|Interview. Peter Sutherland|
Before we start: how did you get to Beinghunted?
I went to the opening party for the “I Heart” store in Nolita. I met Gail through our mutual friend Ce Ce... Gail and I spoke for a while and I gave her my card. I sent out vibes to her over the next few days in hopes of her asking me to be on beinghunted (no joke). Later Gail saw my name in a German catalog that featured info about AUTOGRAF. Then I got an email from Gail to do an interview, this proves that Gail is receptive to vibes.
What are your favourite hunting grounds in New York City, or any other place?
I usually prefer to hunt in NYC on my bicycle; I feel free on 2 wheels, like a Harley dude probably feels on a hog, but without all that damn noise. I don’t really gather during my hunt too often, but if I did I’d go to Raul’s Candy Store, which is a bodega and junk store on Avenue B and 11th street. They have some amazing stuff arranged in no specific order. I like to see and experience things while I’m hunting, sometimes I loiter at Supreme or on the corner next to Cafe Habana. I like hunting anywhere outside NYC, but not usually for longer then 2 weeks.
Where are you from and how did you find your way to New York City?
I’m proud to be from Colorado, an amazing place to grow up. I like to breath the clean air in that state - it fills my lungs with wholesome goodness. I was attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO where I studied communications - a dummy major. I finished college in ‘98 and moved to NYC to fulfill my dream of becoming an actor... Just kidding. I came here because my friend Kevin’s dad is pilot and he gave me a plane ticket to come for a visit. I was only going to stay for 2 months, but then I got a job and a girlfriend and time has passed. This place rulez, I feel lucky about ending up here. If I talk about leaving, it’s just crazy talk; I don’t mean it.
How and when did you begin photography?
I was really into sports when I was in Colorado. I need to have something I can be passionate about or at least a serious hobby at all times or I feel like the walls are crashing down all around me. In 1998 when I moved New York City, I was just bumming around, I worked at a vegan restaurant, lifted weights at a grimy gym, sat in Tompkins Park, ate snacks and listened to HOT 97. Speaking of that, I remember hearing Eminem freestyle live on the radio (on the Funk Flex show) before the first album came out. I would get psyched on little things like that which only NYC can offer, but I needed a hobby. I saved up a couple thousand dollars and bought a Sony VX 1000 digital video camera... I shot skateboard videos for a while. I filmed some skaters that became famous like Anthony Popalardo and Brian Wenning, That was inspiring. Skateboarders basically taught me how to film, then I started working on serious documentaries. I made a film about bike messengers called “Pedal” and worked as a DP on a film about Gator called “Stoked.” The video inspired me to do still photos. My brother Andrew bought me a 35mm Nikon manual camera for my 24th birthday and taught me how to use it. My dad passed away right around that time, so maybe shooting photos was something for me to work on and make life more manageable--I got really into it, and it became all I wanted to do...
Are you self-taught or did you follow an “arts education”? How do you think this shaped your photographs?
The streets taught me, if it wasn’t for this photo stuff, I’d probably be dead or in jail... And my brother taught me about f-stops and shutter speeds, which is really all you need to know until you want to worry about composition and lighting. I took a trip to Japan to film my friends’ art show at Parco Gallery... While I was there I shot 70 rolls of film. After the trip I picked up the prints and every image sucked. That was the bulk of my early learning process. My approach to photography has been like exploring, I take certain types of photos for a while and then get tired of them or learn from them and apply that to the next shoot. I used to take photos that were completely absent of people or living things and I would shoot at parking lots and fields. Now I like shooting portraits and documentary style stuff. I’m always developing my style, which is what keeps it interesting for me. I don’t think being trained to take photos in school is for me.
How would you describe your personal style?
First and foremost, I attempt to take photos that have balls, big ones, I try to avoid wimpy stuff all together. I like reality; I don’t like to shoot black and white that often for the simple reason that the mind of the viewer has to imagine what the image would look like in real life. I have a low tolerance for all things corny, I want my photos to feel authentic and I take them in a way that compliments the subject matter. I want the tone of my images to convey my style. I want people that see my work to feel the way they do when they hear familiar songs, or relive important memories. When I take pictures I try to apply the same amount of syncretic to my work that I hear in 50’s voice when beefin’ with Ja. (He has made at least 5 songs about that beef.) I have to care about something to do it well, and I do love photography, I get the jitters when I go to the lab to pick up developed film and I know I got a hot roll. My style is to take the most honest approach to photography that I can; I don’t use a lot of lights and I try to work with what is available at a location. I also make an effort to get to know the people as I photograph them. I try to think about photos I liked before I ever started taking photos, because I think shooting photos all the time can distort a person’s judgment about what is really good about a photo. I do all of these things, or sometimes I just push the button without much thought. For a long time I didn’t want to look at other photographers work because I didn’t want to be influenced too much. Now I take it all in, I like Bill Henson, Glen Friedman, Danielle Levitt, Gerhard Stochl, Kevin Trageser, Tim Barber, Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston, and many others.
From where do you get your inspiration?
I love moments in time, fragments of overheard conversations, crazy people yelling about stuff, squirrels mating, little kids fighting, road kill, bad TV commercials, shady looking sedans driving slow, garbage up in trees, tumble weeds, lint on stuff, clouds of exhaust, near-fatal accidents, my grandpa: those things are all inspirational. When I saw “City of God”, I got really inspired, that director really utilized the medium of film to its fullest potential. I also love hip hop; I think about it a lot and I’m definitely fascinated and inspired by it. It is a true musical movement for my generation, I’m listening to Kanye West right now.... What else, I get really inspired when I change my environment, maybe I should go live with a tribe for a while
What designer/idea/movement inspires you the most?
1. My favorite designer/architect is Masamichi Katayama, I had the pleasure of meeting him last week... very amazing guy.
2. Favorite Idea - I used to love hot dogs with cheese injected into them.
3. Favorite movement: I’m gonna go with hip hop on that one.
Are there certain subjects or shapes that you are drawn to? Why?
Most of my personal work looks very different from the work in AUTOGRAF... I often find myself photographing men in their forties or fifties who look like they’ve had rough lives. I think they remind me of the guys my dad used to work with when he was doing drywall or carpentry work. These are the characters that are the most memorable from my childhood, beat up cars and all... My dad hired this guy named Mike to do some painting for him on a house he was renovating, Mike told my dad he had no money for food so my dad loaned him $400, he spent it all on a large salt water fish tank... so funny! I also photograph depressing stuff in general, landscapes, people, hand written “out of order signs”, animals with stupid looks on their faces, struggle, stuff that looks cheap, stuff that looks hazardous or dangerous, gaudy/tacky stuff, etc...
What is your ratio between client work and personal work? How do these overlap?
I try to set it up so I have lots of spare time, I believe I learned this approach from my dad, he was self-employed and never seemed to do anything he didn’t want to. So without a real job, I do freelance work and stay rather poor, but I’m time-rich. The time gives me an opportunity to work on personal projects like AUTOGRAF, or PEDAL. But now the client work is really coming around, I recently did some stuff for VICE Records, Nike/Jordan online, etc. They over lap because sometimes those jobs don’t really feel like work when they’re interesting enough, or sometimes I pitch projects to companies.
How did the “Autograf” project come about?
I was working on Pedal, the film I mentioned above, when I met a messenger that writes PEZ. He and I became good friends and would speak about graf all the time... I took his photo one day and got 5x 7 prints back... I asked him to put his tag on it, or maybe he just tagged it, he writes on everything anyway... I looked at the print and I knew it could be an interesting way to document the graf scene... I see each photo as both documentation of a NYC graffiti writer and as an artistic collaboration between the writer and me... I asked them for a lot of input about how they wanted to look and where they wanted to be photographed, the tag was up to them... “Tags are like the bread and butter of graffiti now a days” that is a quote from the notorious CYCLE. By that I think he means that graffiti has evolved to a point and become so illegal and difficult to do that the tag is what its all about right now. The days of painting elaborate murals on trains are long gone, the quick tag and the fill in are basically what people do now. Handstyles are important, I see tags as art; I think they’re expressive.
Were you approached by the publisher or did you initiate the project?
How long from start to finish did the publication take?
It took 3.5 years, I started in Jan 2001.
How did REVS become involved?
REVS was really hard to get... He is like the reigning champ-grand
pubah-emperor of NYC graffiti (many people will argue). I would see his work everywhere. His roller pieces dominate spots, there can be 50 fill-ins on a wall, but the huge R, E, V and S will crush them all. He uses bucket paint and roller with a long stick, his name is always bigger and shines brighter then the others. He has amazing work in the subway tunnels, in all of the lines. I’d wonder how much time he’d spent underground, and how he was able to do that much without getting caught. Then I’d be out in Jersey and see a roller under a bridge and think, damn, he was here too! Anyway, I had photographed someone that knows REVS, this guy loved his photo and basically referred me to him. First I submitted some laser copies of other writers for REVS to see... I chose people I knew he would like, like CINIK, SACE, UFO, etc. A year went by, I was standing in front of Supreme watching “Photosynthesis”, or what ever the latest Alien Workshop video was and I got a call... A gruff voice spoke; “So you’re doin’ this book or what?” the voice said. I was probably waiting for calls from 10 other writers at the time, but I knew who it was without an introduction, it was REVS, the grand pubah! We spoke for about 20 minutes then the phone cut out. I was bummed... He called me back 3 months later and it was on!!! I took his photo, he signed it, and offered to write the text. It was surreal, he is probably my favorite living artist, so you can imagine how I felt when he offered to write the text. I still get awkward around him; there are only a few people that I look up to that much, maybe Axl Rose is another...
Was it difficult to get the writers to agree to be photographed? Did any of them set any guidelines ?
Usually writers would want to know who else was involved, and as soon as I had some heavy hitters on the roster, it became easy. Most were receptive. I got to meet some real outlaws that no one meets! I never had a book deal until the end, but the whole time I was shooting the photos I would just say “Yeah, this is gonna be a book.” And it worked out. The same with getting to writers, I would say I wanna meet VFR and photograph him, I wanna meet REVS and photograph him. There is always a way, I tell you! If you believe in what you are doing people will sense it.
How did you decide whom to ask to pose?
Graffiti writers all know each other. Eventually it got to the point that they all knew I was making a book so they knew what I was up to. I would set up meetings by phone. I would meet the writer at a location, then we would wander around and look for a really good background, during this time I would talk to them, try to get to know them, inevitably we would talk about graffiti. Most of them care about graf a lot, they have a passion, which is what it takes to get up a lot, so everything they said came from a personal place. So I got first-hand accounts about being a graffiti writer from over 50 graffiti writers. This is a lot to take in, and in turn they would tell me who they thought should be in the book. There are so many variables in the formula of what makes a writer cool. Maybe they are up a lot, or have been up a lot for a long time, maybe they have an amazing hand style, maybe they have crazy tattoos and they party really hard, maybe they have fame because they had beef with other famous writers, etc. I learned a lot about it and slowly I came to a point were I had a good idea of who would be appropriate to include in the book.
How did you decide which images to include/exclude?
I included almost everyone I photographed. There were a few people I photographed that never tagged the picture, like PEN and SHINE; I had a great shot of them, but they ended up beefing with each other and we never met up to have them sign it. I didn’t want to edit anyone out after I’d worked with them to make a good photo.
What elements in a portrait complete it for you?
I’m interested in photographs that share special access to the subject... I find a lot of fashion and commercial photography to be very cold and distant. I like it when people open up a little bit and let themselves shine through... We are all anonymous when we’re out on the street, strong portraits can portray people in ways that you can’t see even if you know a person well. Another element of a portrait that I like is when people look directly into the camera, its like shaking hands with someone, you share that moment with them when you shake and both look each other in the eyes. I get really irritated when people shake and don’t make eye contact (unless its not customary in their culture or something).
What do you feel separates this book the most from other graf books?
This book is more about the writers themselves, there are all types of graffiti books, but this one is my attempt at putting a name to a face, or at least to a figure. Graffiti is such an anonymous art form, hopefully this breaks through that a little bit... Like I said, I’m really into access, I want this book to give people special access to a culture they would otherwise never see... This book is also different for me because when I see it I have so many memories attached to each photo, it has become a very personal project that I will always treasure...
This book focuses on writers in NYC; would you be interested in taking this concept to other cities/areas?
Yeah, I’d like to do that, but I don’t see myself paying for such an ambitious shoot. Maybe I’d do it on a small scale for a magazine or something...
What are your next projects?
I have a lot of small projects on ice. As far as ones I can tell you about, I have a documentary about art photographer Tierney Gearon that I’ve been working on for the last 2 years with a partner. I’m also just finishing working on a sneaker research project for Wieden and Kennedy. The end product will be a small photo book.
What are your future plans? How do you see your personal style evolving?
I’m going to do a few more shows for AUTOGRAF, one in Berlin (curated by Gerhard Stochl) and probably one in Japan. I think my style will get more and more grungy... at some point I will just hang dirty rags on the wall and call it a day... I see myself doing a lot of rapper portraits, at some point I’d like to direct some commercials, and build up to directing a feature film.... I like photos that reveal some sort of special access to the subject, so I’m going to keep thinking about that, and I think the aesthetic will follow. That access makes still images seem so much more relevant, call me on it if you see me doing some weak shit in the future please - thanks.
What are your 5 most beloved items?
Food, Bike, Scrapbook (representing: memories/family/friends), Camera, Bling
Just shouts - moms, grams, gramps, unc’s, REVS, NATO, CLAW, LASE, 323, Ferris Bueller, Ice Cube, powerHouse Books, Die Gestalten, Kevin Trageser, Gerhard Stochl, Diana Hong, Cc:, Sarah and Linlee @ colette, 50 Cent, Andrew Sutherland, Axl Rose, Eminem, Vincent Gallo, Josh Wildman, Helen Stickler, Vik, Ruju, Nadine, Jay Dokken, Jim Mangan, Mass Appeal, 5boro, Patrick, Joel, Dar, Soccer posse, and a very special thanks to Miss Rosen.
Who should we interview next?
My brother Andrew, that’s who.
See Autograf here:
NYC: powerHouse Gallery, 68 Charlton Street (May 6th until June 10th)
Berlin: Cc:room, Gipsstrasse 11 (May 18th until August 27th)
Beinghunted says thanks for the interview and all the best!
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