Dialing Up Good Vibes With Photographer Pat O’Malley

Omaha, Nebraska native and New York City transplant Pat O’Malley's love for surfing and the beach is second to none. His profession as a freelance photographer revolves around his favorite hobby. Or, more accurately, he finds the beach first and everything else follows.

When not in the water, you’ll see his 6'4" frame in a fancy patterned shirts (the kind that Dew-man Russel Westbrook would drool over) and thrill-seeking, whether it’s rappelling down a twenty-story building washing windows on a makeshift chair-and-bucket setup (his old gig back home), or cruising the coast of Portugal on a scooter looking for both waves and things to shoot.

Before we start our interview in his South Williamsburg home, it’s important we get the vibe right. He puts on a vinyl of J Dilla’s Donuts as the backdrop to our conversation.

How good is this J Dilla record?! This will be the record that people in the future will collect and show off, huh?
Yeah for sure, it's classic! People are always asking, and I often wonder as well, "Which records will we show off to our kids? Is it still going to be our parents' generation of music that will be considered 'classic' or will it be what you were listening to?" I feel like both… I still have and listen to all my dad’s records, but what from now will be the current, quintessential records you share with kids?

Who was it for our parents? What are some of your dad’s old records?
You know. Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, The Stones... The classics!

You think our guys are up to par with them?
It’s a whole different ball game now. There's so much content constantly being put out now and people have much shorter attention spans. Ha.

Let’s get on with your work. Tell me about your most recent project.
My most recent body of work is something I'm calling Cruiser. I was recently in a group exhibition in Madrid. Right after, I took off to Portugal to make this work. I was originally trying to turn my time there into a small surf trip, but it turned out to be a pretty weak swell that week, so I just rented a scooter because I can't drive a stick shift (laughs) and went up and down the coast for a bit, shooting constantly. The project was just this loose thing that I was calling "cruiser" because I was bouncing around on a scooter, having a good time by myself.

What different modes of photography do you use?
The way I shoot is a lot like my approach to music. I'm always experimenting and trying new things, and inevitably there’s going to be something that ties it all together because it's about what I'm looking at and choosing to show you. It’s not like I’m just a landscape photographer or still life photographer; you can't be confined to these parameters, you know? A lot of photographers work in a similar way and mix all kinds of image-making. There's always some vibe that holds it all together because it's me making the work.

What are you looking for when you’re out there shooting? Are you drawn to certain things more so than others?
Yeah, I don’t know. Who knows what it is… One of my favorite photographers, Roni Horn, once said, "I go where the water is." I don't know why, but that has really stuck with me recently. It's so simple and beautiful. I’m not trying to make straightforward images, so to speak. I'm always trying to surprise myself in my work.

Patterns are also pretty noticeable with your work. What’s the context of that in your work?
It’s always been something I’ve been super into. I love collecting and wearing crazy shirts with intricate design and pattern work.

The shirts! Glad you mentioned that. I have to say, this is the plainest shirt I’ve ever seen you wear.
(Pat laughs) Yeah… Actually, my fascination with pattern work is largely a part of the reason I wanted to go make that Cruiser work in Portugal. There's an insanely rich history of elaborate tile and pattern work all throughout Portugal and I wanted to incorporate some of these found patterns into my images.

I also see a lot of frames, real and makeshift ones, and windows in your work.
I was a high-rise window cleaner for three years back in Nebraska, and I've come to realize recently how much that has shaped the way I make images and see the world. I love the idea that windows are reflections of what's behind you as well as gateways into a new place. It's cheesy but true.

Really? How tall were the buildings you were cleaning?
Highest building I did was about twenty stories tall. We were a smaller company so we didn’t use swing stages (the ones you stand on), We repelled ourselves down the side of the buildings while sitting in a little chair with a bucket.

Sounds sketchy.
No. It was fun dude!

Do you shoot film or digital?
It’s all digital. I use to shoot film until my last year of school and then I switched over.

You have to use any camera to get the shot. I’m not the most technical photographer. I'm more concerned with what I'm photographing, over aesthetics. A lot of people are always commenting on my color tone and other aesthetic decisions, but it’s something I don’t pay attention to as much as what I'm photographing and trying to say.

Any magazines, books, or publications that you like to look at?
Yeah, of course. I look at a lot of self-published work. Editorial work can be cool at times. I mean, it's what pays the bills and gets you more exposure, but personal work is where ideas and voices really shine.

“Welcome to the Show.” That is the last song on the record. He starts with an outro and ends it with an intro. Pretty symbolic about the cyclic nature of life wouldn't you say?
Yeah man, Donuts of the Heart! During his last moments, Dilla was so prolific!

Images: Pat O'Malley

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