Q&A with CHRISTOPHER KERN

26Oct10

One of the things I love about writing POP is that I get to spend a lot of time with the work of the incredibly talented people I’m lucky enough to interview and with getting to know the passion and vision that fuels it. I look forward to every Q & A and each time one lands in my inbox, I feel as if I’ve been given a gift. I love people and their stories and the process of discovery. And hopefully the respect and appreciation that I am left with comes through and is passed on to the readers.

This week I have the pleasure of posting an especially inspiring interview with San Francisco advertising and editorial photographer Christopher Kern. Specializing in portraiture and fashion, his work carries the unmistakable stamp of someone who loves everything about what they do. This passion, combined with a commitment to his own vision translates to a client list that includes Sony Vaio, Benefit Cosmetics, Sephora, Goorin Brothers, San Francisco Magazine, 7 x 7 and fashion designers from both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Christopher brought this same passion and dedication (and what I suspect is a gift for storytelling) that he brings to his work to his POP Q & A. A BIG thank you to Christopher for his time and such an inspiring interview!

For full interview, please click on link below.

POP: First camera?

I wish I had some elaborate story of how I received my first camera when I was X years old and I took my first picture when I was Y years old.  I don’t—I am a product of this digital revolution.  My first camera of substance was in the early 2000’s, a Canon EOS 10D.  Before that, I never really took photography seriously. There were always film cameras around my house, or my grandparents house. Everyone was always taking pictures but myself—although I’ve always been a visual communicator.

POP: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?

From an early age, I was interested in art. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an artist—painting or drawing—an architect, graphic designer/web developer, etc. I’ve always been a visual creature—I remember always going to the barber with a stack of 100 magazines before me, flipping through them all while my brother got his hair cut. I’ve never been much of a reader, hate to admit—but not sure the last time I read a book from cover to cover, or read an article in a magazine.  It’s just always been the fascination of holding this book/magazine of imagery that intrigued me.  And then later translating life to mental pictures, which evolved into what I do today.

I was in Junior High and High School during the dot com boom. I started designing and developing internet properties and by 18 had my own internet marketing and web development company.

I started college and was studying for a BA in Business while running this business with a partner. At the time, my girlfriend was deciding on her career and she decided on photography. I bought her her first SLR. And while she was taking photography classes, I saw her excitement each week as she learned new things. Part of me was living vicariously through her, partly my dream becoming her reality.

During this time I was running this corporation with a partner. We were subcontracting marketing, design work out on a daily basis, growing day-by-day. Finally it got to the point where I was spending my days (all while going to school) dealing with accountants and lawyers, a few pitfalls in business, law suits and the grind of owning your own business that I had the opportunity to take an elective. So I chose an intro to photography class.  It was within the first 5 minutes of that class that I said FUCK everything, I want to be a photographer.  Within days, I changed my major from Business to Communications—where the photography department was within my undergrad school—and knew what it was that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  Within six months, my partner and I made arrangements to go our separate ways and I focused 100% on photography. In addition to school, I began assisting photographers in Orange County and Los Angeles.

I still wasn’t sure what type of photography I wanted to pursue. I knew I loved playing with light and production from an early age, so naturally I gravitated towards fashion photography.  I began syncing up with some photographers who shared a common interest with me down South.  We were young, ambitious, and trying to figure things out on our own. I wasn’t dialed into the scene. My girlfriend enrolled at Brooks in Santa Barbara—I was jealous of how intense her training was.  My communications photography department never touched on half as much stuff as I wanted. I ended up graduating with my BA in PhotoCommunications and a minor in Business Administration.

But, what next? Was I ready to be a photographer? Nope! During my final semester of undergrad I was looking into photo schools—I wanted to go to Brooks but they didn’t have a Masters program of any interest.  So then I came across Academy of Art University here in San Francisco.  Three weeks after graduation, I moved to San Francisco and began taking classes at AAU and left a full-time job, internet business, girlfriend, family and everything familiar.  I decided to give photography my all—this is when I knew I was going to be a photographer.

POP: Absolutely love taking photos of?

Light.  When it comes down to it I’m inspired by light.  Existing or Artificial.  Not sure why, but I think I might be nocturnal. I’m fascinated by the way light falls from sources during the night time in the city, the different color temperatures, the contrast, the fall off.

Location.  Secondly after light, I feel my inspiration comes from an environment. The people I place in them are almost secondary, interchangeable, or removable. My favorite thing to do is to hop in my truck and take a spontaneous road trip. Negative space and texture is important to me.

Life.  I’m inspired by history, my thoughts, my memories, my dreams.

Love.  Emotion and narrative, inspired by life, is a huge part of my work. I’m inspired by what is real, deep and comes from soul searching, perhaps of my own or someone else’s.  I’m looking for something meaningful.

Logistics.  I love production, pulling people together to collaborate with—from my photo crew, stylist, models, real people…

POP: Absolutely love about your job?

The experience. Photography isn’t my job. It’s my life. There is no separation between my life as a photographer and my life.  I love the people I have the opportunity to spend my time with—everyone is doing what they love.

I also enjoy problem solving. I remember growing up watching Macgyver on television and thought he was a genius.  I often find myself feeling the same way—it’s an amazing feeling to be able to walk into an environment and make something happen with what we have.  Sometimes we just have our camera in hand. Sometimes we have a whole grip truck and crew. In the end I know I can make something happen.  But most of all, beyond this and collaboration with my peers, clients, crew, it’s that connect that I make with the subject—those moments where I feel amongst all the chaos, we are the only two people in the world, nothing else matters.

POP: I’m particularly drawn to your portrait and fashion work. How did you develop your style?

I’d say it was a combination of things, isn’t it always? I was attending a concepts class at Academy of Art in the fall of 2005.  At this point in my photography, I was a technician—I knew how to light, I knew how to Photoshop, I knew elements of design—but I had no art to my work.  It was during this semester that I learned how to put some heart and soul into my work.

My grandfather passed away in October of 2005. He had been battling Alzheimer’s. It was a very emotional time for my family and me.  He and I were very close. He was one of my best friends.  I was mourning, in pain and completely emotional (bottled up emotion of course, and couldn’t figure out how to let it out, and didn’t know if I wanted to). I went down for his funeral, brought my camera and part of me felt that I wanted to photograph his funeral and I did.

james allen montgomery - rip 10/11/05

james allen montgomery - rip 10/11/05

james allen montgomery - rip 10/11/05

I brought back this series of images to the concepts class and it just clicked. Critiques finally made sense. We were finally able to talk about something of substance beyond print quality, lighting and such.  So a couple weeks later I went home for the Thanksgiving holiday and I was asked by my stepfather to photograph my niece for Christmas cards. I said I would as long as I could photograph it the way I wanted to.

My niece, Jordyn

And then my style was born. The following week I shot my first fashion editorial for a Russian publication and zoozoom.com.

the evolution begins…

POP: Do you find that you are getting hired for your particular style? At what point are you brought into the creative process for advertising and editorial?

First and foremost you need to stay true to yourself as an artist, never sacrifice it. And this doesn’t mean don’t do what the client tells you.  Personal/Professional vision is one in the same. Shoot what and how you want.  But we all shoot jobs for clients that never see the light of day on our portfolios/websites.  And this isn’t cause we are ashamed of them—it’s just what we do to make money, our clients know that. Sometimes we are technicians. But the true art comes down to production and directing—that is always present—but sometimes we need to remove our art/vision to provide an exact representation of what the client requires.  So to answer your question, yes I am hired for my vision, my work-flow and my crew.  I’d say I am brought in pretty early on in the pre-production of most projects. Clients expect my expertise and vision. We are here to collaborate, pull together resources and make shit happen.

POP: Photographers who have inspired you? Heroes?

Heroes? I’d like to say my family and friends: mostly my grandfather for showing me to put emotion into my work; my mother for giving me the opportunity to experience all that I have in my life; my brother for being that constant source of youth and energy and helping to remind me where I’ve come from; my step dad for instilling in me from an early age of how to be like Macgyver; and my grandmother for her love and compassion.

POP: Photographers whom you admire and have been inspired by?

There are two groups of photographers who’ve inspired me, those I’ve worked with and those whose work I admire, but whom I haven’t worked with.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many amazing photographers early on in my career and they’ve become some of my dearest friends and honestly part of my family, which I often refer to as my photo family.  I spend more time with them than I do my own family. And to this day continue to travel and work with them because we enjoy the collaboration and the time spent together.

James Chiang. I came to James with all the technical experience in the world but not sure what to do with it.  James and I went through a several year period where we were spending three out of four weeks a month traveling to some destination somewhere in the United States and even to Paris—we’ve spent a lot of time working together.  From daily editorial projects to week-long Nike, Lucy Activewear, Tech and Biotech—this is where I learned to handle production and deal with clients on a one-to-one basis. I was James’ right hand man.  Besides the work experience, to this day I look at his work and ask myself “how did he do that?”  I mean half of the images I see and ask that of even though I was there for it. I lit it. I helped produce it. I processed and retouched and delivered it to the client.  But it’s only now that It’s that eye and connection that he makes with the subject that amazes me. It’s not about light, design or anything else. It’s about emotion and narrative. And that carries through to how he presents creative briefs, production notes, and interacts with the clients. James is a complete artist.

Jason Madara. Over the years I’ve spent more time with Jason than anyone. His mood and aesthetic have been a great inspiration to me. I met Jason in 2005 at the Academy of Art. Since then he has grown from being an instructor/mentor to a continued support/resource in my career as well as part of my photo family and one of my closest friends.

I could say more and more about some very important people/photographers in my life/career – such as Jim Hughes and Howard Cao. Both are great friends and have taught me much about production, workflow and are more and more just a daily part of my professional network and personal life.  We’ve traveled together for work and spent Thanksgiving and Easter Holidays together.  Much love for the photo family.

And of course the photographers whose work has been particularly inspiring to me but whom I haven’t met. Jeff Riedel’s lighting and mood inspired me immensely in my early stages of finding a style and aesthetic. Theirry Le Goues for his book Popular—the textures, mood and lighting in the imagery are unbelievable. Nadav Kander, Philip Lorca Dicorcia, Gregory Crewdson, and Taryn Simon are all continual sources of inspiration.

Someone who is really on my radar right now is Nick Onken. I love his imagery and his energy. He’s got a great blog and I can see how his energy for travel, life, and photography come to life in his imagery.  Something I really aspire to portray during this evolution of my work.

POP: Where else do you find inspiration?

Location, Location, Location. Being somewhere without cell phone reception is important.  Sometimes it’s not even with a camera in hand.  This year I had the opportunity to photograph California and San Francisco for the upcoming 2011 Frommer’s travel guides—everywhere from Disneyland to towns north of Eureka. I spent a good 3 months on the road, put close to 20,000 miles on my truck and shot a few hundred gigs of images.  I saw some pretty spectacular places—one large location scout.  I’m not much of a candid or photojournalist—but I did come out with some content for my book.  Here’s my take on California, not that you’ll ever see these in a Frommer’s book, but I got some incredible shots along the way.

POP: Where to next?

I’m inspired by life and my personal passions. I’ve spent much of my life around sports—I grew up on the basketball court, playing roller hockey, and living within a half hour of the Orange County beaches—it’s time to bring that active life into my photography. I’m in the middle of an evolution. Does it ever stop? I suppose not…

POP: I have to ask about the Sand Cassel Kids. Amazing shots. How fun was it to do those shoots?

There are fewer things that I enjoy photographing more than kids.  They are real. If you let them be their selves they have so much to offer emotionally.  They already exist in their own space. They aren’t worried about putting on a show once you break down the stereotype of that damn Kodak smile.  Nothing wrong with smiling images, just not a fan. I had the pleasure to work with Goorin Brothers, a local business, on a national/international scale a few years back for a couple years and got some great content out of the shoots. It was a lot of fun. I’d love to shoot more kid’s catalog stuff. Great energy—takes me back to my youth and also reminds me of my two beautiful nieces that I don’t get to see that often.

POP: Recent shoot you are excited about?

It’s been a very busy year, thankfully.  I’ve been spending the last two weeks trying to go through my drobo filled with imagery, make sense of it all and work on a web and print book update. On newsstands now is a fall fashion spread for Sactown magazine. We had the opportunity to shoot at the Sacramento airport from 6 PM to 8 AM followed by a busy week shooting for Benefit Cosmetics and Sephora.  It’s all a blur right now, all great experiences, and more stories for the journal if I were to keep one…

POP: I love outtakes. Do you have a favorite?

POP: Most important thing that makes a shoot run smoothly and be a success?

Collaboration. Production. Inspiration. Connect.

POP: You’re opening a new studio in San Francisco. Want to tell us about it? Who with and will it be a rental studio as well?

It’s not news yet, but yes indeed something is in the works. More details when we are closer to opening our doors. There’s a lot going on here. As I write I’m drowning out the sound of a jack-hammer with some Damian Marley and my Bose noise canceling headphones.  Ask me this question again in another month or so.

POP: How do you help your graduate photo students prepare for entering to enter today’s photo market?

I’ve been teaching within the MFA and BFA photography departments at the Academy of Art since the Spring of 2009.  I think the most important thing I have to tell students is—the time is now. Nothing magical happens when you graduate from photo school. It’s not like a business program or medical program where you go and get your degree and you have a job or game plan already planned out for you when you graduate. With this industry, you have to create your own path, hustle like crazy and most of all, keep shooting, keep reaching out to your peers for critique, utilize your resources, keep your overhead low, invest in your portfolio (print, web, and shooting for it), hit the pavement, show your work to as many people as you can and as often as you can. Don’t give up, take criticism, keep an open mind, and give it your all.

And along side of all that, keep your photography personal, share your vision and don’t be afraid to push the limits, break some rules, don’t be afraid of failure, keep evolving. And don’t talk yourself out of shooting something—shoot everything, critique later. Invest in production. And production doesn’t always mean spending lots of money. Find great people to photograph, great places, great things, and then express to all of us your point of view. Let us see what you are feeling or thinking and allow the viewer to come up with their own conclusions every once in a while.



One Response to “Q&A with CHRISTOPHER KERN”

  1. Just discovered the site thanks to Christopher’s link on FB… great site, looking forward to more.


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