Perfected Ugliness: An Interview With Prettypuke (NSFW)

Photos by Prettypuke

Within hours of my first communication with Miller Rodriguez aka Prettypuke, I received a picture of a mangled finger accompanied by a sad face emoticon, and the news that he could not conduct our interview via email since his hand was swollen and throbbing. And this is how I had the longest phone interview ever with one of the coolest, weirdest, and strangely smartest artists I’ve ever encountered.

Prettypuke’s work has been called many things (including “hypertrite” and “shallow bullshit” by one of YFH’s feistiest commenters) but is most often dubbed “shock photography.” It shows the gritty side of LA streets—representing fetishes, drug use, orgies, or just people doing weird shit. Prettypuke rose to fame (or infamy) a few years ago through Tumblr, where Rodriguez’s photos, accompanied by stylised, slang-ridden captions would get hundreds of notes, with teenagers speculating on the identity of the photographer and the meaning of the photos.

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Surprisingly though, Miller was awesome, personable, articulate, and a blast to talk with.

When I called him, a child’s voice yelled through the phone, distorted and disconcerting and then Miller came on and said, “Hello?”
“Is that always how you answer the phone?” I asked.
“No!” he cried, laughing, “I’m not that insane!”
And he really wasn’t. Where I’d pictured some pre-recorded, creepy child’s voice coming through as his routine pick-up line, the reality of Miller was much more normal. It turned out that he was just watching his friend’s kids, and, as kids do, they yelled at the phone when he answered it. “I’m actually really normal and somewhat articulate and civilized,” he said.

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Before Miller became Prettypuke, he attended art school in California, dropped out, and went to school for child development. “I decided that if I wasn’t stable at 30 by being a creative, then I’d just be normal and work with special ed kids,” he said.

Prettypuke’s innocuous background can come as a surprise to those who have seen him taking bong rips in masks, but Miller is simultaneously very close, and somewhat removed from his alias. He talked about where Prettypuke started a few years ago, and it was in a pretty dark place: “When my girlfriend and I broke up, I was super depressed and started hanging out with all these gross people and doing gross things and I just started taking pictures of it all. I took cropped bodies and anonymous photos because I didn’t necessarily want to remember the person who was with me at the time, I just wanted to remember our interaction.”

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Miller’s inclination to express himself through art was hardly something that stemmed from his depression, though. He’s been creating since he was sixteen—in and out of art school—but he said that Prettypuke was born when he “failed as an artist and decided to pick up a camera.”

His apprehension for photography was apparent throughout our talk. “It’s really hard nowadays to stand out as a photographer, especially in this sea of images—we’re in this generation where digital imagery is so over the top and overwhelming. But I think I found my niche even though I’m new to the medium. Seasoned photographers get really pissed about that…”

They really do. Prettypuke gets as much hate as love. Sometimes he even feels like it’s more hate than love. But he appropriates it, posting hate mail to his Facebook, with captions like “Imma put this on a shirt.” He said that he tries to keep from responding seriously to the haters for the same reason that he remained anonymous for years: “ I wasn’t trying to be a gangster or anything, I just wanted the images to be about themselves, not about the artist.”

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Of late, though, Prettypuke and Miller Rodriguez have become conflated. Miller’s giving talks at conferences, collaborating with Adult Swim, working on a music video, and photographing celebrities. “I get hired sometimes just so people can use my brain,” he said, sounding proud and a little amazed. The days of him doing drugs all night and photographing seedy LA life are fading. “I don’t really live that lifestyle anymore… Before, it was an everyday thing and I had gold all around me, every scene was perfect. Now I have to create those scenes; it’s more like performance art. I create micro scenarios and fucked up situations.”

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Though his scenes are often criticised for lack of meaning or thought put into them, it was apparent in talking to Miller that this was not the case. “Everyone is striving for perfection and this clean aesthetic. I’m trying to make perfected ugliness,” he said. His intentionally gritty photos, taken with a “shitty camera with really expensive film” are, to him, “just straight up and honest and real.”

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For someone who is lauded as being of the moment, Miller was actually pretty removed in practice from the digital age. He hasn’t owned a computer since 2010, and criticised digital photography as being for those who “don’t trust their eye.” He described the frequency with which he posts on social media as “feeding them slowly” and said that he’s “building a hard following.” He had strong opinions on other artists, and made frequent derogatory remarks about “sell-outs” and being “brainwashed” by the masses. He talked proudly about how his images were personal, obsessed, minimalist: “In my world, anything goes. That can be scary.”

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It was, a little. Even as he was being endearing, laughing with me, chatting effortlessly, I had a hard time shaking my pre-conception of what kind of person would take these photos. Towards the end of our talk, I remembered the photo of his finger he had sent me.

“Oh,” he laughed. “That’s a bad story.”
“What happened?”
“My finger… it’s been like this for a week. It’s fucked up. I smashed my right hand into a wall and dislocated my pinky..”
“Like, you punched the wall?”
“Kinda, yeah. I was in an argument… and then I got a hangnail that got infected so it was doubly painful. So my finger’s fucked and I was sleeping one night and a spider bit my infection and made it worse.
“Are you serious?”
“I am! So my fucking finger is turning multi-colored and expanding and pulsing before my eyes. So I’m on WebMD and I realise they’re gonna cut my finger off because the nerve endings are going to die soon and I start freaking out. I ran to the emergency room and they scalpeled my finger in three parts and oozed it out…”
“Ew.”
“And now it’s swollen and burning and I can’t move my finger. It’s really bad. I haven’t been scared in a long time, but I was crying and I was just thinking ‘No! I’m never gonna get laid again.’”
“That is so intense.” I laughed.
“I just didn’t want to be a freak,” he said, “But yeah um, I guess with my art… Sorry I’m all over the place. I mean, if my images weren’t, like, impactful in any way, then it wouldn’t be Prettypuke. Whether you like it or not, no matter the moral or ethical value of my images, it’s going to make you talk. And that’s strong art to me. All I want is to make someone feel.”

Written by Elaina Ransford

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