Shaun Fenn is a San Francisco Bay Area based advertising and editorial photographer represented by The Gren Group. Shaun had been on my radar since he won Best of Show in the APA 2011 Something Personal exhibit with a shot of a vintage VW van on the salt flats, a unique perspective of the location that is host to the world land-speed record each August.
Shaun shoots motion and stills marked with an intimate yet graphic sensibility which is present in the details. His imagery has an expansiveness along with an appreciation for his subjects with a serenity and natural ease that comes from growing up near the water on the West coast. Shaun came to photography after a career as a software sales VP. In addition to a natural talent, Shaun brings a commitment to the business side of photography and the strong production values he leverages to excel at his craft.
When I contacted Shaun for an interview, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had worked with Andy Anderson. They often travel together, sharing a love for image making and adventure and is the friend responsible for introducing Andy to Airstream travel. It’s been such a pleasure to work with some of the photographers who have been influenced by Andy Anderson. Each takes the influence in their own direction and shapes it with their aesthetic and inspiration. When I looked at Shaun’s work I sensed a quiet and then as I was drawn into the images I slowly got the feeling that I needed to stop and listen, to the muffled sounds of being 15 feet below the surface and to the unspoken kindness and dignity in his portraits and to the experience itself. And that his watchful eye is shaped by a deeply personal experience beyond his visual influences and inspirations.
I seem to find very nice photographers who care deeply about their work and are happy to share their story and knowledge with others. Shaun was no exception and spent long phone calls with me talking about his work, the industry and what is needed to succeed in today’s market. Big thank you to Shaun for sharing so much with POP and being exceptionally fun to work with.
POP: Where did you grow up and what were your earliest creative interests?
I grew up in Southern California. I began shooting 35mm in High School and I thought I would be a sports photographer when I grew up. I think one of the big draws for me was the textile quality of the darkroom at the time. My bathroom at home was a makeshift darkroom and tri-x was of course the film of choice.
POP: Favorite way to spend a day when growing up?
I was, and continue to be happiest when I’m near the ocean. When I was young my mother would drop me off at the beach on the way to work. I would spend the day there with my surfboard feeling pretty independent. I still love to hang around the Dorey fleet down by the Newport Pier and see what they pull out of the days catch.
POP: When did you start shooting? First pick up a camera?
In High School I became a teacher’s assistant in my advanced photography class and spent a lot of time in the darkroom with those chemicals. (That could explain everything ☺). For graduation all I wanted was a Century 650 telephoto lens so I could shoot surfing.
I went on to attend USC and study Communications. While at USC I had an internship at J Walter Thompson and worked in radio and TV production. My first job after graduating was back down in Orange County at Saatchi and Saatchi Irvine. Again I was working in radio and TV production. I managed an in-house editing studio we had, and always loved spending time going through director’s reels.
I relocated up to the Bay area in 1996 to pursue the dot-com movement. After 10 years in Tech, managing sales teams, I found the career path to be unfulfilling. Even though I had just finished a second degree at Cal Berkeley in computers, I had continued to take photography workshops for personal growth. I shot a portrait series with my Hasselblad on golf caddies and I loved it. So it seemed to make sense when I decided to step away and make a career of it. They say you should pursue an occupation you find yourself doing when you are not at work. And now I’m “always” working and I love it.
POP: What do you love to shoot?
I consistently enjoy a human element or storyline so there is something emotional I can connect with. Lately clients are discussing shooting image “libraries” a lot. I believe telling a story is a strength of mine, and this is how I like to approach these library shoots. I think this is why I have settled on location lifestyle work in general. This stems from my background of having an editorial style and spending time in the video process.
I like to be challenged technically, and that is something you have to embrace on commercial assignments.
POP: What was your process for building your career?
I don’t want to be in the game to just get by. I am pretty hard on myself. I want to grow to be the best artist I can so I wanted to work with, and be influenced by the top people. That’s why I was ok with assisting people I respected. I can’t imagine people not assisting, especially when starting out. There is no substitute for experience. This is a very difficult competitive market we work in. I know its an unpopular answer but there are no short cuts.
You’re in the fire every day when you are assisting. What better learning experience is that? It’s hard work and you’ve got to check your ego at the door. Your not always learning about what you should do, but sometimes it’s about what you wouldn’t do. But most importantly it’s about always learning.
Besides the invaluable experience of assisting, it is wonderful to work with others who share the passion for creating beautiful images. Photography is traditionally not a “team sport” so I find it a bonus to be able to share that excitement with others who love it.
The business of commercial photography is about so much more than taking photographs. Assisting gives you a strong dose of exposure to some of those skills needed to be successful. Photographers are artists and in general are not strong business people. They have, at times done damage to the business by their inexperience. I believe their lack of business acumen also contributes. The stock industry is a simple example of that. “Photographers” were so enamored with actually getting paid for photography they brought the value of stock photography down to almost nothing. I think this comes from inexperience of not knowing what kind of investment and commitment it takes to become a proficient professional. The barrier to entry to be called a “photographer” is low. At the same time, given the saturation of the market, the bar for great work is high.
Another thing I found interesting when I started was how little some photographers actually shoot. Now granted there are many different aspects of the business that demand your time, but I strongly believe a photographer should be shooting as much as possible. Whether that is shooting editorial or personal work, every time we exercise our craft we grow and we bring something else to the next project.
POP: How much of your portfolio is personal work?
Most of it. I hope it will always be that way. I really love creating images so working on personal projects gives you the opportunity to have so much more control. This is an effective way for a client to see how you work, because if it’s your personal work you may be the Producer, Art Director, Stylist and client.
Some assignments allow photographers get to have a great deal of input on the finished product, while other times we are just asked to execute on a clients specific concept. Either way your personal work is a glimpse into how you approach a project.
POP: At what point did you start marketing yourself? When did you know you were ready?
This business is not unlike any other in that a necessary cost of doing business is a line item for advertising/marketing. I aim to market myself more this year and make it a higher priority. So far my focus has really been on getting experience and growing as an artist. I have been ready for some time to go out but as you recall the market was pretty flat lined for a while there. It’s only now starting to regain a pulse.
POP: What was your process for finding your voice?
I am working on this all the time. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. At this point I would say stop looking outward and reflect on what resonates inside you. I’m drawn to a romanticism and intimacy and a graphic style and of course the west coast beach, surf culture.
If you look at Peggy Sirota, Chris Buck, Nadav Kander, their signature and soul is across all their work. The better photographers all have this.
One thing I’ve recognized about artist I admire is the amount of their personality that is found their work. Or another way to put this is how true their work is to them. The lesson here is to be able to get out of your own way and let go. Take a look at Peggy’s work and you’ll see an intimate, fun, sophisticated artist. Spend some time with Chris Buck and you will see a quirky, intelligent, well thought out, artist who creates those wonderfully intriguing images. Go on a shoot with Andy Anderson and you will see someone who is actually shooting their own lifestyle. So the old cliché “be true to yourself” really is relevant.
POP: You signed with The Gren Group last year. What was your process for finding/deciding on a rep?
My process was pretty simple. I did a little research, found out who people respected, who was repping people I thought I fit in with. I then put out some feelers out there and had a few light discussions. I enjoyed Paula and Mark as people, and everyone I talked to about them had nothing but good things to say about them. That means a lot to me.
POP: There are a few influences in your work. It has a very graphic style as well as a natural, intimate sensibility. What are your influences?
Being raised in the west coast beach culture has played a part for sure. I have also traveled around the world twice and lived in Europe for 8 months. Along with surf, I love outdoor sports, I love to hunt, fish, dive, and paddle. So maybe its just being active and a hopeless romantic that has created the monster I am. I don’t think its any single influence but the collection of experiences over time. I do love natural elements and images that don’t scream artificial to me.
POP: You have a beautiful body of conceptual work. How did that evolve?
Well first of all thank you, that is a great compliment. Initially, it was technically challenging and I thought it would be advantageous to show capability. I took some editorial assignments and added production value to really raise the bar. I have now come to believe this is over thinking it. I don’t believe clients now will look at the complexity of work and say “Oh this guy can pull off our concept.” I think it is much simpler than that. I believe a client is much more comfortable with seeing their actual subject on your site. For example you might be competing for a Travel and Hospitality assignment and other photographers might have an advantage because they have that specific type of hotel lifestyle work in their books. Given the economic climate I think clients are less likely to take a risk if they don’t see you have their specific style in your book.
The technical part is not really the challenging part. At a certain point, we should all be proficient technically. I’ve since gotten back into the meat of the work. I show my creativity by focusing on making the everyday look amazing. The challenge in lifestyle is to take the everyday and turn it into something people will say “wow” to. I’m enjoying this part of the process.
I love doing conceptual work and hope to do more of it commercially. Art directors love it when they see it and I get great feedback on it. Frankly a lot of commercial work demands a certain level of production and conceptuality but its just not always as obvious. I am drawn to this conceptual style which is less artificial.
One characteristic of many photographers is we have to be a little ADD in our approach. That drive, enthusiasm and curiosity seems to be a necessity to survive this chaos. Sometimes I want to put new work in my lifestyle portfolio, and another times I’ll get focused on video work and I’ll dive into one of those projects. I keep bouncing around different tool sets and grow my proficiency in each one.
POP: How much testing do you do? How often does this work get you commercial work and more freedom to shoot in your style?
I really love to shoot, that’s why I’m here. So if I am not shooting for a client I consider a luxury to be shooting for myself. (Plus I get to play Art Director ☺)
POP: Biggest inspirations?
I love to travel, interior design and typography—Tom Adler, David Carson. The painter Wolfgang Bloch.
One of my favorites is Peggy Sirota, she is brilliant. I’ve worked with her on the client side. Her images seem to have a beautiful mix of soul, sex, humor and energy, and her productions are an art within themselves. In that lifestyle genre, I think she really stands out. I think the large format book called ‘Guess Who’ she did with celebrities a while back was genius.
POP: I’ve interviewed Andy, Matthew and Dana. All take Andy’s influence in unique direction. Andy is a big personality. I think people are drawn to him, but must be interesting to work under such a forceful artistic personality and find your own voice.
I have been working super hard to keep it separate. I have become better at it but it is tough when you are friends and have shot together a lot over the years. The reason Andy and I are friends, and have worked together so long, is that we share a lot of the same interests. I introduced Andy to Airstream trailer living and he has exposed me to some of the most memorable hunting and fishing experiences of my life. At the end of the day everyone influences everybody, but our individual goal is to be identified uniquely. If you look at Annie Leibovitz’s work over the years, even her style changes when she works with a different assistant who brings different lighting styles.
Andy has been a really positive influence for me. He has a fearless free spirit. Sure he has a forceful personality but when it’s his job, you have to live with his style. That’s part of being a professional member of a team. (Plus I’m physically bigger than he is ;-).
It’s a very fragmented industry with very little consistency. As I mentioned before, photographers by nature are typically not business people. You constantly hear about behavior by photographers which is based on short sited work but very harmful to the industry overall. A reaction by some photographers is to try and win an assignment by being the cheapest. Most of the time this is a red flag identifying someone who is inexperienced. As professionals we have to protect the craft we love and avoid the “race to the bottom” pit fall of under cutting our own lively hood. Unfortunately there is no entity in place to keep this from happening, and businesses are more than happy to take advantage of this. See stock industry.
We seem to be doing a lot of image libraries these days. It’s a fine line between quantity and quality on those projects. They are an absolute blast to do when you get to approach them effectively. You want to create great work, and the client wants to maximize the process. I really want to over deliver and create something amazing but if in the process you get stretched too thin, you can’t. A great producer is really valuable here.
POP: Last photo you took that you fell in love with?
I just finished a project with the Surfing Heritage Foundation for LA art director Glenn Sakamoto of LiquidSaltmag.com. We were talking about our love of the surfing culture and he said he’d love to do a portrait series of the San Onofre surfers. It was the most fascinating project. A lot of the people who surf San Onofre came over from Hawaii and landed there back in the 50’s. They are all the household names I grew up with; Hobie Alter. Fly. Herbie Fletcher. Greg Noll. Steve Pezman. Billy Idol. These wonderful down to earth people just hang out down there and live the stoke of surfing.
It’s easy to get excited about a project like this because of your ties to it. I hope the images stand on their own, but on the website you don’t really get the impact of the background these people. If you know who they are and that they have these amazing backgrounds then you get it.
I shot a couple portraits a couple years ago down there. Glenn and I were having a conversation one day and I shared those images with him. He came up with a project and a goal of shooting 50 of them. Glen hooked me up with The Heritage Foundation and they came up with an organic list of people to shoot that continues to grow. On the initial list there were a couple people who were hard to get but I really wanted. They told me Hobie Alter wasn’t in good health and I wouldn’t be able to get him. (So of course I had to.) Greg Noll is another icon I felt was important and he had moved up to Oregon. I had to go get those guys.
These are real salt of the earth people and I wanted to shoot them that way. Just raw and candid. The ocean, the beach and them – I didn’t want it to be too art directed or polished. The lighting was a bit of a challenge because the majority of them were shot on the beach at San Onofre and I couldn’t use strobes. The park service is very strict regarding projects on park land. I had to bounce, use scrims and light them without power and be mobile enough to move around and not be intrusive or draw a lot of attention. So even with just silks and backdrops I got hassled. The park rangers shut me down the last time. The locals came to my defense and explained it wasn’t a commercial project, but the ranger said I had too nice of a camera and looked too professional!
I grew up in the surf industry and I felt privileged to be able to hang out with these characters. One of the coolest parts of my job is we get exposed to such fascinating subject matter. This was essentially an editorial project that grew into a body of work. For me it’s similar to shooting a Steve Jobs. But unlike Jobs or Richard Branson, money was not the motivation behind their innovation. These are men and women who grew up in the sport – craftsmen who built an industry with their hands. They developed the technologies of their times: the surfboard before it existed, the skateboard, the wetsuit. These people were there at the beginning, “Gidget type lifestyle”. They were exploring the California coastline in old Woodys to find surf, BBQing on the beach, and blazing new trails. You can travel around the world to find interesting locations and people but this was an exercise in just working with the everyday in my backyard.
POP: You’re also shooting a lot of motion. You have a background in video, so must have been a natural progression. Particular challenges?
I’m excited about it. It’s a totally different animal from print. Clients are interested in video produced on the same set as stills. This makes a lot of sense as long as the expectations are established upfront. You can shoot both on the same job, but they have to be separated out so each gets the appropriate amount of attention. The trap to avoid is to just “capture” stills and video at the same time. I think by trying to cut this corner you end up negatively affecting the quality.
With print, 30 – 40% of the work is post. With video, it’s 50 – 60%. The editing process for motion is such an art form and such a huge part of the equation. I really love that. It is like creating a print portfolio or website in that the sum of the parts, and their relationship to each other, are bigger than the individual pieces.
You can also say that video is more of a team sport than telling a story with stills. There are certainly a lot more pieces to manage and an increase in the equipment needed.
POP: You have a rep. How much marketing do you do on your own? Philosophy on marketing?
My reps and I do a lot of analysis on what is working, but at the end of the day it’s all about the work. I want to have the time and resources to go and do great work. The discussion about how to get it out there is important but secondary. Great work has so much power for me. With the web today, good work gets legs, and can get out there organically. Things spread so fast. It’s amazing. You can see it happen with our FB photo community in the Bay Area, we share stuff. It moves like wildfire. It’s instant.
People wonder why some people are successful. It’s all about the work. It’s easy to get caught up in discussions about gear or marketing, but at the end of the day it’s all about the work. There are so many people out there and so little work, people can choose anyone they want. They have a comfort level of wanting to see the actual work on your site. They want to be so confident that you’ve already done it. It takes a lot of heavy lifting to convince someone otherwise. Personal work is so important because it can help you make your case.
As far as marketing, sourcebooks are basic. They’re like utilities. For someone who came from the business world, it seems like Business 101 to me. A line item in any business plan is for marketing. It’s straightforward. What other business can you survive in without marketing? If you build widgets and want to sell them, you have to market them. Shooting is a small part, the joy, the blessing of our craft. But if you could do it all the time, it would be some kind of dream job. Even for the top tier people, there is so much other work to do.
It takes money for sure, and a lot of faith and courage, and maybe a little bit of luck. The game is changing from what it used to be. There’s a lot more pressure. The luxury of just shooting is so rare. The ones who are succeeding are doing it all.
When you work with someone who is really successful people often ask, “What’s their secret sauce?” There isn’t any. You need natural, raw talent, to work really hard, and along with many other things, you have to market that.
POP: How has your sales background been helpful in reaching out to clients and agencies? This time you’re selling yourself.
You would think I would be good at it right? It’s kind of like the cobblers children who have no shoes. It is always something I strive to focus on for sure.
POP: You said in PDN that one of the mistakes you made was to send to a large list. Has targeted marketing been more effective? Are you still sending to a large list as well?
Well, I think marketing is essential. Surely a more frequent targeted marketing is most effective, nothing new there. Since no single channel of marketing is going to get it done, you can choose a more targeted approach with one, and then say a more shotgun approach with another. But I think it is most important to be consistent.
There is an old saying in business, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” So regardless of your specific plan, put your plan in place, revisit that plan in 6 months and measure the results. Make the appropriate adjustments and repeat.
But most importantly keep shooting
POP: What do you do when you are not working?
My kids are really central to my life, so being a Dad is what I do. Driving to school, making lunches, really glamorous stuff. I have some pretty cool kids so they are really a joy to hang out with. My “free” time is spent playing volleyball most of the time. I am part of a really cool VB community in the Bay area. I live close to Berkeley campus and we have several sand courts surrounded by redwood trees. In Northern California I love standup paddle boarding because surfing is not great up here. When I am down in Southern California I love to surf trestles with my kids on hot lazy afternoons.
POP: Personal projects you are working on or planning?
I always have a list of personal projects in my head. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to pursue them all so I have to get creative to chip away with them one at a time. I drive back and forth to LA so much it seems like I live in my truck sometimes. This seems like a great creative time because my mind just wanders. I am currently working on a couple of video projects I am excited about.
POP: Personal goal with photo career?
Make a comfortable living creating work I am proud of.
I would like to avoid being pigeon holed in a genre, which seems to be where clients like to be able to put you. “Oh, he/she is a sports industry guy, or so and so is a fashion shooter …” I would like to get to a point where my work is identifiable regardless of the subject matter. Three of my favorite photographers are in that place, Peggy Sirota, Nadav Kander and Andy Anderson. For me at least, this work is so powerful that I can instantly identify with it regardless of where it is being used.
The ultimate position for me to get to is a point where you are hired to tackle a project which is assigned because of a respect for your style and involvement regardless of the subject matter. The road to that goal is to continue to shoot and evolve.