What are you earliest memories of taking a picture or holding a camera?
My grandfather gave me an entry level Polaroid when I was very young, maybe when I was in the single digits. It didn’t have a built in flash. You had to buy single shot disposable flashes. I remember agonizing over exposure problems. At some point I figured it cost me a dollar for the film and a dollar for the flash, per shot, to make a decent exposure. Two dollars a shot was huge for a kid. I remember my mom buying me a three pack of disposable flashes and urging me not to worry so much. A picture had to mean something or it wasn’t worth it. Around this time, I remember, I’d saved up 12 dollars over a period of about a year. My net worth was 6 shots!
Did you study photography, do you think it’s insignificant and talent knows it’s tools better than classrooms and teachers?
I studied photography, in and out of the classroom. First, before high school, I was on my own with books. My grandparents had the THE FAMILY OF MAN book, plus a collection of photo journalism magazines. How crazy is it that I had “a book” rather than the entire Internet on my iPhone!
I remember writing letters, actual letters on paper with envelopes and stamps, to professional photographers around the country. This was back when I was in high school. I had to uncover these people. There were no websites and public email addresses. Surprisingly, I was able to connect a few times, and this contact kind of helped me along on the early stages of my journey.
In high school, a kid who shot for the school newspaper, Stan Orkin, taught me how to use the darkroom by sneaking me in after class one day. Stan’s unofficial MO was all about touch. How do you know when a print is developed? Keep your bare hand in the chemicals and feel the process. He was a wild man, but his method served me well until I eventually got sick from chemical exposure. Thanks Stan! Just kidding, I’m grateful. But I was lucky to learn at the time, even if we did it crazy back then.
These days, the craft itself isn’t a dark art. We’re suddenly in the info age and everything you could ever want to know about photography, high and low, good and bad, is a google search away. Google can’t give you style and taste, but it can give you everything else. Whatever you want technically, have it now.
So, the question younger people ask me is, should I go to art school, or should I work as a photo assistant? The answer is, it depends!
My first inclination is, yes, come work for me! I need help. My second answer is, whenever you’re learning something in school, it’s basically DOA. You can get a degree in Jazz if you want, but good luck with that! In terms of a subject, it’s kind of like having a degree in a particular kind of antique. What you get to keep from school is an understanding of how the dialectic works, how the canon functions, and maybe the nuances of critique. This is invaluable stuff long term, but it’s no prerequisite for a career. That said, I see no reason to race to a job. If you wanna make money, go fill a market gap. Better yet, get a job on Wall Street or something.
I’m an advocate of an arts education. I went to art school, and in retrospect it was amazing. I’d do it again if I could. It was like a slap in the face every day I was there, forcing me to adjust to other points of view. It was the most painful adjustment period of my life. I felt like Viktor Frankenstein when he went off to medical school and struggled to abandon his provincial, self-taught notions. If you believe art is a dialogue, you’ve gotta connect with other artists. If you prefer a solitary existence, you’ll be taken as a folk artist, if you’re lucky.
What made you settle into Fashion as the main focus for your photography or maybe you have several other areas which do not get as much attention?
Style is the deeper level meditation that leads to other currents. All artists are Style obsessed. Style is obligatory from the start. It was a eureka moment for me freshman year in art school when I realized fashion was also driven by Style. Mississippi had kept me apart from a dialogue with serious fashion, but in New York I discovered I’d come up on the periphery of fashion, having spent all my youth learning about fine art, poetry, music, etc. At some point I realized it was the same undercurrent informing fashion, and I felt a kinship with it. I found my art vocabulary applied to the fundamentals of fashion, if not the technicals.
I don’t, won’t and haven’t settled into fashion. Fashion is the moment, and the moment changes. It’s a different kind of constant than a deep, on-going meditation. I don’t think fashion is profoundly mysterious like Style, but the moment is as important to me as to anyone else. Fashion is more about how something is measured than about what something means. Here in this moment is just where we are, having done all the things that led up to now.
Regarding a more conventional take on fashion, when I was a kid, reading about Duchamp or Modigliani or Dali or Warhol, there was always a fashion component to the discussion of their work. Andre Breton enforced a dress code for the Surrealists because it was important, for example. It just didn’t hit me as how important until I moved from Mississippi, a relatively homogenous, isolated environment at the time, to New York. In New York, fashion is a critical thing rather than a relatively intuitive or traditional thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a modernist, and my point of entry into fashion may have been something of a back door, but it’s no less relevant. I was a student of fashion even if my degree is in Fine Art.
How do you think technology—tweeting, blogging, social media, etc.—has affected fashion? For better or worse concerning print magazines?
Haha! For better? None of my friends still in the print media business will tell you things are getting better there.
Change is a big deal. My friends and I talk about how we “miss the 90′s”! How cute is that? Heaven forbid kids now will someday miss the teens! I hate to imagine we’re living in simpler times now, but I’m sure we are. I’m not even old yet! It’s just that radical change is becoming the constant in our lives.
Anyway, adaptation is good for us, and we are going to need that skill. Big change happens by the year now rather than by the era or even the decade. It is what it is. My technologist friends insist change is speeding up. So be it.
The other day a friend of mine actually felt compelled to make an argument in favor of books, actual books! At the time I was like, right on, books are great. Looking back, that moment epitomizes the absurdity we feel, having grown up pre-digital. There is a divide in values from my generation to the next. I care about books, I care about cinema, I like material, but I can’t fault a newer guard for having a more fragmentary orientation to culture. I’m trying to embrace both worlds.
Do you see a difference between the two mediums in terms of the presentation of your work online vs print?
Yes. They’re completely different. When I was a kid my dream was the monograph. I wanted to be in the library! I wanted to be in the museum! I didn’t want to be on Vimeo! I didn’t want to be on a blog or come up on a Google search. I’m over that now. I’m living new dreams that are equally great.
God forbid that you were unable to see again, what would you miss the most about doing your work?
When I describe myself, I describe myself in terms of my “vision”. I feel comfortable in a realm where vision is primary.
We have five senses. Can you imagine a culture where smell or taste is primary? It’s foreign to me, but I can kind of imagine it. My cats are smell oriented. They can see very well, but they couldn’t care less about my pictures.
What if technology someday allows us to rely less on vision? I guess we will worry about that if it happens. I don’t have a soft spot for sci-fi scenarios, so I choose only to deal with that if I’m forced.
Who would you most like to work with?
The tempting answer to give is retrospective. It’s easy to say I wanna work with Alexi Brodovitch or Marvin Israel. Or I’d love to have Edward Steichen as a mentor. The truth is, I’m excited to find and work with the geniuses of my generation. I want to know who is meaning something today, who is reaching people now.
My wife Michelle is a profoundly ambitious photographer on the print side of the medium. I love working with art director Roanne Adams. Jesse Kaufmann is a genius set designer. The Lake and Stars are the brainiest lingerie designers you’ll ever meet. Gabi at Candela cares more for narrative than many of the writers I know. Art director Alejandro Cardenias loves fine art more than most of the fine artists I know. Eric Epstein is a visionary of 3d computer animation and a talented director. He doesn’t sleep, by the way. You should hear Kat Typaldos riff on Style; she finds connections everywhere. Erik Hartin at Bon is a true romantic. Art director Nikolai Saliev and designer Katie Gallagher are living manifestations of their art. Jeff Kinkle knows more about the history of 4chan than any other PhD I’ve met, and he’s a great editor on top of that. I’ve been lucky in that the quality of my own work has been dependent and completely elevated by the work of my collaborators. There isn’t a picture you’ve seen that’s exclusively my own work.
What does it take to be a fantastic photographer?
I remember complaining freshman year in art school about having to read Aristotle’s POETICS in my western civilization class. Looking back, that book was among the most important in my education. Coupled with Nietzsche’s ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the mechanisms of critique. For any kid who can’t afford art school, read those two books a few times each and you’ll get the idea. Boring? Kind of, especially if you’re used to epic fail videos on youtube! But you can get these two books free on the same Internet, and POETICS will give you some sense of why you prefer the epic fail, seriously.
What do you love the most about your job?
The women. I think fashion is becoming more about men since I started working in it, it’s getting there, but my professional education has really been about appreciating the feminine. I work with women, I sell to women and I try to provide a thematic spectrum for my female characters that is more broad than conventional eroticism. The result of this is a bit of a paradox, and my work is often looked on with suspicion regarding my intent. I’m OK with that.
Interview by Von Von Lamunu