Ben Kelway: Okay, so what do you want to know?

Olya Kuryshchuk: I am curious about your background. I’m from Ukraine, and even though I was born after the Soviet Union, I do still feel a great influence of that culture on me. The clash of my culture with London when I arrived changed me a lot. So I was wondering how your background influenced you?

Well, I grew up in the North of England, in Yorkshire, and all I ever wanted to do as a kid was move to London. I liked doing art and stuff like that, but the real thing that opened up my mind to the possibility of doing all that professionally, was looking at the Face magazine. I used to get i-D and the Face once a month, and then I would literally pour over those magazines for a month. If I look at any of those magazines now, those issues from that era, I know every page. Even some crappy ad page, I remember all that stuff so clearly. I wasn’t thinking then that I wanted to be an art director though, or a photographer. I didn’t know what I was thinking, but I knew I wanted something to do with that. I think it felt a bit more of a realistic thing than being a popstar, or something like that.

Anyway, I was obsessively looking at these magazines, I don’t remember making any decisions about going to art college, and it’s funny because I didn’t apply to any courses in London…

Yes, you went to Edinburgh? 

Edinburgh was a really nice place. I went to do photography. They were taking only ten people, but somehow I got in. I was there for three years, and I found it was very conceptual and art led.

My work was always more geared towards my understanding of photography, influenced by all these magazines. So, it was always twisted into some kind of fashion led thing; as close to a fashion picture as it could be while still being a legitimate art thing. In hindsight, I liked to disguise the fashion picture and make it look more artsy, use words in it. Bizarre — given what I do now — but I didn’t really want to do graphic design. It wasn’t really my thing.

Art college finished, I got a crappy result, a 2:2, which I wasn’t pleased with. I remember going back and asking for my tutor, who was great and really encouraging. I asked and he said: “Are you pleased with your result?” I was like “not really.” “Yeah I know”, he said, “to be honest, we had to give someone a really bad result, and we thought you were the only one who could handle it. I just know that you’ll be fine.” I guess he knew that I didn’t need that good art school result, and to be honest, no one ever even asked me if I went to art school.

Do you think what you do is art?  To quote Stefan Sagmeister : “You can have an art experience in front of a Rembrandt… or in front of a piece of graphic design.”

I don’t think so — my work is generally confined within parameters set by someone else. I feel that art would be more of a personal expression which doesn’t have limits. Very often what I’m doing is problem solving or trying to make the best of something, usually someone else’s pictures or content.

I agree though that you can have “an art experience” looking at a magazine. I was really blown away when I first looked at magazines when I was younger, as I was when I heard certain records or whatever — it’s all the same feeling. 

Do you think art education is important or that you can just skip it and save lots of money?

I think what art school did, was that it gave me a foundation in analysis and communication. Creating a picture, talking about it, explaining it. It meant that I wasn’t going to make pictures which just looked like crap. If I had then gone on to make a fashion picture, I would have thought: “Who am I taking a picture of? Why do I want to do that? Why is it in the studio? Why is it on a location? What does the location say about the story?”

“I very rarely turn down jobs – I always think you can learn something from any job.”

Do you work in the same way now, asking all those questions?

Yes, for sure. Because without that, you can’t see it. You can see it in pictures, people taking pictures that look like fashion features; that look magazine worthy. That’s fine, but the really charged and powerful pictures will be stuff where somebody has gone “right, I’m going to take that picture, and it has to be with this girl, because I’m obsessed with this kind of girl. Do that with this, because that’s that character…”

What is your working process with Homme+? 

It’s very different. With Homme + it’s a very small team, it literally is me, Ashley [Heath] and Max [Pearmain]. We usually start with having conversations.

Do you ever design for the sake of design?

I don’t really think of myself as a designer at all. Increasingly I’m finding myself wanting to make the design part kind of invisible. I think because I’m not trained, I used to hide a bit behind quite bold design, but generally now I really try and do something which feels proper and correct. I like things to be clear and to have a rigid system in place. It might turn out a bit ‘off’ or ‘strange’, but ultimately I just want to do something which feels quite conservative. I guess the lack of formal training gives it something else.

Which other companies, individuals or brands do you think are doing something very good at the moment?

I like what M/M does. I admire anyone who has a point of view which comes through in their work. There was a generation of young photographers around over the last few years who I felt lacked a point of view. I’m really pleased to see that there’s a new generation coming through which isn’t like that. I love to see someone who can’t help but express their point of view in their work; I like to feel that compulsion to make work in a certain way. I like it when you can identify someone’s work instantly.

I’m interested in your transition from photography to art direction…

I got my crappy degree and moved to London. I got a crappy job, I can’t remember what it was, but I had a couple of days off, so on these days, my plan was that I was going to try and work for a  guy called Donald Milne, who was quite big at the time. I worked for him for a bit, and then got a job at Spring studios. Today, it’s huge, it’s a mega corporation, but in those days they had a couple of studios in that building. Now they have the whole building. It was super basic, I used to get £36 per day, not very good.

“My idea of normal is still probably quite crazy, and I think because I’m not a graphic designer, I don’t know any of the rules. For me, though, I want to make it correct. I’m terrified that I’ve done something that other graphic designers will remark on as a mistake or in bad taste.”

At least you were paid.

Very true actually, yeah you’re right. I ditched the other job and worked there more and more; me and this other guy ran the studio. It was kind of mad, super long hours, you’d have to clean, do the food, the equipment, do the set building. Nowadays, they have different departments doing all this stuff.

I remember someone ringing up on a Friday night, saying “Hi, we’re shooting in the studio tomorrow, we need a set”, and I was like “okay, what sort of thing have you got in mind?” I’m terrible at anything like that, I’m not very good with three-dimensional things, so my heart was sinking. They went “we want an African mud wall”. I ended up crushing up sugar cubes and breakfast cereal into the paint, to make this sort of mud wall thing. I was making these ridiculous things, £36 a day, eating leftover food, making cups of tea for big stylists and photographers, gradually meeting people, and this was great to me. Then I started getting some assisting work. I was never that good technically, I was not a good assistant at all, but I think I was nice and funny. I got quite a lot of work, but I never felt it was through good skills though.

I started doing my own pictures and took my portfolio to see people. I didn’t really want to do a picture like a fashion picture. For one reason or another, it didn’t work; I learnt pretty quickly that I just didn’t have the right personality for it. I think my biggest problem is that I don’t like to impose on people, and I think, as a photographer, you are inherently imposing on people. You are telling someone to do this, directing this, you’re saying “no, everyone’s got to wait” while you’re changing things and getting it right. And it just wasn’t in my nature to be the king of the shoot, it wasn’t for me.

Plus, I was running out of money, so I went and got a job back at Spring Studios. Gradually, the guy running the studio said “we’ve got this production company starting with this guy Angus, and I think you’d really get on”. I didn’t want to do production, I didn’t know anything about it. But I met this guy anyway, and we got on. So, bizarrely I was doing this stuff with no experience; straight into doing David Sims’ production. Big photographer, quite a specific person. We were doing this high level stuff straight away: Jil Sander, Balenciaga, Benetton, French Vogue, American…

We just started working on our next issue not long ago and I’m interested in how other people design and what is important for you? 

I think I would always just try and get the best people you can.

How much freedom do you give other people? 

See, I’m a total control freak, I’m scared of giving people freedom. And also, people won’t believe in your magazine: you believe in it and you’ve got to instill that belief in people who work for it. Basically, I try and go on as many shoots as possible, control as many as possible, which is still hard but I’m reigning the craziness in. I try and control as much as I can.

Which things stimulate your vision?

I usually find getting out of London good for generating ideas, I often get good ideas on holiday. It’s something about being somewhere where not everything makes sense – New York is the opposite of that, and I personally find it very uninspiring. It’s a great city to work in — as everything is set up for work — but I never get any good ideas there. I look at books a lot, always lots of books around.

Bob Gill said “I’ve never had a problem with a dumb client. There is no such thing as a bad client. Part of our job is to do good work and get the client to accept it.” Who is your perfect client? 

There’s no such thing as a perfect client, I mean it’s great to work with someone who’s open to doing something progressive; it’s great to have a client who’s clear about what they want to achieve. I find it frustrating when clients cut back on print budgets  – it’s all too common these days.

You worked with Lee Roach. Do you often work with young designers and small budgets? What can persuade you to take the job?

I very rarely turn down jobs – I always think you can learn something from any job. Most jobs require presenting a selection of routes or treatments, so a lot of stuff is generated which often ends being useful somewhere else.

Interview by Olya Kuryshchuk

Lee Armitage, Keane Shaw, Brendan O’Boyle, Sloan Laurits & Vincent Oliveri photographed by David Sims and styled by Jean (Ben Kelway) for Arena Homme+ Spring/Summer 2010

 “I think what art school did, was that it gave me a foundation in analysis and communication. Creating a picture, talking about it, explaining it. It meant that I wasn’t going to make pictures which just looked like crap.”

Photographer David Sims, Stylist Jean for Arena Homme+ AW13

“When we used to shoot, all I used to do on the shoot was play music. The music thing became more and more a part of the process. It was all about focus, so, if you were doing a picture for French Vogue and it’s a fifties thing, you don’t listen to R&B, you’re going to listen to Elvis and Gene Vincent. Because then it’s like a soundtrack to a film.”

Photographer David Sims, Stylist Max Pearmain for Arena Homme+ SS14

“The first time [David Sims] did something, it was always something kind of ugly. The early work was flat daylight, black and white and then all or nothing, he went from using no lights, to twenty lights.”

Photographer David Sims, Stylist Max Pearmain for Arena Homme+ WS15

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