Interview: Photographer, Georges Antoni

Words OLIVER MOL
Images supplied by Georges

Georges Antoni, the world-renowned Australian fashion photographer, is an artistic powerhouse whose creative journey reads like a modern fable. Born in Blackall, Queensland, Antoni studied law and commerce, then eventually became a strategic consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. A short time later, he founded a chain of health food stores, then lost everything. Down to his last dollars, Antoni approached a modelling agency claiming to be a photographer. In the intervening twenty-two years, he has worked—and continues to work regularly—for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia, Oyster, i-D, Marie Claire, Elle, and for fashion houses including Versace, Peter Alexander and Hugo Boss. Underpinning his success, and hugely impressive, is Antoni’s deeply considered, original and striking relationship to perfectionism and creativity, and while Antoni would most likely downplay his own importance, I will leave his profound words here: “the negative feedback of doing something unusual or different is never greater than the negativity I put on myself for doing something the same.” It is no small stretch to suggest that his humble, inquisitive and relentless pursuit for what he calls the perfect imperfection might act as a template for all creatives working today.

Georges, your birth as a working creative is legendary and brazen. Twenty-two years on, how do you feel about the failure of your health food shop business, and how were you able to convince the modelling agency you were a photographer?

I would say that closing down the business—that physical failure—is probably the most critical and important thing that has happened in my life. Tasting something that bitter is an incredible motivator to work as hard as you can to ensure it never happens again. I had wanted to set up my mum and dad, and the physical act of pulling down the signs and closing the business, having failed so badly, even now is bittersweet: although that pivotal failure has driven the small success I have achieved in my career.

How did I bullshit the modelling agency? Mostly, out of desperation. After the health food stores went bust, I was scheduled to return to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, but then I got a call from HR who said, “George, you can’t come to Singapore because this disease has hit called SARS.” I was desperate. I had literally no money, and I knew it would take two weeks to apply for unemployment benefits. So I got in my car and drove to a modelling agency. I had taken some photos of an ex-girlfriend on my Nikon F1, and I told them I was a fashion photographer and showed them the print out of my six favourite photos. They liked them, and even though looking back I think I was a bit of a scamming bugger, I was also clever in the sense that I didn’t think I knew more than I knew. That was important—because I literally didn’t do anything other than shoot personal work and model’s portfolios in my mum and dad’s front room for the next two and a half years. That was how I taught myself photography, and even though I had a chance to return to consulting, I didn’t want to. I fell in love with photography, and to this day I love it. So it was a challenging kind of lie at the beginning, but it turned into a truth.

 

Career changes can be daunting at the best of times, and yet you seemed to thrive. Did you ever deal with imposter syndrome or self doubt?

It’s interesting that you ask that question in the past tense, because the bottom line is that I suffer from imposter syndrome now, badly. Whenever I am shooting—and it could be an international campaign for Hugo Boss, or a freebee for a friend of mine—I still have that feeling that I am not good enough. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. As creatives, we need to work out where our fire comes from, and to make sure that fuel never runs out.

One of the things I do if I am shooting, and I pretty much know what I am doing will work, is I change it—because it means I am shooting in the middle of where I want to be. I think I have made a career of constant evolution and change over twenty-two years because the feeling of being an imposter drives me to do things differently than how I have done them previously. I think that has helped to keep me refreshed, and interested in my craft, and I hope to continue feeling that imposter syndrome until the day I die. It really is a driving factor for me. Another way to say it is: the negative feedback of doing something unusual or different is never greater than the negativity that I put on myself for doing something the same. Of course, at the same time, it is very hard to keep changing, but I really see stagnation as a negative thing, and I probably shouldn’t. I think I would have been more successful in certain aspects of my career if I had focused on things I was good at, but I never do. If I do a really good shoot, my next shoot might be mediocre, because it is more important to me to push the boundaries of photography, rather than repeat what has worked in the past.

Your relationship to perfectionism sounds incredibly healthy. Where do you think that comes from, and could you describe some of the ways you have consciously changed your approach to a shoot?

It’s interesting. I would say that I am in search of the imperfections that I love. These days, with our access to resources, AI, retouching, lenses, photoshop, perfection, or the pursuit of what is perceived as visual perfection, is actually relatively easy to find. What is more difficult—or the most difficult—to find artistically is perfect imperfection. And the perfect imperfection might not mean the same thing to you as it does to me, but I want to find beauty in the flaws that we face in the mirror everyday. By changing colour or altering what might be called conventional composition, I try to deliver these imperfections to an audience in a meaningful way.

To answer the second part of your question: I don’t think I have ever consciously or structurally changed the way I think and shoot, but over a two-hundred day shooting year I can notice big differences. However, I can confidently say that in the past five years I have stagnated quite heavily, and while I have just started reigniting in the last six to twelve months, I would say that stagnation was probably not a creative issue as much as a life circumstance issue. Whereas before my source of influence used to be this wide world of travel and experience, now I have children and nappies and food and feeding them and making sure they don’t die and taking them to school. So my perspective on life is much narrower, but far deeper. I’m happier, and my emotional attachment to my smaller world is greater. I don’t think my photography has gotten better or worse, it has just pivoted slightly.

I also think you can see exhaustion in some of my photos. You can see I haven’t tried as hard as I normally would. There is a bit more of an ease in them; I have had to rely on muscle memory, which could be positive or negative depending on whether you like the picture. The same person could say, “Oh, he has done that with such ease,” and like it, and another could say, “He’s getting lazy.” And both of them are right because both are the net result of having four or five hours sleep a night, and still shooting as much. All those things add up to informing both the amount of effort and energy that goes into the work.

Another way to say it is that I have always been fascinated by the concept of content vs context. So, photographically, content is aperture, shutter speed, what camera you use, composition, creative direction, art direction, styling, hair, makeup, and you can teach people content very easily. Some people take a year, others more, but anyone can mostly learn how to make something work from a content perspective. Context is what you feel when you look at that photo, or what you’re thinking about when you look at that photo. You can’t teach that, but you can build it like a muscle, and I think great pictures are made from both. The early stage of my career, and the early stage of most photographer’s careers, you really focus on content because you’re trying to build a foundation. Due to having a family, I think I have hit a stage of my life and career where the content seems less important, and context has taken precedence.

 

Being a photographer generally demands a lot of travel, not to mention the time spent in pre and post-production. How do you protect yourself from burnout, and how do you strike a healthy work life balance?

The one thing I would say to whoever reads this is that I am the worst person in the world to be asked this question. I am not an authority for work life balance. I am an absolute dog at it. Have I burned out? Yeah, I think I have really pushed myself and my body to limits I probably shouldn’t have if I wanted to remain incredibly healthy. I sleep between four and five and a half hours a night. I’ve also had massive issues, like at the moment I have a prolapsed disc in my back. I got it on January 1, and I haven’t had a minute to rest, so I am probably going to have spinal surgery in the next six to eight weeks. I also had a shoulder reconstruction back in 2015, and I kept shooting through the whole thing. I was meant to take eight weeks off, but I started shooting five days after the operation. I would be shooting, and gradually the camera would dip, and my assistant would lift it up. I went through adrenal fatigue, put on fifteen kilos in seven weeks, and have not been able to get rid of it. And all this happened because I don’t know where the stop button is.

However, in terms of my ridiculous approach to work and being a parent, there are a few things that have worked in my favour. The first is that I don’t drink. I have never drunk, and I have never done drugs, so I probably gain an extra day or day and a half a week. I also keep my energy levels really even. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t take panadol. I’m also not the kind of guy who is going to go out with the boys. So, any free time I have, I spend with my children and my wife. It sounds like work takes priority, but it actually doesn’t. It’s a really difficult balance, but I have a lot of great support through my wife. The other thing is that when I am with my children and my wife, I am one hundred percent with them. After I finish work, I don’t look at my phone until I hear my alarm at 3 a.m. the following morning. Then I get up and get my emails and pre-production and editing done, and if I am not shooting that day I will make the kids breakfast, walk them to school, then get back to the work. What I have done is not decrease the amount I work, but stretched the amount of time I don’t sleep.

That sounds like a wild schedule for productivity. Given that you don’t drink or smoke, do you have any vices? Or does all the energy go into the work for you?

Honestly, I think my schedule is a bit foolish. I’m not proud of it. In terms of vices, I think work can be perceived as one of them. But the one thing I am learning as I grow older is there are positives and negatives for every side of the situation. Not drinking could be perceived as good, but it could also limit your ability to relax or meet certain people. I think what works for you as an individual is paramount. I don’t feel that my way is the right way at all. But in terms of my vices, I definitely sacrifice certain health and enjoyment activities because of my focus, and I think that’s a very dangerous vice. We just renovated our house, and what I learned—and learned about myself— was that at three o’clock every day the tradespeople left, and it used to frustrate the hell out of me. But now I realise that they were going home, or they were going to the gym, or they were going to spend time with their kids, or their wives—and that is actually a really noble, powerful, strong thing to want for something other than work. I think that’s a gift given to those who are not in a creative pursuit, because when you are in a creative pursuit it is just an all encompassing, all consuming, unrelenting thing. It is you versus you. You are the vice. And I am, by personality, unrelenting to get to that result.

 

The mixed-media and contemporary artist Orson Heidrich recently said that he preferred digital to film, because film generally relies on the aesthetic of film to boost photos, whereas those who shoot digital need to be selective with their processes because there is less of a crutch to fall back on. What are your thoughts, and which medium do you prefer?

Orson is very clever. He has a great aesthetic himself, and has been exposed to many different and great photographers. I think what Orson was saying, to paraphrase, is that when you shoot film you automatically receive an interesting result. When you shoot digital you could get one thousand different results, but the native look is a little boring. There is so much information available to you, and digitally you have to work out what you want your photo to be, how you want it to look, and what your processes are to get it there. It’s a real skill. There are more opportunities in front of you, and it is harder to find a true taste level within it.

Your job as a photographer is to make the best pictures within constraints. As for me, I shoot digital. I would love to shoot more film, but I think in Australia you let the market determine what you do. It’s probably a non-artistic way of looking at things, but I think there is a pragmatism in delivering for clients. Shooting digital has a lot of process advantages for most advertising jobs, and it would be amiss of me to do any personal work or editorial work on film, because that is your training ground, that’s where you’re experimenting. What I try to do is make digital as beautiful and as interesting as I can make it, instead of being a jack of all trades. The irony is I was very late to digital. Until 2011, I was film, and everyone was digital. Now, I am digital when everyone is going back to film. I changed to digital because of commercial constraints. Michelangelo was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel upside down, so there’s a constraint, and he did a brilliant job, and I thought with digital I wanted to do a brilliant job too. So I just threw myself into it. I pretty much stopped shooting for six months, and just taught myself how to make digital look like film.

The first thing I did was use a whole bunch of different cameras and lenses. Then I worked with a digital operator who understood the capturing programs, and I found a colour specialist who worked with printing. I got him to come and teach me about the different colour profiles in the capture programs, and from there I started taking photos and printing them to see whether printing made any difference. Then I started doing all this colour profiling within my cameras, and eventually I just got a better understanding of colour, process, sharpening. I understood how to achieve certain results, and then how to break them. It was a lot of trial and error, which was interesting: when you break something down to that degree, you really have to work out what elements in a photograph you love. What do you want to retain from film? The softness? The graduation of colour? The tonal graduation? What happens in highlights? It became a real exploration where I had to identify what I liked in photos technically, and what I didn’t. And then how I might best replicate what I wanted to retain. I get asked every second or third picture on Instagram what film stock I use, even though to me it still looks really digital.

You work with two assistants and an operator. What do you look for in the people you work with, and the people you collaborate with?

I don’t care if the people on my team have experience, because I don’t need anyone to light for me, but what I do need is for them to be really good people, because they set the tone for the set. They need to be very hard working, and they need endurance. On my schedule, assistants can drop like flies. Not because they don’t like the work, but because they’re too exhausted. But for the most part, I have been very lucky. I have really good, long term relationships with my assistants, and it is not uncommon to shoot sixty-four days in a row. Last year, we did one set where it was sixty-one days out of sixty-four. It’s crazy. Flights, and travel, and ninety percent of it was on location. It was exhausting, and these guys were absolutely shattered by the end, but they brought incredible energy and I owe them so much. Apart from endurance, I really need them to have the ability to learn and to understand. That’s really important to me, but most important is that they are really good people.

As for collaborators, I like people who aren’t necessarily in my own aesthetic. If there is a stylist you want to pair me with because you think it works, that is probably not interesting to me. What I find the most interesting in the collaboration of artistic minds is giving people a perspective on what you want the shoot to look like, but allowing them to honour their own integrity in executing that idea. So, I believe a great shoot is about choosing the right combination of people to make great pictures. If you always work with the same people doing the same thing that you like, then you’re never going to mix anything up. You’re never really putting the recipe together. There’s probably one hundred thousand forms of bread in the world, primarily made of water, flour and yeast, but you can put the same ingredients in and get very different results.

 

An integral part of a photographer’s role is directing, and making people feel comfortable in a shared space. Could you talk about how you go about this, and how this has changed over the years?

I would hope that, for the most part, my sets are comfortable and warm for the subjects, but there are times when I deliberately make my sets a bit shit. Tension creates a different thing, a different dynamic, a different feeling, a different look in the photograph. I have dabbled in a whole lot of different ways to change energy in the room. For example, you can put an assistant quite close to the set and it completely changes the way a photograph will look because there is an energy that happens. Human emotions are derivative of the energy that is around them, and sometimes you play music if you want people to feel relaxed and loose. If you want them to feel uptight and tense, then keep the room as cold temperature-wise as you can, and have no music, and be a bit more stern with your assistants. It is all about creating an atmosphere that will give you the result you want.

I am also fascinated with the concept of ego in photographs, meaning: how much of you is in the photograph, rather than: look how great I am. I do find it interesting to stand back and not direct, to remove myself and see where things go. It can be a bit disconcerting because people might think you’re lazy or not into it, but sometimes the talent just needs the space to be themselves. Also, I have realised that I just don’t have an infinite number of ideas. If there are ten people in a room, there are ten times more ideas than I have. I try to give those ideas room to grow.

Whatever happens, I think you want authenticity, or the perception of authenticity in your photos. But the most important and overriding thing is that everyone leaves feeling comfortable and happy at the end of the day.

There’s a brilliant quote by Jackson Pollock that says, “Every good painter paints what he is.” What do you think makes a successful photographer, and what advice would you give to creatives starting out?

I think anybody that has great pictures, that has that kind of difference in their work, nothing stops them. Art directors and creative directors or whoever is choosing these photographers, they always want something better, different, interesting, and if you can fill that need then you’re in. I don’t think that has ever changed throughout the history of the world, there has always been that desire for change.

Furniture design movements are a very interesting analogy. Throughout history, trends have always swung between neoclassical and rococo and back again. You can almost boil photography down to those two styles. Neoclassical: utilitarian, functional, simple, minimalist, squares, everything fits in, a great level of structure, everything works as it should, nothing more and nothing less.  Rococo, on the other hand, is curvy, voluptuous, excessive and decadent. Interestingly, I believe one informs the other and feeds the other’s regrowth. Once we go too far one way, our appetite for change sends us back the other way. Art in photography is the same thing. So you always need to find what your voice is going to be, and not what your voice currently is. If you can find that and execute it well, then you’ll always find yourself quenching that thirst for change.

The advice I would give to people who want to break through is honesty. You need to define what you like, but don’t look at it on a superficial level, because everything that is going to influence you is popular culture at the moment. Everything that you like is based on popular culture. What you need to do is figure out what underlines that, what underlines what you actually love, and then find it in your work. If you can do that and keep experimenting until you get it, then you’ll end up creating something interesting and different that is not based on what you have seen, but based on what you want to see. Our job is not to photograph a style that we have seen, but to photograph a style that has yet to be seen.

The other thing I would say is that I have fallen into black spaces with photography where I haven’t wanted to take pictures, you know, relatively regularly, and the only way I fall back in love with it is by shooting. I will not want to shoot, but then something sparks, and I’m like, Fuck, that’s good. That’s interesting. But it’s only out of the dark moments that I have found the good styles. So find out what your truth is, or don’t stop searching for it, and don’t stop creating. Don’t take a sabbatical. I think that is really important.  A lot of people talk about having to take a lot of time off, and I am sure creativity is born out of space. I get that, but I think more creativity is born out of activity. I genuinely think creativity is a number’s game. You need to play your numbers well. Just keep making. It doesn’t need to be good. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It can be absolutely shit. Just keep going, and find your truth in it. I really think they are the most important things—because where we get confused as creatives is: we think the difficulty is finding what other people will like. That’s not it. The real challenge is finding what you like, and being able to achieve that. It’s something I am in constant search of.