On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes Chris Sorensen, self-taught photographer of faces and places. Chris wasn’t interested in photography until later in life, in fact, he worked in finance for 12 years. Listen in as he sheds light on the genesis of his creativity, beginning with a love for reading and writing, continuing with acting and modeling, and eventually leading to photography at the age of 40!
Chris’s willingness to uproot himself, travel, and immerse himself in unique subcultures has certainly influenced his success as a photographer. He explains why he is drawn to portraiture the most and shares his candid thoughts on some of his greatest projects, like Fulton Street and Wife During Quarantine.
“Find what you love to shoot and shoot that. Don’t shoot what other people want to see.” - Chris Sorensen
Tune in to learn the importance of portfolio reviews, who and what has influenced Chris’s aesthetic, and to hear words of wisdom on authentically pursuing your art. Plus, Chris offers advice on strategically entering photography competitions and talks about how entering contests has impacted his career.
Connect with Chris Sorensen:
Visit his website: www.chris-sorensen.com
Follow him on Instagram: www.instagram.com/_chris_sorensen
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Solve Sundsbo: www.solvesundsbo.com
Walter Chin: www.ceruttiandco.com/photographers/walter-chin
Phillip Toledano: http://mrtoledano.com
Jake Chessum: www.jakechessum.com
In the American West: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2017/feb/25/richard-avedon-american-west-texas-in-pictures
Fulton Street Project: www.chris-sorensen.com/fulton-street
The Mermaid Project: www.chris-sorensen.com/the-mermaid-project
Wife During Quarantine Project: www.chris-sorensen.com/home/quarantine
Mark Seliger: www.markseliger.com
Dan Winters: www.danwintersphoto.com
American Photography: www.ai-ap.com
Communication Arts Photo Annual: www.commarts.com/competition/2021-photography
Lens Culture: www.lensculture.com
Sony Awards: www.rewards.sony.com
International Photography Awards: www.photoawards.com
[00:00:00-00:00:59] - Episode Introduction
[00:00:59-00:03:42] - Guest Introduction
[00:03:42-00:06:17] - Chris Sorensen’s Origins
[00:06:17-00:12:25] - Reading and Writing: Screenwriting to Photography
[00:12:25-00:14:58] - Exit Plan: From Corporate to Photography
[00:14:58-00:22:42] - Taking the Next Step: Starting Fresh in Hong Kong
[00:22:42-00:29:29] - Personal Projects | Documentary Portraiture | Fulton Street
[00:29:29-00:33:50] - Reviews |Shoot the Work You Want to Get
[00:33:50-00:39:14] - Photography Influence
[00:39:14-00:41:57] - Lighting
[00:41:57-00:47:18] - Wife During Quarantine
[00:47:18-00:53:04] - Photography Contests
[00:53:04-00:54:59] - Show Outro | Inspirational Remarks and How to Stay Connected
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of What Makes You Click! I am your host Kelvin Bullock, and on today's episode, our guest is not afraid to uproot and do something totally different.
I am talking about a person who has basically, had three separate careers and did not even pick up a camera until the age of forty, but is now doing some amazing things in the editorial and commercial world.
Without further ado, let us take a listen to hear what makes Mr. Chris Sorenson click!
[Show Music Playing]
Kelvin Bulluck: All right! Hey man, I appreciate you for hopping on this call and having this conversation with me. In preparation for the chat, I was like, how did I even become aware of Chris Sorenson?
That happened about a month ago on Instagram. I do not even remember how I came across; I do not know if you were in my explore page or if I just come across you through random surfing, but I clicked on your profile and immediately I saw this cat is a dope photographer. I hit follow cause I am like, any dope photographer that I can find inspiration from, I am going to follow him. I hit follow and that was that. Then you post and I, engage with your work.
Then maybe what two weeks ago, last week I was submitting an entry for the American photography, thirty-seven series that they are doing, they do one every year and this was like my first time submitting.
What I did was I looked at all the entries are the people who were selected and chosen from the previous year, from last year. It was over five hundred images in those selections, so, I went through all of them just to see, who was getting selected, what kind of work are they really, thinking is suitable for their publication or the book that they print every year?
I went through all five hundred, and after that, I am thinking I have a couple of images that I think I can submit but let me just go back and screenshot a few of them just so I can see how they wrote out their descriptions. I went back, and I screenshot at three of them, not really paying attention to who the actual photographers were, but I was just looking at the images, so when I went back and I started breaking it down a little bit more, I realized, oh, snap, I screenshotted one of Chris Sorenson's photos. It was the shot that you had taken for the, My Fair Lady production, where she was laying on the ground and I am thought, oh, wow! This is a sign I need to reach out to him to see if he would be interested in coming on the show. Here we are!
Chris Sorensen: I appreciate that you did. It was an honor to be invited and I am happy to be here. When you followed me, a month or so ago, I do the same thing that you did. When everybody follows me, I look at their work and I think, is this someone I want to see their photography daily, and this is somebody I could be inspired by enjoy their work. I immediately followed you back because yes, your work is great as well, and it was nice to get the follow from somebody whose work I respect and to get the invite.
Kelvin Bulluck: Thank you, first, for your compliment and the follow back because I am all about the support.
Chris Sorensen’s Origins
Kelvin Bulluck: One thing that I like to do on this show is…. and this comes from my past of growing up and really being interested in, how people started or where people came from.
In my research, I saw that you are from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, so, let us start there. Tell me a little bit about your growing up or how even did your family end up in Sioux falls?
Is that where they have been for generations?
Chris Sorensen: I was born in San Diego when my dad was serving in the Navy. He was stationed there on his way to Vietnam, where he served two tours in the Navy, so I was born in San Diego. Very quickly after that my dad got out of the Navy, they just moved back to South Dakota. Pretty much my entire upbringing was in South Dakota.
There is a lot of Scandinavian people, my last name is Sorenson, I am Danish heritage. There is a lot of Danes in our regions and Swedes and the Minnesota South Dakota area. My family moved there in the early nineteen-hundreds, and it has been there ever since. Both sides of my family are predominantly Danish, so I am three quarters Danish, one quarter Irish.
I grew up in South Dakota in a kind of a blue collar, lower income family. I was not into photography growing up. If you had told me when I was five, ten, fifteen-years-old, that I would be a photographer, later in life, I would have been what? It was not something that I would have ever crossed my mind.
I did not grow up in a household of people who had gone to college who appreciated the arts and photography back then when you had to shoot film, and everything was an expensive hobby and or profession. I did not grow up with cameras and I did not grow up with any of that. I grew up, initially wanting to be a doctor and then, doctor and an English major, that was always what I was doing. I was going to double major in college because I always loved to write.
There was always an artistic side to me, but I was also very technical and went away to college to Texas, to TCU, Texas Christian University, and got a degree in English and a second major in Communication and thought I was going to maybe go to Law school.
Having grown up poor, I did not want to continue to be the poor starving student, so I got accepted into a Finance program for Prudential Real Estate, the real estate arm of Prudential, and was doing finance. Worked in the finance world for twelve years and always thought, I am eventually going to go and write. As I said, as an English major, I always follow through on that….
Reading and Writing: Screenwriting to Photography
Kelvin Bulluck: I am sorry before you get too far because you have said a couple of things and you said that you are really into reading and writing or that was like your creative outlet as a child. How did that come about? When did you realize that I am really into storytelling or reading or writing it, when did that become a thing for you?
Chris Sorensen: I was the first person on either side of my family to go to college, so, I did not grow up in an educated household. Not that my parents are not smart, but they were blue collar. Also, I came from a divorced family, my parents got divorced when I was five, so I was just living with my mom.
Being the kind of smart kid with just a mom, I was a nerdy kid to be honest, and I think a lot of times in those situations, you retreat to books. It was my refuge, and I would read voraciously, I would read a book a day or several books a week. For me, it became a way to educate myself, a way to escape, a safe haven. I think that was the Genesis of that love for writing and reading and the creativity and the release that provides.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah. I can totally relate to what you say regarding, having a situation where you want to escape from. I to come from divorced parents. I was thirteen when they got divorced, but I found for me reading as well, was that escape. I totally get you there, and as you said, went off college and you decided, I am going to major in English and Communications, right?
Chris Sorensen: Right!Prudential hired like twelve people nationwide, for what they call this Financial Analyst program, where they sent you for a month and a half to this training program, and basically it was almost a mini-MBA kind of thing. Then they dropped you into an office and I was in Dallas and you got a ton of experience and opportunity to utilize your skills.
I did that for three years, and then the program was over, got moved on to CB commercial as an Investment Analyst there. Eventually got hired away to run a division of another real estate finance company, and I did that for five years was lucky to do well financially.
At the end of those five years at that company and twelve years in total and finance, I had saved up enough money, and I thought, I am almost thirty-five years old. If I am going to be the writer that I have always told myself, I am going to be, I need to do it.
I told my boss and mentor who had hired me to my last two jobs, I am quitting, and he says, you are stupid. [Laughter] If you keep doing this for another five, ten years, yes you have a nice nest egg saved up now, but if you keep doing this, you will be extraordinarily rich or not extraordinarily rich, you will be richer. You will be more successful; you will not need to worry. I think, yeah, but if I wait another five to ten years, I am going to be forty, I am going to be forty-five, I am never going to do it. There is a lot of inertia that keeps people from trying things, the longer you stay, the harder the cement dries around you, I think. I said, I got to go now, if I am going to go.
I quit I moved to New York to study screenwriting at NYU. Outside of that program, but part of that whole experience, I decided to take an acting class because I thought that would help my writing, to know how actors think. I took the class for a month and I enjoyed it. It was social, it was getting out of the house and writing was sitting in front of a blank computer screen. I kept taking the acting class and taking the acting class, and finally, the acting teacher said, hey, I am not going to teach you anymore unless you get headshots and start auditioning because you are not going to progress unless you take that next step.
I went and got head shots, which was my first exposure to professional photography since my senior pictures and started auditioning. I was lucky to start booking things, some TV, I did a lot of law-and-order SVU, like so many Ricard or New York artists, or actors do. I booked a fair number of commercials, Budweiser commercial and New York Life commercial and Olive Garden commercial heals, national network commercials are almost like hitting the lottery.
A lot of New York actors when you start booking those commercials, you also end up getting a Print Agent because if you are shooting a Citibank commercial, you might also just shoot the Citibank print ad. I ended up with a print agent and started shooting print ads and working with some amazing photographers, Solve Sundsbo, Walter Chin, Phil Paul Dano, Jake Chessum, just some amazing people.
I would hang out on the breaks, on those shoots with them and their assistants because going back to talking about my childhood, I loved the creative side of the English and writing, but I also love the science of, I wanted to be a doctor. I have always had the dichotomy of creative and technical and photography scratch both of those itches. I thought wow, this is cool.
Finally, after doing this for a few years, I bought a used DSLR, a Nikon D-50, and started shooting my model and actor friends, and teaching myself photography and lighting and they started using them. Then their agents started reaching out to me and said, hey, you shot Jeff's head shots or his model test, I have somebody else what do you charge?
Suddenly, I thought okay, I knew what the rate was because I was in that world, but suddenly I was acting and modeling and still doing the screenwriting, but screenwriting and it has somehow become secondary to the acting and, so I started shooting these people. It was not like a profession and it was a side gig or a hobby, but that was my entree to photography is from being in front of the camera and then being intrigued by it, and then moving behind the camera.
Kelvin Bulluck: That's quite a journey! That is some twisting, winding roads that led to photography.
Chris Sorensen: Yeah, this is technically my third career, I have had finance and then the acting and modeling and now photography. I did not buy my first camera until I was forty.
Kelvin Bulluck: Wow!
Chris Sorensen: For all those people out there, that think they got to know by twenty-two or I got to be successful by thirty, thirty-five. I was never on an under thirty-five lists because I has never even been into photography until I was forty, so, you can start later in life.
Exit Plan: From Corporate to Photography
Kelvin Bulluck: That is key that you said when you were working in finance, you made the decision to start saving, to set aside and basically have an exit plan. When you started saving was that just like general savings for, how we all save or how we should be saving, or was it specifically for, I am going to leave this profession so I can chase my dream of screenwriting. Was that the case?
Chris Sorensen: Yeah, it was. I am saving this because my plan is at a certain point to leave the nest, leave the security of this corporate career and go out on my own and pursue my dreams. That was always the driving factor.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is so interesting to me because, as creatives and people in general, it is hard to make decisions, like that. Those decisions where you have that clarity of knowing this is not going to get me where I want to go. That took a lot of courage for you to make that decision. Where did you even find that inner courage? Is that something that you have always had?
Chris Sorensen: Yeah. I do not know if it is courage or just…. I think part of it comes from just growing up poor, not the best situation. For me, like I said, I was the first person on either side of my family to go to college. When I went to college, I went to college in Texas, fifteen hours away, and I had scholarships to a college right, in my hometown that my high school girlfriend wanted me to go to, that she was going to, and my mom would have looked to me to go to, but I was like, no, I am getting out of here. I am going to see the world, I am going to make my own way, so that got me down to Texas.
Then, I started working in the corporate world and finance. The move from getting out of that was similar in motivation to be getting away from South Dakota, which is, I must, I do not know, there is always this, I got to pursue this dream. I cannot just sit still; I do not want to settle. I do not want to be fifty years old or at that time, I did not want to be fifty years old, and wondering what if? I went and it failed, at least I knew I tried, and I would not have regrets. I just always have not wanted to have regrets.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is that's strong words right there. I think that is a good way to live life. I think of course in life, there is probably going to be some regrets, but you want the joy and the knowing that you went after something to outweigh the regrets. It sounds like you live your life in that way.
Chris Sorensen: I would rather regret trying something then regret never trying something.
Taking the Next Step: Starting Fresh in Hong Kong
Kelvin Bulluck: Exactly! You made all those transitions and now here we find you have started getting some paid work while you are still doing the acting, and the screenwriting has taken a bit of a backseat. Now you are delving more and more into photography. What was the jumping off point from? I am shooting headshots, I am shooting my friends to, now you are taking the next step. What did that next step look like, and where did it take you?
Chris Sorensen: New Year’s Eve 2010, the friend who I moved to New York with…. I was initially going to go to LA to go to UCLA. This is how does weird things can sometimes happen to go to UCLA for their screen writing program, but about, a year before I was planning on making this move, I met a woman and we started dating. At the time I was going to make my move supposedly to LA, she was heading to New York to go to college.
It was her that got me switched to think, I have always loved going to New York for work, whether it is LA or New York, it does not really matter that much to me. At least this way, I am going with somebody I know somebody, and New York is such a marvelous place. That is how it was New York.
Then, we ended up dating for another three years, but ended up ending the relationship, but we always remained friends. I had moved with her in 2010 and we ended in 2004, or 2001, I moved to New York with her and then we ended it in 2004. In 2010, six years later, we are still friends, and she invites me to a friend of hers, New Year’s Eve party. I said, yes, I would love to go, I would much rather go to a loft party and apartment party than go to a bar on New Year’s Eve in New York.
I knock on the door and when the door opens, it is this lovely red head, and I meet my future wife at this party. We meet in New Year’s Eve; we start dating. About nine months later…. she is an HR executive and she used to work for Apple, and Apple wanted her to move to Hong Kong.
We had been dating only nine months, but we are both in our she is in her late thirties, and I am in my early forties. Things can be a little more expedited because you are old enough to know that who you are and what you want. She asked me, Yeah, I would love to go to Hong Kong, but I do not want to go to Hong Kong without you, would you be willing to go to Hong Kong? I thought, why not? Let us have an adventure.
She takes this assignment and we moved to Hong Kong, and when I moved to Hong Kong, I did a several things, I left behind screen writing completely, and I left behind acting and modeling because there was no business for me to be an actor and a model there. It also took away me shooting, what was primarily what my hobby or side gig in photography, head shots and model tests too, that was not something there. We moved, and I basically had nothing as a potential career other than photography, but not the photography I was doing. I thought this is a skill I have; how can I make it work here?
I started doing some personal projects. I contacted a friend of a friend who ran a NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and month two of us being there, I went and spent two weeks shooting for them. Then one of those that was one of the first awards I won was one of those images I shot, there was one with the grand prize for the PDN faces.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is the shot with the three children in the water, right?
Chris Sorensen: Yep, exactly! I shot that in Cambodia, that, that time, and suddenly I had an NGO portfolio, and I won some awards and got some, a little bit of recognition for that. I was doing some personal projects, portrait projects that were more editorial rather than fashiony. I had a little bit of work and I was.
This is the funniest thing, and coincidentally, I started, I figured if I am going to be there, I should take Cantonese to understand a little bit. I show up to, what is supposed to be a group Cantonese course with eight people in it, and. It is me and another lady across the way, waiting for the instructor to show up.
I introduced myself and she introduces herself and she goes, what do you do? I go, I am a photographer, and I go, what are you doing? She goes, I am a photo editor.
Kelvin Bulluck: Wow!
She was the photo editor for the Hong Kong Tatler, which is this kind of a combination of, a big glossy, Manhattan, or Got the Magazine, but for Hong Kong. We hit it off and we had this class, and I said, hey I, here is my work, and she looked at my work and like a few weeks later I got a call from her saying, hey, if you have a time, I have a potential assignment for you. That was like my first real editorial assignment, and I went and shot, and they loved the images. They hired me again and again.
Suddenly, I was a person in Hong Kong that people in the United States knew. Not that it is not amazing photographers in Hong Kong that lived there, but I had made enough contacts. One of the things I had done before I went prepping on myself as I had gone to portfolio reviews, even though I did not really have an editorial other than personal projects and things like that to show, I did not have a lot of magazine work or really any magazine work at that time. I had gone to these portfolio reviews, and said, here is some work, here is what I am capable of. I am moving to Hong Kong by the way. All these editors knew that I was a photographer who had good work but had not done a lot of stuff in the United States, but hey, I was going to be in Hong Kong.
As I started booking these, I would also be contacting these editors and sending promos and just email saying, I shot costume or something, Hong Kong punk on Tatler and here is the tear sheet then, I shot so-and-so for the Financial Times. Other magazines and newspapers started to hire me there as well, because I started doing work, that was on the editorial side.
The other thing is besides going and doing that personal project in Cambodia, which led to get into more NGO work, my wife and I, because Hong Kong are such an easy place and cheap place to travel from, once every month or two, we take a long weekend somewhere.
Kelvin Bulluck: Oh, wow.
Chris Sorensen: We would fly to Thailand or we would fly to Malaysia for three or four-day weekend, and I would shoot and I quickly built-up a bit of a travel portfolio. I was also sending editors saying, I shoot travel as well, and I started getting these little travel assignments.
One time I was going to be in Shanghai and Hemispheres contacted me and said, if you are going to be in Shanghai, we have a cover feature, and I got a cover feature for Hemispheres magazine.
Kelvin Bulluck: You had a snowball effect of things that were happening. You said quite a bit, but I want to go back and unpack just a little bit, because….
Chris Sorensen: Interrupt me at any time. [Laughter]
Kelvin Bulluck: I do not want to interrupt too much because I am like, I am loving the story that you are telling me here.
Going back, I am going to say a couple of quick things, one, I am seeing some recurring themes with you not afraid to get up and go and travel and uproot yourself to go to the places that you need to go. Even if in, in the case of you moving to Hong Kong, it was not like you needed to go, but because the woman that you love was going and you did not want to be away from her. You gave up acting, you gave up your photography, all like that. It is amazing to me. You do not call it courage, but I feel like it is that you are willing to uproot yourself and do what you feel needs to be done. I think that is contributing to the level of success that you are experiencing.
Personal Projects | Documentary Portraiture | Fulton Street
Something else that I wanted to point out because it was one of the first things. When I went to your website and started looking at the different tabs. Anytime a photographer has the tab, personal projects always love clicking on that because you can learn a lot about a photographer by the personal projects that they choose to undergo.
The first thing that you had listed on there, I believe was Fulton street. I click on it and immediately I was already excited because the way that you shot it had a very Avedon escae Richard Avedon esca type of feel to it with his, in the American West. I love that series that he shot of just interesting looking people on white, seamless, and natural light.
I am going to put a link in the show notes so everybody can see all your work, but that project, when I am looking at it and I am seeing, the level of detail and I am seeing the emotion that you captured, I think Chris, he is on one for real.
I started going and I see the NGO projects that you were doing. Then I started to think, so these are the personal projects that he likes undertaking, and then you even had some of the work with, I am going to misquote the title of it, but its mermaids, there were mermaids and then there were the pride parades.
I say, he has got an interesting interest in people who are on the fray, sometimes there are people who might be overlooked or not as well appreciated….
Chris Sorensen: Fringe, cultural elements, or social elements, I really enjoy documenting. I am a big fan, like personal projects, I like making work and I like creating things, so I think those two loves of kind of these quirky cultural groups and documentary portraits. It is not documentary work, like I am following them around, it is I am just at an event or at a place trying to make a record of the…. these are the people here who are participating in this, or these are the people here that live on Fulton street in this neighborhood. That kind of project really appeals to me.
Kelvin Bulluck: I believe from an interview that I saw or a talk that you were giving you were talking about with the Fulton Street Project, how this was right during gentrification in that neighborhood, and you wanted to capture the people who basically made the neighborhood before gentrification happened. You noticed people were migrating away from it because expenses go higher, and people get shifted and kicked out and you want it to capture that. I felt man, that is that is amazing!
It makes me wonder what it is about…. even like what you said with the fringe subcultures and these different groups of people, what is it about them that resonates with you? Why do you feel that you are drawn to that type of work?
Chris Sorensen: I love people. What draws me to photography what is initially portraiture and that is still my first love. Even though I shoot documentary and, or travel work, it is portraiture. That connection with the person getting to know them a little bit and hopefully capturing a portrait that reveals a little bit about them, there is just something special about that.
Going back to Fulton street, a lot of those shots, I have ten seconds with somebody. I would just tape a piece of seamless to a side of a building and just ask these people as they walk by, do you have five seconds for an art project?
As you mentioned, it was a neighborhood that was gentrifying. It was a predominantly, African American, a hugely predominantly African American neighborhood, and I was a white guy in that neighborhood that a lot of these people probably viewed as gentrified. Even though I was living in an artist's building with cheap rents, and I was just as neat, meeting of the cheap rents as them. I have always had the ability to quickly make a connection, and I love making that connection with people. If it is five seconds and I get two clicks, I am can usually hopefully get a decent image. If it is five minutes, I get to talk to them and hear a little of their story, even better. I love that as well.
Fulton street was the kind of the first project like that, the first personal project where I shot something for me, as opposed to what shooting, something that I thought others wanted to see. If there is one thing I should say, as if I had to give one piece of advice to people, find what you love to shoot and shoot that, and that shoot what you think other people want to see. I can say that Fulton street in doing that was the thing that kind of changed the trajectory of my career.
Yes, going to Hong Kong helped, when I was at that portfolio review, before I moved to Hong Kong and meeting with these editors, the thing that everybody loved was Fulton street. That is what got them to remember, this is the dude in Hong Kong, the Fulton street dude is in Hong Kong. Shoot what you love and shoot personal projects, because every time I have done it, it is turned out to, work for me.
I love those projects because, going back to your question, what is it about these cultures? When I shoot these, I try to make it look almost like studio, the Fulton street is like Avedon into American, Westminster's has obvious influence on it.
The mermaid project I am setting up seamless and taking out lights and you could almost think they are in the studio. I am making these people who maybe just have somebody, they are clicking for a newspaper or whatever feel like, they are special. I am trying for them; I am making a professional picture. I am making a studio portrait of these guys, even if we are on a street. That helps with the connection and the seriousness, and they realize I am taking it seriously and that I value them. they respond to that.
I love discovering things about people and I love that people have all these weird…… and not to say that people with going to the mermaid parade are weird, but they have all these diverse likes and hobbies and everything else.
I shot the Westminster dog show, I have shot the Brushwood drag festival, I have shot mermaid. I love going to these unique cultural groups and, or social, activities and sharing them with the world. I find them so fascinating and I hope other people do. I tried to shoot them in a way that other people are interested in seeing them and learning more about them.
Portfolio Reviews | Shoot the Work You Want to Get
Kelvin Bulluck: Mission accomplished there because I could not stop scrolling when I started going through all those personal projects.
Something else that I wanted to ask you about. You said that before you went to Hong Kong you brought up the fact that you went to the portfolio reviews. How did you even know that was the thing to do?
I know there is a lot of newer photographers that might be listening that do not understand the importance of portfolio reviews. How did you even know that was something that you should do?
Chris Sorensen: I was a little bit lucky and having been in front of the camera, so I had met a lot of assistants and a lot of working photographers being on the job as a model in front of the camera. I also knew that me as a headshot photographer was never going to get in front of those editors. I was never going to be able to just get a call from whatever magazine. I knew I had to make a proactive effort to meet them.
I started shooting, The Fulton street project and some other personal projects, just to basically spiel to have work that I wanted, that I was able to show that matched the work I wanted to get. Yeah, you got to shoot what you want to be shooting.
People will not hire you unless they know you can. It can be similar, it does not have to be exact, but you got to if you want to be shooting editorial work, go out and shoot editorially. I had been shooting headshots and model tests, but I did not want to shoot fashion. I did not want to shoot headshots, so I have made a conscious decision that I am going to get away from that and start doing these other things, because that is what I wanted to do.
I asked the photographers and the assistants that I knew from working on those jobs in front of the camera. Hey, if I want to do this, how would I meet somebody? They are like if you are building the portfolio, then you probably, the best thing is to go to these portfolio reviews. That is what turned me on to it. I have been a big believer, in portfolio reviews ever since, simply because it allows you the opportunity to not only get feedback on your work but get your in front of somebody who could potentially hire you, and it has been lucky, I have been lucky that it is led to work for me.
Kelvin Bulluck: It sounds like you also do a particularly good job of staying in contact with the editors and the other people that you meet along the way. Something else that you have said, and that I have come across in my research of you is, you like to send out the promos and you will reach out to a photo editor and you will say, I was working in the Westminster dog show and I got some images that you might like.
You said, you were able to set yourself up for those type of conversations and emails through the meeting of the people, but then also understanding what it is that they as public publications would need. I think that you are doing a lot of things, little, small thing that you are doing are really having major impacts down the line for you.
I am a big fan of that type of work ethic. Anybody who is listening to this trying to figure out how do I even get to these publications so they can start working and then eventually getting into the celebrity photography and all that other stuff that you find yourself doing from time to time. It is, you got to do these small things upfront, early on, and of course, it starts with the work, but then there is the strategy behind getting that work in front of the right people. You do a particularly good job of doing that.
Chris Sorensen: Yeah, and that is one thing I think, like I said, this is like my third career and, having done that time in the corporate world, obviously helped me grow up, but it was all money to give me the chance to go pursue the arts later.
It also gave me a skillset that has been unbelievably valuable because I think, there is a lot of photographers who are amazing artists, but maybe not so good on the business side. Not that I am perfect on the business side, but I think I do understand the things I need to do as a businessperson as a photographer to make myself successful.
The portfolio reviews, shooting personal projects, reaching out to people like you said, pitching people, knowing I have met with the person from Instyle, or I met with that person from New York magazine and this mermaid or this Bush wig Drag festival, those are the kinds of things they might like.
I will go shoot it, make sure I have something good in, then I have something to show them and then I can say, I shot this yesterday. There is another day of this tomorrow. Or you are interested in picking this up and I have been lucky that those types of pitches have worked for me.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is awesome. I want it to just take a second to ask you about your own aesthetic for your imagery. What I love about your work is, certain people say, all right, you need to have a style of shooting and you need to like stick to that style. So, people know that it is you.
On one end, I get why they would say that, but there is room to switch it up and still have your own point of view. I think that you do a particularly good job of doing that, executing in a way that, you shoot. You have your own style of shooting, but when I am looking at your work, I can see different styles that still tie into the Chris Sorenson point of view.
My question is what influenced your style? When you started seeing that I need to shoot editorial, I need to shoot some other things other than what I have been doing, who were some of the influences that you found yourself looking up to?
Chris Sorensen: I am self-taught I never assisted, I did not go to photography school or obviously, as I mentioned earlier, so my training and my learning was onset in front of the camera, watching them photographers I was working with.
Then it was just the beauty of the internet and the beauty of digital, which is you can shoot on limited for, once you buy the camera and the memory card, the rest is free, so to speak. The immediate feedback on the back of the card or on the back of the camera, that is the, okay, this is working, this is not working.
I absorbed a ton and looked at a ton of photography online as far as like lighting it is Strobist. I follow him on Twitter now, and he follows me back and we talk, and it is amazing to me that ten years ago it was a learning from, and now we are like, Twitter friends. He is probably the biggest influence on technically learning, just the basics of lighting.
I bought a ton of photography, photo books now, not like technical books, but Annie Liebowitz book, Mark Seliger book, all these different books and look through, you look through the web and, once Instagram came on, you would be looking through Instagram and some people say, I do not like to look at other images I do not want to be influenced. I am like, I love looking at other images, that is how I learned. That is what motivates me, and that is what inspires me. Even today, I will see like an image with a certain lighting or a certain hairstyle or wardrobe and it will trigger something else and I will add it to my list.
It is hard for me, I like more Accelerator, not that he is the photographer that I was an inspiration, but one thing I think that he and I have in common that to put myself at that level or anything, but just as far as style is that he does not have a single style.
You look at Dan Winters, who I love, an amazing photographer, but all this stuff has a certain look and there is a lot of photographers like that. As you said, people tell you when I was first starting photography and trying to get out of the headshot and going into editorial, people said, you cannot shoot travel, you cannot shoot documentary, you got to shoot just portraiture. You must have a single style.
People, they tell you that. I think that is how you must have such a specific niche to be at work, but that it never appealed to me, because I do not like just doing the same thing repeatedly.
I want to create a cool image of an interesting portrait when I am on assignment, but I do not want it to be, that is Chris Sorenson style, he always shoots it like that. I want to go and show up at this place, I have never been to this person I have never met and look around and figure out, this is an interesting backdrop. If I do this with the lighting and he has got this certain look or he is wearing this outfit, we can make something cool here. I do not want to feel like I must do it this way. I have done it every other time before.
Mark Seliger, a lot of his work is all over the place like that, and so I, for whatever reason, ignored that advice and just said, I am going to shoot the way I like to shoot. I am going to shoot the things I like to shoot. Some of it is travel, some of it is documentary. I have been lucky that I have been blessed to get jobs in all those genres and be somewhat successful with it.
I am happy with a bit going back to what you were just saying. Another piece of advice, I would give is do not always listen to people. When they say you got to do this, you got to specialize, you have got to do just one style, be yourself. If yourself is shooting a bunch of different ways do it, because ultimately you must be happy. I was not going to be happy shooting headshots the rest of my life.
You are basically shooting the same thing, the same style or even modeled test. It is all, gets a little samey, so that is, I knew I did not want to do that. Once I moved to editorial be in the same predicament, which is shooting the same thing all the time, so, I do try to mix it up.
Kelvin Bulluck: I love hearing the differing views on, how to go about doing your art because at the end of the day, it is an individual making the decision. As individuals, we are going to be different, that things are going to happen. Some things are going to work for certain people and other things would not. There will be people who are here who will hear this and think, I want to do it all. Maybe there is somebody it is I do not want to do it all, I do want to focus on that one thing. As you said, listen to your own voice and then act accordingly.
Something else that I wanted to touch on because you talked about Strobist and that as when I first I am self-taught as well, so I first started attending YouTube university as I like to call it. I came across like a Strobist video or I came across the Strobist blog, and I was like, off-camera flashes exactly the look that, I knew that the work that I was shooting did not give me the aesthetic that I wanted, but I did not know what they were doing until I came across Strobist. I thought, oh my God, this is the look that I have been wanting to do. Then I went to Amazon and bought some cheap, speed lights and got some modifiers, and I worked it out, man.
One thing that I wanted to say about your lighting, and this ties back into your style in your point of view is it is clear to me that when I look through your portfolio, you are not a one trick pony, when it comes to lighting you like to flex on it sometimes. You can see, he brought out the big guns for this situation. Then there are certain situations where it is like, that is one light, and he put it where it needed to go, and it was solid.
You can tell from your body of work that you understand lighting and you know how to use the tools in a way that will communicate the story that you are wanting to communicate in the images. That ties back into what you were saying, about liking the artistic side, but then the technical, because you clearly have a grasp on the technical.
Chris Sorensen: Thank you. Yeah, that is exactly it. It tickles both sides of my brain, that what allows me to be creative and create art, so to speak is this technical and techie part of this and understanding that, for whatever reason, given my background and just having an aptitude for that lighting just made sense to me.
I try to explain things to my wife, or we are doing some things and it is, not necessarily as organic for her to understand fall off and things like that, but it makes sense to me. Through the course of teaching myself, a lot of times, these personal projects are as much to expand my skillset, as anything I do on a personal project is things that I can later bring to bear on an assignment.
Personal projects are emotionally and creatively rewarding, they are also technically rewarding, and professionally rewarding. They give you something to pitch to other people and, or to use as a promo, but also, they give you skills that you might not otherwise have had.
Wife During Quarantine
Kelvin Bulluck: That is great. I have got a couple of more things and then I will let you go; our time is almost up. Because you brought up your wife just a moment ago, I absolutely love the series that you have been doing life during quarantine. Oh my God, man. First, again, it shows your range of abilities when it comes to creating an image and then I am like, wait a minute, who is styling these shoots? Even with the are there so many of them, like you have done it. There was one where it was like a paper cutout of your wife in front of a white picket fence on green, then there is the other one with what is the show on Hulu Handmaid's Tale, and you do all, and again, I am going to link these so everybody can see what I am talking about.
They all just come to cut together so beautifully, and of course the magic is in the beauty of your wife. She is pulling off, all these things. You guys are like the perfect pair when it comes to, that whole creative you have got your skillset. I was going to ask you did she model before, or are you just straight coaching her on what to do? I am just impressed with every one of those images.
Chris Sorensen: Thank you so much. This has been just a tremendous project as personally and creatively. For the beginning of quarantine of the pandemic, I had lost all my assignments and had nothing to do. We were living in New York, which is the epicenter of that time of the pandemic and, it was just shut down, and there was such sickness and death and fear and uncertainty.
For the first month and a half a quarantine, I basically sat on the couch and read and watched bad news, I just was not motivated to shoot.
One day my wife obviously was still working, and she was on these zoom calls and, she was wearing this silk shirt, green silk shirt, and I noticed, oh my gosh, we have those peacock feathers that she had decorated with. Oh my God, I have this greenish backdrop, there is an image there. I said, do you have ten minutes? She did her hair in a medieval this way and did the backdrop and wow. It felt good to create again, it felt good to not, think about the pandemic, but also to be creating.
A couple of days later, I had another idea and we shot that, and then another. One of the things that it had depressed me, as I mentioned earlier, I love the interaction of portraiture. I love going someplace and meeting someone fascinating and making a portrait of them and that was gone, and I did not know what it was going to be back, and that really bummed me out.
Then suddenly, I realized, yes, I cannot meet other people, I cannot be shooting different characters, but I can make different characters with my wife. That kind of became the motivation is we are going to create all these different versions of my wife.
As far as like Houston and it we are doing it and every project it has been just her and I and something in the house or something we have ordered on Amazon or from BNH, for the seamless stuff.
The thing that has made the project successful is my wife. If you look through it, having been a photographer and having been in front of the camera before, then there looks both makeup and hair wise that you need a professional hair stylist or a professional makeup artist, and my wife has neither. She is never modeled; she hates having her picture taken. She is an HR executive, but she is, not that I did not know she was great with hair and makeup before, but I did not know she was this great with hair and makeup.
She has been able to pull off these amazing hair and makeup looks that have made many of the projects or many of the images possible, and she also helps with styling for clothes and jewelry.
She has also been particularly good. She is much handier with me, it is like the kind of white picket fence, seamless, kind of paper, doll look, she is the one who cut out everything because I am terrible at that. She is very handy and creative and artistic, so she can do those kinds of things. If I am thinking this kind of hair, what do you think? Can you pull it off or this kind of makeup and I am taking this for wardrobe, but what do you think? It is kind of at that point, and we hash it out together and, realize it together and, we made our forty-seventh images yesterday and I posted it on Instagram today. In the last ten months, I guess we have made forty-seven images, so about one a week, one and a half a week. It has been an amazing experience.
Going back to saying there is a wide range of lighting and whatever, I basically use this project as a learning experience. When you are on an assignment, you cannot always think, I am going to try this new, crazy lighting thing. You get maybe a five minutes or ten minutes with the person and you got to come back with three looks for the client. You cannot necessarily chance spending half of that time on one crazy thing that you are not sure are going to pull off.
A lot of this has been like, this is something that interests me, or this lighting is cool, or let us see if I can try something new and build my skillset, working with my wife. Then that is something that I can, like I said, I can later bring to my clients and to my professional work. Not that this is not professional work, but the editorial work.
Kelvin Bulluck: You two are like a, it is a match made in heaven when it comes to that. I just feel like everything always comes together on those, and I think it is amazing that she is doing all the work that she is for it to all come together. The couple that creates together stays together, so keep creating.
Chris Sorensen: It has been an incredibly positive thing, to get us through the pandemic and just made our relationship stronger.
Kelvin Bulluck: Last thing that I wanted to bring up is something that this year I decided to start making more of a priority because in years past I have just always found myself too busy to even think about it. The whole idea of photography contest and submitting to these different opportunities to show your work in front of some people who could eventually get you work. Can you talk a little bit about how entering these contests have impacted your career?
Chris Sorensen: I think they are valuable, but I think because they are valuable, that in some ways they have become too common. There are certain competitions that are the name brands that are well-known that have been there forever, and I think those add value.
I think there has been a lot of pop-up competitions that people see there is a lot of people out there who want their work seed who want an opportunity, but I do not want to say they are desperate, they do not have, they do not have exposure to editors, and so at competition that has a few editors of magazines or outlets, they have heard of, that is good.
There is also I do not want to say fly by night, but there is a lot of competitions that are new that really do not necessarily provide bang for the buck. I try to avoid those kinds of things, and I always ask people, how much are you paying? Who is the judge? How long has that competition been around to determine if it is worthwhile? I think competitions are very worthwhile, you need to be particular in which ones you enter.
For me, the main ones that I always enter are American Photography, Communication Arts, Photo Annual, and then the PDN contest. PDN recently went bankrupt, but then now it is like just the foot instead of the PDM photo annual, it is just the photo annual, but those are the three that I always enter.
There is also like lens culture, which is a website and photo community that has things that I have entered the past. There is the Sony awards, but there are several the big awards, and I think those are the ones, the IPA international photography boards. Those are another one that are good. There is a lot of them there. If you have never heard of before, I am not sure that they add value, but I do think the big ones where there are big name editors who are judging, and then if you do happen to win an award or give an honorable mention or get recognition from them, it makes sense to then send an email to an editor. They are going to know that American photography or IPA or the Sony awards or Lens Culture.
If it is Joe blows black and white competition, that is not necessarily going to give you much credibility necessarily with someone you send it to. That is why I think sticking to the ones where it is more a strategic use of your time and money rather than just. Submitting to all of them. I have been lucky to have won awards for various competitions.
It is great in the fact that it basically gives you a calling card. I do not necessarily know if it leads immediately to work, but there are obviously the judges who are judging these who are people who can give you work, but it is things you can put in a promo email to editors. It is things you can put on your website. When you go to a portfolio review, you can say you know this image while you are looking through your portfolio, it is just selected for, Communication Arts Photo Annual, or American photography.
It starts to establish you as somebody who is a working professional, successful professionals, somebody worth them taking the time to view your work and potentially assign.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is good stuff, because I was self-taught, I did not do that early on, so I was not aware of some of the smaller tactics and strategies that I could use to not only grow as a photographer, but also get exposure in a way that matters.
There is of course, people who will want to try to sell you on the idea of, it is for exposure, but if you are not being exposed to the right people, or if the right people aren't being exposed to your work, then you know what are you doing it for? It has got to be beneficial to you in some shape, form, or fashion if it is going to be for exposure.
For anybody that is listening, that is some key information that I hope that you take away from this podcast or from this episode, because you never know what could happen. Like you say it, it does not guarantee anything. If it can crack a door open at the very minimum, but what you do with that crack is up to you because again, you have done some very strategic things with the contacts that you have made. It seems like you really are intentional, about nurturing those contacts in a way that ends up being beneficial for everyone, not just you, but for them, because at the end of the day, we do have to be, providing value and providing content that people want. Your career thus far has been a great example of that.
I love the fact that you did not pick up a camera until you were forty, because it is like nobody has an excuse to like, not be doing the thing that they love doing and your story and your journey is a perfect example of that.
I just hope that you continue doing what you are doing, and I am going to be right there on Instagram, following along, and seeing what you guys do next. Man, congratulations, and much more success to you.
Chris Sorensen: Thank you. It was great being on. I appreciate your comments and time, and I love your work as well. I am looking forward to seeing what you do as well.
Show Outro | Inspirational Remarks and How to Stay Connected
Kelvin Bulluck: That is our show with Chris and man, what a winding journey that he has had to make it to where he is today. Really picking up the camera at the age of forty and really digging in deep and make it things happen. It is just proof to show that, we can make anything happen and time and age is not an excuse.
Whether you are out there and you are a fifteen-year-old that is listening, or you are a fifty-year-old, that is listening, there are things that you can be doing to progress your own career in this industry.
Something else that we did not bring up during the conversation that I thought was interesting is, while Chris was working his magic in front of the camera as a model, an actor, our very first guest Kareem Black photographed him for a campaign. I thought that was interesting too, to come across that information after the fact.
Something else that I found to be interesting is the connection with Hong Kong. For everybody that listened to the Carmen Chan episode we know that she ended up moving to Hong Kong and basically made a name for herself there before moving back to the States. Chris basically did the same thing.
There might be something too packing your bags and hitting the Hong Kong, if you are a photographer looking for your big break.
That is the show as always. I appreciate you for listening. I appreciate you for sharing it with your other photographer friends.
Please continue to like to subscribe, comment, follow us on Instagram at What Makes You Click podcast or on Facebook at What Makes You Click, I just appreciate you guys for listening. We will see you on the next episode.
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