We caught up with creative William Baker as he launches his latest work, the gorgeous ‘Book of Igor’.
William Baker is a name synonymous with the pop and mainstream world. As Kylie Minogue’s BFF stylist, Baker was responsible for those hot-pants (!!) and collaborated with the Australian queen of pop as creative director for the Australian leg of her Intimate and Live tour. He’s previously teamed up with Rihanna and Britney and was responsible for the revival of Rent on London’s West End. He’s kind of a big deal, and by “kind of” we mean a HUGE deal.
His latest venture sees him steering away from styling pop royalty and instead exploring the male physical form in an intimate photo series, ‘Book of Igor’. For the project, Baker spent 18 months shooting 20-year-old model Igor Stepanov, a Latvian native dreaming of fame and fortune. “I just loved him instantly” William said of the first time he saw Stepanov, which was in a pic on Instagram where he was kicking back in baggy Calvin Klein underwear. What followed was a dreamy year and a half of photo-taking, exploring a range of locations including Ilford, Fire Island and Los Angeles. The book sees Igor in a diversity of situations, whether it’s hanging out at home, looking cute in the bath or taking a tour across New York, they all offer an intimate snapshot into the world’s of both the the photographer and his subject.
As the book hits shelves, we caught up with Baker to discuss what he considers his ‘more serious work’. You can also buy the book by clicking here.
Tell us a bit about why you decided to put together a photo book.
It just seemed that a book is what suited the project. I thought about doing some short films that just never transpired! And it was a relationship that existed because of photography… he used to text me pics of himself every day, documenting his life, sharing it, from the moment he woke up to when he went to bed. It was also very easy for me to photograph him, it felt very ‘natural’ and easy. I also wanted to communicate a journey, his journey, of him growing up through the period of the book, but also the journey of a friendship and a human relationship between a gay guy and a straight boy as it progressed though all the different phases relationships go through.
The title ‘Book of Igor’ came before we even shot anything as I loved how it sounded. Like some kind of epic or Gospel…it amused me, as when you fall (or when I fall) for someone, especially as a muse, you turn them into this fantastic, almost godlike figure that can do no wrong and you see them as the most beautiful human being you have ever seen. I wanted it to reflect that, but also I loved the idea of putting everything I feel about another person into a book and how it would be amazing if we had a library of books that made up all the relationships and friendships that we create through life, which we do in our heads with our memories.
What attracted you to Igor Stepanov as a subject and why did you feel that he was a worthy muse?
At first I just loved the persona he projected through his selfies on Instagram. He used to post these provocative selfies that were super charged with this raw, street sexuality, but they had this innocence and this humanity, clearly they were seeking a response, as these images to me commanded attention. I was interested in how those ‘likes’ can be an antidote to the loneliness of teenage existence, and an opening to the adult world… an escape to a world of infinite possibilities from the dullness of everyday suburbia.
Obviously I was super attracted to him but I was attracted because he really inspired me. He seemed to open up all these possibilities and made me excited to work, to pick up a camera and photograph him. I can only really comment if he was a worthy muse for me, because of course he was, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked, and I think it did; but it worked because he symbolised a certain kind of boy, a young man on the cusp of adulthood, choosing and exploring which roads to take in life and exploring who he is. For me he represented a youth, a generation that I felt so increasingly alien to, that lives through social media and expresses their emotions through emoticons or text messages. Igor can be very quiet and ‘feels’ deeply but can only communicate that through a message rather than through worlds and conversation… and I find that fascinating, how emotions with kids are reduced to emoticons or text speak and how they live through their phones, and how that can often become a substitute for ‘relationship’ and how they seek or receive validation through their devices.
Igor was also this mass of contradictions, how he looks all tattooed and tough; but they conceal this internal sadness and hunger, and real gentleness. And we were best friends. In many ways he is completely the opposite of narcissistic, but he is very aware of the power of desire has over people…which I think is very representative of kids these days: they are so sexually aware, so overtly sexualised, and technology has made all that so much more evident and easy, also made it obviously more dangerous. It is their currency. I loved Madonna when I was growing up and how she manipulated sexuality and her self image through her work, and how that was genuinely shocking and progressive and provocative to certain people, now most kids do that through their Instagram or Snapchat daily.
Tell us a bit about the key themes of the photo series and why you chose to explore these themes.
Love, loss, loneliness, age, ageing, masculinity: the personas we create and the things we do to our bodies to hide our true selves behind. Beauty, the iconography of a muse, the idea of what a relationship actually is and how redundant labels are when applied to any human relationship and the natural impulses a person has when existing ‘in relation’ to someone when there is this age difference, to look after them, to protect, to nurture and to let them go. I really wanted to document the process of the friendship, all the selfies that he sent me or posted during that time are at the back of the book and I wanted to show how he sees himself and how I see him.
It was a very deliberate thing. I said to myself, ‘Ok I’m going to put myself through this, to invest 150 per cent in him and document the process’ as I wanted to depict and explore the whole range of feelings that I went through. It was an intensely personal process and experiment. I wrote in the book that when I was with him, I had never felt so young, or never felt so old and it was so true. How the passage of time is so subtle and deceptive, that I still feel the same as I did when I was 20, and think that I am exactly the same person as I was back then, but when the mirror of a 20 year old was right in front of me everyday I became acutely aware of how much time has passed and how at 20 you are this un-sculpted pure lump of fresh clay, full of possibilities, unchanged by experience, time and battle scars. Also how different I am now to my younger self, and also how much the world has changed.
“I loved Madonna when I was growing up and how she manipulated sexuality and her self image through her work, and how that was genuinely shocking and progressive and provocative to certain people, now most kids do that through their Instagram or Snapchat daily.”
Locations featured in the book include Ilford, Los Angeles and Fire Island. What led you to choose these places as shoot locations?
They were just places we travelled to because he was working or I was working. I thought Fire island would be interesting as it has this historical context in recent gay history from the 70s of these hot, straight model boys from New York living off and entertaining all these older rich queens, working these rich gay guys and running rings round them… not because I’m saying that is what happened with Igor, but I thought it was important as it is what people probably think when they see an older guy with a young guy. When we started the book I went to get Igor a phone so he could take photos with it etc, and the guy in the shop said, ‘Is your Dad paying?’ and looked at me. I nearly died!
America, New York and LA was what Igor aspired to. He couldn’t wait to get the States, like America was the answer to all his problems so I wanted to take him there, to contrast between his life at home in Illford. He was obsessed with America and sees it as this land of milk and honey, of opportunity, the American dream. Coming from a poor immigrant Latvian background he is so influenced and motivated by status, by money, by fast cars, by things he never had but attaches so much importance to them totally [as a] result of being bombarded by images of all this shit 24/7, as I really think things like Facebook and Instagram are all about highlighting what you don’t have, and it takes a pretty strong person to be totally resistant to that.
In Illford with the kids he mixed with at school, he became really into this black street culture and rap, this hyper macho, heavily sexual culture that it really shaped his personality and became a way of surviving Illford, which is where his family lives now. When I was a kid I likewise just wanted to escape and get to London, get to the night clubs and the fashion. Wanting to escape is just part of being a teenager I guess and there is something so dull and grey about English suburbia.
You spent 18 months working with Igor. Tell us about your relationship. How has it developed over the past 18 months?
The relationship changed all the time and still does. It is this huge love affair, enigmatic and evolving. Constantly shifting. I’m a huge fan of Robin Campillo’s film ‘Eastern Boys’ which is the story of the relationship between this bourgeois French middle aged business man and an Eastern European street hustler and of the shifting relationship from when they first meet to eventually the older guy adopting the younger kid. It was such an eye-opener for me when I saw that film because it resonated so much with me. How the need to nurture and protect, I guess what is called ‘parental’ love is part of all of us and a need we have, even as a single gay man. I’d read about Oscar Wilde and his trial and how he had attempted to describe the love between an older man and a younger man as the purest kind of love, of a sharing of knowledge, wisdom and experience. I just gained this greater understanding of who I am though the making of the book, and Igor was such a big part of that.
Considering the intimacy and length of time involved with the project, how did you feel upon completing “Book of Igor”?
It was quite a difficult journey at times because we did pretty much everything together. Also it was a relationship that always was destined to end when the book was completed so it had that bittersweetness to it. We are still super close but I don’t see him so much now as he is in the states. But after the shooting period, the edit took forever and then the design so I did feel quite relieved when the project was completed. Then I became really terrified to put the book out…almost this total paralysis of fear because of what people would think, of me, of him, so I had to overcome that as well, as I think this is the most honest and personal thing I have done.
Your latest work is pretty much juxtaposed with work from your earlier years, leaving behind the mainstream and pop world. Do you see yourself continuing with this new direction in the future?
It’s funny because it is really very different from a lot of the photography I have done. This is very natural, unprocessed. I didn’t want him to be super retouched because I wanted to show who he is. As I said I was feeling quite depressed about work before I started shooting Igor. I love working with Kylie as that is such a unique working relationship, but I just found doing other pop stuff really soul destroying as it is such a thankless task now, and music projects are so short-lived. I was really disillusioned with what an easy-come easy-go marketing exercise it had all become. It is not about developing longevity anymore, especially in the UK. I love artists like Years and Years and Christine and the Queens, artists that are about being yourself, being true to who you are and love and explore the whole visual side but these artists are few and far between and the hugely influential creative pop
Icons just don’t exist anymore. The big stars now, like Beyonce, Rihanna, as amazing and as talented as they are, are just huge corporations and brands. So remote, yet so every day. Like Domestos or Coke. In contrast to what I did/do with the pop stuff, I always loved photographers and film makers like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant who are interested in kids and youth and I feel more drawn to that now than ever. I find those years that define our youth to be so precious and so fleeting, and how life is never [the] same after that…there is never such freedom, such opportunity, such toxic and powerful beauty that for me, life becomes very melancholy, that it is downhill from there. I say that jokingly, but there is a truth in that that I want to explore more, about how life is so ageist! About how really it should be the eldest in society who are put on pedestals and celebrated as they have so much more of important to offer, but instead it is youth and youthful beauty that is prized above all else, much to Madonna’s annoyance!