Photographer Kevin Amato began taking pictures in New York in 2003, as a student at the School of Visual Arts. In 2007, he met Hood by Air designer Shayne Oliver, and, in the seven years since, he’s shot the brand’s campaigns and documented its followers and friends. His reportage-style pictures have appeared in everything from Dazed & Confused to GQ — and now, along with Hood by Air and other streetwear friends like Virgil Abloh of Off-White, Amato has designed a pricey loungewear and bedding capsule collection to fund the self-publishing of his first photography book, somewhat ironically named Cozy. Now sold at hip shops around the world like London’s Selfridges and Paris’s Colette, the book is a collection of a decade’s worth of personal and commercial work.
“The cross-pollination of subcultures is something I’ve been so loyal to throughout the entirety of my work,” Amato said to explain his photos, which he shot mostly on film, ranging from racy portraits of fashion faces like Nicola Formichetti and high-profile rappers like Waka Flocka, to gay urban youth. Amato sat down with the Cut to chat about Hood by Air, how he draws inspiration from the Bronx, and nudity in his work.
How did you start working with Hood by Air?
I met Shayne through the stylist Jason Farrer. You know the misfits he puts in his witches brew. He’s definitely a cultivator, but behind the scenes — and I feel like I relate to him in that sense. [Farrer] introduced me to Shayne, just being like, “You guys are going to be best friends!” and it was kind of exactly that. So it was really weird because I wasn’t a fashion person; I always just dressed very H&M.
We both grew up listening to hip-hop but also like hardcore, death metal, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, so it was kind of like this world where if you’re this, you can’t be that. It’s funny to me, but I think it’s dope when Chance [the Rapper], Whiz [Khalifa], or those kinds of dudes, are more hippie.
Whiz’s purple dreadlocks!
Yeah, that was like Jimi Hendrix. Do kids even know who Jimi Hendrix is? That was an epic moment where music really influenced fashion and it even trickled down. There was the merging of the art world — with Warhol, Basquiat with Gray, Basquiat fucking Madonna — and it was this weird mesh. I think for me it’s always been how it should be, like it was never a separation.
My work is about family and extended family, tribes, the tribes we create. That was definitely Hood by Air for me: It was this family that I created, Shayne created, we all kind of created.
Can we talk about the title of your book?
The silently pronounced title … It’s cozy. Oh, you want an explainer? Cozy is … it’s kind of me. I like to challenge people’s comfort zones. People are like, “He’s got no shirt, it’s sexy.” But it’s not even about no shirt, it’s about that coating. Clothing is coating, it’s like your armor. You remove that, you become vulnerable, you become weak, almost like medieval terms, like a gladiator.
How did it feel to put out all your private photos?
I wanted to put 500 of these nondescript, extremely delicate, basic books out. I’m so not about “glamour,” or “glossy.” Luxury to me isn’t fashion or art. Luxury is … it’s corny, but luxury is interacting with people, love, family — that’s real luxury.
Do you feel the Bronx nurtures artists?
The Bronx is very territorial; it doesn’t really outsource its artists. Right now, it’s just really where the inspiration is, the energy, the drive. It’s my home, I’ve been there for a while. I think it’s something about it being untouched; it’s not a challenge, shooting. Kids from Brooklyn, whether you’re from the hood or you’re hipster, you know the look. You’ve been approached, you’ve probably been photographed 10 or 15 times.
It was important for me to do the book because putting [work] online, everything’s like that LED glow every five seconds. Kids growing up now, I don’t think they even know of an artist. If you’re like, Who’s your favorite artist? they’d probably say Nicki [Minaj] — a musician.
There were a lot of kids at your VFiles launch party.
That was a great crowd. It’s so important that people who were never really respected, weren’t at the forefront of fashion, to bring them to the forefront of fashion, whether or not they didn’t have access to it. Being an insider and being a part of it gives you the access. There’s more of an emotional connection and so you don’t feel the need for shock value. I don’t need nudity, if anything nudity is a quirky sidebar.
It’s an aftermath?
The world is too shocked, overly shocked. For me, the whole point of the capsule collection with the book, it goes back to how music was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, how music influenced art. It was about kids who sit in front of computers all day looking at clothes, looking at sneakers. What they collected back in the day was art, that was their collective currency. Now it’s sneakers, it’s clothes. The merging of the two was kind of cool.
How’d you decide on bedding and not just T-shirts? Were you involved in the design process?
Yeah, I pretty much did the whole design thing with each brand and production. A lot of my photos take place in bedrooms; the bedroom is your most personal space, of course. But it’s also very suggestive to the viewer. I let them play with that. People love to hear that. People create their own stories, but I think cozy is more about being comfortable, kind of not giving a fuck but looking on-point.
I feel like hip-hop is embracing that right now with “cozy” Drake.
Yeah, dudes painting fingernails and tips. These are things we’ve been doing for a while. When I was in high school, as hard or soft as I was, I was still doing fishnets stockings, do-rags, and a grill and that was not recent. That was some time ago, when 8th Street was still 8th Street Lab — Trash and Vaudeville wasn’t a landmark. The kids begging for money have more money than I would’ve had back them. But we were Banji. I grew up between the suburbs and the city, I got it.
Your work feels very nostalgic for boyhood. Is that a conscious theme?
I think everything is an extension of my life, my story. That’s why it’s hard when it’s commercial photography. Scene after scene, I wanted to be a part of everything growing up — I think that’s somewhat relevant to what I do now. I do love sports — I’ll shoot athletes, music, fashion, but it all comes down to my aesthetic and the way I shoot it. I’m conscious to a lot of things; I’m always like, “Is this too homoerotic, is this too ghetto?” Those two questions bounce off each other like crazy, but that’s why I had to self-publish, because one publisher would be like, “Let’s go this direction,” and it would be homoerotic and really I don’t even relate to that— I relate to it, but not when I’m thinking of my body of work. I don’t want it to be classified as just that.
Do you have any more plans for products down the line? Other collaborations?
Maybe, but not really. I think this was a one-time thing and that it was really the support of everybody being like, You need to get this out now — Shayne, Virgil, Carrie, Raoul [Lopez]. But I’m not here to prove anything. There’s nothing to prove; it’s just to share.
This interview has been edited and condensed.