REM's Michael Stipe on his 37,000 photos – of stars, lovers and Kurt Cobain's hands

Photography has been a lifelong passion for the singer. He talks us through his finest shots, from a sleeping River Phoenix to ‘his queer grandfather’ William Burroughs

‘It was dismissed as a hobby, which was a bit diminishing,” says Michael Stipe. “It meant a lot more to me than that.”

He’s talking about his photography and the way the media ignored it during his time as the frontman of REM. There is, admittedly, something amusing about his gripe: there he was, playing shows to packed stadiums, helping to write generational anthems and singing them with a voice as beguiling as pop has produced – and nobody wanted to talk about his photos!

But you only need spend a little time with Stipe to realise that the camera is something he values every bit as much as the microphone. He’s had one by his side ever since he was a teenager, shooting early gigs by the Ramones, the Runaways and Queen (“I saw them from the front row,” he notes with fannish enthusiasm). And while he found diary writing a drag during his REM days, the camera was always around to document his “extraordinary, unbelievably lucky life”.

‘My little brother’ … River Phoenix asleep, 1993.
‘My little brother’ … River Phoenix asleep, 1993. Photograph: Michael Stipe

Some of these images appear in Michael Stipe: Volume 1, a beautifully presented collection of 35 of his photographs whittled down from a whopping 37,000. There are pictures of famous friends, intimate shots of naked male bodies and the odd REM reference in there, too – such as the kudzu field in Georgia where the sleeve for the band’s album Murmur was shot.

One of the book’s themes is family, not just biological (Stipe’s sister Lynda features, dressed as Marilyn Monroe who, he says, always reminded him of his mother) but also the artistic family that Stipe chose to surround himself with. River Phoenix, who was “like a little brother to me”, features. So does Kurt Cobain – Stipe’s closeup image of the grunge icon’s hands have only previously been seen by Courtney Love and Frances Bean.

There are also tender pictures of Stipe’s first artistic mentor, Jeremy Ayers, without whom who knows what would have become of the shy Athens teenager. “He taught me how to eat, how to dance, how to laugh at myself,” recounts Stipe. “He taught me about surrealism, about the arc of art going back through the 20th century. He introduced me to Philip Glass, to the idea of vegetarianism.”

Jeremy Ayers, Meigs Street, Athens, 1980.
‘Lifetime of love’ … Jeremy Ayers, Meigs Street, Athens, 1980. Photograph: Michael Stipe

Stipe was 19, well-versed in punk rock but little else, when he met the 30-year-old Ayers. They became lovers, briefly. “So there was that infatuation, which for me was profoundly important ... for him probably less so,” he says with a smile. “But our friendship overwhelmed that little romantic gesture. It became a lifetime of love, throwing inspiration back and forth.”

Stipe admits the book is intensely personal, especially when it comes to exploring another of its key themes: his own “personal understanding of queerness”. Along with the naked male figures – sometimes shot from behind, with faces hidden and limbs contorted – we see William Burroughs, who he describes as “like my queer grandfather, this beautiful beacon of audacity”. Stipe remembers Burroughs, seen in the book traipsing through his back garden, as a tender man, full of warmth: “I remember a conversation we had about Kurt after he died and William was just in shock that someone so beautiful and pure could take their own life,” he says. “It was an impossibility for him to imagine.”

Stipe isn’t just a photographer, but an avid collector and self-confessed fanboy too (“if you can be a fanboy at 58,” he smiles). He has included some of his finds in the book, including one showing the birthday celebrations of Donald Trump’s mentor and dark-arts lawyer Roy Cohn. (Stipe acquired Cohn’s personal archive in order to make a sculpture, which he says is now complete.) The photo seems jarring in a book largely about tenderness, but Stipe likes the fact that a certain person has detached themselves from the table chatter in order to stare right down the barrel of the camera. “Andy Warhol always found the photographer. Always zeroed in on who was documenting the moment.”

Sexual fluidity … Hero, San Francisco, 1998.
Sexual fluidity … Hero, San Francisco, 1998. Photograph: Michael Stipe

There are also old images of James Dean – Stipe bought a scrapbook from Dean’s grandparents’ neighbour, because Dean always reminded him of his dad – and Marlon Brando, who Stipe says represents “a drum that I’ve been banging for decades, which is the fluidity of sexuality. And living one’s life the way one wants to and hoping that other people catch up.”

Stipe has had to wait for the world to catch up with him too. He didn’t speak publicly about his sexuality until 1994, and remained fairly enigmatic around the subject when he did. “Because when I did people didn’t want to hear it anyway,” he says.

Or perhaps they wanted to hear something Stipe wasn’t prepared to say – his refusal to define himself as simply “straight” or “gay” was often portrayed in the press as him being frustratingly cryptic: “But anyone who was looking deep enough acknowledged and recognised who I was,” he says now. “Because I represented a different way of looking at a man, a different way of presenting oneself. So even before I publicly acknowledged my sexuality I was there to present myself as something that was not well represented. But I don’t view the world, nor sexuality, in binary terms, and those terms that were available were not appropriate to how I feel.” He says he’s thrilled that a new generation are growing up in an era when sexuality is far less rigid.

Stipe had, for a while, embraced the modern era of photography too, keenly posting selfies to his Instagram account, until he closed it late last year. “At the beginning it was me with all these very public figures, but I was cutting them out of the picture to make it all about me ... so it was more a comment on selfies,” he says. “But it was a silly gesture that went on too long so I closed the account.”

John Warren Mobley Stipe Jr’s hands, Grady Avenue, Athens, 1993.
Not being direct … John Warren Mobley Stipe Jr’s hands, Grady Avenue, Athens, 1993. Photograph: Michael Stipe

Instead of social media, Stipe has plans for several more photobooks in the near future. But he hasn’t turned his back on music entirely: he co-wrote and produced an album with electroclash duo Fischerspooner last year, and he admits this experience has reignited his interest in composing material for himself. (Just don’t get excited about any potential REM reunion. “That will never happen,” he maintains.)

In truth, music and visuals have never been separate disciplines for Stipe. While in REM, he would choose video directors and design their merchandise. He’d even “see” the band’s music during the writing process. “Oh absolutely,” he says. “That’s where Nightswimming comes from. That’s where Departure comes from. Most of the great songs I see landscapes and then I have to people them, creative a narrative that works within that landscape. But I always saw it before I heard it.”

Even in conversation, Stipe says he needs to visualise sentences before he speaks – he says that’s why he often seems like he’s avoiding eye contact, because he’s forming the words in the distance. But he’s undoubtedly an introvert. Last night, he says, he was at a gathering where the only people he knew were engaged in conversation with other people – he ended up standing by himself against a wall, just watching. “I have to really make an effort to approach people and say, ‘Hi, what do you do, what are your interests?’” he says, somewhat endearingly. “I’m not a natural.”

It’s perhaps not a coincidence, then, that you rarely see a face depicted in the book: instead Stipe shoots hands, arms, the backs of heads. “And by the way, I didn’t even realise that until the book came out,” he says. “It might be a built-in shyness, although bringing a camera up automatically alters the experience of being with another person. I might have been capturing certain moments by not being that direct.”

This sense of fragility – and particularly male fragility – is something that Stipe has always been keen to embrace with REM, and is now proudly displaying through his photography.

“Vulnerability was not seen as a strength in the 20th century,” he concludes. “But I see it as a great one.”

  • Michael Stipe: Volume 1 is published by Damiani.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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