Photograph from Stuart Winecoff’s Vogue Ukraine September 2019 spread.
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.
About a year ago, while scrolling through Instagram, a striking series of images popped up on my Explore page. The photographs featured a cast of Europeans in a desolate but warm environment, shown in such a natural way that, at first glance, I figured they were shot by a documentarian. If it weren't for recognizing one cast member in particular, model Lulu Tenney, I might not have realized the series belonged to photographer Stuart Winecoff, and was actually the September cover story for Vogue Ukraine. As I hunted for more of Winecoff's work, I realized I had been familiar with it for quite some time: he'd done the cinematography for music videos like Jay Z’s Smile, Troye Sivan’s My, My, My!, and numerous collaborations with fashion’s favorite director, Gordon Von Steiner. It’s one thing to see an artist championed by highly competitive industries like music, fashion, and entertainment, but something else entirely to see that same artist evolve, taking new risks to share his own voice. A year later, I’m still transfixed by Winecoff's vision—so I decided to catch up with him while he's quarantining in California, selling some of his prints via Artist Relief to support freelance artists during the pandemic.
How has life been in quarantine?
I was in Los Angeles when everything first happened. Instead of going back to New York, I decided to go up to my hometown, which is about an hour and a half north of LA, and I am staying in my 800-square-foot, single-bathroom home that I grew up in with my parents. I’m getting used to the amount of privacy that I had when I was 15.
I’m currently sitting in my parents's car right now, because it's the only place that I can be by myself. All things considered, I feel lucky to be in the situation I'm in. Like everyone, I think the future's a bit uncertain and I don't really know what life's going to look like in the coming year. My family's here, and my brother has a small piece of land with a little house on it that we've been fixing up. We've built a little garden, and tried to keep our hands busy.
I saw on your Instagram that you took some photographs with your nephew a couple days ago.
My parents's house is only five minutes away from my brother's new house, so for the first couple weeks of quarantine I was staying with my brother, just to be cautious of my parents, because they're older. My sister-in-law, Sheila Márquez, is a Spanish model, and we spent the first couple of weeks staying with her, my brother, and my two little nephews. Spanish Vogue somehow found out that we were together and asked me to shoot this project and document this time together.
What was it like to make work without a full team?
It was an interesting experience. For the first shot, we went out to the backyard, I hung up a sheet on an old post, and she stood there with my two little nephews. I got overwhelmed and started to well up a bit. I felt lucky to be in that situation, to be able to share such an intimate moment with my family, to capture and document them during this time. I also felt so sad for the world, knowing how much pain people are going through. I'm close with my nephews, I'm close with my family, but to be able to go through this whole experience with them together brings us even closer. I am so grateful that I was put in a position where I was given the opportunity to shoot something like that.
It’s really special to be able to make work like that right now. I’m sure most of your other work is on pause—a photo crew is usually, like, ten people...so that would definitely break social distancing rules.
All my other work is completely on pause. We’re not sure how long this is going to last. Will it be a couple months longer that I’m not on set, or will it be two years?
The reason I wanted to start interviewing artists is because, so often what it means to be a photographer is to connect with people. I’m curious to know how everyone is staying sane—especially considering people in this industry are typically workaholics. How do you stop for a second and calm down when it’s impossible to work?
Until the coronavirus hit, it was so easy to compare yourself to other people, and compare your work to other people, and look at the constant pouring and stream of work being created, and then judge yourself based on those things. I think the one thing that I keep reminding myself is that we're all going through this together. This is a pause; right now, we are all not creating stuff.
What's been keeping me sane is refocusing my brain on other things. There's a lot of internal pressure that I think we all feel, and I know I feel, to create, and to keep up with the rat race. I've just been trying to take as many lessons from this situation as possible and use it as an opportunity to try new things. For example, I didn't know how to drive a stick shift car. My brother's teaching me how to drive an old stick shift truck. I didn't know how to make ice cream—I’ve been doing that. My brother and I are so lucky to have this plot of land, and he and I have been YouTubing how to build things. I learned how to irrigate a garden. I never knew how to use a saw, or a drill. It's the most masculine I've been in my entire life.
It does feel good to reevaluate your priorities.
it's interesting because it doesn't necessarily feel good. It feels uncomfortable, but I think there's actually something okay about the discomfort, being able to take a step back and figure out what other things that can bring you happiness in life are.
I'm so geared toward being productive that my first thought, in response to what you just said, was, “If you slow down, that'll help you speed up later, because you'll be rested!” Why did I just think that?
Totally. Oh my god. But also, my brain is totally wired the same way.
I wanted to do something to help out artists who were struggling during this time, but I didn't know how to go about it, and I didn't know of any charities that were doing that. I called a friend of mine. His name is iO Tillett Wright. He is an author and an activist who has this incredible project called Self-Evident Truths. He was raising money to support queer people in need, with a focus on low income trans, POC, elders, and families who have been affected by COVID. He was the one who led me to Artist Relief. It's an organization that gives $5,000 to artists in need. Because the $1,200 stimulus check, we all know, is not enough.
There have been a couple of moments in all of our lives—9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy—when we've been forced to look at humanity in a similar way that we are now. Artists often are the people in your everyday life who are reflecting back to you that human experience—even outside of tragedy. Right now, everyone is seeing humanity and what matters most, but artists, the people who usually show us those things, can’t get paid. They can’t do their jobs.
And artists are the ones who are usually translating that sense of humanity for us. That’s why it’s important to support them right now.
What sort of prints are you selling?
I'm doing digital C-prints, and I'm signing them. I have to process all the orders as soon as the lab opens back up, but I've warned people. I'm going to be signing all of them and then shipping them out myself.
I've noticed you always shoot in a horizontal format. It's not a traditional way to shoot fashion; fashion photographers were told that they had to shoot vertically to fit inside the pages. Do you notice you do that, and why do you do that?
I do notice it, but I also think it’s subconscious for me most of the time. I don't necessarily think of myself as a fashion photographer, but I do operate in that sphere. Because of that, I've always been interested in photographs that tell a broader story, capture and observe the moment without having imposed too much of themselves on the moment. Because of that, I've always been drawn to artists like René Burri or Alex Webb, who've mastered street photography in that way.
I can really see Webb’s influence in your work. There are a lot of moments in your work and his where something’s happening in the foreground, but whatever is happening in the background is just as important.
The nice thing about a wide-angle lens is often subjects who are on the edge of the frame don't realize that they are. So, you get these moments in that space you would've never expected; they make things feel more genuine. It's tricky for me because I have to find a balance, where my work is clearly not street photography in that same way. The scenes that I construct are often lit artificially, even when you can't really tell.
When you're shooting, whether it's a personal project, or an editorial, how do you go about creating these natural-seeming scenarios that aren't actually that natural, and which you've constructed?
I think that's where my background as a cinematographer comes in. Often in my film work, the director and I are working with non-actors, and it's up to us to come up with some sort of a structure for a scene, and then throw the actors into it. In that way, we let things play out and see what happens. Then we nudge things in a direction that you want to see it all go in. I have a basic structure of the idea that I have, and then I let the talent bring the scene to life themselves.
Do you ever have a sort of stage fright, when it comes time to take that image you have in your mind and bring it to life by instructing the model or actor to move their bodies?
Every single time. I think that maybe it's because photography is still somewhat of a new phase for me, but every single time, I have that stage fright. As a photographer, I'm acting as a director in a sense because at the start, subjects don't always understand what I'm trying to do. And sometimes that's okay; it leads them to do things that are unexpected or feel awkward, and you can capture those moments on the edge of the frame.
When you're creating your personal work, like Troya (2019), these images that you created were so visceral for me. Emotionally I understood them immediately. Concretely, though, I didn’t even realize where they were shot, or what these narratives are technically saying. I feel like a lot of your fans might have a similar reaction to your work as I do.
Oh my gosh, fans? I don’t have fans.
Troya was a really big deal for me. It was probably the biggest and most rewarding moment of my life. I've always wanted to be a still photographer. If I'm being completely honest, cinematography is something that I sort of fell into. Both my mother and my grandmother were photographers, and I've always felt like I wanted to be that in my life, but because things started to move forward for me at an early stage in my cinematography, that side of my career was going well, and I was always too afraid to follow my dreams of becoming a photographer.
Troya was the first time that I took that step in expressing myself outward as a photographer. Originally, I had been to Kiev for a few other jobs, and it was the first place that I had been in Eastern Europe. I had grown up with these tales of the Soviet Union from my grandmother and my grandfather who were of Georgian descent, and my grandfather escaped Soviet Russia with his family and ended up working for the state department in American and Soviet relations. He was the first person to be charged by McCarthy during the McCarthy era because he had Russian descent.
His stories of Eastern Europe at the dinner table always played a huge role in my fantasies of my origins as a person. One of my best friends, his name is Gordon von Steiner. He's an amazing director. He and I were in Europe for two jobs, and we had 10 days off between the two of the jobs, and I told him my idea to go to Kiev to shoot my first photo series.
We decided very last minute that he was going to come with me and that we would also try to shoot a film together. When we landed there, we had no idea what we were going to shoot. He had some ideas for some scenes for the film, and I had some ideas for the photographs, and luckily, they went hand-in-hand. We spent four days location scouting and casting, and then when it came time to shoot, I think we were both shocked at how unprepared we actually felt. It all came together really quickly. When we finished shooting and I got the negatives back from my medium format, it was really emotional for me, because it felt like I was expressing myself outwardly as a photographer, but also as an artist for the first time, with my own voice.
I think all photographers long for that moment.
One of the reasons I wanted to do an exhibition for this project so badly was because I wanted to reintroduce myself to the creative world that I had grown to know in New York over the last 10 years. It was the beginning of a new path for me, which was really cathartic.
How has working as a cinematographer been different than working as a photographer, and how has it helped you make your own work?
The thing about being a cinematographer is that I'm often challenged by directors to come up with lighting setups that I would've never had the opportunity to shoot as a photographer, just because the budgets aren't necessarily the same. You’re thrown into scenarios like shooting a subway container in a studio and making it look like it's moving, and then passing through a tunnel with light. The other challenge is helping other artists make their vision come to life. It’s almost a creative exercise in that way.
Do you have a mantra, or something you tell yourself when you’re super busy with tons of projects and it all feels like too much?
One thing I tell myself in the morning if I'm feeling anxious about going to set, is that I know it's worth going to, and I know there are lessons to be learned there. Because if I am not anxious, it usually means I've done it before or it'll be a walk in the park, you know?
Having accomplished all that you have, what are you most proud of in your career so far?
While I do feel a lot of pride in my work, like every artist would tell you, I'm also never really happy with it. But I'll come up with a better answer. There was so much fear around the idea of showing the world that I could be a still photographer and an artist in my own right. It was holding me back for years. I had gained a small level of success as a cinematographer, and I was afraid that if I showed myself as a photographer, the stakes would be so high that I would have to live up to a certain standard. I was so afraid of that standard I was holding myself to, that I held myself back. The most proud I've ever been is when I decided to not let fear stop me.