Interview to Spencer Lum: the intimate perspective of photography

Written by Barbara Zanon

BZ: Hi Spencer, the first impression looking at your work, it’s disorienting than the traditional wedding photography. Flipping through your work, you can only fall in love with your ability. Your work is so unique, wry, modern, fresh and yet indefinable be placed in time, the pictures seem to float in a dimension of their own. It’s always been like that?

SL: Great question! No, it definitely hasn’t been that way all the time. I started off as a photojournalist, and originally, both my personal work and my wedding work was heavily influenced by that. And truth be told, I was really very average, at best. Some of my photographic heroes at the time were people like Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith…I mean, too many to list, but that was my point of reference. The more I came to shoot, though, the more I came to realize that it wasn’t really how I saw the world.

I think there comes a point when we all have to accept who we are. Usually, you start off with certain heroes, but the thing that you very often learn is that you simply aren’t them, and you have to say “Well, if I’m not that, then what am I?” Which is always a very difficult thing, because you have to then let go of all the notions of who you are and figure it out, and it’s painful and disorienting.

I still love great photojournalism, but I know now that just because I love looking at something and studying it, it doesn’t mean that I have to do the same. I tend to see the world much more simply and directly. I like implication more than the story, and I also love the way photography as a medium communicates, independent of the subject. For example, the way snapshots, which I love, carry a certain nostalgia and counter-cultural element to them. As I came to realize these things, I focused on a more intimate and raw perspective.

BZ: Choose from one of your works to be published on this blog has been hard for me, because in every job saw something that hit me.
Your snapshots are a perfect mix between analog and digital. How much work is editing behind these shots? And what do you think about editing in wedding photography?

SL: A lot of it is working off curves in post-production. I’m pretty thorough for the most part, though, like all people, I have plenty of “What the hell was I thinking?” moments. I don’t tend to work of pre-packaged filters. I generally create my own. I think it’s a fine line between taking a free ride on a look to give yourself the appearance of artiness and actually using it to enhance an image, so I spend a lot of time studying how certain tones tie in with certain sub-cultures and eras. To me, the trick is trying to find a look that isn’t just cool, but that actually makes sense thematically.

In the movie 21 Grams, the DP, Rodrigo Prieto, assigned colors to be associated with each character, and he shot on different stocks to create different feels. For example, in scenes where the characters’ lives were more imbalanced, he introduced more grain and camera movement to enhance the tension.

It’s not identical with still shots in technique, but the idea is there. Different stocks, different grain structures, different palettes—they tie in with different periods and different feelings, and my goal is find a way to reference those. It’s not so much authenticity I’m after as connotation, though. For example, if it makes sense to me to connote both 80’s fashion and 60’s hippie culture, I might try to create a look that never actually existed, but that feels a little like both.

BZ: In your photos there is a strong propensity to journalism and fashion. You always were a wedding photographer, or your path brought you to address other types of photography? From what you let yourself be inspired?
SL: It’s a hard question to answer, because I like all forms of photography. As I mentioned earlier, I started as a photojournalist, and it remains an influence, but I’ve also spent time doing fashion work, fine art, and landscape photography. I tend to admire anything that’s thoughtful and well done, and I think it’s all worth studying, no matter what the style.

My biggest influences in my wedding photography would be Nan Goldin, Gary Winograd, and Stephen Shore, but of course, it’s mixed in with some of my roots in photojournalism, as well as whatever I’m doing with my personal work, which is much more abstract and minimal. Sophie Calle, for example, is a constant inspiration to me, as are many other fine art photographers. I enjoy Rienko Kawauchi a lot, Alec Soth, and, of course, Eggleston is classic.


BZ: On your website, you said that your studio does not waste time to send the photos to the wedding blog. However many your colleagues compete to see their photos published internationally. Can you explain your choice?

SL: There was a time, where I felt like being published on blogs was a really strong marketing tactic, though I never pursued it. But I’ll say that at the time, I probably should have, and from a business stand point, that was likely a mistake. I spend a lot of time teaching and talking about marketing, so it’s not that I don’t believe in the idea of reaching an audience.

But I find that there’s a strong tendency to focus on getting the word out, and not enough on what makes getting the word out valuable. You need two things to really make exposure work. First, it has to be in front of the right people. And second, you have to give people something worth seeing.

There’s a book called the Blue Ocean strategy, and the authors describe the market as a bloody red ocean of people fighting for a shrinking market, which I think is a pretty good description. Successful marketers find ways to differentiate. In other words, they find blue waters, where others aren’t going, which lets them capture that part of the market without competition, which is much easier.

So, going back to the blogs, the first thing is that usually, they’re targeting the bloodiest waters, where everyone is competing, making it hard to stand out. When pictures are being pumped into the blog ecosystem constantly, in fact, it defeats the whole point of marketing, which is to find ways to separate yourself from the competition. Instead, you’re just one of many.

On top of that, because my pictures have an unusual look, they’re usually a poor fit with the people who look at the blogs for inspiration, and, to make it all the worse, they’ll usually show the pictures that least represent my style and look most similar to everyone else, making it that much less effective.

Also, if you commit to using someone else’s audience instead of building your own, you’re always going to have to cater to the tastes of that audience, which is beyond your control. So the question is, do you want to have to cater to an audience that isn’t your own? That you didn’t even choose? Or do you want to pick your own audience?

Lastly, getting back to the second point, that you have to give people something to talk about, to that end, I’ve always preferred to spend my time developing my photography to find ways to make it speak to certain people. It’s not just that I get to focus on doing something I love, which is, of course, a big part of it. But I actually enjoy marketing, as well, and understanding and developing my work also allows me to find angles to position it to my audience. I’m generally very careful about my time investments and marketing strategy. In a market like we have, more than ever, you really have to go deep to connect with people, so blogs don’t serve my strategy very well.

BZ: Do you think that international blogs conformable wedding photography in general? I have noticed that most photographers now have a unique style. Without that style, nobody publics on international blog and do not win competitions. A style that is fashionable now, without a doubt, but that leaves little room for improvisation and in search of their own unique way of photographing.

SL: I tend to think conformity is just the nature of any medium, and, really, it’s just how people are. Seth Godin described it this way: At one time, if you were in the middle of the herd, you were safe. You were the least likely to be eaten by a predator. In those times, the leader is the most vulnerable, because the leader is out at the front of the pack. But we don’t live in that world any longer. It’s not longer dangerous to be different. In fact, it’s necessary, now. But there’s still a very natural instinct that resists it. Safety feels nice, but it’s death in both artistic terms, as well as with marketing.

The thing about all forms of validation is that they’re rewarding you for an ability you already have. It’s not like they’re actually creating an ability. What’s important is that you are the person you are, and that you keep developing that person to become even more.

It’s perfectly fine to submit things, but winning awards and getting recognition can’t be the creative goal. Even in marketing terms, in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t translate to more business. I guess what I’m saying is that they should be the byproduct of pursuing your vision and growing, but there’s a dangerous lure in building accolades, because it can get addictive. If you start to need validation to believe in yourself or feel good about your work, you tend to steer towards it. So it can become the cart leading the horse. You’re letting the criteria for the recognition shape your vision, when it should be the other way around. You should be creating work of such impact that it opens people’s eyes to new possibilities.

BZ: What would you say to a young photographer who wants to start now?

SL: There’s a saying in Aikido, which is a martial art I practice, that says you have to die on the matt. What it means is that you have to come into training with no preconceptions. You have to fully let go of yourself, so you can absorb everything as fully as possible. Ego, preconceptions, even beliefs pre-frame the world, and stop you from seeing it as it is. But seeing what’s there, and letting it inspire you is at the heart of creativity.

Most people get in their own way. We’re all naturally creative. We can all look at something and feel something inside of us in response. But when we say “This is how it should be done,” or “I want to look like so-and-so” then that’s all we see. It drowns out our inner voice.

Stephen Spielberg described the inner voice as a whisper. I think he’s right. It’s very hard to hear it, and, because of that, it’s very hard to trust it. But it’s there, and it’s the truest thing about you.

So I’d say to let go. Be open. Absorb, and just listen for the whispers.

Spencer Lum (SL) is a intimate and creative wedding photographer based in Brooklyn (US). He had spoken at Canada Photo Convention, the Musea Gathering, Camp Go Away later this year. 

web sites:  www.ground-glass.com   &    www.5weststudios.com

Barbara Zanon (BZ) is an award winning italian wedding photographer and photojournalist, based in Venice, Italy.

web site: www.barbarazanon.com