PHOTOGRAPHER TREVOR CHRISTENSEN
Trevor Christensen is a portrait photographer. I meet him on a hot day at his studio, an old building of weathered wood and exposed beams that now houses a coffee shop, galleries, and various art spaces. He wears a rumpled t-shirt with jeans. All in all he seems entirely unconcerned that he’ll be sitting for portraits. This is refreshing since most people get super fussy the moment I arrive.
Trevor has the kind of blue eyes that appear photoshopped even in person. There’s a sort of reserved intensity about him. He’s laid back but engaged, always making you feel that you have all of his attention. In conversation he often interjects with “yeah, yeah” or “totally,” stretching vowels like a surfer, assuring you he’s listening. He projects a sincere curiosity that I like in people.
BRACKET: We all get cameras growing up, but at what point did you consciously say to yourself, I'm gonna make a go of this. I'm gonna be a photographer.
TREVOR: I don't know that I ever made a decision about being a photographer. I took a photo class my freshman year of high school and it became a very serious part of my life very quickly.
I was looking at advertising photos in Communication Arts, skateboarding photos in Thrasher and Transworld and photojournalism in Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Those magazines heavily influenced my taste and interests in photography. At around fifteen I went from having a passing interest in design and art to diving headfirst into photography. I was super lucky to have a family who really encouraged me to explore that stuff. My parents are pretty career minded, so when it became clear that I wanted to be a photographer they said "Well, other people are photographers, so why can't you be a photographer too?" It was never a question of if I could be a photographer, but how do I make photography my career? A lot of folks, especially it seems in Utah, seem to think that there aren't any viable career options in the fun fields (music, design, photography, illustration, video, etc), but that was never a line my family was about to toe.
I don't think I ever made the decision to be a photographer outright. It was just something I started assuming at some point.
B: Did you get a formal education in photography?
T: Man, I've long been a guy who is always about to go to school. I dropped out of high school, got my GED, and haven't done anything since. I find myself constantly wondering if I should go to school, but at this point I'm not focused on a discipline enough to feel comfortable going to a fine art school over a photojournalism school.
B: I can definitely articulate specific reasons why I love to shoot film and want to make work on film. Why are you still shooting film, especially for personal projects?
T: The major selling point of digital cameras is the level of control that digital photography allows. Shooting in raw means that I can make a photo look like virtually anything I want it to. Digital means complete freedom. For client work, that's great. I want to deliver a solid product to clients, which is why I almost always shoot digital for projects I'm getting compensated for.
But I also have a really hard time with the level of freedom and decision making that comes with digital photography. I want to be caged. I want parameters. I need something to push against. Film is this beautiful, hard process. If you're smart and work hard, your efforts are repaid in full.
I also really like that part of the compromise with film is that the decisions are made for you. If I load Portra 800, that's what my photo is going to look like. Sure I can mess with the scanning a little, but the look was developed by Kodak and is pretty well baked in. I like making that decision beforehand.
Digital doesn't make things easier.
B: I like this Paul Caponigro quote, "It's one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it's another thing to make a portrait of who they are." Genuine connection is evident in your work. Your subjects are clearly comfortable around you, and you capture who they are. Have you cultivated that ability in yourself, or does it come naturally?
T: I cultivate it, absolutely. The push and pull between subject and photographer is one of the most interesting parts of portrait photography. It's something I'm constantly thinking about.
I think I don't particularly look to shoot with models because it's not that fun to me to photograph people who are comfortable in front of the camera and have a "look." I want to shoot people who make it a struggle.
B: I totally agree. I’ve never shot a session with a model. It’s not that I’m against it. The face tells a story, and too often with models the story starts and stops at beauty, without going anywhere else. It only gets you so far. Beauty is great, but is it interesting? I’m not sure. Robert Frost has this line about how writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. I think you could make the same case for a photo portfolio mostly filled with models (although Frost is being a bit glib, and so am I).
What makes a good portrait for you?
T: Man, I just feel like the models are doing all the heavy lifting. Is that really a good photo? Is that really an original thought? Or is your model just pretty and people are impressed by their beauty?
I dunno though, it’s not like I’m interested in throwing shade at someone who enjoys taking photos of models. If it looks like I have beef with that, it’s probably my insecurities showing.
I always feel dumb with these questions, like I should be looking for something heart-wrenching. I guess what I’m looking for in a portrait is surprise. I love to look at an image and be surprised by it. There’s lots of good work out there. There’s also lots of work that’s achieved a level of technical quality. Neither of those categories are terribly memorable though. That feeling when you’re surprised by a photo, that’s what’s great. Surprise sticks with you.
I just want to remember the work.
B: What's your media diet like? I'm very particular about who I let into my Insta feed. Are you overwhelmed by the immense amount of images every day or energized by it?
T: I think I'm still trying to figure out what to do with things like Instagram. I'm not overwhelmed, but I'm also not excited. It's this tool, it exists, I have it on my phone, but do I like it? I don't think so. But I don't hate it either.
I recently got rid of Twitter and Facebook from my phone. I think it might be time to do that with Instagram too. I'm not interested in the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing that comes with a lot of conversations about social media, but I'm realizing that I need to be more intentional about establishing better boundaries.
When I think about times I've really enjoyed absorbing photography, they're almost always accompanied by some sort of human interaction. Either a lecture by the artist or even just taking in and discussing work with a friend. I'm all about director’s commentaries man. Show me a book and then let me ask the photographer 20 questions about it. That's what I want.
B: From what I can tell, it seems like a pretty good time to be involved in the Provo art scene. What’s going on down there?
T: There’s something to be said for a conservative culture incubating an art scene. It creates something to push back against. Even just declaring yourself an artist is a radical step for many people. I’m always hearing people dance around that word when they start to apply it to themselves, like it’s a title too lofty for a mere mortal.
I think the thriving art scene in Provo is a signal that people are looking for community. That’s what’s going on down here—we’re searching for each other. Art is the handshake.
B: Do you think the single image is more powerful than ever or weaker than ever?
T: Images are the same, but the medium has changed. Ten years ago images were distributed via the internet (on a desktop computer) most prominently. Before that it was TV & print. Now I’m most likely to see a notable image via Twitter/Facebook/Instagram on my phone. Images are the same, but the delivery mechanism effects how I view them.
The best thing about photography in 2018 is also the worst thing. More people have access to incredibly powerful methods of distribution and cameras being attached to cell phones has democratized the medium in a really beautiful way. But more is more, so we’re drowning in images and that’s just a tough reality.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. Photography needs diverse voices. We need more women & non-binary people. We need more diversity in age and race and ability. These people deserve a seat at the table. I think the trick is making sure that your personal feed is curated in a way that isn’t overwhelming or numbing. Instagram isn’t going to encourage brevity—that’s up to you.
Ok, but yeah. Breathtaking images are still made. They’re still powerful. There’s just more competition for attention.
B: Do you feel pressure lately, with everything going on, to make political work?
T: Not in so many words. I feel the mandate to make work that isn’t bad. I think sometimes saying something that’s new is perceived as a political act.
I have a tough time with work that’s a pure reaction. A lot of it often seems pretty facile when I try to apply myself to making work “about” something. Like if someone asked me to make work about the president I don’t know that I have much that’s nuanced to say. “The president is bad” is about as far as my thoughts go.
I think people sometimes see my work as political. Nude Portraits had some shock value, and people seemed to think it was a statement about bodies. A piece about body positivity was never my goal with that project, but I’m happy to have people take what they need from it.
B: After high school, didn’t you work as a photographer for a newspaper down in Saint George? How was that?
T: Great and tough, mostly great. I was never quite able to connect with more than a handful of people down there and when you’re young and work a Tuesday-Saturday evening shift, it’s hard to build a social life.
But working for a newspaper is the best, best, best. Anyone who shoots should try to get a job at a daily. Every day I had 3-5 assignments. Everything from sports to portraits to photos of old ladies who crochet a rug, to still life to everything else. It’s a chance to stretch yourself creatively every day. And what other shooting job is going to give you that breadth of experience? There’s nothing quite like a daily.
It’s also very easy to romanticize it now that I don’t work at a newspaper anymore. News is a tough field. Pay and morale are low. But if you think you’d like it and you have the chance, try to get a job in the field.
B: In Nude Portraits you were naked as you photographed clothed subjects. The project got great, shall we say, exposure. You've already been asked a lot about it. What I'm wondering is if it changed you in any way, putting yourself in such a vulnerable position? Did it change anything about your approach to making portraits? Did it change you on a personal level, like the way you live your day-to-day life?
T: The biggest takeaway from Nude Portraits was just how much control over the room you can have. The idea was originally somewhat superficial in nature: “What reaction can I capture if I shoot while naked?” At first I was focusing on getting big smiles and frowns and photos that were a large reaction. I was also very nervous to stand in front of someone totally naked. After a few shoots I got used to the process and feeling and while it never became a fully comfortable experience, it did become routine.
What I noticed when I became more comfortable during the shoots is that I could set the mood for a shoot. If I’m nervous, my subject is visibly nervous. If I’m calm, my subject is calm. You can get whatever you need from a subject by modeling the behavior.
On a personal level Nude Portraits flipped my world upside down. That level of media attention was intoxicating. It was something I’d always wanted, and when I got it I soaked it up. It was hugely addicting. Then when it went away I got pretty depressed. I’d agonize about what photo to post on Instagram and if it didn’t get as many favs as I wanted it to I’d be crushed for days. I’m deeply grateful for the experience of going viral, then losing the attention, because it exposed a lot of insecurities I had. It took me a couple years to bounce back from that whole experience, but I’m a happier person for it. The main takeaway on a personal level was that I learned to separate my personal, inherent value from how people view my work. That’s huge for me.
B: Hands down my favorite image from Nude Portraits, and actually one of my favorite in your entire portfolio, is the young woman in the bikini. The light and tones are stellar. There is so much in the expression on her face. She stands marooned on a bare patch of dirt surrounded by overwhelming plant life. She’s cornered. The space in the upper right—with horizontal lines ostensibly leading away to openness—feels inaccessible to her. That wall never breaks to sky anyway. She doesn’t meet conventional standards of beauty, but despite that there’s a strength and confidence in her stance. She holds her own. Except for the toes. That’s my favorite part of the whole photo. It’s an easy detail to miss. There’s so much vulnerability in those curled toes. It’s really beautiful to me, the balance of the image.
How did that shot come together?
T: That shoot was a struggle! I’m a portrait photographer, not a fashion guy. She wanted something more fashion oriented and the entire time it felt like we were fighting each other. If something isn’t working I’ll change things quickly, usually to get the subject out of whatever mental space they’re in. So I moved her around a lot.
She had a few outfits she wore that day. We chose to spend a lot of time with her in the swimsuit because I thought it would be more interesting. Girls who look like her aren’t supposed to show skin, so it was an obvious choice and it was a statement she was interested in making.
I remember the feeling of being naked outside at her parents' house, trying to make good photos of this model who I felt like I couldn’t break through to, and being kind of cold. It was definitely a tough shoot. I left not knowing if I’d gotten anything good.
If I remember right, that particular photo came about because I caught her off guard. (I took it so quickly that it was actually underexposed by about two stops. I’m lucky the raw file could handle the adjustments!) I think fashion photography is so boring because there’s very little to connect with. Most fashion work feels like trying to connect with a very attractive mannequin. That’s the thing I’m trying to avoid at all costs. I think the only reason there’s something to connect with in that image is because I was quicker on the draw. She was so invested in having that model look that I couldn’t get much out of her in terms of who she was as a unique individual. You can see in the next few frames she tightens up and gets back to form.