An uncompromising cultural force and the so-called “Pope of Trash”, Waters bridges the gap between high and low art with a lively counterculture aesthetic. Born in Baltimore, his work draws inspiration from the city’s culture and landscape, and his early film works were all shot in and around the city, including his first short film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), which was produced for just $30. Early films celebrate the notion of camp—particularly within the genres of exploitation comedy and transgressive cult films—presenting exaggerated characters in outrageous situations, with hyperbolic dialogue and alliterated character names. His Trash Trilogy (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living) pushed the boundaries of conventional propriety and film censorship. After he found more commercial success with the 1981 hit Polyester, Waters still retained the tongue-in-cheek outrageousness that made him such a cult favorite. The 1988 film Hairspray became a runaway success, eventually being adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. In 2015, the British Film Institute celebrated Waters with a retrospective honoring his five decades in filmmaking.
In addition to filmmaking, Waters also works as a visual artist across media such as installation, photography and sculpture. Inspired by his work in cinema and love of the film industry, Waters began making his photo-based work in 1992 by considering his fastidious role as a consumer and watcher of films. Using his insider knowledge to stay alert to those telling moments and details that would often by overlooked by the untrained eye, he snaps a single frame from a film, often from a television, recombining these images into a storyboard-like sequence—thus re-directing some of his favorite films through playful acts of appropriation. Cut off from their source, the stills take on a range of new meanings, and the strip sets off a loose, irresolvable set of associations or narratives. His renegade attitude and fearless approach to his subject matter allows him to reveal how celebrity and identity interact, often using humor to unlock cultural codes and moral pieties.