Young photographers. You have to feel for them fighting that uphill battle in a culture of glut to get their voices heard and their images seen. But I truly believe talent will not be denied and that powerful new imagery will emerge from our current generation. One of my favorite new photography talent is distinctly Hugh Lippe primarily because of his organic ideal of photography that submerges a great control of technique beneath his fluid and spontaneous shooting style. In Lippe's pictures people breathe and sulk and laugh and live. No CGI fashion cartoons here. I caught up with Hugh in a cafe in the East Village for a little chat. Mr Lippe's 's modesty it seems had shielded the fact that he was a very insightful thinker about the process of making images. And he had a very interesting background. This is what he had to say.
TI: I don't want to say, "Why even try in the face of so much resistance"....But as a young photographer...why do you get up every morning to shoot?
HL: I think you just have to love the taking of a picture. I love taking a picture. If I wasn't blessed having the people around me that I have I would be screwed. People will go" Oh, you're so creative, " which could be the kiss of death. That's the 2% of it. The 90% is who you know. How many people do you see who say "Oh I wanna be a photographer" and the next thing you know is you know they're doing magazines. You don't even need to know how to take a picture. You just need the right people around you. You can pay someone young $300 bucks a day and say "I want this light".
TI: Oh really. Please do slip me a list of kids who will light shoots for $300 a day (laughs)
HL: But you have to just love taking a picture. I grew up in a small town in Texas and I would drive 45 minutes to pick up all these magazines with amazing images. All those original Italian Vogues...All those images when Steven Klein was doing L'Uomo Vogue shooting Ethan Hawke. Back when it was really raw and hardcore and about not giving a fuck. It was like looking at an independent film but as stills. That's what I thought I was getting into. I didn't know I was getting into these social circles.
TI: So as an emerging photographer in New York, you don't see that world anymore?
HL: It' s tough man. I'm sure you still see it because you're going to stands and only picking up the magazines you like or respect. But it is not so easy to see good images.
TI: But you seem to be doing very well. I mean we're meeting now because you have to shoot Bloomingdale's tomorrow.
HL: Oh man but I'm blessed. I'm not going to argue, thank God for that. The fact that I'm talking with you right now is dope.
TI: Uhmmm is this where I slip you the 40 bucks for the free PR?
HL: I'll get the lunch, how's that? (laughs) But I think if you just keep doing it and doing it and doing it ...I know people who socially...they can sell you are a car without wheels and tell you that you are going to drive cross-country in it.They used to shoot all the time but the work was like Ugh! But you can only produce so many bad stories before it sputters out. For me, I don't socialize as much as I should. I don't have those skills so it has taken me so much longer but I think if you keep doing it it inevitably happens, right?
TI: Well at what age did you pick up a camera in the first place?
HL: In high school. But back then it was more like a hobby . The only access I had was like driving for an hour to the border picking up art photography books by people like Anslem Adams. More like decorative photography.
TI: At what point did you develop an interest in fashion photography.?
HL: I think seeing early fashion stories that were cutting edge or dangerous to me. I had a professor who had an old Newton book. I don't remember which one it was but do you remember that picture of the girl lying in the limo with her legs spread with the Eiffel Tower panties on.
TI: Oh so well!
HL: I was like, what the fuck is this? I want to do this. And then researching how he created those images. Back then it was like a science. Having to think about the film and which direction to take it when you develop the print in the darkroom. So you had that technical aspect of it and the pictures were kicking ass. That was what got me going. The prospect of being able to do something like that.
TI: When did you move to New York?
HL: This is funny. I had never been on a airplane. I took a plane to go school in Rhode Island and it was crazy how that even happened.
TI: Rhode Island ...as in the Rhode Island School Of Design?
HL: Yeah that's where I went to school. How that happened was I was at a hotel near a portfolio convention. I was walking by and was like "What's going on over there?" Someone said "They are schools from all over and they're doing portfolio reviews" . I got a card. Paid $30 to get in there. Met someone from the Rhode Island School Of Design. Saw some other schools. RISD actually stayed in touch with me over time. I was going to community college at the time. They had a great photo program. I had access to everything I needed. Color processors...everything I needed to do. I put together a submission and happened to be accepted and went. So I flew on an airplane for the first time. It was the first time I ever left Texas. Total shock.
TI: From RISD you started coming into the city.
HL: I got really lucky. I went to a gallery show in Manhattan. The gallerist came over..we started chatting and they asked me to send them some stuff . They ended selling some stuff of mine so that was great having a foot in the door into the art world.
TI: Such modesty Hugh because. A...You had to be good to get into RISD and B. ..You had to be good for some gallerist to take you on so quickly.
HL: Like I said... I love photography. I love composition. I love the idea of an aesthetic. I'm really adamant about it being strong.
TI: What do you consider strong photography then or rather the elements of strong photography?
HL: That's a good point and I'm glad you brought it up. As much as digital has enabled a lot of people to shoot and certain star photographers with the point and shoot style has opened up the door for people to go raw...there are certain skills...you just have it or you don't have it. You either have the eye for it or you don't. You can get the right light, the right model but something might be off or just not happening.
TI: So I guess your story is the movement from fine arts photography into fashion photography. When did the jump happen?
HL: When I met my wife. It was like "I like you and I like to shop too so we have to figure something out"
TI: Hold up! That was your pick-up line?
HL: No that was her telling me basically art is fine but we got bills to pay.
TI: A woman's wisdom is a compelling thing. I'm writing that down.
HL: She actually really helped me a lot. I got my first editorial from Thierry Le Goues for French and I thought "Oh once that comes out I'm all good!" But then a month later another issue goes out and I was still frustrated. As much as I hate the word hustle...that is all there is to do. I'm terrible at it. If I send out an email and I don't get a response to it I'm devastated .
TI: It is not a good business to be shy in I guess.
HL: And you know what.. Feeling entitled gets you nowhere but ...bitter
TI: Do you have an agent?
HL: Not at the moment. I have some names coming up but that's another thing. That's all so tricky. I don't want to go to a top agency as the bottom of the barrel and you have to start all over, essentially. Or you go to a small agency as top dog and find out you're introducing your agent to the clients you already have. I have to find the balance.Literally things are now just starting to turn around. I get to the point where I want to throw my arms up and scream. Because I feel it. I feel the photos. I love photos. I know what's right . I know what's wrong.
TI: In the 90's a lot of photographers in their 20's were being giving their big breaks. Sorrenti was in his 20's. David Sims...Corrine Day. It was like you could hop off your skateboard with a Leica and get your Harper's Bazaar pages.
HL: Those Calvin Klein, Kate Moss Sorrenti ads. Oh My God! Why does that not happen anymore? I think because a lot of people in the studios are saying "Hey I can do this! Give me that camera. I can do this. Who's a good digital tech. Who's a good assistant. Call him up." And some of them are good! I mean look at Tom Ford. He's shooting his own stuff now . I don't know exactly what happened but I can imagine him being in the studio thinking...I'm tired of all these things standing before me and my vision...I mean it cuts out a lot of baggage that way. Agencies...advertising agencies..a lot of middle men.
TI: And of course Sims and McDean and Testino and Klein have a loooooong way to go before they retire.There's a big group eating all the campaign and editorial work. With no intentions of getting up from the table. So how do you break in?
HL: Unless you get a really lucky break or people get fed up and create new situations. And when you do get that break you have to really go out there and hit it. Or else your name is forgotten in two months.
TI: How important is the model to you.
HL: It' s an organic process . The model is literally everything. I've been so blessed to work with talented people. If the model is giving it in that one picture, it just makes everybody's efforts worth it. People are always saying "Fuck the model. They get paid too much" But they make the picture.
TI: How do you go about finding an aesthetic that nobody else has?
HL: Sticking to your guns. Knowing this is right..this is me and keep doing it. And not being like "Such and such has this going on. I've got to shoot like this." Those trends will come and go and you'll be switching around forever. If you have your aesthetic and you know in your heart it is right for you then you have to do it! Look at the people in your book collection. I was reading Newton's biography. Even he went through some bad times. He was questioning whether he was going to last or not.
TI: What would you say is your aesthetic?
HL: I would like to say it is loose but consistent and a little bit raw. But with a super- strong classical approach. I think I care about light. I try to tell a story and evoke a little emotion.. a little response....coming out of whatever I'm feeling, whatever that might be at the time. I just want to create something that stands out.
TI: What happens if you get hired for one of those big star fashion magazines. You walk on set and the editor says " This is the shoot. This shoot is about selling this rack of Armani/Exchange looks. "
HL: You have to work super-hard to perfect that. That's a skill whenever you get to that level of having to work in a watered down situation and still maintain your aesthetic integrity. There's a reason why those guys are still shooting at that level. They've mastered the skill of keeping the client happy, making the clothes look good and still using the pages as a creative outlet.
TI: Has the explosion of all these indie magazines meant more money for upcoming photographers?
HL: The first thing I would say if I would ever had to speak with someone like myself when I was younger is prepare yourself. When it comes to the magazines there is no money and where there is money it is not from doing what you really want to do. There are so many people shooting, the magazines now have even more power because they can truly pick and choose who they want to shoot. There is a surprising amount of people willing to shoot and go out of pocket. It has changed into a situation of those magazines having a lot more control than ever before.
TI: But there is hope, yes, in someone like Alasdair McLellan shooting Armani Collection.
HL: He's great though. That's an example of someone who started shooting because he was in love with his muse. That's a beautiful story. I love situations like that. He started shooting. The pictures came across as a form of love and he took it from there. It wasn't like "Oh Fashion Photographer. That's a lifestyle. I want to doooo that. I'm going to hang out with all the models and go out to nightclubs and meet all the right people" (laughs)
TI: Jesus. What IS the lifestyle in New York now anyway?
HL: I can't imagine what it was like when Meisel was doing the Sex book with Madonna, going to the Hellfire club. All those people who are now top names in the industry that everybody works with...back then they were like young guns just hanging out in a S&M club with Madonna taking pictures.
TI: But times change. The biggest change being extreme photo-shopping. It changed the weight of photography. Now I feel like I'm looking at video stills.
HL: It is crazy you bring that up! Because that is a whole other fear...things going to video. The whole aesthetic of magazines is being altered by digital video.Things like showstudio.com are pushing things into a very experimental place. At the rate that technology is affecting our lives, the still image might be a thing of the past. I hate to say because I love it so much.Meanwhile earlier it was about a strength of an iconic image like by Avedon. Or Mapplethorpe where you were blown away by the strength of a single image and just wanted to stare at it to digest it. Now it is on the next one, on to the next one ...and on to the next one. I'm telling you, to be a young photographer you have to be up to date on your technology. Or prepare yourself to pay someone a lot of money who is. I'm more old school in not wanting to have to but I'm going to have to learn more about the video end of it at one point.
TI: Wow. I don't think you realize how much clarity you've just given me on the question of where modern fashion photography is headed. I'm really glad we got together to talk. We should do it more often.
HL: Anytime man. I always see you around at parties with Heather and always wanted to get to know you better and I'm really thankful that we finally got to sit down.
TI: Well here's to a new frontier.
HL: New frontiers!