- Vincent Skeltis
- 28 years old
- Grew up in Toms River, NJ; now lives in Williamsburg
- Photographer/ Artist
What’s it like living the jet setting life of a fashion and celebrity photographer?
Well, probably just like the life of a journalist, only without the seemingly obligatory need to be honest. Shooting fashion can be fun if the team of people you're working with are close to you and/or share an understanding of what you’re all trying to visually accomplish. The experience of photographing celebrity can be either wonderful or horrifying, dependent upon the personality of the talent.
How much fact or fiction goes into the final product of each?
I’d relate the word “fact” to the majority of my portraits, however, there is the occasional overweight female rapper who demands a mirror be placed in front of your lens and shakes off every Polaroid you take of her because she wants to look taller and skinnier than what she really is. At that point, yes, fiction becomes the solution. If a photographer in today’s day and age didn’t have access to Photoshop or a post-production house, magazine covers would come to a standstill. America needs reassurance on the pages of there magazines.
How difficult is it being a photographer for hire? Is there a lot of work keeping your clients happy?
There was a time for me, when work didn’t exist, due only to my inability to make/keep my clients happy. Working in this business is less photography and more personality. I always could take a better picture than the next guy, though I behaved like an asshole, and it hurt every aspect of my life. Now that I’ve made the greener mistakes (professionally), client relations have improved tremendously.
How do you know when you’ve got your shot, especially with portraiture?
The more pictures you take, the less time you spend “shooting” through your lens. I often shoot large-format, which forces you to plant your camera in one position and work within those parameters. Your composition is pre-determined prior to looking through the lens, leaving you more time to consider the interactions you may have with your subject. Preparation makes for a shorter session, less film shot and a more of a dialogue with your subject. In most cases, especially shooting personal work, I’ll have my shot within 3-5 sheets of film.
Your bio implies you lived a pretty hedonistic, self-destructive life. What were you doing, and how did you veer back towards the straight and narrow?
I was finding trouble anywhere I could, and if the search turned out to be unsuccessful, I’d create it. Sleeping with the wrong people, doing too many drugs and generally acting out without caring about consequence. The “straight and narrow” is something I’ll never attain. I would call it rather, comfort ability or security. Feeling great in your own skin. That’s never been easy.
How much time are you able to dedicate to your own personal work? Could you practice fine arts without your commercial work, or vice versa?
The time available to dedicate towards personal work is really determined by how driven I am by one specific idea. If the work can’t wait, I’ll find the time and money to see it through. Practicing fine art as a photographer is quite difficult if not impossible without money. It’s one hell of an expensive hobby. Only recently have I started booking substantial ad work, which, in time, will fuel the greater body of my personal work. Without commercial work, exhibitions are possible, but not without fucking killing yourself in the process. If you do your research, write a tremendous amount of letters and stick to set goals regarding the work, you can realize the end result. The idea of depending on others to express your ideas is exhausting, but if it’s your only means, it can work.
Do you find that one helps ground you for the other?
My personal work has always reflected where I am in life. To a fault, I’m dramatic and emotionally driven. I always have been and the work reflects that, without intent. I don’t think doing commercial work will ever sway that. They both present challenges in realizing an idea, however. I think an artist's personal work is always the first place an artist will go when beginning a new project, whether it’s for a collector or a client. The work you do for you is a very personal and familiar point of reference at all times.
Your one-man show, “Nowhere But Up,” was at 31 Grand in Williamsburg. Was that your first solo exhibition?
Yes. Megan and Heather (of 31Grand) took a chance with this show and me. It was such a personal body of work that reflected a very dark place. The salability of the work wasn’t a factor to either of them when they made the decision to show the work. I respect them greatly for that. They both are wonderful curators and treat artists as people with respect and compassion, rather than individual assets.
The show was an intensely personal look into your own family history. How difficult is it sharing that side of your self?
The idea of showing the work had me nervous at times. I was fearful of it coming off as self-indulgent. Fearful of others asking, “Why the fuck should I care?” The more people who shared their own stories of family with me, the more I realized the power of the work, and it’s ability to open emotional portals in others.
It focused on your father, who suddenly reappeared into your life to tell you he was dying. Do you think you would have otherwise reconciled with him under any other circumstances?
I don’t think I would have seen my father before he died had he not called my mother a year before looking for medical records from the time of their marriage. Meeting him seemed like the obvious thing to do. It made sense. I was angry about the way my life was going as a result of my behavior, and New York seemed like a good place to leave at that time. California [ed note: where his father lived] had everything I needed.
What was the reconciliation like?
It was slow moving. It was hard to see him as a man I could relate to or respect. As if two strangers met in a bar and only converse with one another because the bar is empty, and the uncomfortable silence is painful. At first, I couldn’t get past feeling obligated to care for him because of who he was, but the more time I spent with him, the more sincere my feelings grew.
Did capturing your father’s remaining days in photographs help you in anyway?
This project helped me realize and better understand a great many things about families, parenthood, death, decisions, fears and myself. Though, after saying all I could with the work, and after telling the story numerous times, I’m still the same person I was before; still trying to run down my demons -- only now, humbly seeing someone for help to gain further perspective while knowing the possibilities.
You’re a family man now. Do you see any of your father in yourself?
Yes, and at this point I’m fighting tooth and nail to change some of my behavioral traits I think he employed in the severing of his marriage to my mother.
How close are you with other family members?
I’m close to my mother. Always have been, however, we have a strange relationship. She’s a great woman -- a very caring mom. That said, I could be a better son. The greater parts of my family either lives across state lines or were separated by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the late seventies, early eighties. My grandmother took her four daughters into the religion after my grandfather died. The only one to not follow was my uncle Frank. When my mother divorced my father, her mother and sisters fell out of contact with she and I. I haven’t a single nice thing to say about JW’s.
What are your thoughts on the NYC, especially Williamsburg, art scenes?
I don’t pay much attention to the art scene in Williamsburg or Chelsea. Every so often I’ll breeze through an art magazine or two, but going to openings never appealed to me. It’s very seldom you’ll find me rubbing elbows with an art scene. I’ve never been able to pretend I care about such things as small talk, or being seen here or there, so rather than be fucking rude about it, I just stay away. My girlfriend has become my art dealer, and I don’t even make it to her openings. I know Williamsburg has some great galleries and some wonderful artists, but many publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, TONY, etc. don’t review or even list the shows, mainly in part to being fucking lazy or considering themselves or their readers too high brow. Meanwhile, you read about all these collectors feeling forced to “collect younger” because prices are inflated. I would think if more Brooklyn shows were reviewed and/or listed, the market could reflect similar prices to Chelsea. Williamsburg is a phenomenal place to find those younger and equally talented artists, though, considering a gallery can charge 30% more for an artist by simply showing them in Chelsea, artists and galleries alike are trying to get there.
Are there other artists you admire?
Yes, of course. Richard Prince, Jack Pierson, Penn, Avedon, Sherman, Crewdson … the list goes on. I just recently spent some time with a book published by Greybull Press -- I think it’s called Teenage. It blew my mind. I’m awful with names. I recall the photographers name to be Joseph ……? [ed note: Szabo] Anyway, the work is stunning. I couldn’t peel my eyes from its pages. I think Cameron Crowe wrote the intro.
Digital vs. film: discuss.
The way I see it, we as photographers will all eventually need to embrace Digital, though until that dark day comes, I’m a film guy 100%. Film is still romantic in many ways Digital will never be. Ever hold 4 x 5” chrome in your hand or look at one over a light box? It’s truly stunning.
Is there anyone you’re especially eager to photograph?
For all things superficial, I’ve always wanted to shoot Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny - separately of course. There’s something about both of them that I’ve always been interested in photographing. They’re both very sexy in a melancholy way. Physical beauty and (seemingly) emotional sadness has always an appealing (visual) combination to me.
Who do you think would be hardest/ most challenging to shoot?
I’ve always wanted to work as a journalist or documentary photographer, taking pictures of war, relief efforts and cultural ways of life foreign to what I’m already familiar with. I recently contacted Amnesty International and conveyed my interest of helping document their work as a journalist, but they took one look at my website, and from what I gather, didn’t take me very seriously.
What’s hanging on your walls?
Honestly, I can’t remember. I’ve been staying at a friend’s apartment in the West Village while he’s out of town because of problems I created at home. We’re working through it. I actually had the opportunity to spend the night at home last night with my family. I brought take out from Frank and spent time with my son, but I can’t remember everything I had on my walls. I do recall one piece, hanging in my office, a framed sheet of lined grade school paper that I typed a letter on. It reads, in formal letter format, “(dated February 2001) Dear Phone, Why don’t you ring? Regrettably, Vincent Skeltis.”
Ten things to know about Vincent:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
I spent some time in Moscow in 2001, and purchased a 1941 typewriter from a flea market outside of the city. I paid $35 US dollars for it. It does beautiful work.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
The Diner in Williamsburg.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I’m both in equal parts hysterical and obsessive, which usually makes for a long day. New York has become a part of me and has also contributed to my hysteria and obsession. I always imagine myself living somewhere else, though that thought seems so much like a dream never to be fulfilled; as if the idea of moving is so great until the destination is compared to New York and all it offers. That drives me crazy. My expectations have become jaded due to the availability of all things in this City.
“The country sounds wonderful, but will I be able to hear the silence”
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
I can’t stay away from the $.25 & $.35 Little Debbie snacks on those metal restaurant racks in the bodega.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I don’t have a place like that. I sometimes feel alone in New York, but I never feel like I can “get away” from anyone in New York.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
I’m proud of where I grew up, but to have my son Henry born in New York City and begin his life here, with the entire world surrounding him, that makes me happy. I couldn’t imagine anything better for him. He’s immediately, from birth, a student in the world’s greatest school.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Anyone who knows me and reads this will say I can be a son-of-a-bitch to deal with and that that side of me comes off as bitter or angry. That is to some degree accurate, and for the most part, sadly, I don’t give people all that much credit, which keeps me on the defense, or better yet, constant offense. I’ve seen some of the ugliest most trite bullshit come from some of my closest friends, shockingly lightning fast, leaving me off guard and forcing me to react with as much energy.
One example of many: at one point about two years ago, my closest friend got caught fucking my girlfriend behind my back. [It had been going on] for months, all the while he was lying to me through his tears after I started to suspect something. I should have shot him for dragging out the lie for so long, but my unaffected friends talked me through everything I was thinking that seemed irrational. During that time, I felt no satisfaction and really wanted to be an asshole.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
There have been many times in the nine years I’ve been here, where I just wanted out. I think it’s customary for anyone trying to fulfill a dream in this city to go through that desire to flee. I remember a series of evenings in 2002, doing cocaine by myself in my South Williamsburg apartment. I had reached the tail end of a fight with the girlfriend I had at the time. I think she may have broken up with me and to counter the (what I thought was) pain I did more drugs and began to type a suicide letter addressed to whomever was to find my body. In my underwear, high as kite, I crawled crying to my fax machine, fed the letter into the machine and dialed a producer’s number I was working with at that time. The reality of what I’d done didn’t sink in until the letter went through the machine and hit the kitchen floor. I remember standing up, flushing the remaining coke down the toilet and smiling about what I’d just done. I called a friend in Jersey City and said I was on my way. I turned my cell phone off and got on the train. After about an hour in Jersey City I called my home line to get the messages off my machine and (to my surprise) the producer’s boyfriend answered my phone, paramedics in the back round. You can imagine how badly I wanted to leave New York, forever.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
More square footage would be nice. Shamefully I have to consider this a luxury, but I’d like to never worry about a single mouse crossing my bedroom (in daylight no less) or scurrying across my kitchen floor, ever again. Mice may just be a New York thing, but I can’t imagine some of the more affluent or well-known types in the penthouses of this city worrying about rodents.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
I can’t answer this. I’ve never used 311. Don’t they claim to rid us smokers of our addiction?
For more information about Vincent Skeltis including news of upcoming projects and future exhibitions and to see online examples of his work, visit his website at vincentskeltis.com.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs