Photography: Steve Gullick
Text: Brian Whar
A predominant and prolific force in music photography for almost thirty years, Steve Gullick’s uniquely idiosyncratic work has created iconic imagery of all who have passed before him and his camera. Over the years Gullick has photographed the likes of Radiohead, The Prodigy, Nirvana, Blur, Björk, PJ Harvey, and White Stripes, but it’s his enigmatic working methods and his dedication to his craft as an artist – always experimenting, persistently hand-printing his own work, that has set him apart. We spoke of the joys of processing film, self-publishing your own magazine, being in the dark and embracing mistakes.
Brian Whar: Steve, despite taking portraits in a conventional area of photography, your pictures have a cinematic and almost painterly quality to them. What can you tell me about that?
Steve Gullick: I learnt photography at college and I had a set of photographers that I liked and that inspired me: Bill Brandt, Don McCullin, and Anton Corbijn. I used those photographers from a quality control perspective. With my colour work all I really wanted was for it to look as striking as it did in black and white, which is more difficult because black and white doesn’t look normal, so I wanted the colour to look exaggerated, something that didn’t look everyday, removed from reality almost. Because of the photography I do, trying to make people look like rockstars or whatever, you have to remove them from reality. It’s not about just recording people, you have to make them look like super-people (laughs).
BW: Is this why you’ve always taken full control of your complete working process, from your black and white work at the start of your career and colour a few years later?
SG: And because I’m a control freak and because I’m obsessed. For me to call it my work, I need to have seen it from taking the photograph to the final print and every step in between. It’s just some mental, workman-like process that I have. Before I did my own colour printing I used various labs, but I was at their will to a degree because everyone will tell you something different as to what’s possible and what’s not. The labs I used were great, but I always thought there could be more and I always felt that if I could control the colour print aspect of my work then I could get more out of it. There were limitations that lab had suggested time that provoked me to learn to colour print because… they were wrong (laughs).
BW: And these idiosyncrasies contribute to your aesthetic?
SG: I’ve always thought what happens if…?. I’ve always had a go, after being told you can only push film so far. There was a period where I was shooting black and white purely to print on colour paper because I liked what I was getting. So I had to adjust the contrast in the processing because if you print a normal black and white negative on colour paper it’s really flat. And I try and produce negs that only I can work with! (laughs) It’s the same with cross-processing. I liked to pull-process it and the boys at Labyrinth suggested I do the right time processing but at a different temperature. Nothing gets furthered from the knowledge you already possess. The way to further anything is by fucking up and thinking “I wont do that again or…
BW: …being open to the mistakes?
SG: Absolutely. Mistakes are the root of creation, surely.
BW: So the working elements that follow are just as important as the actual taking of the photographs?
SG: They are almost more important for me. The process of the actual shooting is more relaxed which produces better images. My photo sessions are a bit of fun. The real work comes after the photographs have been taken. I like grafting on my own and (laughs) I like to spend time in the dark on my own. When I was a kid, pretty much all I did was sit in the dark, listening to music, drawing pictures. That aspect of me now is the same. I love the darkroom, with music on – it’s brilliant.
BW: So you’re thinking of the print before you’ve taken the photograph?
SG: Yeah, of course, and it’s adapted to my process. The whole process is part of a chain. The best thing about photography for me is processing the film and seeing how they’ve come out. You could fuck it up by putting the fixer in first, but seeing the pictures come out is such a joy. And then I can look at the negatives and start to get excited. Sometimes you’re disappointed by one, but then theres another on there that’s better, because photography’s magic isn’t it, film photography is magic and even the best magicians spells go wrong sometimes! (laughs)
BW: Being open to chance and channelling spontaneity runs throughout your work. You’ve told me in the past that you don’t like to plan the actual shoot in advance, can you tell me more about that?
SW: Yes, because, as I said the best inventions come from mistakes. If you’ve got everything planned out what’s the point of even processing the film? The technical skills are your tool bag, but then you’ve got to connect with your subject as well, you have to have sympathy and empathy y’know. You might have five blokes that look like they don’t belong together in a location where they don’t belong either. How do you make them look like a single cohesive unit in an interesting way? There are numerous ways of doing that and there are no rules in achieving it so getting to the end result is a series of problems to solve. I don’t go into a shoot with a particular agenda. I try and initiate the situation where it’s just me and the subject, so there’s a kind of intimacy and engagement as I’m the only person there. I don’t like much interference or distractions whilst on photo shoots.
BW: Looking at your photographs I always feel as if there’s no camera and I’m actually there.
SG: Yeah, its probably down to that. I feel like I’m inside all my pictures, and that they’re collaborations between the subject and myself. With some of the portraits there might be no eye contact, but they still feel very intimate, there’s a peace, a relaxed air.
BW: In relation to this interview being for a specialist photography, labour of love, printed magazine, I wanted to ask about you leaving the NME to start and self-publish your own magazine in 2001 with Careless Talk Costs Lives and later Loose Lips Sink Ships.
SG: By today’s standards, it was a great opportunity, but I was frustrated as I often thought that magazines missed the best and most interesting shots, so again, it was a control freak thing. And I wanted something better than that. The idea of Careless Talk from my perspective was that it be image-based and that it showed my work and other peoples’ photography in the best possible way. My shooting style was really relaxed then because I was shooting totally for myself. I could do what the fuck I wanted. It was glorious. I thought we should only run for twelve issues because then it can never be diluted. And I’m glad we stopped when we did, because I think it’s perfect, which sounds conceited but its definitely the best stuff I’ve done.
BW: No regrets then?
SG: No regrets Brian. Evolution is key, we’ll continue to deal with it day by day.
Photography © Steve Gullick