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.

In the era of social media, a talent for marketing can be just as important to a photographer as a talent for creating an image. Kaplan thanks his eye for design for setting himself apart from so many of his contemporaries, while it’s his intuitive approach to branding of his own work that helps to bring in new clients. His website, for example, is as straightforward and minimal in design as his product photography—and just as effective.

DPP: Are you trying to make a statement with this series about how we live?

Kaplan: A little bit, but it’s more just to serve the concept. Photography can certainly comment on what’s happening in the world around us. For me, a lot of it is trying to frame a problem, then figure out solutions with it. For CONSUMABLES, I wanted to take inexpensive food and make it as interesting as possible. That was the seed of this project. Pringles, Starburst, Big Red gum, ice cream—I wanted the items to be immediately recognizable.

DPP: No matter what objects you have before your lens, your lighting is very precise. What are the most difficult products to shoot?

Kaplan: I think the toughest is a clear jar with something inside of it, especially if you need a highlight on the jar and at the same time illuminate whatever is inside of it. Silver can be very difficult, as well. But once you learn the technical stuff, it becomes more of an issue to make the object look exactly how you want it to look. It doesn’t necessarily need to be technically correct; it’s more important to highlight what you want to see and work out how to achieve that. You do need to know how to technically light and photograph a perfume bottle to fall back on. Then you can have the freedom to know what you want to see as an outcome and know how to achieve it. Firing a strobe through frosted Plexiglas, for example, allows light to wrap around a glass object, creating a beautiful rim light. What I do a lot of times, and it’s so easy with digital, is combine a couple of shots altering exposures. If it’s silver or chrome items, I might use sheets of diffusion or Plexiglas.

Assisting was very important for me. In the three years I was assisting, I worked with around 40 photographers—food, still life, product, fashion, portraits. For my own work, I gravitated toward still-life and food photography, approached in a conceptual way. That’s what I enjoy most. During that time, I would shoot to build my book up. The FEED and CONSUMABLES projects that I did were done to develop my portfolio to get editorial work—that was the main impetus behind it. I wanted to shoot for magazines.

DPP:How much of your portfolio is personal concepts versus assignments?

Kaplan: My website now is probably 50-50 assigned work and personal work. Every day that I’m not shooting an assignment, I’m contacting people to set up meetings or I’m creating new pieces. I’ve been doing more and more sketches for clients to sell them on ideas. It was faster and clearer to do a quick sketch than trying to explain my ideas in a series of emails. The picture of the guy made out of candy I first sketched out for Reader’s Digest. They had a story about how candy is bad for you and how it affects your brain. My initial idea was to shoot a brain made out of candy, but they passed on that so I came up with the idea of doing the whole body, which they signed off on. To do the shot, I made an outline of a body on the computer and output a 20×30 print. A food stylist sourced all the candy and brought it to the shoot. We went in and built the print up on the paper that was laying flat. I then photographed it with my Arca-Swiss view camera shooting straight down.

DPP:It’s all about concept and execution. It’s like a painter working
on a canvas. How did you achieve the stroboscopic effect with the handbags in the FORM section of your website?

Kaplan: The effect was done all in-camera. That was for New York Magazine. They wanted a shot that wasn’t a normal product shot. I rigged the handbags up on two C-stands with an arm across. I shot from underneath and did a slow exposure with multiple pops of my Broncolor strobe while I spun my Phase One digital back between the horizontal and the vertical position on the back of my Arca-Swiss.

DPP: It’s another example of problem-solving with clarity.

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.

Kaplan: A musician named Starlite, who also attended Wesleyan University, cited as an influence Strunk and White’s grammar-usage guide, The Elements of Style, in an interview he did for Rolling Stone Magazine about his songwriting: "I like this idea in The Elements of Style that style is not embellishment, that if you try to say something as simply as possible, your personal style will come through… The simpler you get, the closer you get to something." That’s what I’m trying to do with my photography. It’s about making everything matter. I think of Irving Penn like that, Mitch Feinberg, as well. He’s an amazing still-life photographer who divides his time between the U.S. and France. He’s definitely an inspiration. His work is as close to fine art as a commercial photographer can get.

Go to to see more of Sam Kaplan’s photography.

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