Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe discusses his new photobook

Michael Stipe, Allen Ginsberg, Beacon Theatre, New York, 1995.

As an undergraduate art major at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, Michael Stipe studied photography and painting before going on to become a singer and songwriter for R.E.M., his band for over thirty years. Here, Stipe talks about his new book, Volume 1, which collects some of his photography from the past thirty-eight years and was recently published by Damiani. The book was produced in collaboration with artist Jonathan Berger and designer Julian Bittiner.

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, we all went through a terrifying period when we collectively convinced ourselves that books and print were going away forever and everything was going to become backlit and digitized. We've now come full circle to realize that we like holding tactile things and we like collecting and having books in our lives. Having never figured out how to show the work I was doing outside of music—the tangible work—I thought books might be the best way to do that. Volume 1 is the first in a series with Damiani. I'd like to create four or five volumes.

Photography is truly the most honest medium in my life. I was interested in it before music, as a teenager. At fourteen, I started taking pictures with my father's Nikon, and I enrolled in a photography class. Music landed on me the next year through Patti Smith and the CBGB scene. In my timeline, photography came first and held on. As a creative person, I don't like or trust my line; I'm a terrible painter—I proved that in art school many years ago. I don't like my signature, my autograph, or my speaking voice. So photography remains the most honest and truest way to try to describe what I'm feeling and thinking about. I never really wrote anything beyond lyrics, and so the images I take, along with what I consider to be beautiful photographs, are somewhat diaristic. I love their simplicity, and I love the mistakes.

It's amazing to me how much of the book is autobiographical and how unsettling it is for me to focus that much on myself. But 2018 is a good moment to question self-absorption and self-image, and how much importance we culturally and societally place on that. I mean, my life has been extraordinary, privately and publicly, and filled with incredible events and people and places—so it's hard to not want to tell that story. I just happen to be at the center of it.

Before New York, Athens, Georgia, was my home base. Since my father was in the army we traveled extensively, and when he retired they moved to Athens. I followed my family there at age eighteen, started R.E.M., and began traveling again.

Jeremy Ayers, whom you see several times in the book, was a huge part of my coming-of-age and my development from young-charge teenager to adult. He was a vastly important part of my story, my mentor and first love. There also could not be a biography of me without Patti Smith, and the influence she had on me was as profound as Jeremy's. Jeremy and I were close for the rest of his life. Patti and I went on to become friends in 1995, twenty years after her first influence on me through her music. It's awe-inspiring to see her move into and out of different media successfully. Volume 1 wouldn't be complete without her presence there.

In 1995, R.E.M. was on tour, and Sonic Youth was opening for us. On a jaunt through Kansas, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore said, “We're going to visit William Burroughs, would you like to come?” It was a day off, and I said, “Yes, of course.” So I met William through the two of them that day, and then I met him again several more times through Patti and John Giorno. I always thought of him as my queer grandfather, so he's in the book as well.

Jonathan Berger is the person I entrusted with my entire archive; I said to him, “It's all there, see what you see and see what you like, and let's talk about it.” He set up my studio in 80WSE Gallery at New York University in 2014 so that it could be visited during opening hours—and I would then work there during after hours. It was thrilling, because what I go to art for, what I require, is something that impacts me, that moves me, that makes me think, and that encourages me forward. And that is exactly what I hope to give as well—it's the most important dialogue in my life. I'm grateful to Jonathan for this incredible opportunity, where he can show the best of what I have to offer in a way that makes sense, and in a way that I can't make it make sense.

I am circular in the way I think and talk—I always have been. So I needed to have someone else come in, someone smart, to present this group of images together. That way, it tells a different story. And I think it's a beautiful story.