Meet the Maker: Koto Bolofo
Jen: You’ve done a range of creative work—from photo to film, from documentary work to editorial shoots. What is your creative signature?
Koto: When I started photography, many, many years ago, I had this notion: I wanted to make a classic picture. At the time, that meant I wanted to do a timeless picture. What I didn’t like in the magazine business of the time was that it had a life cycle of a month. It stayed for a month, you see it at the dentist’s office and then it was thrown in the bin. That disposability was a thing that frustrated me. What I wanted was that if somebody was looking at my work, they’d tear it out of the magazine and put it on the wall. The path to get there was through feeling my inner instinct—by asking myself, “What do you really want? What do you really want to say?” I wanted to present my signature to an editor and say, “This is what I want to do.” 80% of people said, “No way, we’re going this way.” You have to fight. And you find a few people along the road who believe in developing your signature.
At the time, I noticed that in most magazines, everybody looked depressed. They all looked sad. My personality is a bubbly character. I like to have fun; I like to laugh. And along the way, I learned early that the key was to project my own bubbly self onto somebody and hope that we’d meet in the middle to create a spontaneous picture. I still do that today. That really brought that spark—my signature.
When I was young, I didn’t understand the word signature. All I was striving for was for someone to tear my picture out of the magazine and stick it on the wall. That was my objective. I remember the greatest advice that I still carry to this very day—I was told, “They’re going to change you.” And I thought, who was ‘they?’ Who were these ‘they’ people?! He said, “They will try and change you. Stick to your guns.” I thought, what?! Guns? It was naivety. But it turned out. I met a lot of theys. There was a lot of resistance to my signature, but I became very firm. A reputation comes with that—you find [it] along the way by carrying your signature and then you find a perfect brand. For me, it was Banana Republic.
They were the perfect clothes for me. So timeless. The work I did with them became timeless, like an art piece. Banana Republic really came at the right time to fortify the work. My path was falling into place. I do believe that if you stay true to your signature, in the end, you’ll find your people. It’s a handful of people that will really fortify your work for years onward.
Were we the first commercial brand you shot for?
In America, yes, you were the first [major] commercial brand.
That’s amazing because your early 2000s images for Banana, like the red lady coat campaign, are some of our most iconic images. Fast forward to our most recent shoots together, you continue to evolve your interpretation of our clothes with the same love and honesty that you did almost 20 years ago.
Yes. And Jen, you said one word that is very interesting for me—the word honesty. If you want to make great photographs and sustain your “signature,” you have to be really honest. You have to be honest with yourself to get that timeless picture.
Definitely. I’ve known you prior to Banana. I’ve seen you through the faces of film to digital, and now to this project you’ve done for us. We gave you sweaters and said “color”—and you did this on an iPhone. What was that like? You still maintain a freshness to your signature.
It’s a revolution of technology. Cameras don’t have the longevity. They change. I thought to myself: use the old philosophy. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s the person that creates a hat will really give the beautiful picture.
Years ago, people had a pinhole camera. You could take beautiful pictures with just a pinhole camera. I looked at the iPhone and thought, You know what? It kind of resembles [a pinhole camera]. It’s got a little tiny camera. You press a button. It’s a simple mechanism. It’s the eye that’s really behind the picture. At the end of the day, it’s a pocket camera. It’s a very sophisticated and genius thing that you can just pick up and tap your finger and you’ve got a picture. A lot of people that you see on the streets taking pictures, they’re not thinking about how to take the picture. I said to myself, I’ll carry my spirit and see whether I can do it with this simple, tiny tool that we use.
Your recent work for our Color-Full theme has an abstract, fine art quality to it. How is it different from your usual creative work?
I felt there was a level of art. A freedom to this project.
I decided I didn’t want models because I wanted it to feel like a true art project. I really wanted to break boundaries. And, I felt blessed because of my history with Banana. I said, I want to take it to the next level. I’m an old veteran, I know Banana inside out. I really wanted to do something different.
I gathered the flowers, the lavender, and spent time in the studio wiling away, trying to understand: What am I trying to create? Where am I going? It’s about finding the picture and grasping it. And it grows.
You can feel it. It’s a sensation. It’s pathfinding, and you don’t know where you’re going. You’re bringing these elements together. The output comes at the end. It’s creating something that is unknown and developing and nurturing it. Where are these elements? How do I put these elements together? Looking at the textures of the sweaters. I started seeing lavender fields: hence, the grains of lavender. You have to bring a childlike, whimsical imagination. You should not fear. A lot of people lose that along the way. They lose the sense of being silly. You need to maintain that. That’s where you find the magic—in the accidents that come.
To go full circle, can you take us down the road from when you were young and first started taking pictures?
Coming into photography was an accident. I went to an art college in London, and I was never a very good academic. I was really lousy at drawing, but I liked art. We had a three-week course on photography. The course was to go and take pictures, then go back to the lab and develop the images with the chemicals—then you’d get a picture. I had never been in a dark room. To see an image come out of clear liquid—it was like witchcraft to me. I was hooked.
Early on, my parents were against this. We were political refugees from South Africa. My father wanted me to be a doctor. He thought I could never make a living off photography. I always said no, there’s ways of doing it. But my mother told me to never think about money—to instead, think about what I wanted to do and create. She told me, “Money will come later. Just keep doing it.” It was a long way though. It took five years of trying for Vogue to give me a break.
Do you think that your identity as a South African with a British upbringing informs your work in any way?
I am South African at the end of the day. I consider myself English, but my roots are in South Africa. And yes, that influences my work. My father was a political activist. Going through hardships stays in you—at the end of the day, it is your backbone. You never forget where you come from. Instead, you mix the two together. I retain my South African identity. I went back to Africa and did a book of Nelson Mandela’s prisons. It’s part of my signature. The root of where you come from is what makes you, you. If you forget that, I don’t know what you’d create. And my UK education? It gives me balance. You have to keep that balance and always remember who you are.
It might give you a sense of resilience as well, especially if you were knocking on the door of Vogue for five years.
Yeah. At the end of the day, the main thing stopping me at that time was the color of my skin. I couldn’t enter the door or get a job as an assistant. And as a photographer, you’d have to come from a good family.
One of the things you and I talked about when we had one of our earlier conversations about race and diversity, was your passion and drive to make your pictures see the light of day, beyond the structures that were holding you back. We talked about how it didn’t push you away but it actually made you more resilient.
Yes. And you know, back in the ’80s, [when I was pursuing my photography] my mother said to me, “Son, you know, you’re black.” And I said, “Mom, you have to understand. For me, it’s not [about] the color of my skin. It’s what I’m holding under my arm: my portfolio. I’m as good as anybody else. I’m not worried about skin color at all, mom.” For me, it wasn’t that. It was the girl under the tree with the dappled light, the way she was standing, the way she was posing. That was the point for me. But when it came to going out in the world, and to institutions, there was definitely a barrier. I could see the barrier.
Today, I’m glad magazines and brands are pushing and normalizing equality. I think it’s very positive. It’s going in a good direction, and I hope that’s sustained and it’s not just a fad of the moment. I try not to dwell on that. Go forth and do what you believe in and do it with honesty. It’s as simple as that. The good people will see the work and the personality.
At the end of the day, you really have to love what you do. Love is strongest. Stick to your basics and know who you are. Strive for the happiness—there are too many sad things in the world.
It truly shows in your work. You’ve been able to stay true to it through anything else.
I will always. I won’t let go.
We spoke with Koto Bolofo and Melodie McDaniel for our Meet the Maker series, in honor of Black History Month. Koto worked with our latest sweaters (and a little bit of lavender) for this piece. Read Melodie’s feature—then discover our February campaign, Bold Vision.