Starting out in the rural Mid-west State of Kansas, Krug quickly ascended the world of photography after word spread of his mysterious and illuminating work. Using his former wife and model Joni Harbeck as a muse in his widely praised first book, Pulp, from 2011, Krug soon found artists appearing one after another, demanding his talent; Australian psych band Tame Impala, post-rock outfit Foals, legendary electronic duo Boards of Canada and the high mistress of dark pop Lana Del Rey, just to name a few. Krug is a photographer who doesn’t mess around. It might look “pretty” but his work cuts right through the popular culture divide. He carries a rich psychedelic tapestry of mystery and nostalgia wherever he goes, creating a playful world of female forms, rich colours and otherworldly shapes and patterns; a world that we want to go back to over and over.
Let us start with where you grew up. You’ve said, “The preconceived notion of Kansas (where you grew up) is that it’s full of a rednecks and wheat fields, and to some degree that’s true but I was fortunate enough to be raised in Lawrence which is a college town with it’s own unique artistic subculture.” What is Lawrence like as a place? This question is more based on what you said in an interview – “ I grew up in Kansas so I had no idea how to become a working-visual-artist-person.”
That description is pretty on point. The image that comes to mind is these giant arms that reach out and hold the city with a familial grasp. I spent my youth running around Lawrence with a fearless attitude for the most part – it was a dream in many ways. My friends and I were familiar with every backroad in every rural area within the state line, so much so, that we had hits of LSD on SweeTarts hidden all over the city. We just ran amok like kids do and stared at the stars thinking we were on to something profound; maybe we were? Needless to say, it was, and is, a relaxed environment to grow up in with enough amenities to satisfy whatever it is kids need to thrive on. In those years, I just hoped that one day I would be in a place to express myself as a visual-artist person, but didn’t have the faintest idea of what was required in order to do so. At some point, I just got to work and became obsessed with making images until I formed a perspective that I could most identify with.
The sounds and atmosphere of Kansas is probably the most alluring quality of the place to me, even as an adult when I return to visit family, the peace of mind I find is unmatched . There’s always a train purring off in the distance, and during the summer the cicada sound is wild and hypnotic.
"My friends and I were familiar with every backroad in every rural area within the state line, so much so, that we had hits of LSD on SweeTarts hidden all over the city."
Neil Krug on growing up in Kansas
Would you say there is a driving philosophy to your work? – as it seems your work is reminiscent of a lost age in time, an innocence hard to recapture. You have said, “For me, its all about the mood and sequence.”
It’s hard to say because I feel like my attitude is always changing in regard to what I want. I guess the most consistent variable has been about getting the mood right, but I wouldn’t say my aim is to capture a “lost age” or “recaptured innocence”. Those things are furthest from my mind; I just hope people enjoy the imaginary universe, or the point of view. I hope it’s being received as genuine, but hey who knows. It’s difficult to expand on without sounding like a complete douche, but I suppose the driving philosophy is to keep expanding that imaginary universe.
We love Boards of Canada, how did that collaboration come about? How did the result feel to you in hindsight?
I’m a huge fan of Boards of Canada, and have been since I was 18 years old. Their music has always played a formless abstract movie through my mind that never gets old. What they do musically is incomparable, and my collaboration with them is one of the highlights of my career thus far. A true geek dream come true. One of the Warp people contacted me in the spring of 2013, saying she needed to meet in-person to discuss something private concerning a forthcoming project they had been working on. I literally had no idea what was coming until we sat down and she uttered the words “Boards”. It was the feeling of victory that one probably feels when they’ve just won the lottery. I went home with excitement beyond words, only to be crippled by fear a few days later. If you’re a fan of BOC, then you’re aware of the huge undertaking and critical mass that is their fanbase to make something brilliant that truly works with the music. I hired my favorite cinematographer David Myrick to come on board to shoot the piece, and what transpired was a series of trips to the most destroyed bits of California we could gain access to. Several long stays in telecine warping the color grade, and many late nights 3D animating sequences to intercut between the 16mm.
The first piece to come out of these shoots was the “Cosecha Signal One” pirate TV clip that premiered on Adult Swim at midnight. I sat in my living room in amazement watching our horrific dystopian 16mm film clip with this killer BOC interlude playing over the top – an experience to remember. A few weeks later “Reach for the Dead” premiered at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, again at midnight.
I’m really proud of those pieces because they satisfy my director sensibilities as well as my fan desires. Mike and Marcus from the band (Boards of Canada) also expressed happiness with the end result which was the best compliment to receive. One day I’d love for them to soundtrack a feature film of mine….gotta dream big.
You really work the divide between your own art and popular culture, shooting for artists such as Lana Del Rey, First Aid Kit, Tame Impala etc. Is there an area you prefer more? Or do you see them as more all an expression of your creativity?
I see commissioned work as a chance to inject my flavor with whatever is going on. I try to bring my sensibilities to musical projects by creating something that matches what the artist is after even if they’re not aware of it. It’s a huge compliment to be asked, and also a stress because it’s mine to fuck up. Early on I realized, most of these artists are involving me in how they want their music to be represented visually, so I feel a great deal of responsibility when I show up and get to work.
You’re quite prolific, always working on something. When you do find time to get away and relax for a weekend what are the kinds of things you enjoy doing?
I love to work so I don’t always need to getaway, but a holiday never hurts. I will say this: a dear friend of mine paid for a transcendental meditation course in London last year that warped my senses for the better. The moment the teacher began the ceremony with the rose petals and the chanting, I began to hallucinate. It was an interesting experience to say the least.
"[Pulp] was a magical series that began and ended in a mushroom cloud [...] our tribute to each other."
Neil Krug on his collaboration with ex-wife Joni Harbeck
How do you feel about the image industry as it is? It feels almost inundated and overcrowded with filters, platforms, services, apps etc. How do we find a true original voice amongst all of that?
Just don’t use those apps or services. Try and find new or old ways to capture what you’re after that don’t rely on those platforms. I get a bunch of emails asking what apps I use, which I always find to be a bit strange. Anything I do in post production is with my hands by manipulating tints or painting on enlarged negatives, or none of the above. I’m no guru and don’t presume to have all the answers, but for me the most important thing to defining a visual voice is to have a point of view. If you can establish this, people will recognize you.
If we can delve a little deeper into your psyche for a moment. You’ve said you get the most clarity when “you’re fatigued and about to pass out”. But is there something more to it than that? There seems to be an inherent mystery and an eerie quality to your images – which are for a better term quite “spiritual”. You have said when you were growing up, “you would read the Bible on Sunday and then your horror later that night. I’d be thanking God for Night of the Living Dead! [laughing]—these moments carved who I am today.” Sounds like a perfect summary of your work. Can you elaborate?
I probably wrote that interview before I passed out. I don’t know if I can elaborate any better on that topic. The religious horror thing planted many seeds.
We read that before your collaboration with her, Lana Del Rey had been told that you were dead from a friend of hers. How did that even happen?
Oh yeah, well that whole thing has probably been blown out of proportion, but here’s how I understand the story. A couple of years ago, Lana was given the first Pulp Art book by a friend of hers, and this friend genuinely thought the book was from 1967 or something (despite the fact that the book as a 2011 copyright), therefore the photographer must be dead. A stretch, but nevertheless, friends do pass along bizarre info to each other all the time. The myth was sadly broken once Lana’s label suggested me for “Ultraviolence.”
Does the work you do ever inspire the artist viewing it? We learnt My Chemical Romance had scrapped their record and redone the entire thing with a new concept in mind from the direction of your artwork. That must have been a pretty validating feeling?
I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do know what you’re referring to. I think Gerard (My Chemical Romance) had already changed his mind with regard to his record, and the images he referenced where some of mine. How much they influenced the sound is something you’d have to ask him. I just remember they had changed directions from the time I first spoke with them, but I don’t think I was the catalyst.
We hope this question is not too personal. Your ex-wife Joni Harbeck formed a seminal part of your early work. You parted ways in 2013, and you’ve said that it was a tough year. Was it hard to not have her as part of your creative world anymore? What did the relationship teach you about your work and career?
I will always have the utmost respect for what Joni contributed to my early work – it was a fortuitous meeting that changed our lives. She brought such an aggressive power to those early pictures, and her tough “Fuck Off” attitude has been seen the world over. None of that period ever felt like work to be honest. Just a magical series that began and ended in a mushroom cloud – which I suppose was how it was destined to be.
For a long time I was embarrassed to have our divorce made public since so much was written about the Pulp books when they came out. The journalists who covered us found the story more interesting because we were a couple making these images together – it gave the piece more weight. But at the end of the day, what am I to be embarrassed about? Sometimes, things just don’t work out, and I don’t think people really care anyway. We’re still close friends, and I understand the direction she wants her life to go.
I’m grateful to her, as I imagine she’s grateful to me for capturing that time in the most feral fashion. Pulp was our tribute to each other.
There are a lot more women present in your work then men. Do women have more of an inspiring quality to you?
Most of my ideas appear in the female form, but I don’t consider it a sexual thing at all. Really, neither sex is more inspiring than the other, it just depends on what you’re looking to do. Right now I just have ideas that are more appealing if the protagonist is female.
We just came across the work of Shūji Terayama, which you referred to in one of your interviews. His work is pretty astonishing. Are there any other obscure artists out there that you think we should know about?
Early Brothers Quay was infinitely inspiring when I was a teenager. I think I’ve given all my inspirational people away in other interviews.
What are some of the projects you’ve been working on lately and what’s next for you?
I recently returned to Los Angeles from several months of traveling. I spent the summer working on Lana’s new album as well as Natasha Khan’s SEXWITCH package – two packages that couldn’t look more different. I also did a bunch of work in England with Foals for several weeks for their new record, then I met up with Tame Impala in the states to shoot Kevin for the cover of Rolling Stone Australia. Last week I was with Unknown Mortal Orchestra in Mexico City running around shooting a bunch of new things for them and having an absolute blast, whilst indulging in the best food and drink. The whole breakdown sounds so annoyingly name-droppy, but it’s just the workings of late. Tons of fun, lots of stressful bullshit, but overall I can’t complain. Since returning, I’ve been focused on my new book and shooting a new personal project with my friend Yoo Rim, someone I’ve been shooting almost exclusively for personal work. I’ve been inundated with music related projects so it’s nice to be silent and get back to what I love most.
All photographs courtesy of Neil Krug