Time for another interview! Kyle Myles is a photographer I’ve been following for a while now. I have particularly been impressed with his style of personal documentary and his playful compositions are often complex, layered and dynamic. I talked to him about his approach to photography, his favourite photo books, documenting his family, and how his classic style developed.
Hi Kyle. Can you take a minute to introduce yourself for people who might not know you?
My name is Kyle Myles. I’m a photographer based in the Washington, DC area. I sell cameras and organize gallery shows by day and spend the rest of my time either with my girlfriend and/or family, photographing, developing film, editing, looking at books and watching/reading interviews. Most of my time these days is devoted in one way or another to photography.
How did you find photography and how long have you been doing it?
My interest in photography started somewhere around 2012, as a means to document my friends and I skateboarding. It’s funny to think that the majority of my life has been spent without a camera.
I know what you mean, I feel the same way. One of the reasons I picked up a camera in the first place was that I realised I had hardly any photos of my teenage years and early twenties. It’s interesting that you chose to capture stills to document your skating, cos most of the focus these days in on using video for that right? What made you go down the photography rather than video route?
Skateboarding is what sparked my interest but even soon after starting, I was shooting just as much of everything else around me. But as far as it pertains to video vs. still within skateboarding, a well composed and well timed skate photo has always carried much more weight for me than the video, although I think they’re equally important in their own ways.
How would you describe your work?
That’s always been a hard question for me to answer but if I had to put a label on it, I think personal documentary describes it best. Almost all of the people in my photos are friends and loved ones. I try to think of my work in a long term sense, as a record of my own life and the people in it.
Is there an end goal, or is it just for you?
Above anything else its a personal record for myself and my family but I could see certain themes within it becoming something more whether its published, exhibited or both.
So you’re just gonna see how it plays out? I love the idea of personal documentary as being this like long term project, like a life’s work almost. Have you seen Chris Verene’s book, “Family”? The cover image is the family home with a huge tree that’s fallen onto the house and the caption reads “the same day they signed the divorce papers a tornado hit the house”. I just love that book. I find it crazy that photography can take all the complexity of the family dynamic and distill it down like that and tell a story in really simple terms, you know? For me it makes it all the more hard hitting and beautiful.
It’s funny you mention that book. My friend Kevin recommended it to me, knowing the work I do, and actually found me a copy of it for cheap last year. It’s one of my favorite books in my collection now. One image that always stands out is of a kids bedroom with 2 empty wooden chairs, with the 2 daughters names on them. The caption is “After the divorce, Steve never saw his girls again”. There are plenty of examples like that in the book that manage to pack so much emotion into such simple images when paired with the captions.
Yeah man, there’s some heartbreaking stuff in that book. I need to flick through it again. Would you recommend any more personal documentary books?
If I could just recommend one, it would be The World From My Front Porch by Larry Towell. Get a copy of that and you won’t be disappointed.
Most of my work has shifted more and more into the personal realm in the last couple of years, to the extent that I hardly ever shoot street photography now. I take a lot of photos of friends and loved ones but I haven’t really explored the family side of things that much really and it’s an area I’m interested to explore more – especially after the death of my grandad last year (and not having any good photos of him). What tips would you give to someone just starting out with personal documentary?
Sorry to hear of your grandfather’s passing. Things like that can definitely trigger an urgency or interest to document the people who are still present in your life. I try to make sure that photography is a bi-product of spending time with my family and not the main focus, and that I’m not influencing or changing any scenes just to make a photo. I rarely ask anyone for portraits anymore and prefer to shoot candidly. The great thing about the younger ones in my family is that at their age, they are so wrapped up in their own world, and so used to my camera, is that they never change what they’re doing because of me. The rest of the family is warming up to it.
Yeah man kids are great that way. They aren’t concerned with their image yet and don’t get hung up about the way they look. Do you have anyone in the family that doesn’t like being photographed?
I wouldn’t say there’s any one person who’s more camera shy than any other but some of my family and friends are more aware of it. I think most people have some sort of reaction to a camera being pointed at them. A big part nowadays is social media and the concern that all of these photos will end up out there for everyone to see and people have a concern of how they will be shown or portrayed.
Yeah, I can see why that might be a concern. I know in my friendship group that there were definitely people who were apprehensive about being photographed when I first started, but they kind of just got used to me being with the camera over time. Most of them nowadays are flattered if I post a photo of them. What do you personally think of social media? I’m finding just lately that the longer I am exposed to it the more I come to resent it. I mean it’s basically just a popularity contest right? But then on the other hand, if it weren’t for social media I wouldn’t have all these great people in my life who I would never have got to talk to and meet otherwise.
Social media is a double edged sword to me. I like to think the pros outweigh the cons but it’s all up to the individual. It’s made it easier than ever to get your work out to a broad audience, find work from other photographers, and make connections that would’ve been much more difficult to make without it. I’ve met more people than I can count, through Instagram, and have formed real friendships because of it.
On the other side, it can be easy to let it become a distraction or an obsession. People are putting more concern into gaining a following and projecting a persona than they are into making quality work. It’s always been my opinion that if you focus on making work that you yourself are proud of, that will get you much further than buying likes and spending hours following/unfollowing people to gain an audience.
Does doing personal documentary mean you’re carrying a camera at all times? And you’re primarily a film shooter right?
Yeah it’s safe to say I always have a camera on me. I do still primarily shoot film but in the past year I have become fond of compact digital cameras like the Ricoh GR, which I believe you shoot with as well? A friend loaned me one of those and I loved it. Then I ended up picking up a Nikon with the same specs. Having a small, unobtrusive camera like that can definitely be a blessing in some situations. With all that being said, the camera and medium are just tools and they don’t really matter beyond how you respond to them physically.
Yeah that’s very true in my experience. I’ve tried a bunch of cameras over the years but I keep coming back to the Ricoh GR (despite its issues) just because it is convenient and it’s very easy for me to make the photos look the way I want them to. That being said, I shot a bunch of black and white film last year on a Leica and really enjoyed shooting fully manual and without a meter. It’s just not convenient having a camera with a huge flash to carry around everywhere. That, and I am coming to the conclusion that B&W doesn’t suit my style and I couldn’t get good results developing and scanning colour film myself so I’ve gone back to the GR again recently. Do you have a favourite you keep going back to?
The only camera on my shelf that has remained a constant since I started is my Leica M6, generally loaded with HP5. Any other camera I’ve owned has been sold or traded and replaced by something else by now.
Did you start out shooting film then?
Sorry I guess that last answer was a bit misleading. I started out with a variety of digital cameras. I didn’t even know how to load a roll of film until a year or two after I started shooting.
What is it that appeals to you about film now then? I mean, it makes it harder right? I’m just playing devil’s advocate here haha. I’m just interested as to what makes you want to go to that extra trouble, especially as I have a hard time telling the difference between your film photos and your digital ones?
Sometimes (a lot of the time) it’s just nice to not have a screen and all those buttons. I don’t necessarily shoot any slower with film, which is a common reason you’ll hear for people using it. I’ll shoot an entire roll of one scene if I don’t think i’ve got something yet. I’m not one to romanticize film or partake in the film vs. digital debates. They’re both tools/mediums and they both work just as well. A good photo is a good photo.
This is very true. I’ve never understood that debate either. It’s always just been an aesthetic choice for me to go with one or the other. For B&W I favour film, for colour I favour digital. Aside from the aesthetic, your photos have a very classical style to them. How did you come to arrive at that?
I imagine it’s drawn from many places. From the work that I look at by some of the greats (Garry Winogrand, Larry Towell, Mary Ellen Mark, etc.) to the photos that my friends and peers are making. It’s interesting how you may not think of anyone’s work consciously while you’re shooting but when you look at the photos after the fact, the influence shows in different ways. It’s good to be aware of those things because it can be easy to fall into imitation even if its not intentional. Aside from that, I think just by going out and making photographs, you start to develop a certain style of how you approach different scenes, whether it be people, landscapes, street, etc..
Do you have a particular way you approach a scene?
No specific way that I’m aware of. If it’s something that doesn’t involve people, it’s hard to say what draws my interest to it but I always know when I see it. I’ve realized recently when it comes to photographing people that I’ve developed a certain style of layering and arranging figures so I’m trying to find ways to shoot those scenes in new and different ways.
I’ve found that making photos of a group of people is much different than just one person alone in a frame, which is a lesson I’ve learned documenting my own relationship with my girlfriend, Tori. There’s more space to deal with when you have one subject and you can’t rely on playing off of other people in the frame. Sometimes it’s more about that space or environment that person is in and how it relates, or does not relate, to them.
I think the whole layering aspect and the playing one subject off against another is a signature of your photos though. For me that’s what makes them recognisable as being yours, and also what makes them technically impressive.
I definitely enjoy shooting in that style but I’m trying to find new ways to interpret those same scenes. When you’re photographing the same group of people, and a lot of the time in the same environment, you have to get creative with how you approach it so the work doesn’t get repetitive. Whether it’s through things like changing the angle from which you shoot, layering differently or use of different lighting, etc..
Do you ever get that thing where you take a photo and you’re so sure it’s gonna be good, and then you see the result and you’re disappointed? And then by the same rule, you take a photo you think nothing of and it turns out to be one you really like?
I’ve definitely experienced both sides of that on many occasions. A lot of the time it’s the most mundane scenes that you’ll think nothing of, and for some reason it translates into something totally different as a photograph. A lot of the time, the one photo i’m anxious to see on the roll usually ends up not being the one I like, and instead it’s a frame I may have totally forgot I shot. Then you have moments where you almost know for certain that there’s something in that scene that could lead to a good photo and it’s a matter of actually bringing it all together in time, before the opportunity is gone. Those moments don’t seem to occur often, at least for me, but its a rush when they do.
So have you always been a black and white guy then? As a documentarian, I have tried to use black and white but I normally end up going back to colour pretty quickly. I think being an engineer by day, and being data driven, I somehow feel like removing the colour is removing data from the picture somehow if you see what I mean?
As far as I can remember, my work didn’t start leaning heavily towards black and white until I started shooting film. I got into that because it was easy to process at home and then the more I shot it, the more things started to make sense in black and white. A lot of the work I look at is color and I have a lot of respect for people who shoot it well because I find it very difficult. That’s an interesting point you make about removing data or information from a picture. Sometimes to me, that data, the color, can be a distraction in an image. I find it easier to eliminate that variable and think of things in the sense of form, light, composition, emotion and contrast. Of course you can shoot color with these same factors in mind, and I try to when I do shoot it, but color is an added element to be mindful of.
That’s so interesting. Maybe it just comes down to what you’re used to? I think it probably has a lot to do with the type of photos you take as well. My stuff relies heavily on colour I think, so it’s probably best to just stick with that. Plus there’s the whole argument of consistency and maintaining a style that allows you to build up a nice body of work that can be put into a coherent series.
Yeah I think there’s definitely something to be said for consistency and sticking with either black and white or color for a specific series. Not that a photographer can’t switch back and forth for different bodies of work but I think for one project it’s best to choose one and stick with it.
Since I like your photos, who else should I follow on Instagram?
There’s so many to name but I’ll list 5 that come to mind. @dirtyharrrry, @johnnykeethon, @sashafoto, @stacykranitz and my lovely girlfriend @tricky__worm so she’ll maybe start posting more of her work.