January 18th, 2008 | Interviews

steve gullick

Photographer Steve Gullick surfaced in the early ‘90s working with NME, Melody Maker and his own itinerant underground glossy called Careless Talk Costs Lives, and now he has two books out (Pop Book Number One and Showtime). Sinden Lee passes these questions along to Steve. He will showcase his work at Found Gallery in Los Angeles on January 19 as Tenebrous, his first show in America. The installation runs through February 4, 2008.

I’d like to ask you a few questions about Careless Talk Cost Lives: your use of illustrations; your insistence to do away with photos issued by PR people or record execs; using writers with fanzine and webzine backgrounds—all these attributed to a reputation that standout from other publications. Can you comment on this?
CTCL was meant as a kick up the arse—a wake-up call for the mainstream British music press. I was sick of seeing my work poorly presented and so much amazing music being ignored, so the only way forward at that point seemed D.I.Y. I sold some pictures of Nirvana to NME and used the money to get the ball rolling. I remember thinking I wanted to produce a magazine that Kurt Cobain would have liked, and with his friend Everett True, with whom I’d worked with extensively at Melody Maker, we assembled a bunch of like-minded people and got on with it. We started on issue number 12 and ended with issue number one to ensure against being part of the establishment we were so keen to kick against. CTCL achieved its goal. I’ve certainly seen evidence of its influence. We used illustrations when we couldn’t produce our own photographs. I’d like to think it produced a lovely visual mix.
Was it a coincidence or an agenda to showcase a lot of Detroit acts in CTCL?
I think it was timing. Our creation coincided with the White Stripes vapor trail. The spotlight was certainly on Detroit in 2002 as it had been on Seattle ten years previously. We became aware of some great music from Detroit. Perhaps Everett True had an agenda. He had, after all, invented grunge.
The style of your photography is similar to noir films—that beautiful kind of ambiguity in your subjects.
I like that, thank you. My main aim when taking photos is for the subject to feel comfortable with the camera and me. I tend to be quite random with the button pressing which probably leads to more relaxed pictures.
What is your method? Are you posing and art directing your subjects or allowing them to just be?
Unless the subject is scared shitless or just can’t relax or be natural, I leave them to their own devices and try to engage in conversation unless they’re comfortable without chatter. I prefer the latter. I have that kind of relationship with a few people that I’ve been working with for a long time. We just sit around snapping pictures while enjoying the silence and each other’s company.
How are you able to convey that sense of timelessness that’s in some of your work?
I feel the music that has touched me will be with me forever. These pictures and the artists featured in them are a big part of my life. For me that makes them timeless… The first time I photographed Josh Pearson when he was doing Lift To Experience, he asked me, ‘Do you feel like you’re making history?’ Well, I’m certainly recording a very important aspect of it. I think it’s going to be difficult to forget much of the music many of these artists have produced. All I can do is show you what they look like.
Who or what is the ideal subject matter? What conditions and elements make for a perfect photo shoot?
Anyone that feels comfortable with me. The best pictures are the result of collaboration. You’re not going to get a great picture of somebody that doesn’t want you to get one. I photographed Jeff Buckley once. It was in the Sony offices in NYC—a sterile room. It was raining. He didn’t want to be there—nor did he want to know me—until I suggested we do the ‘ugly session.’ We tried to make him look ugly. On some of the shots, Jeff stuck jelly beans over a couple of teeth and flattened his hair tightly to his head. I hung him on a coat hanger and he pulled some faces. I got in real close with a wide-angle lens to distort his features. He looked great in every photo I’d seen of him—he was obviously so bored with the soul-destroying rigors of endless promotion and posing for cameras. We had fun. He was really into trying to look rough.
What is it about live shows that make them exciting?
Great music—feeling part of it and being carried by the moment.
Who is your favorite musician you’ve photographed? Least favorite?
For the greatness of their music and the love I feel for them, I’ll pick Will Oldham, Chan Marshall, Mark Lanegan, Ed Harcourt, David Yow and Nirvana. Least favorite: Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica. Nick Cave was difficult the first time I photographed him in 1996. The pictures came out good though. I’ve taken loads of him since; we get on just swell now.
What outer influences in your life inspired your style and art?
I’m from Coventry, an industrial city in England. It’s had a profound influence on what I am. My parents were very straightforward, honest, hardworking people. I admire them greatly. I had a fantastic art teacher that installed a darkroom into the back end of the classroom. He taught photography to our class and I got hooked. I owe him a lot.