Focus On Photographers: Pursuing Your Passion With Ken Hamlett
One of KEH Camera's biggest assets is our employees. Throughout every department of the company, our team is one with many talents. It should be obvious that photography is our most common passion, but it's worth pointing out that this goes past a cursory interest in snapping pics or videos. In fact, many of us have worked as professional photographers and videographers—whether in past lives, or in some cases, currently.
Ken Hamlett is one of these multi-faceted individuals. Not only is he our Director of Pricing and Analytics, but he has also worked extensively as a professional photographer.Our very own Ken Hamlett, self portrait.
In light of one of his photographs appearing in a campaign for this month's issue of Vanity Fair, we thought it was a perfect time to ask him a few questions about his work, his background and his influences.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m originally from Atlantic City, New Jersey. I gained an interest in photography somewhere around the age of 13 or 14. In my senior year of high school, I took a photography class, and at that point, I knew what I wanted to do. I loved every aspect of photography from beginning to end, so I decided to make it my major in college. After graduating, I worked for a few fashion photographers in the field, but as a second assistant, the pay was horrible. As life would have it, I put my photography career aside and ventured into other career paths, which is how I ended up in the supply chain industry.
In 2007, my stepson was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor and wasn’t given long to live, but he really lived every moment of the rest of his life. That prompted me to ask myself what I regretted not doing in my life. The answer was simple—not pursuing my love of photography.Ken Hamlett's architectural photography for his client, Arby's.
So, in 2008, I decided to leave my supply chain career, and over the next ten years, I photographed architecture for clients such as T.G.I Friday’s, Arby’s, Trident Marine and Blue Star Cooking. Although I was doing well, my heart still loved fashion and beauty photography. In 2016, I slowly started transitioning from architecture to fashion/beauty, which brings us to today.
What was your first camera?
Oh man, you’re bringing back memories! The first camera I used when I gained interest in photography was my mom’s Kodak 126 camera. I ended up using that camera to submit an image for a National Geographic photo contest. My dad bought me my first real camera—a Yashica MG-1 35mm rangefinder. That camera produced the images that got me into photography school.
What kind of photography gear are you currently using?
I shoot with Phase One medium format bodies, backs and lenses. For me, the image quality is unrivaled, especially when used in tandem with Capture One Pro software. I’m also a fan of bigger camera bodies, so the size of medium format equipment works better for me. Smaller equipment just doesn’t fit my hands very well. I just changed over my studio lighting equipment from Elinchrom, which I used for many years, to Broncolor. Broncolor’s technology is leading the way when it comes to color consistency and accuracy. I also have a few Nikon DSLR pro bodies and lenses that I use on occasion.
Is there a piece of gear you can’t live without?
Yep, my color checker. I use it on every shoot to ensure my colors are as accurate as possible. Every digital camera and film has its own color signature, so when shooting for publication you need consistent, accurate colors. Nothing else in my gear line-up is as important.
Your fashion/beauty work is outstanding. Talk a little bit about your portrait session with transgender activist Elle Hearns that ended up in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair—how did that come about?
Elle saw my work on Instagram in 2018 and reached out to me. We discussed doing a session with her to help promote the book she was working on at the time. It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that we actually had the opportunity to get together.
When she came to Atlanta, my hairstylist, Ariel Guilford, and make-up artist, Aletha Braxton, went to work and performed their magic. Then, we all just had a blast shooting and talking about her life and the things she’d been through. Fast forward to August 2020, and Elle’s assistant reaches out to me asking for a hi-res image of one of the files. Mind you, some of the images from that session had already appeared in various online magazines and articles. Since the images had already been delivered, I didn’t fully understand her request until I received a message from a licensing agency in California.Ken Hamlett's portrait of Elle Hearns, as it appears in the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair.
The licensing rep mentioned that Google, in conjunction with Vanity Fair were doing a campaign called "Arts and Activism" and Elle was one of the people being featured. They wanted to license one of the images from our shoot to use in the September issue of Vanity Fair and across Google’s multi-promotional campaign. I gave them access to the entire library of images from the shoot and they ended up using Elle’s favorite from the session, which happens to be my fav as well.
What kind of assignment would you love to shoot, given the opportunity?
I can think of a few, but at the top of the list is a fashion editorial spread for Vogue, followed by a fashion editorial shoot for Elle magazine. I also wouldn’t mind being the go-to guy for Clinique beauty products (hint, hint.)
Are there any specific photographers or images that inspire you?
There are many, but my all-time favorite photographer is Patrick Demarchelier. His use of light and composition is incredible. Rounding out my top five, I would have to include Gille Bensimon, another amazing fashion/beauty photographer. The recently deceased Peter Lindbergh was an absolute genius. I love the work Irving Penn did with Clinique beauty products in the '80s. Last but not least, Herb Ritts' work in the late '80s and early '90s is beyond comparison. I’m also inspired by the 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio. The way he used light and shadow to draw attention to specific areas in his paintings is out of this world.
Any advice to someone who aspires to work as a professional photographer?
Shoot, shoot some more, and then keep shooting. Don’t be afraid of rejection, because you will get it frequently, and don’t be the cheapest kid on the block. If you don’t value your work, what makes you think someone else will? I’m naturally an introvert, so selling myself has always been difficult for me, but behind the lens I’m a completely different person. Find what works for you. For me, that was trying to let my work and the people/companies I’ve worked with sell me to others. Last, but not least, understand the business of photography, and when someone is trying to take advantage of you.
Thanks to Ken Hamlett for sharing his photos and giving us some insight into his work.
All photos by Ken Hamlett.