This is the second in the series of my ‘a conversation with…’ series. This time I talked to street photographer Kevin Samuels (Instagram: @ashnolo), who I was surprised to find out is relatively new to street photography.
Hi Kevin! Where are you based? Where do you like to shoot?
Hi Matt. I’m based in Los Angeles, I’ve been here since 2010. I shoot anywhere I am, I always have a camera on me and I’m always sort of half-looking for a photo and half paying attention to what I’m doing. LA is very much a commuter city. Areas with lots of foot traffic are few and far between so if that’s what I’m looking for, it usually takes a dedicated photo trip. I do those as often as work/life allows.
What is your history with photography?
I discovered it pretty recently. I started shooting photos with my phone in 2013 but it was on a pretty casual level and I had no larger context for what I was doing. Trying to make music on a computer was my main obsession then and I’m really only capable of being into one thing at a time. Music making led to getting a sound design job and I eventually burned out on sitting in front of a computer with headphones on all day at work and then doing it again when I got home. Traded in the music making for record collecting. That ended up getting expensive so I decided to take a break, get a camera, and give the photography thing a go. Needed to get outside more. Got my first camera 11 months ago, accidentally stumbled onto the Magnum Photos site, and immediately started shooting as often as I could.
So you haven’t been shooting for long then? I’m kind of surprised at that because your photos have quite a definitive style to them already. What medium do you use?
Digital for now. I own a couple of film cameras but I think I would’ve had a really rough time if I started off shooting film. Being able to go out for a day of shooting, see the results that night, and then go back the next day with those images fresh in my mind played a huge role when I was first starting off. The fact that digital is “free” also let me experiment more and make mistakes that turned into techniques. The first month I got a digital camera, most of my nights were spent sitting on my couch taking pictures of my dog, looking at the result, messing with the settings, and trying it again. I’m also just terrible at sitting on photos or waiting to see them. When I do shoot film, I tend to get it developed almost immediately.
When you started, were you shooting film? How long have you been shooting digital?
My dad taught me how to use a film SLR when I was a kid. I must’ve only been ten years old. Thankfully I don’t have any of the photos, so I don’t know how bad they were! Then in my teens I got into lomography and shot a bit more film, but I couldn’t really afford it so it didn’t last long enough for me to get good at it. A few years back, I happened to get a digital camera to take product photos for a blog I had at the time (unrelated to photography) and started using it for snapshots on trips and stuff. I tried landscape photography but I wasn’t very good at it, there was too much post-processing, and getting up at 5am to catch the sunrise was never gonna last. I started shooting street and documentary shortly after.
Why do you make photographs? What is your aim?
Still trying to figure out the “why?”. It’s very much an urge/obsession at this point I guess. I mostly just enjoy doing it. There’s an immediacy to it that fits me. When I was trying to make music on a computer, it felt like I’d be banging my head against the wall trying to get something to work for days. I like that photos largely either work or they don’t. It helps me see my surroundings in a more present way and get out of my head for a bit. Every time I go out to shoot for a day, I come back in a great mood. I don’t know really. I like Winogrand’s “I photograph to find out what something looks like photographed” answer.
It’s really a tough question for me to answer specifically though, do you know why you shoot?
The ‘why’ part is easy really. My documentary photos are just so that I can remember things really. I have a terrible memory and I got kind of bummed out when I realised I hardly had any photos of my youth. That’s how it started really, just to document my life. As far as having an aim, I dunno. I tend to shoot such a wide range of stuff, the only real project I have is my endless proof project, but that’s a bit of a cop out really – it’s basically just a photo diary so I can get away with putting anything I want in there. I’m planning on putting out a couple of zines this year, so we’ll see how that goes. I’ll probably just put a series together based on images I just think work together, rather than starting out with a goal in mind. If I think about it too much and try to force it down a narrow path then I find my work ends up feeling a bit sterile.
I love that Winogrand quote as well. Though I kind of hate not really knowing where I’m going with my photography. I tend to just trust my gut instincts and keep telling myself that in 50 years I’m likely to be the only person that cares about the photos anyway.
Where does your street stuff fit into the memory equation? Is there a different appeal behind those?
My favourite street photos are the ones I just happened to capture going from A to B. I do go out to purposely shoot street though, mainly cos it gets me out of the house and I enjoy the walk. With street the aim is slightly different and it’s more about capturing that perfect moment. I find street to be more of a rigorous pursuit – I feel like it would take me ten years of shooting to get a decent body of street photographs – whereas my personal documentary is just for me, so there isn’t any expectations or ‘rules’, I just see something I like and grab a snap. I go through phases where I kind of think I’ll stop shooting street because at the end of the day they are photos of strangers and they don’t really mean anything to me. But then I’ll go and shoot a bit just for something to do and I’ll get a shot I’m really happy with and it’ll seem like it was worthwhile. Plus getting out there on my own gives me some alone time and I find it oddly relaxing. I’m not in the least bit spiritual, but it seems to give me some kind of zen-like feeling. Peaceful, you know?
One of my photo goals this year is to get better at shooting stuff along the way instead of leaning so heavily on the photo outings. I’ve started trying to do a photo diary/daily photo thing, but I find it tough. There are some days when I just don’t get anything interesting and I think I’m more concerned with the “interesting photos” thing than I am with the diary aspect. I’m extremely jealous of people who can make something work anywhere they are. The stuff in your Endless Proof project is obviously more than just snapshots of your day though, I think it’s pretty easy to tell that you put some weight into how the photos look, even separate from the context of your life. How important is the “making interesting photos” thing vs making a personal document of your life? Are you seeking things out just for the sake of photos or is it more just working with things you see when you’re running errands and stuff?
Yeah, even shooting the day-to-day stuff I only keep the best shots. If something isn’t working for me then I delete it, even if it’s the only photo of a certain memory. It’s not purely documentary, I apply a certain level of scrutiny to every shot I make whether it’s a sink full of dirty dishes or a street photograph. I approach every shot in the same way really and think ‘what would be the best way to photograph this?’ The end result might look like a snapshot, but that was one of the artistic choices I intentionally made in creating it. I think that’s how any photographer would look at it though, when you’re serious about photography you don’t just go around snapping and hoping for the best. It’s kind of a lifestyle thing to me. Photography is all day, everyday. Anything I come across that I like the look of is a potential subject to me.
Definitely, that’s a great mindset to have. I asked a photographer friend whose work I admire for some advice recently and he said something similar. Basically “we practice photography like doctors practice medicine, it’s a never ending thing.” His approach is to shoot anything he does as consciously as possible so that he’s ready for it when the stuff he’d actually like to capture happens. That’s something that has stuck with me since and something I have to work on. I’ve had less time to shoot the street stuff lately and I kinda feel like I’ve hit a bit of photographers block in general. Not sure if it’s a momentum thing or if it’s just that shooting the personal documentary stuff is newer, but I’m having a bit of trouble with it. Have you ever had one of those photographer’s block periods? Any advice for getting better at the personal documentary work?
At least once or twice a year I’ll go through a period where I just won’t feel like shooting. I haven’t found any real way to get out of it, so I’m probably not the best person to ask! It normally ends when I decide enough is enough and I go out to shoot. I’ll usually end up with one photo I’m happy with and that puts be back on track. I try not to be too hard on myself about it, otherwise it drives me nuts. So if you don’t feel like shooting, don’t. The creative block just sort of fizzles out on it’s own. Gotta take the rough with the smooth, you know? In terms of personal documentary stuff, it’s just a case of being switched on to your surroundings and keeping an eye out for things that interest you.
When I look at your work, your photos all have a similar dreamy/surreal quality and are recognisable as being yours. I’m always interested in creative choices like that. My photos are very straightforward in that respect and I rarely use any tricks with technical settings to achieve artistic effects – not because I don’t want to, but because I’m kind of lazy and tend to be a point and shoot kind of guy. I think that can make my photos look like they could belong to anyone. How did your style come about?
I’m definitely drawn to dreamier, moodier, more surreal photos. Getting to where I am now style-wise just happened by following tangents. 99% of my shots are just gut-level reacting to what’s in front of me. When I go through them after the fact, I’ll end up seeing things (objects, moods, compositions) that stick out to me. After that, I’ll sort of be looking for them the next time I go take pictures. I try to stay open to shooting whatever piques my interest but it I think having the other photos in mind probably helps me see things I previously may have missed. Like how after you get a new car, you end up noticing the model more on the road.
How did you arrive at your current stylistic approach? Can you trace it back through specific photos you’ve taken that caused a shift?
My main inspiration when I first started was Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. I love the snapshot aesthetic he had in that book. I think I’d developed a similar style of my own before I found that book, but the book kind of validated it, if you know what I mean? At first glance they are photos that anyone with a camera could take, but if you look a little closer then you can see the thought that went into them. Another obvious inspiration is William Eggleston, who is frankly the master of photographing the everyday stuff. These days I try not to read too many books or consume too much photography online because I don’t want it clouding my personal judgement. I’ve only bought a couple of books in the last year.
Do you have any favourite photographers that have inspired your work?
I can definitely see the Shore and Eggleston influence in your photos. I’d say the photographers whose work has had the biggest impact so far have been Alex Webb, Josef Koudelka, Lars Tunbjork, and Trent Parke. I’m really inspired by everything I see though. Photography in general just wasn’t really on my radar much before this year so I’ve just been seeking out and looking at as much of it as I can. At this point I see a book or project that changes my perception every other week. There’s an overwhelming amount of great work that’s out there, I’m just trying to soak in as much possible.
I’ve heard other people talk about limiting their influences and exposure to other work too. I think I’m still so new that I have a ton to catch up on, but that does seem like it’d be an interesting strategy later down the line. How long have you been doing that? Has it had an effect on your photography?
I’ve been limiting my intake of other work since I started taking my photography more seriously. I would see some new work and think ‘oh man, I want to take those kinds of photos’ and it would pull me off the track I was going down. For now I just want to stay focused on building up a body of work before I start thinking about changing things up.
In previous conversations we’ve had we’ve talked about post-processing and how important it is to you to achieve a certain look to your images. What kind of things are you looking for in your post-processing?
It’s important only in the sense that I’d like my photos to have a consistent look. If I could afford it or my keeper ratio got a bit higher, I’d probably only shoot with one camera and one film stock just for the sake of consistency. When I first started using Lightroom, I would mess a lot with contrast, vibrance, etc… I don’t like the more sterile look a lot of digital cameras give photos and I think I was trying to counteract that. The more I learned about LR, the more the overall look of my photos changed week to week and it bugged the shit out of me. It took me a while to realize that consistency is more about the composition, content, and colors in the frame than about how you process it. I finally found an on-camera JPEG setting I like and I plan on just shooting with that this year to avoid being in Lightroom as much as possible. We’ll see how that goes.
As far as what I’m looking for, I don’t know if it’s anything specific. I more just like when a look matches the content of someone’s photos. I think presentation is a part of the equation whether we like it or not. It can’t make bad photos good (which I think a lot of people try to use it for), but it’s definitely a part of the finished thing. I probably put too much weight in it.
Why do you care about the “look” of your stuff? Did you ever have a bad over-processing phase?
The look is super important to me. I think I’m just one of those people that takes aesthetics very seriously. When I first started, it took me a long time to reach a point where I was happy with the way my photos looked. I definitely went through a phase of doing too much to my photos. I think anyone shooting digital goes through that when they first start out. I would always add too much contrast or saturation. Less is definitely more with post-processing for me. It takes a light touch. I’m still perfecting it now really. I have to change my post-processing every time I get a new camera too which I find annoying. I tend to like a filmic look the most – I should really just give in and shoot film all the time – it’s just so expensive!
I notice in a lot of your shots you are using flash, particularly off-camera flash, and you have quite a contrasting exposure between the subject and the background. Why do you like to use flash?
I basically started using it to get rid of background noise in super crowded areas. I used to solve that problem with harsh shadows and patches of directional light, then later in the year the light started going away earlier in the day. The flash/underexpose thing started as a way to get around both of those, then I kinda got hooked on being able to shoot anything I wanted without worrying about the available light. Light is a big thing to me and being able to control it is an element I enjoy. It also just turned into another variable I could mess with.
Whenever I’ve used flash on the street I find it kind of disrupts the scene and changes how I initially saw it. It sometimes ends up being a photo I like but more often than not it isn’t the image I wanted to capture and so I don’t tend to like it as much. Do you find using flash makes it harder to capture the scene you intend to? Do you approach a subject already knowing how you’re going to light it, or is it a case of experimenting and trusting your instincts?
With the street stuff, I basically make a decision to have it on or off when I’m stopped/not looking for photos, and then switch every few blocks based on the light or the situation. I use a cheap flash that doesn’t play well with my camera so if it’s off, it’s usually too much of a process to get hooked up and switched on in time. I miss things all the time. For the shots without people I’ll usually try a few things. I think flash can sometimes help add some interest to static scenes.
In terms of getting something how I intended, I tend to look for slightly different shots when I know the flash is on. They’re usually just different due to what the flash can do – I’ll shoot more in the shade, I’ll slow the shutter down a bit, I’ll usually get closer because my flash only really works within about 2 meters, stuff like that. When I’ve got it on I’m in a different mindset because of it.
I like your flash shots a lot, I think you use it well. It adds a harshness to your unpeopled stuff that I find really appealing. Your recent disposable camera TV shot is killer, I wish I’d taken that. When you use flash, is it mostly out of necessity in terms of lighting conditions or is it a look that you only like for certain things? If so, how do you make that decision?Thanks man. I was really happy with the TV shot too. Sometimes it’s an artistic choice, if I think the flash will throw a nice shadow, or make a colour pop. Other times it’s just a necessity to get the exposure right, like with the disposable camera. We also have a lot of grey, dull weather here and using the flash can give a scene some extra depth where it would otherwise be pretty flatly lit. I use a really old point and shoot digital camera a lot of the time and it doesn’t have the high iso performance of modern cameras, anything above ISO200 is garbage. I tend to just shoot that one in P mode with the flash on auto and just force the flash if I want that look. With modern cameras it’s easy to go either way. I just try it and see if I like the results.
For someone who’s fairly new to photography you seem to have a pretty good handle on where your work is going. What tips would you give to anyone who is new to shooting street? What could they do to try and find their style?
I’m still new so I’m not sure how many tips I’ve got at this point. I guess if I could go back to when I first started, I’d tell myself:
1. Pay attention to the light.
2. Take a camera with you everywhere.
3. Don’t be timid to shoot on the street, people rarely react negatively and having relaxed body language is important.
4. If you run across a rare situation, take as many frames as you possibly can.
5. Shoot anything that’s interesting, don’t worry about only making “street photography.”
6. Enjoy the process.
In terms of style, it’s about following your gut and your influences. Take as many photos as you see and don’t try to force yourself into anything specific right off the bat. Figure out which of your photos you like and try to find some common threads. Seek out great work, find something you enjoy, and try to learn from it.
Are there tips you wish you could go back and tell day-one Matt? Any big lightbulb moments that you’ve had or lessons you wish you’d learned earlier?
Probably a few things that took me too long to learn, and some I’m still working on:
1. Learn what makes a good composition.
2. Only keep your best photos.
3. Learn how to edit/sequence.
4. Stop buying cameras (I’m still working on this one!)
5. Relax and walk slowly.
Can you pick three of your favourite photos and explain the story behind them?
I shot this on a hike I took in Colorado while visiting my parents over the holidays. It’s tough to tell but the girl looking over the edge was probably 10 years old. It was an odd situation, we had no idea whether her parents were up there with her or not and she was a little too close to the edge. I think we all panicked about it a bit, and I quickly grabbed the shot. I like that the photo almost looks like the viewer/camera has fallen off a cliff, and the girl is looking down after the fact. We spotted her parents shortly after so all was well.
This was one of those days where I’d spent the whole day out shooting and hadn’t gotten anything decent. I was heading back to my car feeling frustrated and I walked right into this scene. A giant TV display on the street was playing an ad on loop and this obviously intoxicated man was standing there hypnotized by it, rocking back and forth. The sparks on the TV were perfectly centered and exploding outward as soon as I walked up. This was just one of those gifts from the photo gods where everything came together, all I had to do was point and shoot.
This is the shot I get asked about most often and it’s one of my favorites. These two were yelling and partying at a massive drum circle that happens on Venice beach every week. I was walking around the beach taking pictures that day and stumbled into it. The silhouetted figures in the back are police officers trying to keep the drum circle under control and I initially just wanted to get a picture of people partying in front of them. I caught the guy on the left mid-yell, but I also got a few other frames of them laughing and having a good time. I didn’t think much of the shot until I got home and saw his angry looking face. I took this pretty early on and I like it because it kinda helped me figure out that photos can lie, and that the implied story can be more interesting than the actual thing.
Since I like your photos, who else should I follow on instagram?
This is the toughest question. I can’t really narrow it down, every person I follow on instagram is a photographer whose work I like, they’re all worth following. Instead I’ll just give a shout out to my girlfriend @thecalliefox for helping me select photos for this. She’s a great photographer and everyone should check her work out.
Where can people find your work?
Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me!
Thanks Matt! This has been fun.
If you enjoyed the conversation feel free to check out the first in the series ‘A Conversation with Phoebe Lee’. If you would like to be considered for an interview/conversation then please get in touch with me for a portfolio review.