Photographer and director, Luke Gilford, talks to us about his eclectic portfolio of work, penchant for the surreal, and working with Pamela Anderson. He is most notably known for his work with How To Dress Well and fashion photography for the likes of Prada. This past fall he found himself in the spotlight as the director for Adam Lambert’s true-to-life music video, Another Lonely Night.
Tell me about the path you took to get to where you are today in your career.
That’s a tough question! I haven’t taken a very clear path to be honest, it’s been a journey as opposed to a corporate ladder or something more straightforward like that. I graduated from UCLA in 2008 with a degree in Art. Right after that I moved to NYC hoping to become an artist. But 2008-10 was the peak of the Recession, it was nearly impossible for me to get any work in the Art world, or even basic service jobs. I eventually found part time work as a bartender, a private investigator and a band photographer to barely pay my rent. When I was working as a private investigator I planted hidden cameras and recorded and edited videos that told visual stories about people’s lives. I loved it and started thinking a lot more about directing and film. When my grandfather passed away, I moved back to LA to help my grandma get situated in her new life alone. That’s when I really started pursuing directing. I worked for a commercial director and I started making art films and music videos on my own. I still kept shooting photography too and I used social media like Facebook and Instagram to share my work. For me a huge part of my journey has been just putting myself out there, making work and sharing it, no matter how good or bad it is. There were a lot of times when I was just barely surviving, but somehow one thing always leads to another.
Artists are always asked about their inspiration, what do you do when you don’t feel inspired? How do you overcome that?
I think not being inspired is kind of like being bored, it’s silly but very real too. I’ll go to a museum or bookstore, even a dumb movie can inspire me. I just need to keep up momentum or I start to lose motivation. I love being really busy, that’s when I’m most inspired.
You’ve done some interesting and brilliant work over the years, everything from fashion films and photography to capturing the spirit of Miss America. What is your method for deciding which project you will take and do you intentionally keep your work diverse?
I find inspiration in so many different people and places. Some artists are super focused on one thing, but I have a lot of interests and I love applying my particular vision to a variety of subjects. As I get older I’m starting to focus more on bigger and longer projects like feature films, but I’ll always want to keep things interesting. It’s like traveling, there’s a lot of inspiration to be had in new and different things. It’s how I learn and grow.
I’m also quite fascinated by your “Two Spirit” photographic essay. I’ve not heard of this before. What was it about their stories that drew you in that you actually traveled to Montana to document their 2015 gathering?
It was actually just the term “Two” Spirit that initially intrigued me. I thought it was such a beautiful way to describe those who don’t totally identify as male or female, or whose sexuality is not completely gay or straight. I learned that traditionally, Native American Two Spirits care for elders and children and they often serve as healers, so they were lovingly embraced within their communities. This all changed when Christians arrived on Native American land though, because their faith condemns any kind of sexual or gender fluidity. So I became very interested in Two Spirits living on reservations today, and how their traditions are slowly becoming more accepted in mainstream American culture. I wanted to show this contrast between their ancient regalia with more modern depictions of love, friendship, gender and sexuality. I was so lucky to spend some time with Two Spirits and make new friends within their community. They are incredibly kind, funny, generous, talented and wise people!
Your camera work is stunning, you have a great eye that captures the human spirit. Where does that come from? Have you always tried to connect emotionally and make the audience feel something?
That’s definitely a priority for me when making work so I take that as a big compliment! I’m an only child and I was a competitive swimmer growing up in a pretty conservative town, so I was a bit alienated from other kids. When I picked up a camera in junior year of high school, photography was my way of connecting with the world. I think that’s stayed consistent even as I’ve grown up. My work is a way of expressing ideas, starting conversations with people and having a shared experience. It’s so difficult to make people feel something these days, I think any kind of feeling is a success in a way.
I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a fan of How To Dress Well’s “What Is This Heart?” trilogy. How did that collaboration come about?
Tom Krell (How To Dress Well) approached me after seeing my collaborations with Boychild and Susanne Sundfor. We immediately had such a strong creative connection, all of the videos we’ve made are really a representation of our interests and styles coming together!
Arts Out Loud works toward its mission to empower and educate LGBT youth through a triad of programs, mentoring being our current focus. Who were your mentors growing up and how did they influence your work?
I’ve been really lucky to have a few mentors. In high school it was my Art teacher Ms. Kathy Tussy who really took me under her wing. She is the chair of the Gay/Straight Alliance. She encouraged me so much and pushed me both creatively and personally. At UCLA it was Barbara Kruger who taught me to think conceptually, to find inspiration in unlikely places, and to embrace some of my commercial interests. After college it was Ben Conrad, a commercial director who saw my potential and taught me a lot about advertising agencies and pitching ideas. For me friendships and collaborations are such an important part of growing and supporting each other as artists.
Your fashion films have a very ethereal feel. How would you describe your style when it comes to directing?
I’ve always been really interested in the subconscious and dream states, so I think that comes across in my work. On set I try to create an environment that encourages fluidity and experimentation to help create that kind of vibe.
The music video for Adam Lambert’s “Another Lonely Night” truly captures real life for a lot of entertainers in Las Vegas. Did you choose Vegas for that reason?
I’m always so inspired when I go to Vegas. Not by the “glamour”, I love the underbelly of it, the dark side. I really wanted to make a music video that captured that feeling.
How did the collaboration with Adam come to be?
Adam and I randomly met through friends years ago and stayed in touch on Facebook. He saw some of the work I was doing there and thought of me when he wanted to do something a bit darker and weirder.
What are you working on now? Is there a project out there still that you have yet to conquer?
I’ve been working on a short film that I’m so excited to release. It’s starring Pamela Anderson and Dree Hemingway along with Jane Fonda. Pamela plays a SoulCycle instructor who is looking for deeper meaning in her life, she ultimately gets drawn into a “self-improvement” cult. The film explores a lot of ideas around aging, beauty and technology that I’m really interested in. I’ve also been shooting a lot of editorial photography, which I’ve been loving because it’s such a different process for me than filmmaking. In my free time I’ve been working on some new script ideas too.
Wow, Pamela Anderson, Dree Hemingway, AND Jane Fonda. That’s quite a cast for a short film! When will it be released and will you take it further to feature length?
I think on some level we’re all looking for deeper meaning in our lives! Pamela Anderson was the biggest sex symbol in the world when I was growing up, I was so obsessed with her as a kid. To me she completely embodies the superficiality of the 90’s and early 2000’s America. So I was really interested in what she’s up to these days, now that she’s in her late 40’s. Most sex symbols of that status either die very young or retreat into obscurity. But Pamela is confronting her legacy full-on, and I think that is really cool. I wanted to write something for her, so we arranged a meeting in Los Angeles about a year ago. I ended up writing a script based on our conversations about that search for meaning, as well as the relationship between aging and technology, and the slippery slope between “shallow” and “deep”. We’re releasing the short in early February through Vice. I really hope we get the opportunity to make a feature length together, that would be a dream come true.
For more information and to see more of Luke’s work, check out LukeGilford.com
Photo credits: Luke Gilford (Troye Sivan, OUT Magazine; Zackery Drucker + Hari Nef, GOOD Magazine)
Video credits: Luke Gilford (How To Dress Well, What Is This Heart? trilogy, Domino Record Co.; Adam Lambert, Another Lonely Night, Warner Bros. Records)