Though he’s best known as the thoughtful, politically-outspoken lead singer of the influential Athens, Georgia-born band R.E.M., Michael Stipe has long nurtured a fertile side career as a music and film producer (Velvet Goldmine, Being John Malkovich), cross-disciplinary artist, sculptor, and photographer whose diaristic, intimate portraits of Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg also demonstrate his remarkable access to generations of creatives.
Stipe has recently created two books that document the primacy of imagery in how he looks at life. His 2018 photography book Volume I assembles over three decades of mysterious, poignant images: male nudes, fields of kudzu, Kurt Cobain’s intertwined hands, and black and white landscapes. Those photographs are the visual corollary, in some sense, to his musical career, created as Stipe was also penning the lyrics to some of R.E.M.’s most indelible songs. More recently, Our Interference Times: A Visual Record, is Stipe’s collaboration with Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland. Composed of images from Stipe’s personal archive—sheets of handwritten lyrics, selfies—the book examines Stipe’s straddling of a generational divide, between a vanishing age of analog information and a brave new world of digital images and content.
Would you question the common narrative that you are a musician first and a visual artist second?
I would understand it as I am better known for music. But the truth is, I was a photo student before I was a music fan.
You were a studio art major at the University of Georgia. Who were the painters and photographers you were under sway to then?
[Painter, filmmaker, and UGA professor] James Herbert was the greatest teacher any art student could ever ask for. He challenged and lifted everyone.
You’ve produced more than 25 feature films including Todd Haynes’ glam rock classic Velvet Goldmine, which distills so much about how music impacts us and informs us as kids. What band or musician really shaped you as a kid?
Elton John, Patti Smith Group, and the Tom Verlaine band Television.
Collaboration seems like a big part of your creativity, whether being in a band, producing films directed by others, or your book Volume 1, which you created with artist Jonathan Berger and designer Julian Bittiner. Why do you think you like to create art this way?
I’m not myopic, but my vision is sometimes difficult to crack. Other people and their trusted opinions help clarify for an audience where I am trying to take them. I am a fairly good editor of my own work, but everybody needs another voice and someone to bounce off of sometimes.
You’ve called photography “truly the most honest medium in my life.” Why does it feel truer to you than music?
Both mediums for me are like breathing. They come quite naturally. Music is easy; lyrics are the hard part.
What do you miss about Athens when you’re in New York City or Berlin?
Mostly the people and then the trees and having a garden.
A lot of us have images that have stuck with us over years, maybe even decades. If you were to pick one image that continues to haunt you, what would it be?
A self-portrait by Claude Cahun.
Volume 1 features images you’ve taken from 1980-2015. That’s a huge span of time: do you see your style changing when all those images are collected together in one place?
That was the editorial choice of Jonathan Berger. From some 30,000 images he pulled 36 pictures. I wouldn’t have necessarily created the same arc of narrative that he did . . . it’s what makes the book so successful, I believe. My style has not changed that much from when I was 14. The cameras have changed and that can add a shifting vantage point, but I think the work is pretty consistent.
A number of the films you have produced have to do with gay identity or feature very idiosyncratic people who live on their own terms. Do you feel like part of what you do is support art that will help represent people and realities that aren’t always represented?
Yeah, and I’m thrilled where the 21st century has brought us with a much more nuanced, less binary approach to gender, sexuality, desire, and even politics and job description. It’s blowing the doors wide open for any “other” type of person to feel a sense of belonging.
Along those same lines, do you feel like part of being a musician is always advocating for kids and allowing them to see life differently, as something beyond the parameters of what they are expected to be when they grow up?
Your portraits of people like River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain often focus on their hands or backs—not their faces. Are you consciously trying to remove the element of fame, and let us see them as human beings?
It was always more about being in the moment rather than documenting the moment. A shot of hands or back of the head is a lot less intrusive to wherever the day is going.
Your partner, Thomas Dozol, is a photographer. What’s it like having two photographers doing work that is pretty diaristic and portrait-based in one home? Do you have to agree to take turns being that day’s documentarian?
We are very different in our approach to portraiture, so there’s definitely overlap and cross interest, but they’re very different vantage points. Having separate studios helps. We both take a lot of snapshots, but that’s rarely ever in the work. It’s more just life stuff. I mean, all our friends, most every one of them is an artist or creator, so there tends to be a lot of pictures taken and a lot of back and forth.
You are also an activist. What is the one issue that is consuming your thoughts these days?
The environment. That has been my number one issue since I was 14 years old.
What do you think is the most photogenic part of the human body?
Depends on the person!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.