Tell us something particular about you and a bit about your background
When I was ten years old, I told my mum I was going to move to New York City and live the American Dream. She thought I was delusional, and was absolutely right, but it’s the only thing that’s gotten me here.
How would you define your style?
It’s Pop, raw, epic, honest and yet totally dishonest. It’s in many ways very primitive. But I think it’s key to stress that my style isn’t aesthetic – it abides by a perpetual philosophy. You see, everything I produce is incredibly soulful. Fashion has this horrendous cliché as being this cold, heartless entity and I want to fight that notion.
I often consider myself completely detached from the industry. I’m an artist who thrives on the glorification of others – it just happens to be relevant to fashion. But to return to your question, my style concerns emotion before anything else. My own, and in turn what I can evoke from others. I just find myself feeling so indifferent, most of what I see being produced around me. I want to remind people to think, cry and feel through what I do.
Everything I project onto the world will be unashamedly and unrelentingly soulful and above anything else, that’s what I want to be known for.
I can see beautiful faces in all of your photographs. Is this your goal when it comes to photography? If so, how would you define beauty?
Not exactly. I just always seem to discover the most beautiful side of someone, so it only makes sense that I photograph them in that way. I don’t have a solid definition of beauty, but I look at it as a combination of happiness, sex, aspiration, love, symmetry, fantasy and the unattainable.
You play a leading role in doing the hair styling and make-up, for your models as well. When did you decide to take control and why?
I started taking pictures, and soon realized that no professional shoot would go without hair and make-up. The photos were turning out okay, but the models looked crap, so I got good quick. People describe me as a one man show – I’m very particular about everything from who I shoot, to the styling, lighting and post production so it just makes sense to execute it all myself.
It’s sometimes the best part of my day – I get to sit inches away from a phenomenally attractive person, and paint on their new identity as they tell me all about their past, present and future. It’s like sharing memories with an old friend and at the same time, the catalyst for that idolization. You see, I want everyone to experience my subjects like I do. A little part of me falls in love with anyone who steps in front of my camera and it’s up to the artist in me to capture that feeling and sell it to the rest of the world. It’s intensely spiritual, and as always shamelessly materialistic.
I’m particularly interested in your photographic project muse. How did all of this start? Tell us the story behind it
The nature of the project was very simple – I set out to define and explore one person through a series of photographs – a total stranger. I had noticed this girl a few months before it all started. I first saw her sat on a bench in East London. She was looking up, smiling and in that moment I knew I had to shoot her. From our first conversation, I could tell that I was going to like her. We seemed to be two halves of the same person – as she has said- we were meant to meet.
From a young age, she understood the fundamental, universal power of attraction – she started dying her hair blonde at age four! When I walk down the street with her, I watch as people stare. She is a spectacle, and a walking representation of everything I stand for. Some people in this world are different. They have a light about them- they create interest wherever they go. They are worth photographing, worth documenting and worth idolizing. She tells me that I have defined this year of her life, and I tell her that she has defined the ideology of my career. I have this continual smile as I sit with her, knowing that I’m in the midst of a star.
We often say that they will write about us one day. That we will go down in history. We revealed early on that we would both happily die for this, and something tells me we just might. There is not a soul in the world like Tunde Kiss, and she will forever be the original muse of Rowan Papier.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say it’ll involve fire extinguishers and a few floor length blonde wigs!
You’ve probably gained a lot of attention after exhibiting at the Saatchi gallery. Does this ever become overwhelming? How do yuo deal with it?
In some respects it can be overwhelming, but I like to think I have a good head on my shoulders. I think it’s important to know that I was never handed this. I was never given a career, or an easy way in – I worked really hard for it. And when you’ve worked your way up for so long, you don’t forget it. It keeps you humble to remember your roots – they’re what have led me to this point. I meet too many people, particularly in fashion, with no sense of humility.
And with the attention, I just think of it as very kind. Even now when people contact me to say how much they have been inspired with my art, I’m still taken aback. There were just so many nights, especially growing up when I would just work and work for hours, and thought that no one would even see what I was doing, or get to experience this fantasy. And now people are finally catching on – the things that are going on between my ears are being brought to the masses, and it still hasn’t quite sunk in.
When your work is seen by such a large audience, what would you like them to think and feel from your work?
They should think about themselves more than the subject. I like people to respond to my work in an egotistical sense. I don’t much care what they’re feeling, so long as they are.
Where does your inspiration come from? Have your previous life experiences affected you through your creative process
Creatively I can be stimulated by anything- movies, Fashion Week, books, street culture, often personal experiences. Sometimes I reference a lot, other times I’m quite spontaneous, it depends on the project.
I like to draw visual threads, and work with stories – everyone has a story. But as well as my creative inspiration, I also have drive, and I think it has a lot to do with my heritage. My grandmother grew up in Germany, and my grandfather in India – both coming to London for opportunity. The American side of my family originates from Lithuania, Russia and Syria- who also moved to New York for a new future, and better life. The nature of my heritage is to start with nothing, and build that new life.
I just think of all the people, and countries, and struggles that led to my existence – those were the dreams of my ancestors, the American dream. So I think of my career as not only being for myself, but a homage to those who came before me. Aspiration and creation were always in my blood and to this day are still my driving force.
What bother you most about interpretation of art nowadays?
Firstly, everyone’s looking for a hidden meaning, to pull it apart and uncover something more. I make no apologies for being a pop artist. I love taking beautiful photos of beautiful people and it seems the rest of the world likes looking at them. There’s nothing wrong with commercial success – as Warhol himself said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”.
I’m also tired of the critique of something not being ‘original’ – nothing is original. If you claim to be, then you don’t know your art history. The best artists aren’t necessarily good at creatively inventing, but more creatively recycling.
What are the qualities you think are essential for an artist and how they influence you?
Well, I don’t know how other artists work, and I choose to keep myself quite ignorant in that respect. It’s so easy to become generic, and I know that every artist works differently. But for me, that being in love, or at least having an understanding of love is quite essential. There’s that feeling a flooding, overwhelming sensation that words can’t quite describe. When it comes to my creative process, I just want to experience that again and again -it’s therapeutic and as an artist, I find to be fundamental.
Specifically speaking about photographers, you need to understand light, and for fashion photographers idolization, sex and persona.
Fashion definitely plays a key role in your photgraphs. What campaigns would you like to shoot?
I’d love to shoot a Givenchy campaign – It’s been my favourite brand for years. I’d have a dozen models running round New York Zoo at night.
What are your future dreams and goals for next year?
I might not get there in the next year, but I want to make soul commercial. I want to bring feeling to the masses, and drag the heart back into this all. I’d like to change what people see as Fashion Photography, and have my pop art cherished as a classic art form would be.
Also, I want my muse Tunde to become the muse of the industry – what I saw in her is now being seen by others and she’s been signed internationally. Her face needs to be known, and from that one moment when I saw her on that bench, to lead to an international phenomenon.
What was the best advice related to art and photgraphy that someone gave to you?
Bruce Weber taught me that the best photographers have the biggest hearts. My Dad said I should simply capture love and sell it. And Lady Gaga told me to work my hair.
Who are your idols and why?
Elvis Presley for his hair. My Mum for her heart. Gaga for her cultural penetration. Bruce Weber for his kindness. My Dad for his wisdom. My muse for her lips.
Interviewed by Alina Negoita