Meredith Jenks Proves That Simplicity Is Key When It Comes To Photography
A studio visit with the New Yorker who’s shot everyone from Wiz Khalifa to A$AP Ferg.
"Keep it simple" seems to be New York photographer Meredith Jenks’s motto when it comes to her craft. Rather than going heavy on equipment, she prefers a more “loose” picture-taking technique, one that stems from her appreciation for 1960s street photography. “I'm not much of a conceptual photographer. I like to just shoot people as they are,” she told The FADER on a visit to her studio this summer. With an online portfolio boasting punchy portraits of celebrities from Wiz Khalifa to A$AP Ferg, Jenks’s bold work speaks for itself. As she has developed her skills over the years, she has also accumulated an impressive list of big-name clientele including Adidas, Billboard, and Nike. Jenks chopped it up with FADER about her shooting process, her thoughts on Instagram photographers, and her golden advice for those just starting out.
What made you want to be a photographer?
My dad's an artist. He's an oil landscape painter, so I was always interested in art. When I was a kid I wanted to be a fashion designer and in high school I took a photo class. It was totally the slacker class but I went above and beyond and really loved it. I think I won some stupid contest that my photo teacher sent [my work in for]. From then on I said, that's it I'm doing photos. Once you win a prize, especially as a teenager, that's all you need to know.
Validation is so important.
Yeah, I had gone to public school and then I went away to boarding school for high school. I went from being the smartest kid in my class to being at the bottom because I didn't know everything about grammar, but photos are something I felt like I excelled in. It made me feel confident.
What do you shoot with?
I would say, 99% of the time, a Canon 5D Mark III. I have a little Canon G10 that I like to take on vacation [with me] or to parties and it is actually what got me into shooting. It also got my career moving again because I was in a rut when I lived in L.A. and got that camera. I started taking a lot of snaps at this club called A Club Called Rhonda out there. I was their party photographer for a year and half so it really got me into taking flash on camera which produced pretty photos. Then, when I moved here [New York City], I changed my vibe to be looser because I got stuck in this "I have to set up lights" mode in L.A. and it got me in a zone that I didn't really enjoy.
How would you describe your process?
I would say that it's pretty loose. I don't wanna say lazy, but I would prefer to use natural light or flash on camera because the second you bring in any type of equipment, it just slows down the process — and I like to be able to move as much as possible. If something's not working it'll take a couple seconds to just go to the other side of the room. Also, I'm not much of a conceptual photographer. I like to just shoot people as they are. I mean, I would give direction if there's something I want them to do but I'm not like, "I'm gonna make you wear a clown suit," you know? So, it's just natural. Fashion is a little bit different, obviously, because there's a model and there's some sort of concept going on but even that, I like to keep as normal as possible.
What would you say you look for in an image?
I'm always trying to take the shot that's gonna be that iconic shot. For instance, I shot Louis C.K. and it was my goal that when people think of him it's gonna be that shot. I don't know if I did but that's always the goal and so, to do that, I'm always trying to push [the subject] a little bit further. I don't wanna just have people standing against walls. I mean, I still have that but sometimes people don't want to do anything and you have to be okay with that. For me, it's always looking around like, "Ooh, can I get him to stand up on that shelf or eat a hamburger?" Or something a little bit different so it's not the same exact photo that people have taken before.
Which photographers do you admire?
Well, the first one that I really noticed as a kid was Helmut Newton. I had a subscription to Vogue and his photos were just so bizarre, kind of strong and different from what everyone else was doing in fashion. But beyond that, a lot of 1960 street photographers — I really love Martin Parr and Garry Winogrand. I mean, Martin Parr is still shooting and his stuff is still totally bizarre and cool. But I think the thing about it that interests me is that they have to capture — with no direction — interesting color and composition, and they do it so well. If I ever taught a class I would have that be a thing. Like, "Go up to a stranger and try to get an interesting photo." In terms of people who are doing stuff now I love Synchrodogs and a lot of other cool people.
What do you think smartphone photography has done for the practice?
That's interesting. There was a model on set the other day who was like, "I don't think photographers should have Instagrams," because Mario Testino has one and [the model] was like, "It makes it seem like anyone can take pictures." We see them using an iPhone and it like, levels the playing field. [But] I think it's nice [to have an Instagram] because it shows people's personality and a different side. I think that there's agencies now who represent Instagram photographers and it's just a totally different animal. I don't feel like I'm competing against those people for jobs because those people are by themselves, art directing themselves, doing everything on their own and they take great photos. But, it's different from having an art director, having a crew and having a model that you have to direct. It's just a different genre, really. It's new and different.
I agree with that, but I do kind of like that it levels the playing field.
I like how the number of followers you have drives you crazy because it's just like, I'm a working photographer and some people know who I am, but I only have like 4,000 followers. Then someone who is just a 19-year-old who takes hot selfies has 100,000 followers and I'm like, awww man. But I try not to let it consume it too much.
We're in a weird new world. I was speaking at NYU and one of the students asked, "How do you feel when people steal your stuff?" and I was like, "Well, what do you mean?" I feel like she was talking about on Instagram when people re-blog, or on Tumblr, and I was like, "If you're putting it out there you can't worry about it because it's just that your image is out there and people will eventually figure out that it was you that made it." If someone's actually ripping me off — like another photographer is ripping off my work and copying it — that would be messed up but I just think that this world is about sharing and regurgitating information.
That's a really good, optimistic way of looking at it.
Yeah. Sometimes I wish that if someone who has a million followers posted a picture of mine, they would tag me in it. That would be nice, but that's just not the world we live in right now.
What's the best piece of advice you have for young photographers?
I would say — and I've said this before — is just to put your website up, take meetings, share your work with people, and take jobs when you are first starting out. Just take that shitty job because you'll learn something from it. You don't have to show it to anyone. I feel like I have a lot of photographer friends, young and older, who are always refining their website saying, "It's not ready yet. I don't want to post it.” Like, just put it out there. People are gonna forget the old crappy website once you have the new one, you know? I am like that to a fault. I was showing my book in New York when I was 19. Like, old student photos that are not professional at all but at least I was coming here, you know, putting myself out there and people were meeting me. Every year I kept meeting more people. So, I think it's just about being proud of what you're doing at the moment and trying to push yourself to do more. On top of that, shoot as much as you can.
Finally, what do you listen to you while you're working?
Oh, I have like a 20-hour chill mix. I just keep adding to it but it's on Spotify and I feel their algorithm is weird — it's always the same songs. I love Poolside. My friend runs Echo Park Records and I love all his stuff. I've had this list for probably a year now and now I know all the songs by heart.