Kokomo is a growing series of work by Michael Marcelle based on the direct and indirect traumatic impacts of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and how the event influenced the New York City photographer’s artistic vision. After returning from Yale University, Marcelle noticed an almost extraterrestrial change to his hometown of Red Bank, NJ and was inspired to document the findings by creating an explicitly exaggerated body of work with his immediate family. With time, the project pierced into larger issues than the aftermath of Sandy alone, it grew into more of an awakening experience about mortality, adaptation, and the nature of family.
To enhance the narrative feel of Kokomo, Marcelle has teamed up with Kickstarter and MATTE Editions to produce Kokomo: The Photography Book. The campaign has gained the support of consumers from all across the globe and has raised over $7,000 since its premiere back in October. The hardcover photography book is slated to hit bookshelves in the summer of 2017. Marcelle assures us that the production of Kokomo: The Photography Book is not the end of the series, it, in fact, makes the series endless.
MICHAEL MARCELLE: Kokomo is a reference to an ’80s Beach Boys songs from the Cocktail soundtrack. I was really into it as a kid but sort of forgot about it until around the time I was graduating; I randomly heard it in the car. I was really struck by how strange and ominous the lyrics were, about “bodies melting in the sand,” and how Brian Wilson abstracts a real place into an abstract beach fantasy world. I was really interested in how that sort of tied into Sandy and how [Red Bank] was this coastal place that became abstracted and very mysterious after the storm.
A lot of this work, in the beginning, was sort of about me and my dad and I thought the song was an interesting fusing of our generations. The fact that the Beach Boys are a band from my dad's youth but “Kokomo” is a song from my childhood is a weird collapsing and stretching of time, which is a big part of [the Kokomo series].
Everything felt different [after the hurricane]. It became hard to even get home. There were all these curfews, a lot of the areas were closed off, and a lot of the trains didn’t run for a while. A lot of the areas where I would go to make work were totally gone or just inaccessible. So I began to view my home as a studio and as a way to make work, kind of as a surrogate to the outside because I couldn't really access it. I think [Hurricane Sandy] is also the first time that home felt ruptured in a way. It's a really small, generic town where not a lot happens. I was at school when it happened so I returned home and there was a big change that happened that felt really uncanny.
I wanted the work to have a very sort of tangible personal weight, so I think having [my family] involved really upped the stakes in a way.
[My family] are the closest people to me. I think they kind of act as a stand in for me. I wanted the work to have a very sort of tangible personal weight, so I think having them involved really upped the stakes in a way. It was challenging because in the beginning they didn't really understand what I was doing. What I was asking was stranger than what they were accustomed to. It was a really overwrought experience because it became about the fact that all of us are changing and aging, and it was beginning to feel like it was about wider issues than just the hurricane. You know, actually, they were pretty generous with the work! I try to be as collaborative as I can be, so I was able to tell them what was happening and if they have any ideas we’ll certainly try them out. There were some arguments and there were absolutely some times when I would have to sort of chill out a little bit, but often that’s when the strongest work would happen. They were really amazing the whole time.
My family was very fortunate, in that we just lost some trees and power for a couple weeks. [Kokomo] really helped me to connect to my family in a way that I hadn’t in a couple of years. In school while [the hurricane] was happening I was always talking about wanting to make work with my family that was somehow not personal at all, and I think I was somewhat kidding myself because ultimately, it's so incredibly personal. It’s a lot more raw than I think I am in my everyday life and just very emotional. It's kind of helped me become more aware of the stuff that was in my mind that I wasn't really addressing.
There were a couple of images, like the starry sky, which I actually constructed. I had the idea and spent like three days making it. I'd be in school and would come home on the weekends and I'd have all this equipment and would just sort of walk around the house stalking my mom and dad, trying to make these weird images.
I made [Two Shells] during a very weird weekend right before my thesis show, with three or four other photos that also ended up in the final project. I was feeling pretty intense about the work at that point and was getting really into practical special effects. Like a lot of the work, it started with just an idea that popped into my head — in this instance a bleeding seashell, which felt really fucked up and visceral to me.
It took a really long time to get the blood right and my dad was just standing there in the bedroom holding this disgusting thing.
[Color] is a huge aspect of the work and I think a lot of that ties into Kenneth Anger, Argento, and a lot of the horror films from the ’80s, where color was used to invoke alienness and an entrance into some other world.
In one way this work is about a specific set of circumstances that occurred in my home after the hurricane but I also think that, on a much wider scale, this work is about family and home and how all of that can be ruptured by a trauma. It’s about coming home to a house that’s haunted and coming to terms with all things that I think are ultimately about aging, mortality, and loss.
This is a project that has been my personal work since 2012; it's actually been the only work I've been working on until about a year ago! Now I have some new work which is kind of in process and it's still about how photography can create new kinds of worlds. I would say Kokomo is more interested in horror while the new work is more interested in sci-fi; that’s sort of the direction I’m heading in. Not that it always has to be about a genre, but I’m really interested in genres!
I’ve really always thought of [Kokomo] as being a book. There's an obtuse storybook narrative that runs in the images that's really enhanced by having it as a book. I think because of the strangeness of the photography, having it at that scale and that intimacy helps to connect the reader to the work. As a photographer and a guy who's really interested in the culture of photography, photo books are one of the coolest aspects of the culture. A lot of photography that I really love I’ve only ever seen as a book.
I think that this campaign is really the end of the project. Having the book out in the world will be a really great way to end the project...but, you know, I think that if it is a book it’s not really the end, because it'll be in all these homes and it’ll have longevity for a long time.