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Podcast Episode 04: Asher Roth (with transcript)

Sam Piland leads a beautiful conversation with Asher Roth about everything from the early tapes to the latest album release "Flowers on the Weekend." HUGE THANK YOU to Asher for making this possible. Episode cover photo by Drew Dennis (@listenofabc)
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Interviewer: I'm here with Asher Roth. In my experience growing up in this American culture, you're a big deal. You remain a big deal. I recently caught up on your entire catalog, so before we get into this, I just wanted to give you props for still being out here. This new record really feels like a first record in many ways, a very strong statement.

Roth: Thank you

Int: So we've had some technical difficulties getting this going, but we're here now.

Roth: That's communication in the twenty-first. Face to face is still ideal, but we work with what we've got.


Int: It's interesting how that's manifested on such a scale that it's advised for our health to not see each other.

Roth: Yeah, I respect it though. In a way it's opened up communication on a larger scale, with the conversations people have, the uncomfortable ones that people have put off having for hundreds of years in some cases. In a weird way it's been beautiful for communication. We have this growing up, you've probably experienced it too, of being embarrassed in a  conversation. Being in the room with somebody and saying something and that--that body language kind of helps you get your shit together. It makes you say, ok, I don't want to feel that again, let me educate myself.


Int: For sure. How do you feel the internet has been an outlet for anyone who has been trying to escape the consequences of growing up before it? You have to go back to school, you're still in the neighborhood, people still see you around. I don't know, it's kind of different now.

Roth: I'm really into that conversation, I've been looking for data and facts to back it up. Theoretically it's like "no,duh", riding our bikes and skating around and being together was straight up how you formed social intelligence and the same things could be said about high school. I wasn't learning anything in high school, but I did learn how to read people, and learned about the hierarchy of life, how the people who are connected and come from this, they get to the lunch line first, etc. But there's part of me that's like, yo, these kids are frickin' brilliant, you know? Setting up discord. Kids who are straight wizards with it. When it comes to the fact that it's like another language with it, and you know personally for me--and I know you and I spoke about this before briefly--but the earlier work, and the recent work, you're right, it's like a first tape again. And for someone to listen to that, and hear that in it, and to not necessarily be connected, well our journey is there. And you see these kids on the internet, and the way that they're reacting and communicating so fast. I signed onto tiktok for literally sixteen seconds and no way. My brains are not even there. These kids are on a completely different frequency. And I respect it, I do. I remember when I was going independent and really taking that route of, I'm going to do this on my own. So Asleep in the Bread Aisle was '09, after that I really didn't get much help. I was living in New York--you guys are in New York, right?

Int: Yeah, where were you?

Roth: I was lower east side, Second Street between First and A. It was rad. It was great, but it just wasn't home. I had fun but I was living this kind of-- not my life. I have a lot of love for New York, I have family there, my sister.

Int: You grew up in Pennsylvania right?

Roth: Yeah, so I'm back in Philadelphia right now.  Did the runaround, and New York was such an interesting chapter for me, it was again one of those social intelligence things where I didn't have the grind, real life of New York. Like if you grow up there, and fighting the fight of making something from nothing, and riding the subway, and being an adult by the time you're fourteen, you know? But I did get to see what their relationship with money and New York was. And behind that curtain of what money can do. It's interesting because it's the same thing as the music business, it's so driven by money and power and stature and not actually music, so I learned that underbelly stuff, not through the evils of New York, but through the reality of it.

Int: If you think of capitalism, and any critiques you may have of it, or just the realities of it, a farmer dealing their crop, you know. That's magnified to the umpteenth scale in New York. It's New York not for the United States, but New York for the whole planet. It has this mystique in our culture, and the world--and I did grow up here--it's kind of shocking to leave, and everyone has some idea of where you're from.

Roth: Can I ask you about--I don't want to get political here, but what were your observations of the mood of our generation? We're talking about the kids that might not necessarily be involved, even the kids when I was a teenager, somebody who is self absorbed, not even interested in politics. I think Barack Obama, maybe even Geroge W. Bush, I was old enough to vote in those elections. What was the mood in New York? Now, pandemic and protests, you've got kids who are in the thick of it.

Int: Well New York has been very hot. Very involved. People who have been doing organizing work in the city have been getting more attention, that they deserve this time. What's interesting about this time in particular--like, the Bush era is still quite recent and that's what I grew up in before Obama, and there was kind of a disengagement almost from the East Coast. People being like, "Obama is our president, we can lean back and trust that the general vibe is good or whatever, that people are ok" that kind of superficial calm that Trump broke for a lot of people. I think it's a really long history leading up to this moment. I grew up politically conscious, going to public school in New York you notice certain kids put into the gifted program verses kids who fall by the wayside over time, just because the government doesn't have time or the funding, people don't have the emotional bandwidth ultimately to take care of the community. In my generation, even younger, I see people taking on the work deferred by generations past. Even on a legal and emotional level.

Roth: It's true. Everybody's a little bit right. Kind of wild, so red and blue. There's so much that led up to right now

Int: Even your music, I'm listening to it and the way that you're part of it. Listening to it as a consumer in 2020, versus who I was as a consumer in 2010, and considering how that's fit into my life story, as a person can expect, and it's like you're talking about things men can't or shouldn't talk about. Right now the number one song is WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and that's important because you fit into that tradition too, in  a post-genedered thing. It's like this post-racial thing, which was an idea I think people had in the Obama era that was almost real.

Roth: That was on the Greenhouse Effect, Volume 2, on the sour patch kids remix. This is the post racial society. And you know, not for nothing, that was out of the conversation around me and hip hip too, and while I was sitting with Qtip, he thought it was so interesting, ok here's a white kid--and he got to know me off of some of these acapellas I was rapping in New York, sort of open mics, and he heard me do some of the just listen stuff, basically about equality, and it was like, there's never been a white dude who was allowed to speak the truth. He was basically saying, white kids and rap music essentially always have to wear the clown mask. And here we are outside the Beasties, and it was funny recently watching the Beastie Boys documentary Spike Jones did in a theatre, and seeing what they went through as white kids in rap music. Imitating Run DMC and their voice and bringing in the punk and rock influences. The conversation around me in 2009, 2010 was this unapologetically white kid rap music. As much as the eminem comparisons were there, there still isn't this level of whiteness that had been portrayed in rap music.

Int: That's what I loved about the Greenhouse Effect tapes. Seared Foie Gras. Those records were you rapping your ass over classic beats and just being unapologetic about who you are and how you fit into hip hip.


Roth: I wish I could always do that. Self-awareness is actually a tool. A way to navigate the world. That attitude I had in the early works, part of it gets sucked out of the albums, they're so conscious of songs. Whereas my strength is not as a classically trained musician. I have serious imposter syndrome when it comes to going into the music industry, in terms of peers and the people I love, not so much in terms of the business of music. I speak their language almost more than a musicians language. Being a "tweener" do to speak,  moving forward I want to help musicians tell their stories, because the ones I'm close with, they don't have similar level social intelligence or self awareness. They just want to make fucking music, you know? And he business has kind of preyed on that you know? I've always cared, even on the first records.

Int: Definitely. I think that something that for me growing up was inspiring about your wave, Kid Cudi, DOB, this group that was very empathic about people knowing things, that was the currency. I want people to know that I know things and that it's important to know things to navigate the world.

Roth: Yeah, that it's cool to know things.

Int: exactly. Especially rap being a genre so motivated by righteousness and about leading by example, and being the emcee, the master of the ceremony. It guided the path for me.

Roth: Knowledge of self, for sure. It's funny because Pitchfork just roasted me again, it was just a hit piece, they roasted me for giving a shit. Not even about the music, just roasting me about having a little awareness about what's going on, pretending and acting like I've never done that before, just because I lIke College accidentally went double platinum, you know.

Int: Pretty much. You can tell reading reviews if a person writing them even knows the artist.

Roth: My buddy called me, and I don't usually care about reviews, I'm pretty thick skinned, and said, what I thought was so cool about reading that is that people still don't know how to define you. And I thought damn, that's kind of ill. Pros and cons.

Int: People are used to this diary kind of thing from their artists. You listen to a record and you know what to expect, whereas you have a lot more exploring to do. You approach this idea of "for sale" differently, rather than hip hip which still has a weird place culturally within music, it's still innovating its form. That's on par with the structural experimentation you're hitting on this. I can't wait to see what you do next. This album felt like a real fuck your expectations kind of moment.

Roth: I appreciate your saying that. Those were some intentions I put into this. That's another beautiful thing about music. With this record, I wanted to set myself up to do it for another twenty years.

Int: I see you hooked up with someone you haven't put out records with before, Rob, your producer. What's the story there?

Roth: I went back to pennsylvania. The Asher Roth story is objectively an interesting dory, because of the entry level and connotation, nobody wants to tell. When I tell people what on one they're like what the fuck, what a story. That run 2009-2011 was for people like us, we were all growing up together through that, and now being an adult, so to speak, where your priorities do change. My sister had a child, which was my catalyst to move home. I was in LA on the other side of the country, not fully committed, nothing keeping me there. I remember getting feedback after the record was done, Seared Foie Gras, that no one was interested, and that was my fuck all record. I was very aware people are only on your team if you do certain things. Have a famous girlfriend. Write songs that are controversial in a way. I realized I'm not going to wear the clown mask, I'm going to grow, be human, music will be something I use, not something that uses me. So I moved home, and I always wanted to make a record in philadelphia. My niece is what brought me back, and through the motions of being home, I met up with a kid CJ, who was from my school district. We got along having come form the same area, and he told me, when I was younger, I was listening to you, sun god free, was the sign I needed not to rap. But we were connected in some way, and they have a little place, Rob Deckhart, my producer and CJ and Tey, they're a group called Best Friends. Working with those guys, doing sessions, we started to speak the same language. And rob likes to do his own thing. He's not out partying, he's a real music guy. When it was time to make another full length, I knew he could handle the bulk of it. We recorded about 17 songs and about 12 are the album. Philadelphia is loaded with talent in the music and culinary scenes. It wasn't hard to find great help with the musicians and instruments. Om Things change, I'm setting up talking about we're going to do this however it feels right. Just intuition and intention. Having fun with it. These guys turned me on to the technicality of what are called mumble rappers, these young kids, they're unbelievable. The way they understand music is something people should admire. Once it came down to the pandemic it became, let's just release it, let's not wait for a label or anything.

Int: When did you complete this record?

Roth: April 2020, the mixing was its own beast. We finished the bulk in 2019, and then we started mixing it early 2020. 2019 was a lot of the recordings, but they held up. When we heard them in a time when the seams were starting to come undone, the music was about being disenchanted and disengaged with everything going on, and still finding something inside of you to care.

Int: The fatigue was already part of the content.

Roth: It's been such a trip. As being a storyteller, I've been very fortunate. To have been brought in from that earlier level, and see where we're at now, and be excited about where this is going. I've always thought if you know what you're getting when you click on an Asher Roth song, I've screwed up.


Int: I'm glad you have that outlet. It's what keeps it fresh, every project has its own flavor. The album has seventeen song--did you work on this sequentially? How did you land on twelve? When you work with a tight crew, it's sometimes easier to agree. You're together for the whole process

Roth: Yeah, it's just Rob and I. Rob's a little more of a R&B guy, that's what brought us together.

Int: You have plenty of R&B ventures, I think in your catalog.


Roth: I'm definitely an R&B head, but there were a couple joints I had to talk him off of, that didn't fit on the record. I'm still really interested in writing for other people, there are these joints where here's the lyrics, and the track and it's really dope, but there's just somebody else it's for. I have a little folder that's "for somebody else"

Int: That's for you, bro! Some of the best work is what people do for themselves, they get into. Like look at what Tyler is doing in the last few years. The last record, a lot of that content was for other people, but no one would take it. He had to do it for himself, you know? That's a big moment.

Roth: It's true, man. Just finding those sweet spots, and timing. To not be too close tot he music. Let it be what it is.

Int: How much of it is a broader thing, an industry thing, versus you and your fans?

Roth: A lot of it. In music and art in general you need a lot of tortured souls. People that are going through it. I went on an autobiography kick, I needed some light reading, I was on a mythology kick and philosophy and all this jazz. So I needed some light reading. So my buddy brought me Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, so I've been reading that. I'm fresh off of Andre Agassi's autobiography. I read the Rock's autobiography for a while. The Bourdain stuff is interesting because he talks about cooks. The people that the culinary attracts, these pirate types. In the same way, it's like our most revered artists are miserable, completely tortured, and luckily for me, I come from a good family, my parents are still together, I had a relatively stable upbringing. So I've had to find my art more so through observation than through confession. That might not always be avant garde but it's honest. Taking a role as a commentator, not just on how I'm feeling in these dark dimensions that borders on schizophrenia.

Int: I think the ambition of an artist is suggested to be demanded. It's not necessary, that's just a romantic notion, I think.  

Roth: That's true, and we get that projected onto us, that kind of imposter syndrome I think is more popular than led to believe. I think a lot of people feel they're not any good at what they do even though they're doing it. It's asked of us to go in, and I think that's a really hard thing to do. It's guinea work to really go in. WE spend a lot if not all of our time distracting ourselves.

Int: I hear that.

Roth: It's tricky man. In rap music there's this conversation of, is this eb\ven legitimate? And then you're a white dude in that, and what am I doing with my life? And then you get older, and youre' talking about security and safety.

Int: You don't get the same kind of attention.

Roth: Yeah you have thoughts, you're responsible for other people. It's not meant to be complicated, but it can be. It's strange, to this day, I don't know if I classify myself as an artist or as a rapper.  

Int: Is there a difference? With a writer, it's more of a conflation, maybe. Listening to all these records, and in my experience as sahip hip fan, I've seen so many styles come and go, like with painting. The way it's classified and historiographed, there have ben movements.  I don't know what we call what you've been or continue to be part of, but I do think it's important to allow yourself to be elevated and denigrated in that way. Artists are nasty people in their own right.

Roth: Seriously, such a competitive world. Just because you write a book, are you a writer? Yes, but once you're in that world, no you're not.

Int: How does a writer carry themselves constantly, consistently?

Roth: I guess they just write all the time.

Int: Does a rapper rap all the time?

Roth: Exactly. It's another thing that lends itself  to me. I'm not obsessed with making music in general. It's very fluid, almost seasonal. I don't spend all my time, eight or ten hours a day in a studio, which is what's promoted. No sleep, grind all the time. I think there's some truth to the pau off, but there are other elements to myself as a human being. I remember that kind fo early speech they give you in your initiation in the music business, is do this now so you can retire at 35

Int: now I think you're in a position to make so much money, I don't want to pry, but there's a heavy conversation in your catalog about choices you made not for your money, but for your soul.

Roth: Dude, I can't tell you even.

Int: As far as the band of outsiders thing goes, you have these tapes that feature a lot of people. There's a camaraderie I feel you chose over certain pop decisions you could ahve made or business deals you could have made.

Roth: You nailed it, it's hard to get into the soul side of things. It's a mentality. I think there's a lot of duelding forces, pros and cons to everything. Obviously financial security frees up a lot of stuff but if I was retiring from creativity at 35 to play dominoes and smoke cigars I'd feel like I beat the game way too early. Positioning myself to have those communcial rewards, shared experiences, so I went ath route. Our art form is validated by outside influences through those numbers, which can be manipulated. And people know about algorithms and if you're part of that world you know somebody else is getting paid off of what you're doing. I've been stubborn about going it by myself. From a business standpoint I wanted to know who I was really speaking to. Instead of 900,000 views week one and not really understanding that 750,000 might not even be fans of my stuff. I'm still ambitious. I'm still competitive, and I want people to know the work we're doing is professional, but when you're not doing those numbers, unfortunately the business I'm in just doesn't pay attention.

Int: You say you don't work in the studio ten hours a day noq, but did you before?

Roth: Yeah, and the studio should be a place that's safe. I remember going to the studio to record that song that Sammy Adams did called Sunset Boulevard written by Ryan Tedder, this no brainer smash record, and it was just work. Instead I used the studio time to record The World is Never Enough, which is a Charles Bradley flip about the Ukranian revolution.

Int: Commissioned vs. Conscious work.

Roth: Yes! When you work with people you don't love, you end up so tired. When you work with people who invigorate you, it's so fulfilling. I didn't sign the best recording contact--we all have those horror stories--but I was lucky not to have gone down the road too far.

Int: Even down to the making fo your product, you don't have to do as much to make it anymore, right? Living in a world where what you see is what you get.

Roth: It's so bizarre. I couldn't imagine singing a song I didn't write for the rest of my life. It means nothing to you other than a business move. It's like agreek mythological punishment.

Int: Are you signed to a major label now? Beholden to any multi year plan?

Roth: No, no manager, no publicist, but keep in mind, we still have to keep the lights on. There needs to eb some level of structure to be in the business of music. If I'm just going to release music for the hell of it, I've set the foundation for it. At the same time, I don't own a home, I rent, I still have bills to pay, and you're not going to do that off Spotify money. The music business is changing, the digital experience, the pandemic. Would you pay $2 to watch a concert that streams? If you can't go to a show for another two years, will you pay to stream the show?

Int: That sounds strangely appealing, but there is a market for something like onlyfans, right? A market for different types of work.

Roth: People are literally streaming themselves eating for fifteen hours a day. And they're getting paid, but for me, I'm a little old school. I'm not prepared to stream myself for 8 or 9 hours a day. To let people into my day.

Int: Like us trying to get this recording going. My idea of this next generation, the future of entertainment is this streaming thing. Every moment on record. Everything used against us, guilt and shame, it's for the birds at this point. We have instant replay on life now.

Roth: I'm not going. It's like Mars, everyone wants to go to Mars, and it's like, motherfucker, earth is amazing, why do you want to go to Mars?  No one wants to fix the old. I'm a little nervous where that's going. So I've set myself up to do it at my pace. Rather than the industry making decisions for me. Relationships are all we got. Entertainment in general is so self absorbed. You feel like you're important, like what you do matters, in a way that's really polluting. I'm an eternal optimist, and I think there's been a lot of good to come out of things right now. Where, hold up, one second, we finally got to a place where we can breathe. There's so much positive in that. We're looking at everything. Defund the police, right? Get rid of that, get rid of this, it's a matter of if we're going to do the work now and fix what's broken, or just plow ahead and keep it moving. We;ve been talking about social inequality since 2010, about the wealth gap, for a decade. All I'm here for is just to have these conversations. It's not about right or wrong, it's about productive fun. For someone to disregard all that we do, for the sake of clicks--not for nothing--people want to see a good old witch burn at the stake. It doesn't help in having a healthy discourse.

Int: Like what is the assignment wasn't to review Asher Roth's new record? It was, learn how to love this album, no matter how hard that is for you? What's that journey?

Roth: I get it, I'm a white male in rap music, I'm gonna get roasted from all directions. But there's valuable information in that conversation. I'm not going to be the one promoting myself, I got over that, it wasn't rewarding. I do think there's a conversation to be had about our respective experiences.

Int: It's a reality check. Your first album was called Asleep in the Bread Aisle.

Roth: That's what I was going to say, I did not realize what I was getting myself into. Scooter knew he needed a white thirteen year old rapper. He knew his market. I had no idea, I just wanted to be a part of the community.

Int: It seems like that's always been you. All you were doing was joining the party, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Roth: I'm feeling pretty good about it. In a world where everybody's getting cancelled, I'm so far so good. They haven't come for my head, and respectfully so. I went about my work honestly, and that lets me go on.

Int: Do you have anything immediately planned for the future?

Roth: Just talking to you.

Int: What about after this?

Roth: My attention has been towards this outdoor venue, a park called Sunflower Philly. For the last few years, I've been focused on providing a space for people in North Philly, and now it's one of the few spaces people can still go. We have a stage built out of pallets, it's meant to be artist development, we've had Who Run It, an all women's curated painters event, we had cannabis events, a lot of conversation in this odd bermuda triangle of a space. A lot of my attention is making sure we're promoting musicians and graffiti artists and local businesses. Wanting to be a resource, to help other people legitimately. Empowering people with tools to do what matters.

Int: Becoming part of the workforce.

Roth: The music is secondary at the moment. But it's the catalyst for interest. I don't think if I was just a random guy there would be the same interest in Sunflower. Using my powers, you know I'm a half-breed.

Int: What does that mean?

Roth: You know my mom's a straight up and down witch, so.

Int: I see you,


Roth: Making something out of nothing, alchemy with people. I can put the right people in the right room. I choose my producers the same way. We might be different, but do we blend well? A lot of my attention is with the community. Making sure my friends and family are alright. And it's not like a major record label is knocking down my door to sign me, so its like, let's build our own.

Int: Are there other artists officially associated with Retrohash?

Roth: No, not yet. Until I figure out some things. I don't want to sign someone and be predatory.

Int: Taking time to consider it as an opportunity to show people the world. I do think now's the time for these ecommunity spaces to be there more for people than anything else.

Roth: We look at the issues with the cops, with policing neighborhoods they don't even live in, right? This is similar to us being citizens of these neighborhoods and it's our responsibility to take care of them and make sure they're represented. From a political standpoint most people don't know who their local representatives are. So there's a certain responsibility I feel--made up or not-- to make sure people are interested and involved. That's what Sunflower Philly is about to me, to make sure people know what's going on. Retrohash musically I haven't figured out how to set up. I want to offer guidance, not necessarily sign someone. These young kids, they're wicked, and what they're going through, the music that they make, that they don't know how to get out in the world. So when we have a conversation it can help with their overall clarity, and find out where they're going. I can't imagine being seventeen with snapchat. Like, what? I'm grounded. I'm coming from a place of integrity, doing work that energizes me, there's no clear path for me now. Figuring out the publishing side of things. If there's a way to help these kids get figured out.

Int: That would mean a lot to Philly.

Roth: Not to speak for Philly, but coming back here there's a lot of music business here, everybody dips, all the talent in the world. You have to go to LA or New York. Trying to get an incubator here. Just trying to be a speed boost. We'll see how it all plays out. My intentions are good, I've battled with the greed ghouls, and as strong as they are, I have the early experience that I can let these kids know, this is what to expect.

Int: I love that throughout your work your motif, the thing you harp on, is to be a good neighbor.

Roth: There's so much value in that. Like in that bar across the street, just doing trash club, taking care of things around the way. I don't have to pay for beer. You know what I mean?

Int: Citizenship

Roth: Citizenship. Love thy neighbor. Take care of the world around you. See what's right in front of us. This is the trouble with the internet. We're inundated with people, things, places, that aren't even in our immediate world.

Int: We think we're part of something we're not.

Roth: All you need is the internet shut down, and you see that that doesn't belong to you at all.

Int: To claim it, takes work or a lot of transgressive behavior. Which Is all good. The world is changing as far as what that even means.

Roth: So what did you end up eating for breakfast?

Int: A chocolate croissant. I work at a pastry shop.

Roth: Nice. Are you a coffee drinker?

Int: Only since I left college, I don't have an office job, I had to cover my ass with a whole bunch of things and I needed to be awake much more than I did in college. Getting money is a whole other object than getting good grades or knowledge.

Roth: I'm really getting interested in having some financial literacy, in learning about money. That's how you get super rich. You have money that makes money.

Int: And money is old bro!


Roth: Old money, power structures are still in place. I get the freak out the "old guard" is having that the "progressives" are coming through, but to me, again, I guess from a political standpoint it feels inevitable. The irony of when five people ahd fifty percent of all the wealth nobody cared, and when they had seventy five percent nobody cared, and now that they have ninety nine percent it's a problem. When was it enough? I know people are freaked out by socialism, but it's just some social programs that help people out. I get the whole, sorry, you're out, you missed the ship thing, but I thin with all the abundance we have, and a small change in ideology, I think our age group and the kids younger than us, I think good things can happen.  

Int: Realizing how much really isn't' out of anyone's control.

Roth: They got us arguing with bots so once were done arguing with bots, we'll probably get to the eral work. In the meantime we have to know what we're talking about. And we get there by having conversations like this.



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Interview with Photographer George Holz

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Photography
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George Holz, Heather Graham at the Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles, 1998

B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?

G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career

one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.

B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?

G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.  

B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?

G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.

B: What made you start work on that series?

G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.

B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.

G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.

B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.


G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.

B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?

G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.

B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.

G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.

B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?

George Holz, Joaquin Phoenix, New York, 1996


G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.

B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?

G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.

B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.

G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.

B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?

G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.

B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?

G: Yes, around forty years.

B: Companion volumes.

G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.

George Holz, Kadijah in the shower at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 2002


B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.

G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.

B: What else is on deck for you?

G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.

B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.

G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.

B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.

G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.

B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.

G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.

George Holz, Tenley with peaches, Woodland Valley, 2010

Follow George Holz on Instagram and through his website.

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