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Upon wrapping our recent FW/20 studio shoot, we decided it was time to sit down with Holden photographer Riley Kalbus to learn a bit more about his creative process. With a steady hand and keen eye, this wonderfully talented photographer quietly contributes from behind the scenes to the look and feel of the brand. Macro-details. Product heroes. Flat-lay e-comm photos.
Photographing performance-oriented apparel is no easy task. The discipline requires ample hours of technical planning and long hours on-set making minor adjustments to garments and tweaks to equipment and studio lighting. One inch here, two millimeters there. Each decision can make the difference between a silhouette appearing fulsome and divine or hopelessly shoddy. Kalbus’ passion for great lighting and good design shines through in every shot and detail.
Lastly, and chiefly, an interview with Kalbus affords us the opportunity to share a preview of the upcoming FW/20 Collection along with a few dozen examples of his compelling fine art photography. Please enjoy, and drop us a line if you have any questions.
*All photos by Riley Kalbus
Hi Riley, thanks for doing this with us. Is there anything in particular that you enjoy about working with Holden and it’s products?
I really enjoy the people that make up the brand. I’ve been given the space to experiment more and more with how we photograph each collection.
How many seasons and/or collections have you worked on with the brand?
Fall/Winter 2020 will be my third main collection.
What are your thoughts on shooting the recent FW/20 Collection vs. last year’s F/W19 Collection? Any new or interesting challenges with the garments, fabrics or colorways?
I’m amazed at where the brand was when I started working with Holden, to where it is today. The FW/20 collection is unlike another collection the brand has put out, both in silhouettes and technical quality.
Is there anything specifically interesting, difficult or rewarding about shooting technical apparel?
The details. Technical pieces have such refined details; it’s a rewarding challenge to find the best way to photograph them.
The constant malleability of studio work keeps it fresh; I’m always discovering unconventional ways to control the light on set.
Tell us a bit about your background and personal creative work. For starters, where did you grow up?
Bay Area, California.
How did you first discover photography? At what age and circumstance?
I discovered photography in sign language class, sophomore year high school. I became captivated in capturing the emotional intersections of people, and how it is used to tell a narrative.
Years later, what prompted you to want to make it your profession?
I originally wanted to be a photojournalist/foreign correspondent. I believe images are at a height of accessibility; I wanted to contribute to that narrative.
Any schooling or professional training?
I went to Parsons School of Design where I earned a degree in photography. That experience is what built the foundations for my personal work.
When and why the move to New York, and more specifically Brooklyn?
I moved to New York for college, and sorta found a space I could exist in here. I definitely prefer Brooklyn over Manhattan; it’s a different pace than Manhattan, and I prefer the neighborhoods more.
How often do you get back to the west coast?
As much as possible. I love New York, but the west coast is my home. My partner and I frequently talk about our plans to move back (likely to southern CA, anywhere near the beach).
You grew up playing water polo, yes? Please elaborate. Do you have fond memories of this?
I grew up in an aquatic family. My brothers and father were water polo players, playing at various collegiate levels. I was a competitive swimmer. I think I joined my first team when I was 4-5 years old and I stopped competing when I was 19-20. My relationship with my coaches is one of my fondest memories from this time; they instilled my work ethic in me.
Did you become a studio and product photographer upon moving to Brooklyn? Or at some earlier point in your career?
Originally, I would have categorized myself as a fine art/documentary photographer. I got into studio photography through being a broke college student; it became my weekend hustle and I eventually realized I had a knack for it.
Would you characterize yourself as a studio photographer?
I would now, specializing in table top work.
What drew you to studio photography?
I like the control you have with studio work. There is no reason for an image to be technically poor; I enjoy the process of tweaking the lighting, making small edits to styling, and ultimately finding the technical perfection.
As a discipline, it can be a much more technical and rigorous discipline than many other forms of professional photography, yes?
Yes. In the studio, you are responsible for creating the light. In landscape or documentary work, you’re reacting to your environment. It all stems from understanding how light works and the tools you have to manipulate it. There is a constant refinement of that process.
When one looks at your portfolio, it is obvious you’re quite adept at several photographic disciplines. Of these, which are your favorites and why?
For me it's not so much about the category of work and more about the process. Both my commercial and personal work are very process heavy. The fine art work for the majority were all taken on 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras, and could take a few weeks to make a single image. Similarly in my commercial work, a table top still image could consist of four to six exposures. My process when the shoot wraps, my post-production work is equally as important - the level of detail I add with my retouching (or in the dark room) carries the energy we achieve on set and finalizes the image.
Thematically, much of your personal and fine art work feels like a meditation on the concept of time. What is it about time that you find interesting?
It’s a subconscious reaction to growing up in a sport that focuses so closely on time; I find it interesting because it’s a construct of human existence. Similar to math, it’s a man made concept used to make sense of things.
Is there anything in particular you are striving to say about time through the medium of photography?
I see my work as an ongoing conversation about time: I don’t have a definitive answer as to the relationship of time and man, or time and photography. Rather, I view my current personal work as an ongoing dialogue. The photos themselves are quite simple in subject, but the laborious process of making these pieces presents a dichotomy. This juxtaposition is what I find so interesting, and why I’ve continued exploring this relationship.
Similarly, please share with us the backstory of your work focusing on swimming pools and shooting the lap swimmers. How did the inspiration for this work come about?
This concept had an experimental start: I wanted to photograph my friends, and we were spending 8-10 hours a day in the pool. It was meant to be a “behind the curtain” look at swimming; it is easily viewed as a performative sport with the majority of work culminating in a one-minute race. I wanted to expose the hours that go into that brief moment of competition.
As well, the surfers.
The surfers are an exploration into the meditative aspects of being a part of a body of water: unlike skateboarding or snowboarding, in surfing, you’re moving in tandem with the environment.
Between the clouds, swimming pools and surfers ...water themes seem to play a big role in your fine art photography. Why do you think this is? And how does this theme manifest (or not manifest) itself in your daily life and rituals in Brooklyn?
I grew up in water - since I was born, I was either in the swimming pool or in the ocean. Being in or near water has become a source of comfort for me. Living in New York has been rough because of the climate; it’s hard to surf a wave when it’s five degrees outside. This is why the cloud series was born - I needed to find an outlet to connect to my relationship with water.
What are your thoughts on snow? Will you ever shoot snow-themed content?
I’m fascinated by the texture of snow; I would love to shoot the mountains. Growing up in California, I admired the Sierra Nevada mountains: their granite slabs have always been enticing. A future exploration of snow is definitely possible.
Fish tacos, on the beach (preferably with a beer in hand).
Favorite place to sleep other than home in your own bed?
Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo.
Favorite photographer, and why?
Jungjin Lee - her work is peaceful yet powerful. I also respect her printing process.
Vision of yourself in 5-10-15 years?
Living on the west coast, expanding on my fine art work.
What are your “go-to” cameras, lenses, lights and software for the various kinds of photographic work you engage in?
Anything I can get my hands on - I’m not married to one way of working or one brand.
What are your thoughts on the future of photography?
Optimistic. Film is making a comeback and there seems to be an ever driving need for it.
Film or digital? Or does it even matter any more?
I use both for different reasons. Film brings its own atmosphere; it has a soul and adds a certain quality to the image. Digital provides consistency and more possibility of manipulation.
See more of Riley's work at: