Two women pose in cheap lace underwear. Their faces are cropped, their asses together, a plush Elmo toy held between them. Unglamorous and unedited, we see tacky tatts and bumps on thighs. Pretty Puke’s pictures are flesh caught in flashlight, strange bodily contortions and lewd acts frozen in the shocking brightness emitted with each shutter release – It’s LA at its seediest. But it’s in another space that the pictures have found their following. These images of debauchery have collided with the digital realm, and have been fast absorbed into internet culture. Pretty Puke has gained the attention of thousands of internet users, engrossed in what they see on the glow of their screens.
The LA photographer has risen to infamy on Tumblr over the course of the past few years. His images spread fast on the network, shared and re-blogged en masse. Pretty Puke carved out a persona, always in his trademark mask, with a distinctive online presence and voice to match. His photo posts come paired with Unicode characters, stylised writing, and flippant phrases like “4  E V E R \\\ H U S T L I N” and “_ HANG _ L 00 $E *.” A shirtless selfie on Facebook boasts the title: “OUTFIT _ OF _ DA // D A Y *”, a green cap and black balaclava his choice of attire.
Outside the virtual world however, he’s a little unsure of how to describe himself – hesitant in a way that’s almost endearing. “M.R. AKA Pretty Puke, late-night creeper and photographer extraordinaire, and shock photography… fucking… ah… I don’t know,” he trails off into a not entirely comfortable silence. The real Pretty Puke is 25-year-old Miller Rodriguez. He’s been slapped with several labels, ‘shock photographer’ the most common. He’s not looking for a category though. “I just do my best to not think too much and just shoot, you know, just keep my eyes open,” he says. His eyes are open to something hidden: the people we are at night, when things get a bit weird. The images look like the contents of an iPhone camera roll that wasn’t necessarily meant to shared. “I feel like people just relate to them for some reason, whether it’s because it’s gross, it’s funny, it’s wild, it’s real.”
Rodriguez is an LA native, and knows the city in all its grimy glamour. Raised by his mother, he confesses that he was “a really bad kid,” moving from school to school, all across the city. “I was really into lighting shit on fire and breaking glass and just being a hoodlum.” Eventually, he swapped breaking stuff for making stuff. After trying his hand at a variety of different mediums, and feeling like nothing quite fit, he finally picked up a camera. Pretty Puke was born.
The city that gave rise to Rodriguez’s alter ego is, unsurprisingly, central to his work. Driving around LA after dark, it’s all parking lots and pavements, and empty streets on the outskirts of town. Some pretty wild behaviour goes on in this place, and Pretty Puke is out there capturing it, from behind his mask. When the city’s youth take to the streets, their vices are exposed by Pretty Puke’s camera. He’s shooting fast, taking it all in. Although, he sees it as part of a global movement, “It’s not only the LA lifestyle, it’s our way of being in this generation. Kids these days – they go all out,” he states.
Photography allows him to capture the rawness of this lifestyle in a way no other medium can. “What I love about photography is that it can’t be duplicated or recreated naturally. If I wanted to duplicate a drawing, I could draw it, but with photography you can’t recreate a moment in time.” That’s the key to Pretty Puke’s work. He gives you a moment that is not only spontaneous, but totally bizarre, and it’s frozen forever. The knowledge that this scene, debauched and perverted, happened in front of the lens, and, therefore, a spectator, lends weight to his images.
Pretty Puke is prolific, both in terms of shooting and posting, building up an archive of images and immorality. Slowly, he’s making another world. He describes it as “hyper-reality within our reality,” of misfits: girls in swimsuits and underwear, boys in masks – all bad behaviour. It’s a reality where anything goes. It’s graphic, and full of trashy, irreverent acts. “It’s almost like you hate it but you like it because it’s like a car crash and you can’t not look at it,” he says. And it’s perhaps been a bit too graphic for some of the LA crowd to swallow. “My aesthetic might be a little too much. It’s risky to like what I do.” Some hate his work. Others say they love it, but hold back, unwilling to get too close. His images have divided web users too, with his posts across different web platforms attracting long streams of debate. As one Instagram user ‘lupefiasshole’ puts it, “I wanna like your pictures but then my friends would think I’m weird and perverted lol.” There have been rumours as to Pretty Puke’s true character, and what kind of guy is behind the mask. His voice is refreshingly normal over the phone though. He’s affable and excited as he discusses his obsession with the medium, and he describes himself as “dorky”, something he says comes as a surprise to those who meet him. “Everyone is just taken aback because they’re like ‘I expected you to be this crazy fucking psycho.’”
His methods are also contentious, with people dubious as to how he gets his subjects to do what they do. But the process, he insists, is organic and raw. “I don’t put anyone in front of me and make them do something weird.” Rodriguez explains that it involves pairing up with whoever he’s working with, and hanging out, driving around to scout a location. “I look for a spot that is very isolated or desolate and empty, and I just work in the moment.” From there, his subjects hang out, have a few drinks, and well – whatever happens, happens. Rodriguez, he says, keeps his role as an observer. “My eye just catches these weird glimpses of things and sometimes I’ll recreate it and sometimes I’ll just shoot it on the spot but it’s very natural… it just flows.” It’s clear that he’s in his element when he’s shooting because he’s a guy that loves the medium. “It’s beautiful that it’s a finished product. It’s your eye, it’s your mind, it’s your idea, and you capture it.”
Pretty Puke’s method is lo-fi. He doesn’t use high-tech or expensive cameras, and does little post-production or editing – something that seems a little at odds with the fervour with which he embraces digital technology as the platform to share his images. He’s copped criticism for that, too. He doesn’t have a ‘real website’, still using Tumblr. Critics dismiss it as lowbrow, or write it off as the domain of teenagers, but there’s a sense that those who level such criticism are missing a lot of the point. Tumblr is an anarchic visual experience, a place that fosters a myriad of visual dialogues – and Pretty Puke likes to toss his vision into the mix. He also defends those who use it. “It’s funny because I really think that the people on there are the visionaries… they’re kids that are appreciative of whatever is going on in the world in terms of the arts.” Users have formed Tumblr-specific language, identities and aesthetics – creating a unique virtual culture. It’s an environment that crosses over with that of his work, and it suits his subjects – they are the internet generation. It’s not hard to see why Pretty Puke has found such an engaged audience with the platform. Tumblr is symbolic of the way Pretty Puke shoots his work: fast and cheap – and that’s a powerful compliment, despite that the critics might say.
And as to what the future may hold for the young photographer? It seems Pretty Puke wants to keep that fairly open-ended and just keep documenting his dirty world as it happens around him. “I want to keep building the world,” he reflects, “keep building this generation of youthful misfits that are just constantly having fun and being themselves.”
Words by Hannah Scholte
This story will appear in ACCLAIM’s upcoming issue 31 – The Loud Issue – preorder available here.