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Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes — An Interview with Jason Tippet

Book Store Interview Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes Photographs by Jason Tippet Interview by Blake Andrews Blake Andrews sits down with Jason Tippet to discuss his first monograph, Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes, a beautiful collection of 35mm, documentary-style photographs and a chronicle of the mundane absurdities that make Atwater Village in East Los Angeles both totally charming and utterly bizarre.
Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes
Photographs by Jason Tippet

Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2019. 80 pp., 12x9"

The first monograph from award-winning filmmaker Jason Tippet, Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes is a beautiful collection of 35mm, documentary-style photographs and a chronicle of the mundane absurdities that make Atwater Village in East Los Angeles both totally charming and utterly bizarre.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Blake Andrews: Congrats on Heading To Bill’s For Cigarettes.

Jason Tippet: Thanks man, it feels good to work so hard on something and finally have it out there.

BA: How did the book come about?

JT: Well, I wanted to make a documentary that followed these two older guys going to the Santa Anita race track... We shot over a period of months, but cut it down to feel like it happened in one day. I grew up going with my dad and uncles and now it's something that's fading away, for a good reason, but still breaks my heart a bit looking at old photos of that place packed...

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.

BA: Are those two older guys in the book Heading to Bills?

JT: Yeah, they're in the book. Have you been before?

BA: I've never been. Is that the track where the horses died?

JT: Yeah, that's the track. Now it feels like an abandoned cruise ship — empty rooms everywhere, vacant stands, feels like it's on its way out. It's terrible.

BA: So was the idea to film a documentary there based on the deaths?

JT: No, nothing to do with the deaths... or making a comment on horse racing. Fredrick Wiseman has a film called Racetrack made during the heyday of racing and I thought it might be a nice juxtaposition — to see it now when the sport isn't as popular.

BA: I'm browsing through the book trying to guess which guys are on their way to the racetrack. Maybe the guy in the pink polo shirt?

JT: Haha, yeah.

BA: And the guy chomping the cigar in front of Bill's?

JT: I see that guy around the neighborhood. He's got a cigar in his mouth walking around every morning. You see the same people everywhere... I don't know what that says about me, but I see these same guys at the bars I go to and run into them at the track. It’s a small world. Those guys are real characters. The Italian guy —I’ll probably make a short about him. It's incredible what people want to get off their chest if you put the time in to listen. I love it, and the reason for this is meeting people. I love meeting people like that. It's tough to tell in a photo that he thinks his landlord is poisoning him.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.

BA: So you started out making a film but wound up making a photobook?

JT: I couldn't find funding for that film and my buddy Carl McLaughlin was going out shooting a lot during that time, so I'd join him. He was taking these gorgeous night shots of Chatsworth, CA and developing and printing at his house. He had these photobooks out and I'd look through them. I thought the idea might work better as a book because I could bring a film camera in no problem, so started on that project. But that felt like it was going to take a while, so I started bringing my camera around where I lived. Every time I'd leave my place something slightly off was happening and I just really enjoyed capturing it. At first it was just to show my friends, but then Carl showed me there’s a great community of photographers online. That's when I started to get motivated about turning these projects into books.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.
BA: What were some of the photobooks Carl had that inspired you?

JT: He had a Fred Herzog book, Modern Color, that stuck out to me. Then I became interested in Martin Parr. Jill Freedman's books have also had a big impact on me. Take her book Firehouse for example. That's how I'd like to approach future projects. Picking a subject and following it along. It’s similar to how I'd shoot a movie, but with photos.

BA: So you plan to make future photobooks?

JT: Oh, I’m hooked. I have another, smaller book ready to go. It’s called My Cousin's Second Wedding. It’s really unflattering, bright flash, bad wedding shots.

BA: Cool. Did you shoot "bad" photos on purpose?

JT: Yeah. I guess I went in trying to take photos most people wouldn't like... people’s eyes closed, people's heads cut off.

BA: How much oversight/editing did Oscilloscope provide with the Heading To Bill’s For Cigarettes? Did you come to them with the product ready to go? Or did they shape it?

JT: Putting out movies with them and now putting out a book, it's the same process working with Oscilloscope. They want the artist to be happy with what they're putting out. They have great taste so I'd ask for their opinion, but in the end, they let me make exactly what I want. I hope they keep putting out books.

BA: Is Heading to Bill's For Cigarettes meant to tell a story of some sort?

JT: There's this documentary, Tchoupitoulas, that takes place in one night, but it was shot over a few months. I liked the idea of someone feeling like they got to spend a day hanging out with me around Atwater Village. It’s supposed to feel like you’re moving through the day, from when you get up in the morning to the end, when you go home.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.
BA: I hadn't noticed the sequence of lighting before. The book goes from morning light to afternoon to dark.

JT: It's me out running errands, getting food, stopping by the market... getting cigarettes. It’s more of a feeling. A lazy day. And for some reason photos can bring out those feelings more often for me. Tree of Life gives me a similar reaction.

BA: Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes refers to you then? Is that your spot for cigs?

JT: Yeah, I'm usually there once a day. Beer, cigarettes, laundry detergent, etc. The other thing about photobooks I appreciate is, people have to concentrate on them. You can't open your computer and do other things while you're flipping through a photobook. Well, you could. People throw on Netflix and don't pay attention to half of it.

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.
BA: I'm flipping through your book as I type this. But I know what you mean.

JT: Haha, yeah, I might be wrong about this. I just appreciate giving proper attention to something, and for me, photobooks are relaxing, a chance to slow things down.

BA: A photobook can be more self-contained than other content. Anything that might come through a screen nowadays is by nature open to distraction. Because that's the nature of anything digital. Anything on your phone is always in a fight with other content for your attention.

JT: Absolutely. It isn't given the same level of respect as something tangible for some reason.

BA: I kind of feel that way about movies. You walk into a theater and you are in that world for 2 hours, nothing else exists.

JT: Completely... I went to see The Irishman in theaters cause I knew I'd be stopping it and get distracted at home.

BA: Do you see yourself shifting from filmmaking to still photography?

JT: I'd like to stick with what I'm excited about, and right now that's photography. I work in the film industry. It’s something I still want to do and mainly do for work right now... I'm sure one day I'll get excited about it again.

BA: Oscilloscope's press release compares you to Eggleston: “The Eggleston Of the Instagram Generation." What do you think of that description?

JT: Ha, I mean Eggleston liked to have a good time and enjoyed getting into memorable situations. I think as far as my work, I have a long way to go. I just enjoy saying yes to things and seeing where it takes me — like putting myself in an uncomfortable situation for a story.

Still, I can't believe Bill’s is out, I was working on it for a while. Actually, a few years isn't so bad, Rob Hornstra spends years documenting these people and places.

BA: How many years were you working on yours?

JT: ...including shooting, 4 years.

BA: Yikes!

JT: Haha, yeah.

Order Heading to Bill’s for Cigarettes on our website

Heading to Bill's for Cigarettes. By Jason Tippet.

Jason Tippet is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. During his final year at CalArts, he directed the documentary short Thompson, which played Sundance and won the Jury Award at SXSW. In 2012, he directed with Elizabeth Mims the acclaimed documentary Only the Young, which was released theatrically by Oscilloscope. Jason is currently directing on the new season of Drunk History. His first book of photography, Heading to Bill’s for Cigarettes, is out now through Oscilloscope.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at