Kent Avenue Interview Series: Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Kirk Edwards is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose schedule often takes him far afield for international fashion and commercial work. Raised in Iowa, he earned a business degree there, before changing course to a successful photography career in New York City. He gained experience as an assistant to photographers such as Jorg Badura, Steven Klein, and Mark Seliger, before forging his own solo career. For the past decade, he has lived and worked out of the apartments at 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg—part of a younger generation in the building's renowned photographic community that Nomadic Press has chronicled in this series. Among the topics Edwards discussed was his recent work with musician Mr. Hudson, photographing the Sundance Film Festival, magazine shoots with athletes, and a personal project inspired by his wife's talent for hula dancing. He also sat for a cover portrait, and was photographed during our interview and at his studio, by Randall Bellows III

On Becoming a Photographer

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

I love Helmut Newton. I love Irving Penn. I love Herb Ritts. Those guys were all people that I totally fell in love with when I fell in love with photography. Growing up in Iowa, the only photographer that has a career is the guy that’s taking your picture for the paper. I grew up in a tiny little town, so you don’t really see a career in photography. You don’t realize that you could actually do that as a living. Of course, like every kid, you grow up getting National Geographic, and looking at the pictures like, “Oh, this is amazing! It would be so beautiful to travel the world. Who gets to take pictures like this?” Then you move to New York, and you find yourself in a building full of National Geographic photographers. It’s like, "Okay, those are the guys that get to do that stuff." When I moved to New York, I moved with a girl that worked on Wall Street, who took care of money for photographers and actors. They were a money management investment firm. I went to business school, and met her there. I knew that I didn’t want to work on Wall Street. I wanted to do something different. I had always loved photography, but I didn’t realize that there could be a career you could make out of it. So her boss said, "If you want to do photography, I take care of money for like ten guys, and I can get you some interviews. You’re from Iowa. I know how hard you work. If you just keep your mouth shut, and are willing to listen and learn, and work really, really hard, then most of these guys just like people that they can mold and train. It’s an internship that’s paid." I went in and got laughed out of seven or eight places. So I said I’d go to one more, because I felt so humiliated. It was right around the corner from where I was staying in the West Village. I skated over to this guy’s apartment, and when I walked in I knocked over four of his skateboards. It was a tiny little one bedroom. He was a German adventure photographer, Jorg Badura. We started talking about cameras, and he pulled out a big Pentax 670. He said, “Have you ever seen a camera like this?” I said, “That’s a big fucking camera.” So he said, “I look at cameras as tools. Obviously you have to take care of it, but it’s a utility, it’s functional, and it has a purpose. It’s not something that you drop. It’s something you handle gently." It also had a big wooden handle on it. So he said, “Are you comfortable with tools?” I said, “Yes, my father was in the construction business. It was a road construction company, and I grew up around heavy machinery. So no problem with that thing.” I was sitting probably a meter away, and he just threw it at me. I caught it with one hand, and he said, “Come in tomorrow and start.” A week later, we were on a plane flying first class to Vienna to shoot Anna Kournikova for Adidas. Two weeks later, we were going to New Zealand to shoot a cigarette campaign, and back to Europe to shoot a runner for Nike. All of a sudden it was on. Then you start meeting other assistants in the industry, and going out and having drinks. You meet Steven Klein assistants, and they’re looking for someone, so I move over to him. You're in this tiny little world where you get higher and higher, and you’re working for the best of the best.

On Working as an Assistant

The first ten years that I was here, I was working seven days a week. I'm either going out late with friends who I haven’t seen in a month, or else I’m working. Working for Steven Klein, we were there at 6:00 in the morning, and then he would shoot until midnight or 2:00 in the morning. We would work six weeks without a single day off. We were also booking assistants for all the other jobs, and would have anywhere from four to eight of them. With Steven, it was all 8 x 10, so you had to have an assistant working the Polaroid machine. You would have an assistant that was loading film, an assistant that was downloading film. There was a lot that went into it. With Steven, too, we would be running and testing film, something that doesn’t happen anymore. You would be coordinating with the labs, and testing a sheet at minus one, testing sheets at minus half, doing different color tests, pushing the film, seeing which shots look better pushed, which ones looked better pulled. Then print orders and retouching, making sure that Steven had everything put in front of him. He was making retouching notes, and they were going back to the retoucher. Also, stockpiling film. He would shoot like 20 boxes of 809 Polaroid in a day. That stuff was like $400 a box. So the job was film stock, keeping the cameras all cleaned, and sending them off to be fixed. Then of course, when we were traveling, we traveled with anywhere from 20 to 50 cases. That was just cameras for the most part. That wasn’t any grip. Keeping track of all of that, and then doing it on the road as well. You’re FedExing the film and all the tests back and forth from New York to wherever you are, and making sure all the deadlines are met with processing. I mean, it was a crazy job back in the day when you were shooting film. 

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

On Having a Good Stylist

They are just as important as the photographer. I did two jobs recently where people just said, “I’ll bring my own clothes.” But when they bring their own clothes, they look like shit. How the person looks and what they’re wearing is just an important part of the picture. If it's for fashion, it’s extremely important. But for a portrait, what you wear defines who you are. It sends a very, very clear message. So the styling is just as important to the images as my job. It’s always the biggest part, because you look at someone and you can tell who they are by what they’re wearing. People don’t understand that, especially younger musicians. Styling is most important when you’re shooting guys, because guys are just inevitably a little bit sloppy. I think people are also a little bit afraid to push the boundaries on their own. The stylist generally can do that. They get somebody to send a much clearer message of who they are or change their identity in a big way that they may not realize. 

On Camera Construction Quality

It’s just such a shame. You used to be able to buy a camera, and that camera would be your camera for your entire career. Those old Hasselblads, you have to get them fixed, you have to maintain them, but that’s all you needed. You have a couple of Rolleis, some Pentaxs, an old Hasselblad 503 system, you’re good. You’re done. You don’t have to buy new cameras. Now, these things last two years and they’re done. They’re all throwaways that you don’t use anymore. Once you upgrade, there might be a backup that you pull out in case your mirror falls out. I had that happen before. I was down in Mexico shooting, and it was super muggy. All of a sudden, I was looking through, and what I’m seeing keeps shifting. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I’m rubbing my eye, then all of a sudden the whole mirror just fell out of the camera. That was a brand new Canon 5D Mark III. I had to pull out my old Mark II to keep shooting. I go back to the hotel with my assistant, and we’re in Mexico. Do I send the new one down, and risk it getting stuck in customs for like three weeks, and not even being able to use it? So we went to the grocery store, bought superglue, and we just superglued the mirror back in. I’ve never had a problem with it since. But that wouldn’t happen with a Hasselblad from 20 years ago. 

On the Shift from Still Images to Video

It’s sad to say, but stills are going to be going more and more away. But if you look at Internet traffic online, overwhelmingly people are clicking through still images at a 70% higher rate than clicking on videos. So still images have a very big place, but it’s all just moving, and every camera these days has a video function. So it’s all moving more and more in that direction, and as technology gets better, I think there’s going to be video everywhere. When you walk through stores and malls, they’re all going to be moving images. It catches peoples eyes more. If you’re doing point of sale fashion for, say, J. Crew or Coach, or any of those fashion brands, in the windows they’re all soon going to be that paper-thin LCD you can put video on. 

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

On Directing a Mr. Hudson Music Video

He was a producer first and foremost. He got picked up by Duran Duran and spent a year producing all of their new album, Paper Gods. They are just so old school, and could take their time, and really make an album the way that people used to. So I think he got really, really inspired by working with them. He came over and is now working with Janelle Monáe on her album. Originally, Kanye [West] really fell in love with him, and he produced some of 808s & Heartbreak. That’s sort of where he got looped into Def Jam. Now he's producing for other acts and working on his own album again.

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

When I was out in L.A., he was staying in Los Feliz, and I called him. He did a little shoot for Schön! Magazine here in New York and said to come over and have a coffee at the pool. We just totally reconnected. I’d see him every day. He’s become a really good friend. So he called and said, “Let’s do some pictures. I’m releasing a single.” Kanye was having an 808s & Heartbreak reunion show, and he was part of that concert. We rented an old car, because he’s a huge car junkie, and totally loves them. He mentioned, “Let’s just go up above the Hollywood Bowl, up in Griffith Park." But there was another show at the Hollywood Bowl, and we ended up getting stuck for two hours in traffic with no place to pull over. Cars lined the road. Awful. Then, “Oh my God, the sun’s going to go down in 20 minutes.” We finally got out, raced as fast as we could to Mulholland Drive, I shot for 10 minutes, and it ended up being the cover of his new single. It hit the Internet pretty well. People were excited to hear something new from him again. I wanted something to show that he had made a departure from dreary London, and really give a vibe that he was in L.A.

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Then he wanted to do a video. The idea was originally that he wanted to build this set where there’s these enclosed walls, and you’re feeling trapped. Jade was going to be trapped in these high walls, and he was going to have her dance through them. She was going to be moving in and out, and we were going to do shafts of light, and make it light and dark. But the money wasn’t there to be able to produce it. So he was also taking acting classes, and his acting teacher had told him at class the night before that sometimes when you’re acting you should do the exact opposite thing of what your mind tells you. So the idea came that we were just going to shoot on this wide open expanse, and be able to have her dance through it there, so it wasn’t so literal that she was trapped. A lot of it just came out of the fact that there was little money, and we just needed some place free to shoot. So we went and hid somewhere on a beach up in Malibu and did it.  

On Shooting Sundance

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

That was one of the best projects I've ever done. It was so fun. InStyle was the magazine that I was shooting for, and they have such an amazing setup, because Grey Goose sponsors a bar. So they do bloody marys, and it's just a relaxed place. Sundance is glamorous because the town gets transformed into like a mini-Hollywood, but everyone is in winter clothes and relaxed. The way InStyle has it set up, Coach has a little gift bag, so celebrities can come in and pick up some clothing from Top Shop, and they get a Coach purse. They sit down with the writers, and get asked about beauty products, like hair stuff they use. It's a very relaxed atmosphere where everyone comes in, and the casts all rotate through. It's outside of Hollywood and people are going snowboarding, and going to see movies. The setup that InStyle has, everyone is so comfortable that they would end up staying for an hour or two—where usually you get like 15 minutes. So I had a little outside studio setup where I could shoot them overlooking the main drag, Then I had a studio setup inside, and I would just bounce back and forth. You don't get a lot of time, but they would want a picture of the cast all together, and then I could just grab them at will. When you're able to shoot that caliber of celebrities for like nine days, with 10–15 celebrities a day, your book just builds. You have 90 new portraits in a week. It's not like you're just being hired to shoot one portrait one day, and you get one picture and walk out. They just keep coming and coming and coming. 

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

You sort of have to just embrace the cold. I was shooting Liv Tyler, and it was snowing outside. We were in the studio, and she says, “Oh my God, it's snowing! !t's so beautiful out." I'm like "Well, let's go outside. Do you want to go play around in the snow?” And she said, "Yeah, let's go do it.” So she's throwing snow up in the air, and rolling around in the snow. People said they feel like Sundance is something different, where they can get away, and everyone is bundled up. So it might not be great for resale, but people have their scarves on. I have an amazing picture of Nick Offerman, from that show Parks and Recreation. He had a big mustache and this huge scarf on, and this great hat, and he's got steam coming out of his face because it's nice and cold. I remember talking to him, “Thanks, it's really nice of you to join me outside.” He says, “I have the best job in the world. This is the best thing I could ever do. I just love it here.” So you get people in an environment that's outside of where they normally are. I think InStyle does a really good job of making people really comfortable, so they always get great portraits from whoever gets hired to do it. I've worked with their entertainment editor, and she left InStyle after I did that job. She's now the editor-in-chief of DuJour, so that's why I'm now working with them. It’s just part of the game. Your connections move, and everyone has their own team.

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

On Magazine Projects

DuJour sort of has between a Vanity Fair and GQ vibe for their guys, depending on which photographer they hire for the project. We had our fitting with Victor Cruz, and he employs the stylist who styles LeBron James. She works with him all the time, and so she has specific looks where they want him to be a little more sporty, or a little more in a suit, to keep him in context. The stylist is super specific about what they wanted him to look like, so I can say, “Yeah, let's try that. Let's try this,” and she'll have 810 things and say, “What should we try now?” Then we'll talk about it and decide what we are going to use.

The majority of athletes that I've worked with have all been great to work with. Because a lot of these guys, they don't come from money, and I feel like they are extremely grateful for the opportunities that they've been given, and the fact that they are making tons of money. Giuseppe Rossi, he's from Paterson, the same place that Victor Cruz is from. He's one of the leading scorers in the Italian Series A soccer league, and the most humble person that you'd ever meet. You can sit down with him, and you'd think that he was just a buddy of yours from next door. There is no ego, no massive persona. Paul Pierce was the same. He grew up in Compton. He is a super, super nice guy. He's there and he's working with you, and he is willing to do whatever. When we went out and did some stuff in studio, I could tell that he felt uncomfortable. So I called a couple of suburbans, and we went up to a basketball court in Greenpoint. The minute that we got there, he was just totally in his element. Granted, we had to put him in a coat and he was still in fashion. But there were a bunch of kids on the court, and he just started playing around with them and dunking on these little kids. You could tell how much more natural he was if you put him in his element.

When you're shooting portraits, it's good to put people in their own element. The Joel Kinnaman pictures that I did is a crazy small world story. Vanity Fair Italy called me to do a couple of portraits in L.A., and I had no idea who it was, as you generally don't. They say, “We need you to work locally. We’re not going to pay for your hotel or your flight. But if we give you a few jobs, will you go do it?” Yeah, no problem. I have a couple of Swedish buddies that have a house up in the Hollywood Hills, and I could crash with them. So I called my buddy, Mons, and he's like, “Yeah, come out. We're going to be here,” There's a whole bunch of Swedish guys, like a posse. So I land, call the magazine, “Where are we shooting? I'm going to go check it out.” They say, "We're shooting Joel Kinnaman." I say, “That's funny. I'm staying with him.” So they say, “Well, we have a hotel that you can shoot at.” But I say I'm going to shoot him at the house I'm staying at. He loves this place. It's his little oasis with all of his homies, and it makes a lot more sense to shoot him in his own house in Hollywood than it does to shoot him at the Standard. How many shoots have you seen done at the Standard? Funny how those things work, but I always prefer shooting personalities like that in their own sort of environment.

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

Photograph by Kirk Edwards

We were hanging out by the pool, and we didn't have very much time because he was doing a bunch of publicity for RoboCop at the time. His schedule was pretty packed, so I think I had him for like an hour. I wanted to have him jump in the pool, because they had a big pool where they did parties every Friday night at the house. Have him on the inflatable raft, a swan, in the pool, and have him in a suit in there. But he was like, “I can't get wet, because I have to run to another show. So I shot him in his kitchen,  standing in his living room, sitting out by the pool. You always wish you had more time, but with celebrities it's always such a time crunch. You get three or four hours. Unless it's a cover shoot for Vanity Fair, they are not going to give you that much time.

On the Hula Project

My wife is from Hawaii, and started dancing hula when she was six or seven years old. She was the youngest person to have a solo show at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. She used to travel around the world representing the state of Hawaii for dancing and was a little hula prodigy. So we were going back to Hawaii for Christmas, and we decided because that if we're going that far away that we should go for like three weeks, and for her to see all of her family. If I'm going to be in Hawaii for three weeks, I need to do something, or I’m gonna go crazy. I'm not the sort of person that can just sit on the beach for three weeks. So, she got in touch with her old instructor who she used to travel with, and they gave me access to some of their girls. So we rented a house, and I just set up a little studio in our backyard. I shot everything in natural light, and just spent a few days with these girls. It's a very closed culture, so it's something that you don't really get access to being an outsider. It's a ritual, almost.

On Sunsets

It’s so rare in New York that you shoot outdoors for so much of the year. The season is like May to September, and then everything sort of moves back into the studio, because you only have light from 8:00 until 3:30, since we are so much further north. L.A. is just such a location place. Shooting on location is all you do when you go out there, for the most part. Even the studio jobs have great outdoor light. The sun is beautiful, and there’s always beautiful places to set up. I like shooting on location. I had a shoot recently in New York that was in a studio, and it was the first time that I’d shot in a studio in quite a while. A lot of my work ends up happening outdoors, and obviously L.A. is very conducive to that.

When it comes to sunsets, you just have to pay for it. Even at [475 Kent Ave], they’ve got wind and they want [a fee] to shoot on the roof. If they find out that I’m shooting a job with people up there, they send me a bill. They’ve caught on that they can make money on that, and that’s the thing in New York. It’s hard to get a sunset, unless you are at a place like ours. In L.A., you can get a sunset anywhere, any street you walk down. Even if you’re in Compton, you can get a beautiful sunset. 

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

On Moving to 475 Kent

One of my assistants moved in there. I was living at 337 Kent at the time, so I was just down the street. When I went over to his place, I was just, “Wow!” The building is obviously super special, and it was far enough away, too. It almost felt like it was a little too far away, but it was still so close [to Manhattan] and on the water. There was an apartment that became available on the 10th floor, and so I immediately just got rid of my apartment. I remember at the time being like, “Oh boy, am I doing the right thing?” Because it was expensive at the time, so it was a big commitment. This was in 2005, 2006. I scrapped the money together and moved in. Before that, I never knew my neighbors in New York. Every building I lived in, I didn't know my neighbors. You would see them, and it would be because they were upset with you because you were playing music too loud, or you’d see them passing in the hallway. At 475, I know at least half the people in the building really well. There are so many creative people there, and it feels like a community. You can knock on the neighbor's next door and get milk, or if you need a hand saw or power tools. It doesn't matter what it is. It's a very neighborly vibe, and people always have their doors open. One opened his doors when my Quickbooks crashed and I needed a PC. I was doing an estimate, and I ended up sitting in his office for eight hours while I was getting my Quickbooks fixed. So I was working on his computer all day. It doesn't matter what it is. People open up their spaces and allow you to shoot. We can tap into almost anyone there, and they're for the most part pretty willing to help.

Like anything, you want to surround yourself by people that you're inspired by. It's nice to be able to pop down and ask for a camera, or ask for a tripod, or get someone's advice on what they are using for video, or if they have assistants that they can recommend, or what studios they are in. Chris Anderson is really good, and I think his work is amazing. He is a young guy that I look up to a lot, and I've been spending more time with recently. Then obviously Robert Clark was there for a long time. He is a very intense personality, and he's always very supportive. Any time you need anything, you can always go to his studio and touch base with him. He's always a fun person to be around, and talk to, and get a good story from.