the photographer capturing intimate moments between hip-hop’s biggest stars
In a new photo show, Atlanta native Gunner Stahl presents three years of his personal portraits, snapped during Young Thug’s studio sessions and Lil Uzi Vert’s trips to the dirt bike park.
Lil Uzi Vert
Any hip-hop fan will find more than a few familiar faces on photographer Gunner Stahl's Instagram feed. Rich the Kid brushes his teeth, Earl Sweatshirt takes a distressing phone call, Wiz Khalifa plays with a puppy. Though they feature today's most photographed rap stars, there is something distinctive about 24-year-old Stahl's portraits. His images are personal and intimate — they capture truly candid moments between friends and collaborators.
Stahl (real name Jonathan Simmons, but extra points if the Mighty Ducks character of the same Icelandic name came to mind) was born and raised in Atlanta, forward-thinking hip-hop's hotbed. Though he first began taking photographs at 18, he says he's been friends with rappers and producers his entire life. "I took my camera around to shows, parties, school, everywhere. I'd take photos of anything — a flower, if I thought it would make a cool picture. A lot of my friends rap, so my stuff developed pretty naturally into music photography," he explains on the phone from Atlanta.
Today, Stahl opens the first leg of his three-city photography exhibition, Portraits 2013 -2016, with a one-night-only show in his home city. The show collects three years of Stahl's adventures, both on the road and at home with Future, Kehlani, Kanye, and more. Stahl plans to exhibit Portraits in both New York and Los Angeles, where a zine of newer shots will accompany the show. Ahead of what's bound to be a lively opening party, we asked Gunner a few quick fire questions about his spontaneous approach to shooting and why he thinks Atlanta is the new LA.
Rappers and musicians are photographed constantly. What do you think makes your images unique?
My pictures are just candid, nothing's pre-planned. Most of my photography comes from just being in the moment, and I feel like I do a great job of capturing those moments. I'd like people to feel as though they were actually there.
Who are some of your favourite people to photograph?
Right now, Lil Uzi Vert is my favourite to shoot with. I feel like he was born to be in front of a camera.
Those dirtbike photos of him are great.
Thanks! He was shooting a music video for Money Longer, at a dirt bike park about two hours outside of downtown Atlanta. He was texting me to come shoot photos, "I know it's far but just trust me." When I got there, it was a massive drag racing field with other off-road activities like four wheelers. It was crazy.
You've shot behind the scenes of Yeezy Season 3 and just went to Gucci Mane's house. What's been your high point so far, and what are some goals you've set out for the future?
I never thought I'd go to Gucci's house or to Season 3. In December of 2015, I spent two days with Young Thug in the studio. I'd probably say that was the high point because he's one of my favourite rappers. My super end goal in photography is to become a teacher — I'd like knowing that I was able to help someone else grow.
Tell me about the show. How did you make the edit, and why present it in three different cities?
This is my first full exhibition. There are pictures of Gucci Mane, Young Thug, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, Mike Will, Lil Uzi of course, Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and the whole Mob — basically any picture I've taken over the past three years that I feel is important, or represents some kind of growth. I've always wanted to show the photos in three cities; the original goal was to run the shows simultaneously. I feel like LA and New York will both enjoy it, so might as well bring it on the road.
What's the best thing about being a young creative person in Atlanta today?
There are so many opportunities here, especially for music. I feel like it's becoming the new LA; everyone's coming here to record, and you'll never know who you'll run into just stepping outside your door.
What advice would you give young photographers?
I've realised more that people gravitate towards personality when you have awesome work to back it up with, so just really be yourself. That's the best advice I can give anyone.
What do you hope people take from your photographs?
I hope they get to see their favourite musicians in a way they never thought they would.
Portraits 2013 - 2016 opens tonight, July 21, from 7 - 10 pm. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Gunner Stahl