Aug 27, 2013

Phlearn Interviews Sammie Saxon

Sammie Saxon is a Georgia born photographer who studied photography at Columbus State University and The Academy of Art.

Sammie creates a great deal of commercial & fashion photography, however conceptual work is his strong point. With an interest in surrealism Sammie bases a lot of his work on his dreams and nightmares.

He first picked up a camera at the the age of 4, although all he did with it then was drool on it and mimic his mom. Sammie always carried a camera on him, and he claims that yes he was that odd kid in high school that took photos of everything and everyone.

Since the early days of first picking up a camera Sammie has went on to bigger and better things. He has shot countless editorials for magazines such as Jezebel, RAINE, Estela, SYN, Limbo, X Magazine, and many more. He’s also done press shots of Barack Obama before he became president of the United States, and he was the national winner of Ron Howard’s contest titled “Project Imagination”.

Join us as Sammie shares all the details of his hectic life, shows us how an image can go from a sketch to the real thing, and he also generously shares with us what a day of shooting an editorial is like.

How did you become interested in photography?

Oddly enough, one of my first memories as a child was me screaming my head off for my mom’s 110 Kodak camera. I was too young to understand what it was, but after that I would always find it and tinker with it. When my mom got remarried to a soldier, we were constantly moving and I found myself starting over incessantly and losing friends. So photography became my only way of remembering friends and places I had visited.

What would you consider to be your “big break”?

I think my “big break” was when my image was chosen to be a part of Canon’s “Project Imagination” by Eva Longoria and Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter. Both celebrity directors chose my image “Lost In Blue” to inspire a scene in their short films.

How would you describe your style?

At first I tried not to stick to a specific style; I found it boring to shoot a single way. And since I was still experimenting with new equipment and editing techniques, I was jumping from one style to another. Yet, for my thesis at the Academy of Art, I was asked to focus on my nightmares and dreamscapes series, which is based on recreating personal nightmares. For this series I try to combine whimsical and sometimes nightmarish surrealism. I try to blend this style with my fashion editorials as much as possible.

What’s on your gear list? Is there a piece of equipment that you just can’t live without?

Lately I have been lugging around a Canon 6D, 7D, Canon speed light, Canon 85mm lens, Canon 28-135mm, Canon 28mm, Vagabond Mini, White Lightening strobe, Trigmaster remote triggers, universal octabox, beauty dish setup for speed lights, Canon speed light, and ND filters. I don’t think I could live without my Canon 6D with the 85mm attached. I rarely remove it.

What would you consider to be the key elements to the development of your photography?

The biggest element has to be starting with nothing and learning from the mistakes I made along the way. Growing up my family struggled. So for the longest time I only owned one lens. After I started getting paid shoots I would research what I needed to get a certain look, then buy it. Another key element was the fact that at one point I was a lonely nerd that was too socially awkward to get a date. I spent a majority of my time in front of a computer screen scanning film negatives with a negative scanner and editing them in Photoshop. The other would be my photographer friend, Hiro Motegi, who introduced me to digital photography. I hated digital cameras at first; I was so passionate about film and at the time, digital cameras were rather expensive. But once I purchased my first Canon Rebel I found an easier way to create composites.

What inspires you?

I find inspiration in everything. But horror movies seem to be my biggest inspiration for my conceptual work. I grew up on B horror movies, and living deep in the boondocks my imagination would run wild. My grandparents always had eerie ghost stories to tell and without more than 4 channels on TV, I daydreamed a lot. I think a lot of my work now is somehow influenced by it.

What is your proudest moment as a photographer?

That is a difficult and tough question. Outside of seeing my work in national magazines, my proudest moment was watching my work flash on Entertainment Tonight during an Eva Longoria interview. I was able to actually watch Eva hold my image and critique it.

What’s your favourite thing about what you do?

That would have to be the adventure aspect of photography. Meeting new clients, planning out new photo shoots, sitting with my fiancée/makeup artist dreaming up new concepts, and traveling. I don’t see myself doing the domestic thing and settling for a 9 to 5 job unless it’s somehow related to photography or Photoshop.

What do you do in your free time when you’re not behind the camera and/or editing?

Honestly, I have not had free time for years. Even on vacations I find myself running around with my camera taking stock images for my composites or setting up photo shoots with the models in that area. Photography has become a way of bonding for me and my fiancée, and I think we both would go insane if we weren’t in a studio or on a rooftop somewhere shooting models. Upon our recent visit to New York City we managed to establish contact with another Top Model, this time one of the males from the current season.

How much preparation and planning really goes into an editorial shoot? What is a day of shooting an editorial like?

Depending on the editorial theme and number of people involved, it can range from two hours to a month of planning. The most in depth shoot I’ve done has to be my shoot for DNA, Denim North America. They are a major national supplier of denim. After I did a small editorial shoot for him for a local magazine, the Director contacted me and said that I had inspired him to shoot an advertising campaign. After several meetings and reviewing the research photos they took on their trips across the globe we started hunting for styles that had not yet reached the US. In fashion it’s all about thinking ahead and almost predicting what the new next wave of clothing the consumer wants would be. This shoot’s theme was hipster mountain man.

The team spent several weeks hunting for specific tops to match their new inventory of designer denim that they will propose to companies such as GUESS? The GAP, American Eagle, Miss Me, etc. Meanwhile we searched for locations, in this case a log cabin, which would fit the theme. Next was the fun part. We began our model search. Our first instinct was to reach out to agencies, but none of the local agencies had grungy or hipster models. So we spent some time pulling people off the streets, trolling Facebook and only hours before the shoot, we pulled a guy from the coffee shop we frequent. The day of the shoot the models went through the typical routine of hair and makeup while the creative director fit them for their outfits. Finally we did the shoot. It took about 8 hours to shoot. From there I retouched the photos and designed the printed look book in adobe indesign.

Please tell us of your success with your beautiful image titled “Lost in Blue”.

As a part of my Thesis at the Academy of Art, I started recreating personal dreams. Since I was a child I’ve had reoccurring nightmares of me drowning, falling into the ocean and slowly sinking into the darkness. It was one of my biggest concepts that I wanted to recreate. Unfortunately, I can’t swim. So I looked into creative ways to create the image. After a few failed attempts I gave it one last try, and recalled a shoot I had done previously with baby powder and water. For Lost in Blue I had 2 models jumping around covered in baby powder on top of a parking deck as the sun set. Using the 85mm to blur the sky for a background that looked similar to the ocean and the baby power gave it a texture similar to the specks you see in most underwater photos. After shooting tons of images, I bought a small disposable underwater camera and toyed around with shooting in our river walk. It took about 2 months of working on it, compositing and layering, reshooting water and baby power before I gave up completely. The PSD document ended up being close to 3 gig, and I was about 95% done but for some reason it lacked depth. I later discovered Aaron Nace; watching him create depth with flat imagery, was exactly what I needed.The techniques from his tutorials actually helped me put the final touches onto the image.

Can you tell us about your upcoming “Victoria Henley 2013 Modelling Workshop”?

Victoria has become one of the most popular fan favourites in Top Model history. Our workshops give one on one model training for aspiring models from all ages. She leads them through runway training, how to set themselves apart in the industry and guided photo shoots to help them start their portfolio. We have an advanced group that receives hair and makeup before the workshop and also they receive personal photo shoots after the workshop. Very fun way to dive into the industry.

What would be your “dream set” or “dream location” to shoot?

I would have to say in New Zealand because of the beautiful, lush environments.

What’s your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken? (Why?)

That’s a hard one. My most favourite one would have to be the one I took of Obama before he was president during a speech a few years before he became president. I was acting as a press member and got to snap away below him as he gave a speech.

And to follow up that question, what photo of yours was the most challenging to create? (due to lighting, models, editing, props, etc)

My most challenging had to be the photo I took of a girl on an older boat. I shot it during a long photography workshop that was a nightmare. I found myself stuck at this workshop with about 4 other photographers on a goat farm that seemed to never end. A majority of the models, there were about twenty, were demanding and rude. The girls that I wanted to shoot with, the only reason I even showed up in the first place, were being scared off by the offensive models. I finally was able to pull one out of the mounting chaos. I had her lay in this decrepit boat created by a folk artist. Shooting it in the middle of the blistering hot day, surrounded by angry models, with a soft box that rarely worked and the boat falling apart as the model tried to pose …it was quite a day.

Most challenging photo to create can be seen in the middle.

Can you tell us about your experience of photographing Barack Obama before he became president?

Looking back at it I honestly wish I had taken more photos of him. It was part of an assignment for a local magazine called SVM. As usual, I was ready to shoot the photos then get out of there, as speeches are rarely as fun and entertaining as fashion shoots. When I got there I actually found myself not wanting to leave. He was such an amazing and powerful speaker that I understood his message and was captivated. I spent more time listening than shooting, which was probably for the best since I was blinding him with my flash. The early Canon Rebels were not so good in low light so I had to resort to my speed light.

Do you sketch your work before creating it? If so, can we see a sketch?

For my conceptual shoots I always sketch first. My sketches are always crude but I would love to share.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I am in NYC, staying with a random host I found on airbnb (there are cats everywhere…) finishing up a beauty editorial with IMG models I shot earlier in Delaware. When I return I will be promoting my short film that made it’s way into the semifinalist in Ron Howard’s Video contest portion of Project Imagination. It is surprising that my first film, with no budget or support, made it this far in a contest hosted by celebrities.

How important is Photoshop and Light room to your workflow?

Very. For composites and fashion shoots I shoot in RAW format, which goes straight to Photoshop.For Weddings or proofing massive amounts of images I process them in Light room.

You work on a few different types of photography. Fashion, editorial, personal work, etc… What’s your favourite type of photography to create?

Although I enjoy creating fine art, I love fashion the most. Composites can be a hit or miss, and if they don’t workout in post, I desert them completely. Fashion is a lot easier, as it requires less of a concept and I have other people assisting and to blame if something goes wrong.

How do you ask your models to pose for you?

I try to let them do all the posing with little directions from me. However, most of the time I work with girls new to the industry who have no posing skills, so I have to pose them myself. But usually I ask them to pose naturally or whatever is revenant to the theme.

Any advice for photographer’s beginning to work with models for the first time?

Be confident in your work, but don’t be cocky. If you are nervous about what you are doing, then the model will pick up on that and also act uneasy. If you are a guy, bring a female assistant who can help the models prepare. Focus on three important elements of shooting models. First select a model that fits your theme and concept. One that emotes well and has little experience with posing on her own. It sometimes helps to bring a few magazine clippings or a moodboard along so you can show the model the types of poses you are looking for. Second, make sure you have the styling, hair and makeup exactly the way you want it. Being fresh to shooting sometimes allows the makeup artist or stylist to dominate the decision making, and you may end up with something that deviates from your concept completely. Scout for safe locations that fit your concept before your shoot. Remember, if the models are horrible, the makeup and styling is off, and the location is bad, the photographers get all of the blame. Sad but true.

To keep up with Sammie and his work you can do so on his Website, Twitter, 500PX, Flickr, and Facebook Page. Interviewed by Angela Butler.


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    Rachel Hoffman

    Incredibly inspiring. Have you gone any big art slumps? Has this caused you to lose confidence ever?

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      Sammie Saxon'Photography

      Great question! Yes. Mainly on the conceptual shoots. Not all of them turn out as planned so I ditch the concept and start over.

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    Ashley Rodgers

    Sammie is extremely talented. He’s a good teacher and a good friend. He is ever inspiring and deserves all the good the world has to offer. .

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    Awesome interview! Such talent from such a humble and good friend!
    Congrats! Love the photos included as well. Insight into a rocky start that has turned into a shining and promising career.

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    Molly Staudinger

    Loved the interview and the photos were awesome. You’re going to go far Sammie!

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    Awesome interview! Such talent from such a humble and good friend!
    Congrats! Love the photos included as well. Insight into a rocky start that has turned into a shining and promising career.