For years, photographer Robbie Quinn has been documenting the fashion iconoclasts and style rebels on the streets of some of the world’s largest cities for an ongoing portrait series called Street Unicorns. Now these “bold expressionists of style” will be filling the pages of a new photography book from Quinn to be published in April 2022 by Abrams. (You can pre-order Street Unicorns here.)
Beyond the audacious outfits and indelible style of his subjects, Street Unicorns is a statement against ageism, racism, homophobia and other discriminations, Quinn says. The book can also be seen as a love letter to the non-conformists of the world and to anyone who is not afraid to stand out in a crowd. We recently caught up with Quinn to find out more about the project and to learn what being a Street Unicorn is really all about.
Q: Please give us some background on you as a photographer.
Robbie Quinn: I had always taken photos growing up and had my photo taken a lot while in a band. Then when I was a music manager in the early 2000’s in Nashville, I needed photos for artists I was working with. I used a Minolta X700 and posted some promo photos on MySpace (remember that?). People saw the images and called the office to see who the photographer was. I started charging right away. After about three months, my days were filled with photo sessions and since I was so bad at artist management, I started doing photography full time.
I photographed everything you could imagine, but eventually I found portraits to be a strength. Not because of my technical photography skills, but more because of my people skills. This is still my main source of income. I don’t post this work much except on LinkedIn. It’s mainly word of mouth. I also work with fashion designers photographing campaigns.
Q: How did you get the idea for Street Unicorns?
Robbie Quinn: I had moved to New York. Like most freelance photographers I know, it’s feast or famine. When not working, instead of moping around, I went out to the street. I had already photographed some Street Unicorns, but I didn’t know there was such a thing. I only knew when I saw something interesting, I photographed it. I have lots of images of various subjects. For some reason, I particularly like photographing bicycles. I think it’s the combination of lines and circles that keeps me coming back to it.
After a while, there seemed to be a common thread of the interesting people I photographed. It was the bold risks they took with their personal style. I started asking more questions and then it seemed meaningful to share their stories. At first it was just about the clothes, but I wanted to know why they expressed themselves in such a bold way. That’s when they shared these wonderful stories about challenges they face and how style carries them through their day.
These challenges have included ageism, racism, homophobia, and all other discriminations. I started calling them Unicorns because they don’t go along with the flow. They stand out, embrace nonconformity, and share who they are with the world. Then because I mostly photograph them on the street, I dubbed them Street Unicorns. It’s like the name of their band.
Q: In this time of COVID when many of us have been forced to spend a lot of time indoors in boring “comfy” clothing or with a mask on when going out, there’s something liberating about seeing these folks out on the street strutting their stuff in eye-catching style. Is the project also about trying to feel a sense of liberation during the pandemic?
Robbie Quinn: A Street Unicorn is going to be who they are no matter what the rest of the world is doing. However, I think the pandemic has caused us all to pause and get real about what’s important. I feel for many, this has been an opportunity to be our most authentic selves. I talked to many people on the street that don’t have to report to an office anymore and can reclaim their identity through presenting themselves in a unique way. And for the people that were already doing that, stretching the boundaries even more has been great for their emotional and mental health during this time. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how people have made their masks less of a burden and more of an accessory.
Q: How do you find your subjects and what is their reaction when you explain the project?
Robbie Quinn: In the beginning, I would see someone on the street and simply compliment them on what I found interesting about them. Not necessarily with the idea that I wanted a photo, but if we ended up talking a bit, I’d ask to snap a few. When they had an interesting story, I’d ask if they minded me sharing that. Nearly everyone wants to, I think because when any of us make an effort to put ourselves out there and someone else acknowledges it, it feels good. Once I got the idea that it could evolve into a book, people were very excited at the prospect that they could help inspire others with their story. Now it’s come to a point that many Street Unicorns find me on social media and we’ll meet up. I like that because then anyone else I run into that day is a bonus.
Q: What separates a true Street Unicorn vs someone who just dresses well?
Robbie Quinn: We’re kind of all Street Unicorns. It’s really about intention. It can be subtle or over the top. For the most part, we all get up and make decisions about what we’re going to wear that day. It’s when we start to draw outside the lines of conventionality for the sake of being the most authentic version of ourselves is when I feel we’re dipping our toe into the Street Unicorn pool. For me, when someone dives headfirst into that pool, that’s a fully evolved, full-fledged Street Unicorn.
Q: From the look of your profile photo on Instagram, you are a dapper dresser. Would you consider yourself a Street Unicorn?
Robbie Quinn: I’ve learned so much about myself from all the Street Unicorns, what I like and dislike. And I’ve grown to a point where I’m starting to be the person that feels most like me if that makes sense. Along with that my personal style is evolving. I don’t think I’ve arrived yet, but I’m working on it, and I imagine it’ll be an ever changing journey. Am I a Street Unicorn? I’ll let others decide if I’ve reached that status.
Q: What gear do you use for your photography and are there any technical or logistical challenges to shooting a Street Unicorn portrait?
Robbie Quinn: I’ve used a variety of cameras on the street. Yes, I’ve even used my cell phone. Commercially, I had been using Nikon, but I wanted a lower profile for the street, so I bought a couple of incarnations of the Fuji 100 crop sensor series. I loved it. I still think Fuji might be the “vibeiest” digital camera out there if that’s even a word. But I missed the full sensor and started using my Nikon on the street with either a 35mm or a 50mm lens.
I like to shoot wide open, so the Nikon let me bring that to 1.4 where the Fuji only went to 2.2, I think. But it still didn’t feel right. I wanted the quality of the full frame and the compact feel of the Nikon. I almost went to Leica but landed with Sony using their G-master lenses, usually a 35mm or an 85mm. The eye AF is what sold me. It has proven to grab focus accurately during very spontaneous interactions with people time after time.
But lately, I’ve been looking for more than just great features. I still want the vibe. In my search, I’ve started photographing with a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II. The 120 film is very rewarding. It can’t be replicated by some photoshop preset. The look feels engaging and familiar. I’ll often have someone ask me what filter I’m using on my photos. I love that.
Q: What other photographers, if any, have been an influence on your street fashion photography?
Robbie Quinn: I think I’m most influenced by painters. Artists like Rembrandt and Renoir, but also Rothko. Then there’s cinematographers like Kubrick and Hitchcock.
Q: I came across your work via social media when a friend shared one of your Street Unicorn photos on Twitter. You also post regularly on your Instagram page. Was social media marketing the main way your images got noticed by Abrams for the book?
Robbie Quinn: When I decided to do a book, I was talking about it with a dear friend, Carol Dietz. Carol had been an art director at The New York Times for many years. She also happened to be someone I’ve photographed and loves my work. She graciously offered to help and together we put together a rough draft of the book and it really made things come alive. From there I was in contact with Will Weisser, a long-time veteran of the book business. He helped me put a proposal together and was also the one who brought the book to Abrams Books.
Q: What’s next for you?
Robbie Quinn: What’s next? I’m going to continue with Street Unicorns and use it as a platform to talk to groups about diversity and inclusion. I’m also looking for more unique ways to use the camera to do meaningful work that will inspire people to accept and appreciate anyone different than themselves. As we connect with people that don’t have the exact perspective we do, it’s a chance for all of us to learn and grow.