a rhythm somewhere in the background, it may become a melody in your head that gets stuck until you start recreating it. And if you’re lucky, you realize it’s a song that hasn’t been heard before, or if it has, one that should be sung more often but in a different way. So for me, I’ll usually see that ‘rhythm’ in the daily course of my life and it’ll similarly get stuck like a song. Because it’s often a visual idea that I try to coax out of my mind, I’m cautious in letting my own ego influence how much I think the final outcome should look.
What I mean by this is I first focus on an approach or method. Once that’s been decided, I feel removed enough from myself that my ideas should have a healthy mental work space to grow uninterrupted into the forms only they could be. You could say [that] I try to make visual songs that can sing for themselves.
More directly, the cutouts came to me at time when I was really looking at a lot of work by the Fluxus and Dada artists, particularly Hannah Hoch. Around the same time I saw a photograph whose profile was cut out in such a way that it created a new face-like and illustrative silhouette. I thought it was a pretty neat image but didn’t know where it could go from there until I decided to try to approach what I had seen as a form of figure drawing. Luckily, I had a discarded library book on ballerina dancers to try to test my idea on. Being pleased with the initial results, I decided to continue to explore paper cutting with various found images.
Aside from that, I am working on a new series. The key difference though is the source material: Korean fashion magazines. I can’t help but be interested in Korea’s modern perception of itself.
Aside from paper cutting, you also work on a lot of other things including analog photography. Tell us about your beginnings in photography. What made you decide to pursue it?
Initially, Jerry Uelsmann was the reason I became interested in photography. I remember seeing his photo manipulations and just being completely blown away by them. Note that during his time, there was no Photoshop or digital imaging—just pure darkroom mastery. After I saw his work, I spent a lot more time in the darkroom. He introduced to me this idea of layering process, which is why I guess I’ve always felt comfortable experimenting with work when it seemed necessary.
To me photography is a unique art that lets you define it anyway you want. But honestly, I tend to shy away from people who say it’s meant to only be a pure document. If you can’t experiment with a medium, what’s the point in trying to find your own voice in it?
How would you describe your photographic style? What subjects do you like to tackle in your photography?
I want to believe that I follow an aesthetic of poetic logic that allows me to take on a myriad of subject matters, though, these days I seem to be focused on various perspectives of Korean cultural identity. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about Duane Michals and his use of the sequence to tell short stories. I would love to take a stab at that when the right time comes but until then, I’ll keep working on my own style of creative documentation.
We saw your photographic essay, Half Eye, and found the idea surrounding it very interesting. Can you please tell us more of your thoughts regarding this project and about the photographs in it?
I labeled Half Eye a photo essay because of the nature of the personal subject matter discussed in its foreword, but creatively I constructed it to be read as a visual 38 line/shot poem. The series documents the culture shock I was experiencing as a Korean-American who knew absolutely nothing about his mother’s home country. Because of its complex personal subject matter, I felt the essay could only be correctly expressed as a poem.
It was one the hardest projects that I’ve tackled because I had to overcome so many "firsts” to get the vision out of me: It was the first photographic series I created after receiving my MFA, it was the first time I had traveled to Korea, it was the first time I used a digital camera as the prime equipment, and it was the first time I tried to bridge my interest with poetry photographically.
Please tell us more about the analog photographs that you took in the USA while pursuing your undergraduate career at the Virginia Intermont College.
During that time, I was really invested into practicing the ideas of the New Color Photography movement. I really connected with the works of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and the like. I was also really attached to black and white street photographers like Bruce Davidson and Robert Frank. I was actively mimicking all those qualities at that time of study, trying to find some beauty in the mundane or capturing a decisive moment. But above all that was the hunt for American color, which I consider the subtle punctuation of the stories I attempted to tell at that time in my life.
Let’s talk about your other works. Please tell us about your process when it comes to erasure poetry. How do you create your poems? For example, do you look at pages of discarded library books and read through them to see if there are poems that could be made out of the existing text? How long does it take you to create one? Do you have full control on the resulting poem or do you just go wherever the text leads you, so to speak?
The nice thing about creating erasure poetry is that it is a creative act of compromise. I am limited to what I can say by the pre-existing text. So it is like a puzzle, an act of seeing inert possibilities.
I usually start by seeing a few key word associations on a page and try to build on them. When I’ve found a few “seeds” on a page, I take out my notebook and start writing them down. I then go back and forth between my notes and the page, trying to make connections that have a sense of fluidity to them. Sometimes the text leads me, sometimes I lead it. In that sense, I feel like my most successful poems read like rivers of thought or streams of consciousness.
When I feel a “finished” poem can stand on its own, regardless of the novelty of erasure, I sketch out its borders and burn it out of the book. While I do the burning, sometimes I see shapes forming like faces or body part. I then try to push those illustrative qualities—much like my paper cuttings. It varies how long each one takes but about a month seems average.
Who and/or what inspires you? What or who can you say influences your work?
Other artists, the world around me, good live music. Recently, I re-read This Is Water, the commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the Kenyon College class of 2005. I think that might be the most inspiring dose of beautiful reality ever written! I love how he was able to so succinctly describe awareness and explain how one’s interpretation of it directly shapes their experience of the world. If I ever portray anything halfway close to the importance of those words, I would die a happy man.
Is there any advice you could give to aspiring photographers?
The only advice I can give is to be open. Strive to find an approach that works for your ideas and use it to have a dialog with the harshest critic in the room: yourself. Use what you’ve learned from that conversation to remove yourself from your ego and create pathways in your work for others to explore and connect with. At the end of the day, you’ll find you’ve written a song that’s confident to exist without the necessity of the rest of the world to sing it, but inclusive enough that it invites others to join in the chorus when they hear it.
What has been keeping you busy these days? Any ongoing or upcoming projects that you’d like to share with us? Exhibitions you’d like to promote?
At the moment I am trying to finish a project I’ve been working on called Cos’ality Of Play. It investigates the active cosplay subculture that has taken root in the outskirts of the Gangnam area. I’m using what I call a form of experimental documentation with multiple exposures to examine the relationship between adoptive identity and idealized imagery found in the Korean landscape.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with us? Please do so!
I just finished a new version of, A Good Man Is Dead When Dogs Jump Breathlessly, which collects all of my current erasure poems. It’s available in lots of different formats, including a pay-what-you-feel .pdf on the media page of my website at www.arguspaul.com.
Also, if anyone would like to reach out to me or be kept up to date on my projects, I invite them to follow me on Facebook page at www.facebook.com/arguspaulestabrook.
Lastly, I’ve recently started up an Instagram account and I’d love to follow some folks! So if you dig what I’m doing, and you want to show me what you’re doing, go ahead and follow me at arguspaul and I’ll do the same.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to answer such thoughtful questions. I hope I’ve been able to give a better sense of my concerns and creative ideas. Thank you again!
Argus Paul Estabrook is a visual artist and poet based in Seoul, South Korea. All information and images in this article were provided by him and used here with permission. Additional information was sourced from his website.