Nathan: Whenever I first start thinking about these interviews, I feel obligated to begin with a soul searching question, but, instead, I always seem to start with the obvious one: when did you first become interested in photography?
Kevin: I first picked up a camera about seven to eight years ago. Honestly, it was more of a whim than anything. There wasn’t anything that influenced me to purchase a camera and there weren’t really any photographers that I admired and wanted to emulate. There were images that I had seen throughout my years that really struck me (Nick Knight’s “Susie Smoking” and Kevin Carter’s vulture image are two that stick out in my mind), but I didn’t really consider trying photography myself.
I grew up in a very artistic family. My mother trained as a classical pianist, and I began studying classical violin when I was five years old. I studied music throughout my life and through college (studying music composition and theory), but after college all of that began to wane a bit due to various reasons. I began looking for another creative outlet. I had always been interested in the visual arts, so I bought a camera and began shooting everything. I studied various photographers and images, and, after that, I became hooked.
Nathan: I see a definite melody, or harmony if you wish, in much of your work. The compositions you choose are exact, but they also flow as if part of an improvised study of angle and form (if that makes any sense). Do you think your musical studies have influenced your work?
Kevin: That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times as well. I think my individual experiences have shaped the way I view the world, so my musical background has probably played a part in that. When I was composing and studying music and theory, I was drawn to the minimalist works of John Cage, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass, and minimalism plays a part in the way I compose my images. However, it’s not a conscious decision I make when I am out photographing, but more of the way my mind frames a scene and what I find interesting.
Nathan: So let me use this opportunity to ask a little about your overall process. Many of us talk about vision … and I think that is what I am really asking about here. As I already said – in your work, I see a definite unity that creates, for lack of a better description, a kind of tapestry of lines and angles, whether they are architectural or part of nature—a tapestry that most definitely reflects a minimalist approach. I hesitate to say that your work reduces the scene down to its barest lines (because it feels too convenient), but all of your images certainly reflect an acute attention to symmetry and tone. I would love to hear about your thoughts, reasoning, and approach to symmetry and minimalism.
Kevin: Symmetry has an innate biological quality to it (bodies and faces are bilaterally symmetric). There have been several studies done in regards to facial symmetry being linked to attractiveness in humans. In the same vein, I see symmetry compositions as having a natural beauty to them — they are simple to compose (for the most part) and have an inherent balance and add a more calming energy to an image. Asymmetric compositions tend to have more tension and are more dynamic, but don’t present themselves as blatantly to me as symmetry does — I have to “discover it” and even then, I have to find a way to make it work in the context of a composition. For example, “pyramid” is one of my personal favorite images because of the asymmetric awkwardness of the composition. I stared at the building for a long time trying to figure out how to compose it, took many trial and error images until I could figure out how to get the angles to work together. That said, I find that the most interesting images are the ones that mix a bit of both. For example, “temple II” has very strong symmetric lines that is broken up by the soaring birds. To me, this added interest gives the image an extra dimension.
While symmetry is a way of seeing things, I think minimalism is more of a way of thinking. As I already explained, my interest in minimalism goes back, decades before I even picked up a camera, to minimalist music (John Cage, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, in particular). When I am out photographing, I am not consciously looking for minimalist compositions — those compositions are the ones I tend to “see” in my mind and the ones that interest me. I have a lot of difficulty photographing busy or cluttered scenes. A few years ago, I took a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada to photograph and discovered finding compositions that worked for me extremely challenging. Everything seemed too chaotic for me despite the multitude of interesting architectural styles.
In a way, I do reduce a scene to the barest form (lines) because I am looking at geometry and the interplay with light when I compose an image. The actual building in my architectural images doesn’t really matter — I am not interested in the function of the building, the architect, when it was built, or it’s history (those are things I will research afterwards if I find an image interesting). I am looking for very specific details, how they connect and the relationships between them. I rarely take an image of an entire building so that it is recognizable to the casual passerby and most of the time, they are very unremarkable buildings built by non-famous architects.
However, the most important aspect of an image for me is balance. The elements in a composition need to compliment each other to create an overall image — the subject needs to work in the context of it’s environment, the negative space (or lack of) needs to have a purpose, the clouds or sunlight need to compliment the geometry of the subject, etc. Every aspect of an image needs to be in harmony for an image to work for me. For example, in “pyramid,” the composition wouldn’t work without that direction of the clouds, the light hitting the building from that direction, or the clouds to fill the negative space. All of those different elements need to combine for the image to come together.
All of these components are a big part of what I refer to as “vision.” The other part of vision, for me, is seeing the final image in your head before clicking the shutter and the entire process from beginning to end, all to create that image. The RAW file (or film negative) is a major ingredient into the final product but it is still just an ingredient (as are curves adjustments, black and white conversions, film development, etc). Being able to bring to life an idea of what the image should be and having a final physical product that mirrors exactly that idea is … what I refer to as vision.
Nathan: In my own work, I often stumble upon ideas during the processing stage … for example, a tonal quality that I had never thought about or some added contrast here and there, etc. But, for me, all of it has to do with these darker tones that I work with. In your work, your images are often realized in these amazing grays, which manifest in beautiful gradients. So I guess what I am ultimately asking is: how important is the processing stage in the development of your final image and your vision?
Kevin: I definitely think in terms of an overall vision and every step I take in my process, from the moment I arrive at a location to the final image all contributing to it. I don’t believe that vision is realized only in the post-processing stage — the choices we make out in the field (depth of field, focal length, length of exposure, the location we choose to shoot a certain scene, etc) are all integral into realizing a vision, and for me, are very cognizant and exact choices. When I photograph a scene, I have the final product in my head even before I shoot my first frame and sometimes, even when I find a scene interesting, I won’t even shoot a frame. I spend a lot of time studying my subject, walking around them, trying to find the best vantage points that works best with what I envision the final image to look like, what the best times are to shoot a certain subject, waiting for the right light, waiting for clouds (as well as for the clouds to move in the right way). Most of the time, this involves revisiting a single location dozens of times and even now, I have a huge list of places that I have photographed ten or more times where the image doesn’t quite work perfectly.
When I have the perfect image, it is still just raw material for me. The post-processing portion is where the image comes alive. The image up to this point is simply colors of a computer screen or tones on a film negative. The post-processing stage is where I give the image depth and the personality of the photographer really comes out and I do this using many contrast and curves layers, black and white conversions, removing of distractions, layer masks, etc. One of the questions I get asked a lot is whether the gradients in my images existed in the original RAW image or film negative, and for the most part — these come from the time of day an image is taken, the filters I use and these gradients become enhanced in the post-processing step. The post-processing step is a tool to enhance the initial image and from my experience, no amount of post-processing can transform a bad photograph into a good one (I’ve tried, many times!). The camera, tripod, filters, Photoshop, etc are all tools we use to realize vision and post-processing is an important part of that process but it cannot live without great in-camera work.
Overall, vision should be unique to each photographer because it’s how one sees the world around them which is a result of an accumulation of experience and personality. Plus, it’s an ever-evolving process — the way I see the world today will be different tomorrow as my experiences grow and become integrated into my psyche. There have been times when I have walked by a building hundreds of times and not see anything interesting, but one day, something will click and I will see a shot that I had never noticed before. Other times, I will see a shot right away and everything comes together perfectly (although, this is rare).
Nathan: What time of the day do you prefer to photograph and why?
Kevin: I really love the glow of the pre-dawn hours. In Southern California , we usually get a pretty thick marine layer in the mornings and it gives everything nice, even lighting. However, I am definitely not a morning person, so it’s sometimes difficult getting out of bed, especially during those winter months.
Nathan: We talked a bit about vision … how about mood? Is there a particular mood that you’re looking to express ?
Kevin: The short answer is no, I don’t consciously look to express a specific mood with an image. However, as you know, photographers do have tricks to manipulate the mood in a photograph. For example, shooting a longer exposure can create a calming effect while underexposing or a darker processing can create a more mysterious feeling. When creating my images, I guess I do try to illicit some type of mood from the viewer based on how I see a certain scene (vision), but it’s not so specific as to trying to provoke a specific emotion or mood.
For me, every image is a little different and can affect people in various ways — the way an image resonates and connects to viewers is unique for every person. We’ve all seen pictures that are technically perfect, beautifully composed, but for whatever reason, we just don’t connect to it while for someone else, it’s a very emotionally powerful image. I think that art as a whole, is an interactive process between the artist and the audience — we, as the artist, bring our thoughts and personality out through our images and the viewer brings their own thoughts and emotions into it, and through that interaction, a connection to the image is created (or not). For me, I know when I see an image that really resonates with me, the bond I have with it is a very personal and intimate thing that I wouldn’t expect someone else to understand while the same goes with everyone else with the images they love.
Nathan: I’d like to ask you to indulge a view I have about my own work and ask if it relates to anything you do— or if it brings to mind anything that might be related to any of the various stages of your creative process. As I worked on my BA and MA in literature, I spent the majority of my studies focused on poetry, and, through those studies, I learned to see/understand the imagery of a poem— and any interpretive leap one might wish to take– through the specifics of that poem’s language; in other words, whatever the poem might possibly express, or mean, one must arrive at such things by first understanding what is first being described, given by the text of the poet itself (rather than leaping right to the meaning based on how the poem makes you feel). This becomes important for me in my work— and in how I see the work of others—because, in the end, most all of us are photographing an actual something— be it a tree, a rock, a plane in the sky, storm clouds, the angle of a building, an old woman holding a baby, a nude woman casually sitting in a chair in the shadows, or a cat indifferently looking out the window. In the end, the photograph is first and foremost that … the actual thing … but then there is that leap many of us take beyond that– be it an emotional connection, a touch of nostalgia, an intellectual tickle, a slight rush of melancholy, or a gentle burst of happiness manifested in a smile—or, for many, a quick stare of indifference. Photography is so certainly, as you say, an experience bound to the individual that views it … and that experience can be limited to those that want the eye candy pop of a colorful sunset or as personal as an almost poetic connection to some emotion they relate to in the pixels of the moment. It is that poetic connection, even philosophical connection, that I am looking for in my own work—whether anyone else sees it or not – and it all stems, once again, from that actual thing. The photo of a rock with streaking clouds or three trees huddled together in the snow may invoke a variety of emotions from many different people, but, in the end, there is still that fact of what it, first and foremost, is. So I craft my own images around the possibility of different moods, but, in the end, I am always conscious that an image of a rock with clouds, or a Buddha statue on a wall, is simply those things. For me … that is more than enough. All else can be left to the mood of the viewer. Does any of this resonate with you at all … or bring to mind any perspectives you may have about your own work or photography in general?
Kevin: Absolutely, I completely agree with you — a rock, no matter how one looks at it, is still a rock. I think, the difference is how a photographer translates that rock onto a final image — a short exposure can capture the crashing waves around that rock, a long exposure can create a calm water, a wide-angle can make that rock insignificant in frame, while a close-up can make the rock more dominating. To me, the way we present the subject (composition, the use of space, framing, etc) sets the tone for the conversation between photographer and viewer. The rock may still be a rock, but we can be bold with it or understated and for me, at least, the way I present my images, gives insight into my personality. I’m a typical introvert and I think that is revealed in my images. If you and I went shooting together and we both photographed the Transamerica Pyramid, we would both interpret the building differently and present them differently. The building is still a building but what we say and how we say it to the viewer will be different. I think a good example of this is Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix‘s different versions of “All Along the Watchtower” — it’s the same words and music but interpreted in completely different ways.
We cannot control how a viewer will react to an image and whether or not that poetic or philosophical connection is created or not. Is that connection important? I think on some level, it is. We can measure how good an image is on how viewers connect to it, but on the other hand, I don’t craft my own images with any expectation. When I was first starting in photography, that was more important to me than it is now. Today when I am photographing, I try to develop strong concepts that delve around a certain idea (for example, my “stealth bomber” series); I try to further hone my style, and I try to create something better than my previous image. Of course, I am still interested in simply making a beautiful image, and to paraphrase David Fokos, there is nothing wrong with wanting nothing more than to create a beautiful image. I don’t think that all images need to create a psychological, poetic, or philosophical connection, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Nathan: Can you tell me a little more about the concepts you pursue? I am curious to why you chose “Stealth Bomber” as a title and focus. I see reasons for such a choice in the shapes you capture, but a stealth bomber is also a weapon of war and one that relies on much surprise. I would love to hear more about what goes in to the themes you pursue and the titles you come up with. When I first began, it was really important that I had titles that reflected what I thought I might be after in my work– for example, my now rethought and retitled “An Atheist Confronts God” series. But, after a conversation with a friend, who is both a published poet and a novelist and former professor of mine, I decided to drop those kinds of titles because, in short, he had convinced me that I was imposing too much meaning onto my images, i.e. the images should be allowed to speak for themselves. I certainly have no such issue or concern with how others title their images, but I am often curious about the process and intent behind such decisions. With this in mind, is there anything you are willing to share about such things– both in general and how they might apply to the choices you make?
Kevin: For me, concepts or themes lets me narrow down my focus when I am out photographing — I am looking for something very specific that fits a criteria like a certain geometry in the building (“stealth bomber”), a certain interaction in the subjects (“temple“), or experimentation with an everyday subject (“zero“). I think of series as movements in a symphony. Each movement needs to compliment each other and adds to the overall emotion of the piece. Each part can exist singly but putting them together creates something that is greater than the sum of the parts. For me, I have to photograph the images with the forethought that they are going to be a part of a series. Attempting to group images together afterwards often leaves the work disjointed and the images seem incompatible. Sometimes, this can take a lot of time. For example, it took about three years just to get five images for “stealth bomber” but on the other hand, only two days to get six images for “zero.”
Honestly, I do not put much thought into image titles. My “stealth bomber” series was originally named “corner office.” In general, I think of my image titles as working titles until I’ve settled on something that has a lasting impression on me. In “stealth bomber,” the title really came from the form the buildings made rather than the function. The stealth bomber planes are beautifully sleek and have an unusual design compared to other aircraft and I really liked how the corner office geometry, when photographing them straight upwards, mimicked that design. As a whole, I try to avoid titles that may invoke a certain emotion and try to stick to titles that are more descriptive of the subjects, but this is not a firm rule for me. Like you, I try to not impose meaning in my image titles.
Nathan: You already mentioned that when you first began pursuing photography there weren’t any photographers that you admired or wanted to emulate. How about now?
Kevin: In the beginning when I started looking at other photographer’s work, the photographer that made the biggest impression on me was Michael Kenna. I probably spent many years trying to (unsuccessfully) emulate his style, but as I’ve gotten more experienced, my focus has been more on developing my own style and voice rather than copying other photographers. However, I still view and study many photographers’ work everyday. I really love the work of David Fokos and Michael Levin (as well as Kenna) because their work is always impeccable and rich with a multitude of shades. Lately, I’ve been very influenced by the works of Elliott Wilcox (particularly his “Courts” series) and Murray Fredericks (in particular, his “Salt” series). We spoke earlier about the connection viewers have with images and for me, “Courts” and “Salt” are two series of work that really connect with me.
Nathan: I want to shift directions and talk a bit about technical things like cameras, lenses and filters. You have been using a Hasselblad, correct?
Kevin: Yes, I also shoot with a 500cm. I use the 50mm lens mostly, but I also have an 80mm and 150mm. I rarely carry the 150mm with me, although there have been many times when I don’t have it with me and I wish I did.
Nathan: What filters do you use?
Kevin: I always carry a polarizer and a 10-stop neutral density filter with me. I also carry yellow and red colored filters when I am shooting black and white film.
Nathan: For your film images, do you work in the darkroom or do you process your images digitally? And do you still work with digital cameras?
Kevin: I process my film images digitally. At some point, I would love to learn to create prints in the darkroom but haven’t had a chance yet. I do still work with digital cameras and will typically carry both cameras– my Canon 40d and my Hasselblad 500cm– with me when I am out photographing.
Nathan: And, of course, I have to ask the, when it really comes down to it, unnecessary question— though I do think how one answers this question can offer a lot of insight into the photographer: do you prefer film or digital (with the almost unavoidable implication that one might be inherently better than the other)?
Kevin: Both analogue and digital cameras have their pros and cons. I definitely love the convenience of digital — being able to photograph something and begin editing it immediately is a definite advantage. I began learning photography using digital, and I doubt that I would have developed my particular style if I had originally learned photography using analogue cameras. Digital photography allowed me to experiment a lot more with my photography and being able to see results in real-time let me make adjustments right away. However, working with a completely manual medium format camera is a much more gratifying experience. I enjoy being in control of every aspect of the image making process — from manually focusing on a subject and processing my film through post-processing. Viewing a negative with a loupe and lightbox is much more exciting than looking at it on a camera LCD. Film also offers the advantages of a higher dynamic range and larger image sizes than a single digital capture, but those are technological limitations that will probably be negated in a few years. Photographing in film has forced me to slow down my image-making process and I become much more aware of everything within the frame and how I am composing a scene. Since I cannot view the image right away and make small adjustments immediately, I try to be very cognizant when shooting in film to make sure that composition, exposure (etc) are perfect before taking the shot.
Nathan: You primarily work in monochrome and tend to favor the square format. Are there any specific reasons why you prefer black and white and the square format?
Kevin: My tendency to present my work in square monochrome images comes from how I see the final processed image in my head. I try not to limit myself to a particular format and let how I view a particular scene when I am photographing it dictate it for me. I think forcing a particular processing style and/or format onto a image where it doesn’t work leads to unbalanced final product — everything needing to work together in harmony (composition, processing, formatting) for an image to “come alive.” This is one particular lesson I learned the hard way — looking back at my earlier work, I see a lot of instances where I used square format for images that simply didn’t suit the format.
Nathan: What are your overall thoughts about long exposures? Do you intentionally look for opportunities to work with them or do you let the particular scene / mood / moment dictate such choices? In other words, are you primarily interested in finding ways to use long exposures or is it just another process that you can utilize if you so choose?
Kevin: Like the previous question regarding monochrome and square format, how I envision the final image dictates how I will photograph a scene. A large majority of my images are long exposures, but I do not “force” (for lack of a better term) a technique onto a certain image if I don’t feel it will work. Being able to photograph long exposures allows me to have another technique at my disposal — it is extremely versatile in that I have the choice to photograph at (depending on the light) 1/3200 second up to several hours. I view every technique I have learned as different tools in my toolbox — a carpenter wouldn’t use a hammer when she/he should use a screwdriver. When I am out at a particular location and I see the final image in my head, I use the techniques to help me achieve that result.
Nathan: Do you make your own prints?
Kevin: I currently don’t print my own images. I would love to learn Piezography as well as print in the darkroom, however I haven’t been able to commit the time to learn yet.
Nathan: Where are you hoping to take your photography in the years to come?
Kevin: Right now, I am just focused on continuing to refine and develop my style and voice. I don’t view photography with a particular goal in mind. Instead, I view it as an ever-evolving journey that adds a bit to the way I view the world. With each image, I find a new focus or a new idea and I simply follow it to see what I can discover. With that said, I do hope to have a book published with a small collection of images by the end of the year.
Nathan: I have noticed that you have a rather tentative approach to the world of online sharing. What are your overall feelings about sharing your work on photography-related, online sites (such as 500px, Flickr, Google+, etc.)?
Kevin: Actually, the biggest culprit to the minimal work I share online is really due to the amount of time I have to devote to the photography sites. Up until a few years ago, I had a lot more free time to browse work, keep up with contacts, discover new contacts, comment and critique others’ work. I always feel awful uploading new work knowing that I won’t have the time to reciprocate to my own contacts or the people that take the time to comment on my work. As you have discovered in my lengthy delays in email responses, when my life gets busy, the first thing that gets reduced is the time I spend online. It takes a rather large time commitment to keep up with all the different photography sites and there really isn’t enough hours in the day to do everything.
Nathan: We already talked about your musical background and its possible influences on your work, but I’d also like to know if you listen to music while you process your images, and, if yes, what music you tend to listen to?
Kevin: Music plays a large part of my life, so I do listen to music while processing images. My musical tastes are extremely eclectic, so I could be listening to anything. On some subconscious level, I am sure that what I listen to influences my thoughts while processing images; however, I do not consciously seek out anything in particular. In fact, I often put my iTunes on shuffle and just let it play– which can be somewhat disorienting when Hendrix, Chopin, Mos Def, DJ Shadow, and Pavement come up in succession.
Nathan: Do you have any tips for those that really like your work?
Kevin: I think building a strong foundation is important when learning any art, so learning and understanding the photographic rules (and when to break them), how to properly expose, compose, and utilize the tools (camera, Photoshop, etc) are very important. I also am a big advocate of studying other people’s work — figuring out why another photographer chose to use a particular focal length, composition, and processing and then learning how they achieved similar results can lead to some very interesting discoveries. Once a mastery of the basics are down, then one should work on developing a personal vision and style — how we view the world and our interpretation of it through photography and the image-making process is one of the things that makes us unique.Nathan: What do you make of the concept, idea, genre, etc. of fine art photography? The term is used by a lot of photographers today to represent a lot of varying styles. Who do you think it means (if anything at all)?
Kevin: Today, fine art photography simply seems like a catch-all phrase for anything that is not documentary photography work. I think it is simply a way of categorizing imagery into neat little boxes so that they can be easily segmented. Honestly, I do not think it means anything at all — there are a lot of fantastic documentary photographers whose work could be classified as fine art (W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Kevin Carter, among others) and vice versa (like Nick Brandt, John Weller, Camille Seaman).
Nathan: What, if anything, is the significance of Kevin Saint Grey?
Kevin: I began using Kevin Saint Grey as a pseudonym to separate my personal photography from my professional career. That line began to blur after I started entering some international photography competitions as I have to enter under Kevin Kwok. I use both names interchangeably now but I prefer to use “Kevin Saint Grey” for photography since there are quite a few Kevin Kwok’s out in the world and at least one of them also photographs.
“Saint” is a reference to Saint Kevin of Glendalough (498-618 AD) who was (according to some texts) an extreme introvert and an animal welfare advocate, both of which also describe myself. “Grey” comes from my preference for monochrome photography.
Nathan: Anything you would like to add?
Kevin: I’d just like to say thank you so much for this opportunity. As you know, I am a huge admirer of your work and it is a huge honor for me to be asked to be interviewed. Thanks, again.
Nathan: Believe me when I say that the privilege is all mine, Kevin. Without a doubt, you are one of my very favorite photographers working today.
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The image of the Hasselblad 500c/m comes from creative commons stock.