Coming up with a clever introduction for someone like Gabriel Jeffrey seems a bit pointless. Given his portfolio, and his extensive body of work over the past decade, spanning numerous mediums, you get the sense that it would almost be better to call him, and ask him to write it for you, because you know he’d knock it out of the park. Having worn many hats in his career from art director and web designer to photographer and author, Jeffrey defines what it means to create. He’s worked for ad agencies like Arnold Worldwide and David & Goliath. He launched an online confessional site called Group Hug and then wrote a book about it. He’s done editorial photography for magazines like Nylon and Lemon, and then bought a 1963 Ford Falcon and fixed it up. He’s directed music videos, and next, he wants to tackle features…a “Western” to be exact. He’s equal parts Indiana Jones and Steve Jobs with a pinch of Ty Webb and a dash of Marquis de Sade thrown in for good measure. But all of this is par for the course for the kid from Marysville, California who at 14 got his start designing signs, buttons and a billboard for a local city council candidate running for office.
Currently finishing up some graphics for a new TV network, and doing some freelance work for Volkswagen, Jeffrey gave EG15M a little bit of his time (just a little bit) to chat about formal education for artists, shooting for Nylon Mexico (never again), what happens when you do Tequila shots with a Chinese girl, and “burning down entire villages.” No…seriously.
As an artist, how would you describe yourself?
Antsy. I do a lot of work just because I need some money, and then while I’m doing that I see someone having all this fun doing something else, and I want to try that too. A friend of mine has done really well in the music business, and one day I was showing him some pictures that I’d taken of some girls in Malibu. He said that “photographer” was the second greatest career after “rock star”. I don’t completely agree with that, but the point is that I found it much easier to use a camera than a guitar, and he was right that getting paid to take pictures of pretty girls is an awesome thing to do.
How does your approach to a project change depending on the project? For example: Kate Earl’s “Melody” video versus creating “Group Hug”.
The approach is pretty similar. Each of those projects was a thesis in its own right. In 2003, I happened to be working on all these web sites, as a designer, so those are the thoughts that were banging around my apartment. Six years later I’d had a little experience on commercial sets as an art director, and I had taken a lot of photos of Kate already.
How did you come up with the idea for Group Hug?
I was drinking tequila with a Chinese girl and we were talking about how we didn’t know of any place on the web to just go tell a story, anonymously. It was a fast and easy idea. No plan, just execution.
Are you still working with it?
I’ve moved on. A string of volunteers maintain it. I’ve had some ideas along the way, related to it but more relevant to what I’m doing now. I’d like to maybe do a non-fiction film related to it at some point.
From a photographer’s standpoint, talk about the 3-ring circus that is “producing a shoot.” How do you manage it all in order to get the most out of your subjects?
It just happens somehow, I haven’t got a fucking clue.
Your site currently features your most recent photo editorial for Lemon magazine. Having worked as an art director and now as a photographer, talk about the relationship between the artist and the editor.
Kevin Grady, one of the editors at LEMON, came to me with a specific idea for one shot. He didn’t mandate it, but I thought it was a good idea and I added a little to it. I felt like we had the same thing in mind, and that turned out to be true. It was a flawless collaboration, and when I turned in the pictures he just replied, “you nailed it.” Last year, I shot story for Nylon Mexico. We delivered, they loved the pictures, and then they decided not to run them, and not to pay for them. I won’t go near that rag again.
Your photography has a visceral quality to it portrayed from an almost intellectual standpoint. From the Burning Man images to the photos of Paris Suit Yourself, the viewer can almost taste the dry dust in the air, or feel the sweat on the musicians. What do you want us to feel?
Whatever I was feeling. I try to get really excited, or silly, or serious, or turned on or whatever the feeling is supposed to be. Subjectivity is everything, I think. If I’ve been staying up really late with some unhealthy habits, but I’m really happy about it, then things look a certain way. Lights are brighter, red looks really red, and people react to you differently. So then if I do things right, the picture comes out like that. If I was just really bored or worried about my mom or something, it would end up different.
Having now explored so many artistic avenues, which is your favorite?
Right now, I want to direct.
Anything in particular you have your eye on directing?
Definitely more music videos. A feature is obviously something I am interested in long-term, but I don’t feel like I’m ready for something that yet. Eventually though, I’d like to shoot a western.
What turns you on?
Everything turns me on, but only for about an hour…like an unaltered puppy.
In terms of creating art, how important is a formal education?
Certain things would probably be easier, more profitable, and definitely more formal, if I’d gotten a formal education. It’d be easy to make either case. If a person is struggling to communicate, then some school sounds reasonable, right? Maybe there are other paths that work out better for others. Personally, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. The loans didn’t make sense to me.
Who are some of your influences/ heroes in both your work and your life?
Shit, I don’t know. I feel influenced by a lot of people and movements. I don’t try to consciously subscribe to one hero or ideology. People I notice being really happy and productive, it never seems like they’re taking it too seriously. I like Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov. I really enjoy hearing about how all these old geniuses like Franklin, Einstein, and all the old master painters and composers… I like how they all had this insane, lecherous side to them. I don’t think you can make something really beautiful if you’re afraid of shadows.
What equipment do you use?
I use a Canon 5D MKII for photography, and a Mac Book Pro for burning down entire villages.
What is your take on digital versus traditional photography?
I probably feel the same as most guys, of a similar background, if you asked them the same question. Film is amazing, romantic and generally comes with a patina that takes some effort to emulate with digital. I own a number of cameras that expose film. Every now and then I choose to use one of those instead of a digital camera.
How instrumental is Photoshop or other photo editing software in your work?
I think most digital pictures look lousy without some correction.
Why do you create?
Mainly to modify things. If I had some wood to split or a garage to take things apart in, I’d be just as satisfied.
Right now, I’m putting together a shoot for a campaign for a clothing line in NYC. I have also started a company with Paul Cavazos, my business partner in NYC called Parts & Labor. We provide creative direction for musical artists, visual artists as well as branding for various projects.
Gabriel Jeffrey lives and works in Los Angeles and New York City. He is the author of “Stoned, Naked and Looking In My Neighbor’s Window”.