Sphynx on Film: An Interview with Clifton Barker

Clifton Barker loves flash. He also loves his Sphynx pet cats and has been photographing them relentlessly. He finally decided to put them all together and published a set of zines that went on sale last week. Due to the time difference we spent the last couple of weeks talking at odd hours with long pauses in between about his two Sphynx cats, the zines, how he arrived here, and now that he’s sold out, where he’s going next. It is worth noting that this interview started before the zines went on sale, and were sold out by the time we were done talking!

Clifton, first of all congratulations on the zines, you must be excited! Before we talk about anything else, tell me about these cats, where did you find them and are they related?

Thank you Rammy! Yes I'm absolutely thrilled, it's been a long year. I've had these guys with me for about 2 years now. Previously I had a job doing field services, and I'd visit customers to check on them. My first visit to this a very curmudgeonly gent, I walked in the office and his two sphynx cats immediately jumped onto my shoulders. The old guy laughed and told me about the Sphynx breed and how they pretty much did whatever they wanted all the time.  Fast forward a few years, I developed a really strong social anxiety and it was recommended that I get a cat as a sort of service animal.  Recalling those wild Sphynx, I searched out and found Sunny (the really wrinkly boy on the left) and LOVED him. After 6 months it seemed he needed a companion so I adopted his brother Max from another litter. So yes, they are in fact brothers.

So this is little Max on the left and Sunny  is on the right.

Looks like you've made a wise choice. From the photographs it seems they've given you a great place to channel your energy and you've had a lot of fun with them. So how long have you been photographing these guys? 

I've been shooting them for about a year and a half.  It actually started the whole analog revolution for me, I took a photo of Sunny jumping (which I really thought was mediocre) and totally post processed the shit out of it. After this, I realized I needed to put some restrictions on myself and made the transition to purely analog to learn the way to best shoot film and use zero digital manipulation. [Below is the image that was the turning point for Clifton]

Turning points often define us, don't they? I've always thought of cats as non-active while yours seem to be anything but. Are Max and Sunny really as lively as the photos suggest? And do you consider yourself a participant in the acts, or are you just an observer? I assume the photographs were all made in and around your house, any particular spot that’s your favourite?

Sphynx are a bit of a different breed, they definitely have more active behaviors. They like to pounce and wrestle with each other. Truly a perpetual Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. But, my part of it is to be quick and unobtrusive. They seem to trust me completely, as my movements don't make them skittish. One of my favorite ways to participate is to blow bubbles and watch them pounce on them. But probably 75-80% of the time, the photos that I find the most gratifying are of the cats being cats, jumping, wrestling, pouncing on each other, etc. The best spot is in front of windows!! Shutter drag + flash = magic!

Man, I’m jealous. I might just get a pet so I can do a project on it! So how do you pick and choose which photos you wanted to use for the zines? What’s your process in shooting and developing the images?

Actually picking out photos or differentiating good from bad has been one of the most challenging aspects. First of all the cats are so photogenic that it is hard to X any photo of their cute faces off a contact sheet. Secondly the process of shooting, developing, contact printing and finally scanning the film--is just so labor intensive that I'll develop four rolls of 35mm or two rolls of 120 at a time. After putting that much effort into a process it becomes hard to kill your babies because you’re so attached. I'll pick out the better photos from a contact sheet and either print them as an 8x10 or scan the negatives and post those to Instagram to see what sticks to the wall. Instagram has actually been very helpful to see where my own taste overlays with a wider audience. 

The cover for the Black and White version of the zines.

How were the zines sequenced and edited? You must have a crazy amount of photos to work with!

Right, a year and a half of shooting every day has put me at 1,786 rolls of film for this project. Most of those are hand rolled, so the actual image count is hard to exactly pin down. I'd say ~60,000 35mm images would be the ballpark for the BW zine (wow, hadn't done the numbers before!). Of that number, only 40 photos will be in the zine.

For editing and sequencing, Fadi Boukram, Torsten Hendricks and Gary Gumanow all really gave me some good tips and feedback. The crew at Full Frontal also helped me narrow down the archive and were immensely supportive. I ended up getting a massive cork board and covering one wall in my bedroom.  It would be the first and last thing to look at when I went to bed or woke up. I eventually came up with a sequence I was somewhat happy with... but then got a bit stoned after hanging out with a friend and came home and rearranged everything. The next morning I woke up and was horrified with what I'd done the night before. I took everything down and left it alone for about a week and completely cleared my mind, didn't even shoot that entire week. I came back with a clear head and was able to remember the better parts, that's the edit for the zines as they stand now, and I think they are the best they can be at this point.

That sounds like a lot of films used on the same subjects for a year and a half. Was there a particular inspiration that got you to shooting this way? Or it just came to you that you had to shoot Max and Sunny and it was your calling.

In a nutshell, I wanted to start developing and printing my own work. Do everything myself. I had just moved from Austin to Houston, was very unfamiliar with the town, and I live in a more rural area. Candid situations aren't exactly prevalent though so I turned my camera onto these crazy jumping cats. It started off mostly as practice, but after the first initial "good" roll, I was hooked and realized that I would be spending the next few years shooting them.

The colour version. 

So here we have it then, a year and a half later, two zines in one go. Self published. I am sure you have been excited about finally putting this together. Do you plan to keep shooting them? Is it over now or only the first step towards something bigger?

I don't think I'll ever stop shooting them. I haven't reached the point where I'm taking the same shots over and over, signaling the end of the project.  These cats are like chaos theory: they never hop around the same way twice.That is the reason for this set of zines, to be a bit of a bookmark. I'm really proud of this series and it is 100% pure fun for me, I'd like to be able to share that with people in some tangible way. My aunt and cousin have been big fans, and I've promised them a book as a Christmas present for the last two years--so it's time to finally deliver. Another factor to going with the zines, is it just seems inconceivable to have an actual black and white book come out with a color book, produce two books at once. That's a large task.  Not something I could do. I was approached by Andrew at Bloodygums, who produces a lot of art shows and zines for folks, and he has made the whole process really easy for me. At the price point of the zines, I realized it was possible to put out two separate versions simultaneously.

We've talked about you wanting to put something together so it's great to finally see it happened and I think your aunt and cousin are going to have a pretty good Xmas! So the zines then, congratulations on selling out! I've seen the PDF files of both versions and I'm excited to get my copies! But tell me anyway, how many were made and are you thinking about a second edition? You said you would keep shooting them, so where can people follow your work?

Thanks so much, Rammy! I really appreciate your support. You've been a mentor to me throughout the process, I'm very grateful. The zines were made in an edition of 100 each, (so 100 BW, 100 color) and whoever bought both will get a handmade black and white darkroom 5x7" print from the book. I don’t have any plans to print a second edition, but I did order 10 extra sets to send out for promotion—since I’m sold out, promotion isn’t really as necessary and I will fulfill a few of the overflow orders with these copies.  

For this project @sphynxonfilm on Instagram is the best place to follow along. I’d urge anyone that is interested in flash or just good street photography to check out fullfrontalflash.com—such a talented bunch!

Well, that’s that then. Follow his work in the links shared above and do nag him to print a few more if you’d like to get these. Maybe he will feel pressured enough into making some more!