Steven “Sweatpants” Irby is a Brooklyn-based photographer, director, and co-founder of the quarterly photography publication Street Dreams Magazine. A life-long New Yorker inspired by hip-hop, video games, and the energy of the city, Steven captures candid moments poetically.
He shares how hip-hop influences his work and a diverse set of photo books that encourage the finding of inspiration outside of our craft.
Go-To Walk Around Camera: Sony Alpha a7R III
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
The Dark Knight Returns,
by Frank Miller
“Frank Miller is one my favorite creators of all time. I know this is probably a little bit off the beaten path, but comic books, especially the way that Frank Miller describes his stories, have been so inspirational for me. Especially how descriptive it is. For me photos and captions are intertwined, and so I look at my photos almost as comic book strips sometimes.
I want to use staging and the composition to make the viewer feel like they’re looking at something epic. Some of these scenes have incredible dark silhouettes and desaturated colors by his wife Lynn Varley and I really try to emulate this stuff in my editing.
When I first read The Dark Knight Returns, I wasn't looking at it in like a more photographic element. I was just so captivated by the story and the overall mood of it. And it's so funny how once I started shooting and getting into it, I realized, ‘Man, I've really been editing somewhat similar to this.’”
Back in the Days,
by Jamel Shabazz
“Everything that Jamel Shabazz does and documents, especially me being a born and raised New Yorker, has really helped me appreciate the contemporary element of life here.
I love how free this book feels. It's just documenting without the pressure of anybody else besides believing in yourself and doing it. And the scenes are incredible, by the way. Just to see the Lower East Side and all that stuff from back in the day is really dope.
I don't know if he understood the weight of what he was capturing at the time. Sometimes you might take photo and it’ll feel like just a normal picture, nothing special, but when you see it later in the context of everything, it’s important.
So now, if I see somebody doing something that's contemporary from now, I try to gravitate towards those kinds of moments and Jamel Shabazz is a really good reminder of how important that can be.”
by Ricky Powell
“Ricky Powell is one of my favorite people on earth. I gravitate towards people who have just a charismatic energy, because I feel like a lot of photography has to do with what you put out there and what you project onto people and this is what you're getting back into photos.
Ricky Powell is doing that, and did that in the New York of the '70s and 80’s, so he was catching dudes like Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and he went on tour with Run DMC, and he's getting the Beastie Boys. He was on the scene capturing all these different moments. Ricky Powell really dominated that scene for what the art industry was and where the culture was and I feel like that's very similar to where I am in my life right.
A lot of my friends are musicians and DJs and directors or dancers, and everybody's doing really dope things in their lives and careers. I wonder what will happen in the next 10 years with us, and who [among us] is going to be the next Run DMC.
The title of the book, The Individualist, is something that I feel is really dope too. I think being an individual now is a commodity. There are now so many different references and so many things that you can emulate, and people tend to lose themselves in this.”
A Collection of Portraits,
by Jack McKain
“The homie Jack McKain is an up-and-coming photographer and one of the people that I started with. At the same he had his magazine, Modern Hieroglyphics. Jack was always a dope film photographer but then when he really started going into the music photography scene it got elevated. Music is one of my biggest loves. I can't do anything without music. Seeing Jack's first book he put together of all these different musicians and artists that he's worked with is honestly absolutely stunning.
What is so inspiring about Jack's book to me is that he is my peer. We're about the same age and seeing somebody from my peer group with a collection of work like this, but also seeing his struggles and knowing everything that he's been through, I've connected with him so much on that. So I was really proud of him to see him do this and on top of that it's not even like a shameless plug, this shit is dope. It's really clean. And Jack's like this skinny white boy from Virginia, but he has such a beautiful collection of people of colors musicians that he's just a soulful brother and I really connected with that.
Stylistically what impacts me about his work is his framing and his attention to detail and texture. I always can refer to Jack's photos in the way that he texturizes his photos and then he has this kind of level to it so it gives me the confidence to know if he's scanning his photo like this with film, then I shouldn't have any qualms about doing this with my own kind of medium.”
by Estevan Oriol
“This is the OG LA photographer. He's absolutely incredible and his documentation is so honest. This is the real OG and these people are allowing him to shoot these photos of them because these are his homies. It's not like he's using them as subjects. He's just hanging out like this is a day in life with the homies. And I think this is something that is really important to me. And what I try to establish with the people that I work with and shoot with. I don't want to call you my client. You are the homie and we're hanging out today. And then we're going to try to get some money from somebody. Or not. We're just going to try to create and just try to build stuff and hopefully it just works out.”
Tupac Shakur, Uncategorized,
by Chi Modu
“This book is all pictures of Tupac, and Tupac wasn’t even really my favorite rapper back then, but Chi Modu managed to capture these contemporary moments that later became historical.. He's shooting Tupac just chillin' and these studio sessions are so honest, with Pac smokin' bogies, all these different shots and even though they're minimal they're everything to me.
Who can ever say that they ever documented Tupac this honest and genuine? And Chi Modu just didn't do this with Pac, he has a catalog with so many different other artists as well that like he's built up these kinds of different relationships with.
This work is timeless and everything that I aspire to. I want somebody to nerd out over my work in the next 50 years as much as I nerd out over these dudes' work. And I mean not even as a jealousy thing because I'm a fan of it.”
Steven, you picked a very diverse set of books. Is there a difference between the inspiration that you get from books and the inspiration that you get from looking at work on screens? Or does it blend together for you?
For me, everything blends. I feel like you really can't have one thing without the other, because they're all forms of media and literature. I play a lot of video games, RPG video games. And I've been playing the Witcher 3 for basically 300 hours. It might sound silly, but the things that happen in the Witcher 3, I can find parallels with how I'm running a lot of the things either with a particular project or the way that they accentuate Easter Eggs or the way that they work in their dialogue. I'm picking up all these little different points of reference and I'm applying it to everything in my life. It's hard for me to separate anything because even though it is separate they're all still together because it's part of me.
One of your clearest influences is hip-hop culture. Could we relate how you piece your references together from all these different sources and your emphasis on originality to your affinity with hip-hop culture and New York hip-hop’s “no biting” rule?
Oh, 300%. It's so funny that you bring that up because New York hip-hop is probably like one of the most influential things in my life. A lot of this stuff growing up in New York hip-hop was about having your own original flow. And representing your neighborhood and showing pride of where you come from and somebody not disrespecting you.
At the same time, hip-hop was also about discovery and knowledge, meaning like you have the new sneakers or you know the newest music or the newest music to sample. All this kind of stuff that hip-hop has taught me and helped me grow and mature into a man has been parallel to my life through photography now, which like that's why I gravitate towards people like Ricky Powell because those same people that I was like listening to when I was younger are the same people he's actually photographing.
One thing that comes up in your book recommendations is the importance of documenting life as its lived right around you. Does this thought inform your street photography?
Intimate connections with subjects is a really strong theme with me because taking photos is a very intrusive feeling. I still feel hesitant taking photos of people sometimes. 'Cause you just want to make sure it's cool. So seeing bodies of work from Ricky Powell and Jamel Shabazz and Esteban Oriol, these dudes each have different personalities but they all fit perfectly for their situation. And then I want to emulate that. I think I'm probably a little bit more of a Ricky, just a little over on Ricky's side of things. But I also really connect with Esteban Oriol, because my point of focus is similar to his and I’m maybe closest to his overall tones and edits and vibe.
I had this conversation the other day with my cab driver, about the word “believe”. To believe is an action, and when you believe something, you do it. With today’s street photography, I feel like people’s beliefs are in different places. Even for myself it can be a struggle. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve? Documenting people and everyday life, especially living in Brooklyn for me and just shooting people around my neighborhood. It might just be a normal day to me but then like in the next five, six, seven years, those little moments have such significance because we're historians and we're documenting things that are never going to happen again.
Can you recall a moment during a shoot where something changed for you?
I took a road trip with my parents in 2016. This is when I was shooting strictly with my iPhone and a Cannon Rebel XSN. My dad and I drove out to Death Valley. It was like 120-something degrees and this was my first time really shooting film.
So I'm just having a good ol' time shooting my parents 'cause my parents, if you know anything about me, you can pretty much say my parents are pretty animated as well. I remember it being 120 degrees out, and I know that for a fact because my dad wrote it down on the newspaper. We were shooting all day and we went to the Devil's Golf Course and all these different spots and I was shooting photos the whole time.
And then it was steaming, dude. It was really, really hot. My dad was kind of like over it so he decided we're going to go back to the hotel where we were staying at in Las Vegas. And then, no bullshit, I see a white horse just galloping in the desert and the smoke was billowing up and I was like, “Yo, dad, can you stop the car? I'm going to take a photo.” And he was like, “No, I'm out.” And I didn't take the photo.
To this day, I talk about this all the time and my parents claim there was no white horse. Are you serious? I guarantee you on everything I have that there was a white horse there. The moral of that story is that I just take the photo now.
How would you describe the arch of your career so far? Was there a certain tipping point after which things sped up for you?
It's actually been really crazy. My career trajectory has been real. I've been living in this apartment for 10 years now. My last "real job" was at REI, the one on Soho and Broadway Lafayette. And I've admittedly been fired from every job I've had because there's always been a disconnect with me. I've never been able to articulate why I didn't like the job because I've always felt too shy; I didn't want to hurt somebody's feelings or something like that.
But what it came down to is, I didn't have a passion for it. And I was tired of investing myself into somebody else rather than myself. Why am I selling a membership for you? I should be selling people memberships for what I do and for what I believe in. Or what we're trying to achieve together.
So I got fired from REI and then I had to sleep on my own couch, which this is a way better couch now, but I had to sleep on my couch for 12 to 18 months. As soon as I got fired from REI, I told them, thank you. Seriously, because I couldn't muster up the courage to sit there and say, I quit. So when I got fired literally the next day I got hit up by Coach to go to London to cover the London men's collection and I never even had a passport before that.
I had to run to get a passport and all this stuff and I was still sleeping on the couch. But I got to go to London for the first time. I had no money in my pocket. I remember having $40 to my name and I tried to take out $20 at the ATM, but I didn't realize it was in pounds. I was so poor that I was eating Subway. But I had the time of my life over there taking photos, working with Coach, doing what I love to do with the people.
So now, when maybe I get a little bit frustrated by a client, I just remember the times that I had to sleep on the couch for 18 months or when I had to work at Game Stop organizing games in alphabetical order in Union Square. I had to really do work. And that's not even talking about when I was an electrician with my dad. I had to pull wire. You want to talk about work? That's work. This is all love. All this stuff is ... this is helping the world become a better place.
Is there anything about your work as a photographer that you have had to change your mind about along the way?
I used to believe that being a photographer meant you had to be perfect, but it’s not about being perfect. It’s really just about communication. And I think being more open with my communication in my relationships and how this flows into how I deal with business partners or clients.
I've always been kind of hesitant to let everybody know everything because you don't want to be judged, but I started to look at it differently.
Can you give me an example of something you would have held back before, but you wouldn’t now?
Growing up as a person of color, a minority, you're sometimes hesitant to give your honest criticism to people because you feel people will say you're just an angry black guy or something like that.
I'm giving you a truly honest opinion. It could be something as small as saying, “I don't think the photo edits are right on this.” Or, “I don't think your tone is right dealing with the situation.” Just the open communication between myself and everyone has gotten a lot better and I feel happier and less stressed out from that now. Instead of feeling like I had to hold it back.
Was there something specific that helped you achieve this increased openness? Or was it a gradual decision that you made for yourself and then you just did it?
I think it's a balance of both, honestly. You have to really live that and that means just really putting it on the table and being honest and transparent with a lot of the things that you're working with. It also depends on the situation. Maybe if I'm a director on a project, I have to be a little more assertive than if I'm the behind-the-scenes photographer but if I think the lighting is wrong I will say something. It's just giving valuable feedback and willing to be way more assertive and put my neck on the line a little bit more because I know that regardless of what happens I'm really doing that for the greater good.
Did you change the tone with which you communicate after you made that decision?
Well, I try to stay true to myself so I try to say things really nicely sometimes and sometimes it probably won't come out as nice. But then even if I were to say something a little bit aggressively I will apologize and say, “Hey, that might have been a little bit spicy but I'm just trying to let you know this is really for the greater good. I just want to try to communicate this with you. I'm just passionate about this.”
Or even if I have a beef with you I will just let you know what the beef is. And I will just leave it at that. I really don't want to go to sleep with any kind of transgressions. I'm going to make sure that I'm putting my best foot forward and all that kind of cliché stuff, because I'm willing to take responsibility.
I grew up with my dad being a contractor, a master's electrician. He had his own business. I've seen him project manage. I've seen him run things. He asked me to do that—to be a project manager. Now, I look at the business that I have as being a contractor like him, but a visual contractor. Instead of having a plumber and an electrician, I have a videographer and editor. So I would have that same level of respect and camaraderie. I want to have the same kind of feeling to it.
Photo Illustration Reference: Behind the Shot