Do you want your Coke?
No, I don’t want to be holding a Coke in the pictures. I hope you’ve already been drinking! I should have had a rum and Coke or something.
When did you realize that The Sartorialist could be more than just a hobby and something you could really make a living off of?
When I thought I was onto something it wasn’t necessarily to capitalize on it but I knew I was on the right track when I would get these beautiful emails from people saying how much it meant to them, how much they loved seeing images they could relate to and that they could see people like themselves in these images because they weren’t just 22-year-old models. When someone takes the time to actually take action and sit down and write a beautiful, heartfelt email—and you could read it and really tell it was heartfelt—that’s when you know you’re onto something. You can try to convince people to like something but it never works; they don’t just have to like it, they have to have some kind of personal connection. So that’s when I knew I was on to something.
You are known for photographing real people on the streets. What makes a photo iconic?
I think if you’re really talking about photography it’s the light and the lighting. I think if you can get some type of emotion from the person—if it’s real emotion—that helps. I think to have a background that adds to the image but doesn’t distract helps set the place and helps the texture really. Usually the background is more about texture, it becomes like an impressionist painting in a sense that it becomes a field of dots and blobs and things like that but it should compliment the overall composition. At the end of the day, I think what really creates a strong image is something that doesn’t tell a story but starts a story. So if someone looks at it they are already creating their own ideas, their own images and their own thoughts about the photograph. I think if it tells too much it doesn’t leave room for imagination. I think photographs that leave room for imagination are the strongest ones.
Now that you’ve made a name for yourself and some would even say you’re a celebrity in the fashion industry, how do you stay grounded?
It’s very humbling to constantly be in a new place and to not be sure where anything is and not know the language and not know where you’re going. You have to ask a lot of questions and rely on other people. So it’s very nice to say those things but I don’t particularly feel like a celebrity or feel that way. I had just been in Costa Rica and we got home at 2 o’clock in the morning and then I had to dump out the summer stuff [on the website] and put in a bunch of winter stuff. I got to my house at 2 o’clock in the morning but then the car came at 6 o’clock to bring me here. I have to be the one that’s constantly checking what’s on the site and what goes on there. It’s tough to do all of that. I think if you were a designer you have a design team and you’re in one spot and you build this castle around you, then you probably feel a little more like a celebrity or more pampered but for me it’s kind of hard to feel pampered.
Have you seen a change in how your subjects react to you now that they know their image could be seen by millions?
Yeah, they definitely react differently and you know I feel more self-conscious when we go out. One day I was walking on—what’s one of the streets in Wicker Park? Not Damon, it wasn’t Division. Milwaukee maybe?—but somebody had asked to take my picture and they took my picture there and then an half an hour later some girl pops out and says, “Hey! I just saw an Instagram of you! Who are you?” so I feel less hidden. In New York it’s a little bit easier and in Milan and Paris it’s a little bit easier because I bike. I bike around and I’m not just walking the street and looking around so people don’t see me as much. The challenge I had before was getting people to let me take their picture and now it is getting them to calm down and relax a little bit and not be too tense and things like that.
What drives you?
I feel very lucky that we were able to create something where I don’t have to shoot ads for other people. I get ads on my blog so I just get to go shoot whatever I want to shoot and I feel very lucky. That’s really the thing that drives me. To just get up and be able to shoot what I want to shoot and do a project if it’s a project I want to do and something that I think will help in the big picture, that’s maybe the only luxury.
Favorite part of what you do?
The perks are that I just get to do it. I’ve read so many biographies about artists that had to struggle very hard and do a lot of other jobs they didn’t want to do to just to have a little bit of time to do the work that they want to do.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Garance Doré, my girlfriend.
What would you guys drink?
A lot! I don’t know, I’ve finally got her to the point where she likes margaritas. She usually doesn’t like things too sweet.
We didn’t picture you as a margarita guy.
Well, I’m a surprising man.
We thought maybe bourbon on the rocks.
No, I’m a big girly guy!
How do you unwind?
Sit on the couch and watch a movie with my girlfriend and my two little girls.
So you’re totally normal.
I think so.
Photography by Neal Agustin
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