Awol Erizku is a photographer, filmmaker, and sculptor raised in the Bronx. When he's not curating OFF THE WALL TV or adding to the relentless stream of images on his personal tumblr, he's putting some formidable training to work. After graduating from Cooper Union and honing his skills while working for David LaChapelle, Lorna Simpson, Margret Morton, and Christine Osinski, he's developed into one of New York's most remarkable photographers. Eschewing digital trickery in favor of a cultivated eye and a devotion to old school film cameras, Erizku shoots for magazines like VICE, MAXIM, PHOTOGRAPHER'S FORUM, and WHITEWALL..
You grew up in the Bronx. Can you tell us a little bit about how the community up there has inspired and informed your art?
There are two aspects to that. The Retro Series and that work is of course influenced by where I grew up because the Bronx is the birthplace of hip hop. But on a deeper level, I think a lot of the negativity that went on in my community made me want to paint a positive image of the people in my community who might not necessarily fit the stereotype. Going to school and being in an AP Art class that didn't necessarily reflect the kind of people I lived around and grew up with also made me want to make images that best represented the people I saw on a day to day basis.
You also make sculptures and films. Can you tell us a bit about these projects and how your photography informs or inspires your other creative endeavors?
I use photography and motion picture - or just making images in general- as my primary tool in creating my art. Every now and then I come across something that I can't really say with a photograph or with video or film. That's when I start gravitating towards painting and sculpture. My sculpture is often influenced by something that I witnessed or lyrics from music, or even random day-to-day stuff that I come across that I could project differently than I can with a photo.
You talk about discovering things that are "hidden in plain sight." How do you discover places, people, or unique vantage points?
In the video, I was talking about the alley we found on Bond Street, which is really clean, like a rich area. But if you go into the alley, there was this amazing graffiti that had this strong message, it said "Stay Free." Finding that in this neighborhood was really what I was talking about. Also though, "hidden in plain sight" in my work extends to the people I photograph. To me, they are beautiful but they aren't models. Finding a regular person and seeing the beauty in them and wanting to work with them and photograph them is a kind of discovery.
Tell us about your studio, which is beneath a flower shop. How did you find the space? What is it like working there, knowing that there are people just grabbing a bouquet for their date etc. upstairs?
Jack, the guy who owns the flower shop commissioned me and a friend to do a piece in his bar on 53rd street. We worked with him for an entire summer and he got to know me and found out I went to Cooper and that I was looking for a space. As an artist, I think he was being really supportive in allowing me to make this space into my studio and make it personal. We go through the shop and it's kind of a speakeasy kind of thing. People are like "Hey, I'm here for AWOL" and the ladies in the shop will let them downstairs…
You mention that you feel like you will never stop discovering new places and characters here in New York City. Can you tell us about something or someone you recently found that changed the way you think of your hometown?
Recently I met another artist who works with these young kids. They are dancers, kind of like "Dance Moms" competition girls. She works with them out in the Hamptons and she asked me to assist her on one of their shoots. To go there and work with someone in their environment and to be out of my own element, but also to step away from my own work did something weird to me. It's still fresh and I'm still processing. To be around her and to be around these kids, and to have these kids sort of warm up to me, to get comfortable around me influenced me to think about making new types of work.