In an effort to bring you greater Culture Cred in 2012, Music and Moxie will attempt to interview or profile one non-music artist every other week, or 26 times per year. After all, we at Music+Moxie are huge fans of the all of the arts, not only those that make oodles of the blessed noise we revel in losing ourselves in.

As we kick off the first of project Culture Cred, we should mention that we’re mega fans of the age 28. For Your Girl In Music, 28 is not just the safe age past the 27 club, it was the year she realized “I’m the ‘adult’ now and I get to make the rules.” Chocolate cake for breakfast was among the first of the “28″ rules. Who knew that at the same time, in my own hood(ish) another artist, this one visual, was pondering the same ideas, but on a far more profound and culturally significant scale? Meet Sam Comen, creator and author of the “28 at 28″ photo series essay, now on an extended display at Next Space through February, 2012.

“Sam Comen on 10/21/10” by Sam Comen

When you started “28 at 28” did you expect it to go for a series of years building on each year?

Yes definitely, that was my plan. I’d had the idea some time prior, but the stakes weren’t that high. I mean, I didn’t see what was particularly interesting about being 26-years-old. But at 28, as I approached 30, I saw the exploratory period sociologists call the ‘extended adolescence’ coming to a close. I felt like the next few years would inform the rest of my life –and it seemed a perfect time to begin a document of my peers, and by extension, my generation.


Were there any marriages or babies or failures that you saw in your friends that really lit a fire to get started on the project while you were 28?

I wish I could tell you that there was one seminal event that lit a fire, but there really wasn’t any one thing that got me started. It was more like a preponderance of life changes going on. My friends were making strides in their careers, becoming prolific in their artwork, finding partners, buying homes, and having children. Others were directionless, some scrapping everything to start fresh. It seemed like we were all searching, and many closing in on, our adult lives.

In my own career, by 28-years-old, I had grown more confident that I’d effectively built the foundations of an art and commercial practice that could take me through the next several decades. I’d found a project that I was passionate about, a story I felt compelled to shoot (it’s a portrait series of life and work in a small town in California’s Central Valley called Lost Hills.) My editorial clients were assigning me subjects I was thrilled to be shooting –-

Anyway, I had this sense that that age was a turning point for me. In shooting over a course of years I want to see how my peers and I realize –or loose sight of– our potential. In iterations to come I’ll work to document our defining traits and work to distill our ambitions.

Also, I thought a serialized project like this would be a good way to hold onto certain moments, to mark time. I’ve always been obsessed with memory, maybe to a fault. I tend to romanticize the past. I remember my dad saying to me, “Try to pay attention to the life you’re living because it’s all gonna go real fast,” which is sort of a fatalistic thing. But I took it to heart when he told me that he couldn’t wrap his head around how quickly the years had passed. I think this project might’ve stemmed from that piece of perspective from my dad.

Shooting this series is an opportunity for me to create a visual record that evokes personal memories. I think that 20 years down the road it’s going to give me great pleasure to look back at an early shot from this series and be able to think “that’s exactly what was going on, on this day, this moment,” or “this is why my subject told me to meet them at that locale, because it was significant to them at that time.”

Already I’m seeing change across the years coming through in the photos. In the first year I photographed my friend Steven, for example, he’s leaping off the staircase of the new condo that he and his then-fiancé had just purchased and he’s very joyful. The second year I shot him at work in a very contemplative moment, which is where he was at, at the time, being just married and having a mortgage, looking down the road at his adult life. Then in the third picture he’s holding his and his wife’s new baby. Steven’s life has changed dramatically. I’m confident we’ll see more of that as the project goes on.

Steven Birenbaum at 28, 29 and 30 years old by Sam Comen
Steven Birenbaum at 28, 29 and 30 years old by Sam Comen


Do you have an endpoint?

No, the two projects that I look to for inspiration on this, one has gone on for 42 years…


So you’re going to be doing “40 at 40” and “65 at 65” –-

Oh yeah, and it’s going to get much more challenging and I’m going to be older, less agile.


And by that point people are usually dropping friends –

Dropping friends, exactly. As that happens the viewer is going to see the project evolve, even after I’ve been shooting for decades. The viewer will plainly see the change in overall group of subjects, not to mention the way age has affected me, in the way that I shoot.

The first project I was referencing was “Seven Up.” It’s a film series that began in 1964 with documentary footage and interviews with a group of seven-year-olds throughout the UK. The filmmakers have revisited the same subjects every seven years for the last 47 years — the last installment of the series was “49 Up.”

The other project is “The Brown Sisters” by a photographer I greatly admire, Nicholas Nixon. He shot his wife and her three sisters every year for 25 years. Watching the change throughout that set of pictures is amazing. Obviously they age, but their relationships to each other in their physicality changes, their relationships to the lens changes, their expressions, how connected or closed-off they are to the lens –- it all shifts. I know that that’s a function of that moment in time when a photo is made, but it also becomes evocative of that person’s character.


Or even how they feel about the photographer?

Exactly. I recently saw a picture of the Beatles plus Yoko Ono. Yoko and John are glaring at the camera. I immediately noticed how perturbed they look in this frame. So, it turns out what was going on was that Paul’s wife Linda was making the picture. Paul and John are in the throws of conflict at the time, much of it sparked by Yoko being around. So Paul’s wife wants to take a picture of the band, and John and Yoko look like they would rather be anywhere else on the planet.


Are there any plans to start grouping the photos by person, rather than by that age year, like 28, 29, 30?

Yes. By the time I’m shooting “31 at 31” you’ll be able to do that on the website. It’s funny, I hadn’t allowed myself to look at an individual’s photos through the years until I’d already nearly completed “30 at 30” in October 2011. I feared it would make me too sentimental. I wanted to stay present in making each photo, not overtly reference the previous year’s work. But when Bryan Formhals, the editor of photography journal La Pura Vida, approached me about showing the project in LPV online, we decided to show four of my subjects over the course of the first three years. When I assembled and looked carefully at those triptychs for the first time, I felt on a gut level that I had something special.


What are your goals for this project?

Over the years of shooting this project, I want to refine a concept of the motivations and worldview of my generation. And, like we were just saying, in the act of doing it every year, it’s a conscious marking of time. I like that ritual aspect of the process. Beyond that, over the years, I’m looking to create familiarity and intimacy with the subjects, and document the way my relationships with them evolve. I assume that the way I see my photography will change as well. As I change course in my portraiture, the project will change course too, and it will be a years-long document of my development as a photographer.


Can you talk about that?

Sure. This concerns the practical side of picture making. In “28 at 28” I was concerned with compositions that were carefully composed, with all lines perfectly square, and the subject perfectly placed. I was working on a landscape series at the time that heavily influenced the way I was making pictures –- when you’re shooting buildings you want the lines to all be square, without any distortion.  I brought that into my portrait-making.

Year two I totally changed. I decided what I had done for year one was just too restrictive and I was making pictures that dealt with the environment at the expense of connecting with the subject. For “29 at 29” I made a promise to myself to simply put a flash on my camera, stick with one lens, and just be totally present with the subject. That yielded much more intimate, spontaneous, and, I think, much better pictures.

I’m really excited about the way this project has the potential to document my evolution with the medium of photography. Besides the literal self-portrait I make of myself each year, the entire set of photographs becomes a figurative self-portrait.  I love that.


All Things Moxilicious on Sam Comen:

Sam Comen Official Site:

Sam Comen on Tumbler:

28 at 28 Official Site:

PS loyal readers: Please feel free to inundate Sam with a request to see Your Girl in Music for 31 at 31.

28 at 28 by Sam Comen
28 at 28 by Sam Comen