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Photographer Spotlight: Kimberly Frost

Posted by: Tony – Jun 28, 2009

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Kim Frost lives up to her last name. Not in personality, as she is one of the warmest people I have met in the city, with a sharp wit and piercing intellect, but in her approach to image making. Calculating, precise, pushing and pulling for perfection from a perspective as cold as the color of her eyes. We talked about moving past applying technique to telling a story that is compelling to the business of selling a narrative.

R. Anthony Harris: Kim, you started off as a painter. A very realistic, almost photo-realistic painter, and it seemed as if you were working through a lot of technique issues when I met you four and a half years ago. Can you talk a little about your progression from there, working your way into photography and moving beyond just technique and into symbology?

Kimberly Frost: Ok, so when you say technique are you talking about painting or are you talking about photography?

I think…both. I think both things that you applied yourself to are very clean…have a very real or hyper-real look to them. And knowing you in general, it fits your personality. I’m not saying that it’s never warm, (laughs) you know what I’m saying? It’s just a very cold eye sometimes.

(Laughs) I don’t think that, ya know? I think I try to find beauty where everyone else doesn’t. But ok, so let me think. Umm, in terms of the painting, I really love figurative work, I really love the old masters’ work. I am not attracted to landscapes or still life. I like things that look back at me. So, naturally I’m more of a portrait painter…or was.

You’re not painting anymore?

Right. I’m not painting anymore. But initially I think I was really good at painting portraits and not just slopping the paint on there. However, I really didn’t like that. I felt like I wanted them to be smooth, and flat, and beautiful like the art museums. So I aspired to make that happen. And I didn’t learn any of that stuff until I left VCU and taught myself. Once I could paint something for real and it’d be completely smooth, I felt like I’d accomplished it, like I had mastered something. Even though maybe my content was not perfect…all my images were always photo based and would take me six months to paint. I’d end up with an image based on a photograph, and it’d only take me a few seconds to create that photo. The strength of that image, at that point, was dependent on the size, the magnitude, because you could see it across the room. So, it had more power, but this was more overwhelming and you had to address it. But because it took me so long, it was so tedious…halfway through the process I’d get really bored and I’d have all these ideas and they’d be back-walled because I couldn’t get started on them until I had finished what I already started. I started working as an assistant to a photographer and I couldn’t sell the paintings. I need to make money.

You think that was because of subject matter or...?

I think content, but I couldn’t paint them fast enough to survive off that income. Yeah, I wasn’t willing to paint gazebos, azaleas, and houses. I think that there’s definitely a market for that kind of thing. But I have more expensive taste…(laughs) So, I started taking pictures and…I think that just working as an assistant for a photographer and seeing that every single day you could create a new image that was different was a real eye opener. It was always challenging and it was always new and it was always fun. It was never redundant. It was image after image after image after image. All day long you’re creating images, everyday of the week. That’s amazing, as opposed to me being committed to the same photograph and trying to paint it for six months.

And you’re still able to get that level of perfection, or hyper-real with the photos…and it’s like you don’t have to wait that six months…you not only define the subject but you also have that level you wanted out of your paintings, you can have that out of your photography every day.

Yeah, I guess so. I mean I don’t really know what hyper real means.

(laughs) Well, I’d say that hyper real it’s almost unreal but it doesn’t look fake. Everybody is extra clean, extra smooth, the tones, the lighting. At least in my opinion of your work, I always felt, it was somewhat staged like, this is Kim’s vision. Nothing was left to chance. Everything was worked out. All the details were there so you could look at it and almost imagine the actual photography, if you’re talking about your painting. And now with your photography, it’s sort of the same thing. Everything just seems planned out and that’s …

But see, it’s not like that. My own images are often limited by budget, limited by the people I work for, by my inabilities, limited by my equipment. There are a lot of limitations in my work. I think by being a painter, becoming a photographer, I have a vision and I know what I want to create. Technically I got to make the camera capture that. Sometimes I go in and I have an idea and I think it’s going to be amazing and it ends up being a whole lot greater than what I initially thought. It becomes something completely different because of all the other people I’m working with, they bring so much more to it and it becomes bigger. But there are times when I go into the studio to work and everything just back fires, falls apart, and doesn’t work out. You know, it’s really just trial and error. And with “Man’s Ruin” for instance, that particular shot…the model Rachel, she’s an incredibly beautiful, wonderful model. I was still lighting the set when she did that one pose and I picked that even though I was not happy with the lighting. That was because after I got the lighting the way I wanted and I asked her to recreate that, it didn’t have the same spontaneity.

But if you didn’t know that back-story …

Yeah, so I ended up choosing one that I think is technically flawed, but I picked it because the model was so on at the moment that it was a stronger image than the images that came later with the better lighting.

Are you liking what you do now?

Well, I think that people are really familiar with the work that I’ve shot for you guys. People aren’t really familiar with the work I shoot for myself and they aren’t familiar with the work I’ve shot for other publications.

Mostly, talking about more the creative work…the geisha shots, which are really interesting, and of course you mentioned “Man’s Ruin” and also the one man metal band..?

“The Black Metal One-Man Band”, that’s the series I actually want to start. And that’s called Imaginary Portraits. Portraits of people who would never ever exist. That’s what that series is, and I have that one. (laughs) I have other ideas but I have to figure out how to orchestrate them and who to cast the parts.

Well, I saw that piece and I thought it was kind of an evolution on some of your earlier work that I saw that had kind of a cult feel to it, the ram with the jewels on it, and a couple other images. What is your attraction to that?

To that kind of thing?

Yeah, to that kind of thing.

Well (laughs) I’m not attracted to that kind of thing! (laughs) I mean, I’m attracted to images and objects that have power. Black metal: scary, sinister, dark, but it’s very theatrical. I think it’s funny. (laughs) You know, that they dye their hair…I personally thought it was a funny image, not really supposed to be taken seriously.

Well for somebody that’s not you or me or someone who knows you, they must be like, “Wow, she must have some dark thoughts” or “Maybe she’s into it” (laughs).

The ram’s head thing, I photographed that in the basement of the Valentine museum, because they have all this fascinating stuff down there. I went over to photograph Bill Martin, and while I was there he gave me a behind-the-scenes tour, so I got to see all this crazy stuff they have. And that was just tucked away on the shelf.

The costumes up top, did you see those too?

Yeah, I saw all those costumes. Did you see all those shoes?

Yeah, it’s ridiculous.

Crazy stuff. But anyhow, I saw all that and I was walking through and I was like “Whoa what’s this?” And he came back and was like “oh, it’s a tobacco holder”. And it was just so creepy and gross. Just the fact you stick tobacco in a skull, I was like “that’s so nasty I have to take a photograph or no one’s going to believe this things down here”.

I mean, am I telling you something you don’t know? Again, you mentioned the Valentine Museum. There’s a million things down there…and that one item you’re like “oh my gosh.”

Well, I shot tons of other stuff too but in terms of what people are going to remember…People are going to remember that creepy ram’s head thing as opposed to a picture of shoes.

That’s a great point.

Yeah, and I think in terms of what I show to the public and what’s out there…I mean, I pay attention to the stats on our website (laughs). The images that get more hits are the ones that live there, the ones that don’t go away. It’s not because I don’t have more affection for the other pictures. In some ways, the real me, that part of me, doesn’t even make it into publication. There are tons of times that I was in love with what I submitted and it was rejected. Fortunately, every once in a while one of those pictures will get resurrected by a different art director because they’ll see it tucked away in my stash and they’ll say, “Can we use this? Can we buy this?” And that’ll happen. You know, that makes me feel good. But most often, what I think is the great image doesn’t get picked.

Well, I think…going back to kind of the original question…it seems like you are building stories in your newer work. And just talking with you too it seems like you’re really interested in that aspect…

Well, yeah I really want to be able to tell stories. The “Man’s Ruin”, the geisha stuff…all that is just pinup photography because I feel there’s a market for it. Those were images I wanted to sell people on so they would hire me to shoot that sort of thing. Earlier this year I made a nice sum of money just doing pinup photography. It’s easy, it’s fun.

It’s fantasy. People can get into it.

Yeah, it’s fun. I have control over what happens in the studio. And it’s all assembly line. It’s like these are the poses you can do, this is the wardrobe we have available, this is what you get. It’s pre-packaged. It’s fun. So, I get to have a good time. I get to work with the people I like and we get to offer this to the public. And I get to make some money for doing something I love, as opposed to waiting around for someone to call me to go shoot something for an editorial. Not that I don’t like that, I do, but as an alternative it’s nice to have that creative power, some control, and still get paid for it. “Man’s Ruin” did not sell. “Geisha” did not sell. Everything that sold was really clean, simple. “Girl on Red”. “Girl on White”. I thought that the more artistic shots would be more appealing people because that’s what I would want. I want to try to make that more available to the general public…that you don’t have to be a celebrity to have an amazing photograph taken of you. Not that my work is amazing (laughs)

No, no. I thought you created that fantasy though and I thought that was just a really interesting thread that you’re working on.

Yeah and so like in terms of symbols…with “Man’s Ruin”, for instance, it’s telling a story. If I was gonna tell a story of the Three Little Pigs, well I’d have to have some pigs, a straw house, a stick house, and a brick house. It’s the same thing with “Man’s Ruin”…I really, really wanted more than anything to have like a giant martini glass, with some dice and fire, and girl on mat. Because that’s the taboo. You can’t find that kind of thing unless you’re (name?) Those things aren’t available to the general public (laughs) So, I just picked other objects that I thought were powerful; money, poker chips, things that make sense. And these were all things I had and that would be where the limitations come in. I can’t make money if I’m spending too much of it.

Absolutely.

So, I just gotta look at my archive of junk and say OK, this is my inventory, from this how many ideas can I pull out of it. It’s like going to your cupboard and trying to make something for dinner and you see what ingredients you have available to you and you just make the best you can out of it. So, that’s what I do. (laughs)

Do you feel frustrated with being a photographer in Richmond? Or do you feel creatively open? Do you feel there are enough people who inspire you here or do you just feel frustrated by the market and trying to make a good living out of it?

I think there are a lot of photographers in Richmond and the market is not very large. Which is good, because I guess that means competition is stiff. Everyone is trying to get the same work. No, I would not mind living in a bigger city. But I have a kid who goes to school here.

And he loves it here?

And he loves it here, he’s happy here. My parents are here.

And you love it here, I’m sure.

I wanted to move to New York when I was younger but then I had a child and that changed everything. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get a job in New York, doesn’t mean I can’t travel. I do travel. But I do think that if I lived in a larger city…being there, you get taken seriously.

By just being there.

I don’t know sometimes I get frustrated. I mean, I definitely feel like in some ways it can be a popularity contest.

Last question…What projects do you feel, outside of the commercial realm, what do you see yourself working on? Do you feel you’re gonna get back into painting? Do you want to continue with developing your stories within one picture or maybe a series of pictures?

I definitely want to shoot stories and I definitely want to do more artistic work that’s self-driven and not dependent on art directors. I’m not teaching anymore. I mean, most of the work I’ve done this year has been independent work, which has been great. And I think that, for a long time I was really afraid to let go of having any part-time work because I didn’t want to be in free fall without any backup plan. But I think it’s empowering to kind of let go of everything and just invest all your energy into what you want to do. So, I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep it up.

Thank you Kim.

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