Monday, December 23, 2013

A conversation with Steve Bannos: actor, writer, and gargantuan photo dealer

Before I start with my long write-up up of a much longer conversation, let me give you a little background:

One Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, I decided to browse eBay for some old photobooth photos, for no particular reason. I came across listings with titles that cracked me up. I noticed that the funny ones were invariably from a seller named "Gargantua." Let me give you a few examples:



You get the idea. So, I started reading the photo captions from my iPad and showing them to my wife and kids. We must have been reading them for an hour. We were all dying of laughter. The next night, I was still thinking about the brilliant listings and I thought, "Hey. I should contact the seller. They really deserve to know that they have provided so much entertainment for my family."
So, in the "ask the seller a question" box on eBay, I told the seller that I thought the listings were pure genius. He wrote back and thanked me for the compliment, and included his name, Steve Bannos. Out of curiosity, I googled the name and was shocked to see that the first two hits were IMDB and Wikipedia. It turns out, Steve Bannos hadn't just entertained me for one evening; he had entertained me with his writing and acting on Freaks and Geeks (one of the best shows ever), and countless tv shows and movies (tons—just look at the imdb listing or check out this Youtube demo reel from 2009).

So I wrote back. I told him that my suspicions of his comedic genius were confirmed by my cyber-stalking. I asked if he would consider an interview for my blog. He obliged, and sent me his number. At this point, this was me:

(video of Ed Grimley, which apparently doesn't show up on iPads)

He was the Pat Sajak to my Ed Grimley. Not that I'm the "fan" type. I see tons of famous people every year at the Sundance Film Festival and I don't even bother to bring my camera (although I do have a bit of a crush on Lake Bell and would have had my picture taken with her at the premiere of her movie last year were it not for the brand new zit that had emerged on my nose that day. Later, I realized, oh yeah. I write Photoshop tutorials. duh.) But the thing with Steve Bannos was that I connected with the wit of his eBay listings before I knew who he was. And the more I researched about him in prep for the interview, the more I liked him.

Readers of my blog have "Gargantua's" keen eye for found photos (i.e. "vernacular photography"—but I don't like that term because it feels condescending) and his hilarious listings to thank for my return to this blog after a two-month hiatus (the demands of What The French?! loom large).

Steve Bannos, via imdb
The following is an excerpt from the conversation I had with Steve last week:
[quick note to readers whose genteel sensibilities are alarmed at profanity: I've scaled the interview down to a PG-rating thanks to an asterisk or two, but I'm not cutting out every single word that might offend, so just deal with it or don't read]

Which came first, acting or photography?

Oh, acting came way way before photography. Acting came in High School. I did school plays and we did what was called "contest plays" where you would put up a one act in one hour and you would take that one hour and you'd set it up, you'd do the play, and then you'd strike it—all within one hour. And if you went over the hour you were disqualified. I had the lead role my senior year, and there was a talent scout from a university. He offered a scholarship, and that's how it all began.

So then, when did the photography collecting start?

The photography collecting came in the early 90s. I was always a flea market kind of guy. I have the collector gene, definitely. My father was a collector, and it's just absolutely a gene.

Does that mean you collect other things?

Oh, I collect so much stuff. There's just something attractive about rummaging through old shit. I've just got the gene and I pursue it...And then I just happened to stumble upon a box of snapshots at one of the flea markets, and I bought the whole box, because I'm kind of obsessive that way...So that's how that started, just collecting.

Then around '97, someone told me about this new thing called eBay. And I went, let me take a look if there are snapshots on ebay. So, I started as a buyer, and then I thought, you know what, I can totally do this. And it was the early days of eBay, so I thought, I'm going to do something that no one else does. I'm going to do a persona, and I'm going to present myself as Gargantua the Gorilla and write titles that would really draw people in. You see, in 1997, there weren't thumbnails of the image—thumbnails came around, maybe 2000—so it was all about grabbing someone within however many characters.

So were your titles always pretty crazy?

My titles were originally designed for people to read them and go, "What the F***!" What is this guy talking about?" And they'd have to click through, and then once they've clicked through, I'm hoping I've got the hook in their cheeks. Because, originally, it was all about the text. It was like writing a tagline for a movie poster.

Yeah. So, when I cyber-stalked you, I read on Wikipedia that you write taglines?

I do, and it's just completely independent of eBay, but it's so similar. I write taglines for movie posters, and it's the greatest job in the world.

Do you have any favorites that you've written?

I've written thousands and thousands of them, and to have three or four picked out of thousands, you're doing good. There are tens of thousands written for any one movie, because they go around to different agencies, and everyone in house is writing them, so if yours gets picked you're doing pretty good. The last one I did that got picked was about five years ago for a movie called Ghost Town, about a guy with the ability to see dead people...

Uh-huh. [laughing] Sounds really original.

Do you remember that movie?

No, I don't know why I don't know it.

Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, and Ricky Gervais were in it. Ricky Gervais plays this mean-spirited dentist, and so, anyway, the tagline was He sees dead people...And they annoy him.

via Imdb
That's good. I like that.

And I found out by driving past a bus stop and seeing the poster.

You did? They didn't feel like telling you that it had been chosen?

No... So, I saw the poster and I said, I think...I think I wrote that. And it was probably a month later, that I actually went and opened the document and did a search, and it came up, and I was like, I did write it!

I also heard that you guest wrote for Saturday Night Live?

Yeah, I did in 1999-2000, I wrote on four different episodes.

How'd that happen?

It was an interesting experience. I was writing on Freaks & Geeks at the time, so I was kind of in the spotlight, and I had a little bit of a wave going with NBC, as well as, I am friends with Steve Higgins, who was the producer of SNL right beneath Lorne Michaels. That was a brief period of time when they were just flooded with money and they were hiring guest writers left and right. I had the opportunity of being hired as a staff writer, but it just wasn't possible because I lived in L.A., and I had just gotten married...But it was really interesting, and I'm glad I did it. It was just another weird little feather in my cap. I'm glad I pursued something and did well and then moved on. That's kind of what I do. I like to do stuff and then say, ok, I did it, and then move on.

I totally get that. I do that too, but with completely useless accomplishments like becoming 10th in the world in Fruit Ninja.

I'm sure you, like me, could never ever have a 9-to-5 job where you're sitting at a desk looking at a clock—

Right. [laughing] That's why I'm on the phone in my pajamas at noon. So, anyway...when I first read your eBay listings, I thought, These are genius! And then when I found out who you were it made more sense. So I wanted to ask you, how do you write your listings? How long does it take?

What I do is, every week I put up about 70 auctions, so I pick 70 snapshots and it's not just random. My listings are in a certain order. Like, the first group of photos is couples, and they're 1930s and then 1950s, and then men, and then women, and then children, so my regular buyers know exactly what they're going to see every week.

First, I pick the 70 photos and put them in order. And then when it's time to write the descriptions, I really, really have to psyche up for it.


Yes, because it's a grind. I know that if I sit down and don't do anything else, it's going to take an hour and a half—but it's just an hour and a half of, like, beating my head against my desk because I'm not only writing titles, I'm also measuring the photos and typing in the condition, and making sure everything is perfect, and it's a f@#king grind. [...] I usually end up doing it at about 1 a.m., when everyone's asleep.

In fact, you were kind of a catalyst, when you wrote me that complimentary email about my titles, I thought, I gotta get back on my game, I gotta write funnier titles. It takes just a tiny bit more effort. I wrote one a week ago specifically thinking about you and it sold immediately. It was a photobooth photo of a gangster guy from 1930s—totally Al Capone era—and there were spots all over it, like bubbles in a cartoon, and the description was "Insane Gangster Is Seeing Syphilitic Hallucination Spots." It sold immediately. The title sold that, I mean, come on.

Insane Gangster Is Seeing Syphilitic Hallucination Spots

I have a lot of really long term, steady, loyal customers that really dig it [the listings]. I've made so many friends on eBay that have become almost as close as family.

I noticed that you have a Facebook page called Found Photo Room. Are those people that you met through eBay or people that you've met when you're out buying photos or what?

Mostly they're eBay people. Four of the five of us who started the page are all eBay sellers, and we've communicated over the years. I knew a lot of these people for almost 10 years before I ever met them in person, which just happened in New York about a year ago. So that's kind of cool. I've had these long term relationships with people I'd never even met. And they sent me gifts when my child was's come out of eBay is really wonderful in that respect. Just wonderful.

Nobody would think that eBay would be a social network, but I guess when you have a niche market...

Totally, because us oddballs attract each other. It's like we get each other. We'll sit in a room and talk about why a photo's cool. Geeks. We get each other.

[ed. note: lest the reader should think this all rosy about eBay, it's not. In fact, another thing people seem to have in common is a shared dislike of eBay's practices such as forced use of Paypal, a lopsided feedback system, and other things too long to transcribe here.]

I noticed you've got 100% positive ratings out of nearly 19,000 ratings. How do you manage that?

If someone doesn't like something, I'm like, f***ing send it back, no problem.


This is what happened a couple of times: "1960s Photo: Green Army Men Engaged in Battle on Red Shag Carpet"—You probably already know what it looks like. It's a little square photo from the 60s, up close, a fun abstract thing. Well, the person bought it and a week later I get an email from the buyer and he's incensed, and he writes "This is NOT what I bought!!! I bought army men! Where are my army men?!" And I'm like, Actually, this IS what you bought! You didn't buy army men. You thought you were buying army men...So when there's that kind of insane people, I back away slowly with my back to the door. I send back the money. Keep the f***ing photo, I don't even care. I'll even put disclaimers on stuff, often, in red text, like, "Again. you're buying a PHOTO, not the item in the photo"

[laughter] ha! 
So, I remember the listing "supremely bored expressionless black woman"...


I know, and that's going to sell it. I mean, this is the most boring photo in the world.

That was brilliant. When I read that title—I never would have looked at the photo, it was the title that made me look at it—I thought, This needs to be a book. And to me, that's the title of the book. It draws you in. It reminded me of John Baldessari who worked with found photos. I have already created your book in my mind. In my mind, the book has your found photos with the listing titles, and I decided that Martin Parr needs to write the preface and that it would be published with either a little press like Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom, or with Steidl or with Chronicle Books if you wanted the mass distribution. Have you ever actually thought about making a book out of your collection?

I've been asked so many times...


I have so many different categories of snapshots that I collect that I could do probably four or five or six different books of specific things or concepts, but I've never really pursued it for a couple of reasons: It's not going to be money at the end of the rainbow. It would be a fun way to share my stuff, yes, but I don't have the time to do it, and I don't have the passion to pursue it, unless someone comes to me and goes "Here's the deal" and I'll go, "OK. Here are the photos."

I've got a couple of different concepts, and one of them is "repeating scenes." Because I look through literally hundreds of thousands of different images in a flea market in a week...and my brain can process these images and remember specific images—I even dream images, like I'm looking through photos in my dreams—and I remember them. And I'll remember that I have in my collection an image that looks almost exactly like another, that's there's another image with a woman doing the exact same thing in a similar mood, and I'll put those photos together, and you look them and go "That's cool." So I've made these couplings of images like that, and then, I could see that the book goes further, like, oh, now, here's a page with four...holy shit! there's four of them! And as it goes on and on, by the back page, I have a collection of people in rowboats and they're at the bow of the rowboat and they're rowing, and the snap is taken by the perspective of the person facing them in the rowboat, and I might have 300 of these!


And your eyeballs start spinning in your head. There's every variation, including a dog! Or a woman passed out. Or a couple kissing. Or a guy with his legs open and you can see one of his nuts...


Having these repeating images is what really fascinates me, and as an obsessive collector, that's what fuels my furnace. I look through so many photos that I start to categorize them. Like, another one is photos of people taken at the apex of a house. For some reason, my brain goes oh, that's cool, and now I have twenty of those. So, repeating images, that's one thing.

And then another is snowmen. I could do a whole book on snapshots of snowmen that are just so wonderful and beautiful—

See. That's so great! I want to see these books. If I could make that happen, I would.
Conceptually, it's more interesting than what a lot of art photographers are doing. [...]
The caption, for me, completely changes how you think of the photo. For example, a lot of them are humorous. That's what really drew me in. But there are also ones where first you laugh, and then you start to wonder. I pulled a few last night off of eBay, like "Shell Shock Army Man and American Flag Backdrop" from 1940. Do you remember that one?


Totally. You can read me any of them, and they'll come back to me. And I can dissect that one for you, too. I'll explain the dynamic of the title and how it's changed through the evolution of eBay. It started out with the title, and not as many characters as they have now. I'd have to suck people in and get them to click through. That's how it started. Then, we got the thumbnail, so the heat was off a little bit because they could see the cool image in the thumbnail. But the search words are really important. I don't want to beat up too many sellers, but a lot of them don't even have the word "photo" in their title, so good luck!

So, words like "American Flag Backdrop" will attract people who are doing searches for "American Flag" and "Photo" or "Backdrop" and "Photo." In the old days, if you didn't get enough search words in your title, you could buy a subtitle for 50 cents, and throw in extra words, for example, "Civil War" or "Union" or "Swords" or whatever. But a couple years ago, they gave me the gift of like, twenty more characters in every title. That's like, What? They just doubled the amount of room I can write bullshit in my titles? Now it's really over the top, so now I can write whole complete non-sequiturs, so you get to read these long, extended, crazy titles. Originally, it was a little shorter, but now I go over the top. Like "syphilitic hallucination" would have taken up half the title in the old days.

So that allows you to add this part that isn't about people finding it, right? Like, with the "Shell Shock Army Man and American Flag Backdrop," maybe they're looking for "American flag" or maybe they're looking for "Army man," but they're probably not looking up "Shell shock," right?

Yeah. That's the bonus. The bonus characters.

Or, another one I saw last night was "Age-inappropriate woman in teen girl poodle skirt," which I thought was really funny. First, it made me laugh, and then it came across as a little tragic, like, I start to make up the story, like, is this a daughter who is trying to make her mother keep up with the times by giving her a poodle skirt? or is this the woman's sad attempt to remain relevant to her husband who's got wandering eyes, or....Do you create stories in your mind when you see these photos?

"Age-inappropriate woman in teen girl poodle skirt"

Sometimes I do, but generally, if I get too emotional about a photo, I keep it. I will keep it. I collect obsessively. No, really, when I'm cranking out titles, I just shoot from the hip and move on to the next one, and measure the next photo, and keep churning them out.

I'm curious, how many photos do you keep? Because I'd want to keep a lot of them.

I have one box that I call my "primo primo" and it's not any categories, it's just images, and there might be 2,000 of those—so no one's buying those. And then I have different categories that I wouldn't sell either, so I have maybe 10,000 or more that I don't want to sell. But if someone offers me $2,000 for a photo that I really adore, I'm like, "Cash please." There are a couple I would absolutely never sell, but I guess there's always a price. My all time favorite snapshot is of Bela Lugosi and his son and a waitress at a Hollywood diner. If you look at it closely, Bela and his son are sitting at the table and his son is, like, six years old, and the waitress is standing there—it's a square black and white snapshot—and if you look at the table it tells a story. And if you look at the back of it, there's narrative. "Bela is sitting with Junior, who just upset his milk." And then you have to turn it over again and look at the table and you go, Oh shit, you can see where he spilled his milk. And then you go, Well, let's look at what's on the table: There's a milk, Bela's got a cigar in his hand, there's a cup of coffee, there's a beer, there's a water, and there's something else, there's a little case, who knows what, maybe a syringe case, I have no idea, but that's just the story of what's on the table...and then there's Bela, and Junior, and the waitress...It's my number one, all-time favorite. I have reproduced it and blown it up into a pretty nice sized little poster and had Bela Junior autograph it, I showed it to him.

No way!

Yeah. At a horror show. At Monsterpalooza. First I showed him the snapshot and he was like "Yeah. I was always spilling stuff"—He said something like that. Just a casual throwaway, and I had the big poster, and I said, "Could you make it out to the Bannos family?" —Of course! I....I couldn't think of a price tag. I could go, Oh, you can have it for ten grand, but then I'd think, I'd really miss that. You know, I could make ten grand somewhere else. So it's hard to put a price tag on that thing. And I bought it in New York! I didn't even buy it out here, which is kind of bizarre because it was taken at a diner in Hollywood.

I don't know if this is a taboo subject, but how do you price your photos? There's one called "Cracked image goth horror" that you're selling for $150. Is it the cracked surface? Is it that vintage arcade photos are hard to find?

That one hits a bunch of different ones. People think that arcade photos are cool. People love photos of black people because black people photograph beautifully. And then the crackle of the emulsion on the surface—I've only seen it one or two times, ever. And so, then I factor in the rarity value. You're not going to see this object again for a long, long, long time, so if you want it, you're going to have to dig deeper. And I like it. I'm in no hurry to sell it. So that one is based on the rarity. Others are based on—and I'm not saying that I want to take advantage of people—but it's based on what I think buyers like and what their pain threshold might be.

Something I thought was funny—and this probably isn't really a question—is that in the Navy I.D. photos, "Sexy Gumby Hair Punk" goes for $80, but "Swarthy Thick Italian" is $50. I thought it was funny that basically, poor "Swarthy Thick Italian" is like a "5" and "Sexy Gumby Hair Punk" is like an "8." [...] Anyway, one photo that I never would have looked at if it hadn't been for the title was "Satanic Goat Head On Fence Post Wants To Swallow Your Soul."


I was dying of laughter.


Do you get the reference in that? There's a movie reference.

No. I mean, there are Satanic goat heads all over the place in horror, which one—

It's from The Evil Dead, "Swallow your soul"

Oh. yes. That's one of my favorite movies.

[and on that truly embarrassing note for a horror fan, I stopped recording the interview, but continued the conversation for at least another half hour.]

A final note:
I started a pinboard (titled "supremely bored expressionless black woman", of course) devoted to "Gargantua's" listings. I strongly suggest that you visit Gargantua's store, his listings, and his website. Be warned. It's very addictive. I've already purchased several photos.