Photographer Anthony Supreme Talks Working With J. Cole for '4 Your Eyez Only' Album Artwork

Anthony Supreme
J. Cole

Life-changing decisions can occur at any moment. For photographer Anthony Supreme, the turning point in his life came to him while sitting in his Campervan, the vehicle he bought after he uprooted his life in Monroe, North Carolina to pursue a film career in Los Angeles.

"I sold my car and bought a camper. I wasn’t poor, I just chose a lifestyle where I didn’t want to spend a lot of money,” Supreme tells Billboard of his move to the West Coast two years ago. “I remember being in the car just looking up and saying ‘Why don’t you just start doing photography?”

Supreme also recalled telling his girlfriend about his desire to work on an artist’s album cover one day and his dreams soon turned into reality. His "in-the-moment" photography style drew the attention of director Scott Lazer, who helmed J. Cole’s HBO special J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, which aired in January. Lazer reached out to Supreme for the chance to work on Cole’s upcoming effort 4 Your Eyez Only, slated for release on Friday (Dec. 9).

The photographer toured with the Dreamville founder for two weeks documenting Cole’s writing sessions to spontaneous outings, including a stroll in an Atlanta neighborhood reflected on the cover of J. Cole’s forthcoming album. Billboard caught up with Supreme to discuss working with Cole, his North Carolina upbringing and social media’s effect on photography.

When did you first get into photography?

I got into photography probably about two years ago, and then I’ve been directing content like film and music videos for like four or five years; I officially got serious with photography probably like two years ago once I moved to L.A. two years ago to kind of pursue everything.

Did you study photography in school or was it just a hobby that you took up?

Actually, it was something I kind of picked up. I never went to school for it. I picked it up one day like three, four years ago because I did mostly a lot of music videos around the Charlotte area with artists from Charlotte and I kind of felt a connection with it so I was like, maybe the best move is to go to LA.

What was it like growing up in North Carolina?

North Carolina has a life of its own. It’s like a country town -- there’s black people, there’s white people, dirtbiking and country kids for the most part. There’s a lot of history in North Carolina. My dad and my grandma grew up in slavery, which isn’t that many generations away and you can find the old heads in the area who can give you stories. My dad isn’t even that old, he’s like 60, but he has stories of when he was a kid seeing black men running down the street from the [Ku Klux Klan] in the countryside so that area has that setting. North Carolina isn’t like that now of course but it’s definitely a changing world.

How would you say your upbringing and experiences influenced your visual approach?

I'm amazed by the vintage trend and just trying to connect with the past along with the present so I think there’s something special about the imperfections of an old image. Its imperfections give it this authenticity. We live in a world where everyone’s trying to be perfect, a society where we try to perfect everything. Sometimes it’s good to have imagery or anything that resembles imperfection. The imperfection gives it that characteristic. With some of the images I capture, it’s not perfect but it makes you feel some type of way.

How did you develop your photography style?

I love the 35mm. I love black and white which is kind of cool that Cole picked the same aesthetic I like. I kind of developed it through testing different things and trying to figure out what I like and just staying on that path. I always had a fascination for albums and album covers. They’re like a symbolization of time periods so I kind of developed my style by just trial and error. I think it’s good to keep what you feel and not try to change up.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I draw my inspiration from everything. I watch photographers, I watch a lot of movies. There are Instagram accounts that give you photos everyday to draw inspiration from with different artists and photographers. Even from a visual standpoint, there’s so much content. I think you can find inspiration anywhere. Inspiration for photography comes from other people and the world. I traveled a few places so it kind of gave me this different perspective of everything too.

Do you feel that social media ruins photography because everyone nowadays can be a photographer?

Yeah, pretty much but at the same time everything in life has cause and effect like Instagram or Tumblr or even the accessibility to cameras. The price range for having a DSLR camera is low and it gives people who don’t have money the ability to be a creative person. It allows them to get their creative energy going so it’s kind of a good and bad thing. If you’re good at what you do then you’re always gonna find a way to stand out. You take your circumstances and try to make the best of it.

How do you differentiate yourself given the circumstances?

Just connecting with people. Hustling, too. Trying to figure out my direction. At one point, I was trying to do the whole [shooting a] model thing and I realized the model stuff is just whack to me. During that whole discovery [period] to now, I'm just trying to figure out my own direction -- what do I love. Being a freelance photographer, I found the album, artist route. I love that.

For the J. Cole project, describe the overall direction you were going with while shooting the digital booklet.

It kind of goes along with the same theme as the cover. There’s a lot more black and white [images] but it was really all Cole’s idea. They shot "False Prophets" months ago and I remember Scott [Lazer] showing it to me back in July and then we just all got together, went outside and started to shoot. Scott liked my simple, in-the-moment shooting. Cole liked the fact that it was so spontaneous so he woke up one morning like, "Man, let’s go outside and shoot some stuff and see what happens." He liked the fact that it wasn’t what he’s used to doing so that kind of sparked the idea for us to do the same thing with everything. We all got together on this two-week tour to create stuff. There’s so much footage that’s not even in the 40-minute documentary. Everything was coincidence.

 

{Part 2 of 3} #4youreyezonly I remember the day I pitch this photo to J.cole I was nervous as fuck ! It was in September and we were on a two week tour of creation for this album. I thought this was the perfect photo for his cover. It took me two days to build up enough confidence to show him 6-7 specific photos I felt stood out to me. But, this one stood out the most of this young boy in Atlanta. I was nervous to sit down with Cole & his manager to discuss my findings in the back of this huge tour bus. I described to Cole that there was just something about this young boys eyes. Because that day Cole, Scott and I just randomly stumbled upon this neighborhood in Atlanta while shooting footage for something later to come. This Atlanta neighborhood was just going crazy! People were running out of there house to take a photo of Cole and ask him questions but, their was something to me about this boy and how he kept looking at Cole as he walked around his neighborhood. I can see in his eyes how much this experience is slowly changing his life forever! The young boys face just stood out to me to capture. I saw in his eyes he knew nothing about J.Cole, but was some what amazed how everyone was reacting to him. The boy even asked Cole several times who he was. But, he couldn't understand what was going on in his world. Cole and I spent hours one night looking for photos for his album but nothing seem to stand out. Then a few days past and I finally found this photo that I felt represented the cover to most to me to pitch to him. Which at the time Cole felt something about this photo as well but wanted to think about it. {Continue to part 3} #foryoureyezonly #dreamville #4youreyezonly #jcole

A photo posted by ANTHONY SUPREME (@anthony_supreme) on

How do you think the album cover relates to the title 4 Your Eyez Only? In your Instagram post, you noted the boy's eyes.

There were people all around Cole like, "What are you doing here?" and the kid was amazed because he was reacting to everything around him. He didn’t know who Cole was. He was just a kid living his life in this neighborhood like, "Why are people treating this person different?" Everybody in this world is born with a blank slate, we don’t know anything about the world. The world kind of feeds us what we’re supposed to be but in reality, we really are human beings, we’re all connected and the kid was kind of like that to me. Because he didn’t know Cole, he was just treating Cole like a regular person and in reality, that’s what Cole is. Just because he has awards and money doesn’t change the fact that he’s just a regular person.

Everybody was trying to tell him, "Why you not reacting the same way we are towards him?" I shot 10,000 photos during the whole process. I had like six, seven of those photos, in that particular style and that kid was always involved in those photos and Cole told me if you see something, let me know or point it out so I built the confidence to actually go up to him and say, "I think these stood out to me. I feel like these would be a dope album cover." I’m not sure why Cole picked that specific photo but maybe the kid affected him the same way he affected me.

What was it like traveling and working with Cole?

It was amazing. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with are sometimes in that artist, fantasy world and Cole just wasn’t like that. When I first met him, I didn’t want to be too relaxed around him. Though he has that business mindset, he’s still that type of person. As a photographer, I really don’t ever have to do a cover again after this. [Laughs]

How did you approach this project differently from past projects?

I passed up on an opportunity to do an album cover before but I remember I was with my girlfriend in a record store and I kept seeing album covers. To me, album covers are pinnacles of time, there’s so many of them and [I thought] it’d be great for me as a photographer to do it but I didn’t know who. Then, a week or so later I was in my camper and then Scott texted me like, "Yo, you want to shoot these photos for Cole’s album?" and I didn’t see that coming. I’m not sure why that happened but this situation was like, "Here’s your opportunity, this is everything you wanted, everything you f--ked up on prior to." You know what works for you, just go have fun.

You've directed multiple short films and music videos and done a lot of photography in the past. Is there a medium you prefer over the other?

I love directing probably more than photography but photography is more relaxing. Photography and film is the same in a sense because you get a feel of what something’s supposed to look like. Both have helped me in multiple ways.

Looking back at your past works to this most recent project, how would you describe your evolution.

My evolution was s***ty as f**k, it was horrible. [Laughs] Just learning and thinking you know enough then realizing you don’t know enough, I just kept going. It’s an on-going process of trying to get it right in your mind. I think it’s the same thing like Cole. He’d be in the back of the bus perfecting his craft while everybody is out partying. I think for me, it’s that process of actually learning that part and then also being okay with myself and then being okay with my style and bettering it.