This story is over 5 years old.


Behind the Lens: Steve Carty and the Egoless Photograph

He's shot such music stars as Pharrell, Kanye West and DMX. He give advice to anyone who might want to too.

Canadian photographer Steve Carty captures the egoless photograph. Instead of showing us fancy tricks with the camera – or overblown characters – he has a straight-up approach to shooting musicians, from Kanye West to Pharrell Williams.

Carty made his name in the 1990s as a hip hop photographer. With talents like DMX, Fat Joe and even Beenie Man, his photos are like a star-studded, intimate walk through the past. Until the end of the month, you can catch his old school shots at the CONTACT Photography Festival’s 40 Years of Hip Hop Photography exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, alongside the works of fellow photographers Che Kothari and Jonathan Mannion, among others.


Carty has been shooting for 20 years, capturing everyone from the classic gentleman Roger Moore to Colin Firth a week before his Oscar win. Since he has signed on as a mentor for young photographers with Hermann & Audrey, Carty has helped young talents along with his own wisdom. His Instagram is filled with random skateboard videos, half-naked tattooed models and Phoebe Dykstra in leopard prints. Between his busy schedule, the Toronto-based photographer spoke about chilling with Daft Punk and shooting Thom Yorke on a street corner.

Noisey: Your photo style is simple and unpretentious. Why is it best to remain understated?
Steve Carty: If someone asks me how I shoot, its modern but its understated. I’d like to say that I make egoless photographs. It’s literally not about me, though I am the vehicle. I shoot pictures with a raw closeness so the viewer feels it. I like to say I make iconic, timeless photographs that aren’t necessarily for now, but much later. I make simple photographs so you focus on nothing else but the subject.

Why is that important to you?
There’s a lot of ego in photography: “Look what I can do.” What I choose to do is remove my ego from the scenario and just allow my subject to shine without pretence in a very raw, honest way. I am not the guy you think is the picture maker. There’s a relief to being myself.

How do you get subjects to warm up to a shoot?
I talk a lot when I’m shooting. I carry the subject through the experience. I want to make it memorable for my subjects – when it’s not a celebrity, I want it to be special because they don’t do shoots that much. When it is a celebrity, I give it my all because I want them to remember me.


What do you talk to them about?
There are no rules, whatever is an engaging experience. Every scenario is different. It’s more of a character study than a portrait. That’s why I’m still able to shoot with such passion. It’s like Lego, it’s a new toy every day, I get to play with subjects. Whatever it takes.

One of your photos in the 40 Years of Hip Hop Photography show is a shot of Pharrell Williams. Can you take us back to that moment?
Yes, it was Pharrell Williams who I shot in 2001, he is on a BMX doing a no hander, no footer. It’s a trick, he has his hands in the air. It was super fun, it was an in alley just off of King West in Toronto. At that time, King West was still developing, it wasn’t as bustling as it is right now. Pharrell was wearing a trucker hat and relatively skinny jeans (not by today’s standards) and he seemed to be a trendsetter in terms of his personal style. He loved that I chose to meet at a store that had bikes and skateboards, he chose bikes. I love cycling. It ended up just being a film shoot, all shot on pre-digital. It means you don’t get to see the photo until the film is developed. I’ve been shooting for 30 years and the last 10 years has been digital. I’m a classically trained portrait photographer and I apply my skills to current, contemporary culture.

Is there something special about shooting musicians?
For me, everybody is a star. I have shot everyone from celebrities to directors and actors, musicians, models, producers, chefs. I photograph people who are doing things. For a time, urban music had a lot of money to capture that new demographic. I was lucky to be there in the forefront. I was living the life and culture that people are talking about today.


Who has been one of your favourite musicians to shoot?
I would say Thom Yorke from Radiohead. I got him to smile. Back then, it was their third record, OK Computer, and they won five Grammys. We met in the Sheraton Hotel on Queen Street in Toronto. The whole band was sick except Thom, who was doing press for OK Computer. After dinner, he asked if we could go outside. “I don’t want to look like a wanker in a hotel room,” he said. I shot Polaroids, it was a photo taken on Queen Street. Later on, when Radiohead was on tour in Toronto, I ran into Thom on Queen Street. He asked if he would ever get to see the photos I took of him. I met him at Much Music and gave him the print photos. It’s rare that you get to complete the circle.

What about working with Daft Punk, did you see their real faces?
Of course! With Daft Punk, the thing is they’re French and they’re very cool dudes. We were hanging out all day and I shot that pre-digital picture in New York. I flew on a private plane to New Jersey and went to Soho in New York, they were chilling in street clothes. I set up and they put their gear on. Everyone knows what they look like but once the cameras are rolling, there’s nothing ever captured without their masks so they can walk down the streets and not get mobbed.

For young photographers entering the game today, what advice would you give them?
Be fucking spectacular, end of story. Everyone thinks they can pick up a camera and do what I do. I have been shooting for 30 years, I have been in art school since 14-years-old. If people have the skills to be a photographer, there’s a lot of sub-par work that gets out there. Don’t add to it. Know what is good and what is not good. Get a mentor to show you the way.


40 Years of Hip Hop Photography runs until May 30 at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.

Follow @nadjasayej on Twitter


Behind The Lens with Jonathon Mannion, Che Kothari, and Brett Novak