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Campbell Addy, I ♥ Campbell Addy (2023)
Campbell Addy, I ♥ Campbell Addy (2023)Photography Campbell Addy

Why everybody loves Campbell Addy

We speak to the photographer about his blockbuster new show I ♥ Campbell, returning to painting and exploring a new self-love language

I love Campbell Addy... the London photographer who has scaled the heights of the fashion world as one of the most in-demand photographers working today; a big name whose community remains his bedrock; the same Campbell Addy I met in 2015, except now many, many, many people love him too, including, but not limited to, Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Bukayo Saka, and Azealia Banks.

Last year, Addy released his monograph, Feeling Seen, and described it as the end of an era – ‘issue 0’ as he called it. He was craving a return to the roots that let him flourish, to create away from the constraints of fashion or Instagram, and a return to painting – his first artistic love. To rekindle the joy art gave him in the early days when he was publishing Niijournal out of his bedroom.

Never one to talk the talk, months later, Addy walked… right into the Saatchi Gallery to debut his paintings in the group show, A New Paradise. He’s also been working on a new series of photographs reimagining his Bible studies and an art film about love. All of which – including his paintings – will be revealed in his first-ever solo exhibition at 180 Studios, titled I ♥ Campbell. As much an affirmation as a creative restart, I ♥ Campbell brings the photographer and filmmaker full circle. He’s recruited the unbridled imaginations of set designer Ibby Njoya and scent artist John Foley to help him visualise a journey of reflection that transforms as you edge through it. Visitors will not only confront Addy’s psyche but be forced to face their own too.

Ahead of the show opening, Addy and I spoke about his antidote to industry apathy, how his creative journey compares to a Pokémon’s evolution, and a new love language he’s been exploring.

The things we spoke about last year, about needing to find yourself in different creative avenues, seem to be coming to fruition in this exhibition…

Campbell Addy: Yeah. Now I just want to have fun. Most of the work in this show is new so it will be a surprise for people. I haven’t been this nervous since Niijournal issue 1 [because] I really don’t know how it’s going to be received. Everyone says, ‘Oh, they’ll love it’, but will they? Because if you love my work for a specific reason, then I don’t know if you’re going to get that reason with this show. But that makes me excited because at least I’m not predictable.

The show’s title, I ♥ Campbell, feels like an affirmation. Is it?

Campbell Addy: When I was asked to do the show, I had an idea of what energy I wanted but I didn’t know what it was going to be about. I’ve been going to therapy again and teaching myself to sit in my feelings. I wanted to revisit an idea I’ve been sitting on. I was trying to understand what I wanted to say by going back to it, and it’s all [about] having confidence and leaning into oneself. I turned 30 this year and I needed to learn how to love me – me in the sense of all my feels. I wanted to be vulnerable.

When I did Feeling Seen, it was great, but I felt sad because it wasn’t as vulnerable as I wanted to be. So I thought this show should be about love and how love can inhabit [us]. So, I ♥ Campbell is an affirmation because how vulnerable does one need to be to love themselves, unapologetically?

For the show’s promo, you asked some of us to record our voices saying ‘I love Campbell’. Why?

Campbell Addy: I was thinking about vulnerability, and I felt a lot of love around me, and I wanted a marker to remember that. I wanted people to say that they love me. [Laughs] That sounds so narcissistic! But I ♥ Campbell isn’t about me only finding love in me, it’s because of all of you. So I wanted you all to be in it somehow.

“I’m not scared of religion anymore” – Campbell Addy

I’ve just returned from Florence and seen so much Renaissance art, all the religious figures. To then see your interpretation of those, I was like, wow. Tell me about the new photographs in the show.

Campbell Addy: When I first met you, I shied away from [religious iconography] because of the trauma of leaving home. I think the religious construct is wrong, but as I’ve gotten older, my spirituality and faith are something that I cannot delete, even if it’s come to me in unorthodox ways. I went back to my book of Bible stories, it’s basically for children. I went back to my childhood self, like, what things was I curious about? With a more educated and adult mind, I put my own spin on it.

I’ve had this idea since 2018 or 19, but something didn’t click until I started painting, looking at Carravagio and Rembrandt. I went to the Louvre and looked at the scale and meaning of things, and I imagined I’m a Rembrandt of 2023 with a camera. Then I was able to do these images. My Bible stories flip everything on its head. It’s like, let’s pose a question. I’m not scared of religion anymore.

I’m happy to hear how painting unlocked that for you. Can you tell me about the paintings in the show?

Campbell Addy: The exhibition shows different parts of me, aesthetically or thematically, different mediums connect but in the wider body of my work. There’s self-portraiture in the photos, and these paintings are another form. Great artists always have self-portraits, but I hadn’t done that in a long time.

The two paintings are another way of loving myself. One is about my mental health, and the other one is about my connection to my body with sex, but also sex as a noun and as a verb. I’m finding myself with the brush. My photographs are like, ‘This is what we’re hitting’, and I can see it clearly. But my paintings are more spontaneous. With taking photos, I don’t have time to stop midway and go, something’s not right, let me have a sandwich.

To meditate on it... Your visual style of photography is so pronounced but you don’t yet have one solidified for painting. That’s exciting.

Campbell Addy: It feels like I have so much power but none at all. It’s a humbling experience.

Some of the main images we’ve seen from the show so far are self-portraits of you in blackface. Tell me about those.

Campbell Addy: I’ve always used blackface as a motif. For Niijournal issue 1, I did a photo and a poem about feeling seen and being a young Black man in the climate that we were in at the time, the beginnings of Black Lives Matter. I thought, well, if I’m a corpse, I’m dead, so I wanted to exaggerate something, with a slightly surreal aspect to it. I painted my face black, and made a little garden in my living room, lay in it, and wrote a poem.

Now, it’s like a Pokémon evolution. I started off like a Squirtle, and in my next form, my hair is bigger, and I wanted to push it forward and think about hidden meanings. There’s almost this play on the camera as a box with a mirror reflecting a photographer back onto the page. There’s no photographer, it’s me pressing a button, so I wanted to almost capture me without seeing me. I was also looking at Donnie Darko’s Frank, but with that, mental health and racial issues, I was losing Campbell. So I performed Campbell with elements of all those things to see what happens. And this came up. Dark-skinned, shiny, looking down the barrel of the lens.

“I started thinking about decolonising my tongue... I think my ancestors are traumatised by the English language” – Campbell Addy

It’s very powerful. The way you can turn the camera on yourself.

Campbell Addy: It’s sometimes easier because I didn’t know how to explain that to a model. 

Right. Like, ‘Now you’ve got to be a Pokémon lying in a bush…’

Campbell Addy: And they’re like what? (laughs).

There are also annotated images, like what you’d give to a retoucher.

Campbell Addy: It’s a meeting of two worlds. In 2021, 2022, I had a block, and I just couldn’t do anything, and that’s how my painting started. I went to King’s [Owusu] studio, and he said put the camera down, let’s paint, no pressure, and I wanted to do more. I realised I could annotate my photographs on my iPad as I’d do for retouching. I liked how they were in the same language as my drawings. Then I started deconstructing the idea of my image as an image, but with the addition of written artwork – like, what am I trying to say? Sometimes there’s a double entendre. I will circle my face and write ‘increase the black’. So am I saying increase the blackness of the skin, or in terms of race? Am I saying it within myself, like, do I know about my blackness?

It’s the beginning of an interesting visual language that I’m excited to see develop. It feels like when I first took that photo of King, that you had in your exhibition. That was the first time I actually got a handle on my camera, now look at the journey. So I hope to see what that visual language looks like in five years.

That’s one of my favourite images.

Campbell Addy: It’s so many peoples’ favourite. You know, I’ve never shown it since your show at Mother. I’ve never printed it big enough. I’m excited.

Wow. Okay. So Ibby Njoya worked on the set for this show. What can we expect?

Campbell Addy: I had a clear idea and no one said no (laughs). There’s quite a lot [happening] at the beginning, and by the end, there are elements of emptiness. It’s about reflection and the paintings are reflective of me, so there’s a reflection pool that reflects one of my paintings. There’s a huge mirror and nods to prayer tables. It’s more than just pictures on a wall. The scent is based on my work, a Bulgarian rose smell that has deep resin. There are lots of reds, and everything is ushering you, and then you’re met with this vacant space where you have to look at yourself.

There’s also a new film made in Ghana, an important place for you. Tell me about the film.

Campbell Addy: [With] every project I’m going to go back to Ghana. It’s healing, it’s spiritual. The more I go back, the more I can navigate it to benefit me more. The idea for this film came from a Toni Morrison interview, she’s talking about ‘sha sha sha’ to reference her love for someone. It got me thinking about language and expressions of love. 

Despite being dyslexic, I pick up languages well. But I think my ancestors are traumatised by the English language, because I find it hard to grasp. I started thinking about decolonising my tongue. In English, you say ‘love’, but in Japanese, there are many different words for ‘love’ depending on the type of love. Maybe I’m not supposed to speak this language, and that’s why I’m dyslexic.

So, I wanted to create a video without language – Decolonising My Tongue With Love is about West African people in Ghana expressing the first time they fell in love, but without words. It’s not high budget, it’s an art film. One angle, locked off. It’s simple in execution. Powerful in essence. I also wanted to humanise the Black body (and say) we too are capable of love.

Do you feel closer to the Campbell you lost over the years?

Campbell Addy: Yeah. I think ‘that’ Campbell is now like, ‘Oh you’ve got money, bitch' (laughs)

Like, look at everything we can do.

Campbell Addy: Yeah! I’m not rich, but if people knew how we created Niijournal... There’s a confidence that I didn’t have then. Seeing my work in the Saatchi that I shot that years ago and it stands the test of time reminds me that the person who did Niijournal is still here, but he’s upgraded. He was a Squirtle, now he’s a Blastoise.

Campbell Addy’s I ♥ Campbell is running at 180 Studios, London, from May 11 until June 4 2023.

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