Art Of Drive: An Interview With Photographer Sean Klingelhoefer
Our Art of Drive series interviews artists, designers and photographers to find out what inspires them.
How long have you been taking photos, and how did it all start for you?
It seems like I haven't really been shooting that long, but at this point I've been shooting in a somewhat serious capacity for about half of my life, or fifteen years. As a child my dad was always interested in visual arts and cameras but I didn't pay much attention to it until high school. While selecting elective classes I figured photography would be interesting and probably an easy grade (I always did well in arts) and it sort of snowballed from there.
Who and what do you cite as influences and motivations for your work?
It's really tough to pin this down because a lot of my influences actually come from music and other external places. The majority of my work is mood-based, which is nearly always a derivative of music. That said, there are many photographers whose work I have admired for a long time. In the beginning I was looking towards some of the icons like Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon. Then later in my career I was heavily influenced by car shooters like Jeff Ludes, Simon Puschmann and Uli Heckman. These days I don't follow too many people because I'm quite busy and I also don't want to be too heavily influenced by my peers and as a result, have work that is looking very similar. However one guy I'm really liking lately is Nicholas Maggio who isn't a car shooter per-say but he's got great vision and taste in my opinion.
Take us through the process of planning and working through a shoot.
This is another question that is pretty hard to really pin down because it varies so much depending on budget, client and intents and purposes. An editorial shoot is usually the most brief, something where a client like Fuel might contact me with a loose idea and from there we work together towards an aesthetic that fits the theme and budget. Usually this is a quick turnaround and very reportage style. In advertising I typically have at least two weeks to plan, scout and see a project to fruition. Here the budgets are significantly larger and the goals are very targeted. There's usually very little room for error and I don't have nearly as much room to deviate from the creative direction or use improvisation. However, of the lot, personal projects usually take the longest. A lot of the time I'll have an idea kicking around for months, or even years, before I finally work them out. This is where being a nitpicker and a perfectionist can get the best of you as I have so many ideas on the back burner for "another day" that it's almost overwhelming. Not the least of which is an ongoing book project about the Nurburgring which has already spanned five years but I'm hoping to get things sorted and the book published by the end of 2015.
How do you feel your photographic style has changed and evolved over your career so far?
This is a subject I could talk about for hours, and everyone probably has a different path so I find it really interesting to see if the chicken or the egg came first if you will. But my early career was spent looking at technical aspects, and heavy retouching time. Back then I had a lot of time sitting at a desk so I could afford really elaborate Photoshop sessions. I also used to be obsessed with artificial lighting which is something I have almost completely moved away from in recent years. However, I don't regret any of that time as it's formed a technical backbone which is not only important, but a requirement for the level of shooting I'm doing now. Knowing that stuff to the point where it has become as automatic as breathing allows me to focus on higher level thoughts and creativity. So in a nutshell, I'd say my work went from technically correct and boring, to very subtle and nuanced authenticity. Now my work doesn't necessarily look lit or retouched, but many times it is but the mark of good work in my mind is that the viewer has no idea the car was a clay model shot in a studio and placed into a background. It should look real.
What equipment do you work with, and why does it suit you best?
These days I'm pretty much only shooting with Nikon gear. With the advent of the D800 I stopped shooting medium format, even for commercials. I find that Nikon gear is very affordable, robust, ergonomically friendly and very fast and reliable out in the field. I'm currently shooting on D810, D4s, D3 and Df platforms with a range of Nikkor AF-S lenses and a full Zeiss ZF.2 manual kit. Typically the sports bodies and AF lenses are used on editorial gigs whilst the 810s and Zeiss are the order of the day for advertising.
Which item do you never leave home without?
My phone. It's sad but essential, and I'm not much of a social media person either. It's become a really loyal companion and my most frequented camera as well. I've learned over the years it's not so much what camera you use, but that you're always looking, framing and capturing. Even if the photos never see the light of day, your mind's eye is a muscle you can exercise and I try to flex mine as often as possible - many times the only camera available is my phone.
When planning a new project, what do you look for in a subject, and how does the project take shape?
First and foremost, I'm usually focusing on the underlying mood of the subject. Not only do I specialise in cars, but I'm shooting predominantly sports cars, exotics and full-on race vehicles. If it doesn't make me terribly excited, I usually pass the project on to another person. I'm far more interested in being happy than being rich, so I tend to pounce on the jobs that get my heart racing. I'm also a firm believer that work begets work, so by accepting boring gigs I feel like all that's doing is lining yourself up for more of the same which is why I focus purely on where my interests lie.
Tell us about some of your more interesting commissions that you have been asked to do.
This is truly hard to narrow down because of the reasoning mentioned in the previous question. I pretty much only shoot interesting commissions. For example in the last three months alone I've shot a campaign for Lexus in Los Angeles, a cover story in Seattle for the newly redesigned Road & Track, Ken Block's latest Gymkhana 7 Hoonicorn Mustang in Utah, Sharkwerks' 800hp 911 GT2 in Los Angeles, a bi-coastal shoot with a Tesla including time on a snow-covered auto-x at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut and a once-in-a-lifetime story in Japan for Motorhead's debut Hakone Turnpike hill climb. All that and I'm currently planning a campaign shoot for Nissan. And this is the slow part of the year...
How do you see your methods and style changing and developing in the future? What’s next from the Sean Klingelhoefer studio?
This is a really tricky question to answer since I don't have a crystal ball. I think my aesthetic will stay similar but all the refinements will be nuanced details. As they say, the devil, or the design, is in the details. I'm not really interested in making mainstream art, but if my vision is widely accepted, so be it. I just feel very fortunate to do what I'm doing and hope to continue along this path. I'd love to have a warehouse here in LA which would serve as both a car studio and a garage to store and build my cars out of. I'm a huge petrol head first and foremost, the photography thing sort of happened by mistake.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in photography?
My advice would be to listen to your inner desires and shoot them as much as possible. Whatever it is you want to shoot, even if you're too embarrassed to show the world just yet, shoot it. Don't worry about being weird or different or even the same. Just do what you want to do and give it 100%. Don't pay too much attention to what other people will think, just start doing it for yourself and eventually your audience will come to you. I know that might sound strange, but you just have to take a leap of faith.
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 20.
Follow Sean: @seanklingelhoefer.