Bandit Photographer Cory Piehowicz – Exclusive Interview
Outside of a retail store, it was the biggest stack of denim I had ever seen. “Would you say you’ve got more denim than you do socks?” I asked.
Cory laughed. It wasn’t a sheepish laugh; rather it seemed to simultaneously acknowledge and revel in the asinine truth of the question. “Yeah,” he said. “I think so.”
Cory Piehowicz is a bit of a cult figure in the worlds of raw denim and vintage workwear. Specializing in portrait and photojournalism photography, Piehowicz’s works are saturated, dramatic and, quite literally and figuratively, ingrained with dirt. He has worked with brands such as Left Field NYC, Mister Freedom, and Rising Sun.
He has photographed policemen, crime scenes, fires, musicians, actors, farmers, models, motorcyclists and married couples. But as much as anything else, he has published photographs of himself. Most of them appear on his Bandit Photographer blog, where he’s often rocking a unique piece that’s been unearthed from old mines, purchased online, or tailored for him specifically.
Piehowicz was kind enough to invite me into his home in Columbus, Ohio for an interview. I was curious to see the small portion of his collection he houses there (the majority of it is locked away for safekeeping) and ask a few questions, figuring I would be in and out in an hour.
Looking at him from one of his photographs, he’s fairly imposing, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There’s always a serious expression on his face adjoined to a penetrating gaze. His frame is well muscled and his beard prematurely gray, making it seem he has lived a similar life to that of the 1800’s workers he’s so fond of.
Simply put, Piehowicz looks the part of a badass. But upon meeting him, I found a man with an easy smile, a soft, scratchy voice and a mellow demeanor that refused to speak ill of anyone discussed. His apartment, while small, is littered with artwork, wax/silicon heads, photography books, denim magazines, Victorian taxidermy, and antique photographs of blue-collar workers.
In his bedroom, he has stacked around 40 pairs of raw denim along with duck canvas. His first pair of raw denim, near the bottom of the stack, were a pair A.P.C’s. “That was pretty much all you could get around here back then,” Piehowicz said.
He’s moved on to almost exclusively favoring repro denim models from Mister Freedom, Warehouse and the like, while sprinkling in one of Roy Slaper’s first pairs of denim and a very snowy, neppy pair of Left Field NYC. Due to the size of his rotation, many of the jeans look untouched.
Mister Freedom most frequently pops up in his wardrobe, whether it’s Christophe Loiron’s shirts, jackets, jeans or board shorts. The most interesting pair of denim, however, is framed in his living room. They’re a pair of two pocket Levi’s from approximately the 1920’s, found in California desert wrapped around a pipe. This was the result of one of his many denim-hunting expeditions with his California cohorts Mike and Charla Harris, along with Charla’s dad Russ.
What was originally thought to be a cut and dry interview turned into two nights and many sprawling hours discussing the eccentricities of collecting, taxidermy and more than anything, denim. Due to the expansive nature of the interview, not all of it will be included in the Q&A, but what follows will be some highlights, featured over multiple parts during the coming weeks.
RD (Forrest Old): What was your first big photo shoot?
Cory Piehowicz: The first big photo shoot for me was the RJD2 record. Me and my friend Ben shot it; unfortunately for Ben the record company lost all of his negatives, so they picked mine and we went from there. And then I did the music video for my senior film project for the Horror.
After that, I was just into that whole look, the saturated, vintage look and gritty look, that dirty look. And from there always grows the interest in the clothing. Workwear’s pretty dirty, and pretty gritty. And if you look at people from that time, that’s the way it was. There was no law and it was a gritty world. And that’s what I loved about it, people actually worked in their clothes.
RD: So would you say that your love of the denim culture and vintage workwear opened more doors for your photography or your photography opened doors into the culture?
CP: Well photography was what I was interested in first, and so that opened the doors to this. I’ve collected photographs of workers for a long time now, and I love portrait photography, so I wondered what they wore and it just built from there.
RD: One thing you’ve been doing for quite awhile is your blog. Lots of other people do this but don’t have your background in photography and technical skills. Do you have any basic photography tips for fellow posters?
CP: Uh, basic photography tips would be… don’t blur your face out of every photo you take, it makes it look worse. You’re not famous, or maybe there’s one person who’s famous that’s taking photographs of themselves. Even if you are… I don’t know, I don’t get that. Who are you if you have to blur your face out? If anything crop your head out, it’ll look better.
Detail pictures are always good. You don’t want selfies in the mirror, no one wants to see that, you can’t see the garments well, you can’t see exactly how the fit actually is. The fit picture is always good for the forum and making sure that the fit is right.
Sometimes the fit is awful, but that’s the good thing, you can find out if the jean looks like shit or the cut of it is horrible before you buy it by seeing someone else’s fit. That’s what I would want to know before getting a new jean. The money people are charging these days? I don’t want to be spending it on what is going to be a shitty pair of jeans.
That’s the basics that I’d say for people to keep in mind. I mean, everyone thinks they’re a photographer these days and that’s fine, it’s been going on for a while like that. But I like to think that you still need photographers and there’s still a certain eye for photography.
RD: Do you adhere to the whole golden hours protocol for shooting? Just after sunrise or before sunset?
CP: Magic hours you have your beautiful light, sure, but there’s times that pictures look great in strong sunlight too. I’d say that the best pictures are normally at times where it’s actually overcast, for the most part. That’s just the way I see it, because most people don’t know how to properly expose for the sunlight, so it’s blown out here, messed up there, but people who know photography know how to work all of that and can take great pictures.
RD: So shoot in a partly cloudy environment then?
CP: Partly cloudy, or go to the shaded side of a building where there’s a nice, even, soft light with some shadows.
RD: You’re obviously partial to certain aspects of the raw denim world, but is there anything going on right now that raises your ire or that you wish you could do a way with?
CP: My major concern these days with raw denim, are the companies that are throwing selvedge on absolutely everything. Originally, selvedge was only exposed on a rolled cuff. You’d never see it on the pockets. You may see it on the interior of the pocket sometimes, but it would never be so blatant on the waistband, or lined on the back pocket or the coin pocket. We get it. People have access to making selvedge jeans, it’s obvious now. Move on and use it how it was originally supposed to be used, on the lacing.
The other thing that bothers me is the washing of jeans, not that that really needs to be explained to anyone. The washing is horrible these days. Plus people really need to pay attention to what it’s doing to the environment and what the silica, which is being used to blast the whiskers, is doing to the workers and their health. They’re just dumping it in the rivers in China afterwards and treating their workers horribly.
And it was these companies who could be promoting the acceptance of cultures in their ads, just to have multiple people die making their clothes. It’s kind of hypocritical if you ask me.
RD: If you were to do your own line of jeans, would you want it to be just strictly repros?
CP: I’d like to design my own thing, maybe something that’s a combination of different jeans that I like.
RD: What would your jean include?
CP: Well, obviously I love high-waisted jeans. I know that’s not for everybody, same with the baggier cuts. Back in the day with overalls they were made to go over another pair of jeans so you definitely didn’t want them to be too tight.
I love big back pockets and tool pockets, which were functional back then, so I’d want to incorporate something similar into my jean. The benchmark or handmade, heirloom stuff such as what Ryan (Martin) of W.H Dungarees does is great, I love the made in the USA stuff. Blue Blanket isn’t made in America but they do a great job too. Anything that’s high quality I can appreciate.
RD: Price Point? Would you want it to be something more affordable, or more higher end and artisanal?
CP: Well I’d definitely want it to be something more affordable. It seems that a lot of good jeans are sold around 300 dollars, so that’s probably where I’d look to have it. I’d definitely want to make them so they’d be non-discountable.
You look at what Christophe (Mister Freedom) does and none of his stuff ever goes on sale, which keeps the special-ness of it there and doesn’t lose the value and it doesn’t end up at some discount store.
RD: Do you think that it’s hard sometimes to discern the quality of a garment to the price point they’re sold at?
CP: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s the same thing – this is going to be a horrible thing too, but – if you look at a pair of designer jeans that go for $600 that are made in China but they throw a patch on there so they can say they were made in Italy. Then you’ve got a pair of jeans made by someone like Jack/Knife or Ryan or Roy who you know put their own time into it and it’s only gone through one person or two person’s hands and that’s it.
To me, I see that as more valuable, or at least I would buy that more over anything else. A lot of that quality goes for a higher price point and I’m willing to pay it, you know, because I know it’ll last longer and I know these people stand behind their works. And I know with Jack/Knife, it offers a year warranty on their jeans, so if you get any tears, it’ll be fixed at no cost. Filson does that too.
So that, to me, is a quality that I definitely think people should keep in mind, if that makes sense. To me, I’d definitely rather buy a pair of Ryan’s jeans but then you’ve got the Japanese stuff, most of it’s high quality, so I guess I can’t really say I just like made in the USA stuff.
RD: That actually leads me to my next question. A lot people into raw denim hold Japanese jeans on a pedestal, do you think that that’s true, fair?
CP: Yeah, I think, when it comes to jeans, Heller’s Café, which is Japanese, is incredible quality and the stuff they go through to get their jeans reproduced; the buttons, the patches to everything with the hardware is just amazing. Buzz Rickson’s the same way, Rickson nails it. The Real McCoy’s kills it, with their jeans they do an incredible job.
So I don’t want to be hypocritical either but some of these Japanese jeans is outstanding, with what they do get their denim milled, sometimes just for a project, I think that’s great.
RD: Do you think that part of your leaning towards Ryan and W.H. Dungarees is biased due to personal relationship with him?
CP: Well the thing with Ryan is the fact that, before I met him I was interested already interested in his stuff. When I saw that hair on hide patch it really got my attention and then I got my first pair of jeans from him and everything from the packaging, to the hardware to the stitching to every detail was there.
So with that I think I would still consider them to be one of the best out there even if I wasn’t his friend. But I have so many favorites. There’s W.H., Rising Sun, Mister Freedom, Jack/Knife, there’s too many, there’s just too many good companies out there. And Blue Blanket of course, they’re great.
And I think the Japanese people have actually kept the vintage scene alive when there was no scene. So I think, with all of those magazines, Lightning, Clutch, when it wouldn’t be as possible here, it was still popular there. They’ve always been crazy about it, ever since the 80s until now.
RD: You commit to your vintage style very thoroughly, does that every get you some weird looks?
CP: Oh, all the time. I mean, I think the fact that I look older, people just think sometimes “there’s some old guy wearing some stupid shit,” and it’s whatever. But I’m actually not as old as people think, so I kind of trick them into thinking that.
RD: You’re what, 38?
CP: 37, so a lot of people think I’m 45, 60, I mean who knows? But yeah I get looks all the time and made fun of. It’s funny too, my buddy Tomo, who’s helping me with my book, he was in Brooklyn not long ago, and someone made fun of him because he had on, I think it was 1891 Levi’s on with the high rise, and someone called him a fucking hipster.
I mean, we’ve been dressing like this for a long time and we’re not the fucking hipsters, you’re looking at the wrong people.
RD: Do you think the whole hipster thing has been the turd in the punch bowl?
CP: Yeah that, and it’s the whole thing with people telling me, “Shave your beard,” because hipsters have beards now. I’ve had facial hair for longer than I can remember so it’s annoying. So those people are jerks and I just ignore it and walk away. But then it also brings out people who are curious and interested in it.
I’ll get some women who come up to me and say that they like my shirt, so I’ll talk to them. I’ll ask them if they’ve got any old overalls or whatever and go from there, see if there’s anything there. Some people blow you off while others talk to you about it and we’ll go from there.
RD: Obviously it’s still a very male dominated world, have you come across any females who have matched your love of vintage workwear?
CP: There’s a few, there’s a few, but the thing that upsets me is there aren’t that many companies making vintage ware for women. RRL has touched on it, but there needs to be more out there.
But I’ve seen girls pull it off wearing guys’ stuff. If a girl has enough style she can pull off wearing guy stuff. LVC has made some jeans too, but I wish they’d make more, I mean, wouldn’t you like to see a girl wearing overalls and stuff?
RD: …I don’t really share your love of overalls.
Stay tuned for more about Piehowicz’s life, denim adventures, photography career, collection, plus his collaboration with Blue Blanket and upcoming book project.