Steve Carty has been perfecting his art for nearly two decades and yet still refers to himself as a beginner of sorts. During his 15 year career, Carty has been exposed to all walks of life and embraces each for its unique value. From up-and-coming indie bands to A-list Hollywood talents, Carty has seen and shot them all. Format had the honor of visiting Steve in his Toronto studio recently where we sat him down for a quick one-on-one. Here’s how it went down.
“If I’m not really solid and stable with my ideas, and my confidence, I could easily be swayed all over the place. If that’s the case, then how do I make a difference?”
Format: Hey Steve thanks again for having Format Mag in your studio… let’s start off with a quick look back at your career, how did you transition from those early hip-hop days to becoming the highly esteemed celebrity photographer we know you as today?
Steve Carty: Five years ago I got to the forefront of the hip-hop movement by shooting guys like Pharrell [Williams] before people really knew him. I shot Kardinal Official’s first album, when no one really knew who he was, and K’naan before people knew who he was. It just so happened I’d be asked to shoot these guys for magazines before they became the people we know them as today. I shot Thom Yorke of Radiohead before Ok Computer came out and that really opened up celebrities for me but I get uneasy whenever people say, ‘esteemed.’ I make photographs, and if people think they’re cool, that’s awesome!
The point I want to make is people are people, whether you have 1.5 million dollars in the bank, whether you get paid a million per track or whether you owe a million, we’re all just people and we all have something to offer to in life. I don’t elevate stars and perhaps that’s why I shoot so many of them, because when people are here [in my studio], they’re just people and everyone gets treated the same, which is well. I love people and I take care of my people.
Format: Was making the jump more organic as opposed to something you actively had to push at?
Steve Carty: You have to push hard to get any kind of progression in life and photography is one of those careers where you actually get better every time you work. Every single time you take a photograph you get better. The photographers that I look at, the Masters are [Richard] Avedon, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton. Those guys shot until they were 80 [and] 90 years old… How can I rest now, you can’t rest!
Format: Talk to us briefly about your photographic vision and development of style over the years
Steve Carty: The fundamental element to my photography is stylized reality. Too many people go way far on the fantasy. Fashion, style, cool magazines, all this culture that we create, the people who aren’t directly involved with it look to it for influence. They look to it for inspiration and if my basis is fake, then I’m just perpetuating bullshit…
Format: What are the challenges you face creating the way you do?
Steve Carty: You have to understand; every photograph is like a victory because it’s something created from nothing. There’s taking a picture and then there’s making a picture. I lean towards the latter because it’s harder; these days everybody with a camera is a photographer but there are only a small percentage of those people who actually get paid. I get paid for my perspective.
If I’m not really solid and stable with my ideas, and my confidence, I could easily be swayed all over the place. If that’s the case, then how do I make a difference? I’m a photographer; I’m like a mirror, it’s not me in those photos. I create these ideas and then reflect them back at my subjects, like this is you, yes but this is how I see you, only a little bit stylized.
Format: The game has changed significantly since you were a 14 year old kid discovering photography for the first time. Tell is a bit about how this is immediately true to you.
Steve Carty: Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, all I got was support. Nowadays I’m hearing from my students, ‘yeah my parents don’t really support me so much with photography, I’m kinda doing this on my own.’ It’s hard because the careers we have today aren’t the same kinds of careers as our parents used to have. They’re different. There was no Internet when I started; I’m of the TV generation. I saw the invention of the Internet and jumped on it and used it to market my company from its inception. I see nowadays the young photographers have way more than ‘tools’ than I had but at the same time a lot of that foundation, of history of photography, of art, isn’t known.
Format: From your perspective, how is the digital era further affecting young photographers today and what are the most common stumbling blocks they’re faced with?
Steve Carty: I find most often it’s variations of style. Style is our visual signature so if your visual signature is not set you kinda just blend in. If you’re a chameleon no one sees you. Whatever style you’re doing, some body else has done it 50 years ago, a thousand times better and without Photoshop. It’s really hard to be an ‘original thought’ in photography, it’s one of the hardest things – to be an original thought.
Format: Another photographer you have a great amount of admiration and respect for is Jamel Shabazz and it so happens he’s a fan of your work too. Tell us how that bond was formed…
Steve Carty: Yeah, he came to my exhibit last year, which um, I fucking cried; I didn’t think I would but I did. I had a moment with this guy where he’s telling me ‘I’ve been watching your photographs’ and I’m like ‘how are you watching me dude, I’m nobody.’ He responded with ‘no no no, I know about you Steve Carty and I’ve been watching your portraits. We were surrounded by literally a thousand people and yet everything stopped while I talked to this man. He later said he’d like to show with me so we’re exhibiting together for Contact this year, which is great.
I was actually embarrassed to be showing him naked girls when he came to my studio the following day, I have so much cool work that would have been way more relevant to him but he gave me great compliments, which is amazing. My friend photographed me talking to him and shooting his portrait, he shot my portrait, it was just magic. He also inspired me to really push my publishing, to push books and I have my first book Positives coming out next month. I’m also showing with him at the Jerome Jenner Gallery, that’s opening May 1st 2009. He’s inspirational, I knew him 15 years before he knew me and the fact that he emails me and calls me, he’s like your pops… it’s awesome. He’s an amazing guy!
Format: Yeah, so tell us more about this book, Positives.
Steve Carty: Positives is the opposite of negative. Postive is what we as photographers seek, we shoot a negative and something positive comes out. That is the fundamental base of Positives. Positive thought, however, is 200 times more powerful than a negative one so what my whole mission with pictures is, is spreading love and positivity through photography. That’s a lesson that I learned from Bob Marley. Bob Marley spread love and positivity through music and as a Rasta, I’m often wondering whether my mission is being a photographer or is my mission rather the work that I do with people? But Positives the book is my Greatest Hits, it’s my photographs from1994-2009. Everything that you’ve loved that I’ve ever shot, it’s in there!
Format: Well Steve it’s been great to hang out with you, can’t wait to see how the images turn out but in the meantime, is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
Steve Carty: Yeah I like to say I’m blessed to be a photographer, every day that I wake up I take photographs for a living and that’s a pretty beautiful thing`