Garrison Durand: This is Garrison Durand with Clickible.com, and we have a really great guest here today who runs a very stylish blog called Urbanfieldnotes. We have Brent Luvaas, and I want to welcome him. Welcome.
Brent Luvaas: Thanks for having me, Garrison.
Garrison Durand: How are you doing today?
Brent Luvaas: I am doing great. Getting some work done, doing some writing, some photo editing, my usual routine.
Garrison Durand: You have a unique background compared to a lot of people that get into street style, so I wanted to know a little about your background. Could you tell me a little bit more about yourself?
Brent Luvaas: Sure, well I have a PHD in cultural anthropology from UCLA, and I am an associate professor of Anthropology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, so I come at street style from something of an anthropological perspective. I am interested in style, how people articulate it through their clothing. The kind of messages that people communicate about who they are, or groups they are part of, and I am also interested in the way that other photographers, and bloggers have sought to document style on the streets of their respective home cities, so I have been working on a book for the last couple of years. It is going to be called Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging, and it is coming out from Bloomsbury Publishers in April 2016 of this coming year, which is on this subject.
Garrison Durand: I noticed while doing a little bit of research your first book, and then realized that you were coming out with a second book on street style. Talking about street style, I like to find out people’s origin story. How did you get started, and what motivated you to start?
Brent Luvaas: Well, I had been doing research on fashion bloggers primarily in Indonesia, and I came across a number of other people’s street style websites. Facehunter, The Sartorialist, the basics, and was intrigued by what I saw, and saw a real commonality between what they did documenting style. People’s sartorial idiosyncracies, all of that kind of stuff, and what I do as a cultural anthropologist, and so I started Urbanfieldnotes really as a way of researching what it is like be a street style blogger. What it is like to go out there, and find cool looking people, and talk with them. Get a real sense how this is having an impact of the fashion industry, and I have been doing it for 3 years now.
Garrison Durand: Because you are approaching it from more of an academic perspective, what have you learned from your experience?
Brent Luvaas: Well, I think one of the primary things that I have learned is that it is quite difficult to think that you know something meaningful about somebody by how they are dressed. There was a time where I think people were much more alternative in what they wore, right? If you wore a certain type of brand, or you dressed all in black it meant something very specific about who you were. What kind of music you listened to. What kind of occupation you had, and you can still detect some of that. You can still make some educated guesses about what people are like from how they are dressed, but it is much more difficult than what it used to be, so I think that one of the things that I have learned is that people tend to defy our expectations of who they are, and the way that they present themselves tells a much more complicated story than we want to think.
Garrison Durand: I think that it is interesting that you come at it from that perspective because I read some articles about other interviews with you, and you talk about how you used to be able to look at people and tell what kind of music they like.
Brent Luvaas: Right.
Garrison Durand: And how now you really can’t tell so much about what their style indicates as far as things they like in their life. That was an interesting take.
Brent Luvaas: Yeah, well there are still some kinds of musical styles that lend themselves to easy reading by someone’s style. You know that if someone has long hair, and is wearing a Metallica t-shirt they’re probably would be into stuff like Metallica. None the less, most people that I stop have a much more complicated code of stylistic sensibilities than that, and they’re sending all sorts of mixed messages about who they are all of the time, and it is anyone’s guess what those people are listening to.
Garrison Durand: Ok
Brent Luvaas: Usually, it is pretty eclectic just like the way they dress.
Garrison Durand: How much of a conversation do you have with the people that you shoot? Is it a quick process, or do you–. I mean because when you stop people on the street they might be going somewhere, so do you actually get a chance to really talk to them to unravel what lies beneath the outfit?
Brent Luvaas: It really depends on the person, and whether they have to be somewhere right away. Some people I stop are in a hurry, and I have just a few seconds to snap off a couple shots, and just let them go. Other people I will I have a half an hour conversation with them about what they are wearing, or what they were thinking about in terms of style. What their inspirations are for fashion, so it really varies tremendously. I always start with the same basic questions. What are you wearing? How would you describe your style? What music are you listening to, and then I will let them take the lead. If they give some interesting tidbits I want to follow, I will go where they lead me.
Garrison Durand: What is your process for selecting people to shoot?
Brent Luvaas: I’ve been wondering about that myself for a very long time, and I talk to other photographers about this a lot, and I think it really boils down to something simple. Do they catch my eye? Is there something about them that makes them standout from the crowd? It can mean different things depending on the person, but I want to make sure that they have some kind of quality that is going to translate really effectively into the digital medium. They have to make a good photograph, but they also have to have something about them that is much more difficult to describe. They have something that can only really be captured visually, and that is what I look for. There are people that just jump out at you, and grab my attention for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.
Garrison Durand: I went out and did some shooting myself to see what the process was like, and I ran into a guy that does candids. How do you feel about candid street style photography? It seems like that is a big thing now.
Brent Luvaas: Yeah, especially because of the off runway photography that characterizes most street style photography these days, so most street style photographers that are out shooting fashion weeks for instance, usually in motion photography with people walking towards them a lot of the time. Sometimes it is natural and genuinely candid, and sometimes it’s a little bit canned, and staged. Right? But it at least has the appearance of being candid. One thing that I will say is that I like that aesthetic. I think that it makes for some very compelling images. I think, however, that it is also limits the amount you can learn from that person that you are taking the picture of. The picture is meant to speak exclusively for itself in those types of instances. I would rather have the picture that is produced be a more collaborative effort, so I stop people, I let them present themselves the way they want to be presented. I like that aspect. I like the social part of doing it, and when I am at fashion week I do candids too. I enjoy doing it, but it is just a different genre.
Garrison Durand: How much time do you put into it because I know you have talked about your background, and you have responsibilities outside of just doing a street style blog. How much time do you put into shooting?
Brent Luvaas: In a typical week I spend maybe 4 hours out on the streets just really walking around. It really depends on what else I have going on. I am teaching, I am writing, and producing articles. I also edit a journal, so all of this takes a lot of time. There are some weeks where I can’t make it out, and that is when it is really useful to do something like go to New York Fashion Week, and stockpile hundreds of those images, and have those on hand when you are not actually able to get out. To get pictures that I really like, it usually takes me a good couple of hours, and sometimes I will just shoot one person in that time. Sometimes I will shoot 3 or 4 people in that time. Sometimes I won’t find anybody. It takes a lot of patience, and most of the street style photographers I know that have been shooting for a long time eventually get frustrated with just combing the streets looking for pictures and decide, you know what, it would be way easier to hit up a fashion week, or some kind of runway event where I can just get people exiting the shows, and it is like fishing in a stocked lake. You know? It is way easier than when you are just out in the wild doing it.
Garrison Durand: I think that from looking at your images versus candids, when you actually stop and talk to the person it’s much more personal, and I think that gets reflected in the image. I think when you look at the candid shots you just don’t get that feel like you have gotten a glimpse into who that person is.
Brent Luvaas. I think that is right. Candid shots are more about gesture. They are more about style as a purely digital expression. You can capture someone looking super awesome walking with their cellphone, or smoking a cigarette, or if they so happen to be leaning against a wall, and those kinds of shots say something valuable for sure, but it is takes a different kind of eye I think to pose someone for an actual portrait, and it takes a different type of discipline I think to do it. I like doing both, but when given the option I’d rather take my time to setup a shots and really interact with people.
Garrison Durand: I like to find out more about the business side of blogging. Do you track your traffic for your website? How much traffic do you get on a monthly basis?
Brent Luvaas: It is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000 page views a month. It fluctuates a lot . It is very seasonal. A lot of times like in the middle of winter, for instance, it will drop quite a bit. Partly because it is harder to post during the winter, but partly because I think people are busy with other kinds of things.
Garrison Durand: Do you actively promote your site, or how do you approach that?
Brent Luvaas: I have gone through moments where I have more actively promoted it than others. I use the standard sort of collection of social media sites people use. I am on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, but I haven’t been actively promoting it in ways other than those sorts of things. Sometimes I do collaborative work with other bloggers. I haven’t invested a huge amount of time promoting it, and I think that is primarily because I see myself primarily as an anthropologist. I don’t necessarily know that the payoff is great enough for me to put in the time, and energy into building myself into a well-known blogger.
Garrison Durand: When I was looking at other street style bloggers, it was surprising to me the level of notoriety that they get from doing it. How has that been for you? What exciting things have you gotten out of it like perks from actually showing your work, and putting your work out there?
Brent Luvaas: A lot of it is simply getting really positive feedback from people about the images,but I’ve had opportunities ranging from collaboration I did with Century 21 department stores when they opened their Philadelphia branch. I’ve worked with Gooorin Brother Hats, Uniqlo, American Apparel, companies like that. I get invites to fashion events, runway shows, various kinds of parties where I get VIP status, and sometimes I will go, and they will be fun. They will be interesting, good networking events, and other times I don’t really know what I get out of that, but it is fun, and it is nice to be recognized.
Garrison Durand: You seem very non pulsed by all of this stuff that goes on with having a street style blog.
Brent Luvaas: I have a lot of things going on is what I would have to say to that. I am an anthropologist, and see myself as an anthropologist first, and foremost in terms of my work. If people appreciate it, that is awesome, but in terms of putting a lot of time, or investing enormous amounts of time and energy in promoting myself that is not so much my style. I appreciate people that do it as an art, and other people who get themselves out there really effectively. A lot of the guys I know who shoot at New York fashion week, for instance, some of them have cultivated such a strong image both in their images they produce, and in their own personal style that they have made themselves into the very people that they shoot. In fact, they get shot for street style blogs all of the time. I don’t see myself going that route. I admire it. More power to them for doing it, but I also have to balance what I do with the blog with my professional commitments to my discipline.
Garrison Durand: Based on some of your answers, you are not trying to monetize your site like some of the other street style bloggers?
Brent Luvaas: I am not.
Garrison Durand: Because you are doing it as research where do you see you journey going? Are you going to keep doing it once your book is done, or have you become addicted to it, or how do you feel about the whole process now?
Brent Luvaas: This is something I have been working through for the last few months. I haven’t decided for sure if I am continuing the blog indefinitely, or is it going to end after the book comes out. I think it is an important back story for the book, and they speak to each other. I feel like I am getting better with my photography, so I’ve gotten a little bit addicted to that process of going out and finding people. Getting feedback from people about it. I think that I will do the blog so long as I feel like it is a useful exercise for me. If I am getting good material, and I feel like it is pushing forward the work I am doing as an anthropologist about style then I will keep doing it. That is where I have to leave it at.
Garrison Durand: As far as your fulfillment, how does the fashion week experience versus the people you pick out yourself compare as far as when you post the pictures, and the level of fulfillment from the different types of subjects?
Brent Luvaas: There are images that I get photographing high-profile fashion figures at New York fashion week, and those kinds of images get a lot of page views. I get a lot of feedback just based on who they are. I find it more personally rewarding to discover someone who no one else is actually shooting already. I like to find people that are not part of the fashion conversation already, and try to inject them into that conversation, and when, every once in a while, I will find someone who is just a fascinating person, they are really cool. No one has photographed them before, and those kinds of images will get a lot of feedback, a lot of response, and that is preferable to me, but I also don’t mind somebody who is already well established in the fashion world. So long as they appeal to me in their style. I don’t shoot people at fashion week anymore that I would not shoot on the street of Philadelphia. I don’t shoot people just because they are style icons.
Garrison Durand: I like that you have the freedom to do it your own way, and you are not pushed by the pressure. Looking at some of the street style blogs, and reading some of the interviews, it seems like there is a lot of pressure to shoot fashion week because that is kind of expected. What I like about street style is that it is not fashion week, but I think there is a lot of pressure to shoot fashion week because that is what a lot of people want to see.
Brent Luvaas: Yeah, I think that is right, and I think that we have seen a split between the people who are more committed to a day-to-day street style kind of blog in the old school sense. Some people who I have been in contact with for the last couple of years because of the project like Liisa Jokinen that does Hel Looks, and now she does SF Looks in San Francisco. She’s been doing the same type of quirky cool people on the streets of Helsinki and San Francisco images for years now, since 2005, and she is not changing that. She still doesn’t shoot fashion week. It’s just about these people that are off the beaten track for her. It is about real people. Streetgeist in LA is a similar kind of thing. Those people are still out there, and they are pretty popular, but it has become a different genre to the kind of off runway style stuff that gets labeled as street style by the more mainstream fashion press.
Garrison Durand: I read somewhere that you said it takes about 300 people to find one person to shoot.
Brent Luvaas: Right. It is true. It takes me going through a lot of people before I find someone who really stands out to me. One of the things I’ve learned from shooting is that most people are not thinking about the clothes they wear in any kind of meaningful way. Right? People want to fit in. They want to look appropriate. They want to go on with their lives, and not have to be concerned with their style all of the time. So finding those rare individuals that have really invested something meaningful into the way that they present themselves to others takes some time, and yeah it usually takes standing at a street corner watching a few hundred people stream past before that person pops out.
Garrison Durand: There was a conversation you were having with someone about trying to make a decision to shoot someone or not, and sometimes they are past you and down the block before you–. I don’t know if you said it, or the person you were talking to, but the person is down the block before you can make up your mind. I experienced the same thing like I am not sure.
Brent Luvaas: There are some people where you can tell from hundreds of feet away that you want to shoot them. They just have something about them that–. The way they walk, the way they cut through the air, you know that they are a person you want to photograph, but there are other people where it just takes awhile for you to get a real sense. Like you have to let them approach. You have to kind of–. I hate to use mystical terms about it, but you have to see their aura, right? You have to figure out who they really are, and what I would say about it is that if you have to think about it too long, you shouldn’t take their picture.
Garrison Durand: Ok
Brent Luvaas: Right? It has to feel pretty instinctive, and if that doesn’t check in with you, if that doesn’t click on, then you probably shouldn’t take their picture. It is not going to turn out.
Garrison Durand: Do you have regret shots? You’ve told the person you are going to post the picture, and you look at the picture, and you are like, ‘not really.’
Brent Luvaas: Yeah, I think everyone has done that, and that is the reason this whole if your instinct isn’t telling you to take their picture you shouldn’t rule is really important to follow. It doesn’t happen all that often for me anymore, but once I sort of cultivated a style radar, and got a real sense of who was going to work for an image, then it would be pretty immediate to know whether or not, but especially when I started every once in a while every 1 out of 20 people I would think, ‘uh, I am not going to do them any favors by posting this picture.’ It is not their fault, right? It just wasn’t clicking at that particular moment, and I didn’t represent them to the best of my ability, or whatever it happens to be. Those are the post that I won’t post. If I just think that they won’t be happy with this, I am not going to post it.
Garrison Durand: What kinds of clients have you worked with as a result of having your fashion blog?
Brent Luvaas: As a result of the fashion blog I’ve been contacted by various online magazine to shoot, so I’ve had some experience shooting for professional clients like Refinery29, Racked Philadelphia, and New York, and it’s been an experience. It is fun. I shot in a mall for a Refinery29 campaign because they were doing a pop up shop. It is a much higher adrenaline fix because you just have to produce. You can’t not shoot people, but it also feels very much like trying to predict the taste of your client, and it’s much more limiting in terms of that it does not reflect your own sensibilities, right? I try to keep as much of myself as possible. I think that usually works, and it looks like the kinds of shots I would usually take, but, none the less, it is really hard to keep that old nagging voice out of your head, ‘is that the kind of shot they would want?’ I wanted to explore that, and see what professional photographers were doing.
Garrison Durand: I shot fashion professionally in the past and I felt schizophrenic. I shot for a modeling agency for a number of years and I knew what they wanted. It was like I wish I could go in this direction, but no I can’t I have to stay here.
Brent Luvaas: Yep. It is true. It is interesting to look at a lot of the street style bloggers images as they start to sell some of them, and they begin to transform pretty radically. I think they try as hard as they can to stick to their own aesthetic, to what got them those gigs in the first place, and yet I think that once you are aware that there is a particular audience looking at your work, it is impossible not to influence the work that you produce.
Garrison Durand: Are you a gear head? Do you care what you shoot with?
Brent Luvaas: I care about what I shoot with, yes.
Garrison Durand: Really? Ok. What do you shoot with?
Brent Luvaas: I shoot mainly with a Nikon D700 with an 85mm 1.4 D lens. I also occasionally shoot with a 50mm 1.8 D lens. Those are my main tools. I also just recently started shooting with an old F4 with Kodak Tri-X film, so stay tuned for those images. I am trying to produce some old school black and white street style stuff.
Garrison Durand: Wow, sounds good. Let’s talk about your book a little bit. When is it coming out?
Brent Luvaas: April
Garrison Durand: April 2016?
Brent Luvaas: Yes
Garrison Durand: I have finished up all of the questions I want to ask, I just wanted to see if there was anything else you wanted to discuss about your journey?
Brent Luvaas: Nothing is occurring to me right now. Street style still has a lot of life, and I am excited to see that a lot more people are beginning to go back to that old school straight up street style shot instead of it just being about the fashion week kind of stuff. I am seeing a lot more people go out, and take old school kinds of shots. I am really happy to see that happening.
Garrison Durand: Well thank you Brent for taking the time to do the interview.