Preface: Jamil GS’s work are obviously best enjoyed in print form, so make sure to pick up Bitchslap issue 27: Breaking Bread to get the full experience, when you’re done reading the interview.
“One of my first independent printed projects was called “Stick Ups” because of that. I would come across people who would tell me that they had seen my shoot for a magazine and ripped them out to stick on the wall, then when it happened again and again. This one time I was at an Ed Templeton show in New York and some skater kids had taken some of my images and stuck them up between his pictures on the wall and I was like, that’s crazy, why did you do that? But the idea and the word stuck. Stick Ups, and it ended up as this pin up calendar collaboration with the Japanese brand Hysteric Glamour. It was a great product, basically a vinyl sized calendar on cardboard stock and that was the beginning of the stick up calendars.”
– Jamil GS
Feast your eyes on the selection of photographs by Jamil GS in these pages. Getting a chance to print photos becomes even more important with time, simply because we believe the tactile permanence of print respects the artist’s work more than the exponentially expanding virtual landfill of pixelated imagery, and offers more of a chance for authentic appreciation. Pictures printed can stop you up for a moment and remind you that there are crafts and processes that really bang with intent. This is easy to overlook when we swim in a constant stream of images daily and their functionality is only temporary. Our feed activates video automatically, eyes scan, saturate and edit. This is a process that inevitably relegates visual information into categories and boxes.
Jamil GS was one of the young photographers who in the early ‘90s set his mind to the combination of fashion’s high end production and street-level culture, elevating street mythologies and firing up fashion’s imagination. His work featured heavily in i-D magazine at a key time for the establishment of a hip hop aesthetic, originally introduced by documentary photographers like Jamal Shabazz, Joe Gonzo and Martha Cooper. It was new back then, even though this street-level glitz is very familiar now – particularly in an era when athleisure and street styles are the common currency bread and butter of so many global sports and clothing brands.
Much of Jamil’s work is synonymous with New York, however he was born and raised in Denmark where he knocked around the hip hop scene locally, pursuing an interest in industrial design before getting into photography and eventually heading to New York, which is where his jazz musician father was from. What started as an initial visit ended up being almost 20-plus years, and home.
Many of Jamil’s images call to mind the glory days of magazines, pre-internet times when they were important sources of information and a culture when you would find yourself cutting pics out of The Face or i-D or various music mags and fashion rags. This was the high quality cheap way of giffin’ and riffin’ on images and sticking them up in bedrooms, assembling identity and allegiances or collaging the lot with scissors and glue.
Words: Fergus Murphy
Tell us about your involvement with hip hop and New York?
Hip hop was my culture even before I went to New York. I was painting graffiti on trains in Copenhagen, going to the clubs and listening to hip hop and jazz—reggae came later. What I found in hip hop culture was that the presentation visually really didn’t add up. I felt that musically it was on such a high level, but mainstream, established media looked at it as the underdog and presented it like that. It was ghetto music, but it also got the ghetto treatment. It wasn’t paid the same mind or respect as other visual presentations. I really wanted to bring a high level of visual quality to this world. That was my motivation, beside just being honoured to be able to work with people I admired. Some of my very first commissions were to shoot Chuck D or Russell Simmons. Both of them were icons to me. I was sweating! The artists themselves could see that someone was paying attention to this, and the magazines that gave it full spreads could see it too.
Hip hop was my culture even before I went to New York. I was painting graffiti on trains in Copenhagen, going to the clubs and listening to hip hop and jazz—reggae came later.
How did your involvement with photography develop?
I was working nights at a rental studio where prominent photographers would come through every day. It was this crazy environment, it was fun. This one photographer who was coming every day was looking for a first assistant and I jumped at that and started an intensive two year apprenticeship. He was a Swede from Stockholm called Patrick Anderson and he was a technical wizard, really very tech and precise. I learned a lot. I was still assisting and towards the end of the 2 years started taking jobs of my own. i-D magazine had been an inspiration to me; I reached out to them and just let them know I was here in New York if they needed anything, so that’s how that came about. They got me doing portraits of stars and some fashion stuff.
What sort of photographers influenced you ?
Growing up with i-D and stuff, one photographer I liked was Jürgen Teller. He had this element of realism, reality meets fashion. I liked that real element, and I used fashion shoots as an opportunity to document culture and style. The clothes were sort of secondary even though that’s what they are about. To me it was about the people and the culture, and that’s what I would explore through the medium. Of course, I really liked the Magnum photographer, Sebastiao Salgado. I was into portraiture which came from looking at album covers. My dad was a jazz musician so the album covers of BeBop stuff and the Blue Note record covers, the Frances Wolfe stuff. Those album covers appear iconic because they are this one single image. Irving Penn, Avedon and those sorts of people too—you couldn’t really help it, it was part of the pedigree.
Do you think it is still possible to do new things in photography, or is there even a point in trying?
If you want people to notice you have to have something that breaks through the numbness, to come up with new clever ideas.
I think so. Shit happens every moment; every day is a new day and anything is possible. Moments of inspiration come out of the blue. The whole digital age has an insane output – everyone has a camera and it becomes this whole mass consumption of speed and quantity versus quality. People want this return on investment and traffic and “what can we bring”. There is a reason why images stand out and become iconic, why they last. Even when there are millions more images—as you see more and more image—you are still going to have classics and create classics. As you see more and more, after a while it becomes about why are you going to spend more time looking at this and not that, choose this image over that one? It’s going to be because it has an attraction factor that comes down to the value of the composition or whatever, the energy in it that will make precidents.
Maybe that’s also part of the new thing. How do you manage to create quality in quantity, quantify the quality? Those two don’t usually go hand in hand because quality takes time, it takes more time and demands more time, it just does. It’s like nature, it takes time. Yeah you can pump it. Pump the vegetables and seeds, pump them with hormones but it comes with a byproduct you don’t really want to deal with.
How do you differentiate – if you have images that you want to be seen, you’re competing for the space, especially if you are dealing with marketing and things like that. In New York, you walk outside the door and there are billboards everywhere. Busses, trains, even in the taxi the screen is running. The concentration of advertising is so high and people are so used to visual information.
Eventually you become numb to it, so if you want people to notice you have to have something that breaks through the numbness, to come up with new clever ideas. There is a constant chatter going on, and even on a subliminal level something is going to stick out.
With the albums it was a motivator but also an obstacle. I became a bit rigid to be honest, because I wanted every image to be an album cover, every one of them to be a stick up that you would put on the wall. If you are doing an editorial or a series you are breaking your back to try and do that. Music, covers and culture and then documentary, documenting.
This combination of craft and aesthetic is key to your work ?
I was really interested in industrial design, almost as much as photography, and I feel that is part of why I was so welcomed by i-D and The Face. They could have worked with a lot of other photographers. I guess my twist on it had some European perspective always, which is part of my pedigree. Because it’s from New York and I have roots there, with family and having lived there so long, the images are real New York. But I have always taken pride in the Danish craftsmanship, and you know, working as an assistant with a Swedish photographer who also took pride in his craft, with that Saab, Volvo, Hasselblad style approach which was super tech. For me, I was interested in industrial design because of the Danish aesthetic, and my interest initially was the same as photography.
Was it a dream come true when you started operating within circles with some of the world’s biggest hip hop artists?
Absolutely! Some of these icons were a direct daily inspiration to me as I enjoyed their music in my ears and my soul. Being able to work with them and thereby contribute to their life, careers and the movement was a dream come true. At the time I had no idea that my images ended up inspiring them in return.
Were you star struck or is this a real case of everyone coming up together?
I was star struck in the beginning with the heavyweights that had been around a minute already like Chuck D and Russell Simmons, but after a while it became an everyday thing, and I would see the artist around, if not in the studio, then in the restaurant or at the clubs. Remember also that some of these artist didn’t start off big stars, like Jay Z who’s name I hadn’t heard and couldn’t even spell when I was hired to shoot his first press shots.
A lot of the work we are showcasing here, and you’re known for was shot a long time ago now. How are you staying relevant, and what are doing to stay inspired?
My work is authentic, and because of that it has gained some underground cult status by a select group of people who are considered trendsetters around the world, like yourself. These trendsetters influence a new generation of people to an era that is full of relevance. On social media my images tend to take on their a life of their own, where some images get several thousand reposts. I also collaborate with relevant clothing brands creating capsule collections. This year I’ve collaborated with ATW and Gitman Vintage and I work with global brands that appreciate my perspective to help market their products. Besides that, I stay true by focusing on what inspires me like and things I want to explore. Staying true can create timeless work.