Q&A with Photographers KEENEY + LAW

02Mar11

Several months ago I was at an art opening, and met and was completely charmed by a very smart, funny and nice young married couple who work as a photographic team, collaborating on everything from concept and taking turns shooting on set through final image selection. Very patient, they let me question them endlessly about their process and how fun it is to work in partnership with someone who shares the same vision, goals and philosophy.

Keeney + Law are Michael Keeney and Jasmine Law. Brooks graduates, they now live in San Francisco where they specialize in environmental portraiture and have built a client list that includes Manheim, Jim Dunlop, Vox Guitars, San Francisco magazine, Haute Living, San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Kate Miller-Heidke

At the time that we first met, I got an iPhone sneak peek of an image from a new body of work that they felt fully captured their creative voice for the first time. We loosely agreed that we’d get in touch and do an interview for POP when they were ready to share this new work. A few weeks ago, I was browsing FoundFolios and saw the work of a couple in San Francisco couple that looked very little like the dreamlike images I’d glimpsed on their iPhone that day. I loved the work and contacted them for an interview. It took a few emails before we realized we had already met and that serendipitously had gotten back in touch just when they’d finished their new body of work.

We did most of the interview over the phone and it was such a pleasure to talk with them about their work. Their ease, humor and professionalism has a way of putting people at ease that I’m sure engenders a sense of trust and comfort in their subjects. Combined with a cinematic eye, exceptionally imaginative talent and masterful lighting skills, Keeney + Law are definitely ones to watch. I’m very excited to share their new work here on POP and can’t wait to see more from them.

Moby "Sea of Love"

To read the full interview, please click on the link below.

POP: Coming from Brooks, how did you decide on SF and how has it been establishing yourselves here when so many photographers are networked through having attended AAU?

J: We moved here because Michael had roots here. Being from Hawaii, I felt right at home because of the large Asian population. It’s such a beautiful city, and I knew I’d move here after my first trip, back before I’d ever met Michael.

M: I was born in San Francisco and grew up in mostly in the East Bay. Jasmine, as we started dating, of course came to know and like the city more, so it just seemed like a safe place. We didn’t want to go to LA, and NY just seemed kind of intimidating. We weren’t intimidated by having the AAU here, either. We knew that no matter where we went, we were going to have some work ahead of us in terms of getting established. So we pounded pavement, and talked to anyone we could about photography and the business up here, and getting work. Those are things that everyone has to do, whether you went to AAU or not, and whether we were in San Francisco or someplace else.

POP: You started collaborating and dating while attending Brooks. Which came first?

J: We started out dating.  I was a year ahead of Michael, and was going to do architecture photography when I got out of school.  Being really shy I found it hard to ask people to be my subject, so architecture seemed like a good fit at the time. Michael was more geared towards people shooting.  I took an independent study for my last class, and needed an assistant on a few shoots.  Michael did it, and it just worked well.  I got to boss him around.


M: Let me say that we had the same aesthetic style going into this collaboration with each other as work partners. We would go through CA and PDN photo annuals, and pick out the same five images. We loved the same photographers and had similarities in styles and influences.  I don’t think either of us could have sacrificed our vision for the other, so we were lucky in that sense.  We would also help each other a lot with retouching, which was obviously important.  When you have two people working together, it becomes more of a learning experience, where one helps the other and vice versa.  We have our strengths and weaknesses, sure, but we try to use that to our advantage.


POP: Having the same influences can often lead to very different work. When did you realize you actually shared a creative vision as well?

J: Like Michael was saying, we knew before we got up here that our styles meshed.  When we moved here, however, we hadn’t realized how hard it was to start off as one photographer. I think you’re delusional when you’re in school, and you listen to what the sales people at school tell you about how much “money you’ll make when you get out.”  Once we got “out here” and figured out how things really worked, we realized we each only had half portfolios, and weren’t ready to do it on our own.  At that point we decided to put our portfolios together and make them a single body of work.

It was rough at first. Egos had to be put aside and this took work on both our sides. We’d go to meetings and they’d compliment us on one of my images, and Michael would say “thank you,” just trying to be nice.  So these are the little things we had to get over.  At first we were both very attached to our own images.

M: Now there’s this new level of collaboration that doesn’t have to do with the individual contribution. I look at each image as ‘our’ image, and see it as mine as well.   Some people don’t understand how much we both put into each image, and how much of an equal contribution everything is.  We talk about everything in the shot as we’re doing it. And at the end of the day, our goal is to both be equally satisfied with the final product.

POP: I like the description on your site of how you explain to confused clients what they get when they hire you. “The idea of two photographers is simple: There are two of us. That is twice as many photographers as you would normally get on a shoot.” Do you cost twice as much?

M + J: It is that simple… we’re a toofer– a two for one.   So no, you’re not going to break your budget!

POP: Michael, you have quite a height advantage. Does this work in your favor?

M: Sometimes I’d say it actually hurts us.  People tend to look to me as the boss because I’m obviously bigger than Jasmine. We’ve had people ask me if she was my assistant.  I was like, “uh, actually, I assist her.”  That, of course, can be frustrating for both of us, but more so her.  We want nothing more than to be seen as equals.  We both bring the same amount to the shoot and we both share input from start to finish.  Oh, and we always have extra apple crates for Jasmine!

POP: How do you work together on set?

J: We have one camera, and take turns. Since we often shoot tethered to the computer, and on a tripod, we’re both directing and interacting the whole time. Sometimes I’ll work with the model while Michael gets the shot and visa versa. It’s fluid how it works and when there’s something that needs to be done, one of us just does it. We’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just natural for us. I think either of us would feel weird shooting a job without the other being there.

M: We’re very lucky we can put up with each other enough to work together… we both feel super blessed. On set, we always focus on keeping everything really professional. We’re married, and we have our moments like with any working relationship, but the client never knows if we’re butting heads, or getting on each other’s nerves. Plainly put, we get along well, and that ease transfers to our professional life, too.

J: Also, being fairly young we need to be doubly disciplined to deal with any apprehensions our clients may have about working with younger photographers. People look at us, and expect us to not be up to par with the bigger names out there. Our goal is to be above par, and show people how great of an experience it can be to work with two young, enthusiastic artists collaborating as one.

Moby in Portland

POP: How did you come up with the idea for the Twitter shot? Great idea to have them up on the phone lines. Did they like that idea?

Twitter was a collaboration between us, and the creative team at 7×7 magazine. One of the subjects was having a great time, and the other was a bit uncomfortable. We had them sitting on a bike rack in their office in order to act as the phone line, and they thought we were nuts. Understandably it can be hard to envision someone else’s idea, especially taking into consideration the position they were in. In the end everyone was happy with the shot, though, and it ended up being used as a cover for the issue.

POP: Do you bring the same high production values to shooting musicians on location in dirty tour buses or in their hotel as you do to your environmental and studio portraits?

M: We definitely tend to play down the production value for a lot of the tour bus type shoots, mainly because the client wants that part of their campaign to have a more analog, lo-fi sorta feel to it.  While it’s not the highly produced, controlled lighting that you see in most of our work, we still love taking pictures in that fashion… the simplification of the process is enjoyable, and allows us to focus on the interaction with the subject a little bit more than we normally would when we’re, say, telling someone where to look or how to pose.  Maybe it’s just a different type of interaction.  It’s fun, regardless.



POP: How would you describe your style?

J: We like a polished look with beautiful lighting and we tend to be more contrived than natural. We shoot mostly environmental portraits, and some product for select clients. Our portraits tend to lean towards the cinematic side of things, while our product work tends to be more a process in simplification where we collaborate closely with art directors in order to create a super clean, snappy image.

POP: You have been working on a new body of work, environmental portraits that you shot for yourselves that look very different, at first glance, from your current commercial work.


M: Yes, we’ve definitely been working on evolving our style and shooting method lately.  Last year we did a job for Manheim (a General Electric owned company) that was a real eye opener.  Although I guess it didn’t come as too much of a surprise, for us there was the realization that inside of the work you are doing, there are elements you can’t control like art directors’ ideas, or more so, budgets, that can be restraining.  Don’t get me wrong– we really enjoyed doing the job.  A lot. We just want to bring more of our personal voice to our photography in the future.  I think every photographer does.

In the past we had people who were trying to steer us away from our vision, and to produce work that was “marketable.” In the end, however, we couldn’t do it, and felt like sell outs without a voice.  With this new body of work, we rediscovered ourselves, and what we wanted to convey in our imagery. It was very fulfilling.  Adam Moore at Sugar Digital helped with the post production, and is awesome to work with, as well– can’t say that enough.

Manheim "Secret Agent"

Manheim "I Am An Emperor"

J: I think that we feel like as we get older we grow as humans, we want our imagery to have some sort of message behind it.  Because of digital cameras and Photoshop, photography is much more accessible to everyone and I think what separates the great photographers from the not-so-great is that they apply their voice to their imagery. It has taken us a long time to figure this out and we are just now recognizing what our voice really is. This has been a long and painful process, but we are growing and it feels nice to see that in our work.

POP: How do you brainstorm ideas together?

J: We get a lot of ideas from reading and movies, and we try to bring them to life with our own twist. With this last shoot, we started with the worst storyboard and stick figures you’ve ever seen.  It was really quite laughable.  We had access to a house that was getting remodeled, and figured out which rooms were going to be the best for each shot and then further incorporated them, along with our concepts, into our storyboard.  In the end, the final shots and storyboard were almost identical, which was great, because after the initial storyboarding, we didn’t revisit the sketches.

M: Jasmine did the majority of the styling for the shoot, too.   Not so much because we didn’t want to work with a stylist, but more because we felt that we could accomplish what we wanted on a tighter budget and we could control how the final product was going to look a little bit better.  Especially with this shoot, we’d try and describe our concept to people, and we’d just get blank stares. So we knew from the beginning that it was going to be a challenge to convey what we wanted.  Jasmine and I had the vision in our heads and she could just grab what we needed without having to explain it to someone else.  I was there shopping with her too, of course, so we could bounce ideas back and forth the whole time.  In the end, most of the items we purchased were under $5 a piece and were found at thrift stores.

POP: Favorite campaigns, photographers, stylists, magazines?

M + J: Oh, this could be long….

Some campaigns we love are the old Virgin America ads when they first came out, also a lot of the older Kohler ads. The European Surfrider Foundation campaign from 2010, the Levi’s “We are all workers”…

Nissa Quanstrom is a great stylist.  We have only briefly worked with her on editorial shoots, but would love to do bigger and better things down the line.  So talented!  Sharon Maloney is another great stylist who always has amazing elements she brings to the job– whether it be the $10,000 dress you’ve always wanted, or that $35,000 pair of earrings that belong in the MOMA– she can do everything, and does.

Mags we like include:  Vanity Fair, Wired, Archive, Communication Arts, Outside, San Francisco, (J: not a magazine, but the Anthropologie catalogs always have beautiful images). … there are more we’ll probably remember tomorrow.  Anything with great photography!

Photographers we like are:  Peter Yang, Danny Clinch, Michael Kenna, Sebastiao Salgado, Gregory Crewdson, Andrew Zuckerman, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, Diane Arbus, and Rodney Smith.

POP: Any recent jobs you are excited about?

M + J: Too many!  Last year was a great year, with tons of exciting jobs.  We shot a couple of stories for San Francisco magazine, where we really connect with their creative director, Alejandro Chavetta.  We shoot for Haute Living quite a bit, as well, and just photographed Vernon Davis, which was super fun, and about to hit newsstands.  Vernon is a great guy, and has the coolest dog, ever (except for our dog, who is really the coolest dog– ever).  Another favorite client with awesome jobs is Jim Dunlop.  We love the creative team over there, especially the art director Graham Shaw, and their producer Joey Tosi.  We always have a blast working with them, and the shoots are always different (check out the Bling Wah ads on our blog, as well as countless tour bus shoots with rockstars).  Oh, and we just shot a campaign for the HIV vaccine, which is being heavily used in outdoor advertisements here around the city…

POP:  Where to next?

M + J: At this point we’re just trying to round out our new portfolio, and produce more work that is true to ourselves in order to attract new and different clients.  On one of those tour bus shoots, we asked our subject how they’d come to be one of the most popular guitarists of their day.  The answer was simple:  “I did what I wanted to do.”   So that’s what we’re doing.  We’re shooting the kind of stuff we want to shoot, being true to our vision, and hoping that the images are noticed.



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