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Nikki Sixx: Recovery 'Softened My Heart' for Photography

Mötley Crüe bassist discusses his creative process at L.A. lecture

August 26, 2011 3:35 PM ET
nikki sixx photo
Nikki Sixx 'Self Portrait'
Nikki Sixx

Two decades ago, Nikki Sixx traded one addiction for another. With hard drugs finally behind the Mötley Crüe bassist in 1989, he rediscovered an old obsession: photography. "Creativity was there for me first, drugs came second," Sixx told Rolling Stone last night, just before an onstage interview and lecture at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. "When you take the drugs out, every day is about creativity, whether it's songwriting, designing clothes or photography." (View an exclusive gallery of Sixx's photos.)

He now carries a camera with him everywhere, and last night revealed the results. For an intimate crowd of just 200 fans and guests (online ticket requests exceeded 5,000), Sixx shared images that were provocative and frequently macabre, as seen in his book This is Gonna Hurt: Photography and Life Through the Distorted Lens of Nikki Sixx (William Morrow), which came out in April.

"My girlfriend sometimes says I need to put the camera down when we're in bed," Sixx said with a laugh. "I have a guitar next to me, and I have a camera next to me, and I love it."

On the road, Sixx operates as a street photographer between shows, seeking out dark corners, and the down and out, in whatever city he's passing through. (Mötley Crüe wrapped up their world tour at the Sunset Strip Music Festival last weekend.) At home in Los Angeles, he's a more theatrical image-maker, casting models and characters for scenes created in his studio, the Funny Farm.

An admirer of the confrontational work of photographers Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin, Sixx said he's often drawn to subjects that are "old, decrepit, deranged" and outside the mainstream ideal. "I have a wonderful assistant," Sixx said during his talk with journalist Kristine McKenna, as his pictures flashed on a digital screen. "I tell her I need four amputees and a midget and she finds them."

Dressed in black with a red bandana across his forehead, Sixx said he's accumulated about 40,000 images on a hard drive, and has begun uploading the images on his active Tumblr and Flickr sites. "In the moment, I'm so passionate, but then I move on quickly," he told Rolling Stone. "I do the same thing as a songwriter – I write it and I have a lyric and it really touches me, and then we record it and I'm on to the next thing."

From the earliest days of Mötley Crüe, the bassist-songwriter was obsessed with the band's image, badgering photographers at Crüe photo sessions, and posing his bandmates to recreate an image in his head. "Our whole concept was, how much can we insult you with how we looked," he recalled.

Some of his own photographs document the life of a journeyman rock star traveling with a notorious metal band. One is a simple black-and-white image of the makeup spread out on his dressing-room table every night. Sixx called it his "warpaint . . . I get in there and just go crazy."

At the Annenberg, McKenna asked him, "Does the makeup make you feel more protected?" 

"My therapist thinks so," Sixx responded.

There were many technical questions from the audience, but one fan asked how his recovery from addiction directly affected the pictures he creates. "It softened my heart," Sixx said, explaining that even if a subject is disfigured, "I see the beauty in it. You get clarity as you get sober, and you get clarity as you get older."

This weekend, Sixx has a rare photo session with another band, Black Veil Brides, a flamboyant young metal act with some obvious echoes from early Crüe. "I talked to the band and I felt passion in their eyes," Sixx said before the lecture. "I said 'I want to fuckin' push you somewhere between Joel-Peter Witkin, Diane Arbus and a horror movie,' and they were like, 'Dude, we're fuckin' so down.' It was beautiful to have someone who was so okay with anything that I can come up with."

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