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The Boombox as a Means for Empowerment: Lyle Owerko and 'The Boombox Project'

August 10, 2017 // by Caitlin Swindell

The oeuvre of Canadian born, Los Angeles based photographer and filmmaker, Lyle Owerko, is extensive. At first glance, The Boombox Project, photographs of which are on view in Synthesize: Art + Music, might appear markedly different from Owerko's other series. He's worked in both commercial and documentary capacities, photographing a diverse range of peoples and places including industrial buildings in the United States to portraits of the Samburu in northern Kenya.  

Although his photographs range in subject matter and place, they demonstrate his interest in documenting cultural groups and histories. The Boombox Project, which includes photographs taken from the artist's own collection of boomboxes, aligns with this documentary approach. The images serve not only as archival records but also function as intimate portraits. Each boombox has its unique identifiers whether it be affixed stickers, broken buttons, or other signs of personal use.   

Owerko will speak on The Boombox Project and an accompanying book, published by Abrams Image, The Boombox Project: the Machines, the Music and the Urban Underground on Thursday August 17th as part of MOCA Jacksonville's Art and Ideas Series.  

Photographer Lyle Owerko holds a boombox.
Photographer Lyle Owerko holds a boombox from his collection. Photo by Carsten Fleck.

1.       Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you first start taking photographs?

I first started taking pictures with a film camera in the early 1990s when moving to New York. I felt it was important to record my new surroundings with a lens-that curious sensibility was something I was able to build on and grow into a full-blown obsession capturing moments both big and small.

2.       How did The Boombox Project develop and how many boomboxes are in your collection?

The Boombox Project grew out of a search for metaphor and meaning in the time after September 11th. The boombox was this amazing tool from a previous generation that was beckoning to be studied and amplified both in image and in celebration of its history. My collection is now well over 60 boomboxes and keeps growing as I discover new models out there in the collectors' universe. The project started from the spark of a small idea and now has grown into a small industry for me - expanding now into sculptures and will always be a part of my creative life both in expression and in endeavor.

3.       How do you see The Boombox Project in relationship to your past work?

The Boombox Project is truly an exploration in free speech, empowerment and the youthful expressions of defiance and voice. My work has always been an exploration of the human condition - the boombox was a megaphone for a generation - an important tool that has taken on much gravity as its era continues to impact pop culture and creative expression.

Lyle Owerko's collection of boomboxes with dog.
Lyle Owerko's extensive collection of boomboxes. Photo by the artist.

4.       I'm interested in the interpretation of these boombox photographs as portraits. What are your thoughts on this characterization?

The images are all a face, a mask and a mirror of sorts, reflecting both dreams and aspirations as well as character and personality. As portraits the imagery is to showcase these “boxes” as an urban object one part deity and one part doorway - the boombox was a tremendous gift to inner city youth as it gave them the power to express their ideas, music and sense of curation on the world; it allowed a generation to be “heard” / that's why these “portraits" resonate so well.

5.       With a foreword by Spike Lee and an impressive collection of historical photographs and quotations by cultural icons such as Run DMC, LL Cool J, Rosie Perez, and Fab 5 Freddy, your book brings together a significant history of music culture from the 1970s and the 1980s. Reflecting on the project now, what did you enjoy most about the process? Did you learn anything unexpected?

Great question - I learned about integrity of vision and culture, how passionate people were about the idea of self-empowerment, and that the idea of hip-hop is truly to be borderless in all sense of the word-to create, discuss, distribute and disseminate thought. Hip-hop is a movement, a state of mind, and a universal idea that helped many young voices gain a significant platform of recognition. Further, the boombox is a significant tool for expression, which gave youth all over the world an uplifted actualization in words, music, and movement - the boombox was truly a freedom machine!

Person carrying sunglasses and a boombox
Detail of the larger-than-life audio accessory. Photo by the artist.

Please join us in welcoming Lyle Owerko to Jacksonville for his lecture at MOCA Jacksonville on Thursday, August 17 at 7p.m. in the Museum's theater.

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