22 minutes with Samuel Bradley
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published May 14, 2018
- Portrait by Greg
Among some of the most obvious elements of photography, such as movement, emotion, and tonality, we often forget about the performance behind making a photograph, and how that shapes the photographers relationship with the subject and the result it produces. Below, Samuel Bradley, a British photographer—often jumping between London and New York—and I touch on this notion, how it's considered in his photographs, and what it’s like being a working photographer in 2018.
Mo: I want to start by talking about how 2017 treated you.
Samuel: It was really good. It was when I signed to Cartel & Co in the U.S. The first time I came over to the US properly was in March, and from there I started going back and forth from there to the U.K. for the whole year. It was a marked shift of shooting a lot more commercially, and magazines also started responding to my work. Maybe that's because I feel like I've found my eye a little bit. I think you spend a lot of time trying stuff out and copying other photographers whether that's consciously or subconsciously and eventually you suddenly know what you're doing without having to think about a lot.
Mo: Or someone in a meeting will make you quantify what you're doing. They'll ask what your style is, which you might not know the answer to because you're still asking yourself that.
Samuel: Yeah, I think it depends on who you're speaking to. There isn't a definitive answer. I think, for me, I don't know what kind of photographer I am but if someone in fashion is asking me then maybe I'm a fashion photographer, or maybe I'm not because I don't want to sound like everyone else.
Mo: It also depends on how you word it. You can say that you accept x, y, z assignments which lets people who work in those parameters know that you're open to most things. But what do you mean by March being the time you properly went to the states?
Samuel: I came over specifically to meet Cartel. I've been speaking to them for four or five months over Skype and was slightly resisting the idea of having a U.S. agent because it wasn't something I was considering. And then I decided it could be a good move since I liked the guys there. So then I came out to the U.S. to take about 47 meetings over the course of a two week period. That felt to me like I was making a proper go of it. But I don't think I had any shoots during that trip. It was just talking.
Mo: At least you were doing all that in a kinetic environment that encourages that pace. Is London kinetic, too?
Samuel: London is a different beast, I think. The one thing I can say definitively about Americans, and more specifically, ones in the creative industry, is that it can be fairly easy to get a meeting with photo editors and the such. And that can give you the impression that you're getting somewhere, because they’re quite positive about taking the meeting but then nothing really happens a lot of the time after that. You have to take another three or four meetings with them before something happens. But then in London, no one wants to meet you. People will cancel the meeting an hour before its supposed to happen. But when you finally get that meeting it's usually because they want to work with you. Either they'll commission you on the spot or you'll get an email the following week saying that they have you in mind for a certain project. So I'm not sure which is better, but I feel like I know where I stand a little more over here.
Mo: I think you definitely end up playing the long con in New York. Have you ever been to LA?
Samuel: I went once for a job maybe two years ago, but I really didn't understand it as a place. How does it work when you have to take a bunch of meetings over there?
Mo: New York lets you handle a lot more, quicker, because of the vicinity and density of things. But everything is spread out in LA so the act of getting somewhere is usually longer than a meeting. There's a lot more motivation involved and everyone is careful about their time because the margin of error is smaller than it would be in New York.
Samuel: Right, because you can't be like meet me around the corner in 20 minutes. I literally bike to all my meetings in London, which I would imagine could be impossible in LA because of the size and heat.
Mo: So how was the first month of 2018?
Samuel: It's been really busy which is really strange because for maybe every January of my career, which is pretty short, it would be quiet and never book anything. I'd always go, fuck, I should have gone on holiday, at the end of every January. So last January I went to Vietnam for a month and it was a semi-shoot and semi-holiday trip. And then this year for whatever reason I decided not to book any [trips] and thank god I didn't. I ended up doing six editorials which is why the month has been so difficult. It's been a month of jobs which are really important to me because I've chosen to do them.
Mo: I would assume editorials take less time to manufacture than commercial assignments.
Samuel: For me, personally, editorials take a lot more time to manufacture because its you doing it. [chuckling] A lot of time there's no external help, so there's no agency in the sense of an advertising agency; sometimes there's no producer. And when I say editorials, I mean stories I've pitched to magazines that I wanted to do for a while. So we need to cast however many of this type of person; we need to source all this equipment and locations. And the only one that suffers if it doesn't work out is you, because you've invested so much time and money into it. Whereas a lot of the time with a commercial job, yeah, you have to go into a bunch of pre production meetings and everyone is rushing around trying to get it done, but for the most part your role is relatively small. You do your treatment and moodboards, show up on the [shoot] day, manage the post production, and everything is paid for. I find it quite low stress in comparison to editorial if I'm honest.
Mo: That makes sense. There's a lot of heads for various roles in commercial assignments, whereas with editorial the heads are fewer and you're more in control, generally speaking. I hope the editorial shoots have allowed you uncharted territory.
Samuel: Yeah, I think so. There's definitely a clear progression, which I think is what you're not necessarily aiming for every single shoot but for every season of editorial. You're asking how everything is going to be different.
Mo: What do you find changed?
Samuel: I think maybe it's the calibre of publications, stylists, and brands—its the people that you see looking at your work. It's easily quantifiable now because of Instagram, you can see who liked a picture right away. I look at last season to this season and it's like, oh, that art director who I really respect just liked this image or sent me a message or reposted some of my work. I think that's probably one of the most useful things about Instagram—it's a measure of who is seeing your work. And that's been the most notable thing for me—seeing these people I've been trying to contact for such a long time suddenly contacting me. You kind of wonder how it happened.
Mo: I've always thought about when you have something out online and seeing who publicly acknowledges it. Societal gravitation is embedded in Instagram and becomes interesting when you use it to measure where your work exists.
Samuel: I guess before people's interest wouldn’t really register until they reached out directly to you. A lot of people still aren't on Instagram or aren't actively using it. I had a meeting a week ago with a British magazine and the photo editor was like, "I've been following your work for two years. I've pitched you to the editor of the magazine multiple times when I started working here. We finally felt, collectively, that it was finally time to reach out because your work took a turn to where we could commission you." And I was like wow. That's crazy. There was no way for me to suspect that they were following my work.
Samuel: I think it's really important when you meet editors or creative directors, to question how they found you and what they responded to in your work. There's no magic formula but if you meet 10 people and eight of them say that they saw this photograph from this body of work then you know you were doing the right thing when you shot that.
Mo: That makes sense because if someone discovers you in a certain way then you want to support that perspective and give them a bigger reason why they like your work.
Samuel: Exactly. But then it then becomes this insane spinning plates act where you're like, I know that there's these six people I want to really impress but they like different things about my work and they all follow me on Instagram. You want to work for all of them but you know if you post this then you'll potentially alienate this person. If someone sees this publication then I might not be able to work for that one. You kind of realise to do what you think is best rather than fixating on the opinion of one person. But it's a constant internal battle and it's an Instagram related problem, so its got a lot to answer for as a platform.
Mo: And sometimes you'll talk to your friend about that situation and they level with you and mention that maybe that person you’re scared of offending doesn't care that much. [both laughing]
Mo: I've followed your work for a while and have enjoyed the progress of things being more kinetic. There's arguably a renaissance quality of composition to it. Is that deliberate?
Samuel: I think it came from a better understanding of the technical side of photography as a medium. During the time I was studying photography, I rented my first [Mamiya] RB67 from the university and learned how to load 120 film. The way that we were taught to work was this extremely slow and considered process where you place your subject in the centre of the frame, remove your dark slide, and do all these ritualistic things with the camera. This creates a very still image and there's so many things you have to remember to the point that you're kind of afraid to experiment. I know I was always so conscious of being like, oh shit, what if I leave the dark slide in? What if the film wasn't loaded correctly? All of these technical things are this huge burden so the longer you work with these cameras, it becomes a little bit like Full Metal Jacket where you can strip a camera down with your eyes closed. Suddenly there's this new world opened to you because you don't have to worry about the fact that I might have fucked this up because I know that I haven't, so I'm going to move around a little bit more. I've gone from shooting on an RZ67 which I still use but I now prefer eye level cameras like a Contax or a Pentax because they give you that freedom to move.
Samuel: I've gained absolute confidence with a camera which has allowed me to explore these new compositions, because it's no longer something that I have to think about so actively. Does that make sense?
Mo: It does. In my experience, the smaller the camera is, the faster an idea becomes materialised. Within that time frame of you thinking about a frame and getting the camera to capture that, you might have lost the opportunity to get the frame you idealised. One of my favourite photographers, Juergen Teller, almost always has a camera up to his eye and it becomes evident that, that's how he captures these sparse moments. He's always prepared to show you what he just thought about milliseconds ago.
Samuel: I have a couple of friends that have worked with him in the past and you're right, he never doesn't have a camera up to his eye. He has constantly loaded cameras being passed to him so there's never a gap when he's shooting. It's not necessarily the most sustainable way to work for everyone, but it means that he never misses a moment. It's a lot down to the work of his assistant. I've certainly noticed through the assistants I've had is that you reach this level of trust with them where—without sounding like a diva—you can have your hand out and someone will pass you what you need before have asked for it. It's not you going, hey guys, let's stop while I reload the camera. It's like, here's another back or lens. You have this relationship with your assistant which becomes so valuable. I've only really in the last six months reached that place with an assistant. It’s been very beneficial. Assistants don't get the credit that they deserve.
Mo: It's a very monumental element of shooting. I think one of the easiest things in a photoshoot is clicking the shutter. Everything before or after has to be orchestrated fluidly. I remember you talking about this on an interview, but it becomes performative. It's you and the subject dancing while the camera is letting you two hold each other. So if the camera is very obtrusive, it feels like you're dancing with boots.
Samuel: Yeah, exactly. I think just before I got on the phone with you I was looking through an Irving Penn book and there was a snippet of text of him talking about how the timber of your voice when you're photographing someone is really important. And I started to think about the tone of voice when I'm shooting someone through a waist level viewfinder, because people can't hear you because you're almost murmuring down into your camera versus being upright and projecting your voice. Once all the technical stuff has fallen into place you can start thinking about how you're talking.
Mo: Why do you think people look so sad in 8 x 10 photos? No one can hear shit. [both laughing]
Samuel: Exactly! Everyone looks slightly confused because they can't hear the photographer!
Arthur Kar for GQ Style
Mo: Within the practice of photography, what's one of the most challenging things for you?
Samuel: At the moment—and its probably the same for other people—the first answer I can think of is the volume of imagery that exists—wading through this quagmire of visual references to find what you do. Fashion in particular has so much plagiarism, but its accepted—
Mo: —and glorified at times.
Samuel: Yeah. People are paying homage to the same people over and over again on set. Two people will use the exact same reference but one person's will be infinitely more successful. Its a real battle, especially with creative and art directors because often they just want to replicate existing references.. Sometimes you don't want to reference anything because it exists. Why would you want to do it again? I've been on set recently where I've see the stylists moodboard and my moodboard and find out we've got the same image. And it's like of course we both found it on Pinterest! [both laughing] We thought we were being super quirky, finding this obscure black-and-white reference but it's the same as listening to music on Spotify and [thinking] you discovered a band on there. Like, you didn't discover shit. Everyone has heard of that band! They're feeding it to you as an algorithm. I think these visual moodboard websites are exactly the same, which is why you have to go back to books.
Mo: Or people who are dead. [both laughing] I feel like I say this in every five interviews. It's an idea I glorify but admittedly am hard at following. I was with a few friends the other night looking at photo books and didn’t know any of the names of the people's work I saw, which I loved.
Samuel: And you don't have to worry about pissing off the person who is dead, or even if they're alive. It's not necessary the maker of the image who is going to find whatever shoot you've done and call you out; it's all these other people who are aware of the references as well. Other photographers will look at you and know that you ripped so-and-so off. There's an army of people looking to call you out. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to that now.
Mo: It's interesting when you compare that idea to other creative mediums like music. Think of the music that we listen to and how regenerated its become from decades ago. No one bats an eye as harshly, I believe. Someone will discover synths from a pop artist without ever coming across New Order. Music allows the copying to become glorified, at times, because of how interactive the medium is. Photography is one of the most least active mediums.
Samuel: It's like the golf of creative pursuits. At least if you're ripping something off in music, to some extent you have to spend more time doing it carefully. Whereas in photography, it's like here's the picture—let's just do that.
Mo: You're already ripping off half the photographers in the world if you shoot with Portra 400. [both laughing]
Samuel: Where do you draw that line, though? This guy uses a camera! Are you kidding me? [both laughing]
Samuel: It's something that makes me really laugh because it's common to receive the question of what film you shot something on via Instagram or email, as if that makes any sort of difference in the grander scheme of things. If you buy Portra 400, everyone fucking uses that film. It's not going to give you the result you desire right out of the camera. There's all these groups on Flickr which I still think is going.
Mo: God bless.
Samuel: Oh, absolutely! [both laughing] All these discussions on there about this film versus that film get crazy when people are going to mini labs developing film for $5. And it's like you didn't get that result from the film, you got it from whoever happened to be scanning your film.
Mo: It's funny because if anyone decides to start shooting film right now, you end up being categorised under the shadow of certain people. You just have to stick to your guys when you're compared to these people.
Samuel: You're absolutely right. What is funny is people pretending that they're not aware of them. It's like we all know what's happening here. Just be honest and acknowledge your contemporaries and do what you have to do.
Mo: I don't want to sound trite, but I was talking to a buddy of mine who's friends with a certain photographer and we all see their work a lot, because they're workhorses. But because of that, you're not seeing a lot of personal work from them and after a while you become a character of yourself if you're not able to create work that shows who you are, not what you do. As you said, it's important to acknowledge your contemporaries but remember that they're not in the best position even if people think they are.
Samuel: People want the original, don't they? No matter what you're talking about whether it's photography or buying a car, you want to pay a bit more to have the classic. So even when it gets to the point where everyone knows how to print like a certain photographer, there will be clients—and rightly so—who want to pay for the original one. It's no longer about the fact that the image is simply utilising a popular colour palette, or lighting—it's just about having that person’s actual stamp on it, and then shouting about it. Fashion is one of the few areas in photography where people get name-checked in campaigns. That’s much rarer in advertising. I’ve noticed how a lot of music videos lately have directed by at the beginning. That’s not something I remember seeing before.
Mo: I believe that used to happen in earlier music videos in the early 2000s but I might be wrong. I think that stems from what you just mentioned—people wanting the original. Because of how fast everything comes and goes—in case your work becomes populates to millions of people—it’s easier to cement yourself in the conversation of the work you’ve created. And for certain artists, it's a reminder to the audience who’s familiar with your work. Same thing is happening in magazines. You’d rarely have the photographer's name in the cover, but if Ryan McGinley photographs someone, you’re going to know, not only because of the visual language behind the photo, but because his name is on the front of the fucking magazine. [laughing]
2018 White Turf for Vogue.com
Mo: But to go back to your previous thought, I think it's important to remind ourselves that we are truthful to our own work. And there's the tried and true statement of photography on how other people's work might be subconsciously injected into yours. What other people do and are known for is attached to their name. That domain will stay within a certain look or brand. We can't worry about that.
Samuel: I was thinking of it recently like a pyramid scheme where you have a photographer at the top who worked really hard to get where they are, and then you have the immediate copycats who come in at the second level. If the main photographer is doing the campaigns then these smaller photographers are shooting the lookbooks. And then further down the pyramid you just have this trickled down affect to the point where there's a hundred people who are all doing the exact same thing but they're not going to be reaping the benefits because they arrived too late. There isn't any merit in jumping on the bandwagon at that point.
Mo: Do you get concerned about being grouped in with others who've championed shooting on film?
Samuel: Yeah, I'm certainly aware of it. Everyone has a tendency to pigeonhole. And why should you not assume that people are doing it to you if you're doing it to other people? There's not really a lot that you can do about it. The one thing I really try to stay away from is, and I don't want to come off as elitist, but I try not to look too often at any work that's being shot right now. It doesn't mean that you won’t end up recreating similar things because you're going to see it regardless no matter how hard you try to avoid it; it’s all around you.
Samuel: When it comes to art and creative directors, as well as editors, there's nothing you can do to stop them pigeonholing you until maybe you meet them in person. When you meet them in person it gives you a chance to distinguish yourself because then it becomes more about your personality and how that's going to come through on set. For example, all this stuff coming out about Mario Testino and Bruce Weber suddenly shows these ugly faces behind iconic photographs. Everyone has been using these images on mood boards for years, and all of a sudden you have to face this reality that these people aren't their photographs; they're something a lot more sinister. And in [another] way, there are all these fantastic younger photographers, but maybe they're really difficult to work with and maybe you get the job because you're more personable. So that's an area where the playing field is levelled slightly. It might not work though, because you might be an asshole. [laughing]
Mo: Or you might not get that meeting so where's the opportunity to show your personality, you know?
Samuel: Yeah, because you might be one of five photographers being pitched on a job and you never get in the room, which is the sad reality a lot of the time.
Mo: But within all these scenarios, its showing that there are people behind these cameras and how important it is to pay attention to that. It was so crazy to see how many people loved Terry Richardson and were giving him the grace of a blind eye because of his work. But once things happened enough times people started to realise and materialise punishments.
Samuel: Yeah, and their careers have taken a lifetime to build and it's taken a single New York Times article to destroy them. It doesn't matter about the back catalog of this person's work anymore, and I'm not saying that it should of course. It's just an observation.
Mo: One thing I wanted to talk to you about is influences. Does photography primarily influence your work or does something else absorb that role?
Samuel: This is something I’ve spent a long time considering, and I suppose a simple answer would be that, yes, much of my influences come from looking at photographs.
Samuel: That’s quite boring, though, so let’s say lately it's becoming a product of my environment. Having no fixed address for over a year now has seen me living in multiple apartments across two different cities and made me a lot more interested in pursuing the assignments which mean I get to travel. I took a near-month-long job for an advertising client and I saw so many interesting places in the U.S. Every time I go anywhere new I spend a great deal of time looking up with my mouth open—I’m relentlessly curious. These trips inevitably manifest as a note on my project list to go back and shoot something. This kind of natural evolution from a chance encounter with a person or a place, to a project, is the way I love to work and in that sense, geography influences me the most.
Samuel: I read an interview recently with two photographers called Scandebergs who are making some really wonderful work lately. In the interview I think one of them said their ideal location would be a Hollywood studio so they could create their own world. I feel the absolute opposite of that.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- ‘Time in LA.’ It was 01:01.
What’s your unwritten rule?
Never use the hashtag #filmisnotdead. It’s obviously not fucking dead.
What happened in the last dream you had?
I’ve been sleeping like the dead lately. I can’t remember any of my recent dreams. For the record, I really wish I did so I had a longer answer but I got nothin’.
What does working with you feel like?
Like going fishing with your dad who tries to be cool, but only gets it right sometimes.
What question do you hate getting asked?
What film did you shoot this on?
What will your tombstone say?
‘You again?!’ I used to have a doormat that said that and I thought it was hilarious. I did also once go to a Persian area in a graveyard and some of the tombstones had laser etched portraits on them which looked 3D and I thought that was pretty cool.
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