LIAM CAMPBELL was born in Chicago but spent most of his life in London. There he studied photography for a year and then left to get a "real job", only to return to photography full-time in 2014 when life without art felt too much like suffering. He then worked in fashion, did some portrait work, and finally launched Elska Magazine, a gay photography culture magazine featuring men of all stripes, in late 2015. He is now seen bouncing all over the world shooting various Elska issues when not at home in Rhode Island. ~ bio from Liam’s website ~
Liam is forever a pleasure to work with, we are so happy he has found a home in RI! Read further to learn more about Liam’s projects, some of his experiences as an LGBTQ+ artist, and more…
As fellow photographers, makers, and book admirers, we appreciate everything you have done with Elska and are inspired by your work to put out a bi-monthly beautifully flawless publication. Would you mind telling us Elska Magazine’s story? How, where, why, and when did you start this project? What city did you feature first and why?
Although I did photography at college, I never used it professionally until many years later. After various careers, I took a job as a flight attendant basically so I could travel for free all over the world. During this job, my love of photography came back strong. I was shooting everywhere I went and then also started doing photography assistant jobs or low-level fashion stuff during my spare time to build a portfolio and experience, with the goal of leaving the airline and moving to do photography full-time. But I still wanted to travel, and somehow I got this idea to combine travel and photography, but with a gay/queer sensibility, into this magazine concept. Luckily it took off and so three years later I’m still doing it.
For the first issue, originally my idea was to do a city in Poland, mainly because I have Polish roots and wanted to use the magazine as an excuse to explore them. I decided to ask a Polish friend for help, and when I asked her what the most beautiful city in Poland was, she said Lviv, which is actually in Ukraine (but was part of Poland before the war). She really got me curious though and so I went with her suggestion. But even though the first Elska
city was chosen pretty much on a whim, it helped shape the future of Elska in that we tend to feature less obvious and well-known cities, which I find really exciting.
Elska means love. How does this title shape the publication and represent the themes of this body of work as a whole?
“I’ve always been interested in the relationship between love and lust, in particular how developing an emotional bond with someone can lead to a physical attraction.”
I don’t have a very succinct way to explain it, but I’ve always been interested in the relationship between love and lust, in particular how developing an emotional bond with someone can lead to a physical attraction. It’s like how sometimes you can click with someone who at first glance you thought wasn’t your “type”. Or how maybe you get married and then forty years later when you’re both wrinkled and grey you still have that lust because you also share that love. I wanted in my work to photograph different types of people, including those “regular guys” who many wouldn’t expect to see in a magazine, and to present them as beautiful and sexy. By shooting people in a very natural way and by including stories that let you get to know them more personally, I thought I could persuade readers to see that beauty and develop chemistry with the subjects. Furthermore, this could push forward the idea of beauty as not just about muscles or youth or white skin or whatever, but rather something connected to love.
You were born in Chicago and have lived and visited many places since. What brought you to Providence? How has this city influenced you or the publication in any form?
I lived in the US when I was a kid but spent most of my life in London. In truth, a lot of my Chicago childhood I remember negatively, and some of the bad memories there fed a sort of blanket anti-Americanism, an idea of the entire country as conservative, racist, and homophobic. In later life, I tended to ignore the American side of me, but after doing ten issues of Elska I had to face the idea of shooting an issue in an American city, because there was this big gap in Elska's map, and also because the majority of our customers are in the USA. So I decided to try to find a city that was the opposite of the negative stereotype I formed of the country. I remember finding an article that named Providence as the fourth best city to live in for LGBTQ people, and it really intrigued me because I hadn’t ever thought of Rhode Island beyond “Family Guy”. So I decided to check it out, and I loved it so much that I ended up moving there. Providence broke many of my preconceptions about American cities, both socially and also aesthetically - here was an actually beautiful city and not one that’s all concrete, shopping malls, and highways. I suppose I always knew my negativity towards America was unfair, but it took Providence to help me see it. And it’s led me to be a bigger champion for breaking stereotypes, for keeping an open mind.
How long have you been using photography as your medium? What do you like most about the art forms, photography and publishing (and design?), that you work in?
I really connect with photography because of its ability to be so faithful to reality. If you’re dealing with drawing or music, for example, I imagine it's hard not to be tempted to veer away from the truth, to show what you want the audience to see or hear. I get that this can seem hypocritical, since photography can be used in a very contrived or conceptual way as well, and obviously I’m choosing what to frame and then what images to publish. Yet I believe that at least in the way I use photography, such as by using natural and available light, and being willing to break rules, achieves my goal. For example, if I’m shooting in someone’s flat and it happens to be really dark and cluttered, then I’m happy to let the images be grainy or oddly composed. I actually enjoy the “incorrectness” of the image and feel that an imperfect scene is more interesting than a perfect one, even if it’s not as pleasing. The instinct to correct an image, either before shooting or in editing, is still there, but I try to resist. If I feel an image is fake, it ruins it for me. Maybe others don’t know if I photoshopped an object from the scene, or if I asked a guy to smile on purpose, but I’ll know.
As for when I started using photography, it began five years ago. Before that, I actually was a musician, singer, and songwriter. It meant everything to me but it was also very difficult because in music there are all these extraneous things that matter, like stage presence and your appearance and style. I’ve never been comfortable with revealing myself in such ways, preferring to be seen through the music and lyrics, but I couldn’t avoid being a physical commodity. Photography later gave me the chance to express myself and do something meaningful, but without making me such an object. I feel protected and safe behind the camera, much more than behind a microphone or piano because I’m no longer judged for things I can’t control about myself but for what I actually produce.
Will you tell us more about how you curate, or not curate, who is featured in each publication? How do you connect with the people you photograph? How do you decide the sequence of the magazine?
I like to say that I don’t curate, because it’s important that everyone who takes part in Elska is published, and I want to maintain an equality of the men featured. I fear that if I embrace the idea of curation, I may be tempted to select people based on how conventionally beautiful they are or how sensational or well-written their stories are. For example, the other day I published an admittedly meh image on our Instagram of a half naked muscular white guy, and it got over a thousand likes. The next day I published a thicker and slightly older guy and it got thirty-seven likes. To me, it’s a clear message that I should be rejecting everyone but the fit white guys, that my work will be more successful if I do that, but I just don’t feel right about it. Obviously, the majority of people don’t resonate with anything but one narrow image of beauty, but I have never fit in with the majority, so why try now?
That being said, I almost always have more content than I can fit into a physical magazine so I do need to do some chopping. I try to be as fair as possible about it, but there are all sorts of reasons for why someone might be cut or included. For example, in one issue I was going to cut this guy because his story was quite short compared to the others’, but then I decided to keep him because he had a small penis! When you see a penis in media, it’s usually huge or in a porn context, so I felt that it was impactful to show a more realistic depiction. Or sometimes the reason is more arbitrary - in another issue, I chose to cut one guy because he just wasn’t very nice to me, and frankly, I didn’t feel the desire to spend ages editing his chapter, spending time with someone I’d rather not make more time for.
As for the sequence, it’s mainly about variety. If two guys happen to write stories to do with coming out, then I won’t place them back-to-back. Or if most of the guys are in their twenties, but we have two guys in their fifties, I will mix them up. And then I usually like to put my favorite somewhere bang in the middle, because I’m one of those people who likes to open books at the center.
How do you make sure the space feels comfortable and safe for both you and your subjects during a photo shoot?
Generally the shooting location is the person’s own home, and usually, they choose the outdoor location too, either their own neighbourhood or somewhere they feel connected to. I think this helps make a person feel comfortable. Also, it’s common to do things like play music during a home shoot, or maybe go for a coffee/drink before the shoot. I also happen to be a very quiet and calm person, which is a problem sometimes, but during a shoot I think it shows how harmless I am and helps takes the pressure off.
How do you hope your readers feel and respond to the work when viewing and reading Elska? Who is your intended audience and how do you hope they respond to Elska as a whole?
I got a lovely email last week from a reader. He said, "This publication really helped me when I was coming out to my family and friends because reading about the stories of other gay people in the world gave me the strength and confidence that I wasn't alone and who I was wasn't something to be ashamed of or to hide.” It’s times like this when I am reminded that my work is worth something, even if it doesn’t make a load of money. I also need to remember that being able to survive as a full-time artist is something like a miracle, though I won’t deny that I’d love to be traveling in business class and staying in five-star hotels for these trips!
Tell us about the changes occurring with the publication. What is going to be the differences that readers see and what evoked this change?
This year we changed the format of our print magazine to something altogether lovelier. The size is a bit bigger, there’s a very cool textured cover with flaps, bulky matte paper, sewn instead of perfect binding, and offset instead of digital printing. It’s still bi-monthly but we’re able now to print in larger quantities and thus reduce the overall cost. It’s kind of like a gift to loyal readers by giving them a nicer product. The content inside is mostly unchanged, but the increased size gives room for more pics of each guy and adds a general airiness that I feel makes the reading experience more enjoyable.
I’m always encouraged when I learn of artists taking the risk of doing their creative work full-time and making it work for them! What was your journey like in this respect, and do you have any advice or words of encouragement for emerging artists?
The first thing I’d say to any artistic person is that you need to make art a part of your life, even if it’s just a bit of time on a Tuesday evening. And if you want to make a go of something big, then just do it. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll learn, you’ll find what works and what doesn’t. But be prepared that it probably won’t be easy. I remember that for a couple of days in one shoot trip I slept in the back of a car because I couldn’t afford a hotel room. And I moved out of London not only to come to lovely Providence but because the cost of living was too high there to survive doing Elska. It’s OK if the cost of doing art full-time is too high for you, but do make some time for it.
I’d also tell people to trust their instincts. In most endeavors, it’s probably bad advice to not seek feedback, but compelling work needs to have a voice, and I think it’s hard to discover your own voice if you’re listening to too many others shouting all at once. Like I remember working with a very well-known fashion photographer and he said my images were composed in such a way that the model didn’t get the fullest attention, that too much background was there, but I didn’t listen. Now I find that the distractions are key, that they invite you to spend more time with the images. Also, once another photographer who happens to run another small gay publication told me that I need to cull “ugly men” from the magazine because they spoil the overall flow. I was appalled, not only for the shallowness but because I disagreed - I didn’t find them ugly at all.
Tell us about Liam! The person behind the publication. How do you make space for constant travel, editing/reviewing, planning, a personal life, new “homes” in different cities…
Is there something that gets you through each trip, each jet-lagged return, and a place you love to visit when you return home to Providence?
Organization is key, and I also plan far ahead - yesterday I booked flights for next January, which will be for issues out in spring 2020. With six issues a year it means six weeks of travel, but I split it into three chunks to make it more manageable. When I get back to Providence, my first day usually starts with a bike ride down to The Shop in Fox Point. I’ll get my mug of regular old filter coffee and maybe a porridge and then do one of my favourite tasks - a look through all the pics from my trip to choose a cover. But after a couple weeks I’m ready to travel again, but maybe for a holiday this time, cashing in some of those well-earned frequent flier points for a trip with my husband, and the camera stays at home.
FRAMES IN FOCUS: Banners
What comes to mind when you think of printed banners? Most likely large signage for businesses, right? A grommeted vinyl material - promoting, informing, branding, or sometimes calling to action… Here at io, we have fun pushing the limits of materials and getting creative with their applications. Keep scrolling to see what we mean...
Durable and Portable
We are able to produce banners at many different scales, including small, large or very large. They can be printed on a variety of opaque and shear fabrics, translucent films, unique papers or soft, leather-like, vinyl for interior or exterior use. Banners can be finished and fashioned with pole pockets and wooded dowels, silver or brass grommets, or a variety of available hanging clips and holders.
We also offer portable, retractable, banners with stands that can be displayed, collapsed and transported with ease. There’s unique banner options for all budgets, and a variety of traditional and non-traditional uses.
So what more can be said about banners?
From our perspective, actually - a lot!
Imagine a light fabric, printed banner, exhibited as artwork - angled down from the ceiling using wooden dowels. Or a very large, translucent mesh banner acting as a screened room divider. The banner image is visible from both sides and allows viewers to see, both the design and through to the other side. Or a banner that provides useful, or even critical information, but that also enhances its environment with color, design, material texture, and placement.
Want something a little more artsy?
We offer many different types of textiles to fit your creative needs! From silk, cotton, and linen to canvas, synthetic fabrics, and vinyl, you can be sure your photographs, illustrations, paintings, mixed media work, etc can be digitally reproduced with richness in color and dynamic range. For more info about textiles, please visit our Textiles page.
Never be afraid to email us with project specific questions or just to learn more!
Providence truly shines in the summer when it comes to festivals, maker's markets, and all around good times. Take a look at our selection of June events - including Pride exhibitions featuring local LGBTQ+ artists, nature art events, author readings, and more!
Tuesday, June 25th
Right here at iolabs!
Please register online HERE
Saturday June, 15
South Water Street, Providence
RI PRIDE ART GALLERY
The largest LGBTQIA+ Art Exhibit in Providence!
Four locations featuring local LGBTQIA+ Artisits will be open to the public free of charge for the month of June.
2 Charles Street Gallery
Providence City Hall
Providence Marriott Downtown
Sprout CoWorking Gallery
SOME GALLERY OPENINGS
DEDEE SHATTUCK GALLERY
dignity of trees - featuring six artists: Greg Rose, Deborah Coolidge, Ana Flores, William Harting, Renee Monteiro-Bernard, and Paul Rider.
June 8 - 30
Saturday June 8, 5-7pm
On Reflection: Digital Kaleidoscope Compositions
Open Reception June 7th
Come see the gallery show and get a tour of the house!
1:30-3:30 all Saturdays in June
PVD ARTISANS MARKET (at Hope Street Farmer’s Market)
ENVIRONMENTAL LIVE ART AND MEET UPS
LADIES DRAWING NIGHT
Hang out and draw with some awesome local female artists!
RISD Nature Lab (temporarily at the old RISD library on Benefit St)
Thursday, June 27th
CASEY’S FARM ARTISTS’ MEETUP
A day of outdoor painting, drawing, photography, or the medium of your choice.
Saturday, June 22nd
WATSON FARM ARTISTS’ MEETUP
Another day of outdoor painting, drawing, photography, or the medium of your choice.
Sunday, June 30th
OPEN PAINT + AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY DAY
Come mingle with like-minded artists and nature lovers! We welcome our guests to bring
a sketch pad, watercolors and washable paints and to take photographs at the Botanical Center.
Friday, June 28th
Chia-Chia Lin with Sarah Frye Reading and Q+A
Friday, June 21st
Saturday, June 22nd
Thurs June 6th - Sunday June 9th
~Tap PVD Fest above for the full event schedule ~