Gunner Stahl didn’t grow up on photography. Surprisingly, he says he only began seeing photography as something he truly wanted to do five years ago, which was when Stahl started building a cult following off his candid portraits of rappers like Wiz Khalifa and ASAP Rocky. Today, it’s hard to imagine what modern hip-hop imagery would look like without the 27-year-old photographer; whose film photos have intimately captured a generation of artists in a way that parallels Chi Modu’s work in the ‘90s, which included classic shots of artists such as Biggie, Tupac, and Puffy. Like Modu, Stahl’s photos are no frills and give us a personal look at some of the most influential artists of our time. Whether it’s an image of Solange holding a rattlesnake before walking into the Met Gala or Lil Uzi Vert finishing off a popsicle. So what has informed Stahl's shutter skills over the years? It isn’t what you’d expect.
“All of my inspiration was just from shit that I would see and be like: 'Oh, this is tight as hell,'” says Stahl, when explaining how figures like Bam Margera and Michael Cera inspired him over the phone. "I'm not going to lie, when I was a kid, I ain't have no guidance. It wasn't like, 'I want to go to this college' or 'I want to be this.' I was at home watching TV.”
Although Stahl’s name is as well known as the very rappers he’s photographed, he was working retail at a Dick’s Sporting Goods less than five years ago. Today, he has published coffee table books filled with his portraits, shot the iconic cover of Playboi Carti’s debut album and “@MEH” single, and has photographed Metro Boomin and The Internet for The Fader magazine covers. When going through his inspirations, it’s clear that Stahl isn’t a great photographer because of the camera or film he’s using. It’s a culmination of things that have built his charismatic persona. While currently quarantined at his home in Atlanta, we asked Stahl to run us through his greatest inspirations and how they informed the person he is today.
When I was in high school, I loved all his movies. Superbad, Juno, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World...I was always compared to him by the people I was around and I always took that as a compliment. So I started modeling myself after him by looking at his clothes. He's the reason why I started wearing Old Skool Vans. My all time favorite movie is Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. I have every outfit from that movie—the zip-up, the Dickies jacket, the striped shirt, corduroys, and the Old Skool Vans. That's what I was wearing in high school because that's the shit that I saw on Michael Cera. I just like cheesy romantic movies, especially romantic comedies. I loved how in Nick & Norah, they were trying to find this band for like the whole night through New York City. When I started to go to New York at that age, I thought that's what New York was supposed to be like.
I just bought some more Bam shit last night. Honestly, I think I'm probably missing only two Bam T-shirts now. I've got every single Bam T-shirt you could think of. After that, I'm going to just collect all his boards. That's another thing from my childhood that stuck with me. I'm not going to lie, when I was a kid, I ain't have no guidance. It wasn't like,'I want to go to this college' or 'I want to be this.' I was at home watching TV, watching Rob & Big and Jackass. It was like, 'Oh, these things are cool as hell.' You can do this in real life? You can be something else other than a doctor or a lawyer and still cut the top off the Lambo? That shit was crazy to me as a kid.
Shit was so crazy to me that my uncle had to tell me to stop watching it because he saw how much it started to influence me. My mom passed when I was 13, so I moved in with my aunt and uncle 20 miles past the airport, which was super, super, south. Where I went to school at, nobody was out there, and nobody was on the shit that I was on. I was the only kid skateboarding to school wearing small ass pants. I was getting all this shit from Bam, wearing big ass skate shoes and all of that. They were themselves on such a crazy scale that the whole world could see. Other than music, that was really the first time anybody ever started to do that. It was the beginning of reality television, too, back when you had shows like Flavor of Love and all that. I think Bam transcended skateboarding. He couldn't even show up at his own demos because there were too many fucking people. His boards were selling out everywhere and were sold to people who didn't even skate. It's like a little kid who probably didn't even know anything about skating, but they knew about Bam just from watching the TV show. I haven't met Bam, but hopefully I will one day.
Everybody I know thinks Lil Wayne is the best rapper ever. But he also proved that. The Carter documentary inspired me so much because that whole documentary just shows that you need to really want it to be the greatest ever. He was not settling for nothing less than greatness. They told him that he sold a million records in the first week. Wayne looks into the camera and says, ‘Oh man, I was just recording.’ And the nigga went right back to recording. He was like, 'Cool, I can do that. I can sell a mill. What the fuck I got to do next?' Like come on, just keep it pushing. That shit is so inspiring. The nigga just wanted to be the best ever, and he is. That whole documentary was just about him being him. Recording anything and everywhere at all times of day. Shit is beautiful.
Cudi is also another style inspiration. Again, I didn't grow up on photography. This ain't something that I knew I always wanted to do up until like five years ago, honestly. So all of my inspiration was just from shit that I would see and be like, 'Oh, this is tight as hell.' Watching Kid Cudi wear all these vintage rocker tees with the A.P.C.'s and Chucks—or see him in some old Jordan 4s or Jordan 3s. It's just mainly style inspiration from Cudi. Honestly, I'll take a look on my computer and try to find every Cudi outfit from 2010 or 2011. These photos are just on my desktop. I bought the same Rolex he had. If you watch the Man on the Moon II documentary, The Journey of Mr. Rager, I have the whole outfit from that—the shirt, pants, shoes, and Rolex. It's not even about recreating the look. I'm not going to wear it, it's just shit that I have. It's like a collectible to me because when I first saw it, I was just so amazed. And then it went along well with music. His whole image and his music just all went together so perfectly.
Honestly, she didn't give a fuck. That's what inspired me the most. I like people that are free in a way, and they don't do anything but care about their art. She showed me that the most, and she was also an amazing musician.
I don't think I’ve even told him this. Metro is the hardest working human I have ever seen in my entire life. Never, ever, seen not one person work as hard as this man, ever. I've seen this man stay up five days straight at the studio. I'm tired, 5:00 AM, ‘Yo Metro, I'm about to go back to the hotel.’ He'd be like, ‘All right bet, I'm going to be here.’ Next day, again, 6:00 AM: ‘Yo Metro, I'm falling asleep. I'll probably go back to the hotel.’ 'All right, I'm going to still be here.’ Same clothes, still working. Not up bullshitting. Not up playing video games. The man was up working. All he fucking do is work. Shit is the most inspiring shit to see.
Tokyo is like a safe place for me now at this point. But I wish I could relive the first time I was in Tokyo. I try to go there once a year as a vacation. It's like my favorite place on earth. I can't think of nowhere else on earth I would want to willingly go to and spend time there. Also, as a "collector," I like going there and seeing what the hell I can find. They got real life-sized Gundams over by the Gundam Café in Electric City. I've seen the real huge one and I think it works, honestly. I'm not even going to lie to you, that shit probably can operate.
Super Smash Bros
I play Cloud. Smash is not necessarily an inspiration. It's just that Smash teaches you discipline in a way. It's almost like you have to perfectly time every little thing you do. It's not something you can just run in, go ahead, and mash shit. Honestly, in real life, it does teach me discipline. It teaches me how to set up different things or go about things in different ways. I know that sounds crazy, but it actually works.
Delta Sky Miles
It's an inspiration to travel. I love SkyMiles. I love having status on reward programs. I'm always trying to get the top thing. I used to see commercials about getting credit cards with points and all that when I was a kid, but now I actually understand it. You can use SkyMiles to buy flights. If you're dining on Delta in First Class, it's like free almost every time you fly. It's first class, you board first, snacks are always free, shit is inspiring. I'm trying to keep flying, because in general, it's my inspiration to keep working.
The Safdie Brothers
They're some amazing filmmakers that I just got into when I saw Uncut Gems at TIFF (Toronto Independent Film Festival) in Toronto. I went back and just watched all the old shit, Heaven Knows What and Good Time. They are just beautiful filmmakers, bro. Everything they do to me is amazing and it's inspiring that they're brothers. I like Good Time more, but all the shit they do is flawless. But I have to say, when I saw Uncut Gems first, I was like, ‘Nah, this is too crazy.’ And then I went back and watched Good Time, and from the moment it came on, it was like a speed run. It's like you have to keep going. I love everything they do, but I think Good Time is my favorite.