20 Aug 2007
Clayton Cubitt, a.k.a. Siege, is a shock photographer. You may have seen his eye-popping work already on the Web. There, his saturated-in-color, boundary-pushing shots have earned him a truly die-hard audience of acolytes who can't get enough of his wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am photographic style. On his eponymous website and the Daily Siege, a weblog he maintains at Nerve.com, Cubitt's cutting edge images are taking the medium of photography to new extremes. Whether he's shooting heartbreaking portraits of Hurricane Katrina survivors in devastated New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was raised, or creating a fashion layout featuring adult film star Justine Joli exposing her most intimate parts, his work sears itself indelibly across the retinas of its viewers.
At 35, Cubitt has dedicated himself to a kind of gesamtkunstwerk approach to photography. He takes portraits of the famous and his friends, shot a recent ad campaign for Converse sneakers, and collaborated with software designer Tom Carden for Metropop magazine on a denim-themed pictorial that incorporated digital vector art. Not infrequently, he steps in front of the camera for his most personal—and hardcore—work. While Cubitt's predecessors remained hidden behind their camera lenses, this photographer—inspired by the raw intensity of Terry Richardson and Jurgen Teller—is unafraid to subject himself to the same kind of scrutiny to which he subjects his subjects.
"A lot of the time I'm a fashion photographer," Cubitt explains from his home in the Wiliamsburg area of Brooklyn, where he lives and works. "And I'm certainly inspired by fashion photography, but I don't consider myself a fashion photographer alone any more than I would consider myself a 'portrait photographer' or an 'art photographer.'" He doesn't read fashion magazines—even the ones he's in—because he doesn't want to subconsciously copy his peers. Growing up, Cubitt didn't have much. Today, the fashion world's luxurious excesses—everything his childhood was not—is a part of the appeal for him. Fashion photographer Nick Knight was an early inspiration. "The reason why I'm a photographer is this Yohji Yamamoto ad campaign shot by Nick Knight. I saw this image, 'Susie Smoking.' It struck me so powerfully. It gave me the idea that, visually speaking, a photograph could be as lush and compelling as a painting—a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. Then I saw 'Green Room Murder' by Helmut Newton, and I was knocked off my chair. They made me want to pick up a camera." Cubitt is after something more than another pretty picture. "A lot of fashion photographers are stuck on just pretty," he opines. "It's very easy to do that because the infrastructure is set up to do pretty." Rather, Cubitt prefers a darker view of beauty. "I like sugar-coated poison pills," he offers. "I like the depravity and sexual rawness of Terry Richardson, or Ryan McGinley, or Jurgen Teller. I like that 'authenticity.' I try to combine the beauty of Nick Knight and the slickness of Helmut Newton with the subversiveness of Terry Richardson."
Recently, his work has taken a new turn. He has begun "degrading" his images. The results bring to mind the experimental films of Stan Brakhage, who painted on and scratched the film surface to dramatic effect, and "Decasia," a 2002 film by director Bill Morrison created out of found silent film footage that is actively deteriorating. This new work—in which shards of light streak across a model's face and shooting vectors intertwine with whirling hairdos—are as enamored with desecrating beauty as they are invested in paying it homage. In this case, his inspiration came from a most unlikely source. In 2005, his mother, a resident of Pearlington, Mississippi, a small town located not far from New Orleans, was living in a new home Cubitt had spent his savings buying for her six month previous. Her home and all her belongings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. His subsequent efforts to help his mother recover from this devastating loss, his repeated tours through this fallen city in shambles, and his experiences creating portraits of the survivors he encountered there deeply moved him and forever changed his view of the world. "The more recent work, the personal and the fashion work," he reveals, "where I'm literally degrading the quality of the image—injuring it, damaging it—is a result of Hurricane Katrina, what it's done with New Orleans, and what it's done with my family. It's that notion of beauty—not in spite of decay, but because of decay. It becomes so horribly beautiful that you can't look away. It's that feeling of destruction that New Orleans has really always been about, but even more so since Katrina. Initially, I was attracted to the beauty of fashion—whereas I came from hand-me-downs and wife-beaters. Now, I'm starting to incorporate some of the dirtiness of my upbringing into my fashion work."
As of late, his work that explores where fashion and pornography intersect has caused a sensation. One series, "Damaged Doll," stars Justine Joli, a redheaded porn star who looks more like a supermodel than a sex worker. The Playground, a boxed set of fashion artwork, included two shots from this set. Printers refused to print it because of Cubitt's work, and Barneys won't carry it because of those shots. When you mix sex and porn: "It still has the power to freak people out."
Does he consider himself a fashion photographer? "I would kill myself before I would become just a fashion photographer," he replies. Then, he clarifies. "Part of what draws me to art is the promise of freedom and variety of expression, the power of a life fully expressed, not limited to one channel, or mode. And to the extent that specializing in a niche limits me to one mode or viewpoint, will be the extent I chafe and push back against it." The only question is where he'll go next.