Photograph by Campbell Addy for Luncheon Magazine.
Welcome to our new series Ways of Seeing, in which two artists sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and catch up on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine.
Back in January, when 2020 hadn't quite revealed itself to be the difficult reality in which we're currently living, photographer Campbell Addy was on an inspiring roll: he'd shot covers for Garage Magazine, Rolling Stone, and released a poignant personal project speaking to society's exhaustion of blackness for Luncheon Magazine. Having worked with Campbell in the past, I knew early he possessed a special talent and work ethic that would push him toward greatness in the industry. Lucky for me, the quarantine has brought Campbell's non-stop schedule to a brief pause, and we were able to catch up over the phone last week while remaining at home in our respective cities. Read our conversation on what Kendall Jenner was like on set, Addy's most challenging project to date, and how he stays positive during stressful times, below.
I saw that self-portrait you took in quarantine. How's making work at home been?
It depends on what type of place I'm in. I think research always makes me feel better. But creating work, I'm not sure. Sometimes it just makes things worse because I feel like I'm forcing something I shouldn't have to do. But always learning and researching, that's not forcing anything, so I'll always be about that.
I did that self-portrait a while ago. I was in a bad place, but I felt better, so I thought, "Why not?”
When you do research, what does that look like? Do you have a folder on your hard drive with lots of pictures in it?
I do now. I never used to, I was a hot mess. Before, I just had folders and folders, and screenshots. I've literally unpacked my whole studio because I just moved in, but I have a section for books and drawings, because I draw sometimes just for the sake of making things. On my desktop I have ideas [for mood boards], and for my research, sometimes I have tabs on YouTube. But mainly it all exists in a scrapbook or on my computer. I have a separate Instagram that no one sees that I just put stuff on to remind myself of it. Besides that, I prefer physical books, because sometimes being on my phone, I get distracted very easily. We didn't have many books growing up, but we did read and stuff, because the library was our best friend. I used to equate wealth to having a library—I remember going ’round to someone's house at 13, and I was like "Oh my god, They have a library. They must be super rich." What are some of your favorite photo books?
I love Jack Davison’s Pictures (2019), and Luis Alberto Rodriguez’s new book, People of the Mud.
I met Luis years ago, at Tim Walker’s office, strangely. I went to see Tim, and I was texting him, like, "I need some advice about signing and also my portfolio. Please, I know we don't know each other that well yet, but help a brother out." He was like, "Yeah sure, come over." I thought he was going to say no. Luis was there, and I was like, "Oh hey, handsome, what's good?" His work is great.
Is there a photographer you continuously go back to when you’re looking for inspiration?
I force myself to not look at other photographers, only because I have this thing: you know when you're looking out the window and you can see someone? I've always said to myself, if I can see them, they can see me. So I always say, if I can research this photographer, so can everyone else, which means I'm not necessarily looking for anything new. When I look at photographers, I check out their interviews, instead of their work. It's more like their essence as opposed to a composition.
I would love to emulate Richard Avedon’s energy, or Alex Webb's use of film and color. But I don't know if it's one person. It depends on the idea. If it's in the studio and it's really simple, I'm like, "Okay, let's look at Irving Penn." If I think of negative space and optical illusion, I think Herb Ritts. And obviously Avedon, again, because he fought against art and fashion—but unbeknownst to him, it’s one and the same.
I think increasingly, if you have a concise vision, your work can exist in several different genres. That’s not to say it’s not incredibly difficult, but there are a few examples of people doing it well.
I think a great example is Jonas Lindstroem.
I adore him!
It’s funny because he was looking for an intern a while back. He posted on his Instagram story that you’d need a drivers license, so jokingly I re-storied it with, “Guess I’m gonna need to go get a driver’s license.” He saw it and was like, “I love your work.” I was thrilled, but also didn't want our first interaction to be me jokingly asking to be his intern!
Looking back at the start of 2020, you’ve had a knockout year if it weren’t for the quarantine. A Garage cover with Kendall Jenner, a Rolling Stone cover featuring SZA, Normani, and Megan Thee Stallion, and a really beautiful personal project for Luncheon Magazine. Can you tell me a bit more about the Kendall cover and how the Maurizio Cattelan inspiration came about?
I was already shooting in L.A. with Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, the style director of Garage Magazine. She told me, “We're going to shoot this, this, and this.” One project was the Kendall shoot. I was like “Oh my god, it's Kendall Jenner. Shit. Okay. She said she wanted to do it!” Because Gabriella’s a good friend, I told her, “I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure,” and she's like, "Why?" I was like, "I've never been in a spotlight in that sense." Shooting major models, like Naomi Campbell, is different. [When you’re shooting Kendall], it's a whole other world I'm not a part of at all. She’s part of this family that's on social media and popular and whatnot, but she herself is still a model, so I need to take that notion away. Once that happened, I was like, “Yeah, we can do it.” Then when they said Maurizio Cattelan, I had even more anxiety. I knew of his work, but I was also nervous that people were just going to dissect the photographs, or they’d be like “Let’s just shoot the banana,” but we needed to actually understand what it means. We needed to understand the essence of his work because when I look at artists for research, I don't just look at them as a visual aesthetic thing. I like to contextualize—when was his image shot? How was it shot?
When it came to Cattelan, my assistant and I sat down and said to Garage, let's just get an idea first. Then me, Gabriella, and Julia Wagner, the set designer, all had the same thought. We were like, let's basically just pick the artwork of his that we genuinely like, find out the meanings behind it, and then add our twist and flip it.
What sorts of pieces did you add that made it feel more like your vision?
I wanted to do hair down to the floor for Kendall—I was thinking about Nicki Minaj’s Instagram video where she does her hair flip and gets on a flight to Prague—the you-can’t-even-spell-Prague challenge (laughs). Julia was like “Let’s break the fourth wall,” and flip the picture, because the Cattelan artwork that the cover is based on is a bust of Stephanie Seymour. So that’s how we landed on that one shot of Kendall from behind. Gabby's a huge fan of Hitchcock and we both had the same idea for the little film we did. I was like, "Is Kendall on set?" I need birds trying to kill her” (laughs). We took it seriously but pushed it in another way; I almost needed to bring some more slapstick humor into it.
The last idea we had came from Julia. She was like, "Let's tape Campbell to the wall," because there's this art piece that Cattelan did that’s quite similar. Cattelan decided to tape his own gallerist, Massimo de Carlo, to his gallery wall in Milan. So then I was like, “Let's use that energy. It's a photo of Kendall taking a photo of me," but it's actually me taking the photo.
Did you have to composite it because of time? I imagine it’d take a bit too long to tape yourself to the wall with Kendall waiting on set?
Yeah, she had to leave before we shot that, we literally only had six hours for all the shots.
Was there something about Kendall that surprised you?
I went into it thinking I know about Kendall Jenner—and in reality I don't actually know much about this girl. I just decided to go in there with a blank canvas, with no preconceived notion of her, and she was a hoot. She's ready. She was very professional, very chill, and she was up to do everything we could. It wasn't like a laugh and giggles, rolling around on the floor situation, but it was very professional and she was present. It was just like working with any other model, really, it just happened to be Kendall Jenner. She was in that harness when we were swinging her upside down. She was having a great time during the shoot and I stopped to ask, "Are your ribs not hurting?" She goes, "They are." She's great to work with because there's no concept too ambitious for her.
You had this Rolling Stone cover shoot. Was that before or after Garage?
Luncheon was the second week of January. Then I had a day off, then it was Garage, and then I did another project, and after, it was Rolling Stone.
That’s a lot of pressure.
In January, I had the big Luncheon shoot, then flew to LA, stayed there for a week and half. Came back to London, then back to LA to shoot Rolling Stone and back to London to shoot. I didn't have time to go, “Oh my god, I'm shooting the Rolling Stone cover.” But then on set, the photo editor was like "By the way, you're the first black man to shoot this cover." I went, what?
Like, you’re telling me that now? Before my first frame?
I was just about to take a test shot of Megan!
I want to explore this idea of the culture's exhaustion of blackness and why you decided to make a personal project about that.
I was approached by Luncheon in May of 2019 to do a shoot for them. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to my friend Gareth Wrighton's studio for a change of scenery; He was doing his collection and I was like, "Can I come over and just chill? I'll watch you draw and just be. I don't need to do anything else.” And literally in conversation with him, he says "Do we go get a meal deal?" And I said "Aw, meal deals, I remember those." I remember thinking as a kid how I stuck it all in my mouth, just so my brother wouldn't have some. I'm such a glutton. That one conversation sparked the whole thing.
There's this anime character in Full Metal Alchemist called Gluttony. His whole stomach and body opens up with these huge teeth. I was like that's literally me whenever I see cheesecake. That physical character reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch, a painting with a huge head.
I met with Gareth and he put the glue and the pieces together. The exhaustion of blackness was the last idea. I was thinking of a way to do it that was more informative than barking, "People steal black people's stuff, [their culture]." Because that's fact, we all know that. I'm not the first or the last person to say it. So I went back and looked at Rembrandt and Hieronymus Bosch. Originally, I wanted to create a conveyor belt rolling into Gareth’s sculpture, but because of budget constraints, that just wasn’t the tea. You’ll notice in the right hand corner of my photograph that there’s a portrait of Jesus Christ. Religion used to be a huge part of my life, I was raised Jehovah’s Witness. Before white people came to Africa, there was no such thing as Christianity there. So it’s a reference to this idea of them taking so much and leaving that behind.
When you’re making personal work versus editorial, are you ever hesitant to invest your money? Is it ever sort of scary to drop cash on an idea you’re not sure will turn out the way you wanted it to?
I’m a frugal queen. I didn't grow up with money. Having money for me is so new, and I don't even have money. I still remember what it's like to be dirt poor. When I do invest money into something, God be damned, I'm going to exhaust myself so much, so that if it doesn't turn out how I want it to, there's nothing else I can say. I'd literally just be like, "You know what, I did every single thing I could do, what else could I have done?"
What are your tips for working from home, since freelancers like yourself are a bit more adjusted to this sort of lifestyle?
I think that routine is key. Simple things, like you have your breakfast and you make sure you don't wear clothes that aren't conducive to work. We don't know if this COVID-19 is going to stop and because if that happens, Lord have mercy, just think of the way everyone's going to be working 200,000 times faster to catch up Take these times to take a day off. Yesterday, I organized my journals and clothes. That's something to do. Just one thing a day. Don’t kill yourselves.
What’s been your most challenging shoot to date?
It was my first ad job for a really great client, but I can’t say their name. The location was in the UK, but still quite far to travel to. It was a big deal at the time. The cast was huge but it revolved around this one celebrity. The celebrity never showed up to set, so I ended up having to shoot a stand-in and we composited the celebrity’s head into the frame later on in post. It was a stressful job, but I have to give credit to everyone, because the image turned out great and you’d really never know.
When work is stressful, or you’re booked back to back with three cover shoots, what do you say to yourself to remain calm?
I always say, "Be the sunshine you want to see in the world." Only because under such an amount of stress and pressure and lack of sleep and different time zones, you really do become a shell of a person. There are times when I've just been emitting pure darkness and it's not cute to be around. I try to remember why I take pictures. I had a not-so-great upbringing and then I had to leave home for being gay, which left me homeless but throughout it all, I still went to school. I lived in the sticks, and would go to Central London. I would have to get a bus, a train, and then take a bus, then walk. It would take about, every day, three to four hours to get to school once I left home. I still did it because I wanted to go in and paint, I wanted to go in and take pictures. What else did I have? I was homeless and didn’t have money. I've resolved to be happy and successful no matter what, if I am allowed to take pictures. People like me haven't been allowed to do lots of things and during my time at Central Saint Martins, there weren't many modern black photographers I could look up to.
What are you most proud of in regards to your career at this point?
I'm very proud that I have succeeded and I'm still succeeding because the odds were stacked against me heavily. I've been able to come out of it, and despite mental health issues and physical issues and emotional issues and being black and queer—I’m at a point now where I can be me in a room and not be small. I'm not shrinking myself. I used to be so anxious that I would be the loudest thing in the room. Now I'm just like, you know what? If I just sit in silence, silence doesn't mean I'm mute. Silence means I'm confident enough to sit here and not say anything. I don't have to.