DPP Home Profiles Brian Kuhlmann - Life Of The Party

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Brian Kuhlmann - Life Of The Party

With a studio at the gateway to the Old West and the American Frontier, Brian Kuhlmann's St. Louis operation lands big clients who are drawn to his high-energy style

Experiments And Experiences

He may have been inspired by the paycheck, but it's clear that Kuhlmann is now also driven by a desire to create well-crafted photographs. He has always worked on self-assignments that allow him to stimulate his creativity, fill his portfolio with dynamic images and, ultimately, land big clients in search of his caliber of work.

“I'm constantly testing,” he says. “If I see a new piece of equipment that I want to work with, or new talent or a new stylist, I'm constantly shooting tests. There's a lot of work in my portfolio that was strictly self-driven. By showing that work, it gives people the confidence that I can do the work, and it gives me the experience. I see a lot of photographers who complain that they don't have the work, but they're never working on themselves or their portfolios. I do that all the time.”

Even if you have a portfolio full of energized images, clients don't just fall in your lap. Kuhlmann feels he has to provide a look for his customers that they can't get from anyone else, so he has perfected a balancing act—making meticulously crafted images that manage to convey a casual party atmosphere. Kuhlmann has taken that look to one of the biggest advertisers in the country, which just happens to be located in St. Louis.

“My proximity to Anheuser-Busch has definitely helped with landing assignments with them,” Kuhlmann says. “They hire a lot of smaller boutique agencies in town for their point-of-sale materials. This is a major part of the work we do for A-B, but I also believe that I wouldn't get hired if they didn't like my work.”

Adds Kuhlmann, “Most of my work is about re-creating bar atmospheres. I think the reason A-B and the other alcohol companies hire me is for my ability to make this party atmosphere. We're gelling lights, using motion blur and keeping things moody. The truth is, I like to party and have fun, so being in this type of atmosphere comes naturally. The trick is to create this atmosphere with a bunch of photo equipment, assistants, stylists and clients hanging around.”

Along with the technical challenges of effectively creating the perfect party atmosphere, Kuhlmann faces important human challenges as well. His photographs are mainly about people, so if the models don't look like they're having fun—no matter how great the lighting is—the photographs just won't work.

“We hire a DJ to keep the tunes going and to elevate the atmosphere when the energy starts to dip,” Kuhlmann says. “If we don't have the budget for a DJ, we're putting together special playlists on our iPods and cranking that through the stereo. And we ask people to bring in CDs they like to dance to. One of the hardest things is to get this party going at 7 a.m. Professional talent is easy; they know how this works and will help keep the party going. It's when I'm working with street casting that my job gets tough. I'm jumping around and trying to get people excited, and trying to bring that emotional level up to ‘It's midnight, you're partying!' except that it's 8:00 in the morning and everybody's like, ‘What the hell am I doing up this early?'”

Digital Bizness

Kuhlmann was an early adopter of technology in his studio, and he uses digital capture now to help make those early-morning party shoots more efficient and effective. Not only can he get client approvals instantly, but he can more effectively collaborate with the talent on the shots in which their performance will make or break an image. The speed and efficiency with which he can make a lot of digital captures allow him to keep the energy level high, shoot more frames and, ultimately, know when he has the shot.

“I can create a few captures and have the talent come back to the monitor and discuss what is and isn't happening,” Kuhlmann says. “Most people can see what doesn't work and make adjustments. With film, we'd shoot several rolls and then a Polaroid to check everything. Waiting 90 seconds for a Polaroid kills the momentum and energy. Plus, we'd shoot mostly on medium and small formats, so looking at details was pretty much impossible. Now, the images appear on a 20-inch monitor in almost real time.

“I began looking at digital immediately when it first hit the pro-photographer market,” he continues. “The large scan backs just weren't what my studio could use. Then the first 35mm digitals hit the market; they didn't stack up either. It wasn't until I tested the first Phase One back that I considered spending the cash. I rented that camera back and began to develop the studio workflow. It became obvious that digital was going to change the way every photographer was going to do business.”

As much as creative photographers like Kuhlmann might enjoy concentrating only on the shooting, successful businesspeople like Kuhlmann know that they need to think about the bottom line. Digital has been great for his portfolio, but it has also presented challenges for the business. To be successful, a photographer needs to turn the financial negatives into positives.


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