"In New York, it's better to be an interesting person than a wealthy one," said Henry Hargreaves during his #NYCalled interview at his Brooklyn studio. And while the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, I agree that money alone will never impress the people who are worth impressing in this city. A photographer, artist and, what I'd call, a "creator," Henry has one of the most intriguing stories I've heard. Although long, this full interview will hopefully leave you as inspired as I was. It's the story of a A New Zealand born kid who covered all of his creative bases and more: model, bartender, photographer, viral internet star, and now, restaurant investor.
HH: Well after I finished school in New Zealand I still didn't know what I wanted to do so I did what we call the "overseas experience." Basically, you go as far away as you can for as long as you can before you run out of money.
LC: So you packed your bags and headed to...?
HH: At age 21, on my way to London, I detoured and spent some time in Bangkok, where I got asked to model. The Western models don't go to Thailand because the money isn't good enough but Western models are still sought after for campaigns so backpackers and tourists get picked up on the street to model. I decided to test it out.LC: Were you interested in fashion and modeling at the time?
HH: When I was growing up in New Zealand in the '90s the only male models were like...rugby players. I didn't realize there was this whole other "high fashion" side for men like me. I moved to London after a couple of months in Bangkok and took my photos around to agencies. Two months later I was in Milan for Fashion Week and was the face of the Prada campaign. I went on to shoot for Marc Jacobs and Jil Sander and others. I pursued modeling full time for the next couple years. It was awesome - I mean I got to work with the Avedons and Testinos of the world...
LC: But you never had it in your mind that you wanted to be a model and you weren't really into fashion?
HH: I still never wanted to be a model and I really didn't care about fashion at all - it was just what happened. I think that if you are really into fashion and motivated as a model it can sometimes work against you. I think people like this idea of a street kid with that rougher haphazard look. What the modeling really did for me was get me my work visa for the States and eventually I realized I didn't want to be the guy in front of the camera anymore, I wanted to be the guy behind the camera.LC: How/when did you realize that?
HH: I guess the frustrating thing for me was that as a model, I had no control over my destiny. It was always up to somebody else's opinion if I were the right one for the shoot. I hated that nothing I could do was going to change whether I would work or not.
LC: And how was the transition from model to photographer?
HH: Well I bought my own camera and started talking to photo assistants on set asking them about the lighting, etc. It slowly dawned upon me that it was pretty self explanatory. Photographers like to say there all these tricks and it's kind of smoke and mirrors... No matter what you do everyone will think it was intentional. So I started experimenting and focusing less on modeling. Then, I moved to New York and became a bartender.
LC: What was your New York experience like?
HH: I really dug it. I felt like it was the most positive place I had been. There are other big cities where people are born and die there but people come to New York when they want to do something special. When they get burnt out they can leave and head somewhere close to home.LC: Agreed...So, while you were bar tending, were you just photographing as a hobby on the side?
HH: I was bar tending at Schillers and shooting on the side with my friends as models. Then I realized I wasn't that interested in shooting fashion. That's just what I was used to. I was more into shooting stories - people in crazy places.
LC: And were you getting paid?
HH: At first I was just testing and practicing but I did start to get editorials and the thing that really frustrated me was that editorial was about appeasing the advertisers. It would be a cool shot but we'd have to tweak it to show off the shoes or top better. I ended up working with Steven Meisel on a shoot for Italian Vogue and watching him talk so intricately about hair and make up and his overall vision made me realize this was not the type of setting in which I wanted to direct. The extent of my direction would be "make her look hot and put her in a cool background." At the same time I was working on editorial I was also getting my first paid jobs that were all still life. I realized how much I liked that. It became me experimenting with light and not having to deal with a hungover model, etc.LC: What was your first full time job?
HH: Working for New York Magazine. I shot food, still life, portraits, basically anything they needed. New York Mag is where I really became interested in shooting food. I found there was this great synergy between what I was doing in the restaurant as a bar tender and what I was doing with photography. I love how in the restaurant industry a good bartender can read their crowd. It's like experienced drivers - they don't look at the road right in front of them they look at the horizon. Four out of five times a great bartender knows what the customer is going to order before any words come out of their mouth. I love the way that food and drinks articulate something about the people who are ordering. Hence, food is often the subject of my photography.
LC: Was it New York Magazine that really put you on the map?
HH: I thought the huge credits in the magazines would lead to crazy traffic to my personal site but that just wasn't the case. It wasn't until a snowy night in Williamsburg that my work would soon go viral... I went around and took photos in the snow when it was a ghost town. Just for fun I used Star Wars screencaps everywhere because the setting felt like Planet Hoth from Empire Strikes Back. I amused myself and decided to send the photos around to friends. I ended up sending them to Gothamist. They posted the photos and suddenly I was getting 20,000 hits a day on my site and I was being contacted for all of this work. This is when I realized I can't just wait around for opportunities to come to me, if I go out and create it, hopefully someone will want to publish it.LC: So you're really a digital media success story?
HH: I'd say the democracy of the internet has been huge. For photographers, digital media has leveled the playing field. You don't need as many technical skills these days. Now on set at a shoot, chances are that the client has the same quality camera as myself and they know how to use Lightroom and Photoshop because they learned it as a hobby. They can probably do 70% of the job they are paying you to do.
LC: And what is the other 30% of the job they can't do themselves?
HH: To me it comes down to a photographer's ideas. The websites I like are threads of themes. Something interesting and different. For instance I did a whole series on prisoners last meals before they are executed because I believed it would be an interesting visual presentation. I did that and it became the #1 trending story on Buzz Feed. That one idea led to an exhibition, etc.
LC: Where do you get your ideas?
HH: I look at blogs, but a lot of it comes from my childhood. I have four themes I really work with: food, bright colors, childhood nostalgia and boobs. In fact I have a book about boobs in 3-D, called 3DD, that was the number one erotic book on Amazon. Hold on, I think I have a couple copies lying around...LC: That's pretty hilarious [as I put the 3-D glasses on to peruse the book we continued the interview]. What were the times along your career when you weren't #1 on Amazon... When you were scared you wouldn't have any influence?
HH: I guess there was a point when I was bar tending that I felt like I was at the best party every night, sort of running the show and you're making great money in tips but you get caught in that trap of just bar tending. Everyone says they are doing something else but thats not always the case. I realized I wouldn't be able to make a career as a photographer if I was still bar tending. I got to a point where I had saved up enough money to survive for 6 months with my current lifestyle before my funds would dry up. I decided that at the end of 6 months I would realize one of two things. Either: "I'm never going to make it as a photographer, time to work at a bar," OR "I've made it as a photographer and I don't have to go back to the bar." I realized if I didn't get out of my comfort zone I wouldn't make any progress for the next 2+ years.
LC: Did you feel like you had a lot to lose?
HH: No the only time I feel frustrated is when I don't try as hard as possible. Failure is better than having an idea and never executing it. I have this exercise I do where I have a conversation with a version of myself that is five years older and it's basically just me being honest with myself but it gives you a way to make it into a narrative.
LC: What are your goals for the future? What would you tell the older version of yourself now?
HH: I'm doing all of this to have the freedom to be able to work on projects I enjoy. For example, I just started an Instagram that features coffee cups from around the world... In the end, I hope I'm creating something that puts a smile on people's faces. It's the same kind of feeling I get when I look at the Fat Jewish's Instagram account. I actually worked with him the other day to ice his belly [see photo here] - but you look at his stuff and it just makes you laugh. Sometimes it can even make you think about bigger issues in a humorous way.
HH: One of the things that drew me to New York was that it's better to be an interesting person here than a wealthy one. I think in most other cities in the world wealth gets you so much respect but here it doesn't. I found the time here that I felt like the king on the throne was when i was bar tending. Everyone was more excited to have the bar tender from Schillers to their restaurant than the guy who is going to buy a whole bunch of bottles. I dig that often the first thing people ask you here is not, "so what do you do?" I think it's often much farther down the path. And as far as being an artist here? I mean there is a reason I am still here. I have access to collaborations, materials, etc. I am fueled by the people around me - the energy and the optimism of the city.