Visionary Campbell Addy Gets Candid About Creating Intimacy
This feature is in the March/April Next Wave Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Peek inside the brilliant mind of famed millennial photographer Campbell Addy (@campbelladdy) on the eve of the release of his first monograph, Feeling Seen (out April 26 via Prestel).
Hello. How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
Good, good, good. Thank you. Finally, we made it.
I know. Finally.
A lot of life is happening. A lot of life is not happening. It’s interesting. How have the past two years affected you and your work?
I think visually, if I do a timeline in my work, I believe before COVID I was a lover of interpersonal connection. I love faces. I love being close to people. So a lot of my work was literally portrait-based. Not only. Obviously, floor-length and other things, but my mind was always occupied by face when it came to fashion. I remember doing my first shoot out of COVID with [stylist] Ibrahim Kamara for Love magazine [in 2020]. I remember sitting there creating the idea, and then my assistant said: ‘This is very different, framing wise.’ Even the focal length of my lenses was different. I bought wider lenses.
All these little things I did subconsciously because I was thinking, ‘I can’t be that close to someone.’ Now, when I’m taking a picture, I have mini anxiety attacks where I feel so free. I don’t touch people. So my work has almost been like, ‘OK, how can I step back and fill the screen?’ But then it’s also been good because it was something that I wanted to improve on. But it’s been hard. It’s been hard to communicate with certain subjects when I’m shooting.
Give me an example.
I remember shooting Beyoncé [for Harper’s Bazaar September 2021 issue]. In my mind, had it been outside of COVID, we would’ve kiki-ed more. But I would hate to be that artist that gave someone like Beyoncé COVID. So I’ve had to learn how to use my hands more. I think from a bigger picture now.
That’s interesting that you subconsciously created space in your photos, with your lenses and everything, after COVID.
Yeah. The cover of my book was shot post-2020. The initial idea was a beauty story, then I started building it out, and it was fun. It was fun to jump. I didn’t realize it until I was looking back at creating the book and going through my archive. I did get worried. I was like, ‘Is it flat?’ Looking around, if there’s too much information or if there’s no information composed correctly, I lose interest and become stressed. On that shoot, particularly, there was a shot where I think I just stood there, looking at the subject, and I couldn’t take the photo. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’
You couldn’t move forward?
I hit a wall because I wanted to just go in, but I kept telling myself, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And I’m usually a straightforward person to shoot with. When I plan to shoot, I’ve seen it in my head. If not, I’m just very much instinctive.
How would you describe yourself as a photographer?
My work is sensitive. It’s soft. I love nuance. I love details. My first love was painting. I recently visited Mexico and was able to experience Diego Rivera’s work, which I had wanted to see since I was eight years old. I love subtlety, even though I’m a loud person. I feel like my work allows me to really concentrate on one area.
Are you and your work ever at odds with one another?
There’s often friction with me in my work. I often look back and ask, ‘Did I take this?’ I think this even looking over my book. I’ll look at an image and think: ‘Oh, this is very sensitive.’ Blah. But on set that day, I was jumping around like a madman. My work is where I can tell stories that my physical body allows patience for.
Your images are slightly tender and definitely intimate. Are your pictures a reflection of who you are?
I’m the most emotional person I know, almost to my own detriment. I think with photography, I use that, and I still do use it as a tool to interact with people. Before, I was doing mainly fashion imagery. I’d always have a camera on me. Like I went to an event or even a party because I didn’t know how to bridge that gap between strangers and interaction. I don’t think I was, it’s not a skill that…I don’t know how to talk to strangers unless there’s common ground already established like university or work. So often I’d go, ‘Oh, you look cool. Can I take your picture?’ That world is how I started taking pictures, and I just love figuring out people.
Focusing on others pulls us out of our own issues, but aren’t we learning about ourselves in figuring out people?
Yes, my images often reflect a vulnerability that I want to see in me. I think it’s great to reflect on yourself, but sometimes I also want to create worlds and just fantasize and hope. But one has to be rooted in reality to experience the fantasy.
What will the world experience when it opens your book, Feeling Seen?
I’ve always been aware of not being a singular person or an entity. I believe in the generational transfer of information. Whether it’s my ancestors, people in the industry older than me, or people who generally have been around. So, with my first-ever monograph, I wanted the book to reflect that.
Have you had a desire to be seen?
I wanted ever so passionately wanted just to be seen, just to be seen as human. I didn’t have the language to talk about it. So I found it very odd when I first hit the scene, and articles would refer to me as a Black photographer or queer photographer. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I am these things.’ But when I was creating my work, I wasn’t thinking of those things. I wasn’t politicizing my work. So in the book, I have removed the titles of the publications the images were shot for and placed them in the back. I’ve just supplied the name of the person and then have sections where I’ve asked women of color like Naomi Campbell and Gabrielle Kruger Johnson, ‘When did you first feel seen in your respective industries?’
To what extent have women played a role in your life and career?
I’m a product of Black women. I grew up with Black women. My agents were all women. My confidants in life are Black women. Those I have shot, I wanted them to contribute outside of the sheets we have done together. To humanize them.
James Baldwin famously quipped, ‘Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.’ To whom are you indebted?
[Ghanaian photographer] James Barnor and [British photographer, archivist, and activist] Ajamu X. I still find it shocking that many people don’t know who they are. Everyone is connected. Without them two existing in the world, I wouldn’t get to live as a photographer