Kim Lowe is a Boston-based photographer specializing in kid’s lifestyle photography. I first saw her work in the June PDN Photo Annual in which she won an award for her website which is beautifully art directed and designed and showcases her bright, fun, and vibrant images that seem to effortlessly and perfectly naturally capture the essence of what it feels like to be a kid. I was immediately enchanted. Their graphic sophistication, uncluttered composition, and spirited and playfully captured emotions pull back the curtain and reveal the sense of wonder, joy and delight that is front and center in childhood and almost imperceptibly becomes eclipsed over time, harder to find as life and the years accumulate.
When I read that she’d made the transition from art director to photographer, I knew I had to interview her. I emailed her that day and heard back immediately with a a big “yes” and a phone call that felt like I was chatting with an old friend who made me laugh out loud one time after another. She was as fun, smart and engaging as her work and I couldn’t wait for her full interview and to feature her work on the blog.
Kim has been shooting for eight years and has built a client list that includes B. Toys, Wondertime, Fitness, Working Mother, Timberland, Stop & Shop, Fidelity, Smart Money, and Golf Magazine. A big thank you to Kim for an informative and completely entertaining interview!
POP: Any thoughts before we get started?
First off, it’s not fair that you’re interviewing me after Andy Anderson. The comedian that comes on after Chris Rock just never seems as funny does he? When I was an Art Director I always wanted to work with Andy. Even called his book in for a few jobs. And secondly, you make me sound waaaay cooler than I am. Clients will be disappointed when they actually meet me.
POP: You were an agency art director for nine years. What prompted the career change?
Because I no longer wanted my job title to be “Meeting Attender.” I wasn’t doing anything creative. I was pretty much jumping from one meeting room to another. There was no balance between managing projects and being inspired, being creative. Art Directors/Designers/Creative Directors have it tough — they need to come up with these great, imaginative, out-of-the-box ideas while actually sitting in a box and in under an hour it seems! I wanted to love my job again, it was that simple. And I’d been shooting for so long at that point that it was a natural transition.
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POP: Obviously, having been an art director influences how, as a photographer, you work with art directors. Do you find that art directors have a different level of trust with you as a collaborative partner since you have experience working from their perspective?
Definitely. Creatives give me direction but then, I think, they feel I can move around with that direction in my back pocket and bring them back something extra without moving too far away from where they started. But it’s definitely a collaboration. Which I love. Plus I think they appreciate that I can understand how insane their job can be. They’re constantly juggling. I get it. They’re always between a rock and a hard place—the desire to create something cool without freaking the client out.
POP: Why did you decide to focus on kids?
Grown ups don’t like me. Well, that’s not true, a couple do—but I’m okay with that. First of all, kids are way more fun than grown-ups. When was the last time an adult stopped playing with a toy to pick their nose right out in the open or when have you ever made a grown-up so happy they literally started jumping right in front of you? I can’t resist kids. I could look past a grown-up but I see every kid on the street. I don’t know why that is.
Plus I have a lot of energy—too much for grownups I think. I run circles around them and kids react to this positively. Grown ups can’t keep up with me. My husband’s at least two days behind.
POP: Your work seems to be part of the reinvention of kid’s lifestyle photography.
It’s nice that you think that, I’m flattered. But it’s hard for me to absorb that. There are so many amazing kids photographers out there right now. And you’re talking to a photographer that thinks she’s only taken two good photographs in her life!
POP: How did you not become someone who shoots kids the way it’s often done?
By being an art director first. Art Directors see a lot of photography, a lot of the same photography — just from different photographers. I’d look through stock photography and magazines and books and web sites endlessly searching for the one shot that was different. In the digital age, it’s easy to take a picture. It’s hard to take a picture differently from everyone else though. Isn’t that the thrill of shooting? To take a picture that no one has seen before. I’m not saying I do this. I strive to do this though.
POP: How did you know to stay true to yourself? To have integrity?
When I was an AD, I wanted to hire someone who balanced me out, someone I felt I could partner with. That’s what I want to be for Creatives now. And I can’t be that if I’m trying to be everything and shoot everything. So a couple years ago, I stopped, looked very hard at my work and I realized that it looked like there were ten photographers in my book. I needed to go away and come back with just one photographer in my book. And I did that. I clarified my vision and my style. I remembered shooting still lifes for a Timberland catalog — a lifeless bowl of macaroni was harder for me to shoot that ten screaming kids. There are photographers who feel the exact opposite of that. But we know that and we don’t try to do what doesn’t work naturally for us. You have to be able to evaluate and reevaluate your vision.
POP: When you hired photographers, what did you look for?
When I received a cool promo and actually kept it, or when I called a book in, it was from a photographer that inspired me—from a photographer that showed me something I hadn’t seen the day before. Plain and simple. I always hoped to work with photographers who wanted to make my idea better, to take it to the next level. So as a photographer now, I strive to take a shot that I would have put on my wall as an art director or send a promo that doesn’t hit the trash barrel in less than a second. The designer-in-me pushes the photographer-in-me to do that. It’s interesting when they start fighting each other.
POP: Your photos really capture the childhood feelings of imagination, simple joy and possibility. Did you ever lose this and rediscover it in yourself? Or was it always there as part of being a creative person?
This is a tough question because I don’t think it was intentional. I do what comes naturally to me. I do have a vision with every shoot. But as a body of work, I think I just created what I knew. A friend described my work as “vivid memories.” She said that In browsing through my web site she felt like she was remembering the best parts of her childhood. I didn’t see it that way but I do now. I should thank her. I recently did a shoot with a three year old girl standing on her mother’s back with her arms up. I liked the composition, the idea of the mother laying down and the little girl breaking up into the sky. Someone saw these photos and described it as a little girl rising up out of mother earth “learning to fly.” I thought that was beautiful. I now see my own photos in a different way. It makes the work come full circle for me.
POP: How do you capture so much feeling while maintaining consistently high technical production values?
I try to lose all, what I call, technical clutter. I bring as little gear and as few people I can to a shoot. Less stuff happening for the kids to become distracted with. Nice and simple.
But I also have a great crew. My assistants bring so much to the table. They’re strong where I’m not. My technical background is not as lengthy as my creative background, I know that, so I know when to delegate. I’ve got a small group I turn to and they always come through for me. I don’t want to get lost in searching for the perfect light hitting the child in the eye at a very specific angle. Because then I’ll miss the smirk on the twelve year old’s face that only happened for a split second so I let someone else worry about that. It’s a lot of work to shoot children—it’s a lot of work for a group of people at the shoot, not just me. But if it’s easy you’re not doing something right.
POP: You really get the kids to interact with you and each other in a very believable way. What contributes to this or makes this possible?
It all comes down to me and the children and to making them see me—not the camera between us. Sounds easy but it’s actually pretty hard. But really, it comes down to me being that kid. Sounds corny I know but I have to connect with that 8 year old girl so I become her. I talk about her cool butterfly flip-flops and how much I think my big brother is a dorkus-mallorkus too, just like her.
POP: Most kids you’ve wrangled for a shoot?
We shot 22 kids on bikes a couple weeks ago for Fitness magazine—picture 22 kids and 22 bikes along the Charles River in Cambridge with construction in every direction—it was interesting! I also shot 16 three year olds a year ago and that was wild! It was like an easter egg hunt — we were finding kids everywhere.
POP: How has being a mother shaped your photography?
Having kids has made me a better photographer. It changed how I interact with kids on shoots. I understand their moods so much better so I now know what’s coming, how to handle and actually avoid a breakdown. I know when I need to move on to another child before it’s too late and come back to this one. I know what will make a 2 year old fall down laughing. And I don’t chase after kids anymore. This is where the action is. They always come back. I’ve been shooting Tweens lately and it’s a whole different can of worms though. With little kids, you just have to make faces at them or ask them a silly question. With a 12 year old, they look at me and think ‘lady, you’re so not cool.’ I just have to push my sarcasm more with the older kids to stay clear of a fake smile and tap into their real emotions.
POP: Typical day on set? It looks like you have a great time at work.
I ignore the grown-ups. Really. Kids connect with me because I’m not one of “them.” Maybe I shouldn’t reveal that — clients might not hire me because I’m not a responsible adult. That’s the producer’s job though. I had a shoot for Stop & Shop where the little boy wouldn’t let his mom comb his hair, he wanted me to do it. And of course I did it. He and I were best buds the entire day all because when I first met him I got down on his level, ignored his parents, and talked about bugs. I’m a kid first and a photographer second. So the parents may not have had fun on the shoot but you better believe that little boy did.
POP: Successful collaboration?
I worked with an extremely talented Art Director, Andrea Gavin, on B. Toys. She’s the type of art director who said ‘here are the toys, go to town.’ I got direction on format and design and was then able to give them photos that were so playful and emotional. The products are in the shot, of course, but she let me focus on the child’s energy and spirit and the emotions the products brought to them. She didn’t micro-manage. She trusted my vision so the brief was loose. It was ideal. She and I used to work together years ago when I was a freelance Art Director at Holland Mark Martin. I don’t think she knew I switched sides — she saw some photos I posted on Facebook and then realized I was no longer art directing.
POP: Favorite shoot or funny story?
My best shoot as an Art Director was one for Royal Caribbean—we had shoots all over southern Europe for ten days. And somehow I convinced the client that we had to, just had to, do a shoot from a boat off the Amalfi Coast. The client, the photographer Charles Harris, his assistant, the producer and me enjoyed an amazing ride up and down the Amalfi Coast—all of us thinking “How terrible is this work day?!”
My best shoot as a photographer is tough because I shoot kids so every shoot is fun. But I’d have to say a charity shoot I do every November. I have my own fundraiser thing I do called “Two Birds” which is from ‘killing two birds with one stone.’ Most families want a nice photo of their family for their holiday card and a local kids charity needs donations to help get clothes to children who don’t have them in Massachusetts before Winter sets in. So parents can bid on a timeslot for a shoot with me and all the donations go to the kids charity. It’s one day. Last year, we had 13 kids to shoot, 16 parents and 1 little stuffed chicken. Local wardrobe and hair/makeup artists from Ennis got involved too. Everyone donated their time and talent. I think we did 9 shoots in under 6 hours. We’re going to do this every year now.
POP: Where do you find inspiration?
I guess I’m inspired by anything that is the opposite of my real life. Anyone with kids knows what I mean. I like things to be simple, clean and graphic in my photography because life can be a little cluttered with two kids. Maybe that’s why my gear is simple, my compositions are simple and graphic, and my focal point is clear.
“I’m also very lucky, I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people over the years like Wade Devers and Pete Favat at Arnold, and Chris Poulin and John Battista at Hill Holliday. I’m still inspired by them even though we no longer work together. They taught me to be better, to see things differently. This is going to sound lame but my husband, John Kearse, inspires me. Go ahead and gag. But I’m lucky to live with a continually inspiring Creative Director who offers up a totally different perspective to my work. I’m not saying that doesn’t get annoying too. Even teachers from 15 years ago like Jim Hood at The Art Institute of Boston who I totally butted heads with — he taught me about typography which in turn taught me about composition which plays a role in every photo I take.”
Photographers that inspire me now and when I was an art director are Andy Anderson, Jill Greenberg, Bill Miles, Nadav Kander and I love love Rodney Smith and Peggy Sirota. And I’ve got to say, I love that there are so many more women photographers now than when I was an Art Director. Every shoot I went on in my nine years of art directing was with male photographers. Now I feel like there are some killer female photographers out there kicking down doors with amazing work! I love that.
POP: Your website won an award in PDN’s Photo Annual. It’s a beautiful site and the copy is really fun and adds to that sense of being in a children’s world. It’s an invitation to enter this world for a while and directs the experience of your images.
As an art director/designer in my previous life, I knew it was important to have a harmony between the imagery and the site. I wanted the viewer to “experience” the site, not just view some pretty pictures. Does that make sense? And as a kids’ photographer, that meant bringing a playfulness and energy to it, the same as when I’m on a shoot really. I wanted the site to be playful and flippy. I was coming out with a whole new look, new work and with a more kids-focused audience so I wanted to take advantage of being able to be childish where other photographers have to be mature.
POP: You have a new rep. What was your process for finding and choosing a rep?
I was surprised at how many reps started contacting me this year. It was hard to make a decision. But in the end, I didn’t choose someone with 20+ years experience as an agent — I went with my gut. And I think I chose well. Tracy’s really smart and funny and she’s got a producer’s background that fits well with my creative background. We both work hard. I like that. We seem to fit together. Plus she’s got a small shop so I won’t get lost. Come to think of it, she hasn’t called me in a few days. Maybe I chose wrong afterall. C’mon I’m joking.
POP: As a former art director, you must bring a lot of insight to your marketing. What is your philosophy and how much and what marketing do you do?
Because I’ll always be half art director, I actually enjoy the marketing side of my job. I miss designing a logo or working side by side with a copywriter on a new ad campaign, so this is my chance to get my fix. I just try to have fun with it just like with my web site. With shooting kids, I have the liberty to be more childish than some other photographers so I tap into that. I try to offer up the silly side of my shoots or of my personality. Social marketing is perfect for that. I post out takes of the little girl picking her nose on the shoot or a picture of my son’s bum with seven rolls of chubba wubba. I tweet about things that are so not important but might make you smile. My twitter feed and my facebook wall posts definitely don’t interest everyone but that’s not what I’m trying to do anymore. I have a very clear target audience and that keeps me focused.
On the traditional side, I send out a series of 5 promos every year. I also put together a special “gift” that I try to get in the mail before the end of the year. I mail this gift out to clients, people who’ve offered up help or advice to me through the year, and creatives who thought of me for a job. This year it was an awful calendar — my idea was to go from one wall to another. So something that became a hit on my Facebook wall became a calendar for your office wall — it was a terrible calendar of fat baby poses. It was more of a gag gift. Let’s be clear, I have no class. And if you’re reading this and it’s on your office wall, there’s something very wrong with you.