Interview With a Zine Maker: Valerie J. Bower

Angi Brzycki, Senior Librarian, Digitization & Special Collections,
zine collage of Valerie J. Bower
Collage of zines by Valerie J. Bower: Photo by the author

Valerie J. Bower is a Los Angeles based photographer. Valerie describes her work as dream-like, monochrome street photography that shows a softer, feminine point of view on typically masculine themes and subjects. She focuses primarily on people and communities of color, documents various street cultures, and everyday life in Los Angeles. She also explores the influences of West Coast and low-rider culture in other parts of the U.S., Japan, and Mexico. Valerie J. Bower has self-published books, zines, letter writing, and postcard sets. Valerie J. Bower’s zines will be on display at the Goldwyn Hollywood Branch throughout the month of February.

How did you find out about zines?

VJB: I remember seeing zines at record stores and used book stores in the early 2000s. This was before Instagram and a lot of social media. I didn't really know what they were or who was making them, but I liked the idea that you can make your own little book about whatever you wanted.

What do you like about them?

VJB:They're cheap to make. I started making them because it was and still is the only affordable way I know to publish my own work outside of putting them online. And I like the freedom of zines. No one can dictate what you want to make or how you do it. It can be really handmade, DIY, and hand stapled, or on the other end, it can look really polished and done by a local printer, and they're all still a zine of whatever you want. I also like the immediacy of zines. Like I can make one tonight and give it to you tomorrow.

Tell me about yours.

VJB: All of my zines are photo zines. The first one I made was a compilation of so many random photos I took from 2009-2012. I printed out everything on a photocopier and then rearranged the order manually. I didn't know what I was doing at all, but it was fun to make it. Now, I have a better idea of what I want to make, and they're more put together. I make zines for different series of my work. Everyone is like a mini-project. I've made at least 30 more since those earlier versions, but I can talk about a few of my favorites. BLUE LINE is a compilation of photos I took over five years of riding the Blue Line train from Long Beach to Downtown L.A. almost every day. I originally put the first version of BLUE LINE out in 2015, but after taking so many more photos, I decided to re-release it as an expanded version in 2018 with a local press called Tiny Splendor. I arranged the layout to be in the order of the train stops from L.B. to L.A. I wanted it to feel like you were riding the train through the book. Another zine I made is called E.S., standing for "East Side," all photos I took from backyard punk shows in East LA and Boyle Heights from 2012-2013. I also made a lot of zines from photos taken at Low-rider car shows here in L.A., and also I made a zine of car show photos from the Bay Area. Most of the zines I've made though are about Los Angeles though.

What’s it like to participate in a Zine Fest?

VJB: My favorite one is Long Beach Zine Fest, since it's local to me, and the organizers have been really supportive of me since day one. Also, L.A. Art Book Fair at the MOCA in downtown L.A. I always share a table there with my friend Sean Maung who's also a photographer and zine-maker. We publish our own work separately, but we also have collaborated and printed a few zines with both of our photos mixed together. Sean Maung makes some of the best photo zines. My favorite zines and artists are all photo-based. There are so many good people making good work. It's great to put your work out there, and people can give you feedback on the spot. Since most of my work is online or available to buy online, it's one of the only opportunities I have where people can talk to me and flip through my work. Then you meet so many other people who are also creating and doing the same thing, so you can share ideas and see what other people are doing.

What advice do you give to someone that has never made a zine, but wants to?

VJB: I would tell them just to start making it any way you can. There's no right or wrong way to make a zine. I think what stops people from making zines is they think they don't have the right computer software or the computer skills to make one, but the best way is to experiment and figure it out along the way.

How do you feel about people borrowing your zines at the library?

VJB: I always loved going to the library as a kid, so now to have the work that I've made in a few libraries is really special to me. Besides having zines at the Los Angeles Public Library, I have some at the main Long Beach public library and also a book in the library at the MET museum in N.Y. I hope they will be there for a long, long time. I need to remember to donate copies whenever I make something new so that people can have free access to them. Making art that is accessible to people is really important to me.

Book cover for Blue Line (Extended)
Blue Line (Extended)
Bower, Valerie J.

Book cover for Tonight
Bower, Valerie J.