With his name in the pages of W magazine, British and American Vogue, and on fashion campaigns for Zara, Bergdorf Goodman, and Net-a-Porter, it might surprise you to find out that Irish-born, London-based photographer Boo George is only 32. Well, believe it. Before models like Lily Aldridge and Devon Aoki and celebrities like Donatella Versace and Emma Watson ever graced his pictures, George started out photographing gypsies, fishermen, and seascapes as a photography student, before assisting on shoots in far-off destinations as Namibia. We sat down with George on a hot summer morning in a diner in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, to talk to him about starting out as a photography assistant, getting his big break, and what it means to win the W magazine and ICP contest The Shot, as well as what he’s listening to, reading, and watching now.
Artsy: So, you’re originally from Ireland. When did you move to London and what brought you there?
BG: I moved to northern England in 1999. I got a scholarship to go to a college in northern England. I did three years studying photography before I moved to London. I started doing documentary photography—photographing people in the streets and gypsies in the mountains in Ireland, and it was amazing. And then for my end-of-year project, I went on a fishing boat North Sea off for nine months to shoot fisherman. And I made a book out of that. Still to this day, one of my favorite pictures is of a fisherman. I moved to London straight after that, and started assisting.
Artsy: Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
BG: No, not at all. I kind of fell into it. My friend’s mom said I should do a media course because I liked talking. [Laughs.] And then from there I took a photo course in Ireland, and that's how it all kind of started.
Artsy: Can you tell us about your first camera?
BG: It was a 35mm Pentax that my dad bought me. I still have it. And then I bought a Pentax 6x7. So then it kind of went from there. And I used to just love printing, and I used to love processing. I loved being in the dark room all the time.
Artsy: What photographers have influenced you in your practice, either directly in your relationship or indirectly through books and magazines?
BG: Well, early on, Julian Broad, the photographer who I assisted initially. I learned from watching him on how he would approach a subject. When he walked in a room, he would almost analyze the scene. So I learned a lot from him on how to take a picture. And he drilled me, because he would shoot 5x4. And the first assignment I did with him was to go to Namibia to photograph Brad Pitt. And I was the only assistant there on 5x4 in the desert. So it was obviously tricky. And you really get to learn. The more you assist, and get into it, the more quickly you learn. And then I think it just progresses from there: obviously Peter Lindbergh, Richard Avedon, William Eggleston, Mary Ellen Mark—all of these great people who everyone loves. You know, we’re all influenced in the American West by Richard Avedon. So all those pictures help to get your mind into the place that you want to get to.
Artsy: And do you think it’s important for every young photographer to assist?
BG: Well, it depends on what they want to do. If you want to be an accountant, you don’t go to college and then start up your own firm. You need to go learn the ropes of the industry. So I think every young man or woman should assist a photographer and get as much experience on the ground. Just go straight in there!
Artsy: Do you look at a lot of photography books?
BG: I look at so many books. I buy probably a thousand dollars worth of books a month. So I'm constantly buying books. I like books, and I love looking at photographs.
Artsy: What else inspires you?
BG: I find a lot of inspiration from beaches, and music. I’ll walk an empty beach, and it’s just grey and bleak, but I’m like...shit, I want to take photographs here.
Artsy: Can you tell us about when you stopped assisting when you were picked up by your photography agent Streeters?
BG: I stopped assisting in May 2008. I was assisting Phil Poynter in the South of France, doing a Louis Vuitton campaign, and I got an early flight back to London and I went to see Streeters, and they took me on that day. It was amazing because they were like ‘We really like you and we'd like to take you on.’ So that was it. And it kind of went very quickly from there. I got my first commission to photograph these diamond miners in Zambia for the Gemstone company. That was my first big commission. They flew us to Zambia. We flew over Victoria Falls in a four-seater plane; and then we took the doors off of a helicopter, and I was harnessed out shooting Victoria Falls. I did some landscapes as well. And when I came back to London, the pictures went down like a treat. And my ex-girlfriend at the time was working for Love [magazine] and Katie Grand saw them. So then it kind of progressed kind of quickly, because she got me to do loads of portraits. And I remember going to shoot Donatella Versace in Milan, and I had like 60 seconds. She actually asked for a print, and I gave her a print a month later. And Katie says it's the best portrait she ever commissioned. And I went from there, did two pictures for i-D, and it just kind of snowballed from there. It's been great.
Artsy: Location seems to play a big part in your work. Can you talk about that?
BG: I don’t really like to be confined in the white studio. I get claustrophobic. I just love being out and taking photographs. The landscape sets the scene in the place where you’re choosing. It makes it more cinematic and more believable. It’s like you go to Wyoming and you take photographs of cowboys, and you believe it. It’s their home. It’s the real deal.
Artsy: Are there particular types of locations you like? Or a city you recently shot in that you enjoyed?
BG: I love shooting on beaches. I love shooting in old factories. I just did this Zara campaign in Budapest, Hungary, for a week.
Artsy: How would you describe your pictures?
BG: I would say my photographs are quiet and approachable. They’re not loud, they’re not aggressive.
Artsy: Carol Squiers, a curator at ICP and judge for The Shot, described your pictures as bringing out the expressive human being in a model. How do you manage to bring that quality out in the models?
BG: I always say to the girls, ‘I want to take a picture that your mum would want to hang on the wall.’ I don’t want the girl to look like some weird, bionic woman. I want them to look beautiful and approachable, real and alive.
Artsy: Can you talk about winning The Shot? Did it shift anything in your own thinking of your work or your career?
BG: When I was initially put up for it, I didn't know how big it was going to be. I mean, obviously I submitted pictures. I said, I’ll submit pictures and see what happens. And then I got a phone call. I was in L.A., going back to London, and Streeters phoned said I had won the prize, and I was shell-shocked; it was brilliant. And the publicity that you get from winning something like that has been amazing.
Artsy: This is your first shoot for W and it’s a ten-page spread in the September issue, which, historically, is the biggest issue of the year. How do you prepare for a big shoot like this?
BG: Well I think you need to establish what you want to get out of it first. And then you get the girls together—you want to see the best girls. And you just want to set a scene. Because obviously it's such a high-end magazine, and I want to put something timeless in the magazine. Then people can look back and go, ‘Wow, that was beautiful.’ I rarely look at modern pictures these days; instead, mostly black and white reportage from the ’30s in Paris. So I just kind of prepare it that way. I obviously go to the location before I shoot, so I know what I’m getting into.
Artsy: Can you talk a little bit about the concept of this shoot? And are you typically inspired by the clothes or models or the environment/landscape first?
BG: Always the landscape first. [For this shoot,] the location looks really natural, and a bit wild, you know? Clothes are secondary. I want to create beautiful photographs. Obviously it’s a beautiful fashion photograph but first and foremost you want to look at a beautiful picture.
Artsy: So did you encounter any surprises in this shoot that you can talk about?
BG: There are always surprises, but no big surprises, as we did so much prep work. We’re always trying to make the shoots as stress-free as possible. There’s no point shooting at four in the morning and making everyone work insane hours. We work in fashion, at the end of the day, and it’s fun.
Artsy: You’re shooting digitally, so you saw the shots as you were taking them. But when you saw the shots all together and went through and edited them, did the shoot turn out as you had envisioned?
BG: It was the way I envisioned it, definitely. But there’s always room for improvement. There is no such thing as perfection. Perfect images are boring sometimes. It’s the off-guard moments which are more beautiful, you know. I think the pictures are beautiful, but obviously you always want more. It’s part of being human. You always want more.
Artsy: If you could meet a celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
BG: Johnny Cash. His music was so real; it sets the scene. And he was just really good at describing a train passing by, you know, somewhere outside Nashville.
Artsy: If you could own any photograph, which would it be?
BG: Irving Penn’s “Cigarettes” [series]. He photographed cigarettes that he found around Paris.
Artsy: If you could own any painting, which would it be?
BG: Probably a Constable. He sets the scene.
Artsy: What’s currently your favorite city and why?
BG: London, because it’s very true to itself. And it’s huge, and it’s amazing. It’s had so many great things coming from there—musically, photographically, art. It’s got so much history, and you can’t take that away from it.
Artsy: What’s your most recent purchase?
BG: I bought a book of French circus photographs from the ’30s; it’s amazing.
Artsy: What music are you listening to right now?
BG: At the moment Patsy Cline and Edith Piaf.
Artsy: What films have most inspired you?
BG: Em, Badlands and Days of Heaven.