David Sims

David Sims, editorial photograph for “All I See Is Art and Yamaha,” Arena Homme +, Fall/Winter 2011–12.

DAVID SIMS’S PHOTOGRAPHS are bursting at the seams. Their taut edges are tethered to skin and light, precisely yet barely containing the image, as if cloth or flesh or stone might surge forth at any moment. Whether rendered against an acid monochrome background or a nacreous cyberpunk shine, this tactile, bas-relief effect also seems to embody that impossibly thin membrane between what is in and what is out, the ordinary and the underground, the exquisite and the abject, the material and the virtual. Perhaps no one has navigated these fields as brilliantly as Sims, who is a cult figure but also a mass one: Having gained global fame for the 1993 Calvin Klein ads that made Kate Moss a star and grunge a thing, Sims quietly went on to create an astonishingly diverse body of work at both the apex of cool—typological, Becher-like portraits for Raf Simons, hazy mash-ups for Supreme—and the pinnacle of luxury marketing. The photographer has transformed the look and the reach of the visual, from the magazine page to the ad campaign. In Sims’s world, the inundation of imagery in the age of Instagram is not enervating but liberating: To engage that flow of pictures, to let loose one more angle or shot, is to change the current while being swept along.

MICHELLE KUO: Throughout your work, you seem to be experimenting with the incredible elasticity of the photographic image: how high or low it can go, in terms of finish, sharpness, saturation, depth. Recent images almost look like cell-phone snapshots—are they?

DAVID SIMS: Certainly, some of my images look as if they might have been taken on a phone, but they weren’t. I’m using a camera and then deconstructing the file as much as I think the image needs. Which, ironically, brings it into the realm of looking like something that could have originated on a device.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll pull elements from different files. I don’t like to use that word, files, but let’s just say the picture would be obviously composed from completely distinct images.

So, for example, the burning cityscape in the background of a photograph I made a few years ago [from “This Is the One Called Heaven,” Arena Homme +, Spring/Summer 2012] is Liverpool, where my family is from. The smoke is superimposed from a picture of a missile strike on Baghdad. I want to make invented landscapes, to create a mythology around a place that is significant to me. Liverpool is a city that comes under different types of attack.

MK: It combines the familiar and the apocalyptic.

DS: By deconstructing the process—hopefully it leads you to the sentiment, or to some kind of emotion, in the picture.

But I don’t want to come across in any way as too earnest, because a lot of this is just done for effect. It’s supposed to be as humorous as it is meaningful.

MK: And image-editing software has completely changed the possibilities for working with found imagery, with montage—in ways that we probably don’t understand yet. I see that in the translucence of layers in your image, the funny graphics, which could never have been done with a stack of magazine pages and an X-Acto knife. You also seem to bring images to the threshold of low resolution. When did you transition to digital?

DS: I stopped working for three years in the mid-1990s, and when I came back, it became apparent that I had to give up film. These were the early days of digital; film was still very much in use, but the transition was well under way. I resisted the change, until someone I worked for said, “You either do this job in digital or not.” I was forced into it. It was a real shock. I felt completely lost.

Slowly but surely, I reached a turning point where I realized: I have source material and I can go on the Internet and take the sky from another picture and add it to mine, and suddenly we’re in sunshine and not clouds. We’ve made this journey without ever having left the room. Because the options are limitless, the technique becomes less important. The idea itself is the singular exponent.

It became clear that there were all these brilliant aspects to working digitally. I was free to deconstruct the image, free to do other things that film would have been too limited to allow for.

MK: What kind of cameras do you use? How do you approach processing the image file?

DS: I can work with different cameras, depending on what I want to do. Usually I’m working with a Nikon, because I like those lenses. Other makes supply something more in the way of sharpness and they seem cleaner. But I like the grittiness of a Nikon lens.

Film is supposed to be such a permanent format. It’s archival. But the life span of the digital file, will it stand the test of time? We haven’t resolved that yet, and a digital format is far less stable, since it’s changing. I like that sense of impermanence.

MK: Which is extraordinary, because most artists are still interested in permanence—it’s even reflected in the somewhat ludicrous labeling of an ordinary ink-jet print as “archival,” to make the medium of ink-jet ink seem more museum-quality or something. Why do you think you are attracted to the ephemerality of the image?

DS: Maybe because I’ve worked for magazines throughout my career, I’m less concerned with this idea of perfection. You give your work to a page. It will be seen in contexts over which you have no control. I don’t think a poor reproduction is necessarily a bad thing. It might take the picture somewhere I hadn’t thought to go. It is a huge thrill to see your work hung in a museum space, but it doesn’t make it any better. I’m not so concerned about venue or context. I’m more interested in the experience of producing the work and then letting it go into the world.

People often talk to me about archiving my work: “What are you going to do with it? How will you organize it?” I’ve left that to other people. [Laughter.] I’m not so fixated on my archive. I have to believe that my next picture is going to be much better than the work I’ve done. I must always think going forward.

You can’t control the afterlife of your work. Control just leads to misery, I think. It’s impossible to achieve. To me, the pleasure is having the next thing to do. Pictures are like a boomerang. You throw them out into the ether, and they have a habit of coming back to you, whether it’s because you remember it or even misremember it. You present and re-present your pictures and they gain new significance. Just to see it again is a pleasure, but you can’t hold on to it. I let go all the time.

David Sims, editorial photograph for “London, January 11th–13th, 2016,” Self Service, Spring/Summer 2016.

MK: How do you think about narrative? So much fashion imagery is utterly literal, telling a story that is clearly about aspiration or rebellion or luxury, however fanciful; but one would be hard-pressed to pin down a story behind many of your images.

DS: I suppose I’ve explored quite a large range of images, from seemingly raw, stripped-down pictures to something surreal, like a recent series of photos in the woods [“Retox: Light Pours out of Me,” Arena Homme +, Winter 2015/Spring 2016]. I think those pictures come across as being profoundly sexual and dark, but that wasn’t my intention.

I was actually attempting to create fantasy from a very ordinary story. My cousin had sent me a video of him and his friends taking target practice with an air rifle in the woods. One of the men was dressed like the figure in the photograph, in a tracksuit. I was surprised how dark the images felt. I didn’t set out to make something dark. Why is somebody alone in the woods in the nude? The process just takes on a life of its own.

MK: By contrast, a series of women you shot [“Little Gentlemen,” Arena Homme +, Winter/Spring 2015] seems behind the scenes, candid, extremely intimate.

DS: I’ve started to explore what it feels like to objectify a woman’s anatomy. To obsess, to fetishize, but with no attempt to embellish it. The point is, if you engage in something like that, perhaps more mechanically, the way I have, it’s obvious that it starts to become obsessive. But I wouldn’t say that I’ve made the best photograph of a bottom at all. [Laughter.]

Obviously, it’s about a bum, it’s about color, but it’s also about capturing obsession, perhaps even a juvenile sense of obsession. I like the impact of something that you can discover for yourself. These photographs emulate that search.

MK: They have the quality of seeing something for the first time. It’s like they’re a reflection on photography and desire, but they’re not only some kind of knowing, self-reflexive photography about photography. They’re not didactic.

DS: I don’t want to be directed to something. I find it difficult to go into the more institutional galleries, because I feel like I’m being told what to like. That gets my back up. Perhaps it’s to my detriment; sometimes I miss the good work, just because I don’t like an illustrious place.

My generation was nursed by Pop and punk. I could only watch punk from a distance; I was just too young to truly comprehend the change it created, but it was long-lasting and clear. Before punk, there was Bowie. I was mystified by him: He was like Moses pushing back the institutional limits. His ideas, his appearances, were like a light on a new path, a map to a feeling of self. That went straight to my id. A while later, I was given a job as a printer and discovered photography.

I don’t want to describe myself as an outsider, but I struggled in all manner of things until I found photography. I thought visually; I had no academic qualities at all. So it’s always my voice, my version of things. And I’ve done everything I could to avoid placing myself in a group. Even to the point where I’ve shot myself in the foot. It’s slightly ironic, since when I was coming up, I was very much identified with a movement of sorts. This was part of a general trend, as the media and the public became more aware of what photographers were up to. Sometimes I wish photography was secret again. It felt for a while in the 1980s like it was small and very cultish. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t see many people in bookshops picking up monographs. I quite liked it like that. I’m possessive.

But I can understand why people felt the need to identify with a group or movement. The problem is, when you start talking about people as a group, they start behaving as one. It doesn’t make for good work, necessarily. But I’m not relying on that to push myself. Quite honestly, I wake up every day, and the first feeling is, “I need to do more.” There’s urgency on my own.

MK: Taste is often about consistency, about convention. Your work, on the other hand, seems to revel in inconsistency. I was struck by the sheer diversity of your compositions, their settings and style—they’re chameleonic.

DS: Everyone has their own bad taste. I’m not worried or preoccupied with this thing that I think haunts the fashion industry. I don’t adhere to or want the tyranny of the trend: “Do we have good taste?” Of course we don’t.

I realized a long time ago that I didn’t want to be tied to a signature style. Pastiche is much more challenging, to my mind, than having one look that you are constantly perpetuating.

Style is something that interested me from a young age. Fashion, I didn’t know anything about—that’s a business, an industry. But I had to learn it in order to be able to continue. To do the kind of work I love comes at a cost. We built those elaborate woods in the “Retox” shoot—they’re not real. Money well spent, as far as I’m concerned. To afford to be free to work that way is a good thing for me.

David Sims, editorial photograph for “Shine So Hard,” Arena Homme +, Summer/Fall 2010.

MK: How does the larger scale of the operation affect the image?

DS: Working with larger teams of people, the processing of the image becomes displaced, distributed through all of these diverse channels—you are orchestrating groups of retouchers, for example, often pulling them back from going too far. Although I’m still not very interested in retouching. People want perfection—someone’s looking at a face and taking out spots. I’d much rather leave them if I can.

I’m interested in color combinations and the collection of data: how you can add to the information in a way that you couldn’t do with the physical colors in front of the lens. It’s become much more parallel to the relationship between the lens and the enlarger. I’ve had to resolve some things that compression does to highlights and shadows. It took lots of trial and error. It’s probably made me more interested in printing than I ever was.

This has allowed all kinds of freedoms for me. With digital, it’s almost endless. It may come to a point where I want to go back to the rigor of something that’s limited. But right now, if I want to cut something out, silhouette it, erase, color, change context, I’m just going to go ahead and do it.

MK: But you’re also clearly devoted to the photograph as a material thing.

DS: My experience with images is primarily in the making. For me, the real making can begin in camera but evolves on-screen. It’s certainly a way for handling the coloring and bringing things together. It doesn’t end there.

I started out as a printer, and I had to print my own work for years. I’ve got someone now that I work with and I sit with for every print—maybe not every minute of it, but certainly the start and the end.

MK: One gets the sense that you want to push the image, too—and there is always a world beyond your pictures; they’re never self-enclosed or self-sufficient compositions.

DS: I wonder if my pictures strike people as romantic—I find romance in humdrum places. I’ve striven to create romantic images, to describe things “romantically.” I have yet to get there, I think. We may never be able to really go back to Romanticism. It’s like if you’ve ever really tried to do landscape photography, you’re never going to make it better than the early photographers did. Few landscape photographs can compare to those of the Victorians. Maybe it was their fascination with looking for God in open spaces. Their belief—it worked.

I can’t do that. My photos are informed by this nineteenth-century idea of the sublime, being overwhelmed by nature, but I’m just going to put a long lens on and blast it, destroy the depth of the sense of place. Maybe somewhere, though, I’ll find some ideal landscape of mine.

MK: This photograph [from “Shine So Hard,” Arena Homme +, Summer/Fall 2010] is of two figures, but it almost looks like a landscape—necks look like valleys—it’s difficult to read.

DS: Two men hugging, they’re both skinheads, and it’s vaguely homoerotic. It’s abstract. I just like the colors and the fact that the area of the neck is this very strange mauve. This weed falling across their heads is also hard to read, but it implies a wider frame. You start to figure out what it is—that there’s an ear; his head is cradled in another man’s neck. Obviously, they haven’t stood in a studio; it’s outside. You can just make out the grass behind them.

This was the first picture I made, probably, when I started to really think about digital color and the transitions that aren’t really there in your standard file.

Kodak did such an enormous amount to create a sense of color that previously just didn’t exist. Film invented a whole new set of colors, changed vision itself. And now we have an even newer set of hues. I’m interested in trying to make and find colors in between the light and the dark. That middle tone, the quixotic color. That’s the filter you want to swim through, isn’t it?