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In our ongoing series on people’s favorite spaces, photographer Coke Wisdom O’Neal talks about a space he likes to share. His exhibition, currently at MOCA Tucson, invites people to be photographed inside a 22-feet-high wooden box. By Gillian Drummond.
“The idea for the box came about because I’m friends with an architect and when I looked at buildings I was more obsessed with the little people next to them and the scale. So in the beginning it was an experiment in scale. Also, I like boxes. I’m a Virgo. I have everything very organized at home, I have boxes for certain things. Everything has its place.
“When I first started studying photography, I really wanted to be a photojournalist. Then I started to feel like I was taking more from [the people I photographed] than I was giving them. It was me seeing them through my eye. With this, I’m still putting them in a huge box so I’m still in some ways manipulating it. But it’s not just my vision, it’s more democratic. It’s not my ego. It’s a stage I’ve built for people to play in.
“I send everyone a print of their photo as a thank-you. But I and a few friends select the photos that will be in the final exhibition.
“Tucson is the sixth place I’ve brought the box to. The towns and cities choose me, because they’ve heard of me and the box. Places like San Ysidro, there’s nothing happening in that town, so something so abstract and weird as this, they were into it just because it was fun. In New York City, where I live, people are much more conservative about it.
“I’d like to get the character of Tucson, so I seek people out. I’ve photographed firefighters, a guy with a gila monster… I’m hoping to shoot a guy with full body tattoos. I don’t like to direct them. Mostly people come with ideas of how they want to pose. This is my space that I like to give to other people. It’s a lot of fun.
“But I was feeling a little protective of the box the other day [at the MOCA opening]. This is the first time I’ve ever had an opening for my box exhibition. Everyone was playing inside it, they were posing in ways I wouldn’t have wanted. You had people photographing themselves in the box, as opposed to how I would photograph them. The angle was off. To me, it’s got to be square and straight when you take the photo. I was telling my girlfriend about it, and she said I should get over it.”
(Editors’ note: We know you’re all dying to know about Coke’s name. Yes, it’s his real one – after a grandfather, who was the first Methodist Bishop of a small town in Florida. He “hated” his name as a kid, but says he quite likes it now.)