Marijuana Books Circa 2015 / by Peter Levitan

big joint squarespace-1.jpg

Potlandia and Jointlandia Marijuana Books

Portlandia and Jointlandia, my two marijuana, or more twenty-first century, cannabis books, document a brief moment in time in the history of the medical and legal marijuana industry. These two books were shot in Portland, Oregon in early 2015. This was a time of rapid growth in the sales of cannabis and related products.

 Why Marijuana Books?

I was an early investor in two dispensaries in Portland Oregon’s marijuana landscape. As you might imagine, Portland was ground zero for pot sales. News alert: Oregonians like to get stoned… (LOL). For some historical background, from 1999 through 2005 (well pre-legalization), the ratio of Oregonians using cannabis outpaced the United States population by 32 - 45%.

When we opened our stores in 2014, the products were classified as ‘medicine’. At that time, to gain access to a store all you needed was a card signed off by a friendly doctor. There were many doctors who made a living freely handing out cards that got you into the front door of the growing world of ‘medical’ marijuana. Marijuana sales became fully legal in late 2015.

As I studied and travelled through this brand new business universe, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to document what was surely to become an industry dominated by and eventually morphed by big business. The industry was going to transform from mom & pop ex-hippie type entrepreneurs to branded Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola (they are now working on CBD drinks); Altria’s (think Marlboro) investment in the Toronto based marijuana company Cronos Group and Constellation brands, owner of Corona and other beers, investment in Canopy Growth.

A visual metaphor I used was the move from Carhartt overalls to Armani suits.

To all involved, the industry was about to experience radical shifts in marketing, branding and distribution. Frankly, I did not see anyone documenting this early stage in marijuana’s fast-moving growth curve. I set out to document what was soon to be a fleeting moment.

The Books: Potlandia and Jointlandia

I shot , designed and produced two books. One was a look at products before skilled designers entered the market and the seconded recorded the often strange storefronts.

 Jointlandia: A Studio-Based Look At Marijuana Products

Jointlandia is a 29-page look at the products that were sold in Portland’s marijuana dispensaries. As a 30-year marketing executive, the shoot-from-the-hip, amateurish branding and packaging fascinated me.

My photographs range from a series on a joint rolling expert (including his rolling a giant joint) to ‘art’ joints to product packaging. I also included low to high tech ingestion devices including rolling paper branding (the Bob Marley brand had recently been launched) and early vaporizers.

I spent some bucks acquiring the products, though some were gifts from the industry. The funny part was that I had eventually accumulated so much stuff that I invited my ‘pot head’ friend Tom over to my house to take a large bag away – a sort of party-gift-party-on-bro bag.

 My System

I photographed Jointlandia in a simple in-home studio. I shot the series with a Fujifilm X100S and TCL-X100 tele-conversion lens.

I placed the products on a black velvet cloth and used diffused north light. It was that easy. Note, I started my life as a studio photographer with large view cameras, tripods and strobes. Yikes, nice to get past those days.

Potlandia: Marijuana Dispensaries

While traveling to purchase the products, I photographed the facades and locations of 53 dispensaries. In those ‘green rush’ days, it seemed like a new shop opened every week. The state regulators were not yet ready to control this burgeoning, somewhat amateurish, Wild West marketplace.

Given the Portland community’s desire to keep things weird and earthy, I was fascinated by many of the wacky amateur-hour storefronts. There were shops that looked like they were designed by very stoned Cheech & Chong duo from Up In Smoke. Business names ranged from Stone Age Pharmacy to Cannaissuer to Cannbliss and Game Of Thrones sounding KALEAFA.

My System

For photo geeks…

I used the Fujifilm X100S to shoot the series. Stores were located by using the Weedmaps marijuana information / dispensary finder phone app.

Some stores were in high-traffic locations downtown and some were so far off the beaten path in family neighborhoods that I had to assume the retailer had no clue that location was going to be a critical element in driving retail sales. At that time, there were dispensaries down the block from, get this, family homes. The Oregon legislature was just waking up. Crazy

Making The Books

The images were shot RAW and then edited in Lightroom.

Both books were published via Blurb in 2015 and are 7×7 in / 18×18 cm square with glossy soft-covers. Glossy, unfortunately, was my only cover option at that time.

Jointlandia included this descriptor:

Joints, blunts, spliffs, cones, doobies, reefer... whatever you call them, pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes are now for sale in shops across the western states. We have entered the new world of professionally rolled, artisanal, branded and beautifully packaged joints. Welcome to “Jointlandia” a photographic journey through and overview of the world of branded and pre-rolled joints.

Potlandia used this:

Picture a city where marijuana flowers, hash and edibles are sold on every block. Does this sound like a hippie’s dream? We are not there yet, but with over 100 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, Portland is starting to look a lot like Potlandia. Let’s remember these days. Once everything is legal, we will surely lose the ‘mom & pop’ feel of these early-stage stores to big buck designs from corporations that are reading the smoke signals. Imagine McWeed and their sign ‘Over 50,000,000 Joints Sold’.

Go ahead and buy one or two books. Here is a link for Potlandia and one for Jointlandia.

Me = Brain Dead: Ed Ruscha and 26 Gas Stations

Ed Ruscha C/O NPR

Ed Ruscha C/O NPR

After I had started the project, I went to Los Angeles to spend time at Printed Matter’s L.A.’s Art Book Fair. This large, multi-room fair is an exceptional look at both high-end art photography books and a wide range of zines and personal projects. There is also an Art Book Fair in New York. I highly recommend a trip to one of these fairs - both are mucho visually stimulating.

While at the fair, I was reminded of Ed Ruscha’s 1960’s seminal, at the time groundbreaking, photography series’ 26 Gas Stations; Every Building On Sunset Strip and Some Los Angeles Apartments.

Frankly, despite having gone to the San Francisco Art Institute, collecting fine-art photography and paying attention to the art world (I thought), I completely missed the fact that I was building on a well-known photography genre.