Custom Spotlight #9: Harry Israelson

Custom Spotlight #9: Harry Israelson


We customize our lives and the environment that surrounds us every day — from things as big as shaping our own boards to the smallest ones, like adding that little bit of extra milk to our coffee.

     In our Custom Spotlight series, we’re exploring the process of some of our favorite artists, musicians, and creatives to learn how they see their world and to find out what drives them to get their hands dirty and bring their ideas to life. We also give them free reign to create their own custom, one-of-a-kind Birdwell gear, and to bring their unique vision of our California tradition into the world.

Director, photographer and creative director Harry Israelson has been fortunate enough to soak up the California sun for a lifetime… Maybe that’s how he makes it all look so easy? You might recognize the fun-loving character from his 8-year-long collaboration with indie mainstay Toro y Moi, or the countless music videos, Vimeo Staff Pick shorts, and clever ads for brands like Levi’s that he cranks out in his home studio in Echo Park. We tapped Israelson to bring his freewheeling, colorful style to some custom Birdies, and the results are every bit as good as we expected.


1) How did you get started?

I had a desk job in NYC and was making fashion films with a partner on the weekends. Chaz from Toro Y Moi saw one of our video lookbooks online, and invited us out to California to make a music video for “Say That”, which is now almost 10 years ago! I’ve continued working with Chaz and other artists since then; what started only in video has expanded more into creative direction & photography for album art… 

2) Tell us about your artistic process.

Well it changes from medium to medium. I’ll approach a short documentary differently than I would an album cover. With album art, I first have to hear the music and think about how it makes me feel, and what sort of color or tones pop into my head right away. Is it bright? Dark? Faded? Gritty? I then ask the artist where they’re coming from musically; what sort of sonic inspiration they’re using so that I can start collecting my visual references. Isley Brothers? Stereolab? Funkadelic? I always try and bring a concept to the table rather than something abstract; for me setting real creative parameters at the outset fosters the best work.



3) Is your work a collaborative or solo process?

It’s both, really. Album art always brings together two art forms, in visuals and music, and so by definition it’s collaborative. It starts with the music, and then I bring my way of thinking to the table, and we meet in the middle somewhere. 



4) Describe your workplace/studio.

I live in LA and currently have a small photo studio in the garage next to my house. I guess working from home I have access to all the things that I pull inspiration from, like my books and my record collection, which is really most important in helping to remind me where I’m coming from, and why it’s worth the freelance hustle…



5) Describe your ideal workplace/studio.

Lots of light, high ceilings, and unlimited seltzer.


6) What does a working day look like for you?

It really depends on what I’m doing that week. Mostly writing treatments, pitching and going out to shoot my personal photo projects in between. When I’m shooting I’ll be on a soundstage or out on location for a commercial job.



7) Aritists/Musicians that inspire you ______.

I feel lucky to work with Toro y Moi - he constantly changes his thing up and that’s contagious. Same goes with LA artist Peter Shire - I made a film about him and got insight into his ever-changing day to day process - he’s exciting to be around. Empress Of! Channel Tres! Eric Andre! Love love love.

8) What does Southern California mean to you?

I came out here for the first time to work with Toro Y Moi almost 10 years ago now. As soon as I got to LA I suddenly had the space I needed to grow. To me it will always represent that sort of freedom, I guess. 



9) How important is the outdoors/surf/beach to your work?

I come from a long line of tan beach-dwellers. Somehow most of my personal photo projects end up on the beach. The colors have always called to me - something about a red bathing suit cutting through all the white sand. And the ocean always sets me right.



10) Favorite beach/vacation spot and what it means to your art.

East Hampton, NY. I think the colors out there informed a lot of sensibilities today.



11) How important is a connection to the past/classics to your work?

The most important. I was lucky enough to know the late Gary Burden who did my favorite album cover of all time, Neil Young’s (ironically titled…)  On The Beach.  There were so many amazing artists like Gary, many working in LA, who created iconic lasting images well beyond their years; I’m just doing my best to be aware of their contributions and carry forward anything they laid down into the work I do.


12) Can you tell us one rule that governs yourself/your art?

Trust in the power of simplicity!





To see more of Harry's work go HERE.