Fear and loathing in a digital world.
By Claudia Almendros
…or fear and loathing on a blank page: Zeb, mastermind behind my favourite magazine, has asked me to interview one of my very favourite photographers and good friend Kealan Shilling. The idea of writing about someone you admire for someone you admire is terrifying.
My friendship with Kealan started backwards. When I met him in Amsterdam we had been talking for about 6 months thanks to the wonders of today’s technology… and, duh, Facebook. I had no idea what he looked (never trust photographer’s self portraits) or sounded like.
I first heard about him from a Tahoe local snowboarder. His name was all over the Tahoe crew websites, tumblrs, blogs or profiles even though he didn’t have one himself. In fact, it was that lack of internet presence that made me want look at his work. Someone who doesn’t have anything out there to promote himself must be doing something interesting.
Who was this mysterious and digitally invisible photographer everyone kept telling me about?
Then a website and tumblr appeared. Of course, the first thing I did was look for the action shots. Why? Probably because I’m a snowboard enthusiast or maybe because every photographer can get inspired in front of a beautiful girl in an awesome outfit but what about a crappy flat light day on some boring and gray urban spot in the middle of nowhere? Was I going to find plain and typical angles, flash in the corner type of shots or was this going to be something DIFFERENT?
So here we are, kealanshilling.com, menu, “snow”, click, and bam! A collection of grainy black and whites of a powder day with friends accompanied by a poem that I assume he wrote himself, since Google won’t give us an alternative author. These shots really feel like snowboarding. Feeling, that is the word.
« A photographer’s job is, as an artist, to create something beautiful to look at and inspiring and capture a moment that drags you in and makes you want to look at the photograph. »
It is often that these so called artsy or independent photographers don’t like being called photographers. Kealan defines himself as an ARTIST. That’s a scary word in our industry when it comes to putting food on the table, if you ask me. The mandatory judging – is he ad campaign material or is he magazine gallery material? Why is there still such differentiation? We look at snowboard photographs all day long, there are plenty of blue bird days on epic powder, images that might show some impressive snowboarding but where are those shots that actually make you feel something, that take you to into the scene and give you a smile, or shivers or inspire you to write or create or listen or love or hate? Where are the shots that talk to you?
« Most people are stuck in a traditional advertising mind. It comes down to each person’s preference but they do tend to put action over art – brands have to meet needs that are to market their riders and show the product. Often a team or marketing manager is not concerned about the beauty of the picture, maybe some are but more often they just want see the product displayed properly. »
In the past couple of years this has been changing, there is hope! I like thinking that guys like Kealan and magazines like Desillusion are re-educating the companies and the market. Emotional marketing takes over and that gives art more room and artists more chances.
« Companies are becoming more open to using creative photographers to show something a little different and actually use it as a marketing tool, to say “hey we’re not gonna put the standard action shot, we’re going to use something new” and to me that is really awesome. I think that photography in our world should be more about the photograph than about displaying something« .
When Kealan showed up in Amsterdam all he was carrying was a pack of cigarettes and a little point and shoot 35mm camera that he did not stop using during the entire trip. It only takes a quick look at his tumblr to notice his preference for analogue photography.
« Sometimes when I get frustrated digitally I need to refer back to something creative. »
Digital frustration versus creativity. That is an interesting concept in today’s instagrammed world.
« Sometimes digital lacks creativity. When I can’t see something, when I can’t find my angle, I have to hit the delete button and start over again. I look for something new and that’s when I grab my Polaroid camera, as I did for the nosepress shot. I stopped, I backed away and took a Polaroid of the whole scene and then of the nosepress on that awesome rail and pulled out with something cooler and more different ».
There we go: different. Intentionally different. Everything we see in this collection of beautiful polaroids has been premeditated, there is no pretend accidental banger shots here, Kealan knows exactly what he wants. He talks about “ghosting” and double exposures and all kinds of tricks to create these dreamy little scenes.
« This kind of photography is all about finding magic cameras. There is no secret, it’s all basically light leaks ».
Simple modesty for someone that deliberately saves a shot for a whole road trip to double expose it a month later.
I can talk about photography all day long but I can’t talk about why I do what I do or how I do it, those thoughts don’t even come into my head. I don’t think about if it’s what I want to do, I just go and shoot photos.
A year has passed since I checked his website for the first time. He just got his first cover on one of Europe’s major magazines, has become one of Comune’s official photographers and is having a hard time choosing to say no to “brand ambassador” proposals from the hypest streetwear brands in order to keep his independence.
I’m going to end my little story with the beginning. This interview, like our friendship, started backwards when Kealan asked me the first question.
« Why did you even like my photography in the first place? »
His modesty won’t cease to amaze me. Kealan loves and lives photography and it’s all he believes in. That is pure, raw and passionate and that is what it’s all about.
« You have to do it like that. If you try to do what everyone else does or wants you to do you’re not gonna go anywhere. »
In a completely globalized and digitalized scene where everyone and everything looks the same it is people like Zeb and Kealan that keep our world an interesting place.