There’s something very early-Annie-Leibovitz about Philadelphia’s photographer Dustin Fenstermacher; a name some people don’t believe is real. It is.
With his recognizable editorial, portrait and documentation work, jumping between weightlifting competitions, lingerie football games, comic-cons and gun shows, Fenstermacher—like Leibovitz—captures an honesty in the weirdness that’s, well, for people who don’t spend a lot of time behind a camera, they should know it’s very difficult. Only the best can make it look easy.
Aside from also shooting for Rolling Stone, in addition to publications like Esquire, New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice and VICE, Fenstermacher shoots quirky scenes and tells a story without over-orchestrating things. Even at the couple dozen cat shows he’s covered—and that’s kind of where the similarities end—he revealed the furry madness behind feline modeling. And as of April 1, with the release of his new book, How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity, the cat thing has become a very good thing. We’ll get to that later.
First, check out Leibovitz’ photos for Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of the ‘72 presidential campaign trail—some of her first work ever. Not everyone could accept that challenge, knowing her shots would be paired with HST’s searing observations of the trail’s underbelly, but every shot was a subtly strange and beautifully unguarded look at that world.
She, like Fenstermacher, saw the weird scenes we all miss in every day life. Whether he’s lurking behind a gun rack to photograph some teens drooling over assault rifles, watching as bodybuilders get painted orange, or skipping town to shoot Spring Break, Fenstermacher does not shy away from peculiar challenges. In fact, it’s his self-appointed job to find them.
PW: Why did you go to Spring Break?
Dustin Fenstermacher: Uhh… it’s… I never went to Spring Break before in my life. So I figured, why not go when I’m 34 and be, like, twice the age of some of the people who might be there. I wanted to see if what I heard was true, in that you might think you’re the creepiest old guy there, but there’s always someone creepier.
No. I like going places I’ve never been before. Even though sometimes it’s going to be some place that I know I’m going to maybe not have the best time.
Yeah, it does seem like a hilarious form of worthwhile self-torture.
And I’ve done that… That seems to be what I do with my projects. It’s like, all right, I’m going to go to this thing and document it and see if I don’t hate myself for going.
But you’re totally immersed.
Oh, I’m fascinated.
Yeah, you really capture it too. How do you convince a stranger to give you a real honest thing, and do not worry about the camera? That’s hard. It’s probably a little bit of improvisation?
Yeah. I tend to find that the photos I like the best are either before or after a “shoot.” When somebody’s caught off guard in a way, then it’s more their natural self. Like, “Oh, I’m testing the lights! Don’t mind me, I’m still testing the lights.” And people are super loose and, I don’t know, people just don’t fall into how think they should act in front of a camera.
When I look at award-winning photographs of people, really honest-looking shots, I always think: how did they get that? Maybe that’s it. Just, always ask that question, and always be interested in trying new things.
Yeah, I totally agree. I think a lot of it also has to do with just gaining a person’s trust. I sometimes you think you can’t get that unless you’re working with people who are either comfortable with cameras or at least comforted by your presence.
How did the cat book, How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity, come to be?
My friend and I pitched this book with the cat show photos, and we were going to do a take on a “Kensington Blues” project that Jeffrey Stockbridge did. And she’d write up some first person narratives as the cat, talking about how they’re all nipped out, and how rough the life of being a cat model is. It was silly. And they passed on that. But they got in touch with me about taking photos for this other cat book and I kind of wept a little on the inside, because I had to go and photograph more cats, which I’m kind of… a little over? A lot over it?
So this is like the end? It’s your cat exclamation point.
Yeah, maybe. And the stuff I’ve been seeing on the Internet is just ridiculous. Oh my god.
The book is a satirical guide on how to make your cat an Internet celebrity. It’s actually super hilarious. I was wondering why I needed to shoot with a lot of open space, at first, but then I saw the drawings and how everything just clicked together.
That’s really cool. And you never met the writer or illustrator. What a great 21st-century sort of collaboration.
Yeah, it’s really cool. And a lot of it’s just… a lot of it can work. It makes sense. The popular cat blog DoodleCats posted an entire blog post about the book. And she used some of the tips they gave in the book to make her cat an internet celebrity She drew a lion on a box, cut a hole and then put the cat in there. Within a day, there were already [hundreds of] likes or whatever. That might not be a lot for Lil Bub or Maru [both established cat celebrities], but it’s pretty good.
You’re acknowledging what’s happening on the Internet and making it your own, with this book. It’s a satire book, but it’s also an honest and original observation. It’s one of the things on the Internet that has been done the most.
Yeah. And maybe it’s an actual statistic. On YouTube anyway.
It probably is. It’s like between that and Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.
I’ve been around so many kids lately, and so many parents are now in the Frozen stage of, like, parenting. So all these kids love Frozen. But I still have not heard the song.
Anyway, I guess the cat book is doing well in pre-orders and that sort of thing, so they are already finishing a spin-off, which… I’m not sure how much I’m able to say about it? Let’s just say there’s a spin-off. Um, we’ll just say… there’s another book that I’m working on. It may or may not be a spin-off. But I’ve been photographing a lot of babies lately. Yeah, I’m knee-deep in it.
The request I saw on Facebook was, well—I know you’re not being offensive, at all—but that request really made me laugh one morning. Like a good Eugene Mirman joke. “One more time: if anyone knows anyone that has a non-white kid that I can photograph for an upcoming humor book, let me know. That last batch yielded a few, but not enough.”
Yeah, I’m all white babied out. You know, it’s a challenge. It’s a book they’re going to try to distribute internationally.
Do you have any other ideas for some books, going beyond your initial contractual obligations with Quirk, you know, for these two books?
Yes. The next big project that I’m attempting to put together is a super-Philadelphia-centric project that I don’t believe has ever been done. So…
Well, then I don’t want to know it yet.
Let’s just say it’s gonna be meaty. A meaty piece.
So, we learned how this book sprung out of some of your personal photojournalism projects. Did you go to school for photography?
Hell no. I picked it up as a hobby back in 2005 or 2006. I’d gone through a brutal breakup and the band I was playing in kind of broke up for a while. I had all this free time.
What do you play?
Guitar, and I did some vocalizing.
Vocalizing. It’s not pretty. It sounds better in the studio, when I can layer voice a bunch of times. And not feel so naked. But yeah, I had all this time and I got a Canon point-and-shoot on clearance at a K-Mart that was going out of business. And I just started taking photos around town. Two mega pixels. Less powerful than what everyone has in their pockets these days. I photographed stuff that would make me… I just, the stuff that I like the most is the stuff that makes me laugh to myself. I wish I could be a comedian, or a comedic actor of some sort
You mean a film camera?
Digital. I’ve barely shot with film, it’s so sad.
So many of my friends have gone to art school, or they went to photography school. They’re like, “Oh man, just keep on going with it. You’ve got an eye or something.” And…
Be like, “It’s my job, man.” (laughs)
It’s my job now. But like, at the time, they said, “keep on going with it.”
Yeah, it’s like, “Get a Hasselblad, see how it works for you…” (laughs)
What got you started?
I used that point-and-shoot for a couple months. I figured I needed a DSLR or a DSLR-like camera, so I got a Fuji that I ended up selling within a couple months because the photo quality was just not there. S I bought a Canon Rebel XT, which was also probably less than what your phone has. And after a year or a year and a half after doing photography as a hobby, I was just not down with being in an office job. That’s what I was doing at the time, online marketing. I just went and started doing that part-time and started figuring out how to be a photographer, full-time. It also took me a couple months in Central PA to realize that there are no jobs in Central PA for photography, unless you want to be a wedding photographer, which is not a bad thing.
But I wanted to leave PA, growing up. And I was just kind of miserable where I was. So, after I started taking pictures, I realized it was a gold mine. Everything is just so weird and preserved and it’s so lived-in.
Here, (in Fishtown) you can see it if you go further, away from the gentrifaction. It’s like, communities of people are still there and it’s kind of still a little untouched. And I find myself more inspired by that stuff than the, like, “Hey, check me out, I’m on Girard. I love…going to places here…”
You find more interesting people where they aren’t showing off at all.
Like the people wearing sweatpants. My roommate is a jewelry designer, stylist and art conservator, and she helps me find out a lot about fashion stuff. Apparently, there’s something called normcore, which is indie people or hipster or whatever dressing up like they’re an extra on the set of Seinfeld or something. It’s like people not giving a fuck. And there’s an offshoot of that, or at least something that the Wall Street Journal posted online, about a scientific study about how people who might not be dressed for where they’re supposed to be, will sometimes command more authority. So, a person going into a high-end clothing story, they might come in wearing some nice top, and then just, sweatpants. And if they act like they belong there, they can command more respect. They’re like, I don’t care what other people think around here.
The Bill Murray effect.
Yeah. Oh, man. You shouldn’t have said that. I’ve got a Bill Murray story, too. Well, not a great one.
So, now I see people in sweatpants… maybe they’ve got something going on.
Yeah, people concerned about dry cleaning are just not… (laughs) So, anyway, what’s your Bill Murray story?
One time, I was housesitting up in Brooklyn and my friend Colleen, who runs a DJ business that a started working with last year or the year before, and I were going to get pizza. We walked by this film set in Park Slope or something, and we saw some kid walking around with a bloody nose. I was kind of like, “Holy crap! Look at that kid’s bloody nose!” And then you look up the street and there’s Bill Murray wearing a really ratty wife-beater-type of shirt, just so dirty. And he’s just awesome looking. So I just like to think Bill Murray punched that kid in the nose.
Oh! Did I meet someone later that said they were related to that kid or something? I can’t remember. Yeah, I met someone later who said, “I know so-and-so and it’s his first movie and he doesn’t know who Bill Murray is,” so he can’t get blown away by the fact that he’s working with Bill Murray.
That man was at my college graduation. He had his own tent, right next to the diploma area. He yawned when I walked across. Life. Complete.
That guy just… he just gets it. He just knows.
If you’re shooting a personal project, or you’re shooting an event, or there’s some mysterious idea you’re chasing, how do you know when you’ve got it?
Isn’t doubt and self-loathing an inherent part of this whole process? You shoot it, and you… you never know. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that you can’t be a perfectionist with this whole thing. You can shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and you just have to be able to stop at some point. And then, or, work with what you’ve got.