20 minutes with Emily Keegin
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published May 23, 2018
- Text edited by Emari Traffie
Emily Keegin, the San Francisco-based director of photography at FADER Magazine and No Man's Land, goes beyond aesthetics and leans into photographs that produce tangible qualities such as gesture, personality, and organic moments. But how do you create the environments that visualise those qualities? And more importantly, why is it important to do so? These, among other questions, are answered in our interview below, where we talk about the landscape of photography, female photographers, and why Emily likes ugly things.
Mo: Congrats on the move back to California! What made you want to move from New York other than the better people? [both laughing]
Emily: My family and I thought it would be a good time to try something new. I can do my job from anywhere and I'm from the Bay Area originally. All things being equally close to family won out. So far it's been really great living in California!
Mo: Is there anything you miss about New York?
Emily: What's great about New York is how everyone cares about things. [laughing] People are making things happen and I kinda miss that pace. I miss my pals at FADER and the art scene.
Mo: It must interesting now that you're working at home, because there's something romantic about actually commuting to work.
Emily: Right? Like, am I still in my pyjamas right now? [both laughing] Coming out west, being in this landscape, having more space and sunlight, and living at a slower pace, has allowed me room to think and have new ideas. It’s exciting.
Mo: I'm curious if you've found any distinctive qualities between the creative scene in the Bay Area and New York.
Emily: I can't speak to the Bay Area since I just got here. The thing that's amazing about New York is the sheer amount of photographers, photo editors, and curators living there. I guess it could be an overwhelming FoMO circus. But it was also comforting knowing you weren’t alone. I’m kind of a hermit to be honest and in my never-leave-the-house-Instagram-world, location is pretty amorphous. Place doesn't dictate a photographic direction like it once did. Trends tend to happen across the globe simultaneously.
Mo: You definitely feel like you're arms length of a sprawling community in New York. So far, in LA, I understand that there's a community but it doesn't feel as tangible as New York's. It's interesting that you mentioned how Instagram blurs the idea of a photographer being based in a city, though.
Emily: Yeah, I think everyone is biting each other pretty quickly, but not in a negative way at all. Before Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, the look and feel of New York photographers was slightly different than the look and feel of San Francisco photographers. This was due in part to the industries they serviced. As things become more global photographers have an easier time getting work outside the cities they live, and aesthetics are flattening. I remember in 2010, getting a San Francisco based assignment and bitching with my colleagues, like, is there a photographer in San Francisco that is doing the kind of work we're looking for? And the answer was no. [laughing] But that's definitely changed. There’s a lot of young, smart, beautiful work being created here. It’s no longer a sea of “classic tech” portraiture.
Mo: You're able to bring photographers in FADER's atmosphere and let them play with that. That itself doesn't make you guys have a LA magazine aesthetic.
Emily: We're in a moment where visual ideas happen and disappear quickly. I think this is a sad side effect of this Instagramming.
Mo: What's your perspective on that?
Emily: I started working in magazines in 2005. At that point in time you created something on paper, you shipped it out to people, it landed on their coffee tables, and it kind of stayed there for a while. It felt like images—and photographic trends—lasted longer because you were seeing many fewer images per day and you were literally stumbling across these images them again and again. My biggest problem with the internet is that you don’t often stumble across the past. This detachment from a physical history coupled with the sheer amount of imagery we see on Instagram, etcetera, means we move through trends very quickly.
Emily: There was a trend of coloured backdrops that took over, right? [both laughing] People loved seamless! And then that was gone. In reaction everyone wanted to get out of the studio and be Harley Weir which lasted for two-and-a-half years. And then everyone wanted to be Tyrone [Lebon] and got their snappy cameras out. And then everyone wanted to use gels. None of those things are new or unique—its all ripping from the history of photography—but the pace of turnover between these fads is new. It didn't use to go this fast. Trends lasted a really long time in the 90s and early 2000s. People used a ring flash for years!
Mo: Yes! The fingerprint of every rap music video! [both laughing]
Emily: I think being a young photographer now means staying true to yourself and not cutting your cloth for these micro trends. If you happen to be popular right now, it's important to continue evolving. There's a high chance the style that’s made you hot today will be “out” in a year. The culture will rip you off and move on. This is kind of a hard place to be. But I suppose there's a certain amount of freedom in this constant turnover; anything is possible; all kinds of photography can be appreciated in this rapid pace. This wasn't the case when I started editing in 2005. A trend would land and we would all follow that aesthetic religiously for years. I feel like there's a much larger salad bowl now and that's cool. This is just a plug for an all you can eat salad buffet. #sizzler
Mo: As a photo director, how do you navigate around that so that the publication doesn't feel trendy?
Emily: I don't know. You tell me if I succeeded at that! [both laughing] I have definitely seen past things I've made and have been like yikes. I have definitely seen things I've made a month ago and have been like yikes. [laughing] You just do your best. For me, there are certain palettes and photographic styles that I've gravitated toward for most of my life and I tend to come back to those over and over.
Emily: I think all good covers do two things well. Despite aesthetic choices or subject matter, good cover photography has a point of view and—perhaps more importantly—makes a deep connection with the viewer. How you get to that connection is not a precise science. For me, it's about gesture, quirk, and an unexpected moment. There are the structural things like form and composition. Shit like that won't go out of style because we're addicted to the rule of thirds. And sometimes you have to lean into things that are ugly.
Mo: Where does that stem from?
Emily: Why do I like ugly things?
Mo: Yes. [both laughing]
Emily: I'm looking at this chair I just bought that I'm so in love with. It's a chair called Little Tikes for kids. It's probably very ugly; it’s pink, plastic, and fantastically squat, but I love how utilitarian it is—how undesigned it is.
Emily: I think photographically I have a real soft spot for images that have similar vernacular. What's amazing about photography is that it is the visual medium used in everyone's daily life, from advertisements to family photographs to x-rays of your lungs. The snapshot or classic advertisement were designed to communicate as much as they could within the limitations of the photographic technology of their time. And for me, this crap pedestrian photography, is photography at its best. It’s not beautiful because it was never meant to be beautiful. Its beauty is by accident. I guess that's what I mean when I say ugly.
Where's the money?
Mo: What concerns you the most as a photo director in 2018?
Emily: What concerns me is that no one is getting paid. It's nearly impossible to make a living as an editorial photographer. It's hard for me to make a living. We need to be treating our creative minds with respect and not trying to give away content for free. It’s especially a problem for photographers who don't come from wealth. And if we get to a point where a large percentage of our photographic stories are being told by independently wealthy photographers we’re in trouble. I mean that's not 100 percent true, right? Not every editorial photographer comes from money. But I look at the budgets that I'm dealing with and I'm like, no one is making any money here. A lot of photographers subsidise shoots to help create something beautiful, like renting studios when there isn’t a budget, etcetera. And come on! This just isn't sustainable. We don't live in a country that has universal health care. It’s all fucked. That's the number one thing that I'm worried about.
Mo: Who do you find is the reason for this?
Emily: If we're talking about print or online magazines then they aren't making any money either, so everyone feels like they're on a really tight budget. It's not like FADER is making a lot of money! [laughing] We pay poorly because we're not making money. Going outside of the editorial world to places like tech—Google, Airbnb, startups, etcetera—or advertising. These folks can help you eat.
Emily: At the very moment our industry is contracting; we are being bombarded by photographs. Photography is everywhere and people think anyone can do it. Instagram is lousy with great photographs taken by “non photographers”. Anyone can take a picture that looks great! On their phone! An iPhone took this magazine cover photo! Can you believe it! A monkey took a selfie! Wow-wow! This democratisation of the craft is cool but also devalues it a bit. I think those are the two big ones.
Mo: Having that accessibility devalues the medium by nature. That density cements those who are at a higher, more privileged position in photography. It creates a bigger divide between novice and prolific. The closer you are to the pool of people just becoming photographers the more you have to worry about being associated with them. This is a tangent, but I can't help thinking about what you said about certain photographers bringing in their own money for shoots. I was talking to a buddy of mine who told me about a few photographers that come from well off families and they're putting their money into budgets, which the publications and brands will support. This in turn doesn't hurt the photographer but it becomes a problem for everyone else.
Emily: We're in a really interesting moment, right? Instagram by its nature is redefining photography’s value. Perhaps making it less precious. But photographers are also being found on Instagram and going from being good to becoming professional. And that's amazing. So I don't know. The internet giveth, the internet taketh away! [both laughing] I honestly would love to just see more diversity, in every sense of the word, represented in our industry.
Mo: What's something you notice with young photographers that you wish they paid attention to more?
Emily: Mostly it comes down to the boring production stuff. It's super important to be on time. Deadlines are real. Files need to be the correct size and properly retouched. If you fuck with my deadline, or hand in trashy retouching, I will never hire you again. I think it's really hard to be young, get an assignment, and feel okay asking for help or saying what you don't know. We all want you to succeed. But in order to help you, you need to be upfront about what you don't know. Don’t know how to retouch your photo? No prob! Here’s a list of retouchers! Don’t know how to light your set? No prob! Hire a lighting tech! Here are some friends and lovers! I can’t help you if you think you know everything already.
Mo: It's hard because some might have this notion that since they already know enough to get the opportunity to work with FADER, they have to prove it.
Emily: Yeah, I guess that would be a reason.
Mo: What do you wish prolific photographers were more aware of?
Emily: I think it's important to not be a jerk. Whether you're a young photographer or an established photographer, that's 100 percent the most important thing—don’t be a jerk. [laughing]
Emily: Also, it’s important to listen. What I say to my photographers is informed by the team of people I work with—editors, writers, advertisers, god. [laughing] I have a team of people who need things. Sometimes it's simple. Like, we need a very specific crop for this image to run. Sometimes it's just my personal—if arbitrary—hatred for a specific photographic trope. Please no more chain link fences! Which is to say, being able to actually listen requires you to not be a egomaniac! [laughing]
Mo: Do you feel like people get to that point of egotism because of the fact that they're being paid to create photographs for this notable magazine of this notable talent? Wouldn't that convince them to feel extremely valuable in that equation?
Emily: I think being an artist and being successful feels great. You should be rewarded for it and you should get paid for it. That's how the world works. I don't know why people become jerks, though!
Mo: What responsibility do you have now as a photo director that you didn't have three years ago?
Emily: I started this career—if you want to call it a career— kinda by accident. I wanted to be an art photographer and needed to make money because I was broke. Freelance editing was a good way to make some money. I never really saw my work as an editor as something that mattered because it was literally a day job. And so, for the first bunch of years as a photo editor I didn’t really pay much attention to what I was doing. If I needed a photographer in Chicago, I'd just hire the one guy I knew in Chicago. To be clear, I cared about what things looked like. But I didn’t think my choices in photographers mattered beyond that. I certainly never considered how a photographer’s identity might inform the direction of a photographic story. I mean, it was a real blind spot. How many times does a girl have to read On Photography, am-I-right?
Emily: A few years ago a photographer called out the community for not hiring female photographers. They did a survey of the big magazines and the number of men-to-women photographers was astonishing. It was like 98 percent male photographers. It became really clear to me that my choices mattered; that the identity of the photographer mattered. And that this gender imbalance went beyond a hiring issue. This gap was informing our visual culture. If 98 percent of images are taken by white men, our visual representation of gender, sexuality, and race is being defined by the white male gaze.
Emily: It was suddenly clear that my choices mattered. It’s uncomfortable to have to think about identity when you are hiring someone. It's a very tricky and thin line. But working as I had been was clumsy, ignorant and untenable. We're not going to have more female photographers shooting for magazines unless they get hired to shoot for magazines.
Emily: Part of the whole conversation of why there aren't more women shooting for magazines is that there are fewer established female photographers. Why aren't there more established female photographers? It’s because they aren't hired as young people or given the chance to become mature in their career. The only way to change that is to change it. So I guess that's part of my role now. I feel like it’s a very hard thing to talk about, but I think it's important for people who are gatekeepers to be conscious of how they are changing the photographic community. Side note: I hate the term and concept “gatekeeper” because I don’t think that’s really my job, but, ugh, here we are.
Mo: That's important regardless if you use the term gatekeeper or not. Two years ago I was talking to Daniel Shea about an interview and he challenged me to have a bigger variety of photographers on Emmazed, because he didn't want to contribute to the populating list of white male photographers. This publication isn't as big as FADER, but for anyone contributing to the photo community, the responsibility of diversity is there whether you accept it or not. Who knows if there's a girl in high school browsing Emmazed or FADER wondering where the people like her are at.
Emily: I guess I feel like it needs to be less of a political statement and more of a simple awareness of structural imbalances. If we all agree that a photographer’s identity shapes their storytelling and interaction with subjects, then it’s important to use this information to inform hiring choices. I want to underline that I don’t I hire anyone based on their race, gender, or sexuality. But I'm much more conscious of who I'm hiring and make sure that I'm not just picking someone because I'm lazy and don't know anyone else in Chicago. [laughing]
Mo: If you do that then it's not genuine. When I talked to Shea I definitely navigated my curation differently by not putting anyone on a pedestal while still interviewing the people that interest me. For you, Emily, you still want to have people who make good photographs.
Emily: “Good” can have you falling down a hole pretty quickly. Because the idea of a good photograph is based on a history shaped entirely by white male photographers. The idea of what a good portrait of a woman is, is shaped by Richard Avedon. What is traditionally “good”, is the white and male gaze. So, [pauses] things are tricky. I think the only thing we can do is keep asking these questions and try to be more conscience of how we create what we create, and why.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be?
Emily: Like, do I find purpose in life?
Mo: Do you? [both laughing]
Emily: I don't know, man! I'm not saving the fucking world over here! It's a constant question. [What’s] all of this energy and time and money [for?]. And is it actually doing anything besides creating Instagram likes and recyclable garbage? Is there meaning in the creation of anything if it's not solving a global problem?
Mo: I think there might be meaning if you want there to be meaning. Pretty pictures won't make the fucking earth stop dying, so who knows.
Emily: I hope you end the interview with that line.
Mo: The tagline of the interview will be Emily Keegin: Who knows?
Emily: Does Emily Keegin have meaning in her life? The answer is no. [both laughing]
Mo: So what were the series of moments that made you want to be a photo director rather than something else?
Emily: I kind of lucked into a photo editing job to begin with. I was working nights as a photo tech at SVA and an old professor of mine put me up for an entry level position at the TIME Magazine picture desk. On my second week there, Hurricane Katrina happened and my job was to help their photographers get film and watch the wires as images came in. I think I have probably always been a photo editor in my soul. I was that kid who did the yearbook and started a zine in high school and organised all of the family photographs. I just never knew that this job existed—as a real world job—until one day I was sitting in front of a computer in the TIME offices scrolling through thousands of photographs.
Emily: I love looking at photographs. I just love it. I think photography is a magical medium and I will never get tired looking at pictures. I really like collaborating with designers, photographers, and producers to solve visual problems. I love being given a creative brief and then finding the right photographic treatment to execute the concept. And I like finding photographers who I think are talented and have something interesting to say, and then finding cool projects for them.
Emily: I've tried to sabotage my career a lot of times—like moving to California [laughing] or going back to graduate school for art, but I keep coming back to photo editing. So I guess at some point you have to realise that you're making these choices for reasons other than just the money. I guess I like my job.
Mo: Do you find being a photographer before becoming a photo editor is needed?
Emily: I don't think you need to be a photographer before you're a photo editor at all. I think you just have to be a visually curious person. Maybe being a photographer is a detriment because there's some baggage there. You could be trying to push your visual ideas onto the photographer that you're hiring which isn't quite fair.
Mo: What advice would you give someone trying to become a photo editor?
Emily: It's a shrinking field, or not, [since] there are a lot of photo editors who are working at Google and Instagram and wherever else. But to answer your question: I have no idea. I guess if you want to become a photo editor, reach out to photo editors and talk to them and see if they need an assistant or intern. Or start a blog. Do people still do blogs?
Mo: You're being interviewed on a blog! [both laughing]
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
What does working with you feel like?
What question do you hate getting?
Hi! Did you get my last email?
Hey, Emily, did you get my last email?
Sorry about the delay
What will your tombstone say?
Do you have time to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
“About” or “to”?
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