A Conversation with Liam Goslett

Rather than enhance it, Liam Goslett uses his camera to strip the glamour from fashion. He wants to break down and humanize an art form that is increasingly esoteric and distant. He was among the first, and is still one of the best, to document street style, and while those photos necessitate colour, it's the lack of it, both visually and often emotionally, that defines his main body of work. His projects for GQ, Puma, Complex and myriad other clients are united by a pervasive sense of unrest, something Liam mentioned frequently during our conversation over a hot bowl of Pho in Toronto's Chinatown. Dark or light, before prying eyes or hidden from view, Liam wants to photograph everything, equally.

"I like everything looking like something isn't right, something's not okay. Someone's uncomfortable, somethings is a bit off. "

Interview & Photographs of Liam by Grady Mitchell
Street Photography by Liam Goslett

To Liam Goslett

Liam Saw This
Grady Mitchell

Can you talk about how you first ventured into photography? I know what you're doing now is a long way from where you started.

(laughs) Yeah. I was riding a lot of bikes. I'd ride with guys that were 25 and guys that were 13 but we'd all hang out together because if you were good, you were good. The neighbourhood I grew up in is based around this ravine and a couple guys went down and cleared out a football field-sized area of the forest and turned it into jumps. In order to get to it you had to cross a couple rivers, throw your bike across and then jump, only like three, four feet, but it kept people walking dogs and more importantly– people with bulldozers out of it. In the summer you'd wake up at eight o'clock and be down there for 10, 12 hours at a time. This was when I was 11 or 12.

So I'd come home and say, "Hey, my friend learned to backflip today," and people were like, "No he didn't, you guys are 15." I started taking photos because no one was documenting this weird subculture we had. I started stealing cameras from my dad or my mom or stepdad, whoever wasn't paying attention to their camera at the time. On any given day I'd come down with some little point and shoot or some DSLR or some old film camera from the 1990s, whatever I could get my hands on.

I did that for a couple years and started taking portraits of my friends outside of biking. Almost around the same time I started blogging in the summer because I was working at a bank writing software that was migrating documents from all different areas of this bank. You had to ask for server requests, but because banks are so hierarchical you'd wait five or six hours for someone to get back to you because it would be up the chain, down the chain, then across… So I found Tumblr and started blogging.

What were you blogging at this point, both biking and portraits?

I was on Hypebeast since 13 or 14, so I was interested in fashion, I'd just never shot it. I went to high school for the most part in Markham, and people there just dress whatever, American Eagle mall stuff and I wasn't interested by any of that. I had a friend who had really cool Nike SBs and he told me about Hypebeast when I was in grade 9. When I started blogging I'd been reading about fashion for years on the forum.

I banged myself up pretty badly when I was 18, couple broken things and couldn't ride for a while. It was supposed to be two years but I gave it six months and in that six months I had nothing to shoot but I was still interested in fashion and I'd been taking portraits of my friends for a while. I realized there was no one doing street style in Toronto, so I started shooting street style. I set up my street style blog, Liam Saw This, and the reaction was really good.

Because of that, Tumblr flew you out for NYFW, right?

Yeah, that was the big thing. A week after I set up Liam Saw This, Tumblr sent me an offer to fashion week, that was insane.

Was that overwhelming?

It was ridiculous. I'd been to New York a bunch before, but never in a "I'm going to Fashion Week" sense. I was 19 when I went and the whole experience of meeting people in real life that you knew from the internet was disorienting. Within the first three days I met a couple of the people that I still call my idols. I think I got my bearings pretty quickly, but I was still shocked by how easy-going everyone was. I don't live in New York, I mean I live in a big city but not a big fashion city, so to be able to still work regularly with these people is rad.

I was going to ask about that, growing up and being based in Toronto. Does that present a disadvantage?

I still work on projects that I love. The big stuff I still get to do. And it's really flattering to have someone want to send you out to shoot. But there's still a disadvantage of not living in their city. I got a job offer the other day and they said they needed something shot on Tuesday, "Can you be here?" "Well, if you fly me in I can be there." But I can also say, "Here are five friends of mine who are very good at this."

There's more opportunity in New York. It's not that it's a talent thing, it's a resources thing. There's a much larger wealth of resources to pull from. Say I have an idea, I can pitch it to this magazine, this magazine, this website, this brand, whatever, and all their offices are within a block of each other. There are more outlets to work with and usually more money. I think that's the most frustrating - having an idea or a shoot for something you really want to do, and not having the resources.

I love Toronto and I've grown up here but I am trying to move, just because New York is better for me right now. I've been trying to find an agent for a little bit and once I do I'm going to make the move.

On a few occasions now you've taken a unique approach to documenting Fashion Weeks. First you piled every image you shot into one long slideshow. More recently, for GQ, you shot NYFW in black and white film, which goes against the "get it up first" mentality. Why?

I do this series that's just black and white film shot on the camera that I really learned how to take photos on, because I was inspired by this guy who shot for the Wall Street Journal, Mustafah Abdulaziz. It was so earnest and so unglamorous and so humanizing, it was perfect.

When I get the film back I actually go into the darkroom with negatives and print it. There's very little photoshop, mostly it's me manually adding and subtracting and moving things, playing with the negative. But it's way more fun. Once I make the print I scan them online and send them in that way.

Did you have to sell GQ on that idea?

They've been incredible to me over the last year and a half. I love everyone over there. I guess I've done three for them so far: I did Paris in June, New York in September, and again in February. I just pitched it to them and sent them five photos. Three of them were Robert Frank every photo I take, unless it's digital, colour street style, is me trying to live up to him. So I sent three of his photos and two photos of the Wall Street Journal guy and said if this goes well it'll look like a mix between these.

As a street style photographer, we see everything. So I started doing backstage in addition to the street style stuff. Between that I got this really weird, earnest, comprehensive view of what a fashion week really looks like.

One of the things I really like about the slideshows is that, for people who don't know, it shows just how many photos you have to take to get the right one.

Those were cut, too. On an average day I'll take between 800 and 1000 photos. The first one I think is three or four thousand frames, because I didn't shoot a lot that season but Paris I think is seven or eight thousand.

You've said you like to shoot street a couple hours every day, do you still find time to do that?

I try to. Honestly, I lose motivation in the winter to go out and stand for five hours. But in the summer I'll do it. I usually just go and have a coffee somewhere and wander around for three, four hours. Because I travel a lot, when I'm home I like to just sit, wander around and shoot. It's still my bread and butter. But I didn't want that to turn into the only thing that I shoot. I wanted really early on in my career to shoot editorials and campaign things and studio work…

(Guy walks by wearing furry black coat)

That's an interesting coat, a very interesting coat.

That be a shot?

No. That's not a good interesting, just interesting. He looks like he just came from a Black Swan casting, and they were like, "Sorry, we're going a different direction with this."

Did you see that mini documentary, Take My Picture, on street style that just came out? How do you feel about the street style phenomenon, its pervasiveness?

It's very much a catch-22, because a lot of the people who complain are the same people that'll stop for fifteen minutes and have their photo taken. If you really didn't want to have your photo taken, you'd keep walking. However, it's definitely turning into a circus. I'm still relatively new and I've already noticed the switch. I can't imagine what it was like when guys like Tommy Ton and HB Nam started. It must have been so peaceful. This season I was on the corner of I think 36th and 9th, and there were more photographers outside than people going into the show. People would be crossing the street and photographers are spilling out twenty deep through four lanes of oncoming traffic. Thirty-five people ran after that Margiela H&M biker jacket coat crossing the street. Someone's going to get killed.

But at the same time, a lot of the people who denounce it are still feeding the fire.

Does that take away from your enjoyment of it?

The actual idea of street style is great. It's so authentic, natural. For me the best thing about it is inspiration. You take a photo of some guy who's wearing a blue overcoat and white buttondown, and people look at that and go, "Wow I never would have thought to wear it that way." That to me is what style is. Being able to look at something and go, "Wow, the way he's wearing it, I never would have thought to wear it like that, or I could never wear it like that."

So I understand how it got so big. There's a lot of people that are actually there for work, so what are you going to do? If someone's getting paid to do it, you've gotta let them do it. Really there's no one in a position to say, "I deserve this shot more than you." There's no way of saying yes, I wish only these six people could shoot street style and it would be a much more pleasant experience. Apart from the fact that there's dudes that are much more well known for it and get paid a lot more, you have to understand that there are people there to work.

How does the chaotic street style work compare with the more planned lookbook and editorial shoots?

With The Windmill Club lookbook, one of the more recent editorials I've done, we knew where we had to be, we knew what we were shooting, but it was also nine locations in seven hours. One of the models didn't show up until 1:30 because he was out in the suburbs, so we had to shoot all the major scenes with all four people in three and a half hours because we forgot that was when you moved the clock back. We woke up and found out sunset was at five. So there was a lot of scrambling in that.

I love street style because I love chaos, it's really fun to scramble around with your friends and take photos. With editorials it's different. There's a very calming aspect, being able to say "Ok at 12:30 everyone shows up here, at 1:30 everyone shows up here…" But with respect to the actual shots, even when we have the locations planned, I still try and keep everything natural. I think models are always surprised when I'm sort of like, "Yeah, just hang out. I'll get what I need out of you if you relax."

I sent a material list before I sent an idea, and it was just road flares and lace thongs and 1960s convertibles. And they said, "Yeah that all looks good."

You seem to draw inspiration from a lot of places - film, books, photography.

I watch a lot of movies. I think 90% of my inspiration comes from movies or books. I've always been obsessed with cinematography and story, so I always find myself drawing from directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Tarantino, Kurosawa, and so on. They were/are the masters at setting up a shot that isn't only visually stunning but also evokes real emotion. Then I get a lot of my narrative and mood ideas from books. I'm working on this thing right now that's a rework of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, but with nicer clothes.

There's always a mood or feeling I'm trying to get out of a shoot or an editorial, unless it's corporate stuff - here's a guy in a suit in a studio, we need these shots. But if it's a real campaign, there's always a feel I'm trying to get. You can look at my work from the GQ black and white, or you can look at what I did with Windmill or Puma, but there's always a general feeling of malaise. I like everything looking like something isn't right, something's not okay. Someone's uncomfortable, somethings is a bit off.

I'll do a shoot and I'll do a couple where it's like, "look happy and jump," and I'll send those to a client. The ones I post are the ones that are much more my feeling - I was doing a shoot in London, and we'd take someone to a place and the first couple would be "look happy, laugh, smile," and then, for me, "look directly at me and don't say or do anything." Obviously those are the ones that I liked. Everything has two sides to it.

I'm at an age now where I can just make things as weird as possible. That's just more fun for me. We just finished cooking up what the next lookbook [for Windmill] is going to be and it's ridiculous, it's a big Tarantino wet dream.

Tell me about your obsession with The Simpsons, where's that come from?

You know the malaise thing is a Simpson's reference, right? It's an episode where Marge goes to jail and the subplot is they're getting a statue of Jimmy Carter and the inscription reads "Malaise Forever." I want "Malaise Forever" on my tombstone.

It's actually my uncle, who lives in France now, who really is the biggest Simpsons fan I've ever met. I remember at his house waking up hungover and hearing this lawn mower. I look out and he's on this fucking riding mower and he has this Homer Simpson bobble head on the front like a Rolls Royce emblem, but it's facing towards him. And he has Homer Simpson earmuffs. So I come downstairs and he comes in and pours me a beer in a Homer Simpson mug and then he goes, "There's chicken on the barbecue, do you want to go grab it?" I go out and there's Homer Simpson oven mitts. I've been around it enough that it's immersed in me. It's too late.

The first thing I did for GQ was actually about The Simpsons. I always say that my career peaked early because I got paid to write about fashion and The Simpsons. There are these Raf Simons sneakers called the De Stijl Hiking Boot and in season 1 or 2 Flanders has these running shoes that look exactly like them. So I went through the first ten seasons and found all these fashion items, really recognizable pieces, that showed up in later collections - Milhouse in a 1999 episode wearing a leather jacket that Undercoverism made in 2009, Mark Hamill guest starring in Givenchy boots in 1994 versus 2007.

You're doing a GQ series where you ask people their one most beloved items. Let's turn the tables on that, what's yours?

The whole reason that I started that series was because I have this t-shirt that I got in Paris when I was 9 years old. I bought it XXXL and it's this super corny black Paris t-shirt that now fits me perfectly. It's a nice light gray, started as black, it just says Paris on the breast and has this great image of a guillotine with a fire in the background. It's a French Revolution t-shirt, I bought it on Bastille Day. Now I've worn it under a shirt on job interviews and important meetings and first dates and it's been ripped and torn and re-sewn and it has paint from the houses I've lived in. It's been with me through every significant event throughout my life. I get really weird about it. I travel with it, I get all freaked out if I can't find it. Just this geeky little Paris t-shirt, but for me, that's it. That was the whole point of the article: what are the things these guys really hold on to?