When photographer Tommy Ton stopped by the office last week, the first thing we knew we had to do was feature his style in an edition of Complex Kits. Second, we wanted to talk about his photography and what it's like to take snaps of guys like Kanye West, who's received flack for his ongoing altercations with photographers who ask him stupid questions. Of course, Tommy Ton is definitely not one of them, and is actually one of the trusted minds the rapper turns to for style advice—mostly because of Ton's genuine passion for clothes.
The Street Fighter aficionado and self-professed nerd took a break from his hectic schedule and took some time in front of the camera for a change. As you can see, he had no problem practicing his Hadokens and Shoryukens for our photographer. What started out as a conversation on style turned into an interview about South Park, why street style photography is a little bit like dating, and a story about Kanye West you have to read to believe.
You see a lot of stylish men all day, how can you tell the difference between really good personal style versus a peacock trying too hard?
It's an instinctive thing. You know when you like someone, or when you fall in love with someone. It's just a feeling. You know when someone reeks of desperation—there's certain emotions and body language. You can tell when someone's using you for your camera or whatever.
Do you ever really feel that way?
Oh yeah, all the time. But you don't wanna give anyone a sour look. If it's not for me, then it's not for me. You don't want to put someone down negatively. If it's not for you, then someone else will take a photograph of that person.
Wow, deep. It kind of is like a relationship: "There's a photographer out there who likes your look, and someday you'll find each other."
Hopefully! I try to be fair about who and what I photograph and have an open eye about things. But it can be really forced now, everyone dresses up for the camera. I'm more intrigued by the people that neglect me completely. They're the ones who don't care. The ones who are completely badass and don't give a shit are the ones that come off beautifully in an image.
Has someone confronted you about not taking their image? Have people come up and said: "Tommy, I put on my illest shit for you today! What gives?!"
I don't have beef with anyone, but I'm sure people have beef with me—if there's one season I won't photograph them and they might be like: "What's going on with Tommy? Does he have an issue?"
Speaking of street style, in 2009 you snapped this now-iconic shot of Don C., Taz Arnold, Virgil Abloh, Chris Julian, Farnsworth Bentley and Kanye West outside the Comme des Garcons show.
I wasn't even gonna take that photo. Those guys just stepped out of a car and it was just me and another photographer. I guess they saw us and decided to set up a photo. I was just like "this is the craziest thing I have ever seen." I wasn't the biggest fan of Kanye, but I thought that moment was just so… it was like a bunch of cartoon guys. They looked so animated, I thought it was really funny.
That's ironic, considering they literally became cartoon guys. How'd it feel to see your work immortalized in a South Park episode?
I was laughing so hard when I saw the way that they placed them in that episode! It was the same position as the image! Things really travel quickly, especially with the Internet. I was in shock, but I mean I don't go around saying "my photo was in South Park!" I don't take much credit for it.
Now, you and Kanye have a good relationship. You've taken awesome photos on the Watch The Throne tour and recent shows in Paris. How did you guys meet?
He's a good friend. I was in shock when we first met, and that he was even aware of what I did. He made Anna Dello Russo hunt me down in Paris in 2011 so he could talk to me.
We met in a traffic circle because Anna had to find his car, he got out and said "Yo, I'm a big fan." And I was like "…Hi."
A couple of nights later, I was having dinner with Christine Centenera who works with him, and she texted him that it was my birthday, and he said "Yo, I'm coming." I was all "Shut the fuck up!"
Did he come through?
He showed up just before midnight, and he's like "Yo! Let's go have champagne, it's your birthday!" I had no idea what the hell was happening. We had some champers then went back to the Marais to sit and chop it up.
We started talking about clothes—this was the beginning of his idea to do a line—and obviously me, being a nerd, was like "I really love 808s. And I love when you sing a cappella."
So he goes "Yo, what do you want me to sing?" I told him I really like "Streetlights," so he said "Okay, I'm gonna break it down for you right now." Then he started singing a cappella, and then asked me what else I liked, and I said "Coldest Winter" so he said "Okay, let's sing that together." There wasn't anyone around to see it, and I was just like "Wow. I cannot believe this is happening." That's how I rang in my 27th birthday. It's one of my most cherished memories.
Does he let you in on his creative process? Is your resume on file with DONDA?
Whenever he's around for fashion week or whatever, we'll sit and talk. I really respect the fact that he likes to hear different opinions. He likes to talk about what interests him and what interests me or whatever. He's a really, really passionate guy with a lot on his mind. He has so many ideas, and those guys—Virgil, Matthew, Justin—they're all really cool.