The fashion lookbook has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years. In many ways, it has come to life and leapt off the proverbial pages–thanks in huge part to the artistic talents of the man or woman behind the camera. “I think companies in general are realizing that a lookbook doesn’t really need to be a person standing on a white backdrop. Lots of companies are really opening up to the idea of letting it be a little more wild; they are realizing that it gets more play that way,” photographer Mikael Kennedy observes. A well-known photographer for his own personal work, including his popular Polaroid collection “Passport To Trespass,” Mikael’s commercial photography has received equal amounts of attention. His shots for The Hill-Side‘s Fall/Winter 2011 lookbook spread like wildfire on the Internet, catching buzz left and right and gathering thousands of Tumblr re-blogs along the way.
Mikael always knew that he wanted to be a photographer. In high school, his mother gave him her old Nikkormat and he subsequently spent most of his time in the woods taking pictures. “One of my biggest regrets was not dropping out and going to vo-tech. They had a full darkroom program, plus I would have learned how to take apart my Chevy,” Mikael recalls. He approached college with a similar perspective, spending the bulk of his tenure outdoors shooting film. Halfway through, he decided to take a small hiatus and travel around the county, documenting his adventures with his camera. He returned to school with more than enough material for a solo exhibit and was granted his degree.
When Mikael left college, he promised himself that he would work as a photographer–no matter how bad it got or how poor he became as a result. He spent most of his college and early post-college time wandering around the country, taking odd jobs to finance his passion, and it wasn’t until he moved to New York that he felt there was a solid chance of making a living off of his art. “When I showed up in NYC, I already had a very large body of work behind me [so] I decided to push that work rather than trying to find commercial jobs, I figured the commercial work would follow eventually,” Mikael explains. And it did.
Because of his impressive portfolio and his passion as an artist, Mikael quickly attracted the attention of fashion and commercial projects. To ensure that he continued to actively shape his body of work, Mikael decided to only accept commercial gigs that truly caught his attention or involved friends. The first of such projects was working with Rogues Gallery. Jay Carroll (who is now at Levis) discovered Mikael’s “Passport to Trespass” Polaroids and contacted him about shooting for the brand. That was the match that set the fire; in Mikael’s own words, “when I got to NYC I just started meeting these people, Emil and Sandy from The Hill-Side…they asked me and my girlfriend to be in the first few lookbooks, then from there we just started talking about some ideas for what we would do if we worked together.” Since those first discussions, Mikael has shot two The Hill-Side lookbooks, along with features and lookbooks for a number of other brands and publications.
Mikael has enjoyed doing the fashion projects on the side. “The first two photo books I ever had were an Ansel Adams book and a Herb Ritts book so the cross over make sense to me somehow.” It’s an interesting challenge to build a small story or body of work in one or two days that has to stand on it’s own and represent a brand’s story and identity. “I find myself saying ‘it’s not my house,’” Mikael says, “meaning I can build it for them and do the best job I can, but in the end they have to live in it, so they need to be happy with what we are doing.”
Despite the constraints of some brands, others will let Mikael go wild and allow his vision to really define the direction of the lookbook. One such brand was The Hill-Side. The preparation for the two lookbooks they worked together on was quite minimal on both occasions. Mikael describes their conceptual process as, “lots of nights sitting at Gordon Bennett (a bar under their office) just shooting the shit..or running into them at parties in the city and ending up in a corner going over ideas.” For the first lookbook, the Corsillo brothers gave Mikael a bag full of their pieces and then he hit the road to photograph the product on models in different locations, sending back sample shots intermittently during his travels.
For the Spring/Summer 2012 The Hill-Side lookbook, Mikael and the Corsillo brothers relied on friends and fellow New York residents to act as models (including a pup or two). The whole lookbook was shot in the Corsillos’ office, where models posed in front of backdrops identical to their accessories. As always, The Hill-Side produced a stunning collection (entirely made in the USA) of fabrics sourced from all over the world. Cornerstone selvedge chambrays, brilliant abstract florals, polka dots, vibrant Ikats from Guatamala, and indigo dyed discharge printed Shweshwe from Africa–to name just a few. The resulting lookbook is a colorful curation of portraits that give the collection a quirky narrative.
Thus far, 2012 has proven to be a banner year for Mikael and his work. In March he was in Texas shooting a piece for Garden & Gun magazine that will be published sometime in the summer. After that, he went on to New Mexico to shoot artwork for his girlfriend Melaena Cadiz’s second album. A Polaroid editorial is being published in Remember Paper magazine–a collection he anticipates to be one of the best he has ever shot for someone else. In April, Mikael and Sean Sullivan (of Impossible Cool and a good friend) will be driving around the South West in an RV to photograph a project for Wolverine. And in June a solo show of Mikael’s Polaroids will be exhibiting at Clic Gallery in Soho.
Mikael feels lucky that he’s doing what he loves for a living. “I’ve had this Springsteen lyric taped to my wall recently as I transition into doing more and more commercial and fashion work, ‘What if what you do to survive kills the thing you love.’” Luckily, we don’t think that this quote applies here.