‘Boy, this got deep’ – R.E.M’s Michael Stipe on art, politics and sexuality

The first thing Michael Stipe does is apologise.

“I’m sorry” he says. “I’m your date for Friday night.”

A funny – if needless – apologybecause honestly, there’s much worse ways to spend a Friday evening than discussing art, politics and sexuality with the former frontman of R.E.M, one of the most important and influential American alternative-rock bands of all time.

“Let me grab some tea,” he continues, “and I’ll put this around so you can see me a little bit better,” he says, spinning his laptop around and presenting a fleetingly voyeuristic look into his Berlin apartment, where a giant stack of flowers has been plumped on the ground.

“I had my camera out and I was taking a few black and white pictures of this beautiful, enormous, crazy bouquet that my boyfriend bought me, against the floor,” he says, cuppa in hand. “It’s insanely hot here and all the flowers opened at the one time, there’s probably 15 giant lilies in a very small apartment and the smell is beautiful but … it’s overwhelming.”

It’s fitting because his photography is the reason we’re talking. The Italian publishing house Daimani, which specialises in stunning books on photography and contemporary art, are publishing Portraits Still Life, their third book of Stipe’s photographic work.

“The book is about lockdown and this period of March of 2020 to March 2021,” he says, before revealing that initially he’d started work on a portraiture book of women until the sudden appearance of the global pandemic drastically changed his plans.

“Lockdown happened and I had to stop,” he says. “I fled New York. I had a bad cough and I wasn’t sure what was going on. It was terrifying.”

He left the city, rushing back to his home state of Georgia to take care of his mother. She had a very difficult summer. “She’s fine now,” he says, but it saw him staying in his hometown for the entire year.

“It was intense,” he answers, when asked how he coped living under lockdown. “It was very difficult and existential and far beyond my simple individual needs and situation – although that was in itself challenging and not altogether easy. Watching and imagining what other people were going through was – and is still- very, very difficult for me. I think we all lost people or had people suffer immensely through this. That’s always never easy. It’s almost like wartime. I grew up in a military family and there was always this sense of doom or distant violence or death even, hovering on the fringes of life – which is life. But when it’s that much in your face … it’s not easy.”

He stops, sighs deeply, then says, “Boy, this got deep … we were talking about a book.”

With his portraiture book scuppered he needed a new idea. He quickly ruled out Zoom portraits or obtaining selfies and applying colour manipulations, a technique he used in his second book 2019’s Our Interference Times: A Visual Record. He entertained the thought of an archival book, he has hundreds of thousands of photos stretching back to 1974, before being hit by a moment of clarity.

“I was like, ‘No, hold on a second. The job of the artist is to present the present.’ We’re moving through this profoundly important changing of the guard and a really important, pivotal moment in human history – the pandemic. I want to respond to that moment. I want to react to it.”

He did this by creating what he calls, “another kind of portrait”. He embraced his love of 1970s graphic design- “I would have been a graphic designer, probably a terrible one, if I hadn’t found music,” he jokes – to create a book that blends studio portraiture with slice-of-pandemic-life photo-journalism, a wild exploration into fonts and lettering, and a creative, handmade shout-out to the people who inspire him.

“I wanted a more subtle record, a diaristic journal of my journey through lockdown and the people who gave me the courage to continue and not lose my mind,” he states.

Portraits of famous friends, like actor and cover subject Tilda Swinton, give way to impromptu shots (from a safe distance, naturally) of family living through lockdown in Georgia, with both periodically interrupted by still life, studio photographs of books and vases emblazoned with the names of his heroes in his self-designed fonts.

Names like NFL star and Black Lives Matter protester Colin Kaepernick – “he basically torpedoed his own career for a belief” – and the Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer Lynsey Addario – “I wound up at dinner with her at a friend’s house in Los Angeles before lockdown and was ahh-mazed at this woman’s story, placing herself in a really male-dominated world in a very difficult situation and her experiences moving through that and surviving it”.

He likens the books and the vases to the shout-outs that James Brown, the godfather of soul, would perform mid-song.

“I wanted a different representation of people. And that’s what I got. These people are incredibly inspiring and living on this Earth at the same time as we are. How amazing is that? That’s the stupidest, dumbest thing to say,” he grins knowingly, “but inspiration is all around.”

It’s also not a complete list, with Stipe saying he couldn’t include everyone.

“How do I say this without sounding super new-agey?” he muses. “I’ve got a bright light so it’s when I turn away from that light that things get a little muddy and weird. All the people that encourage me towards that light are in no way completely captured in this book.”

Of all the people left out of Portraits Still Life the most glaring is arguably the most famous. Having featured prominently in his previous photography books, both he and his sexuality are notably absent here.

“I wanted the book to not be about myself,” he explains. “You can see my shadow in the final image but I purposefully removed myself from the book.”

“That said, it is a very queer group of people. I can’t speak for Colin Kaepernick but I imagine if we were at a table together he’d be as okay with me as I am with him. So, he’s welcome to the table. But among my family and my friends, the family I was born into and the family that I’ve gathered around myself over my rich and varied life, it’s quite queer.

Then he pauses, thinks for a second and laughs. “There’s a bunch of straight people in the book but they’re really cool, straight people. They’re invited to the table as well.”

* Michael Stipe: Portraits Still Life (Daimani, $110) will be available late July/early August. The book also includes free QR-code audio narration by Stipe.

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