Kate Biel is a photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. Known for her dreamy aesthetic and provocative, sun-drenched imagery, Kate has created content for artists and clients such as Converse, Spotify, and Neil Frances. We had a chance to sit down with Kate and learn more about her career to date.
What got you into photography? What’s the journey been from first picking up a camera to now?
It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly I got into photography because it’s been an ever present force in my life since I was a child. It started with my mom and her deep desire to preserve all our memories. Ever since we were little my mom would carry this 35mm Canon and photograph everything, every moment. It became normalized and a source of comfort to always have a camera nearby and not risk the chance of missing anything. I began to associate it with avoiding complete loss once people were gone and experiences ended. This association evolved into a much needed outlet during my youth - things I was experiencing but couldn’t properly convey in words I found I could convey in photographs. Eventually I took my first photo class in high school, which was black and white darkroom photography. My amazing, brilliant, manic teacher, Mark Byrne, taught me to be more careful with choosing my shots, to develop my own artistic view, and provided a confidence I hadn’t experienced before. That’s how I fell into it.
I ended up choosing a school that gave me the freedom to study a variety of disciplines beyond photography since I also had an appreciation for English, Writing, and Art History. I ended up majoring in Studio Art with a focus in photography and painting and minoring in Art History. Once I graduated, I struggled to decide on my next steps. I moved back home to San Diego for a few months and taught photography in the very same darkroom that I had learned from Mr. Byrne. Eventually, I decided to move to LA, assisted a handful of fine artists and galleries, then eventually work in photography full time.
So I saw you recently worked with Converse on their new campaign. Tell us a little about that: how the concept came about, working with them, stuff like that.
My friend and someone I have admired for a long time – Jerald Johnson – was the lead photographer on that shoot, so he called me asking if I could help out. It was a massive shoot, and he wanted a film photographer while he shot digital. The Converse team developed the creative direction but gave us license to interpret their vision with our own specific style. We rented two homes and had full freedom to experiment. It was easily one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on based solely on how respectful and supportive everyone was of our individual process.
Do you shoot only film?
I do, though there have been a few projects that require digital. For instance, a lot of beauty and skin care brands avoid analog, which makes sense because there is a level of desired detail in a beauty shot that cannot always be captured in film. Yet most of the time, I’m lucky to work with people in music or fashion who are big advocates of analog. There’s a unique look film has that we have lost with the oversaturation of iPhone photography. In many cases the photos have become undecipherable to a digital SLR. Though, with the beauty of film there is always a risk. I’ve seen so many instances where something goes wrong during film processing and images are ruined. There’s an interview with Richard Mosse that has always resonated with me. He’s known for his use of discontinued Aerochrome film – which was originally developed for surveillance during World War II to reveal enemy camouflage – which he re-incorporates to capture startling pink images of rebel groups in eastern Congo. He described how he spent two months photographing the front lines of rebel territory only to realize by the end that he mislabeled his exposed film from his unexposed film. He ended up developing 100 precious sheets of unexposed discontinued film stock and lost everything. I think all film photographers can relate to the self loathing experience of losing everything you shot. But I’ve always been inspired by Mosse because he quickly went back to the Republic of Congo, and reshot everything on film a second time. That’s why I love it despite all the risk and pain we occasionally endure, we can never fully fully abandon the beauty.
What would you say are your biggest influences in your aesthetic?
It’s always changing. I’ve always been inspired by Justine Kurland, Katy Grannan, Matthew Barney, Charlie White, Collier Schorr, Cindy Sherman, Francis Bacon, Ingmar Bergman, Paolo Sorrentino, Fellini, and certain anime. The list goes on. In my personal work I’m always searching for new provocative ways to express ‘weirdness’. I find inspiration from random things – from readings I find on Reddit to uncomfortable stories of childhood memories that I envision composing as bizarre shots in a similar vein to Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall’s tableaux photography. I’ve worked alongside some incredible artists, like Ilona Szwarc, whose work is amazing, she’s always been an inspiration to me. I feel my work evolving when I work alongside talented artists like her, and I begin to see hints of their inspiration in my own work. It’s a nice thing to pause and look back on.
How do you hope to see your career evolve in the next five years?
Getting to the point where I can split my time between client work and personal projects. Ideas that I’ve been wanting to push for a while that are more peculiar and require more funding. I’ve also recently began to explore directing, which I’d love to pursue more. I love video, but it requires a much larger budget and a different set of knowledge, not to mention shooting on 16mm/8mm is even riskier than film photography. I would also enjoy focusing solely on creative direction. The thing I’ve realized about being a creative in a city full of creatives is that it’s rarely enough to depend on a specific skill set. Everyone is experimenting with everything all at once and although simultaneously exploring several different mediums can be overwhelming and messy, it is the best way to inform your unique process and further develop.
Another thing I am always working on is discovering myself and honing in on my unique traits. Maybe that means investigating a satirical commentary on the exaggerated personas that all these artists – especially female artists like Nadia Lee Cohen and Petra Collins – have become partially known for. Part of their marketability is how they perform both behind the camera and in front of the camera and how they translate their personal artistic style upon themselves. That’s always been tricky for me - being able to portray myself as if I’m another one of my subjects. It’s performative and if pushed too far it can enter the arena of obscenity. These branded personas make sense in our current digital age where we are expected to share every personal part of ourselves in a way that’s not just honest but also entirely unique. Quite terrifying given that being marketable while being true to yourself rarely go hand in hand. In fact, it’s a slippery slope to further lose your authenticity versus finding it. But it’s what audiences and clients and brands crave of young artists, however who can say how long that will last. The more we’re pushed to expose ourselves, the more seductive complete anonymity becomes.
Tell us your latest video project for Neil Frances. How did the concept come about?
It was a collaborative project that stemmed from this fascination for ASMR content, particularly videos that incorporated slime. Given that it was our first video, we self funded it and shot it over a few days on Super 8. The team, the model, the production all went so well, and I’m really happy with the final product. It’s an after school fairytale that follows the lead character wandering through this fantastical environment as feelings of desire ooze from her in the literal form of slime. The slime becomes a supporting character – opening new expressions of liberation. We were set on capturing the secret world of ones loss of innocence and the process of surrendering to the desires that drive the transition between childhood and adulthood. As the slime is gradually introduced, it presents a contrast – the synthetic yet sensual slime and its alien form, almost sentient, against the lead’s image of innocence. I learned so much about the video process, and was very proud to produce a self-funded work. Definitely my favorite project of 2018.
In what way do you think social media has changed the way photographers have to not only create work but present themselves as well.
It’s becoming harder and harder to separate the artist from the influencer. Many artists I know refuse to share their work via social media, something I can admire but can also see as futile. Social media isn’t going away – it will change – but it won’t vanish. People will continue to depend on it, so for artists to remain relevant, we will also have to embrace this new landscape. In terms of visual overload, images are seeing a decline in importance. Instead of being desired, they are expected. And not simply through over-sharing, but through the numerous ways the internet is trying to market from our experiences. Our images are becoming less sacred and used instead as marketing tools embedded in our personal lives - that simply living life is started to become daily content for Instagram stories and ‘sharing’ a performance. We are seeing now an elite group of young creatives wearing major designers and sharing pictures of it on their social feed – all of which has nothing to do with their artwork – but it’s a way for them to survive and make money. They are living, breathing advertisements for the sake of creating art, since there’s very little money in creative work alone anymore.
Is it a positive or negative for photography? Do you think it will be a long term trend, or do you think it’ll only be here for a decade or so?
It’s tricky – my Instagram is how almost all my clients find me and hire me, so I adhere to certain social media etiquette as a means of survival within the industry landscape. That being said, photography has also evolved into its own type of currency – cheapening the individual image by making it more about quantity and less about process and creative thought. Images are fleeting, thus forcing us to develop a fleeting relationship with them and rarely revisit them. The viewer doesn’t sit with the work as long as they should and give it the same amount of patience and thought that it requires to have quality. But it’s a double edged sword, since so many people are getting opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m immensely grateful for what social media has brought me in terms of finding a creative community and amazing job opportunities, yet, at the end of the day I can’t help but wonder if it’s hurting the artistic process.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
I’m working on a more personal project with my friend and co-collaborator Clare Gillen. We both share an appreciation for making ambiguous, tongue-in-cheek images that involve misplaced and distorted body forms. Our process is different but we’re combining forces to create a series on rapacious female monsters from Greek and Roman mythology. It’s an extension of what I’ve done in the past, exploring a hysterical discomfort involving only color and obfuscated forms – causing a ‘violent’ sensation rather than representation based solely on reaction and expression. Through the large fields of color and shallow depth of field, I allow the figure – or what remains – to detach itself and cause dissolving interference through the fields. As if to escape and flow beyond itself and its two dimensional isolated reality. Circling back to the question of social media, it’s become a commentary on our over saturated, easily accessible imagery markets, how images themselves lose their meaning and what two dimensional representation takes its place. While we as artists acclimate with the ever-changing dialogue of what makes a powerful and memorable image in the uncharted technological territory, my goal with my work is to create new images that grapple between feeding into the illusion of curated perfection while simultaneously demanding to be freed from it.