The former R.E.M frontman has touched the hearts of generations with his lyrics and distinct voice. Today, he continues to do so through his solo photographic work, now the subject of a new book
Text by: Josephine Giachero
Michael Stipe is the title of the music sensation’s latest photography book; or, at least, being it the only thing written on the spine, people assumed that must have been the title. His intention, however, was not to have a title at all. “I didn’t want to make a book that is all about me,” explained the artist. “That’s part of being a former pop star and having an ego that is on the one side very in shock with itself. Then on the other side, this also allows for humility and insecurity; [two things] that are important to creating.”
This is how the conversation with the former R.E.M frontman, hosted by the director of the Contemporary Art Institute in Milan (ICA) Alberto Salvadori on the occasion of the world premiere book launch and released on YouTube on April 13, started.
Stipe’s 170 portraits from this latest project with the Bolognese publishing house Damiani fully encapsulate the photographer’s versatility. Still life imagery is also present in the book, whether it be a beautiful flower vase or life-saving medicine; something that appears to serve as an ode to resilience, the courage, and the adaptability of 21st-century humans.
This newest monograph follows the success of the two previously published volumes, also edited by the house: Volume I (2018) and Our Interference Times: a visual record (2019). During the conversation, Michael Stipe told to Mr. Salvadori that when they first spoke about the book, his reaction to it was the most accurate he had heard of. “You said that it’s a book about love, and that’s exactly what it is.”
The book was put together during the pandemic, a time the artist dedicated to self-discovery and introspection. A moment of global mourning that served for him as an opportunity to reflect on the current human condition and document it through his own lens. “The adjustment we had to make in our personal and our professional lives has, for once in our lifetime, impacted not just our community, but the entire community of humanity, ” Stipe explained referring to today’s historical context.
“It’s everything and everyone; no matter where you are, who you are, what you do, or how much money you have. We’ve had to re-examine through this important period who we are,” he continued in the conversation.
Stipe considers himself an optimist, someone who wants there to be good out of the horrible times we are enduring. He hopes that this book will in some way reflect that. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought, ‘There is no way I can create the book that I wanted to create. So I’ll go into my archive of images and I’ll make a book just of images from the past,’” he disclosed about his initial intentions for the project. However, he quickly realised that that would have not been at all just a way to gloss over, or to not allow it to impact the work he was doing.
From there, he tried to proceed with the book taking portraits as he did in the past, but with the exception of having to find solutions to not being in the same room of the people he wanted to portray. “The work of the artist is to present the moment that we’re moving through from a different perspective,” he commented reflecting on the initial steps in the making of the book.
Stipe has depicted friends, family members, well-known and lesser-known figures who have inspired and shaped his life. Tilda Swinton, to whom the author dedicates the cover with a magnetic portrait; and John Giorno, the late American poet and actor who appears in the opening pages of the book and to whom Stipe was very close. “When I started the project the idea was to do a very simple book of portraits of people who I found to be inspiring, fearless, fierce. People who have immense strength, but allow that strength to emerge out of them into the world, through their insecurities. So I started photographing people, in a studio or in their homes,” Stipe shared during the live book presentation from his home in the States.
Also featured in his photographic work are, to name but a few, American artist pioneer of performing and visual art Joan Jonas; American singer-songwriter Beth Ditto; American director, screenwriter, editor, photographer, and musician Gus Van Sant; Rick Owens’ wife and muse Michèle Lamy as well as conceptual artist, writer, and photographer Sophie Calle.
According to biographer David Buckley, Stipe’s voice and mumbling style has always been comparable to Celtic folk musicians and Muslim muezzin. Those who have been lifelong listeners of his music will recognise that this description is strikingly accurate. Although R.E.M’s dissolution coincided with Stipe’s departure from the music scene, the book will enable readers to be graced by his voice once more. This will be possible thanks to sixteen audio tracks recorded by the artist himself, accessible through a QR code printed in the book.
The sound files expand on some of the ideas underlying the photos and tell various anecdotes about how the shots were made through storytelling. This additional element of sound design incorporated in the book was realised by GOODmood. “The idea of being able to use my voice to guide people into the project and the idea behind it was enticing,” Stipe shared. “I chose to go with the idea of doing a QR code with a book that helps walk people through what my intention to put a book together was,” he further explained.
Not many know that it was while studying photography and painting at the University of Georgia that Stipe developed an artistic sensibility that would have later be translated to all levels of the band. His contribution to R.E.M from a curation standpoint was just as important as his onstage performance. He oversaw the band’s creative aspects, often selecting album artwork and directing many of the music videos.
Among the others, Stipe also owns and operates two film production firms, namely C-00 and Single Cell Pictures. Stipe inspired a wide variety of artists as a singer-songwriter, including Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke, the latter of which told The Guardian that he loved how “he would take an emotion and take a step back from it and, in doing so, make it so much more powerful.” A quote that still rings true, especially as we consider how his portraits move the viewer with such grace.
To give you a sneak peek, the volume opens with Tilda Swinton and closes with images of children and portraits of Stipe’s family. “The book starts with the family that we choose and closes with the family that we were born into,” pointed out the artist. “Both incredibly important to who we are and how we interpret the world through the examples set by these people.”
The Michael Stipe book is available on the publisher’s website (www.damianieditore.com) and in bookstores starting from 15 April (EUR 50). A collectors edition in a limited amount of copies will also be on sale, with a handcrafted cover-sculpture, signed and numbered by the author (EUR 700).