“I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer,” says GL Wood. So goes the twist of fate: after finishing his BFA at the University of Georgia, Wood went to visit Brooks College to pursue his Masters in Graphic Design. Brooks College, it turned out, was really Brooks Institute, and they didn’t offer a graphic design program, but offered photography instead. Having no real knowledge of photography, he decided to take a chance and stray off his original path.
With work that ranges from stark and dramatic to complex and cacophonous, it seems his institution-confusion was meant for good reason. He has shot for Elle, Vogue, T, and of course, BULLETT. Plus, Wood’s background in graphics and mixed media is still at the core of his style: the photos are ripped, pasted, painted, altered—all with techniques that pre-date Photoshop. (Don’t get him started on Photoshop.)
Fashion aside, Wood is also credited for the conceptual imaging of Nicki Minaj, having photographed her like an armless doll for her Pink Friday album cover. We had a chance to catch up with Wood at his Bushwick studio, where the walls are decorated with ’80s movie posters. That’s no surprise. See below.
Some of your work is very graphic. Do you ever have to make your work more commercial for the sake of getting it published?
It feels like I am doing photography in the wrong era. I feel that a lot of my aesthetics are influenced by the 1980s. I always wonder what it would be like if I was working in 1984 right now. As for making my work more commercial for publication, of course you have to compromise depending on the magazine. All I can do, is try to get my vision out there at the same time making sure the magazine is happy with the work.
Back in the day, when a lot of the big named photographers started out, they had so much more freedom and opportunity. There was this special vibe during that era where hunger and chances weren’t held back as much as they might be today. Now, in order to get your ideas out there, you have to deal with a myriad of people, and some will most likely say no to an idea because they don’t want to waste resources or take a chance. The concept can be great, but chance-taking is a lot more picky.
How do you choose what kind of graphic effects to incorporate into your work?
A lot of the graphic effects I use are influenced by the art posters my parents had when I was a kid. They were mostly Futurist and Dadaist images. When choosing what type of effect to use in my work, it always depends on the idea. Using graphic effects can be planned at the original idea, or sometimes they help the image if something didn’t work in the original photo. A lot of times I do it when I am in the moment.
Does that approach ever come in conflict with fashion magazines that are trying to sell a product?
It is always hard to get people to see your vision. When working with fashion magazines, you have to know what the magazine’s style is, who their readers are, and what might or might not be too edgy for them. Some of the work I do is very conceptual and can be hard to see the final product. Editors might doubt you because they can’t see the final images, but once they do see it they say, “Oh I get it, it does work!”
Your new work is cleaner and more straightforward, with techniques and tastes that have space in the fashion world.
I do feel like I am focusing more on cleaner work than the wilder work now. When I was first in New York, I started doing the really weird conceptual stuff, like shapes, painting, and collage work. I needed to work on a cleaner side just to prove [myself], because whenever I did show people the crazier, more design-based stuff, they would tell me it looks great, but they don’t know if it would sell. I thought to myself, OK, I have to get this, I have to be well-rounded.
It’s like models with their portfolios too. You have to have a little bit of everything, no matter how edgy or commercial you are.
That is one thing I saw with model agencies.They might have a girl, but will only focus her to do commercial work. I was drawn to using those girls for a lot of the wilder work I did, taking them out of their element and into something new. A lot of girls can surprise you: they can be editorial, they can be in Italian Vogue. You’ve just got to give them a chance to work on all sides of fashion.
I definitely agree with you, but I think it’s interesting that you say that, because the girls that you shoot, they look like they’re from Old Hollywood. They all have these round, commercial faces, but the way you shoot them is very dramatic.
I never really thought I had a specific look I choose for models, maybe I do! [Laughs]. I will say I am pretty awful at keeping up with the hot new up and coming faces on Models.com. I really like looking at a model and go, well, is this person right for [this story]? I think that’s just some weird thing that I am drawn to, like ‘oh this girl hasn’t been doing this [kind of work], but there’s something about her that i see, so how can we groom her into looking like somebody totally new?’
You said earlier that you do all your effects by hand. Do people appreciate the labor and tactility?
I would say it’s easier when you’re doing a meeting face-to-face, because I can explain the concept to them. If you are talking through emails someone might not get it. There was one shoot that was for Diesel that was a guy with a blue background that’s actually ten different looks put together to make one look, but you can’t see the effect if you just glance at it. You have to look at it really close and see that everything’s not quite perfect, it’s shaped up. So once I tell someone exactly how I made and image, then they look again and appreciate the labor.
Is it worth it?
It is, because it has that element of fine art techniques that I did before in college. You’re putting some heart into it, getting your hands dirty. It’s all a process, and it might not be a painting but its still an image with elements of fine art.
It’s interesting because most photographers see the photo as the end result whereas I feel like for you, it’s the first step.
Yeah, if it’s a conceptual shoot the shots are usually like a sketch; I will shoot it and then I’ll deal with it later on. It’s interesting to work with people who haven’t worked with me before. Describing the idea in steps can be very confusing to some people. The ones that do work with me, they’ve grown to know how I work and the process I might use. It’s hard to get people to trust you, but once they do get that trust, it works.
What is the history with Nicki Minaj? You shot her album cover. Was that before or after the Out magazine story?
I shot her for Out first. They approached me to shoot her. I really didn’t know much about her during that time. I knew she was in the hip-hop world and was on some mixtapes, but I didn’t know she was going solo. At that time she wasn’t as wild and crazy. I was talking to [the magazine] and they really liked all the painting / mixed media stuff. They asked me, what I would like to do? I said, why don’t we do something in vein of what Jean-Paul Goude did to Grace Jones? I’ll do a manipulation of the body, some spray paint images and collage work to turn her into a character. One of the images in the editorial, she had extremely long legs, and when the magazine came out, I got a call from Bad Boy and Cash Money wanting me to shoot her again, because they loved those images. I thought they just wanted more promo shots, but it turned into working on her whole album packaging concept.
On the album cover, Minaj doesn’t have arms.
It was more of her idea to do that. Barbie is her persona that she wanted to show for that album. We were talking about the idea for the cover, and the arms were visible. She told me, oh, just remove them, just take them off, like a doll. So I did! [Laughs]
Do you feel like that shoot opened up your career?
It totally did. It opened up a door that I didn’t plan on, which was the music world. Originally my path was to do editorial work and campaigns and all of a sudden I am working on album artwork and album packaging. That opened up working with a lot more celebrities with that same conceptual style that a year earlier people were saying wasn’t sellable.
Who are some of your photography influences?
I tend to like a lot of the older photographers; Jean Paul Goude and Serge Lutens for the creative minds and their full control on all of their images. Then I love Peter Lindbergh and Helmut Newton for their intimate black-and-white images. As for a modern day photographer, I love Tim Walker. There is something very child-like and beautiful with his images and locations.
You shoot men as well as women. Do you feel like there’s a different process?
I probably find it harder to try and shoot men, because with women you have so many more options to look good—posing, hair, body and everything and creatively that is a lot of options. So when I do shoot men, I try to make them look strong and statuesque or bring a little attitude to the shoot. I think when it came to conceptual ideas using men was harder to fit into the concepts, but I slowly started to bring those ideas into some men shoots.
If you could take anyone’s portrait, whose would you take, and with what effects?
I’d love to shoot Marion Cotillard. I love her personality and overall vibe. I am drawn to having someone seen in a different light. She is always very pretty and glamorous in magazines. I might just want to paint all over her body and make her very gothic-looking, turn her into a living piece of artwork or interesting character.