The World is a Set
An Interview with the Man Taking Fashion Photography Off the Grid
Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
“What I like about my style of photography is the challenge and the risk,” says Eric Kvatek, a fashion photographer who favors unconventional models in obscure locations, natural light and on-site problem solving over the clinical perfection of studio photoshoots. Kvatek now spends most of his effort shooting around the world for high-profile brands like Kapital and 45rpm. But the 47-year-old, Brooklyn-based photographer spent plenty of time in unaffected places long before his first fashion shoot. In college, he moved from Ohio to New Mexico to study drawing; he was fascinated by the Southwest. “It wasn’t all fast-food restaurants and advertising,” says Kvatek. “You’d see cowboys and weird drifter dudes hanging out.”
While shopping at thrift stores in the area, another opportunity presented itself which became Kvatek’s first career — selling vintage clothing. “I went to L.A. and somebody offered me $1,000 for a jacket I just bought at the police uniform store in Albuquerque for $100,” he says. The idea of driving around the country buying leather jackets and jeans appealed to Kvatek. He moved to the Midwest, where he could find Big E Levi’s and bowling shirts for prices under $1. Soon, he also met competition; vintage buyers from Japan were hitting the same shelves as Kvatek, outfitting stores across the Pacific. He turned competition into opportunity. “One of the guys had a store in Sapporo, and I started selling him stuff,” remembers Kvatek. “From there it just kind of snowballed.”
Money saved from vintage dealing gave Kvatek the means to travel overseas. He wanted to be a documentary photographer, so he’d head into conflict areas and shoot. His street-photography aesthetic ended up resonating with fashion brands, and the documentary aspirations turned to client relationships, most notably his decade-long relationship with Kapital. With Kapital, Kvatek has travelled from Australia to Iceland, and his love of rugged places hasn’t waned. Of a shoot in Mongolia, he says, “It basically looks like what it would’ve looked like 100 years ago except some of the guys have motorcycles instead of horses now. It’s this super raw environment where you can kind of pretend this isn’t 2016.”
On a chilly February evening, Kvatek sat down at a bar near his Greenpoint loft to drink a few beers and share a few thoughts on his unconventional path to fashion photography.
Photo by Chase Pellerin for Gear Patrol
Q: What was your introduction to photography?
A: My grandfather took photos the entire time he was on patrol during WWII in Europe and extensive slides of the family vacations out West in the 1950s, so I grew up seeing these images and of course was inspired by these adventures he managed to record. I bought a camera when I was 16 and soon after my father drove us out West on our own trip. It lasted two weeks and it was definitely a crash course in how to shoot. I was a drawing major in college at the University of New Mexico.
At the time, Albuquerque was — this would have been the ’80s — as close as you could get to going into a time machine and experiencing first-hand the 1950s or ’60s. Kids in Albuquerque didn’t know what kids in New York were doing. Guys would walk down the main street with knives and pistols on their belts. It just blew my mind, but I loved it. If there was advertising, it was local, like Route 66, which used to be a real famous place for neon signs. It was like taking photos in the 1960s. It was about as close as you could get as going to a foreign country while still being in the United States.
Q: In Albuquerque, you started a career as a vintage dealer. How did you transition from vintage buying to being a photographer?
A: Being a vintage dealer allowed me the freedom to continue to travel around the United States and at the same time I learned about clothing and menswear in a very hands-on way. At the time, there were no guidebooks that I knew of; knowledge would be gleaned slowly and almost randomly. A lot was learned just from comparing several pairs of jackets or jeans. At its peak I was making a good amount of money and this allowed me to buy the cameras that would end up being my workhorses.
I wanted to be a documentary photographer, so once I could afford to travel, I would go places that were having conflicts on my own. I paid for it myself, and just shot as much as I could. I would walk around with a Pentax 67 and take photos on the street of whatever I could find. One of those trips in particular was to Indonesia. I was in Jakarta and they’d advised all foreigners to leave. Areas that were supposed to be vibrant were empty, and the army would drive around and shoot at people just for fun.
Q: Though you learned on film, you now shoot primarily digital. How has this informed your process?
A: In my mind, even though I’m shooting digital, I still function like a traditional photographer. But I’m happy shooting digital — it’s liberating in a way because I like to shoot. Some photographers like to make all the calculations and set things up and obsess over minute settings — “Oh, the light just changed, I’ve got to re-establish the whole shot” — whereas I like to press the button. For the last Kapital thing I shot, I took 14,000 photos and I narrowed it down to the best 320.
The Canon EOS-1D X is Kvatek’s camera of choice. “They can get wet, you can set them down in the snow, they’re just great cameras,” he says. Kvatek favors a straightforward lens set-up. He says, “It’s so simple that people would think I was lying: a 28mm lens and a 50mm lens.”
Q: How did you first start shooting for 45rpm?
A: 45rpm was already respected and becoming well known around the world when they asked me to shoot for them after seeing my documentary photos from Indonesia. They went out of their way to teach me about Japanese history and culture. Many of our locations were historic or spiritual areas. They wanted me to shoot in my style, so I didn’t have to change anything really, other than instead of shooting on the street in Jakarta, I was shooting on the street in New York City. The fact that they would even give me that chance was pretty incredible. I didn’t know if it would be one time, but it ended up being for three years, 12 catalogues. My favorite 45rpm book was the one we did in Hokkaido. I flew home from that job on September 11, 2001 and spent several unexpected days in Alaska until flights were allowed back into NYC.
Q: How do you balance your style with a client’s vision?
A: I’ve been very lucky as the clients that have sought me out have all been very easy to work with whether it’s Kapital, PRPS, Free People or smaller lesser-known brands. But at the same time, the photos aren’t for me or for the client, the photos are for the customers to be inspired from — maybe challenged somewhat — but the customer needs to be drawn in, romanced and maybe slightly provoked into thinking about these garments. I like this challenge, how can we all get what we want out of a fashion photo. I am always looking forward to new opportunities to explore this with Kapital and other clients.
Q: How do you approach shooting for Kapital?
A: The challenge is that we really try not to repeat ourselves. We may use some of the locations that we’ve previously shot, but after 10 years and 35 books, the challenge is how to stay relevant. I’ve got my style, but when we have more time through the shooting day, I find ways to push and challenge myself. That’s when we either fail or succeed.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
A: What’s crazy with the Kapital shoots is that so little is set up beforehand. When we shot in Tanzania, I arrived in Tanzania and only had one person set up as a model. Every other person, I had to find in there. Every location, every prop, every scene — it’s a huge challenge. You’ve got one week to put it all together and four days to shoot it. If it rains, it rains. If it snows, it snows. The first day of shooting in Mongolia, there was a full-on sandstorm. It happened so fast, I didn’t have a chance to put my cameras away. Clothes were literally blowing away, but luckily it didn’t last for very long. I just had to shake the sand out of the camera and keep going. It’s the opposite of shooting in a studio — nobody walks out of a studio until they know they have it. They control every aspect of a photo, everything is mapped out. It’s the complete opposite of what I do.
Q: What’s your favorite part of traveling for these photoshoots?
A: Working in an unfamiliar location — having to quickly make ten new friends and find six amazing locations and four good restaurants and two great bars and go shopping for props — is like a cold-water plunge into the local scene. Rather than dealing with locals as waiters or taxi drivers, I get to befriend a few, so it’s really a wonderful experience. I have to walk up to dudes that look like they could kill me and convince them in two minutes to be a fashion model when they’ve never ever in their life considered doing something like that. There’s an art in that, and part of my job is knowing how to do that with confidence.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve actually cried leaving locations. In Mongolia I had to say goodbye to one of our models, this 80- or 90 year-old-plainsman who had fought in World War II. I knew I would never see him again even if I returned — if he hadn’t passed away he’d be gone wrangling horses on some other mountainside. As I handed him his payment I started crying. The local fixer tried making an excuse for me, that I was reminded of my own grandfather who had long since died. I’m pretty sure in Mongolia it’s fairly pathetic for a grown man to weep. But in any case, I’m naturally a loner, so this career as a photographer has forced me to open up and make friends all over the world.