Scottish photographer Stewart Bryden creates the kind of effortlessly brilliant images only a true artist can. Known for his unaffected, fluid approach and preference for capturing the ‘moments in between moments’, his creative eye has been recruited by the likes of Massimo Dutti, Reiss and Dr Martens to name just a few.
Sitting down in conversation with Stew is like a real time representation of his photography - beautifully real, honest and a little raw. There’s humour, and an awareness of the imperfections, and an acceptance in that as part of the journey. Around the edges is an unapologetic, unassuming confidence that allows you to just sit back and believe in him too. Candid. Black and white. (And apologies in advance for the colourful language.)
I didn’t really care at school. I used to love art. I wanted to do fine art, painting. But I was a wee punk kid so I thought I was rebellious. I sat my written art exam, and instead of writing a thesis or whatever, I wrote ‘I don’t see why knowing about all these dead dudes is going to help me become a better artist. So I’ve given up my dream and I’m going to become a plumber’ and then I drew a picture of a little air man from WW2. Trucks away. I got a letter a couple of weeks later saying something like ‘Stew, if you ever do that again you’ll not sit another exam in your life’.
That was nearly a serious mistake, I was young and naive. Luckily as I've grown up I have developed a strong fondness for artists past and present, from Rembrandt to Warhol and Henri Cartie Bresson to David Bailey.
After leaving school I played music professionally for a couple of years before ultimately going back to College to work on photography and my art portfolio. That was the start.
I really enjoyed taking photos, but I got distracted by the rest of it. Everyone else on the course was buying great cameras, they had all the kit - all they talked about was the kit, the gear. I thought, I'm not about this. I always want it to be more fluid - as long as I know my camera does what it needs to do, I want the rest of it to be as artistic as possible.
I think there are photographers who make an image, and photographers who capture an image. I’d like to think I’m the second one. I like it to be as relaxed as possible, loads of movement, and then… snap snap snap.
A lot of the time when I was at uni I would take 100 frames and think: that’s it, got it. No you don’t. Keep going.
Dr Denim - Stewart Bryden
I graduated, and the opportunity arose to intern. I was a photography assistant for Ryan McGinley in New York. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but soon learned how incredible an artist he really was. My mate Martin Barker is a photographer. He’d done the internship before me and told me I should think about it.
They don’t do Skype interviews, so I flew to New York for four days in the summer. On my last day I did my interview, then flew home. That was August, I didn’t hear anything until November 1st. An email popped up on my phone and the subject line said ‘congratulations’.
The first month I stayed with a guy called Skylar. He was from Washington, a struggling actor who worked in a dog groomer’s in the day. We lived in Brooklyn, right near the train. It was a bed sit he’d just cordoned off with sheets. I was 24, in Brooklyn by myself, sharing a room with this older guy. He was a lovely lovely dude, but he had serious history - he’d seen his friends get killed, his mum was a little bit crazy. I wouldn't mess with the man, but he had a heart of gold. I was there for Christmas. Me and him Skyped my family on Christmas day. My mum though, she loves CSI. She’d watched hundreds of episodes of CSI New York. She said, ‘I’m just terrified son.’
The internship was amazing. I got very used to seeing nude people. Ryan does a lot of nudes. We didn’t get paid a penny, we got lunch so I went hard on that. We were meant to do only two days a week, so you could work or whatever. But I didn’t, I just partied.
It was New York though.
I picked up an extra day which I was so stoked about. The team were like ‘yeah, you know it might be quite rare that you see Ryan, he’s so busy’. I saw him the first day, he came up and he was like ‘hey man, I’m Ryan’ and I was like, ‘uh, yeah I know’. I was really lucky, we struck up a really cool friendship. He lived above the studio with his boyfriend and just came down everyday. I did everything from general cleaning, to setting up the studio with him, to editing Frank Ocean’s face for the New York Times cover. Running errands, I learnt my way around New York so quickly.
It showed me that you could be an artist about it. I’d done everything at uni from still life to portraiture to corporate photography, and then this was like something else. I thought: this is me.
I didn’t stay with Skylar the whole time. One of my Scottish mates, his cousin is half Scottish half American. Howard. He was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met in my whole life. A complete New York street rat. Long blonde hair, does graffiti, skateboards like an absolute dream. He did photography and cut hair for a living. Such a cool kid. Like a bona fide hipster, but before being a hipster was even a thing. We still talk, I miss him a lot.
I ended up moving in with him for the remainder of the two months. And he told me not to worry, just give him two hundred dollars a month. I went from paying seven hundred to two hundred and that kinda saved me.
We used to just skate everyday. LES skate park is under the Manhattan bridge, and next to it was this apartment building. The door was always open. So we’d go in there and sit on the roof, drink beers and watch the skaters. I had such an amazing New York experience.
Ryan was so fucking cool. He would come into the studio in a leather jacket and sunglasses and just sit there. And he’s not pretentious or cocky or big headed. He’s so chilled. It’s just the way he his, he’s a New York kid born and raised. He did an interview for Italian Vogue or someone like that, they filmed it for a documentary. One of the guys who was filming it showed me the playback. They asked him if he considered himself a photographer - the interviewer’s words were funny, something like ‘just a photographer’ - or an artist. And Ryan was so nonchalant. He answered: ‘I was born a fucking artist.’
I was like oh man. Dude. You’re the fucking man.
I think the whole experience shaped me more than I really thought.
At the end I got to sit down with him and go through my portfolio. It was really cool. Thinking back now, my work was nowhere. It was very bitty, I hadn't found what I wanted to do. But I guess he helped with that. So we sat down and he took all my images out of the sleeves. He told me they were all really lovely and it was a really great starting point. Then he pushed some to the side and he said ‘this is what you do’. And it was portraits. It was fashion portraits. Which I guess is a lot of what I do now.
He told me, ‘Maybe it’s clichéd but you have a rapport with people, you can see that they’re comfortable in front of your camera. They’re not even looking at the lense. Very intimate. Edgy and intimate.’ He said, ‘They’re a wee bit melancholy, but I like that.’
I took that on board and I came back.
I try and be the best possible me I can be. I went veggie, I’m going to the gym and that. I've never been hugely academically driven, but I feel I truly understand the world and how it attempts to work. I try and be a good person and I know for a fact that the fashion industry isn’t really the best industry to work in. But I fell into it and I enjoy it and it’s creative. I don’t really involve myself with too much with it. I just try and take images that inspire me.
I still feel like I do a lot of stuff that is not really me. But at the end of the day I would rather be shooting and creating than sat twiddling my thumbs. You learn from everything you do, sometimes especially when it’s not classically you, because you have to think: how do I make this fit my vision?
You’ve got to challenge yourself. At some point I want to get to the point where I shoot what I shoot and I get booked for my look, my style. I think it will happen. If I didn’t believe it would happen then there'd be no point in doing what I'm doing.
If I’m not going to believe it, why would anyone else?
Coming to London was in the back of my mind for a good year and I knew I needed to be here. I’m still finding my feet in London. I’m from a small town in Scotland - I dropped everything once in my life and went to New York, and this was doing it all over again. Especially having Roobs (Ruth Leiser - GRLCLB) in my life, and leaving her behind.
You caught feelings?
Dem feels. Dem feels. She’s amazing. She’ll more than likely end up down here.
I think as someone living in the UK and being an artistic person, to have lived in London at one point is kinda a necessity. Even to have experienced and known it’s not for you. I’d rather experience it and know. One thing Roobs says is that I struggle to have empathy. It’s not so much that I came from nothing, but it wasn’t such a luxury kinda background either. Everything I’ve done I’ve done it myself. So if I can do it then I don’t understand why other people don’t. Especially with so much self doubt at times. It just pleases me to see people reach their full potential, or at least try to get there. Too many people in this country settle, adhering to an ideal of what a ‘real’ job is.
When you’re working on something, you go from ‘this is the best stuff I’ve shot’, to ‘this is quite crap, I should maybe give up’. Then you look at it a couple of days later with fresh eyes and you’re like ‘it’s actually all right’. And then ultimately I’m like ‘nah I can do better’...! It’s the hunger, and it’s stepping out of that comfort zone and that security bubble - pushing yourself and knowing it’s OK to fuck up.
I’ve had days down here where I’ve been sitting on my own and thought shit this is terrifying. But I wouldn’t change it. Because what would I do? Stay in Scotland shooting for the same smaller brands and being comfortable? Nah fuck that.
And I try and remember everyone's the same. You think they’re out doing this big thing, but often they’re just as scared, just as doubting. Social media, it’s a highlight reel. Quite often I get asked what quote I live by. People ask it all the time. I used to say something else, I can’t remember what it was but it was naff. Then I thought of this when I was going to the gym. It’s like a prison term. Don’t do anyone else’s time. I’m starting to put this into my head with every aspect of my life. I’ll go to the gym and think man, people are probably watching me, I probably look like a weed. But then I think, but everyone else is there doing their own time, whether or not they’re concentrating on you. Do your own time, don’t do anyone else’s.
So I’m going to focus less on what everyone else is doing and I’m going to focus more on me.
It’s so hard not to compare. Especially people that are on the same level or what you perceive to be just above. There’s a couple of guys I know in London and I’m like, I’m just as good as you, if not fucking better. Why are you doing that? Why are you in that country doing that?
I always used to panic that my images weren’t pin sharp. And I just learnt that the mark of a good image is not how sharp it is. There’ll always be those brands that do clean shots - Ralph Lauren or whatever. And there’ll always be some that are more experimental, more fashion forward, who want that reality to their imagery.
I think the stuff I seem to love is when I’m left to my own devices. Like the Dr Denim shoot I did. It was a really small team, and the director just said, ‘Stew we hired you for a fucking reason, do your thing’.
Drop Dead - Stewart Bryden
I was quite lucky with my social media. I’ve actually never said this, but I was quite lucky to have Chris (Millington) as a mate. Because when the beard craze came along, there was Ricki (Hall), Ricki was smashing it down here. And then Milly somehow caught it. You know Milly grew his beard because of me? When I went to NY we made a pact not to shave. My beard was heavy crap. Weak. This thing was like pubes on my face. And at the same time he had grown this pretty much perfect beard.
Me and Milly have our moments. Living with him - you can quote me - was a nightmare. That boy was messy. Absolute slug. But we have a great friendship. Total power to him, he’s smashed it. I saw him last week for the first time in about four months, and it was really good to catch up. I feel that energy - when Chris and I shoot together it’s class. We always smash it.
I came back from New York and we just hung out. All the time. We started shooting a bunch of stuff together, and him getting followers in turn got me followers. There’s such adoration for him, his teenage female fan base is daft. Being around him so often, the images being mine and him tagging me in them got me a good amount of followers and then I built from there.
I’m more concerned with who follows me than the number. I don’t care, it’s not really a numbers game to me. But some really fucking great brands follow me, and that means a lot. A couple of weeks ago Paul Smith started following me, Reiss, and Massimo. That’s amazing to me. I’ve booked jobs through social media. I booked a job with Converse, shooting street style for London Collections: Men, because they liked the aesthetic of my whole Instagram. But it’s not so important for me as it is for others. I know some people, the life they lead now is thanks to Instagram.
I would love to do actor portraits. Photographing people like Michael Pitt and Jack Nicholson. Like the Shia LaBeouf shoot for Interview magazine. Ah man. Interview magazine are always great at that stuff.
I would love to do character portraits. To have a career like David Bailey. He does fashion, he does portraits. He’s such a cool guy, just like old as shit and he’s got neckerchiefs on and he’s just an artist. It’s probably a bit cringe and cheesy, but I do consider myself an artist.
Yeah that feels good, it fits well. I am an artist, it fits with how my mind works.
Duvet Day Featuring Calvin Klein - Stewart Bryden