Paul Octavious is a Chicago-based photographer and designer. His work has been featured by the New Yorker, the New York Times, swissmiss, Huffington Post, the Paris Review, and The Fox Is Black.
Some clients include: Absolut, Apple, CapitalOne, Hermès, Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, The New York Times, The Oscars, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.
The greatest conversations about photography frequently happen over a drink in the backroom of a lounge... Two photographers just chatting, comparing notes, and looking for inspiration. The topics might range from this to that, but invariably the conversations delve into the juicy bits – the stuff that piques interest at every level of photographer. This is at the heart of what our journal is about – capturing honest moments that hope to inspire something in you, our readers.
So, we're expanding who we're talking to, and who's doing the interview. This week Ryan Schude, a good friend of TPJ, takes the helm in a great conversation with longtime friend Paul Octavious.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Well, first off, I don’t put an end to any project. I never say, “oh I’m going to do it, and then oh this is the last piece,” because I feel, right now I’m going back into my, I hate to use the word, but personal renaissance of going back to projects that I haven’t touched in six years.
Puffin Clouds, for instance. When I first photographed Puffin Clouds, I was in my parent’s living room, not knowing lighting, but knowing what I wanted it to look like, and different techniques. Just really basic, really experimental. And then I remember going to LA to meet Derek Wood for the first time. Really great photographer in LA, and a friend. And we started to play around with Puffin Clouds, this is the first time. We didn’t even know each other, actually, until I went out there. He said, “let’s photograph your Puffin Clouds, but let’s photograph it with studio lights” And I said yeah, but it didn’t give the same effect that I was looking for. I used hardware lights, lights I bought at a hardware store, easy peasy. So then, that was my first experimenting with studio lights. And as time went on I kept experimenting, as I start to buy equipment, I started getting more money, doing jobs, I would experiment with Puffin Clouds, but I still wouldn’t get the effect that I did with hardware lights. So I was like, “fuck, it’s not buying expensive lights that gives you the look you need.”
So then I just stopped messing with the project. So these past three years I’ve been doing commercial work, but doing commercial work that is not so fulfilling? It’s just, you do a project, it doesn’t fulfill me like a personal project did. And I also thought that there’s this author named Elizabeth Gilbert, she did this Ted Talk on finding your muse, when your muse…sometimes you don’t know where these ideas come from, they’re up there in the ether, your muse whispers you an idea, and sometimes you take it, sometimes it goes by you, but if it goes by you, if you don’t grab it, it’s going to go by and it’s going to be gone. So I’d been doing these projects earlier on in my career, and I’ll think, “I don’t know why I did that,” I usually do these projects at night, I would fall asleep, and I’d wake up and look at the project on the computer and I’m thinking, “how the fuck did I make that? What?” I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t give it a name until I heard this Ted Talk, like oh that’s what it is, it’s my muse. So for these past two years, I felt like my muse had gone away, it hadn’t sent me anything, it was really depressing. I wasn’t depressed, but I was depressed work-wise, I wasn’t fulfilled work-wise. I have to pay bills, just go on with my life. And in the past three months, my muse has come back, and now I’m just going back to the series I started to create, and it’s fun, and I’m okay, I’m creating it now it’s very exciting, so it’s a very exciting time right now.
I’m going to try and revisit all of them!
Every series that I’ve done in the past, try to photograph it, I’m coming back to it with different techniques, a different eye, but still going back to the old ways that I would photograph, so still using hardware lights, hot lights.
I don’t call it anything, I just call it Bookstacks! Stack-stacks! Yeah, I had this one project where I was thinking, “uhh I want to make book stacks into states and call it United Stacks of America.” But yeah it’s just Bookstacks, go to all the projects and see a different spin or a different eye that I can give to it, and just have fun with it, so that’s what I’m doing right now.
Yeah, I can tell you about Puffin Clouds, how it started. My sister had just gotten a new puppy, and the puppy destroyed one of our stuffed animals all along the lawn, and this was right when I started that 365 project on Flickr. Every day I would have to do a new portrait! So I thought, “oh man, what am I going to do today?” And I saw some of the cotton, I remember lifting it up to the sky, and thinking, “this looks like a cloud!” And then, “oh I wonder if I could make myself with clouds,” with the cotton, and then I just started trying to light it, and that’s exactly how it started. I remember I recently found the first photograph I took of the cloud; it was me and my hand on the window sill, and the piece of cotton was there, and I thought, “that’s crazy.”
Yeah! That was the first, the stuffing was from that.
Oh gosh, for a long time, actually. Maybe for the first two images, and then I said, “Mom, can you help me get stuffing at Walmart?” And then we actually, when I was in Connecticut, so…I never knew there were different kinds of cotton, or batting stuff.
I would just use whatever was at Walmart or whatever, but then we went to some kind of fabric shop, and they have this cotton that I absolutely loved, but I just have this bag, and my mom would always send me a bag, she used to send me two bags when I moved to Chicago, and then I went, that fabric store closed, so I was like, “oh nooooooo!” And I didn’t remember what it was called! So I came back home, found a bag, but I Googled it, and I couldn’t find it. So it was still up until around late last year, I was still using the same, I would save this cotton and then, two weeks ago, I found it online! And I bought them out! I just literally…
It just had a different texture to it. It just hides, so I’m going to work on a Puffin Clouds shoot where I’m going to do ice cream scoops, like an ice cream man, and the weightiness of these clouds has to be like an ice cream scoop, and you know how an ice cream scoop has kind of like a sombrero flip at the end? I need that to be a lighter cloud, so I have the lighter cloud, but I didn’t have that dense, it’s just weird, it sounds so crazy, but when I talk about it like that, about this material.
It’s not the same thing, no.
Agreed, agreed, agreed, it’s important. Also, the studio lights gave it too much of a polished look? And it gives it a look that anyone could get it to look that way, but I like the quirks that a hardware light gives. It has, light leaks, and you think, “oh that’s weird, oh that’s cool, I couldn’t even manipulate that in post.”
Yeah, agreed, agreed, and that’s the beauty of that. So yeah, that’s what I found out, also the more money you make, not that I’m making lots of money, but, you get lazier, or I get lazier, so when, I when I was just very scrappy, making ends meet, I would experiment a lot more.
But then when I would work on commercial work, I didn’t need to work so much, and don’t work so much, and you don’t experiment, and you don’t grow.
It’s a hard balance. So now I’m at the point where I’m trying to find, I’m very conscious of it, I’m thinking, “okay you have to do this, you just have to play and have fun, but still work on those projects but still work on these projects.” So that’s what I’m trying to do.
Yeah, that’s really cool. And also, the coolest part, I feel, is when I started to get a bit of a following on Instagram, that’s when I stopped my other projects, so people don’t know my projects before, so now I’m thinking, “oh cool, I can just show my work to a new audience, and they’re not bombarded with the same thing,” But they’re thinking, “oh I didn’t realize you could do that, as well.” Or potential art directors that follow me on Instagram, thinking, “oh he can do that, too!” Different types of projects, so that’s a really fun thing.
Grandpa’s Records. Grandpa’s Records is a records series I have where I inherited my grandpa’s old records, and I do long exposures of them spinning, they look really painterly.
Yeah, I used to do sculptures with records, so it’s funny, because that was, I was melting records, I was destroying them, people were saying, “you’re destroying music!” And I’m thinking, “it’s art!” But then when I inherited the records, it kind of turned from destroying to glorifying.
Records, at that time, it was just a material I could melt, I had no connection to it. So I didn’t see…
Yeah, no, it was a cover of Print Magazine.
A couple years ago. So now I am creating, I want to create, before I would just focus in on the middle portion, the sticker and that spinning, but now I want to take the whole record, print it on metal, and die cut it. Because I want it to have that sheen, that the record does.
So it looks like it’s just a spinning record on someone’s wall, but it’s a piece of art. So that’s what I’m working on right now.
So yeah, it’s just advancing the next idea, the next version of that project.
Yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now, I can show you on the computer, I just photographed a couple records with my medium format camera.
So that’s what I’m trying to do. But I can show you, on my computer right now, my current folder right now is, I did this shoot for NBC where I got to photograph dogs and actors, which sounds really weird, and then Puffin Clouds, new Puffin Clouds, and new Grandpa’s Records.
No, that’s the crazy part! I know it’s crazy.
I don’t, I don’t! It seems as if, for me, the industry has changed a little bit, you know, just for me personally. You have art directors and creative directors that follow you, and they kind of know your vision already, and they see the work that you put out there on the daily, whether it’s something really polished or something that you just photographed with your iPhone.
I’m very against a curated Instagram feed! It’s still me, but it’s not curated in the sense where it’s like, “here’s my croissant, here’s my magazine…”
That’s my only hypothesis, I don’t know how else I’m getting work.
Jesse says I need a website. Jesse is very much, “you need a website, you need a book, I need all those things.” But then, you get an email that says, “hey we want to hire you for a job!” He’s, I know he’s probably saying, “goddammit!”
I think he does, I’m not sure. There’s leave behinds that I have, too, but I really…I think I was just, I just got caught up with my work, and then I was thinking, “oh man, I have to build a website, and then branding and then I need to collect a book.” And then I lost, well, a hard drive died and I lost files, and I thought, “forget this, what am I doing?” But this year, I’m trying to get my shit together! Hahahaha!
Well I feel like LA photographers and New York photographers, there’s a mentality that, I feel…well, it’s funny because I have no clients in Chicago. I need to go out to more of the agencies and meet up with them, but I haven’t. My agent gets really angry, says, “you haven’t done so much, oh no no!”
Love you, Jesse! But yeah, I feel like whenever I go to New York, I feel like New York and LA photographers…we’re hustlers in the Midwest, but y’all are HUSTLERS. Like, HUSTLIN’.
People need to eat, but not only that, there’s a lot of competition! If I don’t go with you, I’m going to go with someone else.
So part of me sometimes thinks I should probably move to New York to light a fire under my ass, but…
I agree, and yeah, as I said, it does help that I have people following me on Instagram. But that is not going to last forever, you know. I know that.
Oh it’s already on the down, so for me, I’m thinking, “okay, you put in work prior to Instagram to get to where you are now.”
But now you have to put in the work to get beyond Instagram, you know what I mean? I did have clients outside of Instagram, but Instagram was revenue for me.
Very fortunate, very fortunate. I mean, some people come from money, I don’t come from money, where you can just…there was half a year I was on unemployment for a little bit, so it was Midwest hustle.
Mine would be to make fine art.
I think I would want to sell it. I’ve never had a gallery show, never had anything like that. I think it would be cool to walk into someone’s house and be like, “I made that!” Or that person says, “I want that because it brings me joy or brings me happiness.”
I think I would like to still keep on taking photos and sharing it, not for profit, you know.
Yeah, I guess you would! I just like making things, I guess I make it a different way, so I guess I would want profit, hahaha! But yeah, just make things. But I do enjoy, I was thankful, very thankful to be a part of that Apple billboard campaign, where it was shot on iPhone, but that was so cool because people all over the world got to experience it, it was like an art gallery, but the world is your art gallery, and people got to see your work. People were sending me things from Dubai where they saw my work, and in Korea they saw my work, down to the New York subways. So that was so cool, and I like spreading my work, so it was fun working for a commercial entity like that.
If you have the hustle, I mean, your work is, you’re like my superstar, you’ve always been my superstar, I’ve been following you for years, so always seeing your work it’s like totally viable, either way you go.
I love the hybrid, especially when you see artists, artists in general that is, not just photographers, any artist that has done gallery and then they do commercial? I feel like, I don’t know, that’s so much fun for me.
David LaChapelle is a great example, he does it easily. There’s that sculptor/painter named Kaws. He does sculpture, and then all of a sudden he’s doing a VR experience with Skittles? What!? That makes no sense, but all the sense! And I think that’s so much fun. And it’s also making that art accessible to everyone, not just the elite . So that’s why I think it’s great to do things that can reach everyone rather than you do fine art and you can sell that at a large price point, and then you can also do a commercial, and you’re pushing a product that is for everyone, everyone can buy it. It’s a lot of fun, that’s why I like to do it. You make art accessible to everyone, not just one person.
Oh please, I can’t wait.
You know, I just started to think about that, because I just got asked to be a creative director at an agency.
And I never thought about doing that before. And I don’t know if I belong in that arena. I’ve worked with tons of agencies, but you know, to be in the agency…I actually have a meeting tomorrow.
You hear a dollar amount and you get thinking, “oh wow, that’s amazing!” But then, I just got back into my groove of creating personal work, and that brings me so much joy and can lead to more joy. Yeah…as much as I would love to work with this agency, and they’re super-talented, I feel like I’m giving you “why I’m not going to work for this agency.” Hahahaha!
But yeah, I thought it would be fun to work on the clients they have and work with the people, but I feel like I still have so much personal discovery, right now. So now I’m thinking, “do I want to work for an agency?” And I can probably do that for a couple years and then move on. But no, I just live in the, it’s hard, I live in the now. It’s so hard to…
Yeah, I don’t want to work a 9-5, I want to wake up. The things I thought about, the quickest, were, three days a week I go to the gym. I couldn’t go to the gym, and that has changed my life, I never thought I would enjoy going to the gym or anything like that, but that fitness has changed my life in the past two years, so that mixed with not doing it, at the time I do it at in the morning, or just, it would just change my routine. I don’t know if it’s worth it to do this even though it could be a great experience.
Hahaha, yeah yeah, it’s a reservation!
It’s tempting, but I’m thinking, “oh, I’m still young, I’m 32.” I’m alright, I can do it, but ehh, I think I’m on my own pathway now, I’m just…
Yeah, that’s the crazy part! I don’t need a job right now because I’m doing my photography thing and I can pay the bills. If I needed a job, if I was looking for a job, I would in a heartbeat take this job, it’s an amazing job. But I kind of like my lifestyle, I can go to New York this weekend, just to go to New York and see some friends, I don’t have to worry about Monday, you know, or leading my team at the moment.
Which is crazy! It’s so crazy to think that! So I think I’m going to try to make that website! Hahahaha!
Because I’m thinking, “oh, I could probably get more clients if I make a website.”
But see, that’s where I was posting my work because I don’t have a website, so I’m just, I’m posting my best work and my worst work all in the same spot, which isn’t the best idea.
Yeah it feels fun, but it feels fun for me, and people, umm, I don’t know, I don’t know what people think of me. That’s why, now that websites are coming back, I want to get out of Instagram? How can I say it, I want to get my work past Instagram.
No, no no no, you know when someone goes “you’re the, oh here’s my Influencer,” you’re like…
So gross, so tacky. But yeah, I just want to be the photographer I was before Instagram, where people didn’t even know I was a photographer before that.
Oh my gosh, sometimes I do, I just want to be all over the place.
You’re still working for someone, someone else’s idea. Even though you’re working for someone else’s idea when you’re freelancing, but it seems more independent. You have more say. I haven’t had the meeting yet, I’ll tell you how the meeting goes after, but that’s how I feel.
And I know if I got home, I wouldn’t want to make any work! I want to…
You could go to the gym, but are you going to cook after the gym? No. I’m going to be that guy that’s like, “oh it’s Sunday night, I’m making my meals all week.”
You don’t want to do anything!
Oh my god, yeah! I don’t know HOW, I was watching a tutorial on lighting yesterday, online or something, and they were using terms, and I thought, “oh that’s what that means!” I still don’t know things, but yeah, most of the video work I do, I do with one of my exes.. My ex, Andy, who’s an amazing videographer. So when we work on projects together, we just work really well together.
Until I started to really meet more photographers and meet more directors, I started to learn that photography can be an independent sport, for the most part. Until you get the bigger ideas, lighting, grips, all that jazz. But video is a team effort. I wanted to do everything, I’m a self-taught photographer, I wanted to do things by myself, but then I started to learn that you don’t have to know everything, you hire someone who’s the best at what they do. So now I’m learning that, I’ve realized that as long as I have a vision of what I want to do, I can do it.
When I first started messing around with photography, I remember I would always do everything late at night, in my parent’s living room, where I would like take down paintings off of walls so I’d have a clean surface, I would hang cotton balls from the rafters. There was one night where I was shirtless and my dad was coming home late from work, he walks into the house, looks over at me, I’m holding clouds like this, shirtless, and I say, “hey Dad!” And he says, “what’s going on?” And I’m just waiting while the timer’s on.
And I’m frozen, thinking, “oh man, I don’t know.”
This was 2006, so I had just stopped going to college, just bought a new camera the year prior. My parents saw me in this process of discovering something.
I went to school for design. So yeah, and then I got a job, and then I started taking more photos, I got a job here in Chicago at Threadless, and when I got fired from that job…I didn’t get fired because I was doing a bad job, I got fired because I didn’t have certain skills, you know. They needed studio photography, at that time, they didn’t know they needed studio photography, I didn’t know studio photography, I thought you could photograph in Chicago outside all year around, you can’t do that.
It gets too cold here. So they let me go with a gentleman’s handshake, but when they let me go, they took my camera, my computer, because they gave me a camera and a computer.
So I didn’t have a camera, I did have a computer, and now I’m a photographer and haven’t got those tools. And then my parents mailed me my computer from home and I remember looking outside because I was waiting for it, and I look outside and the UPS man, I saw him take the box and drop it. And I was like, “that’s interesting.” So anyway, I forgot about it because I’m just excited that my computer is coming, and he came to the door, and I was like thank god it’s my computer, and he looked at me, and said “I hope you have insurance.”
Yeah. So, still not thinking of anything, he gives me my computer, I take it, I plug it in, it doesn’t turn on. I look at the bottom, this was the G5, Macs that were like steel, I look at the bottom, and the bottom is just dented.
So I didn’t have a computer now. My parents, they were supposed to visit me that month in Chicago, instead they just bought me a new computer.
They’re cool people, and it’s so heartbreaking, but my parents knew my dream, and they thought, “he really wants to do this,” I’ll never forget that, you know.
Yeah, I’m going to do this, back’s against the wall, let’s just do this.
Yeah, this was around 2008, I got fired from the job in January, right around this time actually. And yeah, so right around this time in 2008, I got fired.
Hahaha, starting my new career, I should say.
Yeah! I was in New York, and The Park Avenue Armory in New York City, they have huge shows a couple times a year, and there was this exhibit, and I thought it was amazing, so I was thinking I wanted to go back to that exhibit and film it. And my mom is more into museums, and my dad can care less about a museum, he doesn’t care about that.
So I said, “oh mom, you’ve got to come see this exhibit.” And she says, “yeah, we’re going to go.” So we went one day and stood in line, and I called the exhibit the day before and asked, “can I bring a tripod?” and they said, “oh yeah, you can totally bring tripods, or whatever.” I was thinking, “that’s crazy they’ll let you bring a tripod into this place, because usually exhibits would NEVER let you bring a tripod in.” ANYWHERE. So I was thinking, “I’m going to take advantage of this.” I have no idea, I’ve never used this camera before with the video, had never shot video at all. It was around when the Mark III was just coming out, and knew I was never going to have this opportunity again, I knew it wass going to be beautiful, so let’s just try it. And I just brought my parents, and I was filming and shooting, and it turned out really well!
Yeah, and I thought, “oh no one’s really going to see this video,” because I didn’t really have a following or anything like that, or actually it was just starting, where people were starting to follow me on Instagram, because I remember being there, and some woman walked up to me and was like, “oh you’re Paul Octavious!” And my mom was right there.
While I was shooting! I remember my mom backing up with her camera to photograph it, as if, “oh I’m just going to pretend.” So then yeah, I used Sufjan Stevens music in it and was thinking, “he’s never going to see this.” And then he reblogged it!
Because I guess that same song he used in a commercial, and people said, “oh that sucks, you gave into the man and you did all this!” And then he reposted my video, saying, “if you didn’t like that commercial, this is probably a better way.”
He was pumped! He was so glad someone used this song in a way that he would like to use it.
Just through that. It was just through Tumblr.
I met a friend out here in Chicago,we were talking about Sufjan, and he said, “oh he was one of my best friends!” I said, “wait what?!” He said, “yeah, next time you’re in Chicago we should hang out.” I was like, “oh my god, he’s like my top.”
Exactly, exactly! And I’ve always wanted to do a video for Sufjan, that’s my dream, so I thought, “I’ll just put it out there.” Yeah, it was so fun.
Yeah! You would think, right?
Yeah, it’s a really wide, I don’t know how people knew not to go to a certain place where they were, but the swing is so low, it was interesting. Oh my gosh, that event, I don’t know. I hope that happens somewhere else, because I want everyone to experience that. It was the most ethereal, because all the swings, there were about fifty swings, and they were all attached to a giant curtain, a parachute in the middle. And that fluctuated.
When we got there, I remember the day I got there, I was thinking I wanted to be the first ones in there, so we were the first ones in line, because I wanted it empty, so that was the most beautiful thing to see nothing moving, and then to see it moving one bit by bit, you’re just thinking, “wow this is amazing.”
It changes. Sometimes, like I said, I like experimenting to get to the result. I could care less about the result half the time, and I’m like, “oh, that’s pretty.” I never look at it again, but I learn so much through the process.
I can’t pinpoint a project that just didn’t…but I know I have a lot of failed projects…
Shark on the Beach…was a fun photo for me to do, but I guess, I’m trying to think of, Shark on the Beach was one of those things where I was just experimenting, it was for a group show, didn’t know it was going to happen, I had no expectation. It was the first time I photographed in front of random people, you’re just photographing in public, and people are, there’s this spectacle of “oh she’s carrying a shark, she looks like Ariel!” And you’re embarrassed, I didn’t know that was interesting, photographing in public for the first time like that. Yep I don’t know, process and…
Wait, say that again?
Yeah, it’s definitely a process I’m comfortable with, I’m not dealing with another human, I’m dealing with me for a self-portrait. I tried to push myself to photograph people more. But then when I do that, I get away from when I’m really comfortable with and good at doing, which is photographing things that are…
Yeah. I enjoy the process a lot, getting to a certain point, for instance, that skeleton was hanging in my living room for like two weeks because it was changing. I was looking at the light at different parts of the day, I was trying with this light, then trying with this light, then doing the fog machine, then getting a different fog machine, then gelling the lights. That process was so much fun for me, I enjoy that a lot. The result…
Yeah, I enjoy that result, as well. It’s like I didn’t know it was going to end up that way.