By Mia Ballesteros
What is rap culture without the people who document it?
At just 29 years of age, Atlanta-born photographer, and one of my personal all-time favorites, Gunner Stahl has become the rap world’s go-to fly on the wall. Today it is hard to imagine what modern rap photography would look like without Stahl, BUT, it wasn’t always this way. It was incredibly motivating to me, especially as a photographer, to see that Stahl never intended to be as successful as he became.
Stahl unintentionally got into photography around his eighteenth birthday when he randomly decided he was going to buy a digital camera from his friend, who was selling it at the time. It is so interesting to think that he solely based his decision off of simply not knowing what other gift to buy himself for his birthday.
He then began to document his everyday life including images of his close friends at school, concerts, parties, etc.
Coincidentally he had a ton of close friends who were in the music industry whom he started shooting, establishing himself almost as a reporter of some sort and capturing moments on hazy film of some of the world’s most celebrated musical figures.
This paparazzi-like style is what made me first pay attention to Stahl as he mends the gap between documenting celebrities while still remaining a “fly on the wall.” His work doesn’t feel staged, but rather presents a showcase of his surroundings and the people around him.
Stahl is the perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. Over the past few years, he got caught up in the budding Atlanta music scene, met, and worked with artists such as Metro Boomin, T.I., Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, Young Thug, and more. His friendship with rappers such as FatKidsBrotha enabled him to host planned shoots, butttttt this was not always the case. Other times he had to look to using sly tactics to get just the perfect images.
Take one of Kanye West’s concerts for example. Which also happens to be the day that Stahl began shooting on film. That night, his digital camera broke, which led him to borrow a friend’s film camera, which was unfortunately not allowed in the concert venue. But obviously, he didn't let that didn't stop him and lucky for us, he produced images like the iconic one below of Kanye West smiling after the concert.
This raw, up close and personal vibe that Stahl gives off through his photos is why success came so easily and quickly for the young photographer, resulting in many professional opportunities such as working with Fader, Highsnobiety, Wall Street Journal, Tmrw Magazine, and even Vogue.
Through these professional opportunities, Stahl blossomed tremendously and was able to bring some of his work to life through his photo books and exhibitions. His photobook Portraits that came out in 2019 dives into very personal moments with some of the biggest musical names of the time.
Since his Portraits release, Stahl’s exploration of the music industry, black youth culture, and the people behind it has never ended. He has been actively thinking about the legacy he wants to leave and this was made clear in his following books, Life’s Boring and For You Mom. These photo books followed the same type of style as his first book Portraits, including many rare and never before seen images of big names in the rap/hip hop music industry. His book For You Mom also released in 2019 was a heartfelt tribute to his late mother, who passed when he was 13.
My favorite piece of Stahl’s would have to be his album cover for Playboi Carti’s Playboi Carti album, a fan favorite and truly memorable image. This image was taken in a downtown LA Airbnb, which is what first caught my attention about this shot. The fact that this was just a candid shot instead of a staged photoshoot is incredibly inspiring as a photographer myself. The way that you can create stunning images with little to no professional equipment gives others, including myself, the confidence to attempt photography like Stahl’s. Other than the way that this photo is perfectly composed, this album cover also portrays a sense of authenticity, which is something a bit tough to come across now in this new age of Instagram and selfie-taking.
Stahl opened up about his influences and inspirations to Complex magazine and expressed how there are various people and things that inspire him in his work. You can clearly see the impact that was left on him through other photographers such as the renowned Chi Modu, who played a huge role in creating a significant space for hip-hop photographers. Modu came up in the ‘90s, for his work capturing classic shots of some of rap’s most influential artists such as Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg. This reporter-like type of photography can definitely be seen as an influence on Stahl and his work. Similar to Modu, Stahl also gives us a more personal look into the lives of some of the most influential artists of our lifetimes.
Being a portrait photographer, Stahl has been one of my biggest influences in terms of aesthetics and style. He gives us a personal look into the lives of some of the most influential artists of our lifetimes. A way to see them from a different perspective.
To us, Stahl’s images might just be photos of famous people, but his work showcases a collection of more personal and intimate moments shared between friends, which is exactly what I try to emanate through my portrait photography. Being a photographer requires trust between you and your subjects, something that you're able to be seen through Stahl’s work. I hope that attempting to see the world through eyes like his will allow me to grow into the professional and photographer that I aim to be.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far. See you next time :)