Contemporary artist Paul Robinson has worn many hats throughout his career, including photographer, artist, and writer, to name a few. Currently he is the artistic director for the popular vodka brand, NEFT. Throughout his career, he’s shot for GQ, Elle, Interview, and more. He’s formed friendships with numerous celebrities, many of whom became muses for his artwork, and he’s held exhibitions of his work across the globe. I had the chance to speak with Robinson to discuss coming out, his storied career, and his new role at NEFT.
Alright, I feel like there is so much to talk about with your career, so let’s start from the beginning. From my understanding, you started out in fashion photography? How did that come about?
Yeah, I knew pretty quickly after I got my first camera that I wanted to be a fashion photographer. But it wasn’t until I discovered Helmut Newtown that I became completely obsessed. Right after high school, during my time at UCLA, I started working for modeling agencies, doing all the headshots for the models, and that kind of got my foot in the door. I started making friends with a lot of models.
And all of my model friends were going to Paris, because back then everyone had to go to Italy and France. So basically, one of my model friends told me to come with him to Paris. And literally, the day after I arrived, I got a job shooting for a modeling agency there.
Being in Paris was also a time when I came into my own and really grew. You know, being in a new city…a new country, really…It totally opened me up more as an artist than I ever could have if I stayed in LA. Before Paris, I was in the closet and was unsure of myself, so my time in Europe really felt like something that needed to happen.
So was Paris where you started shooting for magazines?
Funny enough, no! That was actually when I came back to the states. That’s when I started getting lots of work in editorial. I was shooting for everything, from GQ to Glamour, and even Architectural Digest.
But what really changed my career was that after I started doing the magazines, a friend of mine hit me up to do promotional shots for a movie. And I really loved doing that, and from shooting all these actors every day, I started becoming good friends with a lot of them. And that opened the door for me to use them as my models, and some of them definitely became my muses.
Is that when you started to switch from editorial photography into artistic photography?
Yes. Working on those movie sets really made me realize how much I wanted to direct. It showed me that I wanted creative control over my photography and that I wanted the freedom to make what I wanted to make. And that’s when the fashion photography really started to fade away, and I knew I wanted to move in another direction.
Like I said, I was using a lot of my friends as models. I shot lots with actors like Jennifer Tilly and Martha Plimpton. And as I started to develop this collection of photographs, I realized that I could turn it into an exhibition. I was really fortunate to be friends with so many creative, talented people because we all wanted to create art. We were all so into it that it felt like it came together perfectly.
Yeah, I noticed that your first few exhibitions were much more photography-based than art-based, are these the photos that made up your early collections?
Exactly. You’ll notice that my first few exhibitions, like Voyeur, were a lot of artistic portraits and stylized shots. In the first show, I was all over the place. I shot a lot of the great jazz musicians like B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald in very high-contrast black and white shots.
They were absolutely stunning! And those were alongside pieces that featured actresses like Jennifer Tilly and Lara Flynn Boyle. So it was all over the place, but it was a lot of fun. I was finding inspiration in so many different places.
Something I noticed from looking through your images is that as time went on your work seemed to get more abstract. It went from portraits to very artistic, layered images, and then even into mixed media where the pieces seem to be combinations of various mediums. How did that transition happen?
Oh yeah, I definitely moved towards more of an abstract nature. It started off moving from straight photography into layered photographs where I’d put images on top of each other, and later on is when I started introducing different mediums like paint into my work as well.
But yeah, at first, I really wanted to see how far I could push the boundaries of photography. The first show where I started showing my new layered images was In Camera. I combined photos that had different exposures and sometimes created pieces that even had as many as seven layers of images in them. It was all super technical but came out looking really amazing.
What do you think kept pushing you further and further into the abstract?
I started to become more and more inspired by painters. The more I grew as an artist, the more I realized that painters were providing me my true inspiration. And I just fell in love with the way an abstract painting could somehow tell a story without being what many would consider a “traditional” image.
Plus, it was something new. I had never used paint, and so there was sort of an adventurous aspect to trying it out. I wanted to let go of my fears of making something ugly and just try it! if it was bad…I could just throw it out away! So I was like, why not at least try?
And my exhibition of pieces that came from that hybrid style, The Individual, remains one of my favorite collections and was really well received at galleries around the world. I’m still so incredibly proud of it. But the progression towards that style definitely took years.
Your new role at NEFT has yet again brought in a new style. Your work for them obviously isn’t as abstract as your exhibition pieces, but they still seem to have a larger-than-life quality to them. There’s a sort of quirk and humor in them…kind of as if David LaChapelle and Wes Anderson met. What has been your philosophy for creating images for NEFT Vodka?
Well yeah, I love to keep humor in there. I like it quirky. And fortunately for me, NEFT has really allowed me to have creative control over the images I make for the brand. They’ve allowed me to take all these random ideas I’ve had in my head for years, and just bring them all to life. The CEO said to me, “Create whatever comes into your head,” which is a dangerous thing to say to an artist! But it’s seriously been a dream come true, and fortunately it’s all worked out and they’ve loved my work.
My stuff for NEFT is kind of like a combination of all my work throughout the years. You can see the influence from my fashion photography days. You can see hints of abstraction in there. You can find humorous touches that I’ve always loved adding in. It’s like all my different styles have been combined and it creates this sort of whimsical look that makes each image a lot of fun!
What’s next for your career?
Well, I’m getting ready to shoot six new spots for NEFT Vodka, so that’s going to be a lot of fun. And I’m also testing out a new concept for an art series…so keep your eyes peeled for some potential upcoming new pieces!