Erin Kunkel is a very busy San Francisco based editorial and advertising photographer specializing in food, travel, lifestyle and portraits. Her client list includes 7×7 magazine, Sunset magazine, National Geographic Adventure, ReadyMade, Ski Magazine, and Men’s Journal and advertising clients Auberge Resorts, Chronicle Books, Williams-Sonoma, Delta Airlines, Starbucks, and Carve Designs amongst many others.
Kunkel has a painter’s eye for color, light and composition and her work has a beauty that comes from presence and deep observation matched with a seemingly effortless technical sophistication that give her images an authenticity much in demand by both editorial and advertising clients. Infused with a sense of possibility and adventure both in the faraway and the everyday, her photos make one want to inhabit the life she captures and definitely tag along on some of her journeys.
We talked about building a career grounded in authenticity and a cohesive style, an evolving sense of collaboration, a few lighting secrets and much more. Big thank you to Erin for taking time out of a very busy schedule to talk with and share some of her wonderful images with POP!
POP: When did you decide to become a photographer?
I had been living in Europe, working on organic farms and shooting a lot just for fun. At that point I didn’t necessarily think of photography in terms of a career. When I returned to the Bay Area I planned to get a job working on sustainability issues, but I heard about a job working for National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow, and amazingly she took a chance on me as a studio manager even though I had no experience in the photo world. I learned a tremendous amount from her, and it helped me realize that photography was my dream job.
POP: Looking at your work, one gets the feeling you love what you do.
Absolutely—I really enjoy my work, and I appreciate that my life is always full of new people and places based on what projects I’m shooting. It’s often a really fun, stimulating job that keeps me on my toes and really motivated about my work. I don’t especially enjoy the business side of the job, but it’s important to be as diligent about the business aspect of my work as I am about creating strong images.
I enjoy both editorial and advertising work for different reasons. With editorial work I get to go out in world to glimpse and experience people and things I might never have known about. I also really value the creative freedom of my editorial jobs, where people are coming to me for the specific way I look at the world and the way I tell a story. With advertising work, it is fantastic to have the resources to put together an amazing team of people with whom to collaborate- all of that talent being pooled often leads to images and ideas that really push my creativity. I enjoy going back and forth between highly produced ad jobs and the freedom and looseness of many of my editorial assignments.
POP: You have a very clear style that comes through in all your work—a narrative style conveyed with an ease, warmth and authenticity. How did you recognize your style and develop this?
My style developed pretty organically—the images I gravitate towards often share a similar quality or core of what I’m trying to express. Being able to reliably produce images that have a strong, cohesive style for me is a combination of being confident in my own taste and having figured out how to achieve those qualities—all sorts of things have to coalesce in order to get the right image, so my lighting, the direction I give the talent and my crew, the conversations I have with art directors and photo editors are all really important.
That being said, editing is key, and sometimes really hard. Sometimes there is a big gulf between what you’re trying to do, and what’s really coming across in your images, so feedback is great. It’s also really hard to let go of images that are great but don’t fit the rest of my work. There are a handful of friends and colleagues whose opinions are extremely valuable and useful to me, and can be the voice of reason when I need it. I usually agonize over which images to have on a promo, or get really bogged down with choosing one defining image (for a promo, a contest, etc), but doing a whole portfolio feels in a certain way easier because I can work through the story I’m trying to tell about who I am and the way I approach my work.
A few years ago I worked with a consultant to tighten up my portfolio, and after weeks of going back and forth exchanging ideas, I could not wait to get her edit back. I’d heard great things about her, and I had built up a fantasy about what this new portfolio would do for me. When I saw her edit, I literally sat on the floor of my office and cried—it was the most disconcerting and depressing thing to have someone put together my images in a way that didn’t feel recognizable to me at all—none of the pictures felt like mine, and the portfolio didn’t convey anything about me.
That ordeal was expensive and exhausting, but it helped me be clearer in my own mind about the work I’m trying to do. It was definitely one of those cases in which seeing what didn’t work helped define what I felt was strong in my work. I am also conscious not to chase after styles or other people’s work; my images have to resonate with me and come from a genuine interest. It’s easy to want to appease your audience and jump on whatever look is pervasive at the time, but there is obviously the risk of losing what makes you distinct as a photographer. And as they say, by the time you realize something’s a trend, you’re already late to the party. I’d much rather err on the side of authenticity than popularity.
POP: When I look at your work, I am drawn to the way you use and capture light and color. You shoot right into the sun. Your images are bright and full of light even when you don’t. Your location work is as evenly and beautifully lit as your studio work or portrait work. If you feel comfortable sharing your lighting technique with us, it would be interesting to know how, on location, you shoot into the sun and still maintain the tonal values without losing detail in the highlights, shadow and sky?
My approach varies, and I try not to be too formulaic, but in general I’m often combining ambient light and strobes. There is a quality of directional, streaming light that I’m drawn to—sometimes it’s there, and it is a matter of being able to anticipate and recognize it. Other times, I can envision the light I want and I have to create it myself. Depending on the job, I may bring in a lot of lighting, but I also have Elinchrom battery pack strobes that I bring almost everywhere, so that I always have the option to light. When possible, I scout my location beforehand and have a lighting plan in place, but many times I’m showing up to a location with no idea of what I’ll find. Given that I use a lot of ambient light, I have to be spontaneous and pretty nimble in my set-ups because light changes so quickly. There are often really beautiful, unexpected things that happen with light that are great to take advantage of, rather than being tied down to a specific lighting plan that is more easily controlled, but not as interesting.
POP: You are equally successful at shooting travel, lifestyle, kids and location food and cookbooks among other subject matter. What are your thoughts and your experience with regards to the debate about specialization vs. diversifying one’s portfolio?
I like doing a range of projects that access different talents and parts of my creative process, and I think my work on the whole improves because I shoot a ton, and I’m always adapting to the diverse needs of different jobs. I just wrapped a cookbook for Williams-Sonoma, I’m juggling two travel stories, and next week I’m doing a fashion shoot for a women’s surf company. I have a great studio, but love to be on location….so yes, I like diversity, but I am really conscious of the need for there to be a unifying style and approach to my work.
Consistent and cohesive work is really important—if someone hasn’t looked at my site in six months, they’ll see new work, but it should feel rooted in who I am. The common thread in my work can and should evolve over time, but I think it’s possible to show growth and range without losing the core of your vision. The range in my work is probably based in my roots as a travel photographer, where I needed to be able to deliver great portraits, interiors, landscapes, food and lifestyle shots that fit together stylistically and narratively. Because of that, it never feels strange that my subject matter is so varied. I tend to see things in a narrative, cinematic way, where everything—including detail and still life shots need to tell a story. It doesn’t need to be a literal or overt story, but images that convey experience and life tend to be more interesting to me than less emotional images. In studio or on location, I think the narrative element can be created subtlety, just by moving a prop a little bit or changing the quality of light or camera angle. And, the way I use color and light definitely ties together my images.
In terms of the debate over whether to specialize or not, there are pros and cons to each, and I try not to lose sleep over it. It’s an obvious fact, but it helps to remind myself that my work is only ever going to appeal to some clients and not others, and I am right only for certain assignments, so I try to focus on doing all of my jobs well, and in staying true to who I am as a photographer. In the end, the decision is less logical and more based on who I am- for me personally, shooting different things is exciting and helps me grow. It’s great to apply seemingly unrelated techniques to a range of subjects—it keep things interesting and dynamic. For example, it’s fun to experiment with the way I light food based on some things I’ve learned shooting people. It enables me to keep learning and stay interested in photography itself, and in turn I can bring more to the table for my clients.
Years ago I was Marcy Maloy’s first assistant. She does really gorgeous kids and lifestyle work. I learned a ton from her, and I still seek out her advice and feedback. When I started working with Marcy, I was still in photography school, learning to shoot things with proper lighting ratios and rules of composition. Marcy is very spontaneous and completely unafraid to experiment—it was so helpful to realize that there are a million ways to do everything and to be open to unorthodox approaches rather than worrying about doing things the “right” way.
POP: You have your roots in travel photography. How much of the time are you still traveling and how are you dividing your efforts now?
That really varies—my schedule is really unpredictable, so sometimes I’m on the road a lot, and other times I am in San Francisco for big stretches of time. I do have a studio here, lots of local clients, and people often think of me for travel assignments in California. So lately I’ve been shooting here a lot, but I’m headed to Tahoe next week, then Mexico and Portugal. I’m also planning on being in NY for 6-8 months this year, where I’ll come back here for jobs, but be based there for a while to change things up a bit and work with some new people.
POP: Where did your interest in food photography come from?
Somehow I went to art school and never took a single photo class. I did a double major in Fine Art, where I focused on Painting, and I did a degree in Environmental Studies and Ecological Horticulture. After graduating, I spent years working on farms and with amazing chefs and became really fascinated with the story of food. I also love to cook, which intensified living in SF where there are all sorts of really interesting things happening in the food/farm/sustainability world. Many of my favorite assignments incorporate my love of food with photography, and I have lots of fun doing shoots where I get to do things like spend a day foraging in the woods with a chef, or work with really talented food stylists and learn some new recipes.
POP: With trend towards authenticity, are you getting more interest in your style for ad work?
Definitely—in the past I’ve had people say my work doesn’t look “highly produced” enough for ad jobs, but I do shoot ad work, and people often seek me out specifically for jobs that involve expressing authenticity. I don’t think high production value and “authentic” looking images are mutually exclusive, and I’m glad to see the look of things changing a bit. Much of my work is editorial, but I am transitioning to doing a lot more ad jobs, and right now I’m working on some new images that have a really high production value while still feeling characteristic of my other work. Part of it is aesthetics, and part of it is personality- some of my momentum right now comes from the fact that I’ve worked with lots of people who can vouch for me- it’s crucial that clients feel confident that you can handle a big production.
Right now I’m just trying to do good work, and to push myself a bit, whether I’m out shooting on my own or as part of a campaign that entails a big production team. I’m definitely interested in seeing where my work can go with the benefits of bigger jobs.
POP: You are a very busy editorial and advertising photographer, yet you aren’t currently working with a dedicated rep. What are you doing for marketing and how has it been working with Wonderful Machine?
Wonderful Machine has been great and I like the hybrid concept of combining a portal with some of the marketing and production work that a traditional rep does. However, they are so much bigger now than when I started working with them that I’ve been taking back some production work and fielding it to producers. Working with WM has been good, but I’m looking for a rep who is more focused on me and my work, and who can really advocate for me and help me get to the next level.
As far as marketing, I’m on PhotoServe, AltPick, and now FoundFolios, which has a really nice, clean layout. Because I don’t have a studio manager, I’m super busy juggling marketing and admin work with shooting and editing, which unfortunately means that some of my marketing plans fall through the cracks. I send email promos and printed promos to a targeted list. I’m also doing more face-to-face meetings, but sometimes I fall into the chicken and the egg syndrome… I need to schedule some meetings, which means that I need to update my site, and then update my printed portfolio, and printed pieces, and by then I’ve shot new work that I’d like to incorporate and then I get a big job and I don’t have time to do anything. But despite that, I’ve been getting a lot of work, and having the luxury of turning down jobs that aren’t a good fit. At a certain point, things seem to reach a critical mass and enough people see have seen my name and work out there. It’s a combination of having collaborated with a lot of talented people who can in turn recommend me, the results of past marketing and keeping momentum by shooting new work all the time.
I’m also looking for a part-time studio manager to handle organizational and marketing needs. I basically desperately need someone right now, but am too busy shooting to spend the time finding the right person, but I hope I will soon! I have the best intern in the world (thanks Thea!), but I need a more experienced person to round out the team.
I also think a dream scenario would be to form a collective, where various photographers/stylists/producers etc… can operate in a collaborative environment to produce jobs, as well share resources like space, studio managers, printers etc….
POP: Many of the people I talk with, mention an evolving sense of collaboration and you brought this up as well.
I do get a sense that there is a new school of people who are tuned into being collaborative and appreciative of other people. I’ve talked with a few chefs about this, but I think this is true for photographers as well. It doesn’t necessarily work to have a huge ego or not be open-minded in your approach. I think that era may be slipping away in favor of one in which people are more aware of what everyone brings to the table, and that it usually benefits everyone to work hard and communicate well.
A good attitude is the main component I look for when I’m putting together a team of people. Experience and skill are important, but I’m always in favor of working with people who are fun, collaborative, helpful (regardless of what role they’re playing in the production), low drama, and easy to be around. Good taste in music helps!
I just finished a six-week stretch of work with back to back projects that required that I spend a lot more time with my crew and clients than my friends and family. Especially on longer jobs, it’s important to have good working relationships with everyone on the project. Despite the work that’s being done, shoots are very social and you’re working long hours alongside people- the work is better and the whole process is more enjoyable if everyone works well together. On jobs where there is a lot of pressure, it’s especially nice to have a team of people around me with whom I’m comfortable and I know I can rely on. Being respectful and intuitive about where other people are coming from is key—people need to feel like they can express what they need to in order to do their job well. I love working with new people, but I tend to round out my crew with people I’m already comfortable with so I don’t have to question whether things are going to happen the way they should.
POP: Are you shooting any personal work?
Many of the images on my site are not commissioned images. I am always shooting and I don’t segregate personal and professional work- I don’t know that the distinction is really necessary for me (though I understand that a lot of people would like to see separate personal work). I think if I were someone who was only shooting ad jobs or if I only shot in the studio, I would need an outlet and I would be motivated to do more distinctly personal work. But because I’m shooting work where I often have a lot of creative freedom, and I bring a camera most places I go, I feel like I take a lot of opportunities to shoot just for myself. I definitely think it’s important to shoot outside of the commercial realm and to pursue images and ideas that I care about regardless of whether I’m being hired to shoot them.
Likewise, on commissioned shoots, I try to always go above and beyond what the client wants- I always shoot a lot more than what we need to provide some variety and some unexpected images. One of the benefits of digital is instant feedback—it’s great to know when you’ve nailed the shot, and then spend some time experimenting and trying something you might not have thought of before, or wouldn’t have if you were worried about burning through film.
Years ago I was more focused on doing documentary work, but in part I moved away from that because much of it involved pitching stories and writing grants rather than shooting. These days, a big part of my personal work comes in the form of shooting for environmental and human rights organizations I care about. These images aren’t well represented in my portfolio because they do stand out in terms of style and substance, but I’ve learned to accept that a lot of images I love don’t have a place in my portfolio.
POP: Do you still paint?
I don’t right now and I’d like to- I have the greatest backyard art studio that my husband built, but I mostly just decompress in there. Maybe once I get a studio manager and have some time I’ll do some painting! In general I feel like my creative drive is well satiated by the photography I do. I also really enjoy that much of the time photography puts me out in the world and involves working with other people, whereas for me painting was lovely, but sometimes too introverted and solitary. Most importantly, painting has strongly influenced my photography in terms of the way I use color and light, and the way I approach my work.
POP: Where do you find inspiration?
I listen to music almost every waking hour; I live 2 blocks from the beach and find that spending a little time outside always energizes me and gives me space to step away from the logistics of juggling a lot of jobs in order to think about what I’m really interested in working on. And traveling- to amazing far off places or just getting in the car and camping in Big Sur for a few days- always inspires me to see things differently.
I also look at tons of other photography, films and art—people doing similar things as well as radically different work. I love typography and architecture and botany—I am influenced by design everywhere I look. I also keep a journal of ideas and sketches, which are helpful for me to refer to for inspiration, and to see over time what ideas keep resonating.
POP: Favorite recent locations you’ve traveled to for work?
Hmm, there are so many. I’ve been to British Columbia several times in the last year and it is one of my top places in the world. Mexico and Big Sur are definitely favorites, and I’m headed to Portugal in April and though I haven’t been there for 10 years, I remember being really enamored with it. To be honest, I just finished a travel story on San Francisco, and it reminded me of how much I love this city- before that I’d been shooting in the studio for a month and it was so nice to get outside and explore SF.