Monday, July 30, 2012

Fashion Week Through an 85mm Lens: My Conversation with Adam Katz Sinding of Le 21ème


Over the last couple of years Le 21ème has emerged as one of the most buzzed about street fashion websites out of New York. The stark and moody signature photography of proprietor Adam Katz Sinding has elevated him to an elite status among "in the know" readers. His blog, called Le 21ème Arrondissement at the time of this interview, features some of the most distinctive photos out there of models, designers, and ordinary fashionistas, looking chic and mysterious, while stomping forlornly into an abyss of lens blur. Below is an edited version of my recent telephone conversation with Adam. 

Brent: I’m sure you get asked this in every interview you do, but can you tell me the story behind the name of your website, Le 21ème Arrondissement?

Adam: Aw, man! I lived in Paris back in 2005 in the 13th District. Paris has 20 districts. Naming the site the 21st district was like saying “beyond Paris.”  Looking back, it was probably not the best marketing choice [to go for that name]. I just thought it was kind of clever, and in my opinion Paris is the creative epicenter of the fashion world. Everything is inspired by it. I don’t think I thought too much about the name. I just thought it was a clever idea. It sounds really stupid and really funny when I talk about it, but that’s ok.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.

Brent: Do you have a shorthand for the blog, when you’re talking about it to yourself or your friends?

Adam: I don’t even really say the name, because no one knows what I’m saying if I say it in French. I always just say “the 21st Arrondissement,” vs “Le 21ème Arrondissement,” unless I’m in Paris, speaking to a French person. I’ll call it “Le 21ème” or “The 21st." Everyone [else] calls it “Le 21” or “the 21,” and I’m like “whatever.” Obviously I’m not the best at branding.

Brent: How would you describe Le 21ème? What kind of blog is it?

Adam: I don’t know. I guess street style is the best way to stereotype it, but I really hate that. I don’t even use the word “blog,” to be completely honest. I think it’s an embarrassing word. I think it’s a silly word. It’s actually really ironic, because the word “blague” in French means “joke.” So for me it’s like a double entendre. It really is just a weird word. There are certain words I just don’t like to say and that’s a word I just don’t like to say. I call it “my site.”

I guess it’s street style. That term is even very loosely used. I shoot backstage. I shoot at fashion shows, which I don’t think is real [street style]. That’s more of a presentation than reality. I’m just very careful of how I label things. I just take photos of things that I like. And things that inspire me. I don’t even want to say inspire me. Things that intrigue me. Things that catch my attention. The nice thing about digital photography is that you can take a photo of something, and it doesn’t cost you a penny. I take a photo of a million things that I’m not really that interested in, but they catch my eye. And they never make it to the website. I take thousands and thousands and thousands of photos each week of fashion week, and maybe 15 or so show up on my site, so you have to imagine what kind of shooting ratio I have.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: Sure. Do you concentrate largely on fashion weeks these days?

Adam: It’s the most exciting [thing to shoot], I think, just because of the pace. I go out every day for eight hours and shoot. When you’re at fashion week, it’s guaranteed that you’re going to get good material. But it’s a little bit more theatrical [than everyday life]. It’s just something different. As soon as I’m there I’m doing it, and it’s like I can’t wait for this to be over. And then as soon as it’s over I can’t wait until next fashion week. The novelty is really a bit of an endorphin rush.

Brent: So what’s the scene like at fashion week these days with all the bloggers? I mean, is there a lot of competition over getting photos? Is it a mad house?

Adam: Yeah. Every season is more [of one]. And then all these magazines are hiring us [bloggers] and other people to go out there and shoot for them. Which means now there’s a lot more money involved, and more people are wanting to get into it.  I’ve only been shooting fashion week for four seasons now, and when I started there were maybe 15 to 20 photographers out there. Now there are probably 40, maybe 50. And it sucks, because you lose a lot of fantastic shots. The big thing the magazines want is brand information, so as soon as some photographer’s done, they just go walk up to the subject that everyone’s taking photos of start talking to them, and getting their brand information, which really destroys a lot of opportunity. Some of my best shots of men’s week I lost because of other photographers walking into the shot. I understand [, though]. If it’s show-goers [walking into the shot], I don’t mind that. It’s just part of the reality [of fashion week]. But [when] the other photographers [do it], it’s a little bit upsetting, because it’s all kind of self-centered. The whole thing about blogging is it’s all about me, and my vision, and my perspective, so [those bloggers] don’t care that they ruin other peoples’ shots. They just want to make sure that they get their own product.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent:  Do you see a lot of the same bloggers over and over again, then, when you go to fashion weeks?

Adam: Yeah, totally.

Brent: And do you feel friendly with the other bloggers, or is it more of a competitive environment?

Adam: They’re all friendly with one another. I don’t really socialize in general. And I don’t really socialize too much with other bloggers. There’s a few others that I’ll speak to or are acquainted with, but I don’t need [the] distraction. I’ll get very easily distracted, and I’ll miss shots. Somebody I’ve been waiting for all day will walk by, or whatever. It’s the same thing when I want to go out and shoot and one of my friends wants to come and get a cup of coffee. It’s like, alright, now I’m not working; I’m socializing. And I need to be working.

Brent: Outside of being at fashion week and events like that, do you feel like you’re a part of a community or network of bloggers?

Adam: Maybe inadvertently. If I am it’s by default. I don’t even identify myself as a blogger. I’d rather be a photographer, and even that I have a hard time [with]. You know, my girlfriend is constantly correcting me when someone’s [asks me] “Oh, are you a photographer?” “Are you a professional photographer?” is a question you get all the time. Which to me is kind of a funny question, because you’re walking around with a $10,000 piece of equipment around your neck. You’re either a surgeon, or you’re a professional photographer. One or the other. Number one, you have to be able to get the money for the camera. So I always will say, “You know, kinda.” And she’ll be like, “Yes. Yes, he is. Shut up. Quit being so modest” or whatever. It’s very difficult, again, for me to label myself as something. I feel like I’ll leave that to other people.

I’d probably be a lot more successful if I were part of a blogger network or something like that, but I just don’t have a desire, I suppose. That’s just me. That’s not the common thread of this group. It’s just me.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: Fair enough. So, are you able to support yourself through your photography at this point?

Adam: I have been for a while, I just don’t choose to, because [of] health insurance. What happens is just that whenever I go off of health insurance, that’s when I get injured. And last time I had a one month lapse in health insurance I jammed a piece of glass through my forehead and had to spend the night in the emergency room. So I have a job. I’ve always worked in hotels, ironically, because, like a said, I’m a pretty [anti-social] person. I’ve always worked in hotels. It’s always something I’ve been good at. I work in a hotel right now [in fact] as a concierge.

Brent: So what are your plans, then, for your photography and the fashion/style part of your career?

Adam: I don’t know. Right now I just struggle to find time to shoot. I’m having to turn clients down pretty often, because I just can’t meet their quotas. Magazines want ridiculous amount of images per month. So I shoot for Elle magazine and I sell them like 250 images a month. And then I got approached by this other company, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, Shop Style, it’s like a huge deal, I guess. I’m not really an Internet person aside from my website. But they want 150 images a month, and then Grazie in Italy wants 10 images a month, and W magazine, so it’s like every day I need to shoot 20 people. Now, a good day on the street is ten people, and a great day is like 13 people. And as a full-time photographer every day I’d have to shoot that much, and as I only have two days off, it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to keep up with basically. And the thing about photography is your chasing invoices all the time. It’s not like a job where you’re getting paychecks every week deposited into your account. It’s a 60 day period you’re waiting before you get paid sometimes. And when you deal with the Italians, I’ve figured out that that can be up to a year.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: It definitely requires a lot of flexibility and patience, it sounds like.

Adam: I don’t have lot of patience or flexibility. I guess I’m flexible. I just don’t like being given the runaround. I’m hyper-organized, and I’m probably quite, in all honesty, the anomaly for this industry, because I really am organized. I have literally 130,000 images on my computer, and I’m going through individually every single aspect of them: who this is, what season it was, what they’re wearing, everything, so that, in the event that a magazine contacts me, and they want a photo of Miraslava Duma wearing this outside of this show, all I have to do is type it into my computer. It will pop right up, and it saves me any effort. I always joke about the fact that someone will give you a thousand dollars for pressing a button, but it becomes a little bit more than that if I have to spend an hour searching for the image because of poor organization.

Brent: So you moved to New York, what like 3 years ago?

Adam: I moved here on December 31st of 2010. So, just over a year and a half now.

Brent: And how is it different shooting street fashion in Seattle vs. New York?

Adam: It’s night and day. You’ll maybe shoot 5 people a month in Seattle, whereas you can shoot 5 people in 30 minutes in New York. It doesn’t even compare. Seattle has gotten a lot better from when I started, but there’s no real fashion there.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: So did you move to New York specifically to pursue the photography career?

Adam: Yeah.

Brent: Do you have formal training in photography?

Adam: Outside of taking a black and white photography class after 5th grade for 4 or 5 days, no. My dad [,however,] was a photographer — not professionally, but as a hobbyist. The only way that I ever really learned to use a camera was I dated this girl, and she wanted someone to take pictures of her really quickly, so she could submit them to a modeling agency, and I had no idea how to use a camera. She explained to me how a light meter worked, and I was like, “This is fun,” and the photos turned out alright, and [so] I went out and bought a camera, and I’ve constantly been upgrading since then.

Brent: What are you using these days?

Adam: I have a Nikon D4.

Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: Nice camera.

Adam: It’s an incredible, incredible camera. In all honesty — and people may argue with this— it’s got so much to do with the equipment. If I had a bottom of the line Nikon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. No one would care about my website. I’ve always had nice cameras, and that’s the only reason that I think I’ve had any real success. I guess it’s fortunate, because it means that anyone who really wants to do it can do it, but it also kind of sucks that it’s one of those sports where you have to have a ton of money to get into it. That’s why you don’t see any professional cycling teams from Africa. Who knows how good of an F1 racer I’d be if I had enough money to build an F1 car.

Brent: Do you typically use a portrait lens to get that nice blurred out background?

Adam: Yeah. I’m pretty much a one-trick pony. I use the 85mm 1.4, always wide open. I just love the way it looks. I used to use the 50mm, and I remember, I bought the 85mm, just because I wanted to have it, and I had never used it before, and I bought it, and I had it for like 6 months and never used it. Then my 50mm stopped working, and while I was having it repaired, I used the 85, and I was just blown away by it. It’s so nice.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: That’s what I hear a lot of people say. You can really see the difference in peoples’ images.

Adam: Yeah. If you look at my friend Koo’s blog —it’s called I’m Koo— he has my old camera. He bought my Nikon D3S, and he has a 50mm 1.4. He’s a very very good photographer, but there’s a definite discrepancy between his photos and my photos, just because of the lens. My camera’s a little bit better, [in terms of] the body, but the lens makes such a massive difference.

Brent: So do you have any particular photographers that you would cite as influences on your work?

Adam: I really like Jak & Jil. I think that Tommy [Ton] has a really incredible eye. He sees a lot of things that I don’t see, which makes me jealous. But he’s also been doing it for a lot longer, so he’s kind of got it down. I’m sure a lot of people would say Scott Schuman [The Sartorialist]. I’m not at all inspired by him. I can’t deny that his website inspired me to start, just because I hadn’t seen anything like that before. There was stuff like that in Seattle, but it was crap. But then I saw his website. And also Garance Doré, his current girlfriend’s, website. I don’t look at it anymore [but in] 2008, 2009 [it] was really incredible. She’s a really great photographer in my opinion. I think she may be one of the most talented of the big guys. [But] who knows how much retouching is done. I feel like she took really great photos. And now she’s kind of become like this girly blog, and it’s not really my thing anymore.

Brent: Yeah, it definitely feels like it’s gone in a different direction. So you made the comment about retouching, and I’m just curious what your attitude about retouching is. Is retouching fair game? Or is that something you should avoid if you can?

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Adam: You have to do it a little bit. If someone took a picture of me, and I had a giant pimple on my forehead, I would really hope that before they put it on the Internet they would get rid of the pimple, just for my own self-confidence. I’m not going to change someone’s chin, [though]. What I’ve noticed on Stockholm StreetStyle — which is another site I look at — not necessary to look at what people are wearing, but as a reference site to get people’s names — people don’t even look the same. They look like ten years younger. And it’s like, alright, that’s not what this is about. This isn’t a beauty show. It’s about some sort of reality. This is just my opinion, though. I have a lot of things I’m against that a lot of the other photographers do.

All I do is I take the photos, put them into Lightroom, and see what happens when I click the auto button on develop mode. I just like to see what the computer suggests.  I either keep it or I don’t. Then, I boost my blacks a little bit. I smart sharpen, and that’s it. I mean, if it’s a cloudy day, and there’s a green tree in the background, maybe I’ll boost the greens a little bit, so that it’s a little bit more eye-catching, but I’m not going to do anything more than that.

Brent: So when you go to a show or some other major fashion event, do you have a checklist in your mind of people you want to be shooting on any given day?

Adam: Nah, it’s whoever turns up. You know, I’ll go through a whole week and I’ll think, “Aw man, I never got to shoot blah blah blah!” And [I think], “Oh well.” No. There’s so many people [there that] you can never keep track of who’s where and what. Sometimes if I’m shooting for a magazine, yeah, definitely, because I know that they want those photos. But I’m not going to hang out if I haven’t seen somebody yet.
Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: Are you still shooting candid street style shots too?

Adam: Yeah, totally. Not candid though really. I mean, I shoot candid when I do fashion week, but when I’m on the street it’s more, “Can I take your picture? Ok, cool, stand there.” I think [street style is] far more interesting than going to fashion week as far as showing some cross-section of reality.

Brent: And do you have a specific approach that you use when you go up to people?

Adam: Apparently I’m too passive, according to a lot of my friends. I just go up to somebody, and I say “Hey, excuse me, can I take your photo?” And if I’m shooting a particular magazine, I’ll drop the name of that magazine, because it tends to get a “yes” answer every time.  And if it’s a guy I approach them differently than if it’s a girl. I’m always really worried that people think I’m hitting on them. I just don’t want people to think that, whether it be male or female. And I hate when it’s like some amazing girl walking with her boyfriend, and I go approach her. I feel like this guy thinks I’m an asshole for talking to his girlfriend. I’m not that kind of possessive guy, but I know a lot of guys are, and they get hyper-jealous, and I don’t want to start some argument between them.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: How would you describe your personal style?

Adam: I think that I have really great style, I just don’t ever execute it. Because I’m always working I walk so much. If I buy a thousand dollar pair of pants and then I’m walking ten miles a day, those pants aren’t going to last that long. So I end up just wearing a pair of Acne jeans, and then not caring when I throw the crotch on them or whatever. I have an incredible wardrobe by my standards, but I don’t wear any of it.

Brent: Do you get much swag? Do brands and labels send you stuff?

Adam: No. But again, I’m not good at marketing. If I work out an advertisement deal — if you look at my website I have four or five ads — often times [they will send me stuff]. But I’m one of those people it’s really hard to buy gifts for. I’m so picky about who I would let advertise on my website that it’s the same kind of thing. I don’t want any Ugg boots. I’m not going to wear Ugg. And I don’t have any friends either that are going to wear Ugg to give them to. And I also think it’s the best thing about me that I’m picky. If I wasn’t I think I’d just have a website full of cute girls in American Apparel all day. Which, don’t get me wrong, I’ve shot a lot of girls in American Apparel, but that’s not what my website’s about. It’s about having a little bit more focused of a view on what cool is.
Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: How would you describe your brand?

Adam: I don’t know. Difficult to pronounce? I really don’t know. It’s just stuff that I think looks cool. I think it’s more focused on mood and — I hate to use this word — the zeitgeist of what is happening. That changes from season to season, and my taste changes from season to season, so I think that my site is really only focused seasonally. And it can change next season. Who knows?

I’m going through all these photos and I’m going through the first fashion week [that I shot] in New York, and it’s like, what was I thinking? Why did I take these? I’m constantly learning, and I think I’m kind of falling into my own, but I really don’t know, and I don’t want to stereotype this, because if it changes next season I’m just going to look back and feel really stupid for ever saying something else. I’m very OCD.

Brent: I think you have to be to be a success in any kind of creative endeavor.

Adam: Maybe. I don’t know. I have a hard time thinking that the other guys are, but they’re vastly more successful than me. I’m like the business artist or whatever.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.
Brent: Hmm. Well it seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself lately in any case.

Adam: Yeah, it’s doing ok.

Brent: What kind of traffic do you get?

Adam: It’s not great, like a 150,000 pageviews a month or something. The way that I always [explain] it to people who want to advertise is, it’s 150,000 people that are there for a reason. They weren’t searching for “girl in black T-shirt” and found themselves on my website. It’s people who know that’s their destination, where they want to be. It’s a very focused audience as well. Which I think is good. Because I have a funny feeling that even though The Sartorialist has like 45 million views a minute or whatever, only a couple percent of those people actually know what they’re talking about or are actual real consumers that could affect the advertisers’ income. But it’s constantly growing. It grows about ten percent a month. 

Brent: What kind of means do you use to increase your traffic?

Adam: Nothing. I mean, I tweet, just my posts, and peoples’ posts that I like. That’s really it. I “like” stuff on Facebook. I’m not good at it. I’m not this person who has got like 35 pinboards on Pinterest and they’re all highly organized or whatever. I have a Tumblr, but it’s just a piece of junk. There are so many things that I could do to increase my traffic, and I probably will do them, but I’m just too much of a perfectionist to just go willy nilly. I need to get everything organized and cataloged and then I can really start focusing on that.

Image by Adam Katz Sinding.

Brent: How much help do you get running the site?

Adam: All the site is all done by me. I have a developer who I basically drive crazy by saying, “Hey, what if we do this, and then have this?” He’s absolutely the greatest. Even when I can’t use words to describe something he knows exactly what to do to make it happen. He’s from Seattle, actually. I never knew him when I was in Seattle, but I posted on Facebook that I needed help from a developer, and he took over. And then my friend Melody, who helps me shoot sometimes, she has been doing the revamp I’m doing. She’s helping me modelize. Every model that I’ve ever taken a photo of I’ve tasked her with finding out who this is so I can tag it. So that’s kind of how I’m trying to increase my SEO (Search Engine Optimization), but it’s also for my own personal thing. Because during fashion week, all these models come out of a show, and they’re bombarded by all these people that think they all look the same. And if I know that person’s name, if I know who they are, and I’m really good matching names with a face, because I’ve worked at hotels for so long, if some girl’s running away from a crowd, and I yell, “Melissa!” and then she turns around and gives me a look, just for a split second, then I got the shot, and nobody else did, and that’s worth it. So it’s kind of for my own glossary of names. It’s like my visual little black book or whatever. The worst thing is calling somebody the wrong name, and I do that all the time. It’s so embarrassing.

Brent: Seems unavoidable.

Adam: It really is. Some of their names are so similar, and some of their names are so Eastern European with so many syllables, it can get messy.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Lyn, 17th St

There are a few demographics, I have to shamefully admit, I have been hesitant to take pictures of for this blog. The one I've been most keenly aware of is people roughly over the age of 40. I'm not sure why. I'm afraid, for some reason, that they might be offended, think I'm making fun of or condescending to them, or simply not know what a street style blog is. That fear was quite suddenly demolished when I saw Lyn walking down 17th St as I turned the corner from Chestnut. I knew I had to take her picture. She has such a quirky and fantastic sense of style, and these are quite possibly my favorite pictures I've taken so far. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Camera Guilt, and Other Unnecessary Anxieties of Street Style Photography

Let me start this post by saying I love my new camera and my new 85mm lens. I can do things with them I could never do with my old Panasonic Lumix GF1. I can get that lush bokeh, or background blur, so characteristic of The Sartorialist, Jak & Jil, and Le 21ème Arrondissement, among other top street style sites. I can shoot full body portraits without distortion. I can shoot snapshots of passerbys without them looking like tiny dots on the screen. But after a couple of days of shooting with it, I've experienced something I didn't expect; i've experienced a strange feeling of betrayal, as I if left my wife for a hot young mistress. My old camera is just sitting up there on the shelf, abandoned, lonely. And just as many adulterers report feeling a new attraction and deepening longing for their current spouses when they're out with their new lovers, my old camera is looking kinda awesome to me at the moment, vaguely like a classic rangefinder. So compact. So beautifully simple. 

My feeling of guilt, however doesn't stop there. I also feel a vague sense of betrayal towards my humble street style brethren, out shooting with whatever they could get their hands on. It's like I've sided with street fashion and the flashier side of the style blogosphere over the more grassroots-level outfits. And I feel a sense of betrayal towards my deeply rooted suspicion of consumer culture too. It's gotten me through a lot: post-college poverty, Southeast Asian slums, my experiments with organic farming. I owe it something. Have I, I wonder, finally given in to the corrosive logic of late capitalism, that irrational belief that personal development and product acquisition are the same thing? 

So I remind myself of why I got the camera. First, to understand on a practical and technical level how the people I'm studying achieve their shots. And on that front I feel like I've already made a huge leap of progress. Second, to up my game. I recently accepted a position as co-editor of Visual Anthropology Review, the top academic journal for visual anthropology, the subdiscipline of anthropology that studies visuality and uses photography and film to document culture, and I want to make myself into a better visual anthropologist. For this, and all future projects, I will be making some use of photography. I want to be the best photographer I can be. Finally, I got the camera as a symbolic gesture, a commitment to this project and the practice of visual anthropology more generally.

And I guess these reminders help. Or at least, furiously typing this after a particularly grueling jog in 80 percent humidity is helping. Which reminds me of the one other needless anxiety I've been experiencing: that by committing myself to photography I'm somehow betraying my first, and truest creative love, writing. But don't worry, writing, I'm not going anywhere. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Matt, Walnut St.

I've seen Matt around town before and thought about stopping him, but the timing was never right. This time, no doubt, the bike sealed the deal. I've said it before: bikes make people look cooler. Not to mention mustaches and mutton chops. And I'm a long time fan of prematurely gray hair. No matter what they say on "What Not to Wear" I think it makes people look younger and more distinguished at the same time.

I love how my new 85mm lens handles portraits. That, of course, is what it's for, and why so many wedding photographers use them. I have to stand further back to take peoples' pictures now — much further back — which I think helps people look more relaxed and natural in the shots. It also poses some challenges on busy sidewalks. Notice the door opening on Matt. Plus, it's tricky getting the focus right. 

They say taking up photography changes the way you see the world around you. You start to frame the scenes you see as if they fit into the viewfinder of a camera. How then, does it change the way you see the world if you're using a 50mm (or rough equivalent) vs. 85mm lens? One, after all, the 50mm, is meant to look as close as possible to the perspective the human eye naturally sees. The other, the 85mm, brings everything much closer. It's like a sudden and immediate intimacy. I find myself continually surprised. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Philly Style Blogger Profile: Jared Michael Lowe

Name: Jared Michael Lowe
Age: 25
Blog: Lowefactor
Hometown: Philadelphia
Current Neighborhood: Chestnut Hill
What He's Listening to These Days: Azealia Banks, Passion Pit, Tanlines
How He Describes His Style: Eclectic, quirky with a bit of posh and edge
Favorite Designers: Alexander Wang, Marni, Raf Simons
Style Influences: Lauren Hutton, Solange Knowles, Robyn, Carrie Bradshaw

Jared started Lowefactor, an online fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle magazine, after graduating from Kutztown University in 2008. He worked various internships, moved to NYC temporarily, and followed the tried and true path for making a career in the fashion industry. Nothing, however, seemed to be happening for him. So he decided he was through waiting around to be discovered. He used his love for writing, and growing rolodex of contacts, to start Lowefactor. Lowefactor has given him both a voice and a venue. Now he contributes articles to The Huffington Post, Ebony, and Essence, among other places. He couldn't believe how easy it was, it says. Or rather, how easy it was to start his blog. Keeping it up and growing his readership is another story.

Jared's shirt is from ASOS. The pants are American Apparel.

Jared's hat is by Vans. His watch is Michael Kors. His sunglasses are American Apparel too. But keep quiet about it. He doesn't want everyone to catch on to his source.

Jared's shoes are Asics he's had since high school. The bag is Rag & Bone.

Notice the beautiful background blur on these images, "bokeh," for you photography geeks. I have upgraded my camera, gone full-frame, baby! And tacked on an 85mm lens too. It's a whole new world, let me tell you. More on that later. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Jenny, Grace, and Anaia

Long time readers may recall that I shot Grace once before back in May. Click here to see those earlier shots. I spotted her walking down 16th St on a lazy Sunday, Jenny and Anaia with her, and we had one of those awkward moments, where you wonder whether your earlier, brief interaction still classifies you as acquaintances. I have those a lot shooting in Center City these days. I can no longer go downtown without seeing previous photographic subjects. Sometimes they smile or nod at me. Other times, they look down or away, pretending they haven't seen me or don't recognize me. My guess is that once you've been photographed by a street style photographer, the ruse is up. You figure you're being assessed by them. You suspect they're analyzing your look. And you would be right. Street style spotting isn't something you can turn on and off. Even without a camera, you do it.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Garrett, Walnut St

I think of the 1990s as the heyday of the ironic T-shirt. We searched painstakingly through thrift store bins for any reference we could find to small town little leagues, larger-than-life hair bands, and misguided anti-drug campaigns. I had a salmon-colored ringer "just say no" T-shirt, for example, complete with a smiling policeman with a billy club. But then these T-shirts got expensive. Vintage shops realized their value, and Urban Outfitters and the Gap started mass producing their own fake ones. Irony, as it is wont to do, got old, just like that friend of yours who never stops telling jokes no matter what the situation. By the end of the 1990s there was a new goldmine for authentic experience. We retreated to our urban farms and locavore diners, traded in our Poison T-shirts for those of bands we actually like. But fear not. Irony is coming back. And going away. And also coming back. Case in point: this "Where's the beef?" T-shirt Garrett is wearing in these shots. I had almost forgotten the adorable old lady of those ads in the '80s, and I'm guessing most people who see Garrett's shirt have no idea whatsoever what it is in reference to. Casts the term "ironic T-shirt" in a new light, doesn't it? 

That camera man reflected in the store window is obviously me. I blurred it out in Photoshop, but it looked too fakey to me, so here's the image, minus my alterations. I've decided on a better route to getting better background blur ("bokeh" for you camera geeks): getting a better camera and lens. It's ordered. Stay tuned for better images. Maybe.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Street Style is a Hustle: My Interview with Reuben "Big Rube" Harley of Street Gazing and Philadelphia Daily News

Reuben "Big Rube" Harley is a Philadelphia institution. People know him wherever he goes, honking their horn in recognition or shouting out his name as he walks down the streets. He's also something of a renaissance man, former Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development for the athletic apparel company Mitchell & Ness, local fashion personality, and as of 2010, street style photographer, with his own street style blog, Street Gazing, and a weekly feature in the Philadelphia Daily News. I sat down for my interview with Big Rube last Wednesday at Slice Pizza, 1740 Sansom St in Center City. 

Brent: So what got you involved with street style photography?

Reuben: About two years ago I got a camera for a birthday gift, and since I had always framed everything that I saw in my head, looking at things in an artful way, I started messing with the camera, and next thing you know, I just started hitting the streets.  My grandmother got the New York Times every Sunday, and I remembered the Sunday Times with Bill Cunningham, and I said, “Wow!’ There’s a void in Philly. Let’s make it happen!”

Brent: Have you had any formal training in photography?

Reuben: Nothing at all. My uncle is a photographer, though, and always had a camera around and shot us when we were younger, so I got little tips from him, and I made my mistakes through just learning. My uncle gave me little tips on shutter speed and aperture, and I just went from there.

Brent: So an informal training, then.

Reuben: Yes. But not like in the classroom or anything. I learned on the go.

Brent: So what are your biggest photographic inspirations?

Reuben: Actually, when I first started, in 2010, I would go around different parts of Philly and shoot kids in the summertime, you know playing with water plugs and whatnot, and I reverted back to my memories of seeing Gordon Park’s photos. I was getting images of kids naturally out in the park and on the block, and I started developing these photos, and thought, “Wow! I got something here!”

Brent: What do you look for in the people you shoot?

Reuben: Not anything specific. I mean, basically, I look at their style. But I’ll say what I like. I love a sexy woman that’s confident, walking around in her heels, carrying her bag. That’s what I like, but whatever I see I just react to it.

Image by Reuben Harley.

Brent: Is it more of an instinct thing?

Reuben: Yeah. It’s totally instinct. Because if I run around thinking “I’m looking for a Gucci bag,” I’ll drive myself insane, and pass up some other greatness that walked right past me. So it’s all reaction to what I see. A certain swagger, the way a person walks.

Brent: So how did the Philadelphia Daily News gig come about?

Reuben: That goes back to my childhood, and me just being a hustler. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve done on the highest level, from selling ice, to going around to barbershops and hair salons all over Philly in my pickup truck and selling food, to stepping into [the sports apparel company] Mitchell & Ness in 2000 and making that a worldwide phenomenon. So I figured, if I’ve got a camera I’m going to be the best photographer there is. And seeing that void out here in the market, where it was just wide open in Philly, I said, “Hey, the Daily News doesn’t have no lifestyle thing going on,” and I just asserted myself. Being brash is my forte. I ask for what I want.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: So is street style blogging a form of hustling?

Reuben:  Oh yeah. No doubt about it. I look at it as like a business. You know, I’m gonna take it there. I did my research on guys like Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman, and I was like, ok, this is going to fill that gap in the Philly market. Because I had no formal training or education, I relied on working my mouth. Soon, I had exhibitions going on, businesses approaching me. I started doing head shots. Up the street at 500 degrees they have a wall mural of my photography of people eating burgers, and that just grew out of the street style stuff I was doing. I mean, a good image is a good image, no matter what it is. You get that great lighting, you capture that subject in a certain way, and people are going to respond to it.

Brent: So do you think of yourself as a photographer now?

Reuben: Oh, no doubt. Although my old publisher once said to, “You’re not a photographer; you’re a photo voyeur. Everything you do is an artful way. You don’t take regular photographs.” Photographers are mechanical in the way they do things and how their subjects respond to them, and what I do is totally different. I’m actually a photo voyeur.

Image by Reuben Harley
Brent: So what’s your process like when you go out and shoot people?

Reuben: I just hit the pavement, whether I’m on my bike or walking. Everybody knows me, and I’ve come to accept that I’m a personality. People just warm up to me. Whether I’m shooting candid or posed, I’m hard pressed to get a “no” out of people. I just get out there and smile and boom! The magic happens.

Brent: So when you first started out was it different than that? Did it take a while to build up that recognition?

Reuben: No doubt. Because people boxed me in as one thing, “Ok that’s Big Rube, the fashion marketing guy,” and it’s like “I’m not used to seeing him in this light, walking the streets. I’ve seen him on TV or wherever, doing events. And now he’s walking the street taking photos of people.” Some people they just didn’t get me. They thought, “What is this guy doing?” It was totally foreign to a lot of people in Philly. But I knew in my mind that this was going to happen, and I paved the way for other people to open up and enjoy this market, because I cracked it first.

Brent: And also paved the ground, because when I go out there shooting, people know what I’m doing. And people bring up your name all the time. Which is one of the reasons why I thought, alright, I gotta meet this guy.

Reuben: Oh, well thank you. I didn’t know that.

Brent: And a lot of people that I’ve shot turn out to have been shot by you, you know, some obvious choices, Erik Honesty, Grace Gordon, Doc Marten store people. Do you ever feel like there’s any danger of running out of people to shoot in this town?

Image by Reuben Harley. Click here for my shots of Grace.
Image by Reuben Harley. Click here for my shot of Erik.
Reuben: Oh no. They call this the sixth borough. Especially Saturdays, Sundays when I’m out, I meet so many people from all over. I mean I’ve shot people from Australia, from the UK, from New York, everywhere all over the world right here in Philly. And they just love it. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of world followers from that. So yeah, I never worry about that. And because it’s not just fashion I’m shooting, it’s style, I’ve always got someone to shoot. So if a guy is walking down the street in bell bottoms, and he’s rocking it with that swagger, I’m going to shoot it.

Brent: So it’s about swagger first and clothes second.

Reuben: Yeah, because you know the confidence exudes. When you walk into the room and somebody’s confident, there’s an aura that just hits you. It’s like, wow, I gotta deal with this person in a certain manner.

Brent: Do you think there’s a distinctive Philly style?

Reuben: No doubt about it. People are just more laid back here. It wasn’t always like that, though, because I remember just 20 years ago, as a teenager, coming down here [to Center City], and seeing men just looking sharp, dressed to the T, guys in hats, women in skirts with heels on. That was just a regular thing. And we lost that. But I think it’s coming back. It’s coming back. People are progressively getting sharper in their dress, and I love it. It’s giving me more great subjects to capture.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: Any interesting trends that you’ve noticed lately?

Reuben:  Especially in the summer, these kids are wearing a lot of fitted shorts and tank tops. Tank tops are real huge, and for women a lot of stripes, wedges, clogs, Daisy Dukes.

Brent: Yeah, I notice that too. They’re getting shorter and shorter.

Reuben: Yeah. I like it.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: Do you have a lot of contact with other people doing street style blogs?

Reuben: Yeah, some in Philly. Mostly internationally. A lot of people I’ve met at Fashion Weeks I keep in contact with. And it’s cool, because I find I actually pick them up on their game. They see how people react to me, and it’s like, “How do you do that? How do you get your subject to do whatever you want?” I encourage them a lot. And you know, me and Bill Cunningham are some of the few people doing this who are actually in print every week, so I’ve inspired people. People see this guy who’s a photographer of street style, but is not classically trained, doesn’t cover sports or anything like that. They pay him for a column, in print. If you’re a photographer, no matter who you are, you want to see your work in print. My work is in print every week.

Brent: It still makes a difference.

Reuben: Oh yeah.

Brent: Do you go to blogging conferences and things like that too?

Reuben: Nah, I actually haven’t, because you know, like I said, I’m a photographer. I’m not an insider to that world. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t go, but you know, it’s like I have my own technique. I do what I enjoy. I’m not really into that mix. Good or bad.

Brent: So you were talking about doing fashion and marketing prior to getting into street style photography. Tell me a little about that.

Reuben: Well I was with Mitchell & Ness from 2000 to 2006, where I turned the world upside down with throwback jerseys. A kid from West Philly, a high school dropout, had a dream of taking a whole company and making it big. I made that happen. And had every celebrity in the world buying our stuff. It took me from the steps of West Philly to Osaka, Japan. It was a phenomenon like no other. And there hasn’t been one since. Everybody wanted to have a throwback on, from Jay Z to Justin Timberlake to Mariah Carey. It was a whirlwind. I dreamed it, and it came true. And that really introduced my name to the world. I’m not an entertainer or an athlete, but I have a nickname that people know. Big Rube is well respected. I’ve been in Time Magazine, People Magazine. Every major publication covered Mitchell & Ness, TV, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Today Show, Good Morning America. It’s been a journey that I wouldn’t take back for anything.

I always say that life is a book. There’s chapters in it, and I’m just flipping through them. This is just another chapter in my life. Maybe a couple years from now there’ll be another chapter. But for right now, I’m enjoying being creative and doing what I do.

Brent: So what else are you involved in these days?

Reuben: Well I’m still doing creative marketing, marketing the brand of Street Gazer. I do fashion photography for various brands or whatever, and I put my own stamp on them. 

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: You’re doing partnerships with different brands, but I haven’t noticed any advertisements or paid content, or at least obvious paid content, on your blog. What are your feelings about that?

Reuben: Well, I kinda do it in a way. What I do is they send me the product or a model, and I pick one, shoot it, and put “The Street Gazer for American Apparel” on it, or “Street Gazer for Hush Puppies,” or this hosiery brand that I shot. So I do a lot of that sort of thing instead of banner ads and whatnots. But, you know I’m working on banners, because there’s a lot of companies that want to advertise on my site. Actually, I’m working on a new site now.

Image by Reuben Harley. Street Gazing: Audrey Kitching for American Apparel. 
Brent: With a similar concept?

Reuben: Yeah. A similar concept but with some tasteful company endorsements and banners, linking what I do with a whole lifestyle. You know like, “This is the beverage I drink. “ That sort of thing.

Brent: So are you going to keep up the old one too or is it all going to collapse into the new?

Reuben: No, it’s all going to collapse into there. It’s still going to be that honest content that you see, but it’s just more about the monetary aspect on this one, because, you know, gotta pay for the bread.

Brent: No doubt. It’s not cheap to be able to do what you love.

Reuben: No, it’s not. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I can honestly say I haven’t been on anybody’s payroll since I was 19. Everything I’ve done is in collaboration.

Brent: Do you run into any other street style bloggers when you’re out shooting?

Reuben: Yeah, every now and then. There’s a lot of them that I don’t know personally, and they’ll come up to me and tell me how much I inspired them, and opened up a lot of doors for them. I love it. They say money is one thing, but the accolades are everything. You start out doing something for you, and the world interprets it, and gives it back to you.

Image by Reuben Harley. Kim of Eat.Sleep.Wear.

Brent: So what advice would you give someone trying to get in on this game?

Reuben: If anything, don’t take no for an answer. If someone says no, you’re talking to the wrong person. I don’t have any formal training or anything like that, but I have an innate nature not to be mediocre, not to be regular. Everything I do, I do at the highest level. I kicked down that door. I’ve spoken at colleges and prisons, juvenile centers, schools, and people are surprised by my story, and it’s like, ok, he had all the odds against him, but he didn’t let that take him in a direction that most people do in life. If you put your boundary up against me, that’s your problem. It ain’t mine. Just kick it down. Keep your mouth talking. Somebody’s gonna listen. Somebody’s gonna open that door for you. But you can’t play Double Dutch with it, you know, ring and run. You in, you in. You out, you out. I want in. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Brielle, Walnut St

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Trevor, Walnut St

Trevor caught my eye for the cleanness and simplicity of his look, as well as the interesting juxtaposition it represents. Casual office wear plus dreads equals... what exactly? I'm not sure. The strange mix of conformity and individuality that constitutes style today.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Philadelphia Street Style: Bria, Walnut St

I've been noticing two-tone hair around Philly a lot lately. I like it. I especially like it combined with "natural hair." But what does it mean that so much "natural hair" is dyed? Is there a contradiction in this? I realize that natural hair refers to not using straighteners, relaxing agents, and other chemical hair treatments, and allowing African hair to retain all its curl, kink, and luster, but it's curious that "going natural" does not seem to apply to hair dying, another decidedly chemical alteration. Going natural seems to be more about texture than color these days. That was not the case, so far as I know, in the 1960s, when the first wave of natural hair became a visual and sartorial accompaniment to the civil rights movement. Perhaps natural hair today is embedded in a different politics, one based more on self-acceptance and individual expression than the defiance of hegemonic (i.e. white, bourgeois) standards of beauty. Or perhaps it is a fusion of both of these motivations. Readers, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about it.

Bria is the first model I've photographed with her mother present. Their ideas about how Bria should look in this image were, needless to say, not the same. Bria favored the straight-on shot, no smile, no artificial pose, a seemingly neutral composition frequently employed by street style blogs as a way of implying objective recording. Plus, it looks cool. Bria is, no doubt, familiar with the convention. Her mother, on the other hand, wanted her to smile, and preferred the pictures I took where she was laughing between takes. I went with Bria's preference. After all, I am also following street style conventions.