Kate Powers is a San Francisco and New York based lifestyle, beauty, fashion and kids photographer and director. Represented by Kate Ryan Kate picked up a camera 12 years ago, started shooting her classically beautiful California lifestyle work and in this time built a client list that includes Gap, Olay, Target, Bare Escentuals, Paul Mitchell, Old Navy, Neiman Marcus, Conde Nast Traveller, Glamour, Seventeen, Self and Elle Japan among many others.
Kate has been a favorite of mine for many years. Her lifestyle work is consistently fun, bright, and beautifully styled, composed and flawlessly lit. She marries high production value with a sensibility all her own—an accessibility engendered by the ability to capture real beauty in the off moments and genuinely relaxed and happy models full of personality. She gives us a way in and it’s somewhere we want to be.
In December I was doing the rounds looking at photographer’s sites and saw something strikingly new and very fun on Kate’s site. Fashion and lifestyle work with her trademark playful aesthetic at its core but with a new sophistication, grace and charm. And a new beauty portfolio that brings all of this and a little whimsy to this category, to great success. In short, you can’t look at her work and not smile or get the sense that you are included. This time we’re invited to the party.
As soon as I spoke with Kate, I knew where it came from. The brightness, professionalism and studied dedication that informs her images and career was present in every interaction. In our interview we spoke about many things, but in particular about the prescience that motivated her to evolve her style after ten years of shooting. About pushing beyond the familiar, really loving what you do and staying true to yourself while taking risks.
Big thank you to Kate for beautiful body of work that inspired the interview and for being so fun to work with!
POP: Where did you grow up and what were your earliest creative interests?
I grew up mostly in California and was more interested in sports than I was anything creative. I never really thought much about early creative interests, but my grandmother is a painter, mostly nudes and landscapes, and she was a huge influence on all of the kids in the family. Her house smelled like oil paint, she was obsessed with anatomy and figures and would use us as models constantly. We were always encouraged to draw outside the lines at her house, to experiment and play..
POP: How did you spend your days growing up?
I wish I had something uniquely interesting to say here but I played soccer, swam and wrestled with my two older brothers. We spent a lot of time outdoors as a family, camping, hiking, backpacking, sailing. There was more time being dirty and out in the world than anything else.
POP: First interest in photography?
As an English major at Berkeley, I wasn’t able to take very many photography related courses. Access was limited and it was a very different time than it is now. Photography was an expensive hobby back then, film and processing were not cheap so it wasn’t quite as easy to access as it is now.
I was always interested in photography, but could never really figure out how to get as close to it as I wanted. I used to shoot for the school newspaper, and would do personal projects when I could, but it wan’t until after college I really became more serious about art and photography.
After my senior year a group of us began publishing a quarterly zine for women. It was right when Bitch and bust had come out and gained popularity and it was a great opportunity for all of us. I ended up art directing and met a handful of amazing local bay area photographers. Eventually I started assisting and began to understand what the world of commercial photography was really about. I couldn’t believe that I could actually make a living in photography. It seemed like such a glamorous and exciting profession and I hadn’t grown up knowing anyone involved in the arts that way.
POP: You have a new creative direction in your work, an evolution of your classically beautiful and fun lifestyle images.
A couple of years ago I felt like I was starting to get into a creative rut and had stopped growing as a photographer. I’ve always been very grateful for my career and began to develop a fear of not loving it anymore.
I knew I had to make a change because otherwise it would become stale. I felt compelled to open up the way I saw imagery and saw talent. I made a decision to not be the photographer I felt like I was supposed to be and to open up and take new risks.
My work has always been very happy and cheerful and I never intended on losing that element. I wanted to grow it up, which to me meant keeping the same beautiful pictures that make people happy but with a new level of sophistication. And sometimes a little bit of a fun darker side….
I feel lucky to have learned on film and transitioned to digital. You see trends coming through photography but I’ve always wanted to be true to the kind of images that I like to take. Classic and not trend driven. You wonder how it will evolve and what’s next.
The journey never ends as a photographer and it’s fun to have renewed interest and passion. My work started out classic lifestyle, backlit, and not too much lighting. The more I’ve gotten into the business the more avenues I want to explore.
POP: You are with Kate Ryan in New York and live in San Francisco. Where do you shoot most of your jobs?
I’ve been with Kate Ryan for the last 10 years and I work primarily in NY, LA and Miami and with some fun international trips thrown in when we’re lucky. I’m actually splitting time now between the Bay Area and New York. Having a regular presence in NY has become more of a reality, and I really love being able to spend so much time here.
POP: As part of your new body of work, you’ve started shooting beauty, but with a very fresh, fun approach that breaks away from traditional beauty work. What was your inspiration, what made you decide to take a risk on a completely new way of shooting beauty? And what feedback have you gotten from clients and agencies?
Exploring beauty work is new to me in the last few years. It’s wonderful to focus on the beauty aesthetics and intricacies of a new body of work and to try give it a flair of whimsy and joy. I’ve been working to find the balance between the lightheartedness of my work and the technical aspect of really quality beauty work. So far the work has been well received, and it’s such a fun new world to keep exploring.
POP: What inspired you to start shooting beauty?
I’ve always graviatated towards classic beauty imagery. I love faces and expressions and the subtelties that you can play with. I also really enjoy the technical challenge of beauty work and I’m drawn to those in between moments where you get a real sense of personality. I try to let the quality of the skin and the character of the faces come through…to not over retouch. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s been a great adventure.
POP: What do you look for in the talent you cast for lifestyle and beauty?
I do have really specific tastes in talent—across the board, including men, women and kids. With women, I like to get a sense of personality and little quirk. Not everyone has to have freckles and a gap between their teeth, but I do like slight imperfections. They add so much to imagery. And personality and mood can make such a difference. I try to find the girls that can move and let go, who aren’t so self-conscious and can get into the flow. I like to create environments on set where everyone can create and everyone has a fabulous time.
POP: Where did you look for inspiration?
Everywhere?? I wasn’t looking for any specific inspiration, but I’ve been trying to challenge myself to find new things, too find new talent and open up my brain a little bit. Sometimes I feel like I’m much more of an intuitive photographer than a conceptual photographer. My best pictures come when all the elements are in place—the right talent and light—and we get to play and find magic moments. In this framework I allowed myself to play. It’s been really fun. Ultimately you have a beautiful girl or couple and there are countless ways to approach it and tease the energy of a shoot or image. And it’s just broadening my own perspective of what is possible and letting go of some expectations about myself.
POP: What goes into creating the environment necessary to get the images you envision?
We really just try to keep everything relaxed and the mood light. I love playing music, I love it when the crew is comfortable and at ease. I feel like everyone does their best work when they are in an atmosphere where they feel free to share ideas and let loose a bit. I like it to feel like a real collaboration, which it always is!
POP: You’ve said you’re more of an intuitive than a conceptual shooter? How does this play out when shooting beauty as opposed to lifestyle?
I feel like it’s just as important with beauty to stay open to the evolution of a shot. As a photographer, you really get the chance to explore a face, and find moments that are special.
POP: How are art buyers and clients responding?
So far so good! We’ve had a really good response. Sadly, we had some delays and launched it all just before the holidays and Hurricane Sandy, but people have been responding really well. What ABPT wrote hit it on the head. I think people do like to see you change and grow. And a lot of us get stuck and think we’re supposed to be a certain kind of photographer. I realize it’s a risk to be categorized as a traditional lifestyle photographer and to try something new. But if I stay true to imagery that feels right to me and to taking photos that are genuine to me, there’s no reason it can’t be a natural transition. So far it feels like it has been.
POP: What is your marketing mix and how has that changed over the years? What do you think is most effective?
We had dropped off with the marketing over the last couple years and are just getting back into the swing of things. We’re started a series of oversized newsprint promos which are going over really well. It’s such a beautiful format, I love it. I think it’s most important to stay on top of it, stay relevant so people remember you.
POP: How much marketing do you do yourself to support what your rep does? Who handles the client direct?
I tend to handle most of the design element of the promotional material and their office handles getting everything out into the world…including getting me to meetings.
POP: How much motion are you shooting? What was your experience learning a new medium?
It’s a really interesting time. It seems as if to be competitive you have to and are expected to do motion. It’s been a great opportunity to learn a new medium and explore a new way of thinking visually. I feel like the urge to shoot video on every shoot has died down a bit, but it was a pretty quick learning curve and a total added bonus. Now we’re shooting broadcast commercials for some of our clients.
Video really is such a different part of the creative brain. In so many ways photography and video work really well together and in so many ways they are completely different. Communicating a visual message in a single or a few single frames is a very different creative process than communicating this in a 30-second or a one-minute spot. The message of a single image has to be really powerful and effective. Spreading out a message over 30 seconds is a different process entirely. How do you tell a story in 30 seconds set to music vs. in a single image.
POP: You’ve been shooting kids for 12 years. How has this body of work evolved and been influenced by or informed your lifestyle and beauty work?
I started shooting kids when I started shooting 12 years ago. I’ve never pushed it extensively but it’s a body of work I enjoy tremendously. I feel really lucky I get to shoot for such a wide range of clients. Everything informs everything else. The whimsy I shoot kids with informs my lifestyle and beauty work. It’s a style of approaching talent and imagery that spans across the range.
POP: You recently launched a Tumblr blog. What is your approach to social media?
I have never been on Facebook and just finally joined Instagram. I’m definitely late to the game in that world. I’ve never been huge on sharing my personal life, but feel like it’s been a fun way to stay involved in the community. So being on Tumblr and Instagram is totally brand new. We’ll see how it goes..??
POP: What’s next?
More of the same! And hopefully more beauty! I feel so lucky to do what I do. I love this industry, the crews, the commeradery, the collaboration… we’re all just so lucky we get to make pictures for a living. ☺