Behind the Cover: Ed Templeton on shooting Jonah Hill for GQ Style

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“You have to be a very specific person to know how I’m famous. And he’s that person,” says artist and professional skateboarder Ed Templeton, reflecting on his shoot with actor – and skate enthusiast – Jonah Hill

In the summer of 2018, Ed Templeton was invited to the film premier of mid90s. Directed by Jonah Hill and loosely based on his lived experience, the film follows a 13-year-old boy as he befriends a group of skateboarders in 1990s Los Angeles. As a former professional skateboarder, and founder of skate company Toy Machine, Templeton was one of the industry heads on the guestlist. “I think [Jonah] wanted to give it a test run with the people who were most affected by it, as it was our culture,” says Templeton. On the night of the preview, in a rather surreal moment, the actor came up to him and said: “Hey! Ed Templeton, I know who you are.”

Jonah Hill grew up watching videos of Templeton skating, and poring over his photos in magazines. “It’s funny, I’m famous to Jonah Hill because I’m a skateboarder, but a random person on the street won’t know who I am,” he says. “You have to be a very specific person to know how I’m famous. And he’s that person.”

Most readers of British Journal of Photography will know Templeton as a photographer, painter, and collage artist. But before that, he was a skateboarder. Templeton started skating in 1985, and went professional in the early 90s. In 1994 he picked up a Leica M6 and began documenting skate culture,  marking the beginning of his artistic career. 

Now, he lives in Huntington Beach, California, running his skate company alongside his artistic practice. “Having [Toy Machine] keeps me in a position where I have freedom as an artist. I don’t have to do commercial work, or sell artwork to survive,” he says. This freedom means there is little to no division between his commercial and personal work. “Everything I do commercially, essentially, is something I might do in a fine art sense.”

Jonah Hill, photographed by Ed Templeton for GQ Style Fall/Winter 2021.

“Some of the weirdness that happens when you meet someone for the first time melted away, because we both had a good idea about each other’s backstory, or at least the things that we valued in life”

Jonah Hill, photographed by Ed Templeton for GQ Style Fall/Winter 2021.

Last month, around three years after meeting Jonah Hill at the premier, Templeton was asked to shoot the actor for the cover of GQ Style. The artist rarely takes on editorial commissions, but the answer was an immediate yes. “I feel lucky to be in a position where I only shoot people I like,” says Templeton, who has photographed actors like Elle and Dakota Fanning, Asia Argento, and model Ruby Aldridge. 

All of the artist’s commercial work is managed by a photo agent, Sophie Howard. “She must really hate me, because I turn down around 90 percent of what she throws at me,” he laughs. But the GQ assignment was “perfect on all levels,” he says, “because I’d already met him, and I think he’s a cool guy”.

When shoot day came around, a mutual affinity with skate culture forged an instant connection between the pair. “Some of the weirdness that happens when you meet someone for the first time melted away, because we both had a good idea about each other’s backstory, or at least the things that we valued in life,” says Templeton. He arrived at Paradise Cove in Malibu – Hill’s hometown – where he was greeted by a huge set-up. GQ had rented an RV, pitched tents to house all the racks of clothes, and set up a meal service for their staff. They even had an on-site florist, crafting Hawaiian leis out of fresh flowers.

Jonah Hill, photographed by Ed Templeton for GQ Style Fall/Winter 2021.

Templeton arrived with just two cameras – a Leica M6 and a Fuji GF670 medium format – and his assistant for the day: his wife and fellow photographer, Deanna Templeton. He jokes about how people might see their relationship as “claustrophobic”. They spend almost every moment of the day together, and assist one another on shoots and during the editing process. Deanna makes a brief appearance on our Zoom call, when she passes over a strawberry and acai breakfast smoothie. “We’re kind of inseparable at this point,” he says, fondly. “It’s nice to have someone who tests you a bit, you know?”

On the day of the shoot, they had around five hours to photograph nine looks. Coming onto set with a subject who already knew him, not as a photographer but as a skateboarder, added a unique dimension to the experience. They shared references to skate culture, poking fun at one another and making “little in-jokes that can only come from someone who knows about skateboarding”.

Templeton remembers one moment where Jonah Hill was staring back at him intensely. “I was like, ‘okay, that’s good, stay there for a second’…. And he said out loud, ‘I never thought I’d be eye-fucking Ed Templeton today’.” 

Jonah Hill, photographed by Ed Templeton for GQ Style Fall/Winter 2021.

The images were all shot on film, which is rare for a magazine commission. Cost is one factor, but so is time. “People who make magazines, and rightly so, are used to immediate gratification,” says Templeton, who knows photographers that have worked on commissions with far less control over their images. “What was really rare was that [GQ] gave me such a long leash,” he says. The magazine supported his creative vision, allowing him the time to develop and scan his film, and create collages with his signature doodles and washes. 

Hesitantly, he admits to using digital interventions to speed up the process. “Photoshop is something I avoid in my real life like the plague,” he says. “I’m such a luddite. I work with a computer all day long, but when it comes to artwork, it’s always been analogue.”

Still, Templeton is grateful for the flexibility and trust that the GQ team gave him. “I felt really comfortable, and it took a lot of the pressure off, having someone say ‘We know what you do, and we want you to do what you do’,” he says. “It was freeing, and liberating. I just had to be Ed Templeton, and shoot how I normally shoot. That, to me, was rare.”

Ed Templeton’s cover shoot with Jonah Hill was printed in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of GQStyle

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.