Never Do Normal Things! – Conversation with Bryan Adams
24 • 01 • 16Jana Rajcová
Bryan Adams is not only a multi-platinum music artist—he is also an acclaimed photographer who has released six photography books, five of which were published by Steidl. He was inducted into the Royal Photographic Society for his portrait photographs. His interest in photography arose in the 1960s, when he began capturing his surroundings on film: everything from concerts through his girlfriend in a tub to a wall at a parking lot. He wanted to preserve his memories in this way. In the late 1990s, Adams began taking self-portraits for the cover of his own album. He soon went on to photograph friends, other musicians, actors, as well as models. He perfected his professional photography skills by taking intimate images of his friends and colleagues from the entertainment, fashion, and art industries, such as Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, Amy Winehouse, Lenny Kravitz, Lana Del Rey, Annie Lennox, and many others. Over time, the size of his portfolio called for a retrospective book: Exposed (Steidl 2012) highlights the function of the analogue camera, and the fact that the portrait can reveal something about the subject. His work has been published in magazines such as Esquire, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ, and exhibited in many museums and galleries, including the Saatchi Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and the Fotografiska in Stockholm. They can also be found in private and public collections. He has created advertising campaigns for Hugo Boss, Guess Jeans, Converse, Montblanc, Fred Perry, Escada, as well as Jaguar and Opel. For his fashion photography, Adams won two LEAD Awards in Germany, in 2006 and 2012. In addition, Bryan Adams co-founded the Berlin-based art fashion Zoo Magazine, which publishes images of famous fashion photographers such as Donald McPherson, Terry Richardson, Hedi Slimane, Karl Lagerfeld, Nobuyoshi Araki and David LaChapelle. Adams regularly shoots for this magazine. Two of his most important photographic series—Wounded and Exposed—will be exhibited during the 33rd Month of Photography at Kunsthalle Bratislava.
I have to admit right at the beginning that until last year, when I had the honour to meet you briefly during the Photo London festival, I had had no idea you were not only an admirer of the photographic art, but a photographer yourself. Most people know you as one of the best-selling musicians in the world, and few are aware of this angle of your creativity. I would therefore like to ask you: Where does music end for you and where does photography begin? Do they overlap? And what does photography mean to you?
Music and photography have always been intertwined. I can’t think of any artist without a picture popping up in my head. Creating music, photos or videos is basically what I do every day, and even more so than ever before. The internet suddenly requires a lot more content, videos, images… everything. It can get irritating to me sometimes.
You started experimenting with photography by creating self-portraits for the covers of your albums. What did you try to change or improve compared to other artists’ albums?
I didn’t try to compare my works with others, I just captured with the camera what I liked and what represented the music I found inside me. It was fun for me to learn the process. I enjoyed accessing Cindy Sherman’s photoshoot, and this is still the case today.
Self-portrait is about finding an inner identity. What did you learn about yourself when creating these self-portraits?
I found out that I am probably the worst subject that exists! But seriously, I always try to have fun along the way. Take a look at the cover of my latest album, So Happy It Hurts. (Author’s note: on the CD cover, Bryan Adams is photographed from behind, standing on the bonnet of an old, rusty car and holding a guitar over his head). Basically, I use the car to present my journey, and ironically, it’s even the same type of car (Chevy Corvair) in which I first heard pop music.
You started your photography career as a fashion photographer. It was Herb Ritts who encouraged you to realize your photographic ambitions. When I look at the images from your Exposed series and the book with the same title, I see hints of sex and rock’n'roll by Helmut Newton, I see photos of Richard Avedon taking models out to the streets, the white backgrounds of Irving Penn, as well as the visuality of Peter Lindberg who tells stories with his photographs. Who was and is your greatest inspiration and who has had the greatest influence on you?
Avedon’s photos are probably my favourite, but Herb was very supportive of me while he was still alive. In fact, when I’m in Los Angeles, I still work with his first assistant, David. I love the power of minimalist imagery. Ritts and Avedon were masters at it.
Your images are very personal. Would you reveal something of the thought process that precedes them?
I wish there was a certain thought process behind my photographs, but the truth is that there is not. When I shoot fashion photos, I mostly work with a stylist; when it comes to portraits, I usually just think about where it would be best to shoot. In most cases, I prefer working in a studio rather than shooting outdoors.
You position yourself as a portrait and fashion photographer. You have direct access to many famous personalities and icons of the music scene and film industry who will pose for you. The portraits you create are often intimate, sometimes even intense.
Almost all the portraits and fashion photos I produced were commissioned by magazines. The magazines themselves arranged the personalities whom I photographed.
Does the fact that you share the same experience with these celebrities help you create better portraits?
I’m not sure, people are people. I just treat people the way I expect them to treat me, it’s really that simple.
You took pictures for the famous 48th edition of the Pirelli Calendar, adding yourself to the list of such renowned names as Annie Leibovitz and Peter Lindbergh, who were asked to take pictures for this annual calendar. The stars of the Pirelli 2022 photos include Cher, Rita Ora, Jennifer Hudson and Iggy Pop. The theme of On the Road was your idea and you controlled the creative project. Did you have a vision beforehand? Or did you rely on the creative moment while shooting?
When I manage to take one great photo in a day, I consider it a success. I usually manage to create more than one, but the goal is always one.
The Pirelli Calendar used to display very sensual and sexy portraits of women, but in today’s post-#MeToo era, it focuses more on women’s empowerment. The women in the photos in the calendar are independent and strong. You decided to take a slightly different approach, and you also show a few men in the photos. What was your motivation?
My concept was loosely based on musicians and on what a day in a musician’s life looks like. Some were photographed in the hotel, others in the backstage or on the stage, others in the dressing room; I wanted to give the audience a peek into all these scenarios. I think I did quite well.
What do you think makes an excellent portrait? What is it that has to be in it? What are you looking for in a portrait?
A great photo doesn’t have to be technically perfect, it has to be memorable.
You also took pictures of the Queen of Great Britain, and one of the photos you took during the five-minute time window that was available to you was used on a Canadian postage stamp. What is more challenging: writing a new song or creating a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II—and why?
It was amazing to spend time with her and she made my job so much easier. I believe it’s because she worked with the best of the best and knew what it all entailed. Yes, I only had five minutes, but the same time was given to all the other Commonwealth photographers who photographed her on the occasion of her golden jubilee. I was chosen to represent Canada.
Does photography allow you to creatively express something that may not be possible with music?
When I look back at all the video clips I have made, it seems to me that there were only a few directors who understood how to combine music with image. Marcus Nispel, who directed two of my videos, once told me something I’ll never forget: “Never do normal things.” And that remained in me.
Something I found very interesting recently was Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura’s project, his experiments with photography and sound. I never thought that there was a way to transform a photograph into music. If you could turn your photos into music, how would you like them to sound?
Stillness and the absence of sound are sometimes stronger than noise. I think I would prefer using my own imagination, something like making a movie out of a book. The images in our heads can sometimes be much more appealing and vivid... as well as more descriptive.
The lyrics of songs can have a big impact on a person. What idea do you want your photos to express?
When you look at my works, you may notice that they contain a sort of basic simplicity. I’m a minimalist, and so if my photos have an idea, it’s to keep things simple.
You often speak out against war or violence against animals, among other things. Do you have any specific method to use photography for protest or support? Is there a most effective way at all to achieve such a thing?
Photography is indeed an effective way to express yourself. I have published two books, both containing portraits of people who have gone through difficult situations in their lives. The first is called Wounded: The Legacy of War (Steidl, 2013) and is a book about wounded soldiers who returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second, entitled Homeless (Steidl, 2019), is a series of portraits of homeless people in London. The pictures for both books were taken in my London studio, and the process of creating both took several years. My aim was to provoke people to think about certain topics, to discuss them.
The part of the exhibition that you bring to Bratislava consists of portraits from your book/series Wounded: The Legacy of War. With these images, you went beyond your traditional approach and usual subjects and portrayed wounded British soldiers. How did this project originate? You’ve never been in the military, so it couldn’t be based on your personal experience. What motivated you to carry it out?
I was horrified at how we were lied to about the war in Iraq. A million Iraqis died in vain, not to mention countless thousands of soldiers. Portraits are a document, a lasting legacy of the consequences of what happens when we unnecessarily decide to go to war.
In this series, you present provocative portraits of young British soldiers who paid a high price for the war. Although the photos were created long ago, they are still very real, all the more so as war rages in our neighbouring country, Ukraine. You said in an interview: ‘One of the most important things is that people use their cameras to document atrocities. Everyone is a photojournalist.’ Why do you think we see something and forget about it in a moment? Why can’t we learn from our past?
It’s hard to know where to get the truth or whom to trust. Almost every war is related to fighting for land and/or money. Lately, it seems to be about who is in control of our energy.
You are very art-focused, and you said last year that you see yourself in the role of a film-maker, or even a director. What attracts you to the medium of moving images? What inspires you? And what can we expect from you in the near future?
I’ve been directing my own video clips for some time now, and that’s all I want to achieve in this regard, at least for now! You can find on YouTube my newest video of a song about peace, called What If There Were No Sides At All.