Even if you’re pretty out-of-touch, there’s no doubt you’ve run into the arresting visuals of designer Stuart Hammersley and photographer Shaun Bloodworth at some point in your life - whether walking past a poster for FWD>>, or popping on a Rinse mix CD, or sifting through your Tempa vinyl, or looking through photos of the LA beats scene...with Stuart’s memorable and striking design antics (minimalist yet full-bodied, with a remarkable eye for typefaces) and Shaun’s wondrously atmospheric and personality-driven photos, the duo has collectively mastered a visual aesthetic for all things bass.
Most recently, they paired up on a cross-country, transatlantic journey through the most fascinating and beatific movements in bass culture: from the bubbling sounds of Glasgow (Hud Mo, Rustie, Taz Buckfaster) down south to the London and Bristol kingpins (Skream, Headhunter, Geeneus); then hopping the pond and jumping coast to coast – from New York’s big apples (Mike Slott, FaltyDL, Kotchy) to LA’s brightly lit underground (Flying Lotus, Matthew David, Daedelus). Encapsulating the artists and scenes throughout each region, the North / South / East / West art-music project was born on Warp’s Bleep offshoot. A beautiful package with lush, almost mystical photographic prints and a banging 12-track compilation, N/S/E/W gives enlightening insight into various movements shaking different corners of the globe. Like an all-inclusive cruise, but prettier (and with iller beats).
We dove deep into the beautiful minds behind the ambitious mission, and even got them to talk us through some of their work. Make sure you scroll all the way down to drink it all in, it’s tasty.
How would you describe your art, to the uneducated?
Shaun Bloodworth:Blimey! It’s pretty straightforward really. I’m interested in communicating ideas and documenting, I just happen to use a camera.
Stuart Hammersley: I’m a graphic designer - or a commercial artist as we used to be called. So I create items and solve problems whilst working to a brief.
How did you get into art?
SB: I’ve always been interested in creating, but for a long while what I produced was directionless...now I feel driven to record modern culture because it’s important for the future. It’s part of getting older. I was ill a few years ago and that really forced me to look at what I wanted to achieve with the rest of my life. It’s your choice what you want to do and I realised that from an early age.
SH: I was naturally drawn to art at secondary school...favouring the pop artists (Lichtenstein, Warhol etc), and Op artists (Bridget Reilly especially) and people like Sol LeWitt, Rotko and Keith Haring...I discovered graphic design, like loads of other designers I’m sure, through record sleeves. Early 2Tone sleeves were probably my earliest recollection of really getting into the design... copying it, collecting records and badges and of course the fashion. It was then a way of combining two great loves - art and music. Later it was the Streetsounds Electro series, then early hip hop music and culture. And Factory Records, specifically the New Order stuff.
Can you give us a little insight into your techniques?
SB: Techniques tend to mirror yourself. I like to be in control and self sufficient, so very rarely do I use assistants. My kit is simple and all fits in one (heavy) bag - camera, 1 lens, battery flash unit, radio slaves. A lot of post production goes into the images, I don’t retouch heavily, it’s mainly colouring. It allows me to work quickly especially with musicians who don’t like to hang around. When I work with Stuart Hammersley we apply a broad brush/fine brush approach with Stuart filling in the art directional detail. We’re good friends, like the same music and similar things, so it works like an extra piece of kit.
SH: Similar to Shaun really, in that I like to have control of a project or idea... with the art direction and photography work we do together, we’ve developed a really good, easy relationship based on sharing ideas, enjoying the spontaneity of turning up and making things happen or making things up on the spot! We’re honest when we don’t think an idea is working...or letting each other try an idea out and seeing what happens...no histrionics or hissy fits really (which is a blessing, as the ‘creative industries’ tend to be full of loads of self-important people only too eager to blow their tops for the benefit of proving to others around them how important they are).
As far as my design techniques...well, it usually involves long hours, and banging your head against a brick wall until a better idea than your initial one surfaces...it seems to be either painfully hard or very occasionally stupidly easy. I value attention to detail/crafting things well/collaborating and gaining the benefit of other people’s experience for the good of a job (whether they be photographers, illustrators, printers etc etc).
What musicians/labels have you worked with?
SB: We are best known for our work with Tempa - they are tremendously supportive and creative. I’ve shot covers with Skream, Benga, all the Rinse DJ’s, most of Norwood’s finest for the Dubstep Allstars CD’s. The list is quite long. I’ve also worked with Planet Mu, Sony , Polydor and most recently for Bleep.com with the N/S/E/W compilation. I’ve been fortunate this year to spend time with many great beatmakers including Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, FaltyDL, Mike Slott and Sheffield’s very own Toddla T.
SH: Of course all of the Tempa and Rinse FM, and Bleep work that Shaun’s mentioned already. I’ve actually been involved with Tempa since the very beginning, and have been lucky enough to have designed everything they’ve put out. Designed the identity and sleeves for Apple Pips (Appleblim’s label), albums for Dusk & Blackdown’s Keysound Label. I’ve worked on some things for Bingo, and recently created identity and sleeves for Bingo Bass, Zinc’s new label.
And before I started Give Up Art, one of my first jobs out of college was working with Storm Thorgeson from Hipgnosis on Pink Floyd’s last studio album (I had to design a huge airship to look like a fish for journalists to be flown around in while they listened back to the new album!). Oh, and some of the Alan Parson’s Project stuff too, I seem to remember...:)
When you listen to music, do you picture it visually? And vice versa - do you ever attribute songs to things you see?
SB: Yes, there is a visual sense - I think there’s a lot of mischief and darkness in electronic music and I’m drawn to that. I also think there’s hope and positivity, all of which reflects the rollercoaster ride and highs and lows artists live. It’s that tension that makes the music interesting and I hope that in a small way that comes through in some of the pictures.
SH:I pick up on a feeling or mood from things... nothing too specific or literal. Part of a designer’s job I suppose is to try and distil, or filter, the feeling produced by the music and then translate that into something visual - that will also hopefully entice people to notice the sleeve and hopefully buy it. The fact that we meet a lot of artists who we’ve made sleeves for must have had a bearing on how they turn out, I think. I personally found lots of them interesting and inspirational - their do-it-yourself attitude etc.
How did the N/S/E/W project come about?
SB:I’d been to Los Angeles with Stuart on a personal project after being inspired by Mary Anne Hobbs' LA Rocks documentary. We were really lucky - nearly all the big names were there and gave us so much help and cooperation, and we ended up with a unique document of what was happening around Low End Theory. Bleep saw the pictures on our websites and asked if we’d be interested in producing posters to sell, so we went to see them, the project expanded and Bleep commissioned us to travel to NY and Glasgow to take portraits on location of notable musician/producers. Bleep then organised the music for the compilation CD (one track per portrait), Stuart designed the packaging and we had an art/music document. It’s certainly something we’d look at doing again.
How did you approach each artist/region?
SB:Well, London was sewn up as we’d been working with Tempa for years, and knew everyone from going to FWD>>. For the rest, having someone to introduce you is an godsend, so Mary Anne Hobbs (who is a friend) gave tremendous support helping us with email addresses. I’d purposely been to see a lot of the LA crew at clubs in the UK before we went, and that always helps so they can see how intrusive you are going to be. With New York and Glasgow, we researched with those on the ground-club promoters, producers, other DJ’s, asking who’s making interesting music at that time. Once the ball starts rolling and you have a few names under your belt, others want to be involved so it picked up momentum as we went along.
SH: We were always, even from the outset, looking for a bit of realness/authenticity - just to show people how they really are. What they do and the music they make is good enough - they don’t need to be dressed up and act like ‘stars’ in order to be of interest, personally speaking.
The locality and sense of place is important in the photography...maybe not immediately...but I think over time it can serve as an interesting snapshot of a certain time and place. A lot of designers gripe about putting the artist on the cover of a sleeve, but I honestly think that what Shaun and I achieve and present is of interest and is often the best thing to do.
Who are your inspirations (be it artists, musicians, authors, filmmakers, philosophers, etc)?
SB: Inspiration comes from all around you, but stylistically now it comes for me from film. I’m very interested in directors like Bergman, Tarkovsky, Herzog and Bela Tarr. Beautifully crafted. I like the slow pace and the way you are made to think, rather than just consume. The big studio marketing men should hang their heads in shame and just let film makers get on with it. I do like Classic 70s American films though, there was a really incredible period when Jaws, The Deer Hunter were being made, scripted and edited to perfection. I have just watched a DVD called The BQE by Sufjan Stevens, to go with his new CD, and I found that wonderfully inspiring.
SH:I like the older, odder graphic design. Whereas maybe not so polished or glossy, but is all the more interesting for it. Dutch design, 60s 70s corporate design. I really like trying to distill ideas down to a very pure form at the moment as well.
Where do you go for inspiration?
SB: I tend not to look at anything new in photography. You just end up copying or reading who has taken what. So it’s daily life - pick up what you can where you can – that’s not going to work for everyone, but it does for me.
SH: It can come from anywhere of course...like Shaun, I try not to trawl through too much current graphics stuff, but do look at design mags and blogs, and galleries when I can. But often just getting away from a computer and staring into space for a while can be a good way to let ideas pop into your head. Well, that’s my excuse anyway...
Any upcoming exhibitions you’d recommend?
SB:I’m sure there are lots , but I’d rather walk in off the street and give it a chance.
SH: Turner at Tate Britain is where I’m going next... big pre-expressionist canvases should be awesome. Ed Ruscha at the Hayward, he creates a lot of great type based works is another I can think of. I’m pretty spoiled in London for galleries - and tend to go to Tate Modern quite a lot with my family.
Skream — ‘Skream!’ Album (Tempa)
SB: Skream was due to play at the Iration Steppas Sub Dub night in Leeds. I’d never been anywhere like it before - had no expectations at all. Stu came up with this bright idea of shooting Skream in the middle of the club after his set. It was pitch black, extremely hot and sweaty, shoulder to shoulder, with us communicating by sign language -mad! We used a ring flash, which is very tiring on your eyes as you look right at it, so after about 6 shots we finished the shoot. We weren’t sure if we had anything at all let alone in focus.
SH: I’d been seeing Skream DJ at FWD a few times just before the release of the album - and his sound and style was really energetic and a bit ravey to my ears, so I really wanted to capture that on the cover: a shot of him right after he’d just finished a set. As Shaun said, it was really tricky - but we got the shot! Shaun’s so good in these situations; he doesn’t flap but just works around a problem and always gets it. It’s Soulja’s favourite cover I think.
Benga & Coki - Night 12”sleeves (Tempa)
SB:We just couldn’t get them in the same room at the same time, so we took a picture of Benga from his album shoot a week earlier and shot Coki with the same lighting. I love the crops Stu used, still one of my favourite covers of his.
SH:One of my faves too...the singles especially. As we couldn’t get them together, I didn’t want to retouch it and fake that they were shot at the same time. Plus the near silhouette shapes were just so interesting to design with...that’s why all the type and other design are so subdued. I can’t believe we got these great pics from just shooting in an empty corridor in Truman Brewery, against a stuck up roll of white paper and one light.
Rinse Mix Series / Rinse.1 — Geeneus (Rinse)
SB: Photography as a brand. Stuart conceived the idea of shooting everyone in exactly the same way. There were a number of reasons for this; we needed to be able to shoot the DJ’s anywhere at any time of night, so opted for a textured flat backdrop and we sapped the colour from the images to give a uniform feel. I like this one in particular - Gee looks as hard as nails.
Brainfeeder, Off-Sonar ‘09
SB:A Brainfeeder show is unlike anything else. Choreographed chaos. I’d gone along to say hello in the run up to LA, wish GLK and Martyn good luck at Sonar. But I ended up photographing it just for me. It was mobbed , tiny room , no light ( as always!). I was stuck under a monitor just waiting for the fraction of a second when all was still. Incredible night - Fly Lo, Samiyam, GLK, Martyn, Mike Slott and also first time I’d seen Dorian Concept too. All in wonderful Barcelona.
SB: Gaslamp Killer has to be the most interesting person I’ve photographed recently. He’s extremely welcoming, larger than life yet modest with it. He’s a prime example of getting what part the media can play, and really works with you. On stage he’s fanatstic, but difficult to capture because he’s constantly moving. For this shot, we’d come to his house in the hills overlooking Downtown LA, we sort of planned to do it as dusk was coming down found this amazing view and got him to lay down in the street. It was one of those magical moments in a photographer’s life when everything comes together. We celebrated with a huge plate of meatloaf and gravy, then went to Low End Theory. How much better could it get!
SB:Joker’s pretty young still, full of fun and games. He does have an amazing look when he wants though-confrontational but very likeable at the same time. I was expecting him to come along with a purple shirt on which he didn’t, so I put a slight wash on instead.
North / South / East / West project
SB: Here are a couple of pictures from the project, one which was rejected.
SB:The picture of Hud Mo was taken about 2 minutes from our hotel, in one of those deep basements you find in Scottish Cities. I just noticed in passing that it was almost knee deep in polystyrene cups that had been thrown from the builder’s cafe next door. There was no way down though, so Stuart bribed a window cleaner to let us use his ladder for half an hour. It was freezing cold down there, Stu staying at the top with a light. We both knew we had it straight away, but still carried on with several more set ups.
SB:The picture of FaltyDL was taken at night on the Bowery where he has an apartment. We wanted something obviously New York but not Empire State or Central Park, so we set up on the street. Drew was excellent, very deadpan, so we did it quickly. Technically its rather beautiful, but we went for the street scene in daylight for the finished project, as it was just a bit odder.
SB:We’d been in LA 5 or 6 days and just couldn’t get in touch with Steve, he was key to the project. I remember texting Mary Anne in panic and she said don’t worry, be cool give him some space, he won’t let you down, and she was right. We set up did three set ups in 15-20 minutes, and right at the end did these close ups. There’s always a bit of a game that goes on when photographing someone, and there was mischief there which you have to ready to catch; it could be a tiny inflection but it makes all the difference.