On the Fringe. Then and now.


Around 2010, I started a little running group for folks that didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. We met in Griffith Park on Sundays usually. We’d see this long-stride guy go by and we’d whisper, “Do you know that guy?” “I’ve seen him around. “He’s odd.”  When I found out his name I started saying, “Hi, Geoff,” as he passed by with blinders. He didn’t see us. One day, at A Runner’s Circle group run, Geoff was standing still so I took the op to speak with long-strider. As we chatted, we discovered we had similar tastes in documentaries about people on the fringe like lobster boy, midgets, evangelists, and movies, and music, etc.

People will deem someone as “odd” if the person’s social skills do not match theirs. When I was young, I did not speak unless spoken to, so I get it. People would talk about me while sitting next to me as if I couldn’t hear or speak. “She’s shy.” “She doesn’t say much.” Akin to socially awkward, shy people – Geoff and I struck up a fast friendship.

I can’t remember the first time we ran trails together. I could barely keep up with him. I noticed he was running about 25 miles every Saturday. “You’re ready to run an ultra race with that kind of mileage,” I said. The seed was planted. He has completed some of the toughest long distance trail courses, like Angeles Crest 100 miler. Geoff’s stats are here.

Geoff was there for me during one of the hardest times in my adult life. Too often, I lost my patience with him for not doing as I think he should know how to do (I hated myself for the way I was impatient with him). Then one day I heard a story on NPR of a woman sharing how she spent the first ten years of her marriage being angry at her husband for the same behaviors as Geoff exhibited. It was one of these “OMG, that’s it!” I shared the Asperger story with him. Geoff now identifies as Aspie. I asked how this has changed his life?

It just gave context/explanation to things. It meant that certain idiosyncrasies now had an explanation. It also meant that for better or worse there was some degree of acceptance of these things and I didn’t feel so much like I could change them. Maybe I could cope with them, but not so much change them.

I share this with you in case you have someone in your life that baffles you. As much as it’s not up to me to “figure out” a person, it is up to me to let someone be who they are, be loving, and not judging. That thing we all want.

Geoff Cordner is a phenomenal photographer, film maker/editor, and writer! Around the globe he’s had artist success and athlete highs. He’s had 9 lives x 9. Geoff shares the short version here.

When did you begin making art?  What kind of art?

I started drawing when I was in grade school. I inherited a book on drawing cartoons from a much older cousin and taught myself how to do it out of that book. Like most kids my age, I was really into comic books, and so I applied what I learned to drawing comics. A few years later, in the early 70s, I discovered R Crumb, Zapp Comics, Gilbert Shelton’s Furry Freak Brothers and other SF underground comics of the late 60s/early 70s. I also discovered drugs. My comic books talents moved in an R Crumb direction, as much as any 13 year old kid can relate to R Crumb.

My grandfather was a painter, and we would spend summers with my grandparents in France. He taught me drawing, painting and took me around to artist colonies all over France. He would also take a great pleasure in what he thought were abominations, like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the 45 of which he would play over and over and over, marveling at what he thought of as the horror of it, before ending these sessions with his favorite Edith Piaf. He was outspoken in his opinions of what was right and wrong with art, but he was also deeply fascinated with whatever he thought of as awful. I’m not sure it’s what he intended, but what I took away from those afternoons was a deep appreciation of the godawful, and the majesty of something truly, horribly wrong. It made me closely examine the things I reacted badly to, or that others reacted badly to, and from that I came to really enjoy and admire much of this stuff. What was unforgivable was not the abominable but the mediocre. There was no excuse for mediocrity in my grandfather’s eyes.

blackflag07A few years later I was swept up in the first wave of American punk rock, and of the diy culture and ethos that came with it. I worked on various ‘zines, which were the internet of the underground in 1979/1980. I was also doing serigraphy using photos, and borrowing photos from photographers. I would sneak into the art department in the middle of the night on campus at UT Austin to use their equipment. I’d have various art students leave doors open for me. My windows of opportunity were small, and my photography buddies weren’t always dependable, so I started taking my own photos. How hard could it be, I thought? I joined a darkroom coop and learned whatever I could. I was only doing it to supply myself with the materials I needed for my silk screens. I had no intention of ever becoming a photographer. That’s how I became a photographer.

laundromat-feb-2008After that it was on. I could document the scenes I was in. I could make statements within those scenes. I could use other people as proxies to explore my own feelings of alienation, of being an outsider, and I could immerse myself in situations without really being in the situations. I was just there to document them. It gave me an out. Of course, this was bullshit – I was a part of all of those scenes I felt like I was on the fringes of. I could also recontextualize my world. I was fascinated with the period between the two world wars, and the Great Depression, and all the work that came out of the FSA, especially the photographers, Walker Evans & Dorothea Lange in particular, and my depictions of my current life as a punk rock kid living in Austin Texas just south of Congress (it used to be cheap back then) looked very much like Depression Era. It was a punk rock James Steinbeck. And my real life started looking that way, too: great old thrift shop finds before everyone went hogwild for mid century stuff, and vintage music in particular: what would be called Old Timey nowadays.

That style remained. I still take photographs, and I still feel like I take the same five or ten photos over and over and over. Over the years it will be of an old shack, later of a punk rocker, later still of of a fetish model, even later of storefront in downtown LA, most recently of a tree in the San Gabriel Mountains…but it’s the same photo. I’m just trying to get it perfect.

When did you start fitness?  What kind of fitness?

I started running when I was in grade school. It turned out I was really good at it. I didn’t enjoy it all that much – the competition scared me because I was terrified of losing – but even as a kid I felt that people had an obligation to do whatever they were good at, whether they wanted to or not. And once I got into Junior High track, it was on. I pretty much never lost a race.

GC_trackI lived overseas. Highschool was spent in Egypt. I was a good student, a good athlete, and a total stoner. I was in several cliques that are supposed to be mutually exclusive. I understood that this was a rare thing, and it would enable me to get away with a lot because I was constantly able to defy expectations, and I took advantage of it, sometimes just to stir up shit and agitate people. (This is how I fell into punk rock so easily once it hit).

My very last 400 meter race was in a tournament in Brussels. I thought it would be the last race I would ever run, and I was really happy about that. I was tired of competing. A blood blister broke as I went around the first turn. Once the race was over I peeled a bit of the track off the outside lane and stuck it in the bloody shoe, and those two things meant everything to me. I was done with it.

One morning when I was 19 or so I woke up with a hangover so bad I couldn’t drink for a year. I took up running for fitness… 

I drank a lot. One morning when I was 19 or so I woke up with a hangover so bad I couldn’t drink for a year. I took up running for fitness, but I don’t really do anything in moderation so quickly enough I was training for a marathon. It was the Dallas Whiterock Marathon. I ran 5Ks and 10Ks all through the summer, in little towns all over the hill country in Texas. This was the original jogging boom, and every little town was adding a 5K or a 10K to the weekend, along with the parade, chili cook-off, and fiddling contest. It was a great way to explore central Texas.

A week before the Whiterock marathon I dropped a desk on my foot and couldn’t run. It would be about 30 years before I would sign up for another marathon.

Over the years I would take up running again for a while here and there. I ran in LA. I ran in London. I ran in Barcelona. I ran in Norway. I ran in Canada. But I also was immersed in the life depicted in my photos: sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, not necessarily in that order. There wasn’t much room for sport in that world. Nor was there much ability.

My world of art was a world depicting fringe societies and my place in them. It was anger and anxiety and frustration. It was also a lot about self expression, about finding a voice and about finding a place. It was extreme. Nowadays I run ultramarathons, which is also arguably extreme.

A couple of things happened. I burned out on dealing with people. The folks I photographed – those intimate and sometimes intense portraits of people on the fringes – there was a limit to how much I could deal with them. And I reached that limit, kind of all of a sudden. Suddenly, my capacity for that interaction just vanished. Soon after, I started to seek and find more and more comfort in the solitude of the mountains, and wide open spaces.

I went to University to become a geologist, and left it an artist. 

There were always these two parts: the big city, culture, music, the arts part and the prairie boy who loved the mountains, who loved solitude, who found human interaction completely exhausting… and they are pretty much separate. It was always a split I was sort of aware of. The big city, culture, European, music, arts side was my mother, and the wandering around alone in the mountains was my father. I went to University to become a geologist, and left it an artist.

The two things have never really happened side by side. I’m not sure they can, for me. The subjects I’ve explored in art are ones I wanted to get beyond, to leave behind. It seems that for now at least I’ve done that.

Geoff Cordner’s photography and film can be found here:
trail racing photography


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