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Paul Moakley lives in an 18th century cottage on an island- Staten Island. For a number of years, He has been the caretaker and curator of photo exhibits at the Alice Austen house, where he resides in some sort of Elysian seclusion.  

His professional background has been in photo editing and editorial photography for major national news magazines. However documentary his work has been, his art belies this fact. Subtly proving that no man is an island, Paul's art attempts to convey the implicit tautology and quiet pathos of island life. Bringing a sensibility of reportage but infusing it with strong visual resonance, his work insists on existing within a liminal space between reality and perception, memory and milieu. 

Paul's work is remarkably personal yet objectively referential, providing insights into cultural happenstances- pieces of which most people can readily recall or momentarily transcend into. There is something eerie and slightly haunting, almost fugitive about his work -- not unlike the maritime fog that quickly descends and then quietly lifts. 

 

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Timothy Hull: Your film and video work titled "Memory Loop" is literally a loop around Staten Island recording the sights, sounds and scenes of the island where you have lived your whole life. To you, what is the nature of memory and how does this body of work reflect that?

Paul Moakley: I’ve always been curious about the malleable quality of memory and history. It’s sometimes unsettling how ideas change in your mind over time and get colored one way or another. Over the past few years I’ve been watching my father fall deeper into the dementia of Alzheimer’s disease and it made me question the importance of memory even more. Memory loop is made up of nostalgic depictions of places and random thoughts about my dad and the feelings we both share for the water (or maybe I just feel we do.) The look of the film and photos was strongly influenced by romantic period artists like Theodore Rousseau. I like the conflict between rationalism and romanticism. There’s so much about the brain that’s a mystery. Memories are often unexplainable and triggered by the most random thoughts and are totally unexpected and intrusive. I wanted to play with that. 

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TH: The portrait portions of the video are a compelling aspect of the work- giving insight into the anthropological idiosyncrasies of the island. What were you trying to accomplish by interspersing portraits of people amongst scenes of land and sea?

PM: I’m just drawn to certain people and some are drawn to me. It’s almost no different than finding a beautiful landscape or vista to shoot. The documentary aspect of the work makes it impossible to escape an anthropological element but I think that it adds to the value of the work I’m doing. I love the video portraits of Thomas Struth,  screens tests of Andy Warhol and James Dean. They made me think that there’s so much to be explored in video portraiture and I wanted to make video portraits in my own way.


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TH: What insight can your impart about the popular consciousness of Staten Island? Is there a particular spirit, drive or “something” about Staten Islanders that you want to come forth in Memory Loop?

PM: I’m not sure what I say about Islanders. Maybe I’m too much a part of it... I know that I tend to look for universals in most things and think about how everyone can relate to the subject. All the people in the film including my father and myself are all looking at the water as a place to escape to but everyone has different reasons. If all islanders loved the ocean maybe they would treat it differently and we’d all be swimming here a bit more? All the people in the film are drawn to the water- otherwise I would not have found them there!  

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TH: Gertrude Stein said that what constitutes the hallmarks of  English literature is inspired by the fact that England is an island and the inhabitants fall under the repetitions and self-referential gazing of what she calls "daily island life." Do you think that living on an island has shaped the way you see and the things you make? Is Stein right- that there is a certain repetition, routine and perhaps tautology to living on an island that manifests itself creatively?

PM: I really love that idea. I always thought I had a bit of OCD but maybe it’s just island life. One thing living here definitely offers is perspective from the city. My social and work life happens in Manhattan and sometimes I find it overwhelming. The island is a sanctuary for me. I sit outside my house at night, stare at the skyline and feel far away. I’m very grateful for that distance and maybe that adds to why I work in the reflective practice of photography and film.

TH: You've also spent many years photographing and making videos of the boy's football team at your former high school. This work seems about the present, as well as the past. It is almost a very Proustian pursuit, as in The Search for Lost Time. So I wonder, how do these photos and videos speak to memory or experience?

PM: Everything I’ve done as an artist so far is an exploration of my past and where I come from. I’m fascinated by all the paths we can take in life and how we can make things quite hard for ourselves. 

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TH: So why spend so many years following the athletic pursuits of teenagers? Is this self-referential? Is the habit and ritual of this project about "daily island life?"

PM: I think it is self-referential.  I wanted to know why I turned out so differently from them. I felt alien to the comfort these boys had with each other and their confidence. It took me so much longer to get there; maybe about after 4 years of shooting when I was 30. It was like a long art therapy project. I had to do it- and in some ways it saved my life and made me a better person. These days I wouldn’t step back one day. There’s so much you can learn from watching your life happen over again though other people. At school, so many things seem eternal (homecoming, prom, graduation) and they happen over and over with only slight variations. It’s humbling to think of it like that.  I learned so much from the kids who gave me time to observe their lives and tell me their stories. I also sometimes see photography as a rigorous practice that I have to keep in shape for; the same way someone exercises. I like to shoot on a regular basis the way someone goes for long run.... which I’ve also done since I was 12. 

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TH: It seems your work is equal parts a recording of facts as well as resonant emotions and reflective states. What is the space between documentary and fine art that your work occupies? Are these symbiotic genres?  

PM: I think it’s impossible to make work that is purely factual... you have to figure out different strategies to make your work have an impact. Honesty comes with how much we check ourselves, question things and how brutally honest we can be with ourselves and others. I’m always checking myself to be as straight forward as possible and to not alter the scenarios I explore. I’m fascinated by the space where documentary blurs into subjectivity... so yes, they are totally symbiotic genres for me. I’m a firm believer in telling the story that is closest to my life and praying that someone relates to it. 

Johnny Misheff