Photographer Jack McKain Talks His First Book, 'Clin D'oeil: Vol I'
Hailing from Virginia, (with many international couch-surfing stops along the way), Jack McKain is the LA-based photographer making moves. From shooting Sampha to Willow Smith, this guy has got an eye. McKain just recently released his portrait book “Clin D’oeil: Volume One” shot entirely on film, and in order to celebrate (slash get the all-important details from the artist himself), MILK.XYZ caught up with this photographer in his Downtown LA artist’s loft, just before he headed back to NYC. With Palo Santo on the stove and Jorja Smith and The Internet playing in the background, McKain touched on serendipity and the magic behind exploring film photography.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into photography?
I never really had any intention of becoming a photographer. I’ve always had a camera, since I was five or six years old. Some of my earliest memories are playing with my dad’s Hi-8 and VHS cameras. And all through growing up, that was my thing—writing scripts, shooting music videos, skate videos. I always wanted to be a director—as a kid growing up, that is what I saw myself doing.
You grew up in Virginia?
Yeah, right outside DC. While I was college, I started getting into graphic design. I’d make graphic t-shirts with my homie Ilya, and right after college I started a magazine called Modern Hieroglyphics. While working on the magazine and traveling, I had a chance encounter that lead to music photography. Two summers ago, I was with my friend Andre on a rooftop in Brooklyn. He’s one of the founders of Soulection and music was playing from his laptop through the night. None of it really caught my attention until this one song, “Open Up,” by Gallant. I specifically remember walking over to his laptop and making a mental note, “I need to remember Gallant.” The song was incredible.
Rewind to five years ago. There’s a guy named Wade Davis who reached out to me online in 2012, when we both worked in music in Virginia. For always we tried to link up, grab a drink or whatever. Years had passed and we still had never met.
The next day, after hearing Gallant for the first time, I saw that Wade was in New York and I hit him up. He told me to come by his AirBnb. He said he only had a few minutes to talk, but we ended up kicking it for like five hours. We became… that’s like my brother now. Halfway through the night, I asked him what he was doing in New York and he told me he worked for a music management company that just signed a new artist—Gallant. I knew it sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember where I heard the name. He played me the new single, and it was the song “Open Up” that I heard the night before.
He mentioned that they had a show at Pandora’s HQ the next day, and asked me if I knew any photographers who could shoot it. I don’t think he even knew I took photos. I told him that I usually shoot on the street, but I’d give it a shot, so he gave me the address and told me to show up at 11am. That morning I met Gallant, his band, the owner of the management company, the whole crew. A few months later, I ended up crashing at their house in LA—they lived next door to Wiz Khalifa in Bel Air. I stayed their on their couch between travels and shot a bunch of Gallant shows. I started meeting other musicians through them, and next thing I knew, paid work started coming my way.
So do you believe in serendipity and law of attraction?
Yes I do. There’s something happening. There is definitely something happening—especially when I’m traveling and moving and working on new projects.
It’s reassuring that you’re on the right path.
I always feel like that. Yeah it sounds kind of… To people who haven’t experienced it, it just sounds like nonsense.
What was your first camera?
My first still camera was a Nikon D3200.
What’s your favorite camera now?
The Mamiya RB67—that’s what I shoot almost everything on now. That and the Hasselblad 500cm, but I sold that. I have a Sony digital, but it’s kinda broken. I don’t really use it. I got hit by a huge wave on a shoot in Malibu a while back and the camera was soaked with saltwater. It’s been getting worse over time, and now it shoots corrupted RAW files. So lately I just stick to film.
You’ve lived in a bunch of different places. You were born in Virginia, then where did you go?
Yeah I was born in VA and started traveling a lot after college. I studied Advertising at VCU in Richmond. All through advertising school they talk about working at a big agency. Like once you get a job at a big agency with huge corporate clients, you’ve made it. But I worked at two of them while I was at school. I felt like, “this is making it?” This isn’t what I want to do. I just don’t want to have a boss, you know? It’s kind of a privileged thing to say, but we live in a time where it’s feasible to do your own thing. If you don’t want to have a boss, you have to become your own boss.
Prior to that, I worked a shitty restaurant job. I worked in a lot of restaurants, but the last one was bad. I dreaded going to that job, literally everyone was an asshole. They weren’t even assholes to me—they were just assholes in general. You can’t subject yourself to that type of energy daily and not expect it to affect your well-being. When I quit that job, I decided that I’m gonna do whatever I have to do to not work on somebody’s else’s schedule or on somebody else’s time. And most importantly, I get to choose the people around me. That’s one of the best parts of working for yourself… you get to decide who you spend your time with.
Immediately after graduating I moved to Puerto Rico. I just wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. I wanted to get away from everything so I could reflect on my past and plan my future. My time at the agency had ended, I graduated school, broke up with my girlfriend, moved out and then moved to San Juan—I just lived in a little shack by the beach and did design work to pay the bills. I wanted to be a freelance designer—I didn’t even own a camera at the time, this was three or four years ago. I did a lot of writing, a lot of reading, and spent a lot of time with myself. It was quite a shift from the life I was living in college. I wasn’t going out to bars and parties at night, I was waking up at sunrise to run on the beach.
And then you lived in San Francisco too?
I spent some time traveling in Australia after Puerto Rico and then I moved to San Francisco for a bit. I bounced around Europe that summer, moved to Berkeley, then spent a few months traveling around east Asia and back to Australia. On my way back to the states, a layover in Tokyo turned into a two-month stay, then the next year was spent in New York, LA, and London.
It was a wild ride of couchsurfing and sleeping in all kinds of weird places. From capsule hotels to park benches, couches and beds provided by random strangers at bars, online friends, everything you can imagine. I spent a whole summer in a one-bedroom apartment with four other dudes and a dog. I slept in a moldy, damp closet and our landlord lived upstairs and smoked crack. Real shit. But I still look back fondly on those times, the guys I lived with are my brothers for life. In 2015, I stayed in a room in Venice on-and-off for a year, but having a loft space in DTLA has been a huge upgrade.
With your creative process, it kind of just seems like you meet the right people at the right time?
It all happens very organically. Leon Bridges, for example, we met through a friend, shoutout Junebug. He came to the studio one night, really late at night. He was hammered when he came over [Laughs], but we’ve connected a couple times since then and will definitely be working on something in the future. Labels, managers, and artists reach out to hire me, but a lot of times it just happens naturally like that.
Do you make an effort to put yourself into your work?
Well, what do you mean by that?
There is something that connects all the photos, obviously besides the fact that you’re the person who is taking all of them. How do you make something your own image?
In terms of the actual image itself, a lot of it happens in the scanning process. Even though I shoot all on film—my process is really half digital. I scan everything, then I edit on Lightroom and Photoshop. But the scan is where the contrast, color, and exposure are determined. Even if someone took one of my negatives and scanned it themselves, the vibe would be different. It wouldn’t look like one of my photos. There’s also a lot in the process and just how I shoot people—it’s very casual. It’s unconventional, I guess. It’s not very structured. The more structured it is, the less real it feels.
You spend a lot of time in New York, but why do you like Los Angeles right now?
I’ve lived all over LA – Venice, Bel Air, Silver Lake. And I’ve crashed on couches all over LA. And I didn’t really fall in love with LA until I moved Downtown—partially because of this space [looks around loft]—I love this space. I didn’t really find a community in any of the other places that I lived—just because of the nature of LA. I’ve only been here for a year and I feel like I know everybody on the block. I can’t go outside without running into somebody I know. Everybody kind of shows love to each other and everybody supports each other—there are so many musicians and DJs, and photographers, and models that live within a couple blocks of me. I’ve never lived in such a concentrated creative community.
Who would be the dream person to collaborate with or shoot?
Right now, it’s Kendrick.
How are you gonna make it happen?
Oh, it’s gonna happen.
Law of attraction—power of the mind—it’s happening.
Oh yeah, no. It’s actually happening. I don’t know how yet, but it will happen.
What about shooting musicians—do you just love music?
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t make music now, but as a kid I played piano, I played trumpet, I sang – like half my life. And I think I just have an intuitive connection with music—I don’t know. I feel like I have a deeper appreciation of it because I used to play it at a young age. You know the feeling when you have the same music taste as somebody? And you can connect just because you share the same taste? It’s like that, but when you’re with the person that actually made that music, it’s on a whole different level—you know?
Do you listen to music when you shoot?
When you’re shooting someone, do you listen to the music they make?
Not unless they request it. For some people, it makes them uncomfortable. If somebody has new music, and I’m shooting for that album or that single—we might just play it on repeat to get the vibe of it. It’s interesting because I really only work with people whose music I’m genuinely interested in. And I’m always trying to link people with each other when it feels right. I always play my friends’ music when other musicians come over here. I gotta put my friends on. But I’ll only push a collab and connect people if I genuinely feel like it’s the right fit.
How did you shoot Sampha? Was that in London?
That was in Queens, New York. My friend Neela in London, she helped line that up. She does social media for XL and Young Turks, among a million other things.
How long do your shoots normally last?
I like them to go long. I’m never the one to end it. Ask anybody I’ve shot—I’m always pushing to shoot one more roll.
Do you normally get the shot within the first couple images?
It’s usually the last shot—the very last one. And every roll we shoot gets better. It’s just a matter of warming up and getting comfortable.
Who was your favorite person to shoot? Are they included in your book?
I don’t have one favorite person. I guess one of my favorite shoots was with Masego a few years ago. Funny thing about Masego is we knew each other before I started taking photography seriously, and before he started taking music seriously. We met because he reached out to me about an app he was working on. A year later I stumbled upon his Soundcloud and couldn’t believe it was the same dude. Anyway, this shoot happened on the day we first met in person. I picked him up from LAX and we went straight to work. We wandered all over Venice, climbed on top of lifeguard towers, and a homeless man stole my shoes [Laughs], so we had to go on a mission to get those back. That shoot was actually a milestone for me, it affected the whole direction of my style. Then there are certain people who I always just shoot when we’re together. My homie Liv, he goes by Pink Siifu. We haven’t even known each other long but that’s my brother for real. We shoot at least a couple photos whenever we’re together. One of my favorite photos in the book is a portrait of Melziah Dia, a rapper from Long Beach. We only took like three studio shots, those photos happened in the middle of me cooking dinner [Laughs].
Do you think it’s easy to connect with so many different people just because you’ve lived in so many different places?
Maybe so. With most people I shoot, we end up becoming friends.
How much time do you spend on a photo?
It varies so much. Usually a full day shoot, an 8 hour shoot, is like a full day of scanning. Sometimes more, sometimes it takes two days of scanning to get through one day of photos. Which is why my whole process is different than a lot of photographers—because with film, the whole process is slower—the editing and scanning processes are slower. It takes a lot more of my time. I’ve had to cut way back on test shoots because I just don’t have the time.
Obviously there is a time thing with shooting film, but would you say you work quickly?
I work quickly if I’m excited about it. But if I’m not excited about the shots, it’s the worst. That’s when it really starts to feel like work.
So when you put the book together—how did these photos come together?
Well, first—it’s all musicians. Except for two or three people who are just homies. And most of this book was shot this year, 2017. It wasn’t until this year that I kind of found my style.
Where does the name Clin D’oeil come from?
It’s the name of a 2008 album by the Jazz Liberatorz, a group of French producers. It’s a jazzy hip-hop vibe, it’s one of my favorite albums. Two years ago I looked up the translation, and saw it meant “blink of an eye.” I knew that when I put out my first book, that would be the name. Capturing moments in the blink of an eye. It just felt right.
There’s a gallery down the street, run by these two guys from Paris, and I asked them what it meant to them. One of them said, “Oh it means wink, or a blink of an eye.” The other guy added, “It does mean that, it’s the dictionary definition. But when people say it, it means is that there are two layers to something—one that’s obvious to anybody and then there’s another layer with more significance that only a certain type of person can recognize.” At least that’s how I remember him saying it. I didn’t hear that new definition until the book was already being printed, but I got chills when he said it.
It’s pretty fitting for sure. How would you define your style?
It’s intimate portraiture. You’re rarely ever seeing lower than right here [points at torso]—it’s always just their expression. It’s about the expression.
When you’re shooting someone, are you asking them questions? How do you get the the specific emotion?
Sometimes we just hang out. And we might not even shoot for an hour because we just sit and talk. I’ll be standing here like this [puts eye into viewfinder] and that’s all. I do a lot of posing too. Once I find a specific pose or framing that I like—we’ll do a lot with that.
Do you shoot digital at all?
Not anymore. I mean there’s been a few times this year when I had to shoot digital—but I’ve have to borrow a camera since mine is broken. The feeling when I scan a roll and I got exactly what I envisioned—I never find that with digital. There is nothing close to that feeling.
It’s so exciting having to wait.
Very few things excite me as deeply as when I love a photo that I’ve created—having to wait makes it even better.
Do you ever develop you own photos?
Yeah I have, it’s just whole other level of time and artistry. I have to turn around client work quickly, so I haven’t had the time to develop myself.
Where do you get it developed?
In LA I go to Gold’s in Koreatown. Rolando, that’s my dude. I’ve probably brought him, I mean, definitely thousands of rolls. He’s processed all my C-41 film for a year or so. All these rolls [references stack of film on table] are from him from the past 48 hours. 20 of them are of a singer that was here earlier, shooting a music video. These are all going to Gold’s tomorrow.
Do you shoot any video?
No, but I want to. I see that on the horizon, but I don’t want to move on to that before I feel like I’ve mastered what I do. I feel like I just found my style. I want to dive deeper into portraiture, but it would be cool to see my portraits come to life.
Where’s the next place you want to live?
I want to keep LA as the home base, but I always go to New York. I’ll be there for October and November this year. I rent a room from my boy Julio in Brooklyn. I go every fall and spring. May and September in NY are just perfect. I do go sometimes in the summer and winter—but I don’t stay too long. I can’t do anymore winters.
What photographers do you look up to?
How do you say his name? Thierry Le Gouès. He shot all the Voodoo album packaging for D’Angelo, I think that was shot in Haiti. And his work in Cuba is incredible. Jonathan Mannion’s style has been super influential to me. I was a fan of his work for a decade before I even knew who he was. I never studied his work closely, but it’s always been a part of my life. Look him up – it’s probably been a part of yours too. When it comes to OG photographers, I’m familiar with a few of the greats, but I don’t really study photographers like that. I probably should.
I feel like that’s common thing in a lot of the interview I’ve done—people aren’t really trying to copy anyone else’s work.
I mean there are a lot of people I see at on Instagram and I really respect their work, but there’s not too many people where I feel like, “that’s what I want to be.” I do have a lot of super talented peers though, and it’s great to see people coming up who raise the bar, artistically. Living in a world that’s so deeply saturated with forgettable imagery, we need it right now.
Images courtesy of Jack McKain
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