Erin Kunkel is an advertising and editorial photographer who works all over the world, but makes her home in the foggy outerlands of San Francisco. Known for being collaborative and detail-oriented, Kunkel has a painter’s eye for color, light and composition. Her work is based on deep observation matched with technical sophistication, which gives her images an authenticity much in demand by both editorial and advertising clients. Her images have won awards from Photo District News and American Photography, and her clients include Coca-Cola, Samsung, Starbucks, Canon, Hyatt Resorts and Williams-Sonoma, as well as publications such as Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, and Sunset, and she has photographed more than 30 cookbooks. When Kunkel is not behind the camera, she can be found cooking, gardening, searching for warm-water surf destinations and road tripping with her dog Lola and her husband Danny.
You spent time working with farming and sustainability. How does that inform your work? Perhaps in making connections between how something originates and where it ultimately ends up. There is a narrative arc in the production of food that I’m really interested in, but this applies to a lot of things—seeing a farmer or chef or artist start at the source and then bring something to life is always inspiring.
Your work feels very cohesive. How would you describe your style, and how did it evolve? I would describe my style as narrative, authentic, optimistic and warm; not slick. It has evolved very organically. I’m influenced by a lot of work that is vastly different from my own, but on a core level, an image has to truly resonate with me for me to put it in my portfolio. In my commercial work, I enjoy the challenge of translating someone else’s concept into a collaborative piece that communicates what the client wants, but through my own perspective.
How do you create a narrative element in still photographs? Carefully choosing what details and elements to include in a single image enables me to imply and evoke a wider story. If everything is perfectly in-frame, it feels like the image is a singular piece, but having elements that bleed out of the frame, creating a sense of motion, spontaneity and imperfection, helps to convey emotion and create a story.
Is it important for still photographers to work in motion as well? For me, motion is a natural progression from the way I shoot stills, and I’m strongly influenced by cinematography and the power of narrative in images. But my motion work needs to be on par with my photography, and I’ve wanted to take time to develop the skill to shoot and direct rather that throwing out work that doesn’t complement my photography. That being said, I think there is a lot of pressure for everyone to shoot motion, and it makes more sense for each person to find the tools they need rather than trying to satisfy a very demanding and constantly changing marketplace. If your heart’s not in it, that will be obvious, and the substantial time and energy it takes to do motion would be better spent elsewhere.
Aside from your camera and lighting, what item could you not work without? It used to be a simple journal so I could keep track of ideas and information, but now I would say it’s my iPhone. It’s a great tool—I use apps to track the path of the sun and GPS to remember exact locations I’m scouting, and I shoot little details that I want to remember to incorporate in later images. Shooting a quick iPhone picture is often the first image of a subject I take, and it helps me document my gut instinct, which I can flesh out when I’m ready to shoot the real thing.
There is something about your use of color and light that feels very Californian, even in images taken elsewhere. Do you think your style is informed by a sense of place? Absolutely—the warm California light is pervasive in much of my work. But I love being on the road and noticing how different light is in other places, and how that affects people and the stories I tell. I like the strong directionality of western light at the end of the day. I want the viewer to almost feel the sun on their skin; to create images that invite some kind of experiential response.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Put in your time, be patient, have a strong work ethic and be good to the people you’re around. Creating a supportive community of friends and colleagues is the difference between a stressful, unsustainable career and one that provides longevity and fulfillment. Shoot enough to be clear on the look and feel that is uniquely yours. Assist other photographers and learn the essentials of the business and production side of photography. If you want to end up shooting big jobs, know what you want and how to communicate well. I have lovely young photographers constantly reaching out to me wondering how to get ad jobs or find an agent, yet they haven’t mastered the fundamentals of shooting, putting together a creative team or a workflow. Usually once they get on set and see how many things you have to juggle in addition to shooting, they discover that there is much more to being a photographer than they imagined, and it’s not the best fit for everyone.