CD: What artists and photographers inspired you in your early career? Also, are there any portrait shooters working today who you admire and respect?
Stephen Kennedy: In 1980 when I was 15 I started working as a freelance photojournalist. At that time I was most influenced by three local PJs whose work I saw every day in the newspaper in my Illinois hometown. I was fortunate enough to eventually work directly with all three.
As I moved in to the commercial world in the late 80s I was very influenced by the work of Lee Crum and Annie Liebovitz. Photojournalism had become a very constricted place for me so seeing Crum and Annie, who were both former photojournalists, doing these masterful location sessions inspired me to go from capturing to creating.
I’m a huge fan of Mark Tucker’s work. His commercial and personal work never gets old and is a straightforward blend of art and craft that relies on getting into a metaphorically intimate space with the subject. The work of Dan Winters also inspires me, though I could never imagine climbing into the technical space that he inhabits. Tim Griffith’s architectural photography is also a form of environmental portraiture that resonates strongly with me. In his case the subjects are modern buildings, not people. But to me, it’s portraiture just the same.
I actually get much of my current inspiration from non-photographic artists. I especially like Marc Maron’s podcast, Zoe Keating’s blog and a music industry newsletter published by Bob Lefsetz. All of these are creative catalysts for me. Their insights into sustainable artistic careers are unparalleled.
CD: Your lighting is simple and clean. Your post processing has a consistent look to it – warm and inviting. How did you refine this style to where it is now?
Stephen Kennedy: In the old days I shot Velvia which was like drinking your first Coke at age 22. Up until that time I shot only black and white. Now more than 30 years after starting out, and with almost a decade of working solo again I find myself attracted to a more muted color palate that is far less aggressive and tends to make my real-life subjects look a little more noble. I really try to have a light touch when it comes to Photoshop which is also a good fit for my limited post skills. I’m a regular user of the Alien Skin plugin and I’m also fond of the VSCO film packs for Lightroom.
My lighting approach is intentionally minimal with the goal of creating a look that mimics available light.
CD: Your hallmark is simplicity. What drives you to refine, delete, and refine again?
Stephen Kennedy: By intentionally limiting myself to a single focal length lens and one light, I find that I can concentrate more on interacting and directing my subject in order to elicit a look or expression. In short, anything that doesn’t make the process easy is a hindrance to me and needs to be eliminated.
I went from a being a photojournalist with two cameras in the 80′s to a typical 90’s advertising location photographer with 6 cases of kit that required two assistants, then back to working alone with just one camera, one lens, one light, and a laptop. As I added complexity early in my business, I also added a significant level of stress that simply wasn’t sustainable for me. Digital capture, which I was slow to adopt, ended up freeing me of all of that equipment and the crew commitments. Now I work alone and travel even more without ever checking a bag or hiring an assistant.
CD: KennedyStock is the perfect answer for the testimonial portrait. How did you create and market this to the advertising community?
Stephen Kennedy: The stock lightning bolt hit first when I was showing my portfolio early in my career and an art director grabbed one of my unpublished pieces and begged me to license it to his ad agency for a project. From there I began to actively market my stock offerings along with my commissioned work. In the early 2000′s I was briefly a contributor to Workbookstock which was a great education but also showed me that I would never really be happy unless I was in charge of my own sales and marketing.
In 2005 I created a dedicated KennedyStock website. By 2010 I had moved to my third generation stock website using the PhotoDeck infrastructure. I also made KennedyStock a separate company. For the last four years stock work has occupied the majority of my time and accounts for the majority of my earnings.
Because the subject matter is similar to my commissioned work I have marketed KennedyStock to the same exact clientele that I’ve worked for since the 80s. I’ve enjoyed great stock success with clients in industries such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services and higher education. I’ve also had some notable licenses with software and technology companies.
Since I don’t work through an agent I am able to build and own relationships that are very valuable not just for renewals but for other projects within companies. It was always my hope that I could cross-promote myself and lately I’ve had great success converting stock clients to commissioning clients and vice versa.
CD: You recently shot a motion project built around your style. How did that come about and do you see yourself shooting more video?
Stephen Kennedy: I was contacted by an exceptional NYC-based creative director who was familiar with my stock work. He was interested in making a promotional film for a new consumer device for an international retailer. I made it clear from the outset that I had exactly zero experience working in motion but thanks to his encouragement and owing to the fact that all of the post-production work would be handled by experts I agreed to direct and DP this project. The filming and concurrent stills were shot identically to the way I shoot other commissioned projects with the only addition to the kit being a tripod. Most of the scenes were filmed with natural light along with some LED fill and kick.
It was a rush to work outside of my comfort zone and to also know that I had a pretty big safety net too. As it turned out the experience was remarkable and it will certainly rank as one of the best gigs of my career.
But getting this project and being able to work in my own minimal way in what is typically a very production-oriented and collaborative realm was certainly a fluke. In many ways it was like finding a four leaf clover. I doubt many similar opportunities will arise but I’m still hopeful.
CD: What advice would you give a young or aspiring photographer starting out in this profession today?
Stephen Kennedy: Habitualizing the art and craft of photography is very important for photographers in the same way practice is for a musician or a daily classes at the barre is for ballet dancers. I tell emerging photographers to simply do one thing every day. It could be as complicated as a highly-produced photo session or as easy as a marketing phone call.
My daily habit involves revisiting two older stock sessions. This involves taking a legacy shoot and re-editing and re-processing. I then replace the older version on my stock site. It’s my version of rotating my inventory and it keeps my digital processing skills sharp. I don’t shoot every day but I average about 90 stock sessions a year in addition to commissioned projects that keep me on the road with much frequency. Regardless of my shoot schedule I still stick to my daily file remix habit.
About halfway through my career I discovered that the single greatest creative tool is financial independence. In commerce money is always a factor that can both expand and limit creativity. But an artist who isn’t desperate for money can enjoy a lot more freedom of choice when it comes to commissions and self-produced projects.