10 quick questions, 5 professional and 5 random, with people you should know.
Kevin Scanlon is an award-winning photographer. Since 2001, he has shot an impressive array of celebrities, artists, musicians, athletes, everyday people, and business luminaries for editorial, entertainment, and advertising clients.
He has lectured and taught workshops at high schools and colleges, including Art Center and Los Angeles Center for Photography.
Kevin is originally from Pittsburgh and is a die-hard Steelers / Penguins / Pirates fan. When he doesn’t have a camera hanging from his shoulder, he has his ’63 Fender Jazzmaster or his set of golf clubs to take its place. Kevin splits his time between Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY.
Q. Describe the moment when you first felt validate for your work?
KS. I knew that Photography had to happen somehow and so It didn’t matter whether or not I was validated. I mean, it’s nice (laughs), it helped inspire me to continue and it helped morale for sure, but for me there was no choice.
The validation story; I played music throughout my 20’s. That was what I knew the most when I was pursuing my photography career. The idea was to shoot; bands, album covers, publicity packages, live music, tour documentaries. We were on the Warped Tour and I shot a bunch of stuff backstage. One of the bands I shot was Weezer. I posted them on the band’s message boards. I was just like “Hey, I saw you guys, awesome show. Here are some photos I wanted to share.” About a year later Weezer was playing a show at the Glasshouse. I was going to the show and I wanted to shoot it. I get there mid-afternoon and I knocked on the backdoor. I assumed it was the Greenroom door, I wasn’t sure, someone answered and I pitched the guy who opened the door and asked if I could shoot the show and gave them the shoots I had taken on Warped. I asked if he could give them to the band or the tour manager. The guy takes the prints inside and closes the door. He comes back a few minutes later and said “Ok here is a photo-pass and the guys want to know if you could come in and do some portraits of them.” I was like Oh…shit…. The first thing I thought of was, do I have enough film! Luckily, I ran back to the car and I had about 8-10 rolls in my car. I brought them all! The roadie Karl, who had been with them forever, brought me in and introduced me to the band and I was thinking holy crap…is this happening? I had a couple lenses, I was shooting with a Leica 35mm with no lights or anything. I was just using the lights that they had. One of the shots ended up being made into a teeshirt. I still have a few of them! And it says Copyright Kevin Scanlon on the bottom. They basically handed me a photography career. It was really an awesome thing. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to start a photography career.
This was an organic thing. I was being proactive about getting a photo pass to shoot the damn show, which I did and I was happy. It’s really important to go out and get it and to create a job that didn’t exist. You can pitch an idea to a client or an agency and things happen. So it was a really early lesson to create your own opportunities.
Q. Best Advice you’ve ever gotten, personal or professional?
KS. I guess to me it’s less about words of wisdom from a mentor or from a photographer. To me, over the years what I’ve learned, is the importance of being an assistant to a professional. I didn’t do a ton of assisting early on. I did some. I learned a lot about conducting a photoshoot, I learned how to light, I learned a lot about how to be a leader and a manager, but I was never a full time assistant to any one photographer. So what I missed out on was the behind the scenes stuff, like how to run a business. What does an invoice look like, what goes on it, what does an estimate look like, what does negotiation or a pitch look like. How do you talk on the phone about a job or what questions do you ask when someone calls you about an assignment. All of this stuff I missed out on. Even how do you pay taxes! If that was something I could do, I would have come straight to NY and I would have swept the floor for someone who I idolized to learn it all. That is what I would say to a young photographer. Find someone to assist full time.
Q. What about your work can’t you teach? What makes your work unique to you?
KS. You can go into a shoot with a plan, with an idea and a vision, and what you want to achieve, but the “you can’t teach” is the troubleshooting, the thinking on your feet, the managing a situation. Thinking from your gut and thinking on your feet and finding a beautiful light spontaneously and making it work. It’s hard to teach that. That really comes with experience. Finding light that exists and making it look good and trying to achieve something close to what you tried to achieve in the beginning is tough when things go wrong like faulty fuse boxes. I deliberately throw myself in those situations. There has been times that I’ve done that and the clients have liked those over what I set-up. There was a time I shot Quentin Tarantino for LA Weekly and we had a photo studio and nothing went wrong and we had several set-ups ready and ran through all of those and when we were done we still had some more time. We were at Siren Studios in LA on the first floor and we opened up this duvet to this big exposed window. We had the Clash playing and he just started dancing to it. He was stoic throughout the shoot and he wasn’t quite as animated. Then all of a sudden he was really having fun with it and the client ended up using that on the cover. So, you never know what can come from doing extra little bits. Your art shots.
Q. How do you know when a piece is finished? When you’ve accomplished what you wanted to with the job?
KS. I never know. There is never a point where I feel like “this is done.” There is a point where I hit a threshold where I’m happy. With photoshoots, I’ll walk away and feel confident that what I set out to achieve has been fulfilled, but I don’t really know until I get in front of a computer or get the film under a loop and really see it if I captured what I wanted to or needed to. I constantly go back through my archive because I’m looking for a specific print and then I’ll go back through the rejects and I’ll think…”what was I thinking, this one over here is so amazing.” My opinion or taste or my, whatever it is, it evolves. Wether a shot is perfect or anything is finished, that concept doesn’t really exist for me because things change all the time. What I think is great now, I might look back on later with a more refined eye or a different aesthetic or my tastes have just changed and what I respond to is just different. Mostly it’s about what I’m trying to show. Is it that I’m trying to show that I can make people look beautiful or strong or is it more about moments, spontaneity or energy? I think that my emotions are a driving factor in the edit. For the client, if they wanted bright that’s the edit I choose for them, but the edits that I would choose for my personal site or portfolio, that comes from my personal influence and my life which can be really strong.
Q. What do you want to accomplish in your lifetime/career?
KS.All goals should be achievable. They should be achieved. At the same time there has to be goals that are a little out of reach. That need to be chased. For me, there is this never ending pursuit of something new. Technically a new way of shooting portraits or a new way of approaching portraiture or a new way of editing, there always has to be some sort of progression. It’s a constant thing. I set a goal of trying something new. Then I do it. Then I ask what’s next. Im constantly judging my career as I go along because you don’t know if you’ll live till 80. I always ask if I’m doing something new and something interesting. It blows my mind, the notion that someone could be inspired by my work the same way I was inspired when I was beginning my career. It’s really exciting. It’s not necessary, but it certainly is validating…it’s weird.
Q What’s the last thing you took a photo of?
KS. Undoubtedly, it was with my phone (pulls out iPhone and shows photo of fall leaves hanging on a tree at night with a street light beaming through). It’s a street light in Clinton Hill Brooklyn. I see this all the time, wherever I go, and they all look totally different depending on the leaves. The light is always the same, but what happens around the light is different. I think it would make an interesting series so I always snap a photo when I see it.
Q. Party Tricks. If you had to entertain a crowd what are you known to do?
KS. Do you know how some people get entertained by being grossed out? I’m pretty sure that’s the case here. It was from an old skateboarding accident. You know how everyone can put their hands on the table, flat, and you can pull or bend your fingers back a bit?? This one (pulls his ring finger off the table and bends it at the middle knuckle completely back to his hand) the joint is screwed up. I was on a mini ramp, I did a frontside ollie and I landed weird. Nothing broke, the tendons obviously got screwed up, but the worst part was, I was playing in the band at the time and we were opening up for Jimmy Eat World and we got through the show, but I basically had to play the whole show with the one finger straight the whole time. It was pretty bad. (laughs) Every now and again it stills get locked like that. It does make for a good “party trick” though.
Q. What is your biggest irrational fear?
KS. Heights. I saw a behind the scenes photo that Annie Leibovitz did. She was on the Chrysler building and she was sitting on a gargoyle extended out over the building a bit. It was a huge gargoyle, probably the size of a car, and there were photos from when it was being built of builders just sitting out there untethered having lunch, but just seeing that photo of Annie, my stomach got a little heavy. Something just changed inside of me, it’s irrational, I can walk down the sidewalk along a line no big deal, but you put that line on a cliff that’s 10,000 feet high, you can walk that line still, but the circumstances have changed. A lot.
Q. Has social media helped or hurt our society?
KS. Both for sure. Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring is clear. That’s a very, very positive thing. Bringing awareness to the masses about a cause or about a certain movement that’s important. Any system that can empower the 99% or the people who are in a big group, but at a clear disadvantage, is positive. At the same time, I think in our society we are captivated by the addiction of selfies and by the addiction of people who are consuming them. Literally, they are on their devices all the time. It creates a narcissistic thing to seek feedback. That feedback can be negative and it can be positive, but either way it has a real effect on a person. I hope it’s a phase. I hope that people will eventually realize that there are important things in life that don’t involve that kind of validation. It’s more about finding confidence within yourself. Creating something within yourself rather than judging yourself based on other people’s opinions on how you look or what you are doing. It’s important to share your story and your life, but hopefully the narcism will be overwhelmed by setting goals and achieving something with your life.
Q. When did you first consider yourself an adult?
KS. I’m wondering if I do (laughs) …there’s a receipt of an ATM withdrawal that I still have from 1997 and I withdrew $20 from my bank and I had $1.97 left in my balance. That’s sort of a gauge from a financial dire straights. If I can create a world that I never see this happen again, that would be a great achievement for me. So, that’s sort of been the thing that is one gauge of adulthood. Emotional adulthood, that will be a never ending pursuit. I still make butt and fart jokes. In many ways, there is this high school kid in me, but that ATM slip was my milestone.