Today’s street style photographers might come a dime a dozen on the web, but before this style of photography became in vogue, photographer Ben Watts was roaming New York in the 90s in search of eclectic personalities to shoot. Unlike many photographers who turn their lenses to stylish pedestrians wearing ultra-styled looks, Watts’ street subjects were raw, authentic, and the antithesis of high fashion. In his latest book, Lickshot, Watts revisits his passion for diverse subcultures with a collage of images taken over the years of skaters, hip-hop heads and surfers. “I get off on things that have a hard edge to them,” says Watts via phone from Ibiza, where he’s on an assignment shooting for UK High Street clothing store Next. We talked to him about his distinct style, the separate set of issues that comes with shooting celebrities, and his plans for taking his career to the next level.
Street-style photography’s blown up in a huge way since you first took to the streets. What do you make of the new fascination with “real” photography? I was reading about The Sartorialist the other day, and I think it’s great what he is doing. The web’s making it possible to see what’s happening in New York, London, and Paris, and it’s not about the runway. To me, that’s incredibly interesting: to be exposed to what’s happening on the streets around the world.
Where does your interest in street cults come from? I’m really into fashion linked to any cult, and that usually centers around a style of music. Growing up in England, and then moving to Australia, I was really into the mod culture. I have tons of photos of me riding around on a scooter. I would wear tight shirts and a parka. I was really into Motown from there. I got into reggae, R&B, and then hip hop. I wanted to go back and visit every cult, and not only the ones I was passionate about. Now through my work I’m interested in trends. Lots of these trends emerge from the streets, and then the designers snatch the ideas. I remember when I came to New York in 1989, going to 125th Street, and there was this store next to the Apollo called Dapper Dan’s. He was there doing all the fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci track suits on car interiors. Later on, the actual designers revisited that. He ripped them off, but they ended up borrowing his street culture.
Similar to your first book, Big Up, Lickshot is designed like a personal journal, with scribbled notes and mementos. Have you always been drawn to scrapbooks? I’ve been doing journals since I was in college. I kept my scrapbooks from then and started using them to show clients my work when I started working. It’s a great way to communicate your ideas. I think in any design field it’s important to have a journal. The important thing is that you never try to layout one journal in one evening, ‘cause it would look the same from page to page. I like uneven pacing. There’re years between some of the pages in this book. The image of Julian Schnabel and Benicio (Del Toro) is actually from a BlackBook session. It spent two weeks on my darkroom floor before I picked it up and stuck it in the book. It’s got chemical stains on it. I like that it makes each page a different journey.
How do you go about finding your subjects? Most tend to have a real badass air to them. A lot of the people I photographed, it’s really about them choosing me. They’re out there being who they are, and I’m drawn to them. They’re the ones who make the images come alive. Nowadays, with the whole Internet thing, I’m a little more reserved in asking. People are little more suspicious about getting their picture taken. I usually just go up and ask. Anyone wearing a cool pair of kicks, wacky shades, or freaky hairstyle is gonna get my attention. I’m not into aggression, but I think there is something to be said about strength in an image. I like to capture that on film.
Do you approach shooting celebrities and regular folks differently? I like to think any of my images are great not because of the people in it and who they are. There’s a continuity in the book outside of who’s in the pictures. It’s about the mood and imagery. Their personality’s gonna come through in the pictures regardless, if they are celebrities or not. I shot Heath (Ledger) a while back, and I knew he was into skateboarding. That’s a classic example I wanted to bring something to the shoot I knew he enjoyed. A lot of people aren’t into just posing. That was a very memorable day. I photographed Heath quite a bit, and that one was really cool.
Any plans to go into film? I’m a purist, I’m really into photography, but I want to challenge myself and take it to another level. I’m trying to focus on film now. I’m trying to get a film project off the ground. The script will be based on subjects from my book. I want to use these motorcross guys in an Escape from New York/Road Warrior-esque movie.