Sean Sullivan: The Art of the Impossible

Your site's popularity led to an ongoing collection of physical photographs with Sonic Editions. How’d that happen?
I met the founder Russell Blackmore via e-mail three years ago. He had this interesting collection of prints. We laughed about it because a lot of them had been on the site. I had researched doing this sort of thing on my own, but it just became a nightmare with licensing, and it was going to cost a pretty good amount of money. Russell used to work for Getty so he had contacts there, he already had framers, and he was in the UK—which gave us a worldwide reach. He came to me as a way to enter the US market, and we decided to go ahead and do a collection. Now we’re on our fifth. 

A lot of people don’t understand on why the photos are so expensive. What are they paying for?
When people are spending $300-$500 on a print, that’s a lot. If somebody’s spending that much money with you, you want to give him or her something more. You don’t just hand over a piece of paper or a frame. There has to be something that distinguishes it. These are archival quality C-prints. The next step above is an actual print. The best seller we have is one of Paul Newman walking on the beach. If you were to go somewhere like Morrison Hotel Gallery and buy that print, that’s going to cost you thousands—and it’s from the same negative we’re using!

 

The days of somebody gaining notoriety from a well-done Tumblr are over.

 

It costs money to print, it costs money to license, but you’re getting something that lasts a really long time for a third of the price. We looked at it as between a gallery style print—which costs thousands of dollars—and the college kid with a poster on his dorm wall. It’s for the guy that wants to grow up from the posters, but doesn’t want to drop a lot of money.

How'd it feel to go from having these pictures on your desktop to seeing the real-life negatives?
It was pretty crazy. At Corbis, they have this Bill Gates-funded layer. You go in and there’s a 12-inch thick door, a climate-controlled room with shelves, a computer system and all that. Meanwhile Getty’s entire archive in Los Angeles is nothing but a bunch of file cabinets in a basement, but there’s this one guy that has an encyclopedic knowledge of every photograph that exists in the Getty collection. He can take any photo out from the ‘20s up to the present day and tell you who’s in it, and most likely has a story behind it. He waited until we were leaving to tell us that that his mother introduced Mick Jagger to one of his girlfriends. Very interesting guy, and super nice.

Did the Basquiat tee you made with Deer Dana last year also come as a result of the site?
Dana is a friend of mine. What she does has a similar vibe to what I do. A lot of times she draws people from the era that I’m obsessed with. We were just talking one night and decided to do a T-shirt. I had this idea in my head to keep it New York-centric and have that Downtown ’81 vibe, so the first one was Basquiat. To me, Basquiat is one of the key New York art figures that came of of that scene. He’s somebody that I admire. I figured out which picture of him we were going to use, Dana drew it, and we released them on both sites. Jay-Z actually wore it when the Barclays Center opened. That was pretty crazy. We’re doing another one soon featuring Joe Strummer. It’ll be out by the end of the month, hopefully.

That’s when he was taking the subway to his last show right? He sat next to artist Ellen Grossman?
Yeah! He’s got the Basquiat T-shirt on in that. He wore it a couple of times on the Watch The Throne tour, and I he took it to Cuba with Beyoncé, there’s a photo on her Tumblr. Having Jay-Z be a fan of something you’ve done is pretty freaking humbling.

Definitely. That’s legitimizing on a whole different level.
Yeah, he’s the King of New York, man! 

What else are you cooking up?
There’s a book coming soon with Sonic Editions. I want it to be every single picture on the website in a nicely designed coffee table book. Russell and I are self-publishing it, but we have a contractor in London. I'm taking every detail into account: We're looking at different paper stocks; we're looking at different inks; we're looking at different ways to do the cover. Since we're not dealing with a major book publisher, we have control over everything, so I want to take advantage of that and do it correctly.

What advice do you have for other creatives using Tumblr as a platform to get their work out?
Honestly, one of the worst things to do right now is start a new blog. If you’re trying to break into the whole street style scene, then you need to look a little bit forward. That’s a bad move right now.

The people who are getting noticed online are the people whose work will probably stand out anyway. Tumblr is just an outlet for them. If your work is good, you’ll stand out no matter what, but starting a blog or Tumblr with the sole purpose of getting noticed is tough. 

Has that ship sailed?
It’s final boarding call. Just because there’s just so much out there right now, and you really have to have an original voice in order to make a mark.

Do you think that’s still possible with all this oversaturation?
I do, but it has to be accompanied by other things. The days of somebody gaining notoriety from a well-done Tumblr are over. If I was going to sum out advice for people wanting to do that, it’s: You need a completely original voice.

There’s going to be a generation shift too. The generation coming up will get sick of the current one—that one kid Ian Connor is like a streetwear superstar. He’s a perfect example. I’ve only recently heard of him, but he’s part of the generation that’s going to take over everyone that’s up there now... unless those older guys step up their game and come back with something better, which is completely possible.

At what point do you think a Tumblr goes from something really well edited like The Impossible Cool to just unadulterated noise?
I think the second you add a little sparkly background to it, that’s when it definitely enters that realm. If you have any sort of blinking on your site, music, annoying things like that—you are officially in the wasteland of Tumblr.

What’s your take on the whole #menswear thing that sprung from Tumblr?
Guys needed to learn how to dress, and there had been kind of a lull since the metrosexual thing. I was really sick of seeing the college sports hats, sweatshirts, and adidas sandals walking around SoHo.  #Menswear came in the post-metrosexual years, and for a long time it was like “that guy dresses really good, he must be gay,” and when #menswear came along, it was like “that dude dresses really well and he’s got a hot chick on his arm because of it.” He dresses like a grown-up. He dresses how a guy over the age of 20 should dress.

Of course, it started companies like Carson Street Clothiers that are now making clothes that I’d like to purchase. Before, it was tough to find really good clothes. That’s why I think J. Crew is so successful—they were the first ones to evolve their line to fit the growing tastes of guys. I’m psyched to see people dressing better; it makes for a better world. 


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