Everyone once in a while a photographer grabs your attention with a great photo that evokes emotion and curiosity; making you dig deeper into the picture and deeper into your own existence. A good photographer is challenged with finding their unique voice and style and presenting their perspective to the viewer. It's not an easy challenge and many a photog never find their lane. Recently we found ourselves as asking the question - "hey, who shot that?" after digging further we discovered the talent behind the lens was none other than Sam McKenna. We had the pleasure of being able to get his perspective on the art form of photography.
How's the current scene in New York in light of everything going on?
The city has a really eerie feel at the moment, the streets are empty and you hear a lot of sirens which has been making me just kind of stop and be thankful for my health. A lot of my friends are out of work and the unemployment website is just overloaded right now, no one can get through to get UI benefits. It’s a tough time but you just have to remember that there’s people in a lot worse situations. It’s important to practice gratitude and help people out when you can.
Most of my friends are just skating flat ground at parks near their house. The parks are slowly getting closed. I’ve been injured for a few months and am just taking the time to do PT and exercise trying to get my foot strong again.
There is a sense of community in the city that you can feel, people are greeting each other more on the street and talking to their neighbors more. I think people are being respectful of giving people more space. Sometimes all people need is a wave or a hello to help improve their mood and. Right now we all need to be smart, stay positive, and remember that this will pass.
How long have you been shooting and how did you discover the camera?
I started shooting my friends skating when I was 16, growing up in Portland, ME. My first two skate magazines were the photo issues of Thrasher and Transworld from 2004, so early on my exposure to skateboarding was mostly through magazines. I was obsessed with looking through skate magazines and did everything I could to get money for a Canon XSI, sold my bike and shoveled snow for my neighbors. We used to skate in a DIY park that was in a burned out roller skating rink called the Kid’s Rink, which had a roof and allowed us to skate in the winter. It was dark in there so early on I had to get some flashes and learn how to light by playing around and reading online. I started shooting photos of my friends at the Kid’s Rink and out street skating, posting the photos online. I met Mike Gustafson and Jay Brown, they introduced me to the older skaters in Portland. We had a rad crew in Portland at the time. I was seventeen going out skating with them pretty much every day and shooting. I started sending photos to Skate Jawn and then Mike G made a magazine called Step Dad for a few years. I had moved to NYC to go to school, and started shooting more street and documentary work while in school. I’ve been working as a freelance photographer since then, working as an assistant on commercial sets and starting to get more of my own jobs.
What is your favorite subject matter to shoot?
Skateboarding will always be the most fun to shoot, just being out in the street not knowing who is going to do what. The feeling of getting the photo right is like landing a trick. Especially in NYC, just bouncing around from spot to spot, running into different crews and shooting whatever goes down. Photographing skateboarding also feels like you are creating something very special for people that will appreciate it. Skateboarding brings you to so many different places and gives you an authentic look at any city you are in. I love to shoot street photography and urban landscape as well. One of the freelance jobs I do had me traveling around the U.S. quite a bit, and walking around photographing random towns is always interesting.
How do you feel about film vs digital?
I like the fact that film slows me down, not only when shooting, but the whole process slows down. I scan my own film and spend a lot of time retouching out dust. This process allows me to spend time with my photos, which causes you to think about your work. How does it fit in with my other work and within society as a whole? So I really like the fact that film allows me to spend time with the photos. I enjoy the whole process of bringing film to the lab, going to pick it up, coming home and get that sort of darkroom experience of seeing the photos from the negative for the first time. For skating I shoot digital, but I always have a 35mm point and shoot with me to shoot portraits and street photography. I’ve collected a lot of old camera’s over the years and just love the different mechanics and feel that each camera has. The camera will often dictate how you shoot a bit, so picking the right type of camera or playing with different cameras has a big influence on my work.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Mike Blabac, Reda, Ryan Gee, Strobek, RB, and Atiba for skateboarding documentation. I always loved the older street photographers and NYC artists, Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks, Keith Haring. Music and art my friends make. PABLO RAMIREZ
Finding a unique voice from behind the lens is a difficult thing to accomplish for many photographers. What do you feel is the secret to defining a style?
I started up a photo studio called Light House NYC, as a way to expand my commercial clientele and mix that work with street photography of everyday people living their best possible life. I’ve been shooting a lot of active lifestyle work and street photography of people playing sports, yoga, handball, basketball, riding dirtbikes. My goal is to photograph everyday people and athlete’s with the intention that putting all the photos together will allow people to see them all on the same plane as the models and brands that I work with. Having that concept in the back of my mind and by keeping subject matter open ended, my style will progress naturally. Not being afraid to experiment, shoot weird old film or find an old lens and put an adapter on it, play with colors in photoshop. You have to keep it fun and interesting for yourself to develop your style. Just following that gut feeling and intuition is what creates your style.
Do you feel social media (specifically instagram) has helped or hurt the profession and industry of photography?
From a commercial standpoint, social media has created a higher demand for content. Simultaneously this need for content all the time has diminished the quality of a lot of work and spread the budgets out. I’ve been on commercial sets where the client wants 25 shots in a day, and then they end up using half of them. I think its still important to have a good concept and not show all the your cards at once. It’s ok to work on a project and not post anything for a while. When it comes out it will be on point. I try not to get too caught up seeing all these other photographers with 50k followers or whatever, I try to just let the work speak for itself. There’s a lot of photographers on social media that make work and it doesn’t have substance, putting a caption like, “going into Monday like..” kind of just takes away from the work. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle on Instagram, in my experience, having a personal relationship with clients matters a lot more than how many followers you have. It’s a double edge sword, it has created a bigger need for work and platform that you can gain recognition, it’s also allowed people to pay less or take advantage of photographers that are not looking out for the rest of the industry when they take big jobs for little pay to get recognition.
Commercial photography requires a different skill set. What do you see as the biggest difference between shooting as a passion vs pay?
I got my start in commercial photography interning for a cosmetics photographer. I worked as a photo assistant shooting cosmetics advertising still life for about two years before moving into full on freelance. I’ve worked on shoots in high end studios, horse farms, beaches, rooftops, oyster boats, kitchens, etc. The fun part with that is you get a glimpse into the worlds of all these different people. I’ve also worked with photographers that clearly don’t like what they are shooting, but you have to make money. It’s important to find what you like to shoot and pursue that, if you aren’t passionate, the work will show that. I think it’s possible to be able to shoot with passion and get paid, you may have to do some less desirable jobs in between, but staying focused on what you want to do will always pay off.
If you could have coffee with any artist dead or alive who would it be, and what’s one question would you ask them?
Tough one, I think having a coffee with Patti Smith would be pretty amazing. I would love to hear her thoughts on the rise of women’s skateboarding.
Any shout outs?
Pablo Ramirez Foundation and Brooklyn Skate Garden, Mike G, Jay Brown, ESNC Crew, Ride 207, Marcus, Noah and everyone at Skate Jawn, Jahmir Brown for linking me up with Artform, the NJ homies, Neil Herrick and the 5Boro squad, Danny Falla, Angel Fonseca and 157 crew, Justin Adams, PJ and the 88 Hardware / Knickerbocker park squad, Max McFarlane, Stoops Mag, LES homies, Gang Corp, anyone that ever let me shoot photos with them. Thank you!!!
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