You have seen photographer Magnus Hasting’s work dominate everything from the drag world to social media – he’s even had a place in Sir Elton John’s personal art collection. This self-taught Londoner moved from an acting career to photographing A-listers, drag queens and true cabaret artists.
From the start of his career, his images have graced international gay magazines and he’s been a guest photographer on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He has worked with every drag queen you can think of, he’s become a drag bestie with a unique eye and style. His personality is as infectious as his art and the follow up to his wildly successful book Why Drag?is #gayface– a social media experiment breaking down walls with a message – WE ARE HERE.
I sat down with Magnus for a unique look behind the lens:
What was the first camera you owned? Do you remember your first few photos?
My first Camera was a Kodak Instamatic. I was very young!
I think I taught myself with a Canon. And I remember the first time I managed to print my own picture how I wanted. I had set up a darkroom in my bedroom and would take pictures of my schoolfriends, particularly my friend Gemma. But I had never had a lesson so just taught myself by trial and error, then finally I had the tones exactly how I wanted them. I was so proud of that picture.
Who were your earliest influences in the artist world?
Annie Leibowitz, David Bailey the black and white years, Andy Warhol. I used to be obsessed with Rolling Stone covers. I had a fabulous book of them which I left in Australia, sadly. Also Madonna – her fearlessness and determination to do what she wanted and create things to push buttons…she was definitely an influence.
What was it like having your first show?
My first show was in a place called The Box, in London, I had just decided to quit acting and really throw myself into photography. So, I wandered in and asked if I could have a show. I showed them a couple of pics and they said yes. I was completely terrified! I created these huge portraits pressed onto PVC and put them up. The night before I was so nervous, no-one had ever seen my work, I liked it but I didn’t know what people would make of it. But it was received really well, Time Out London picked it up and I was asked to shoot the celebrity covers of the biggest gay mags – so it was an exciting time and confirmed I had made the right career change.
What was the gay scene in London like growing up?
Well I didn’t hit the gay scene til I was 28 but then I hit the ground running. I was so excited to finally find where I belonged and was out 7 nights a week with my best friend. We had such a good time, well from what I remember… there was quite a lot of vodka involved. It was a very exciting time for me, albeit a bit late in the scheme of things, but I had various reasons why my induction into the gay scene was delayed… which is a whole other interview.
What was it like relocating to LA? What were the most shocking things about living in the US that you discovered?
I had been coming and going from LA for years, I lived here for 9 months when I was 20 before I went to drama school, took acting classes and worked in Beverly Hills. It has always felt like my home and it was just a question of finding my way back. I moved here properly 7 years ago and I love it!
The thing that always got to me, I guess, was the false niceties that people hurl around in America -especially the east coast. People are forced ask how you are with absolutely no desire for a response, so, when I first got here I would go to Starbucks, for example, and when asked “Hi. How are you?”, in perky tones, I would respond truthfully “a bit hungover, a bit depressed” which would leave the server confused as to why I hadn’t screamed “I’m great!” as is the required answer, stuff like that . But half my family are American so it was not a culture shock for me.
What is your creative process? Does the idea for a photoshoot come into your head or do you look at other images to come up with an idea?
I NEVER look at other images for ideas, things come into my head, or I see things around me and think oh, I must do that at some point. I make notes (which I usually lose) but basically everything comes from my addled brain or spur of the moment; I mean, many of my shoots are completely spontaneous – just thinking on my feet. It helps that I generally choose visually interesting people to photograph, obviously.
How did your attraction to drag come about?
I was a little drag child, so it has always been part of my life. I spent most of my early years wearing my mother’s and sister’s clothes /shoes etc. I would lip-synch to songs and put on plays where I played the female lead always. I was shamed out of it, sadly, but it is in me and makes sense to me so when I started photographing queens it made total sense. It’s funny when I am shooting drag queens my whole body language goes draggy, my legs kind of demonstrate what I want – it’s hard to explain… but the point is it comes from within, it’s not that I found something alien and shiny… more like I found my home.
You get to see drag queens behind the scenes, who they really are. What are the biggest misconceptions about drag queens in regards to drag vs everyday life?
Well, I think while drag was very much once used to give people freedom to behave and express themselves in a way they normally couldn’t, and in a way that gay men who felt socially and physically awkward could not only find their way onto the VIP list but they could rule it, but with the newer generation of queens it is more about art and creating new and exciting ways to express themselves through the art form. I mean, when I am working with the queens, I see them in drag mostly but they are not “on” so there is very little difference because we are working; so I tend not to see the sassy public persona, just the regular sweet yet fabulous queen… I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of jokes flying around always.
What was it like putting together Why Drag?
It was a long and endless project that I loved every minute of, it was very exciting. I started off with a show in NYC, which got me a literary agent and a book deal. and then 9 months to tear around America shooting queens for the book so I could have a lot of fresh content along with images that people knew and loved.
I had a very specific look in mind and when I was presented with the first draft, rather than give notes, I reimagined it exactly as I wanted – leaving as little empty space as possible. You were supposed to enter my wonderland and see it through my eyes. Any blank spaces I changed to black as drag is predominantly a night time thing. Anyway the point is, my publisher, Chronicle books, was amazing and they did exactly what I wanted and it ended up being something I am truly proud of. When I got the first copy, I sat on my stairs outside my apartment and went through it and only then did it dawn on me how huge the project was. It was like looking back after climbing a mountain and going “shit that was high, I had no idea”.
It was great to be so focused on something, which I am again now with #gayfacebut it took a good 18 months to find the next obsession
Elton John even bought some prints from Why Drag? What was that sale like?
So I sent him a copy of Why Drag? and then got an incredible message back telling me how “fucking brilliant” my book was, then the guy who handled his collection hit me up and by then galleries went through the process of sorting out the four prints for him. It was very exciting and very validating and even my sister, who isn’t in the art world, was super impressed.
How did you come up with the idea for #GayFace?
Ok! So I was sitting in my local bar working on things and I had been toying with the idea of a new project called gayface. I liked it because it was confrontational and used a term that’s detrimental, often used actually by gays being dismissive of other gays – like when people used to call each other “camp” suggesting it to be undesirable and less than – at least they did in the UK, all the boys desperate to be straight acting with a cock in their mouths!
Anyway, I then thought what about doing something that launched on the internet where everyone posted at the same time creating an online event. What’s the best shape for that? A square which would mean less chance of people doing terrible cropping. A white box would be amazing as it creates a theatrical world, also the light is super flattering for all (because it bounces everywhere ) – people can write on it , decorate it, change it up, but always keeping within the perimeters of the box. I got very excited, realized I need to do it fast because the more people I approached the idea could be stolen or leaked, etc. The most important thing at the beginning was secrecy.
How did you get your #GayFacemodels?
I built 3 boxes – one in LA, one in New York, and one in San Francisco. And I enlisted friends in NYC and SF to help me find people. LA is my home, so that was easy, but I really wanted real diversity and not just LA pretty people and drag queens. I was also careful to choose some people with huge social media followings that would balance out those who had basically no social media presence – again, because I wanted diversity and not just social media darlings. My friends would send me suggestions and I would say yes or no.
I flew into NYC and San Fran and shot for about 4 days in each city. The three months from late January to early May were possibly the most stressful of my career and I nearly stopped the project as it was so hard. But I had, by then, told people dates of a launch and there was a buzz about it so I just had to make it work.
The first batch of images were by no means perfect but it was a huge achievement and everybody posted at exactly the same time on May 4th and it went viral, trending on twitter. I was so scared no-one would post but rather there was a race to be first, apparently. It was quite something!
How has technology and social media affected your art?
I think my last answer discusses how I have embraced social media, though I do find it pretty evil and look forward to completing this so I don’t have to use it as much.
What are the biggest mistakes models make on set?
Asking for a mirror so they can watch themselves pose shows an insane lack of trust and need for control. And as I always say, you need to risk. To get something great you have to be prepared to get some terrible shots too. Risk making a fool of yourself no-one will see them but we just might get something incredible at the same time
What’s up next for the Magnus Hastings brand?
#gayfaceis ongoing and is supposed to become a book so I am focused on that. And, in the current political climate, there seems to be more and more reason to keep this project going. That is my main focus and then other bits and bobs of work come in, but I am happiest creating my own art, to be honest. I don’t take direction well!