Photography is art. Fashion is art. Fashion photography is something else and GOOD fashion photography is something entirely different again. It’s a combination of something visual and something tangible, something behind the camera and something in front of it working together to meet in the middle and then jump out of the frame. The art of effective fashion photography is born of both talented vision and technical genius. It involves so much more than just shooting someone gorgeous dressed in expensive clothes. Good fashion photography has the power to transform a still moment and bring a flat image to life, full of movement and texture, emotion and sensation. There are very few contemporary photographers who have mastered such an effect, but it is certain that Mr Thom Kerr is one of them.
Thom was born on the Gold Coast and grew up in Brisbane, so we can claim him. He was the youngest of 8 and was the kid who woke up every Saturday morning to watch Rage from start to finish. He was always involved in the creative arts, studying drama and music and excelling in media studies. He was only 17 years old when he was accepted straight out of school and into QUT to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Majoring in Film and Television). After dabbling in styling and set design for other photographers and directors, he became increasingly involved in the creative direction of fashion photography. Graduating in 2005, he eventually shook his nerves and insecurities of his own work and took the plunge to begin his career journey solo.
You don’t usually think of the photographer when you’re looking at an image of one of the most gorgeous models in the world, or a singer whose name is known in most households. But Thom Kerr has made a name for himself and if you know your stuff, you know ‘a Thom Kerr’. He doesn’t just shoot – he creates. He thinks about the scene as a whole, combining sense elements and a kind of cinematic direction, to create something much more than a still image. His immense talent and immeasurable passion for what he does reaches out and connects on a new level – provoking interaction and contemplation, absorbing you into the moment. He can’t quite be categorized – he is one of Australia’s most renowned photographers, he’s an artist, a director, a stylist – it doesn’t matter what has been coined, he is brilliant.
He’s also been a very busy man lately, shooting the cover of Kimbra’s forthcoming album, ‘The Golden Echo’, and the fierce Tyra Banks for his cover of Black Magazine (no biggy). But amidst it all, he invited The Fashion Advocate behind his lens and into his creative lair. What a guy.
The Fashion Advocate: Is it true a psychic told you that you would be a famous photographer, inspiring you to buy a camera?
Thom: Believe it or not, after a bad break up I was having a mysterious moment where I couldn’t get a hold of any of my friends. Surprisingly I had been on a film set a few weeks earlier and one of the crew had given my mobile to a reader they were very impressed with. They happened to call at the moment I desperately needed to speak to someone and the next thing you know I was having an intense conversation about my life and where it was at. She told me that I already knew what I was going to do! I responded with surprise, “What do you mean?” – “You’re a photographer. Stop hiding it behind your back. It’s part of your destiny.” That gave me the courage I needed to take the leap of faith and buy a camera. Prior to that I thought becoming a photographer would make me a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
The Fashion Advocate: Did you turn to photography because you couldn’t find a photographer talented enough to execute your concepts? Do you ever struggle yourself to convey the ideas you come up with?
Thom: I don’t think it was that they weren’t talented enough. It was more so that what I saw in my head was not parallel to their point of view. I felt like the finished product was good – but not as good as I saw it in my mind's eye. So it always felt a little frustrating… and that still happens in my own work now. You have to create enough space to allow the beauty you see to rise to the surface in front of you as opposed to being too tied to the original concept. I think that’s the creative journey of many artists – it’s a real challenge to give birth to a concept in real life. It takes dedication and perseverance. Qualities that you constantly have to refresh in order to stay true to your own vision and purpose.
The Fashion Advocate: Tell us about your first and last? How do you feel when you look at the two in comparison?
Thom: Well I can’t remember what the first professional image was – but I do remember the first shoot where I felt really creatively free – which seems more relevant. It was the beginning of my fantasy aesthetic I suppose. It was a shoot we did in Mount Tambourine in Queensland at this crazy junkyard – Dr. Michael’s Homestead – acres of crap everywhere set amongst these beautiful blossom trees. It was a rainy day and all we had was vintage clothing and one constant light. I feel quite nostalgic looking at it now because at that stage it was all about creating exciting imagery, and the pressures of clients, magazines, advertisers, equipment, budget and crew all seemed rather irrelevant. I definitely lived in a very exciting creative bubble, dreaming about what might be in store for me in the future! It’s painful because there is so much recent stuff that I’m not allowed to show you that I really love – so I will stick with the most recent that has come out. [I just shot] the new album cover for Kimbra’s upcoming record, The Golden Echo, and I really love it. It’s interesting because you can see I’m still very invested in creating a fantasy world and that I still have a strong connection to powerful landscapes. I think now though I have a more refined eye for creating symbolism and hidden meaning within my aesthetic. It still has that feeling of timelessness I’m attracted to – just a lot more refined than my images in the past and the creativity is better executed.
The Fashion Advocate: What is your favourite part of the creative processes of photography? Which stage lends itself to your passions the most?
Thom: I think for me the most rewarding process is when you take risks that pay off. Often I’ll brainstorm an idea, then workshop all the elements with the creative team. It’s like creating a blue print for how the visual will unfold, but ultimately you don’t know how it’s going to work out until you see the final result. When the idea is a little more eccentric and it ends up working really well – those are my favourite moments because everyone knows how hard they worked on set and what artistic reward they received for endeavouring to the final moment. For example – it felt like a big risk taking these giant mirrors into the desert for Kimbra’s album shoot but when you see it all coming together you can’t help but feel the rush of artistic success when the idea works out just like you imagined.
The Fashion Advocate: You collaborated with Anna Langdon in 2012 to shoot her graduate collection, which is uniquely singular in terms of design aesthetic. Anna is extremely talented in combining sculptural and textile elements throughout her design. Did you find her or did she find you? Do you prefer shooting Avante Garde fashion for its pliability and artistic possibilities?
Thom: She dropped me a line and my producer really fell in love with her pieces and insisted that I make the space for it. Lucky for me, it turned out really well. I ended up using some of those pieces for the first shoot I ever did with Kimbra – and those pictures ended up in all sorts of places like Interview Magazine – so I always feel like the right people show up at the right time. I think I’m lucky in the sense that the nature of my work attracts eccentric minds. I have always loved shooting the Avant Garde – but enjoy natural raw beauty just as much these days. I’m not eccentric-bias anymore but my heart still rests with the hyper creatives.
The Fashion Advocate: Fashion is an individual expression yet a collective activity. It is paradoxical: it differentiates each one of us, yet unites every single one of us because we share the routine of dressing every day. What are your thoughts on this?
Thom: When I was fresh out of high school, getting really dressed up was definitely an immediate way to express my creative energy. I used to customize my own clothes with spray paint and stencils and strategically tear them apart. I would wear all sorts of accessories piled up that seemed to make sense to me in a chaotic way. It was my way of finding fun in the mundane and creating my own artistic world. These days I don’t dress as crazy as I used to – but I’m still attracted to fashion as a transmitter of expression, character and creativity. The psychology of clothing has always fascinated me as it represents a number of different opinions and lifestyles. I’ve never been a brands man but I can say that I take the subject of fashion as art very seriously – particularly in regards to the experiences I attract via the creatives I encounter along my journey.
The Fashion Advocate: In styling and shooting, a lot of your work explores the representation of traditional character archetypes. Are you drawn to representing certain elements of the human experience through your work or does this happen subconsciously?
Thom: It is subconscious – it’s not something I set out to do. It just evolves naturally. In general, I think I’m just more interested in strong personalities experiencing something and I tend to have a more spiritual outlook on life. I grew up in a household with five older sisters, so there has always been a very strong feminine energy present and that probably has something to do with how women are portrayed in my photos. Also as a gay man, I don’t necessarily feel bound by representing things in any traditional type context – I feel quite free. So I guess in a way I look to create that strength of conviction in everything I do, and inventing characters with stories helps me recreate those emotions. Painting strength in both the positive and the negative. I want people to feel more intensely as my goal has always been to snap people out of their routines with my work and suck them into a different way of seeing things.
The Fashion Advocate: A lot of websites list you under a number of categories; photography, art, fine art, digital design, film… What would you call yourself, or does it not matter to you?
Thom: I remember being at the Governor's house in Western Australia and the mayor of Perth asking me at the dinner table how I would describe myself in ten words or less. I am an artist posing as a fashion photographer. I don’t mean that in a negative way – I love fashion – but at times, the repetitious mindset about how things are supposed to be done can be quite suffocating. Often though, my work feels too ‘pop’ to slot easily into the fine art world – so I’m just going to dance between those two planets as I have a really awesome audience that exists in both camps. I try not to label myself as anything – I just follow my instinct about what I want to create. I think labels just put too much pressure on artists to stick to one way of thinking and often people are celebrated for recreating the greats rather than taking risks and I want to avoid that pattern.
The Fashion Advocate: Fashion blogging has become an industry itself recently. You shot for the Miss Shop Bloggers Project in 2012 – what is your take on the growth of the blogging side of the fashion industry and the role it plays in promoting it?
Thom: I think it definitely has a relevant place and purpose – but I have noticed the massive increase in content over the last couple of years and it seems to have lost its punch a bit – there’s so much chaotic noise of so many people in the online community declaring themselves as personalities with often uneducated opinions. So am I up for blogs? For sure – the online community has been massively supportive of my work. But do I visit blogs as a source of inspiration to drive my art? Very rarely. It just feels more like a vehicle for social commentary.
The Fashion Advocate: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt thus far, in regards to reaching success and maintaining it?
Thom: Forgive yourself if things don’t always go according to plan – recognize that it is the mistakes that we learn from, not the successes. I have achieved many things that I never thought possible but I still often limit my thinking in terms of what I think I’m capable of achieving. As cliché as it sounds, you must have conviction and passion for what you do, to drive you forward. No one else can do it for you – you have to believe in yourself.
The Fashion Advocate: Your work has been published worldwide. Personal highlights?
Thom: I’ve been published in pretty much every fringe fashion magazine in Australia and New Zealand – right now the magazine I love the most though is Black [Magazine] – I’ve been the Australian editor for two years and they have constantly championed me through my ups and downs and have remained loyal. They push me to create amazing work and I love that I get to share it alongside great contributors from around the world, New Zealand included! The latest issue of Black Magazine Issue #21 is about to hit stands in Australia – this features my Tyra Banks cover – so make sure you get to your coolest newsagent to grab a copy. So much good content and inspiring women in this issue!
The Fashion Advocate: You’ve worked with super models and household names. Who’s at the top of your list?
Thom: I love so many different models for different reasons. The career span of a model is so topsy turvy that I feel like the idea of a top model constantly changes. I think the key factor is people with a distinct unique look – off the top of my head models/personalities like Tallulah Morton, Jordan Barrett, Codie Young, Holly Rose, Tyra Banks, Eva Downey, Gabby Dover, Joel Meacock, Liv O’Driscoll, Nicole Pollard… each at a completely unique stage in their careers with different trajectories – I like all of them as talent for different reasons! I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten – I love y’all!
The Fashion Advocate: And your favourite designers you’ve worked with?
Thom: I love new innovative designers like Jaime Lee, I’ve worked with more high-end designer brands like Gail Sorronda, then more commercial houses like Alice McCall, then for bigger corporate brands like Myer and Wish. [It’s very difficult to narrow down the top four]. There are too many to count and they’re all so different. I’ve worked with Easton Pearson and Christian Audigier – complete polar opposites. I think it’s more about finding common ground in the creative and whether or not you’re creating something special that becomes the memorable factor surrounding it.
Artist, photographer, unnamable gift – Thom Kerr is at the top of our list of adored Australian talents. His work seems to leave you wanting more as if each image has been pulled from a film reel, a fraction of the bigger picture or story. Thom manages to capture the emotion and experience of fashion, the movement and sensation, tangling you in the garments themselves – sometimes reminiscent to the power of Nick Knight’s work. Even his still portraits are constructed in such a powerful way that they conjure a sense of searching and mystification. We can’t praise Thom Kerr enough.
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