Sam Kaplan: The Problem Solver

Product, still-life and food photography aren’t for those with short attention spans. The beauty and the devil are in the details. Meticulous positioning of every element within the frame, problem-solving on and off the set, and creative use of light is a must to avoid a potentially sterile, or in the case of food, an unappealing photographic result. New York-based Sam Kaplan uses this focused approach to yield consistently exciting imagery, not the easiest thing to do with subject matter ranging from an ice-cream cone to a piece of gum. The work he produces and his approach to his profession serve as an example of art and commerce at its finest.

Kaplan understood early on that a successful career isn’t just about taking a great photo; it’s about marketing. A look at his website and other promotional material clearly defines where he’s coming from as a photographer.

DPP: Creative problem-solving and conceptual thinking are a big part of your work. How do you take a potentially banal subject and make it interesting?

Sam Kaplan:I try and take away as much from the picture as possible until I get to its essence. I think when you start adding a lot of elements to the picture, you’re often detracting from whatever the picture is trying to say. It’s a reductive process. I want to get to the root of the problem. For example, I photographed a black sea bass for a New York Times Magazine assignment to illustrate a recipe. The fish itself was so graphic, the image didn’t need to be garnished with extraneous objects.

DPP: That image is the opener of the FEED category on your website. Your conceptual approach extends to your marketing tools.

Kaplan:New York is a very saturated photography market to break into, so it’s important to differentiate yourself somehow, not only with your photographs, but also with your marketing. I really try to think out ideas that will be effective. I want people to hire me for the more conceptual work. I want to develop things that are simple and well thought out and seem intelligent.

DPP: Where did this come from in you?

Kaplan: I went to Wesleyan University and had a double major in Studio Arts and Art History. I studied both traditional photography and conceptual sculpture. The sculpture classes have helped inform my work. It really wasn’t like chiseling a marble block. The first assignment was somewhat like that, but then we quickly moved into more conceptual work. We would be presented a problem: “You have a 10-foot piece of wood and you can use the wood shop, but that’s it. No additional material. You have to make something interesting that will react to a space.” We analyzed the work of minimalist artists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. LeWitt would come up with a formula—a permutation or pattern—and fill it out to the end. My favorite sort of pictures to do have an organizing principle, a beginning and an end that makes sense in the frame. That excites me for whatever reason. The CONSUMABLES section on my website, I think, is a good example of that approach. I wanted to make a series of images that could live together by having a theme run through them.

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