Monday, July 30, 2012

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

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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.

10 comments:

  1. Great interview! I've been enjoying Adam's site for a while now. Interesting that he mentions The Sartorialist as an inspiration to start blogging - that was the same for me, and my blog template was very similar to Schuman's. I don't look at the Sartorialist much anymore as I much prefer one's like Adam's, or Hel Looks.

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  2. Adam! His photos are missed here in Seattle but it has been amazing watching the site evolve since his move to NY. Great interview Brent and thanks Adam for being so candid.

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