"The whole Upstairs idea began with an apartment hunt, when I stumbled on a loft in midtown that was spacious enough to double as a studio. Before that, I’d always shot on locations and in rental spaces, so the idea of somewhere to both live and shoot was new and inspiring. The space would go on to be a gathering point, where I could share the wisdom that had been passed on to me with a younger generation.
I started taking pictures at 16, and the downtown NYC club scene provided endless artistic inspiration and connected me with other creatives. There were so many fun subjects. Soon after I started to meet lots of photo editors and art directors who started booking me to shoot portraits of actors, alternative artists as well as many of the up & coming hip hop & rap stars. These assignments contributed to me being able to build an archive of work almost immediately.
I assisted Constance Hansen with her photographic work at her loft in Greenwich Village, and her support and generosity were crucial to my artistic and personal development. Her kindness inspired me to share my resources with my younger, fellow artists once I was firmly established. The artists I met in Connie's studio were my mentors and inspiration; Upstairs takes us back to the city at that time, buzzing with energy as so many great artists mingled and collaborated in the downtown scene.
I loved having a combined live and work space. I'd often stay up late creating, wake up early to shoot and or develop my film & print, and in the evenings I'd invite everyone I met over to be photographed. During these creative sessions, we'd hang out under the light of a disco ball and play records from what had developed into a pretty massive collection. Many of these guests and subjects were young, mostly outcasts and creatives. I unconsciously became something of a godfather to this scene of NYC up-and-comers, and our gatherings started generating buzz pretty quickly over social media. Young people would come to my parties and tell me that they'd hung my photographs in their walls as kids, and they were psyched to meet the artist behind the work.
I started offering my studio to young photographers as a cultural spot for all kinds of creative projects. Upstairs became a safe space for alternative youths of all different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender expressions. It really started to dawn on me that many of these kids had to fight to be themselves and didn’t feel welcome in every environment, but here they felt free. All the while the parties were magnetic. We hosted radio shows and started making plans to start our own record labels. Funny enough, we never discussed making clothes, but when we started seeing my photographs on so many clothing brands, it became apparent that there was a market for wearable art. After being offered licensing deals from commercial clothing companies, I realized that aesthetically it made more sense to start our own company.
At a club in Berlin, I met one of my fashion heroes, Stefano Pilati. I shared my idea with him, and he in turn inspired us to do it at a level that we’d never imagined. Our Upstairs collective partnered with Stefano’s nascent project, Random Identities. The cooperation starts off with one of my most iconic shoots, arguably the most revered rapper of all time, Notorious B.I.G."
ALL PHOTOGRAPHY © ERIC JOHNSON
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