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Art through a camera - When someone describes a hero as anyone who does what they love without having a back-up plan, you know they must believe-in and be passionate about what they do and Gene Kiegel most certainly does that. Here's his story of how a wanna be inventor turned into a professional and passionate photographer.
His first rangefinder was a put-it-together SMENA camera and all he knew of photography as a profession was people taking school photographs or out on the streets, so it's really no surprise that a young Gene Kiegel didn't want to become a photographer he actually wanted to be an inventor. Unfortunately there isn't much career advice for people wanting to be inventors and Gene had to focus his attentions elsewhere.
"I've always been creative and have done all sorts of extra curriculum activities like painting, boat building and airplane building. On one of the courses I even ended up designing computer games. That's what actually led me to the career in Computer Science/Electrical engineering and that's how I ended up at the University of California, Berkeley."
During the first summer he spent at Berkeley, Gene took a short course in photography where he bought his first SLR and began to enjoy going out and taking photographs. Many of his fellow students took up modeling and he offered to do free photo shoots for them, he also took photographs on a daily basis covering everything from architecture to reflections and light.
"The summer course pushed me towards experimenting with shutter speeds, but I don't think I really fully comprehended the importance of aperture until much later. Not to mention equipment, film choice and formats."
Gene has always been a creative person and this is why he ended up leaving his course at Berkeley.
"I was a bit disappointed with the Computer Science course at Berkeley, it lacked creativity. For me the whole fun of the course was to do it the shortest, smartest way possible. For the teacher it was more important we followed pre-defined chunks of formulas and well known methods."
After taking a job with an internet company, going back to Berkeley and then sampling a selection of different classes for a semester. Gene eventually realised he didn't like computer science and he didn't really know a thing about his second career choice architecture so he took a summer internship with the Pasadena Art Center.
"They didn't offer product design at Berkeley and I had a meeting with the Pasadena Art Centre, a highly acclaimed school. I did a summer internship with one of the professors there, working with him in his product design firm. I enjoyed it and was considering it. However I decided to finish my education in Berkeley and get my degree in Architecture, as staying at Pasadena would mean starting from scratch again."
His knowledge of photography became quite useful in his degree as Gene took pictures of his own models and often other students commissioned him to take pictures of their projects as they liked the dramatic style and originality he brought to their work. This was his first introduction into studio work and his first experience at using Tungsten lighting and his Minolta maxxum.
As with all graduates, Gene left University with a credit card packed of expenses and having a background in IT left him with the option to go into jobs both in the tech field and architecture. However the costs of living in the city and growing credit card bills pushed Gene to take a job in the IT market.
"I figured, with the money I'd be able to make in IT I could soon open my own architecture firm and skip a few steps."
Gene jumped from one position to another, each step supplying him with another title and a higher salary. He eventually landed at a company which when it went public meant he would be worth around 2 million on paper. But at this point, Gene left San Francisco and moved to LA. He still made a decent wage, but the city seemed to be decades behind Silicon Valley so he gave it up, went traveling and wrote a movie, as everyone does when in LA.
His travels took him to Brazil where he discovered money isn't everything: " I don't need that fancy car or house or job or whatever else to be happy. I don't need to be part of that chase," said Gene.
He eventually returned to LA where he took a job as a model scout, an easy job for a young man who had to go to parties and seek out beautiful girls. One of the model application requirements was to submit a head shot, so Gene soon started taking head shots as well as hunting the models out. This soon lead him to handing out his own card even though he didn't know anything about the industry or how a photograph should be taken, as Gene said he did it his way.
"I rented out one of the bedrooms from my friends and converted it into a studio. It was a tiny room, I'd say 4x4 meters. My knowledge of studios and equipment was scarce and based purely on my shooting experience of some models in college and a few girlfriends."
At the time models were quite demanding and they all wanted a copy of the negatives. Gene's solution to this was to buy a camera that had a fast exposure time which would allow him to get two almost identical slides.
"My first professional SLR was a Nikon F5, it was quite a monster and it could do virtually everything. Shortly after I traded my F5 for the digital version that had just come out in Japan back then (2002) and that's when my learning had a shot of adrenaline."
Since Gene was working on his own and had no clue how other photographers were working he was creating work that was quite different to everyone else and soon he was doing commissions for the top modeling agencies in LA. However, money was short and Gene soon had to take another job in IT.
"I felt completely out of place and once again I was reminded money wasn't everything. I realised that my little hobby of taking pictures had so much more to offer. Editorial and advertising jobs were something that I wanted to aspire to. So, after finishing my work I had to do in the office I spent the rest of the time self-educating myself in everything related to photography."
Gene eventually had enough money to rent an empty warehouse. He converted it into a photographic studio and in between building it and working Gene researched photography on the internet.
"I looked at different types of equipment, formats and lighting. I purchased some books that had pictures in them with descriptions of how it was achieved. First I mimicked them and soon I started to understand how the light worked. I soon didn't need the books and I also decided to lease a brand new Hasselblad 503CW as well as some Speedotron studio lighting."
To cut a long story short Gene yet again found himself jobless, he had no choice but to turn to photography. His partying had lead him to some great contacts but once again he found he had hardly any money. So he downsized the studio and hoped his style and creativity would be enough to succeed, and luckily for him it was.
His drive to be creative and passion for learning meant Gene could often be found at the local camera store trying to squeeze every last drop of information out of the assistants. One day while waiting for more information to be fed to him he ran into Melvyn Sokolsky, a fashion photographer and he asked him if he could assist him.
"It was like pulling a ring to a grenade," said Gene.
Sokolsky looked at him and said if he was at all serious about becoming a photographer then he should just go out there and do it. You shouldn't assist someone else as you will only learn how they shoot and he didn't see the point in that. Gene soon began shooting daily, playing and experimenting. He was learning how to reflect light and to make everything work how he envisioned. He put everything into his photography and never asked to be an assistant ever again.
"I did a few colour and some black and white shots, and they seem to really like them. Especially the black and white ones."
Soon after they commissioned him again. This time to shoot Bai Ling, a Chinese Hollywood celebrity for a cover.
"I was so excited, It wasn't really about the money. In fact, I think I spent all the money they offered me on film and developing in the local lab. I wanted to do such a great job. I really went out of my way and asked her to shoot with me for two days straight. I did everything, her smoking a cigar in tweed , topless on top of a roof downtown and her riding on a Harley Davidson all in black as an assassin."
His creative work proved to be too out of the box for the mainstream reader but Bai Ling recommended Gene to her celebrity and agency friends, supplying him with plenty of work.
Even though Gene had plenty to photograph in LA, the city soon lost it's appeal. It had turned into a lollypop, Something bright, shiny and sweet and Gene wanted something more raw and original.
"My choices were New York, London, or Paris. I visited Paris and got representation there the same week, it was quite exciting but getting work seemed to be quite slow. I've also visited London where I was offered a campaign for Swatch. It seemed like a promising career opportunity, so London it was."
Even though he chose London for his career base, it wasn't the city he fell in love with.
"I must say, that I absolutely fell in love with Paris. The food, the derelict architecture, the romance and also the work ethics. Not to mention the city's quite defined taste for fashion photography and arts in general."
The UK does have it's gems too. Gene loves Wales and the outskirts of London, he likes derelict and untouched places as they seem to be more unique. He likes places with emotion and this can be seen in the work he produces.
"I would say that my style is somewhat cinematic and voyeuristic. Not sure if it's the right description, but my intention is often to capture a real emotion or a moment in time."
Gene believes in connecting with his subject, whether they are looking at the camera or not. He talks of feeling what he captures. If what he is shooting doesn't make sense he simply doesn't shoot it.
"The creation of the image is a living process. It starts when you first meet the client and get a visual flash of the idea in your head. Whether it's a particular garment, model, location or concept that inspires me, I come up with a brand. I create the look, the feel, the idea and concept behind it. Then it gets refined through further interaction with all the aspects involved in the shoot. The idea is brewing in your head and your mind may randomly suggest various techniques you can use and what the final image will look like. The influence comes from both outside and within, but it can literally come from anywhere. That gives growth to the further shaping of that idea. So, by the day of the shoot, I know exactly what I'm doing and how."
Post-production is something Gene feels should be done by the photographer as he believes it is an important part of the creative process, it is the last chance the photographer gets to shape the final image.
"Through developing/scanning film, some post production techniques are sometimes necessary to bring out details of some parts, color balance the print and retouch any human imperfections. It also often gives room to further creative process as working with the image may often lead to discoveries of new post production techniques and feelings."
Gene works around emotion, he loves every minute of a shoot and puts his heart into everything. This also applies to his equipment. He doesn't use one specific set of equipment, he changes and differs depending on the mood he wishes to set or which is appropriate to the task in hand.
"I don't think what would make my job easier, I think of what will make it the best image possible,"said Gene.
This way of thinking is also apparent when he has to chose between digital or film photography, of which he choses film. His preferred medium is 10x8 Polaroid or Leica M7, "I don't think that any 35mm digital SLR can ever come close to the beauty of film."
Of course shooting on a 10x8 can be expensive unless you can get that perfect image in one or two shots. Gene can do this to a fine art, capturing the right shot on 10x8 or 5x4 often in one but when it comes to digital, he finds it much more difficult to get the mood or originality he loves.
This is one of the reasons why Gene has become almost convinced that digital photography has made society overlook the skills needed to take a photograph, as everything can be fixed now in post-production. He believes digital cameras make every shot you take look instantly like everyone elses. Yes you can use better lighting, a different energy or composition, but all you manage to achieve in that one shot, the less skilled can replicate through post-production.
"Even though digital photography may save you cost of film and processing, the time post production takes and the costs to make the image unique or your own is quite high. Finding your favourite lens, film, developing, scanning or printing technique is like swimming in the ocean of possibilities. But developing your own taste and having a solid knowledge through experience and experimentation, you can achieve your own unique style that you can produce with one snap. To me as a photographer, whose time is more valuable, I prefer doing that rather than working on digital image to make it look my own."
Influenced by Robert Maxwell, Irwin Penn, Ellen Von Unwerth, Rankin, Terry Richardson, Steven Klein, Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh, and Paolo Roversi Gene's cinematic style has grown from looking and learning from their styles, absorbing them and making it his own. He may be brilliant at what he does but like anyone, Gene still has his dreams.
"I would love to shoot for Italian Vogue, as I really admire many of the photographers who shoot for it. Also, magazines like 10 , Tank, Exit and Dansk have the most amazing fashion stories published and I would love to become a regular contributor to those."
Gene's success has come from a lot of hard work, patience and persistence, so are these the traits he would suggest people need to follow in his footsteps?
"My only advice is to strive to understand what you like and then try to achieve it. It's an ongoing process of shaping your taste thus defining your style. It is a combination of technical expertise and achieving your vision and combining these with the other quarks that define who you are."