Devendra Banhart and Lauren Dukoff were walking around the Space 15Twenty gallery in Hollywood, giggling. Friends since they met at Malibu High School 10 years ago, the pair, who call each other Obi (Banhart’s middle name) and Lo, are also artistic collaborators: Dukoff has been photographing the indie folkie-turned-major label star since he spent his afternoons practicing piano in the high school music room. (This fall he’ll release his sixth solo album on Warner Bros.)
“Family,” Dukoff’s new book, offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Banhart and an ever-widening circle of friends, many of whom call L.A. home. An exhibition at Space 15Twenty, up through August 16, features a selection of photos from the book and original artwork by Banhart and others.
Spanning the period from May 2006 until late last year, “Family” follows Banhart from stages around the world, including a headlining gig at Carnegie Hall, to private moments writing at his desk and playing guitar on the deck of his Topanga Canyon home, where sketches and lyrics and found art decorate every wall and the crimson velvet couch was said to have belonged to Jim Morrison. Wearing sandals, bell bottom jeans and a vest in one shot, and suspenders and sunny yellow jazz oxfords in another, Banhart also reveals the original fashion sensibility that has inspired everyone from Roberto Cavalli and Karl Lagerfeld to local designers like Trasteverine and South Paradiso.
Although she’d taken hundreds – if not thousands – of photographs of her friend, it wasn’t until 2006 that Dukoff started to think of this work in professional terms. She was working for Autumn deWilde, a photographer also known for her intimate portraits of musicians and whom Dukoff considers a mentor, and when Banhart was invited to curate the All Tomorrows Parties festival in England, deWilde asked her why she wasn’t going. Dukoff remembered, “I said, ‘Why would I go?’ and she said, ‘To shoot it!’”
As a credentialed photographer, Dukoff captured Banhart roaming the dunes at Camber Sands during his down time, and then shirtless and sweaty backstage, with his arms around his band and a wine glass dangling loosely from his fingers. A shot of the two-day lineup shows what a Devendra Banhart mix might have looked like at that time: Espers, Vetiver, Bat for Lashes, and elder inspirations such as Bert Jansch and Vashti Bunyan; all of them are in the book. Dukoff recalled, “It was a wonderful feeling, having a bigger purpose other than just having a good time.”
Back in L.A., Dukoff also visited the homes of other musicians in this bohemian circle – like The Entrance Band’s Guy Blakeslee, who sits, enveloped in a cloud of pot smoke, in his Laurel Canyon living room; or Strokes drummer Fabrizio Morretti and Binki Shapiro, who are two-thirds of Little Joy, relaxing in bed. Matteah Baim pulls a feathered hat down over her eyes in one shot, and throws her guitar off a Malibu cliff in another. The picture became the cover of her album.
Although their musical styles range from psychedelic blues to bossa nova, each of these artists has a uniquely L.A. sensibility as well – drawing inspiration from the histories of the neighborhoods they live in, the natural beauty surrounding them, and the mystical currents that many feel are still reverberating from the ‘60s. This energy in turn has drawn even more artists and musicians to the west coast.
Dukoff aimed to capture this “rebirth” as well. “It’s an energy you can feel,” she said. “People are being brought together by all this collaboration and friendship and art…and work! If they’re not recording they’re touring, if they’re not touring they’re writing. It’s nonstop. It actually makes me dizzy to think about.”
Much as one might like to pin a label on this group – are they neo-folkies? psych rockers? hippies? – it’s nearly impossible to attempt without the whole thing falling apart. (The outfit on Theresa Wayman from the band Warpaint kind of illustrates the point: the pretty brunette wears an embroidered white Victorian dress with a striped ski cap and a fur sash across her chest. It completely defies description, yet somehow it works.) Even Banhart, at one time considered the “freak folk” pied piper, has recently been more influenced by Tropicalia and classic rock.
“I don’t even know what the word hippie means anymore, quite honestly,” said Dukoff. “I think the word folk – and I’ve heard Devendra say this too – folk is the people’s music. It’s not about a particular sound; it’s about making honest music.”
By this definition, Dukoff is a folk photographer – able to fluctuate from grainy black-and-white candids to a flamboyantly styled and posed homage to the Cockettes for Banhart’s last album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon.
The musician was studying this image of himself and his bandmates tarted up like the late ‘60s San Francisco performance troupe, covered in satin and glitter.
“You’re really good at interpreting the vibe of the music, the essence of the music, Lo,” he said.
“To quote Francis Bacon,” he went on (an impressive feat considering the hangover he’d been complaining about), “the duty of the artist is to deepen the mystery. With photography, you’re revealing something but you’re obscuring something at the exact same time. You deepen the mystery really well.”
Fittingly, when the ever-mysterious musician took the stage at Space 15Twenty the following evening for Dukoff’s book signing party, the trippy gypsy of last year was nowhere in sight. Playing seated with a couple other musicians, Banhart wore black trousers with suspenders and a pink Phillip Lim bowtie – a bit more Rockette than Cockette.
Dukoff watched the performance from a balcony above the gallery, surveying the packed crowd with friends like Hecuba’s Isabelle Albuquerque, who was also part of the Malibu High group, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the design duo behind Rodarte, who collaborate frequently with Autumn deWilde. “We’re big Lauren fans,” said Laura, recalling how they’d all worked together on a Rodarte window at Colette in Paris.
As Banhart began his last song, “A Sight to Behold” from 2004, Dukoff’s eyes lit up. “I asked him to play this song and he did!”
She had just finished an extensive portfolio of television actors for Nylon a few days earlier, and was booked on a shoot the next morning, but on this rare occasion Dukoff was simply taking in the music as a friend and fan — no camera in sight.