I’ve been a fan of photographer Darren Ankenman for a few years now. I didn’t know much about him, but after he did a stellar shoot with the band Other Lives, who are hometown pals of mine, I knew then I wanted to do a feature on him in some way. He’s an amazing photographer that shoots musicians, models, bands and portraits and is just an in-demand dude who deserves every bit of it. He’s the kind of artist I don’t need to throw a list of adjectives at you to describe, his work does that for him. We put together a gallery of our favorite Darren Ankenman photographs, and then asked him to pick a handful of his favorites, all as a side dish to a great conversation. Enjoy the shots and the words, Darren is all-time.
*Small world side note: My brother-in-law, artist Aaron Frisby, is buddies with Jocko Weyland, who about a year ago suggested Frisby would enjoy Ankenman’s work. Before this introduction Darren had already done the Other Lives shoot, and Jesse Tabish, one of Frisby’s best friends, is the lead singer. Earlier this summer Frisby was having an art show in San Jose, which Ankenman wasn’t even aware of at the time. In the span of a week, Darren found out about Frisby’s show (through Jocko) and I contacted Darren about doing a feature on Serial Optimist. Darren responded and we started curating his catalogue. During this same time he purchased a Frisby piece from the San Jose show. Oh and Jesse Tabish moved to Portland, if that somehow matters. NONE of us knew ANY of us were connected. Wild.
Serial Optimist: Hi Darren! How are you? What are your current surroundings at this very moment?
Darren Ankenman: I’m good. Europe has been my surroundings for about 3 months now… It’s been incredible. Presently I am in a tour bus outside a festival in London. I can hear Justin Timberlake on stage right now.
SO: Solid background noise! At what age did you realize photography was something you were in to, and at what point did you decide it was what you wanted to do professionally?
Darren: I really wanted to make movies when I was a kid. Eventually I went to film school and came out of that more interested in documentaries and music videos. I lived in San Francisco in my mid-twenties and it must have been then that I became inspired to shoot. I was shooting these cool stylish “live” super 8 videos for bands like Royal Trux, Bardo Pond, The Cows, Geraldine Fibbers and Chokebore. This lead (totally indirectly) to being hired to shoot several consecutive tour documentaries for Jewel, Kids in the Hall and The Black Crowes…. and in those contexts, I got very serious about shooting photos. I’d sit around with Chris from the Crowes and we’d look at amazing photo books by Robert Frank and William Klein and G.P. Fieret.
SO: Can you tell us a little about your upbringing, and how photography became a part of your life? Did someone guide you toward the camera or was it more organic?
Darren: Growing up I lived in Omaha, Nebraska… and I was obsessed with films like The Shining and Blade Runner. Also, somehow John Waters was on my radar. I remember seeing Female Trouble and loving it. Blue Velvet was a big one too…
I can’t remember any one moment where photography specifically became so important. What became important were the French new wave films. The hand held camera. Gritty realism. Natural light. Living in SF I was exposed to Larry Clark and Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman’s untitled film stills.
When I was shooting documentaries on the road, I remember wishing that I could shoot on 16mm film just as the Maysles did with movies like Grey Gardens. Instead, the budgets I had kept me in the mini DV format with occasional super 8. Mostly while I dreamed of shooting 16mm, I shot video. With still photography I realized that could shoot film.
SO: Do you remember the first photo you took that really stuck with you?
Darren: I remember getting a manual 35mm rangefinder and being quite excited about how it worked in low light. It was more of a moment where things clicked in my brain in regards to using a manual camera.
SO: What are a few of the most important things you look for when shooting, to find that perfect shot?
Darren: A perfect intersection of light, subject and location.
SO: In the music vertical, you’ve shot a wide range of musicians, from Syd tha Kyd to Other Lives to Wiz Khalifa to M83 to Michael Bublé and many more. It’s so interesting to me to think of setting up a shoot and concept for Wiz, compared to Michael Bublé. What are the challenges in that, and the fun in that?
Darren: Challenges include learning the boundaries quickly. …being sensitive to the artist. For me, all I need is to be in their intimate space and I can figure them out with the camera. Michael Bublé …I just hung out in NYC with him for a couple days…. he loves William Claxton and so do I, so we went for that vibe. Wiz was one quick day in LA, half studio, half wandering outside.
SO: Your shots of actresses, specifically Kate Mara, Hannah Simone, Brie Larson, and again, many more, are so supremely beautiful. I looked at photos of these women from other photographers, and none stood up to the style or just capture what you were able to get with these ladies. Is it a collaborative process when setting up a shoot, or do you have an idea going in, say with Brie, on what you’re wanting to accomplish?
Darren: I tend to want celebrities to be themselves. The biggest challenge in LA is dealing with stylists… and PR who has their own ideas about styling. Brie is cool. I’ve shot her a couple times. With celebrities usually I just try to have a cool location in mind.
SO: You’ve dabbled a bit in video, and you can sense a real love for the cinema just by talking with you. I’m someone who believes certain photographers can go on to be great music and film directors. Is that something you’d eventual like to do?
Darren: Not necessarily. But if I can some day shoot my own Crumb or Grey Gardens I definitely will.
SO: You definitely should. What’s your perfect day?
Darren: Exploring and moving through an unknown city or village, occasionally finding great light and interesting people and details. Recently this happened in Lourmarin, France.
SO: Love it. What little things in life make you smile?
Darren: A yorkie named Kiki.
Four Of Darren’s Personal Favorites
SO: What is one of the most memorable shoots for you personally?
Darren: Well, there was a time that I was quite reluctant with my camera…and I have this distinct memory of walking and talking with a girl in Paris nearly every day for about 3 weeks. We would walk and talk for hours, and in my pocket was a camera with film. I spent those moments trying to figure out how to capture her, and I would kick myself as I left her each day without any photos. Eventually I reconnected with her in NYC, and there are some really great photos from that encounter.
SO: Are you an optimist, a pessimist or a realist, and why?
Darren: I am a super realistic pessimist. My head is rarely in the clouds, sadly. Firmly grounded in reality. Slightly pessimistic, generally. Not sure why!
SO: Because being an optimist is hard! What projects do you have coming up that we should know about?
Darren: The English Group in Bath, England recently created a limited edition book of my images of this New Orleans model named Vee Laroche. Also… I am working on a job presently that I can’t talk about much …it’s too fresh, but I am out on a European tour with an amazing singer. It’s a super cool ongoing project.
Serial Optimist Curated Darren Ankenman Gallery