Alex Farnum is a San Francisco based commercial and editorial photographer. Represented by Apostrophe, his client list includes Nike, Vizio, Joby, Restoration Hardware, GQ, TIME, Fast Company, Gourmet, San Francisco Magazine and 7×7 among others.
Farnum has a diverse portfolio that includes portraits, lifestyle, food, fashion and travel. Driven by a true passion for his work, a huge amount of talent and a genuine interest in the people and projects he photographs inform his images are consistently beautiful across all categories. He brings a refined eye for capturing both composed and transitory beauty, a talent for story, and the ability to connect with his subjects and to elicit an engaged authenticity from them.
The same level of care, attention to detail, and aesthetic is brought to his branding and blog. And on top of it all, he is a hugely nice person who was a pleasure to work with. We spoke about how he built his career from working as an in-house agency studio food shooter to following his heart to shoot editorial travel, lifestyle and food to landing advertising work, how he works with his subjects to what he looks for in and how he collaborates with stylists.
Thank you to Alex for sharing so much with POP and the beautiful work!
POP: What is your background?
I studied photography at The Academy of Art and left in ’01. I moved to LA and got a job at Cinnabar Set Design Company. I was hired as a carpenter and they also wanted me to photograph the sets. It was 2001, so the website was a new tool for businesses. I was a horrible carpenter, so they put me in the graphics department. This department designed and fabricated anything that you see in print and film that you couldn’t build.
After this time, I put together a graphic design portfolio, moved to NY and landed an entry-level design position in Manhattan and worked for two years and learned how to be a designer. This entire time I was shooting 4×5 b/w landscapes in NY and I had a darkroom in my bathroom. It was 2002 so I was still shooting film.
I moved back to SF in 2003 and landed myself a pretty interesting freelance gig at Ideo for two days. At the end of the two days, they hired me for an 8-month graphic design project. Then I landed at Anthem and worked under CD Ron Vandenberg. I interviewed for graphic design and they didn’t have an opening, but thought they needed to hire me for something. They asked if I wanted to shoot their case studies, so I built a studio in the back and shot product on white for a year and a half. I learned a lot about business and loved it.
Then they won a $20 million Safeway rebranding account and had earmarked $3million for the packaging photography for the brand rollout. They were going to farm it out to another photographer or open it up to bidding. I said they should give it to me and I’d build them a studio. I spent six months convincing them and doing presentations and showing them that it would be a worthy risk to take. They went for it and I built a new studio and a kitchen and hired a producer and a team of stylists. In a year and a half, the producer and I (Rony Gersberg) made them a lot of money.
Because Rony and I were managing the business we saw how much money was being made. I decided to leave to work contract for them for another 8 months, made enough money to go out on my own and left in June of 2006.
POP: How did you build your career after leaving Anthem?
I basically had Safeway food in my book and started shooting as much as I could. I focused on people and places. And told myself every day that I wasn’t being hired that I would still go out and shoot photographs. I got in with 7×7, San Francisco magazine and Ready Made and some smaller corporate clients.
I also did a lot of product photography to get going and photographed a lot my friends. If I found a cool location, I invited them to be in the shots. I also started photographing business owners, people in specific trades and started testing fashion and food and jumped on this.
I’ve also focused on building agency relationships. It’s not that easy to get in because there is only one of me. I still travel to NY two – four times a year and LA once a year to show my book and get in to as many agencies as I can.
At first they would flip through my book fairly fast and over the years they’re flipping slower. As far as agencies and ad work, I’m just getting started.
POP: At what point did you feel ready to meet with agencies?
That’s a great question, I know that I was NOT ready to meet agencies when I got myself a meeting with an Art Buyer who basically told me that my book felt too editorial. Once I had that meeting, I started realizing that there really is a difference between shooting for a magazine and shooting for an advertisement. But I knew that I had to keep showing my work to Art Buyers even though I really wasn’t cut out to do it yet. So I did….
POP: Why people and places after two years in studio with food?
I didn’t enjoy it any more. I thought to myself that I didn’t want to be just a food photographer. I’m personable and love meeting people. I didn’t think that far ahead. What does it mean to be a photographer and start a business. It seemed logical to spread my abilities wide and not just photograph one thing. It seemed logical to me to have lots of different clients and it works well in SF. In NY they would ask ‘what do you want to shoot? Food, fashion? How do I bookmark you?” I would say bookmark me in all of them. But I think that trend is changing and people are doing more than one thing under one style.
POP: You took a very solid, methodical approach to building your portfolio and career. Has your marketing strategy and plan changed now that you have a rep?
My overall business strategy has changed quite a bit now that I’m partnered with Apostrophe. Because they are so on top of getting out there showing my work, I can now concentrate on sharpening my own photography skills, shooting more personal projects that I then feed to Apostrophe to show. My feeling is that people REALLY want to see who you are and how you reflect this in your work. That means that you have to do lots of projects for yourself which is tough. Believe me, I struggle with coming up with personal projects, but when I do them, I get the most “press” out of them and ultimately jobs that I am excited about.
POP: How did your style evolve and how what are your thoughts about balancing production values with more realistic depiction?
My approach is a bit more of an umbrella approach. Since I started my career I kept being told to concentrate on one genre. But all the genres I like to shoot I find to be so enjoyable. So as time has progressed, it has solidified into one body of work although I’ve been shooting different things.
Food is probably the thing I’m much more specific about what I like to do when I shoot food vs. travel, locations and people. When it comes to food, I’m not interested in shooting food for advertising. Food is one of those genres I like shooting for editorial and cookbooks for creative freedom.
Apostrophe is interested in nurturing a lifestyle approach, but a non-traditional, masculine approach to lifestyle photography. A good example is the Lost Coast Surf story. It started out as a personal project with food, shot with a travel aesthetic. One story.
I do better telling a broader story. When I meet with a publisher, editor or art buyer, I’m the guy you call to tell a good story. If it’s about a place, I go there and photograph the people, the culture and the place. More and more people are calling me to photograph a type of food that revolves around a culture and involves a type of community. I go in and shoot portraits and try to reflect the community.
I’m interested in a more masculine feel. It’s more looking for the appropriate client who would be interested in this kind of style. The Nikes of the world or sports related, lifestyle sports related. Apparel companies like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. They’re becoming stylistically lifestyle driven. Everyone loves telling the personal story right now. Even if it’s Dow Chemicals, they want to tell the story of the guy on the ground in Ecuador. My aesthetic is on the very real, approachable rather than the fluffy, aspirational look.
I love photographing the more feminine style of lifestyle if it’s outdoors and meeting great people.
POP: I’m waiting to see this more editorial approach to shooting food advertising and packaging. Do you see it going this way at some point?
Hmm, I’m not sure I could answer this. My speculation is no….I don’t think large companies can bureaucratically take such a risk, and small companies are trying to compete with the goliaths, so they too have trouble taking risks. Maybe an advertisement for paper plates would be a good candidate.
POP: The Trend Micro images are a departure from your warm lifestyle work. That must have been a fun job to cast and shoot.
This was a really fun job!! It was one day, in-studio. The casting required each talent to yell obscenities into the camera and the ones who did it in the most natural way scored the gig. When shooting them, I basically improvised stories about themselves and their lives and had them react. You know, things like “you come home one day to find your brother sleeping with your wife…in your bed.” They would react as the story unfolded. It worked quite well except for when the stories got so ridiculous that we would all bust out laughing and have to stop.
POP: Portraits are beautifully styled, warm, and personal. How do you work with your subjects? Approach? What is your conceptual process?
Each portrait is different. My general approach is that I meet them at the location of the shoot, look around for a bit, then sit and chat with them for quite a while. Learn who they are and feel them out a bit. All the while, I am thinking about what they are saying and how it may correspond to the location in which we are sitting in. I then will always try 2-3 set-ups, all with different looks and feels in order to leave with a variety. I will direct people into poses that I think look comfortable and I will take big breaks to chat with them more about their lives, their families, etc.
POP: When you shoot lifestyle stories, you spend time getting to know people and their cultures. What do you bring from shooting lifestyle portraits to your studio portraits?
This is a bit of a generalized question, every shoot is different. If you look at the Sustainable fishing story, yes, I spent days getting to know Kenny, his background, his biz practices and his story. All the while, shooting. For the Lost Coast story, it was more about the adventure and less about getting to know the guys within the adventure.
POP: Where did the idea for the Lost Coast surf story come from?
The Lost Coast surf story was a stylist’s idea and she came to me and asked me to do it. Lisa Mior from (Artist’s Untied). I brought in Christine Wolheim on to do propping. And then Kinfolk picked it up.
POP: Where does your love of story come from?
I am always interested in a good story. I cruise the internet for them, ask people about what they are up to, watch tons of movies, etc. The one thing I don’t do is read books much. Ground zero for stories right? I have much trouble making images in my head from words. When it comes to photography, the “story” really is the foundation of any image. Who cares if it looks slick with dreamy colors and flawless skies. If its just a photo of a sunset over a vineyard, then the story is a bit shallow. But a shot of a vineyard at sunset with two men walking with baskets, well now you have a bit more of a story (still kinda boring though).
POP: Your series of the Northern California grape pickers is really beautiful and dignified. Why did you choose this subject? I’ve read that the grape pickers have improved living and working conditions in the Napa Valley. What was your experience with this shoot?
Interesting shoot to bring up – I have a winemaker client here in CA that I have been shooting for for a couple of years now. We shot the vines through the seasons including harvest. We’ve shot the owners, the winemakers, the bottles etc. When I was out shooting harvest, I thought that the one thing we had not shot yet were the field workers, so that morning I asked if I could set up a studio in the shade and photograph them. Well what you are seeing is portraits of the workers on break, shot outside in the fields under a tree. All 20 workers too, 10 minutes to shoot, one after the other. The result? Some of my best work. Go figure….
POP: How involved are you in the styling of your work?
I work very closely with all the stylists on my shoots. I love to collaborate and I really love it when a stylist comes with his/her ideas and they MUST be passionate about what they do. Since I am the same way, I feel like I can smell out the “so so ers.” You must be excited, go above and beyond, and deliver to your fullest if we are going to work together. Jasmine Hamed, Christine Wolheim, France Pierson, Erin Quon, Nissa Quanstrom, they are my dream team…
POP: Your shoot beautiful moody landscapes for your personal work. The color treatments lend a very particular mood to the shots. Are your choices inspired by the aesthetics or the feeling of a particular location?
I have always shot landscapes, at least since my 4×5 class in college. Our first assignment in class was to shoot a landscape. Well, that landscape turned out to be the best image I could take in the 4 years I was there and totally by luck. That set me on my path to shooting landscapes. As for the style of them, its totally based on the place and how it photographs.
POP: In your bio, you write that Burning Man and Coachella helped you understand the world.
Both of these events are large cultural events of my generation (and ones immediately before and after me) I am 33 and started going to both of these when I was 25. During the last 8 years I really spread my wings and tried to experience all that I could. Both of these festivals taught me things about myself that I did not know before – in music, people, culture, counterculture, and interactions that I had not experienced before.
POP: Art, design you are looking at/inspired by?
I am most inspired by other photographers and the groundbreaking things they do everyday. Fashion photography, to me, is the most creative, groundbreaking, and intriguing of the genres. I just drool over a Vogue or a W anyday. Ads and all….
POP: Photographers you admire?
Ditte, Nadav, Norman (celebs for Vanity Fair), Peggy Sirota, Gentl & Hyers, still admire Peter Havik, Emily Shur, Peter Yang, just discovered David Lauridsen, Jake Stengel, Todd Hido, Ryan McGinley, Guy Aroch, Peter Hapak, Cass Bird.
POP: Favorite recent shoot?
I am currently working on the Fatted Calf Charcuterie book. Lots of meat, lots of blood, lots of fat lined terrines and tons of fun. To me, those guys are local legends and I am proud to be on such a project.
POP: Philosophy? I never ask this, but somehow it came to mind. Your work is so full of life and inspiration.
I think it’s a fair question – really my philosophy is that I just love to shoot photographs of anything. I am always shocked how cool it is to be able to record something you see and to be able to naturally create compositions by tiny movement of a bulky device like a camera is so fun. Add in lighting, modifiers, the sun, people, melting food, old rusty surfaces and a gorgeous dress and Bam! You have a great story to tell…..