A self confessed pop-culture junkie, photographer Lyle Owerko has been on the forefront of youth culture from the moment he gazed into the album art of his first record purchase when he was 11 years old. A music fanatic and a collector of boombox’s since his teens he’s had a one constantly in his life either playing mix tapes, hooked up to a discman or even now simply connected to an iPod. Lyle has had many models of different shapes and sizes pass through his life, but his collection today is centered around 40 boombox’s that are vintage late 70s or early 80s and for the most part can be described as very very large (one of them is now in the permentant collection of the V&A Museum in London). As a well known documentary photographer he’s used them in many shoots and even brought one on tour in Japan with the Island/Def Jam artist American Hi-Fi. In a frenzy of tour finale angst, that radio was magnificently sacrificed in a ceremony of Rock God homage through the smashing of it’s sonic self on stage in Tokyo by Stacey Jones, the lead singer of the band. A Godzilla like hole was left in the stage, the Japanese fans screamed in approval and the papers printed pictures of the moment as a part of Japanese rock n’ roll history.
Lyle lost a great boombox that night but was rewarded with amazing images in return. His collection is now permanently preserved for the masses though a body of work that is equal parts fine art and a celebration of an era gone by in the Abrams Image release The Boombox Project: The machines, The Music and The Urban Underground. This detailed thesis of the era when these sonic beasts wandered the urban landscape showcases photographs of his collection bringing new light to each boombox rendering them as objects of desire and reverence.
In creating a signature technique to photograph them, Lyle sought to illustrate these devices as sexy as a sports car and as solemn and meditative as an ancient Buddha statue. The idea was to elevate the desire and defiance in the design of the box’s as well as to celebrate their button’s, dials and lights in an evocative and distinctive manner. Almost everyone has encountered a boombox at one time in their life, this project is a rebirth of a memory when the world all got to turn up the dial to ten and rock out on the beach, on the street, in the backyards and in the urban sanctuaries of the planet. The result is awe inspiring and unforgettable. The images however, don’t stop at being graphic still life’s.
As an Avid traveler Lyle spends a considerable amount of time in Africa each year as a photojournalist donating his services to human rights organizations. On these travels he discovered a thriving boombox culture in East Africa. He calls this series of images “Radio Simba”. At fist look Radio Simba is an examination of the colliding borders of entrepeneurship, commerce and the passion for music worldwide. But it goes deeper than that.
Lyle says, “It seems wherever he travel’s there is a guy and a boombox of some type blasting music. The more off the grid the place, the more ingenuity that goes into powering these radios and cassette players.”
In Africa he’s seen boomboxes powered with old car batteries, or cheap solar panels hard at work supplying juice to vintage jam box’s using a coathanger as an antenna to pull reggae beats from skyward airwaves. It’s common to be listening to fourth or fifth generation mix tapes spun to life in a homemade bar room boombox that’s nothing more than wires and an open face of electronic gadgetry.
Whatever their pedigree, these radios all have a common theme of escapism, they also often share a bond of having come from a roadside vendor trying to make a living. As with many things these days, the roadside vendor is usually a middle man selling for another supplier even higher up on the chain of life. Lyle began documenting these vendors in his travels. They are a feisty bunch with personalities often equally as loud as the merchandise they sell. Enjoy the images as they speak of music, vibrancy and a worldwide desire to express oneself – which is a universal theme no matter where you go.
Radio Simba – opens in London July 5th, 2012 at The Vinyl Factory – launched in conjunction with Whisper Fine Arts, the show will feature large scale imagery from “The Boombox Project” as well as journalistic images from the “Radio Simba” series.
The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground by Lyle Owerko, Foreword by Spike Lee (Abrams Image, 2010) is available for sale from fine retailers around the globe.
Lyle Owerko is a New York–based filmmaker and photographer whose clients have included the Sundance Channel and MTV. He has also directed music videos for artists such as Rufus Wainwright and American Hi-Fi. Owerko shot the cover photograph for the September 11, 2001 issue of Time, which was ranked as one of the 40 most important magazine covers in the past 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.