Creatively Speaking: Kevin Scanlon


Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with the brilliant photographer Kevin Scanlon. If you read The New York Times, Forbes, Time Magazine, or LA Weekly, you probably already know Kevin's work. But today you're going to have a chance to get to know the man behind the amazing photographs. And tomorrow, we'll be giving away an original Scanlon print to one lucky/smart reader, but you have to read today's interview if you expect to get in on that action.

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In addition to well-known artists and actors like Steve Carell, Robert Redford, Tilda Swinton, Daniel Day Lewis, and Jodie Foster (just to name a fraction), Kevin has shot athletes like Larry Bowa, rockers, like Neil Young, and many advertising campaigns you'd recognize.

Check out his Web site for a sampling, or see some of the additional images we've included with the interview below. And don't forget to tune in tomorrow for your chance to win an autographed Scanlon original.

DI: How'd you get started in this racket and how'd you get your first gig?
KS: I started shooting in high school. My friend and I took an elective photo class and shot each other skateboarding for our assignments. I got more serious when I met Ben Stechschulte later in high school. He had a contagious passion for photography. After not graduating from college (I couldn't make up my mind between photography and music), I played in a band throughout my 20s, shooting for fun, all the while. When the band fizzled out, photography took over. I was shooting my friends' bands live shows and press photos. For the heck of it, I shot a couple friends' bands that were playing a music competition sponsored by the Phoenix New Times. The New Times had a staff photographer who was shooting other bands too, but my friends were the ones who won, and the staffer had no shots of them playing. So I got my first images published, and started a two-year run shooting regularly for the New Times before moving to Los Angeles.

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DI: With camera technology what it is today, it seems anyone who owns a digital SLR calls him-herself a photographer these days. But it's not that easy is it? Why not?

KS: I think it's great that some digital cameras are affordable enough for just about anybody to buy one. My 5-year-old niece has a big, pink digital camera. Great photography can come from anyone, anytime. Sometimes, it's being at the right place at the right time. However, that doesn't mean that everyone is a photographer, just because he or she has a digital camera. I can hold a scalpel and cut things, but I'm no heart surgeon. Not to say I'm saving lives with my photography. But to me, it's all about taste. It's what you do with composition, color, contrast, lighting, etc. These are some things that differentiate between solid and not-so-solid photography. And more, how the photographer interacts (or doesn't interact) with the subject that counts in the end.

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DI: Of all the celebs you've shot, who has been the most challenging?

KS: I've been fortunate to have had some really successful people sit for me. And amazingly, the vast majority have been kind, generous, and humble. I can think of a few exceptions, but only a few. What made them difficult was their lack of enthusiasm, and unwillingness to be photographed. And I get it. The photo shoot isn't the creative part of their job. Making films or music (or whatever) is. The photo shoot is just a part of promoting their work. It's a tedious part of their job. That said, get over it and do your job! I will say that some of my many favorites have been Jodie Foster, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tilda Swinton, Kevin McDonald (from comedy troupe Kids in the Hall), and Pau Gasol of the Lakers.

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DI: Who has been the most down-to-earth? How did that down-to-earthness express itself?

KS: The favs I mentioned are among the most down-to-earth. Also, James McAvoy, Ethan Embry, Beck, and Cate Blanchett. They all TALKED to me. And not talking, like "How do you want me to pose?" Talking about...just stuff. McAvoy told me about his favorite Scotch Whiskey (something I've been known to sip on occasion), Gasol told me about making the doorways in his new condo taller, McDonald about one of his (and my) favorite characters from Kids in the Hall, the King of Empty Promises. "Will do."

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DI: For the tech-heads in the blog, what's in your camera bag these days? What kind of lenses do you prefer for different situations?

KS: I keep three lenses in my bag. I use the 24-70 2.8 for most work. I'll use the 70-200 2.8 (or is it 80-200?) about 30% of the time. And for emergencies, I have a 50 1.4. That's in case of a low-light location and I can't use my lights for some reason.

DI: Who's your dream subject and why?

KS: I think I have several. In music, it'd have to be Radiohead. The quality of work they release over and over again commands much respect from me. In film, the Coen Brothers are high on the list, for the same reason. Also Jim Carrey. And Audrey Hepburn, circa 1953. But I don't think I was born yet. And I'll add Tiger Woods to that list.

DI: Are there any similarities between playing music and shooting pictures?

KS: I would say there's a close relationship between a photo shoot and recording music (rather than performing live). When I was playing in the band, I co-produced our records with our drummer. That process of "recording" or documenting music is very similar to photography. There's the initial capture and the prep work that goes into it. There's the post-production (the mixdown for music, and processing [printmaking with film or digital processing] for photography). And distribution is similar. MySpace features music and photography, for example.

DI: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

KS: For aspiring career photographers, understand business. There are great photographers who don't know how to run a business, and thus aren't as successful as they could be. And there are decent photographers who are extremely successful because they are excellent businesspeople. For those who just want to take better pictures, don't be afraid to "shoot from the hip." Just aim the camera and fire away. I find that the subjects don't stiffen up as so many people do when I raise the camera to my eye. You might catch a much more spontaneous moment that way!

DI: You're from Pittsburgh. Care to place a bet on your Steelers this year?

KS: I have visions of the Steelers beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.

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