Lights, camera, contortion: the trailblazing work of Tim Saccenti

‘If you played my videos together it would sound like a favourite mixtape’

A shoot for Complex magazine with Lana Del Rey

A shoot for Complex magazine with Lana Del Rey

 

Music iconography matters. Memories of our favourite records conjure up more than just the sweet sounds that wriggle down our ear canals. Video, photography and art are all permanently bound to the songs they accompany. When marrying the audio to the visual, it’s best to have a minister as inventive as photographer and director Timothy Saccenti. The new-age visionary is blazing a visceral style that draws influence from installation art, advanced science, deep-thinking philosophy and wild psychedelica.

Tim Saccenti’s work with Run The Jewels
Tim Saccenti’s work with Run The Jewels

Saccenti’s work contorts the mind. His photographs feel like a million moving parts that have been fossilised in time. His videos are striking and trippy, as though they must have been shot in universes that don’t adhere to Earth’s natural phenomena. This distinct style has helped form a collaboration list that includes Run The Jewels, Pharrell Williams, Erykah Badu, Battles, Danny Brown, Depeche Mode and Vince Staples. What links Saccenti’s entire contact list is that he considers himself a fan of every single one.

“If you played all my videos together it would sound like someone’s favourite mixtape,” says Saccenti, speaking on the phone from his home in New York. “If I don’t like the music I have a very hard time coming up with visuals. The music world is not like the advertising world where there is so much money going around to just do a project even if you don’t believe in it. And I also work with a lot of young artists. I really have to believe in the music and the person’s point of view and what they’re trying to get across.”

Expressionistic style

Saccenti’s CV extends into the world of fine art and commercial work, but music photography and videos are key pillars in his body of work. There’s a kind of synesthesia, the filmmaker finds, to having an audio touching point. Whether it’s classical, jazz, techno or hip-hop, he listens to the music and then sees what visuals come to mind.

Ethiopian-American singer Kelela Mizanekristos
Ethiopian-American singer Kelela Mizanekristos

“My own intellectual concept is actually a texture or mode to work from,” Saccenti explains. “That seems to also work very well with the expressionistic sign of style that I’ve developed over time, because the language of it can change depending on what the music is.

“It also is a collaboration, so if I’ve the artist to work with, we go back and forth in the studio when we’re creating this environment or if it’s a location or something like that. For me, knowing that their music is being shown in a way that is working for them is extremely important, and in an environment that’s comfortable for them. And I listen to music nonstop. It’s always been a major source of inspiration for me.”

Experimental laboratory

This spirit of collaboration can be seen in the video for El-P song The Full Retard, which was released in 2012. The future Run The Jewels rapper asked Saccenti if they could draw from the spirit of the cult movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To oblige, the director set up a convertible car in front of a rear projection screen, recreating an effect used in the movie. The whole clip plays like a wild reimaging of a tripped-out classic – but with a squirrel puppet filling in for Johnny Depp.

“Originality can often be overstated, but Tim is producing work that is its own thing,” says Greg Spring of Irish contemporary art dealers Hen’s Teeth Prints. “He’s a visionary, one of the most original music video directors on the planet.”

As a still photographer, Saccenti treats the studio like an experimental laboratory. Or, as he puts it, an “alchemy of light”. Lights, smoke, lasers and projectors are deployed to escape the traditional static feel of photography and form a more kinetic style.

A detail of The Low End, created by Timothy Saccenti for A Tribe Called Quest
A detail of The Low End, created by Timothy Saccenti for A Tribe Called Quest

“Over time, we developed this concept of trying to capture an image – to trap it in this world we build,” he says. “When you walk into the studio when we’re shooting, it looks very similar to what you see in the final results. It’s dark, there’s techno playing. It’s been described as like 8am after a rave.

“There’s dust in the air, there’s smoke, you can’t see anything, people are bumping into each other. And then in the middle of that there’s me with the camera, directing the person to have some movement or to create the energy or emotion that we’re going for.”

On display

An Irish audience will be able to view a Saccenti’s work away from their monitors as a limited edition print of his piece The Low End will be on display at Hen’s Teeth Prints’ New Masters exhibition at The Fumbally Exchange between August 1st and 6th.

The Low End was created when Saccenti was approached last year by A Tribe Called Quest as they prepared to release their first album in 18 years. Much of the legendary rap group’s artwork in the past has been adorned with depictions of Tribe Girl: the outline of a woman formed by red and green lines.

A portrait of Big Sean for Complex magazine
A portrait of Big Sean for Complex magazine

Tasked with creating a modern version of Tribe Girl, Saccenti cast a model, covered her in silver body paint and used lasers to project the iconic colours: “It’s a slightly uncomfortable process and slightly dangerous,” he says.

An image of the model crouched into the same position as the illustration on the band’s second album The Low End Theory later adorned the cover of Complex music magazine.

“In the end we picked a pose that looked very similar to the iconic tribe pose, so we could understand the lexicon that we were dealing with. Anyone who saw it, it would resonate immediately as this iconic image.”

Sport ads

As well as working with some of the music world’s glitterati, Saccenti has shot some sports A-listers for ads, including Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For the latter, he was hired by A-Z Sportswear after the company saw a Run The Jewels video and headhunted its director.

From there, Saccenti came up with what on paper seems a simple concept: Ibrahimovic skipping. But set to Zomby’s slimy-grimy dubstep soundtrack and with a rope that resembles a combat weapon from a far away galaxy, it’s unlike any sports ad you’ll see flash up on TV. If you’re going to hire Tim Saccenti, though, let him do his thing.

“It was highly unusual that project because usually at some point [the client] usually says ‘This is too weird Tim, can you pull it back?” and then we do,” he says. “But that one they just said. ‘Okay, this is great.’ ”

New Masters is at the Fumbally Exchange, 5 Dame Lane, Dublin 2, from August 1st to 6th. It features the work of Tim Saccenti, Mason and Marina Esmeraldo

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