I was first inspired by creative Mario Morgan following him on Instagram and later chatting to him at Yaaseen Cader’s #NoLabel fashion launch. I was convinced that I had to feature Mario on my blog. It is not often that one encounters someone with such singular clarity and tempered discipline when it comes to his craft. Mario and I sat down recently in his amazing Woodstock studio to tease out the values that ground his artistry.
1984 Born in South Africa
2002 Matriculated from Hill College in Port Elizabeth
2006 Became an advertising sales exec at an online advertising company
2007 Gained design, web, and client liaison experience at various print and marketing houses
2012 Freelance design consultant with 1UpCreative
2014 Art Director for Spout Media
2015 Founded Mario Morgan as art director, designer and photographer
So you grew up in an artistic family …
Yes my mom was a self-taught artist who only started when she was about thirty-five. My stepfather was an engineer and my bio-dad worked with his hands. I certainly draw the self-starter, hard working drive from my mom. She always did what she wanted.
Must creativity flow in your blood or can it be learnt?
I think we are all born with the capacity to be creative. Creativity stems from looking for ways to solve problems, you can be creative in any field. All greats in the past had a problem they faced; they used creative ways to solve them. Even if they failed over and over again, they never gave up. My father is an engineer. I may not think he’s an artist, but he goes to his job and then he has to figure out how to make something more efficient. To me that is artistry in itself. Creativity and art doesn’t stop with drawing or taking a picture.
How did you get into design?
I dropped out of college – twice. Then I was going to study at AAA, but life has a way of working out differently from what you imagined. I couldn’t get a job in Cape Town so I started out at a web design company in their sales division. Necessity found me dabbling in the design side of things.
Following that I was headhunted by a print agency learning about architectural prints. It was here that I learnt pretty much everything I could about print. Following a 4-year period in web design and print magazine I started freelancing, and was eventually hired as an art director running an entire team. Afterwards I quit and started freelancing, balls to the wall, and got into photography. Photography was a whole new lease on life.
In spite of being self-taught, you inevitably managing professionally trained people. Did that present any challenges?
The thing that it showed me [I’m going to be honest now] is that university and other such places all teach the same things. Many who come from a professional background have a set way of doing things – there is a right way and a wrong way, your lecturers’ even mark you on it. So you have thousands of kids of have that same set and their conceptual skills lack because they haven’t been able to take risks. You only learn by taking risks and failing, learning to do something amazing from conceptualizing it through to the end. Pretty much when it came to directing kids that have already been trained, they just didn’t have that freedom to be wrong. Trying to get them to create something was hard. They are afraid to take the risk. If you come across as fearful in your design the client will eat you up. As soon as you don’t have confidence about what you’re doing and your skill set then they will make you their Photoshop operator. As a designer you are an artist and you should have the liberty to do something that’s creative.
You only started out in photography in September 2014. What inspired that move?
I’m not a very patient artist, photography allowed me to create art almost instantaneously. The camera is just a tool, I don’t define myself as a purist, I’m an artist simply trying to express myself, the medium allows you to capture anything, and it allows you to make mistakes, freedom to fail. The world is ever-changing, every moment unique, as an artist you have the ability to take a moment, freeze it in time and show people what they might have missed, or to see it anew. You can never take the same picture twice. I may be looking at the same thing, but every single time I see something different. I am all the more conscious now. Even when I don’t have my camera I am looking around for the story.
You used the word ‘artist’ quit often. How is a photographer different from an artist?
Photography can go so many ways, but I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I am an artist. As soon as the camera entered my hand it allowed me to move beyond observation. I now have this tool that can bring life to a moment that I have captured and we can have a conversation on it.
Many times when I took portraits of people they commented that they didn’t see themselves like that. Now that’s an awakening moment – that’s already beautiful because you see yourself a certain way, you even look at yourself in the mirror every day, and now here comes along someone else saying ‘this is what I see’. I see beauty and I hope that person can see the same thing. For me that’s inspiring to help people find that confidence in themselves.
What advice can you give someone playing with the idea of trying something new but don’t have the time or resources to pursue formal training?
Let me start off by saying that I still have the camera I bought off a little girl and her father on Gumtree, a Canon 400D for 2K, it came with a kit lens, since then the only thing I’ve bought that was worth its weight in gold was a Canon 50mm 1.8 for about 1K. I bought the camera with the intention of abusing it trying to figure it out. Everything you need to learn can be found on the internet, don’t be afraid of using your camera and making mistakes, in the end all that matters is trying to capture the image. Be fearless.
What are your tips for launching a successful brand or start-up?
Work hard, meditate regularly, listen, learn, sacrifice and persist. Work your ass off. There are different ways of doing business. The way I want to do business is not necessarily the way I see other people doing it. For me it’s all about human interaction, loyalty, trust, and the real world. I don’t want to be caught up in the dog-eat-dog world. I don’t think it needs to be that way. I’m trying to hone my own business mentality.
The difficult part is making money off your art. You can’t just be – you are in society so there are bills. It isn’t always as easy as solely devoting yourself to your artistry. You actually have to fight to get out of the system so that you can have the freedom to express yourself. That’s the end goal.
How do you think you will know when you’ve reached success?
I think there are stages to success. If I look at a couple of months to now there definitely is success. The hard work has shown me that. But I would say not until I can have the business and the art gel in a smooth way. I still have to do the art direction just to be able to do this [art] and until I get to a point where I can be totally free.
Who is your favourite photographer?
Richard Avedon. He was successful in his art and commercial pursuits.
People recognise you for a particular style … did you have to decide that at the outset?
When you hire me it’s because of my style and what I have to bring – you hire the package not a photographer. ‘I want Mario because he shoots like this, he will get these shots for me, that’s who I want’. I guess it’s a bit old school. Nowadays it’s like anyone with a camera can do it. ‘Oh I have a cousin who takes photographs, so he can shoot my wedding’. That’s the most retarded thing. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they can do it well. We all do these things, but give it to the person who you think can best bring your vision to life. You not just hiring a technician. If you want to hire me you’ve got to meet me, and understand my work.
I knew I liked black and white. But such decisions can take a long time. I was relentless last year when I picked up the camera. I could walk to Greenmarket Square from where I worked, there were tones of stuff every day, and I would shoot everything. Initially I started wanting to shoot black and white but I didn’t realise how much variety there is in black and white. For me it was high contrast. I watched enough documentaries and I realised that what I was actually looking for was the gradient. So I settled on the tones. Because of my design skills I locked it down to 33 different styles for black and white photography so that the information you want to come across can do so effortlessly.
Do you not feel pressure having locked yourself into a style?
Not for me, but people like colour. Even my family doesn’t really understand my work. When I show them my photographs they ask ‘Why isn’t this in colour? Colour is so much nicer!’ I just don’t want you to look at the picture and be like ‘there is a pretty picture’. For most of my photos it’s the character or the scene that I want you to focus on and I feel monochrome helps you do that – to remove the noise and focus in on the emotion or story.
I’m an emotional soul. I wanted to understand that about myself and the only way to do that was through understanding others. Up until I was twenty-five the world moulded me into what it wanted me to be. There came a point where I didn’t want that anymore. So I started shedding. I didn’t want the extremes anymore – many people say ‘this is who I am, accept me as I am’. I wanted to change but it happened slowly by shedding my habitual nature. It’s been a six-year journey but radical change is possible.
Is there a place for the divine in this world? How does it connect with your work?
Look at the world around you; you must be silly to not believe in the Supreme. I’m not religious but I explored spirituality to discover more about myself and the world around me. Look at what I love photographing, who wastes their time taking pictures of things they don’t want to look at themselves?
You hope to launch your first exhibition this September. Tell us about what you would like to achieve.
I only believe I can be considered an artist once my work has been placed in the public forum, open for public criticism. It’ll be my one year in photography and I’d like to showcase what I’ve experienced in that year. I’m really excited. I want to show the world what you could do within a year, to show that anything is possible. I am still exploring ideas for the format of the show. I want it to be special – a grand occasion – a memorable production.