A Question of Photography: Casey Kelbaugh - Commercial Photographer, Editorial Photographer & Founder of Slideluck

You can find some remarkable photographs nestled among the kale salads and Lululemon fitness outfits at the Whole Foods in New York’s Union Square. Photos taken by enterprising young Nepalese students in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake who, armed with only a camera, are showcasing the incredible resolve and humanity of post-disaster Kathmandu. These former street-kids were trained and equipped by the non-profit photo organization, Slideluck - whose mission is to bring people together through art and food.

SLIDELUCK Mexico III, which took place on Sunday, November 22nd at the brand new Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos in Mexico City - by Casey Kelbaugh. LEARN MORE

SLIDELUCK Mexico III, which took place on Sunday, November 22nd at the brand new Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos in Mexico City - by Casey Kelbaugh. LEARN MORE

Slideluck is a creative combination of a slideshow and a potluck - where diverse groups of people share their interest in artwork, food, music and ideas under one roof. The work of established artists is shown alongside that of emerging and non-professional artists, with no distinction between them.  Each event is highly localized, so artists from a community are presenting work to their direct peers.

With operations in over 100 cities worldwide, it’s little wonder that Slideluck’s founder, Casey Kelbaugh, is a busy man. But this is only partially due to his Slideluck commitments. He is also a highly successful commercial and editorial photographer who has worked with publications including The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine and brands like Clinique, Chex, Sperry and the Ace Hotel. 

PhotoOp met up with Casey to chat about the rise of Slideluck, how you can’t fake real talent and the importance of long-term projects for photographers.

PhotoOp: How did Slideluck come to be?

Casey Kelbaugh: It started in my tiny backyard in Seattle back in 2000. I just invited some creative friends along for a potluck, and those that wanted, dropped some slides of their work into an old kodak projector. And we sat around and ate and looked at cool images. In the end about 50 people showed up and it went really well. People were jazzed, they were like ‘when’s the next one?

PO: But why in the first place? Was there something that inspired the idea?

CK: I felt that there was a real lack of community in the photo industry. That everyone was so busy on their own projects that creativity wasn’t being shared like it should.

The photo world can be pretty inaccessible… especially when you are starting out. One day you might show at a gallery, but how do you get the feedback you want and need right now? Everyone was so territorial. I wanted to create something that celebrated the community.

I think Slideluck caught a wave in Seattle too. There was a great sense of community in the art world at the time, and we were able to grow organically very fast. In three years I think we did 20 shows without any press, it was all word-of-mouth.

BRUCE HIGH QUALITY FOUNDATION.  A portrait of the elusive and secretive BHQF founders at a dinner during Art Basel Miami - by Casey Kelbaugh. READ MORE

BRUCE HIGH QUALITY FOUNDATION.  A portrait of the elusive and secretive BHQF founders at a dinner during Art Basel Miami - by Casey Kelbaugh. READ MORE

PO: Tell us about your background - how did you get into photography?

CK: I was actually pretty late into photography, it wasn't until the year after college. I had always been a visual person, but was more interested in drawing and painting.

When I was 23 I moved to Tokyo for a year. I had fallen in love with the concept of Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting), so went there to study it, among other things. It is a beautiful but very controlled and deeply traditional art form. While living in Tokyo, I began going to photography workshops. There is an incredible culture of photography in Japan, and because you are so close to the source of where things are manufactured, you can get used equipment for next to nothing. You go out to the park on a Saturday and you will see all these hobbyists with the most sophisticated gear.

I was very quickly enamored by photography because it was so immediate and interactive. I loved being able to engage with the world, as opposed to sitting in a studio and learning brushstrokes from tradition. It was incredible to be able to create and capture moments.

PO: Do you feel your experiences with Sumi-e helped you at all? Was it a total waste of time?

CK: It was definitely not a waste of time. Sumi-e was about learning a craft from the ground-up. In that case it was a matter of mastering one brushstroke until you could move on to the next. You had to be methodical and exact. I applied these lessons to my photography. I started with a 50mm lens and learned very systematically. There were no tricks or gimmicks. If I wanted the subject to be bigger, I moved closer; if I wanted it to be smaller, I moved further away. Each lens is like learning a different language, you have to take it slow and do it right - there are no cheats. After a few months I moved onto a 35mm and learned all about that lens, then eventually an 85mm, a 24mm and so on. I still only shoot with prime lenses with manual settings. It’s about simplicity and control.

POSTCARD FROM ASIA. A daily project by Casey Kelbaugh on Instagram (@caseykelbaugh) during an extended trip to Asia. SEE MORE

POSTCARD FROM ASIA. A daily project by Casey Kelbaugh on Instagram (@caseykelbaugh) during an extended trip to Asia. SEE MORE

PO: You sound very demanding on yourself.

CK: Not demanding, I just want it done right. Composition is so critical to me. I am very attentive to it; perhaps to a fault. I think if someone else were editing my work then they might pick some looser pictures, because they feel it to be a better moment. But if the image doesn’t meet my aesthetic standards, it gets thrown out.

PO: Let’s talk a little about your experience. A question that often comes up is the value of assisting. What’s your take on it?

CK: I believe assisting is the best possible education a photographer can have. I myself never took a cohesive course on photography, just a couple of classes here and there to supplement what I was learning on the fly. During the three or so years I was assisting, I assisted well over 50 photographers.  Sometimes I would work with a photographer for a few months, other times just on a day shoot. It’s a fantastic way to learn how to deal with clients, how to work with different equipment, how to get the best out of everyone on set and how to structure your business. It has been instrumental for both my commercial and editorial experience. 

And soon I started pitching - and winning - jobs against photographers I had previously assisted. It was a key milestone for me.

PO: Did you shoot any particular genre?

CK: When I started out on my own I shot everything. I took whatever jobs I could to gain experience. I shot with local free weeklies. I shot bands. I shot restaurants. I shot weddings. Everything.

VENICE BIENNALE. Casey Kelbaugh wrote and photographed a piece about his experiences at this year's Biennale di Venezia for Nowhere Magazine. READ MORE

VENICE BIENNALE. Casey Kelbaugh wrote and photographed a piece about his experiences at this year's Biennale di Venezia for Nowhere Magazine. READ MORE

PO: How did you prepare?

CK: By totally over-preparing. I would turn up to these restaurants and completely take over with a ridiculous amount of lighting, models, assistants, etc.  I saw each of these assignments as free license to experiment and try things out.  And people began to notice the amount of effort and production I was putting into my work.

PO: You were still in Seattle at this point?

CK: Yes. I came to New York in September of 2003.

PO: Why?

CK: I was starting to get some commercial work in Seattle and figured I could stay put and carve out a comfortable career there, or I could come to New York and get my ass kicked …

PO: And how was that transition? Did your ass get kicked?

CK: It actually went quite smoothly. I got a pretty big job with Nextel almost immediately after arriving. They gave me a location RV and a crew of like 20 people. I was like, yep, I got this. But there were of course many lean times to come.

IPOD VISITS NEW YORK.  Just after dethroning Shaun White in the Halfpipe Snowboarding Men’s Championship in Sochi, Swiss Snowboarder Iouri Podlatchikov came to New York to celebrate. Casey Kelbaugh pitched a story to The New York Times to cover it. READ MORE

IPOD VISITS NEW YORK.  Just after dethroning Shaun White in the Halfpipe Snowboarding Men’s Championship in Sochi, Swiss Snowboarder Iouri Podlatchikov came to New York to celebrate. Casey Kelbaugh pitched a story to The New York Times to cover it. READ MORE

PO: Sounds like you cracked it off the bat! We spoke with fashion photographer Sara Fleur Abou-El-Haj a couple of months ago (read more), and when she came over from the West Coast she started off by assisting. That was never in your mind?

CK: When I first arrived in New York I went to an APA party, and everyone there was an assistant. I must have met over 200 assistants that night alone. And they were all competing for the same work. I figured if it was this competitive I might as well be going after photography jobs. Sometimes the transition from assistant to photographer can be tough, and I had already been working on my own in Seattle.

But not assisting in New York led to the one regret I have being a professional photographer - I never worked on set with an Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber or Mario Testino. You know a really big production shoot. It would have been good to see this through the eyes of an assistant. It gives you a sense of perspective and what is possible.

PO: Are you repped?

CK: Not currently. I find with photography representation, they want to know what you’re bringing to the table without any real evidence that they are going to do the same. It’s often an uneven balance. My advice is if you decide to be repped then you need to stand out from everyone else the agency has on their roster. You have to be different so that the reps are motivated to push your work forward; or else it’s not worth it. I was once the only commercial photographer at an agency that otherwise had war photographers - my work offered an unique creative perspective, and this led to quite a bit of work.

Honestly, I am still suffering from sticker shock at the percentage photographers give up. And I feel like they're taking a larger and larger slice of the pie.

There has also been a real shift within the stock agency world, in terms of rights management. When I started, clients were paying for rights and now they expect a total buyout. And that’s across every genre from banks, to start-ups to newspapers.  I am sure there are some really established photographers who won’t submit to the terms, but most have to compromise. I mean full usage in perpetuity really hurts photographers from an income-generation perspective. Re-selling work used to be a major additional revenue stream. Today it’s a steady trickle.

CRUISIN’  One of Casey Kelbaugh’s longtime clients is an eco resort in Belize and this is the owner, Mick Fleming with his sidekick Simba as they set out for a day’s work - by Casey Kelbaugh. SEE MORE

CRUISIN’  One of Casey Kelbaugh’s longtime clients is an eco resort in Belize and this is the owner, Mick Fleming with his sidekick Simba as they set out for a day’s work - by Casey Kelbaugh. SEE MORE

 

PO: That seems to be the nature of the beast with such a breadth of photographer options. What do you do for marketing? How do you keep yourself fresh?

CK: I mean you should be sending out your promos, newsletters, etc. but I believe the one way to define yourself as a photographer is to work on long-term personal projects. Think in terms of discrete projects and series. It tends to be sequences of images that get published in magazines or shown at museums. This in turn can lead to bigger paying commercial work.

And serialized pictures help you tell a story and give you a defined point-of-view. If you have a great shot of beekeeping, followed by someone kicking a soccer ball and then an architectural shot - it’s hard to hang your hat on what exactly you do. What is it you stand for?

PO: What about on the social channels?

CK: I see value in Instagram, I think it’s a great tool for self-expression and promotion. And I see some people using it pretty effectively with lots of followers. Many of them are being hired by brands. It’s a platform I want to learn more about. Facebook and Twitter are more about distributing information on your editorial and personal work.

THE UNCANNY VALLEY.  While doing a large commercial project shooting vocational and nursing schools all over the USA, Casey Kelbaugh did a side project about some of the creepy prosthetics and props that you find in the classrooms and labs - by Casey Kelbaugh. SEE MORE

THE UNCANNY VALLEY.  While doing a large commercial project shooting vocational and nursing schools all over the USA, Casey Kelbaugh did a side project about some of the creepy prosthetics and props that you find in the classrooms and labs - by Casey Kelbaugh. SEE MORE

PO: Do you have any insecurities with the industry?

CK: It feels like the end is nigh; but then again it’s always felt like that. I mean it was the same with the advent of digital cameras, and with the state of rights management or the growth of camera phones. There has been a trend towards devaluation of the creative industries. You can see it with the music industry and licensing. It is legitimately scary.

But these are the times we face. The photographers we idolize - Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin – brilliant as they were, worked in an era of significantly less competition. And there was much less penny-pinching by the clients.

The democratization of the tools has definitely broadened the opportunities and the chance of discovery is much higher, but I don’t worry about the competition. I think the cream will always rise to the top. It will come down to the consistency of the photographs. While one photographer might be able to take a great photo now and again, those that have the technical knowledge and creative eye will be able to produce great work over and over, in whatever conditions or situation that comes their way.

PO: What’s next for you?

CK: I feel like my career is just getting started. I have just finished an amazing project for The New York Times that was a year in the making. It’s about an unlikely underground music series and I wrote and photographed all the content. I loved having nearly complete creative control.

I’m in a unique position: having run Slideluck for 15 years, I am consciously devoting more attention to my photography. I feel like I am just scratching the surface and I’m excited by the many possibilities that lie ahead.

PENTHOUSE UNDERGROUND - by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times. READ MORE

PENTHOUSE UNDERGROUND - by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York TimesREAD MORE

PO: What advice do you have to aspiring photographers?

CK: Treat every assignment as an opportunity. Go all out. It’s a chance to hone your skills and develop new relationships. The best part of photography, is the access you are given. The camera allows you into incredible places to meet with amazing people. You get to hang out with movie stars by their pool or be in people’s homes after an earthquake. The camera is access, which I think is the most exciting part of the job.

Quick Fire Questions (no more than 10 seconds thinking allowed):

PO: In a word, how would you describe your photography?

CK: Authentic.

PO: Best city in the world?

CK: Rio de Janeiro.

PO: On-set pet peeve?

CK: Having people hover over your shoulder. I need creative breathing space.

PO: What’s the worst thing you can say on a shoot?

CK: The worst thing you can do is demotivate the subject. “Do I look good?” “Meh, you look okay”.

PO: Apart from a camera, what’s the one thing you can’t do without on a shoot?

CK: Confidence.

PO: Best photos: Instinctive? Or planned?

CK: Instinctive (but that instinct has been honed over a lifetime)

SPRING BREAK MIAMI, 2015 - The photographer spent a weekend documenting the "mayhem" of South Beach - by Casey Kelbaugh. READ MORE

SPRING BREAK MIAMI, 2015 - The photographer spent a weekend documenting the "mayhem" of South Beach - by Casey Kelbaugh. READ MORE