In an old garage in South Los Angeles, Steven Simko brings us into the world of Franklin Bell's "Bell's Blues Workshop". Steven first met Franklin while on assignment to photograph him for Malibu Magazine, whom he happened to meet at LAFotoWorks in the Spring of 2016. There was no budget for the shoot, but after doing some research on Franklin, Simko decided it could be a unique opportunity and he decided to take the assignment. His intuition and optimism has lead to a truly unique personal project.
Franklin moved from Alabama to Los Angeles in the 1960’s and ran a gas station until about 15 years ago. His eyesight started to become a problem, so it was hard for him to keep working in his shop. Franklin had always had a love for the blues, so he started to invite friends over to his house where he converted a garage into a small venue on Sunday evenings from 4 to 9 PM to enjoy musical jam sessions. Location is everything, and considering the shop is based in Los Angeles, there were (and still are) tons of blues musicians running through the city to come by and play at his makeshift venue.
After Steven met Franklin, he planned to come attend the next Bell's Blues Workshop and photograph the people who attend this special gathering. He came back from that first Sunday with 20 portraits, and plans to go back at least 2 to 3 more times— possibly more, if the project and its attendees allow it! The people he photographs— which he calls “Sunday Best”— are not used to having their photograph taken, especially by a stranger. He takes several minutes with each person and as he’s shooting, he talks to them about where they’re from and their story to create a more relaxing environment for them both.
Visually, much of Simko’s inspiration comes from the work of Richard Avedon. The portraits taken at Bell's Blues Workshop are influenced by Avedon’s In The American West, where the subjects are placed against a simple backdrop and the viewer is made to focus on the individual and who they are. This is of huge importance to Steven in his work— personal or editorial— as he wants the focus to be on the individuality or essence of his subjects.
The ultimate goal for the project is a book of all the portraits, telling the story of this community bringing all these diverse people together. Having a tangible result from this project is important not only to Simko, but also to his subjects. Most of the people Steven photographed for Blues Sunday aren’t enmeshed in the digital world, so showing them prints of the images is important to Simko.
If Steve had never agreed to shoot the unpaid assignment for Malibu magazine, he possibly never would have stumbled upon Franklin’s garage, resulting in the discovery of a wonderful personal project. So with that, Steven advises young photographers to take on assignments that on the surface may not seem like their dream job because you never know where it may lead.