By Gil Kaufman
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe began taking photos at 15, he said, around the same time he discovered Patti Smith's album Horses. Stipe turned his adoration for Smith into the 1998 photo book "Two Times Intro: On the Road With Patti Smith." Despite his group's multiplatinum success and worldwide fame, Stipe said he's always been more comfortable behind a camera than a microphone.
SonicNet: What is it, both as a member of a band and as an artist, that appeals to you about photography?
Michael Stipe: I've never really analyzed it. I just kind of went with it, same as music. I'm a terrible drawer. I'm an even worse painter. My primary interest in terms of the arts was photography, from the age of 15. That was the same year that I heard [Patti Smith's] Horses. The two, in my head, always went hand in hand. The music we've always done has been described -- outside the band -- as being extremely filmlike. I feel like there's not a real clear dividing line between the impact that music can have and the impact that a great photograph can have.
SN: What does photography allow you that the band doesn't? Melissa [Auf Der Maur, bassist for Hole] was saying for her, being in a band with a high-profile singer, it allows her to go into the photo studio and be alone and it's just her and her photographs. Does it allow you to do something in that sense as well -- something yours alone?
Stipe: Yeah, I think no matter whatever your mother ship is, whether you're in a collaboration between musicians, it's important to have something outside of that, to have something that is selfishly your own -- your own vision that is not particularly collaborative.
Within R.E.M., from the very beginning, we have always encouraged each of us going off and doing things on the side. That's something that ultimately serves the band. Whether it's Peter [Buck] with [his side band] Tuatara or Mike [Mills] doing film scores, or my photography or film interests or other musical things -- it's something that if you're a creative person and fueled by it, it's something that will ultimately serve to better whatever the collaborative thing is.
SN: Did you study photography as a younger man?
Stipe: I was very slack about it, but I did study it. Technically I'm a car wreck. I've said that photography for me is like breathing. It's really, really natural and really simple. I take really great photographs without putting that much effort into it. Music is different. Music is harder and, in a way, much more satisfying because I have to really struggle to pull a song out or a great lyric. And photography is simple, it's relaxing.
SN: Your lyrics are very visual on songs like "Lotus." Do you think about that when you're writing lyrics? Do you think about images you've seen through a camera?
Stipe: I don't think about it that much and I think that's what keeps it fresh and vital. I don't really analyze it. [The most obvious] camera imagery [is in] the song "Camera," from our first or second record, though "Nightswimming," where there's obvious reference in the lyric to a photograph of a dashboard reflecting the streetlight reflecting in the windshield -- a really beautiful image. But that's worked its way into the lyrics in a lot of ways. ... I kind of go with my instinct, trust my gut. That's the stuff that for me is more inspired. When I overthink something is when I tend to ruin it.
SN: Was "Two Times Intro" something where you just felt like this is a great opportunity to document this? Or did you just start taking photos?
Stipe: I was just taking pictures 'cause I always take pictures. The tour was almost over when I got the proof sheets, and I had them on the bus and was showing everybody. "Wow, there's really something here; this might be a great subject for putting a photo essay together." ... I didn't go out with the intention of creating a book. I'd have taken better photographs if that was the case. I'm very proud of it. It's very much a reportage kind of blur of images and portraits and places. It's not really that similar to the stuff that I do typically.
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My goal with the book was to A) put book out, and B) to introduce myself as a photographer to people who can't think beyond me as a singer: "Here's someone who he's admired and talked about and this book has really inspired him a great deal. Here's pictures of her re-emerging into the world of live music." It's very simple, it's all black and white. It's a simple tribute; it's a valentine.
SN: With both Melissa and [former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] Dave [Navarro], a focus has been self-portraiture. That appears to be a common link between a lot of musicians who take photos. And I suggested to her that for a person who's so used to seeing other photographers' images of them, maybe it's a way in which to capture how they see themselves. Does that ring true for you?
Stipe: It depends on the slant... There was a review in Spin magazine, I think, of "Two Times Intro" that was particularly mean-spirited -- referring to, "Oh, here's beautiful famous people photographing other beautiful famous people photographing beautiful famous people. That's easy." F--- you right back, thank you very much. That's not what that is. The artist is a creative person who is representing themselves and in some greater way, when everything works well, representing everyone.
And what do any of us have but ourselves as a basis of what our role is in this life or on this earth? We're all our own little vessels and of course, from time to time, that's going to turn inward. And self-portraiture is interesting, particularly historically. You go back and look at, well, this was what I thought was a significant portrait 10 years ago or 15 years ago. I look at it now and it seems a little silly or a little self-conscious or whatever. Or I really hated that about myself then and it really doesn't matter now.
SN: Can you remember your first camera, your first photos?
Stipe: My very first picture, no. But I remember the photo class I took when I was 15. I photographed the kids around me.
SN: Like your high-school mates and stuff?
Stipe: Yeah and a bunch of really young kids, children, who I was a teaching assistant with. Three- and 4-year-olds, kid photos, sweet stuff.