“Photography is a blast. I don't shoot anything that doesn't make me smile - including people. The end result typically makes me smile. And, if you ever get to be on set with me, I never stop laughing, joking and folling around."
Calvin Brockington is an editorial-fashion photographer, based out of Dallas – one of the Lone Star State's thriving metropolises. Calvin is an inspiration to us all – pushing through adversity, Calvin's zest for life and fun has served him well. He is the inspiration for us all to pick up a camera and never put it down.
“I was a novice photographer in Florida around 2002. I worked at a Wolf Camera store in the heart of Fort Lauderdale and one of my dearest friends ran an agency in Miami. So I would shoot for her, here and there, learning along the way. And then digital came about. I was so immersed in film and processing that, for me, to start all over in digital format would have cost me a fortune. Again though, I was only a novice not anywhere close to being considered a professional so, I sold my equipment and began following another passion that I had which was makeup artistry. About 2005, the company that I work for expanded into Texas and I was offered a position there. So I moved. About 2010, my health was pretty bad and I had already fought cancer twice. Well, here I was again on an operating table. This one was bad, they were removing organs. All I remember, before I was put to sleep, was me looking up to the light above me and saying, “If you get me out of this one, I promise I will go back to doing what I love.” As soon as I got home and out of the hospital, I went online and bought a camera I could afford at the time. And the rest is where we are now. Of course I've changed equipment since then. [smiles]
“For me, it's been an extreme learning curve. Dallas is a fashion capital. But it's still a very conservative and commercial business city. I started my career in Dallas not really thinking of what type of work I need to be shooting in order to enter the market here. I started out like a lot of male-focused photographers - shooting body work. After all, the blogs liked it and the magazines liked it. But it wasn't what Dallas liked. I love fashion, in fact, that's what my degree's in. But no one knew that, because all I ever shot was half-naked guys in underwear. So as I worked more and more, with stylists, models and agencies here, I really have taken the opportunity to show my love for fashion and fashion photography.
“I had great parents once I was adopted. I grew up in very bad circumstances until about 8 years old. My mom and dad couldn't be more opposite. So as kids we got a lot of knowledge through two different ways of learning. The great thing though is that we weren't told we couldn't do anything. My mom and dad always told us we could do whatever it was we wanted to. I got a lot of my early inspiration from my middle school art teacher. She would give me old fashion magazines and she even got me a free pass to a summer photography camp. I think she saw it long before I did?
“I didn't go to college for photography. I went for 'The Science of Fashion Design and Textile'. In my head I was always going to be a fashion designer. Photography was something that took over before I graduated college. I worked in a camera store and there all I wanted to do was study, learn and shoot. I was an apprentice to three photographers. They taught me a lot and showed me the business side of photography as well.
“I teach makeup artistry and product knowledge. And, of course, it helps my photography to know makeup and to even help grow other artists I come in contact with. I was shooting before I learned makeup. In fact, I only wanted to learn makeup so that I could do makeup on my own shoots. Someday soon, I really hope to start shooting a very editorial series of beauty photography. So far I haven't done that. “I never ever stop wanting to know more, to learn more. I once told someone, “We have no excuses anymore. Whatever you want to learn, know or explore, is out there.” There is an amazing amount of education on the web. If you can't get to a classroom or afford to go to school. You can still use your phone, your tablet, your PC and learn. I study constantly, even things I've tried and done before, I study again. I try things on shoots and I learn from that. The one thing I hope never ever happens to me is to stop wanting to learn.
“I used to draw inspiration from other photographers. I remember when I first started shooting here in Dallas, it was for an all-male model agency and the director was obsessed with Rick Day. Well I had never heard of Rick Day until this agent showed me some of his work and asked me if I could shoot his models like RD. Well I wanted to work and, again, I was still very new. So what do you do? Well you try, you make your very best impression to make money, to get your name somewhere? So I can't really call it inspiration more than fabrication. I would say, Karl Simone has the sort of career I dream of having. He is a brilliant editorial photographer, an amazing celebrity photographer and he is a stunning artistic photographer. Karl has achieved what I dream of daily. Being able to shoot whatever you want and not be constrained. Why can't a photographer shoot fashion and body, and editorial? “I shot still life once, in middle school at a camp. It was a training exercise. But to be frank, I don't shoot things that don't interest me. It's kinda like a personal rule I have. I stay away from weddings, landscape and several other things that I don't find inspiring. When I pick up my camera, it can't feel like unhappiness to me. I don't even think I shoot all that well if I'm not shooting what I want to be shooting.
“Someone I completely idolize is Carine Roitfeld. She's a Fashion Director, not a photographer. But … she exploded Gucci with her highly sexual ads and photoshoots. Why she inspired me so much was because, I've always thought to myself, “What is fashion, if it's not sexy?” It was like she was inside my head.
“I loves clothes. Juun J. and Calvin Klein men - for playing with simple lines but exploring volume and shape so well. Balmain, KTZ and Givenchy - for injecting so much color and technology, ethnicity and shape. Things I'm really hating right now are all these old-school feminine-looking designs for men. Dolly Parton wore tie-up blouses in 9 to 5, leave it there!
“My work and portfolio is very male driven. I love male beauty, I love the male physique. But mostly, I love shooting a full fashion editorial. I love the planning, the shopping, the styling. I even love the casting and finding the right model. It's just so exciting when all of it comes together and you can see the finished product.”
Being a successful photographer requires many skills and abilities. Calvin has developed his through hard work and determination. Both mind and body are called upon to deliver the perfect image. Much thought goes into the process; before, during and after the photoshoot.
“If it's for a magazine submission, I am thinking about the magazine style, the feel, their vibe and how my shoot will fit in with them. Now, if I'm shooting a model for a portfolio? Then I really am thinking about what the agency wants, how to dress the model, where to shoot the model.
“I like mornings, definitely for location work. When I find a location I want to use, I visit it over and over again - sometimes even before the shoot is planned. If it's in studio, then I'm testing lights all night, moving them around, changing modifiers. Anyone who has ever shot with me knows that I shoot rather fast. I go in with a plan. I make sure everyone involved knows the plan and we execute it. I'm not one of those photographers that shoots for 8 to 12 hours. I can't, what else can a model do besides what he has already shown you?
“Shooting an experienced model is great. They know what to do, they give it to the camera right away. It makes for a pretty quick and smooth shoot. Shooting new faces is challenging. It is. They lack confidence, they lack the ability to express. But I always tell them to relax and be as natural as possible. One of my lines is, “Don’t worry, we shoot 500 frames just to find three amazing images.” Which is pretty true.
“I often will tell a model, modeling is acting without the use of sound. So I really try and get the model to emote, express and move. I depend on the models to bring the clothing alive. If it's streetwear, I want to see a rendition of a kid on the streets. If it's suit and tie, give me commercial flair. So I really do talk to the models a lot. I want them to succeed and definitely want great images.
“I have what you would call a rotating team. My dream is to one day have a handful of rock stars who can just kick out fantastic work together. When I put together a team, I've already seen their work, I already know what they can bring to the table. I tend to stay with people I know. When I don't have a team, I have me. That means I have to do makeup, styling and photography. So I also tend to check everything even when I have a team. While behind the lens, I am looking at the model’s movement, expression and also, what is in my frame?
“I shoot commercial, editorial and beauty, but that doesn't tell you who I am as a photographer. Most of my career I've felt criticized. Like I stated before. I started my career shooting a ton of body work. So I got pretty well known for it. But people don't get an idea of who you are and it sticks. I shoot a ton of fashion, a ton of commercial fashion, but I still hear it all the time that all I shoot is body. I hear it from agencies, I hear it from magazines. I do still shoot body, but it's part of the rest of what I do. I am ambitious, I am wildly devoted to my career.
“The most recent shoot was for a new model, who just got signed to one of the biggest agencies here in Dallas. From where I started years, and years, ago to who am I now can be described as confidence; it comes from all the things I've learned along the way to here, the professionals I've had the chance to work with, even the amount of education I've had from then to now. I used to go into a shoot very technical, because that's what I knew from books and professionals I'd met whilst at work. I was completely scared of getting everything wrong. Now my own style is second nature to me. I know what I know and the technical stuff comes with ease. Which is great because it frees my mind up for other things: looking for the right location, finding the right wardrobe or, sometimes, building the right team of people. My first paid photography job was while I was working at Wolf Camera. One of the regular photographers, that dropped off film in the store, needed an extra hand with a corporate staff shoot. I was his assistant and he paid me, $150 I think?”
Calvin has experience both sides of the lens. When it comes to being front of camera he's, “Been there, done that.” Now his creative energy is focused on capturing outstanding imagery with his lens and mind's eye. His success, his vision of success, also has his same mindful focus. “I was just recently thinking about this. To most people, success is measured in money, things, status, etc. But I believe in personal success, where the soul is happy and the mind is free. My definition of success has varied, as I've aged. It takes life, and experiencing life, to learn more. My goals are: to be signed to an agency, to be able to shoot what I want (not be ridiculed for it) , and to make a living as a working photographer.
Those are my goals. Work harder, publish more editorials, really try and show my voice as an artist. Personal success is far different. As a child growing up in poverty, I had no idea that I would be living the life I have. I'm not wealthy, I don't drive a super car, but I am happy, grateful and have seen myself achieve what I'd never thought possible for me.
“There happens to be a huge amount of photographers here in Dallas. Some are even coming from New York and LA to shoot here. So the competition is extreme. I guess, what I do is stay the course. I visit or call agencies. I work hard at getting models print work and exposure. And I really try to always be polite. I am freelance. Most people forget that I only started around 2010. So I hope to get signed soon to a firm. That would be fantastic, but I am assuming I still have to prove more… [smiles] ”
Outside the world of photography and fashion, everyday people meet photographers and can only imagine what being a successful photographer is like:
“I can't say there's any fanfare around it. Most people just seem to get terribly insecure all of a sudden, as if I'm there to judge them. I'm not trust me.” [smiles]
New photographers hoping to achieve success would be wise to follow Calvin's advice, he has envisioned his dream and started to live it:
“Hope to be happy, first off. Next piece of advice, know what you want. Pick up your camera and shoot, shoot some more. Eat, sleep and get up, shoot some more. Along the way, you will learn: what you like, what you hate and what works. I'm not lying when I say clothing inspires me, but so does a beautiful new face. I am the kind of photographer that never shuts down. Even when I'm out driving to go buy groceries; I'm looking at walls, parks, buildings, etc. Between really loving clothes and loving new talent, ideas seem to come easily. You can't stick your head in a book and expect a great photo to come out of it. So shoot.”
As with all photographers, Calvin has a camera of choice: “Nikon. I love the optics, I love how sturdy the frame feels. I started a while back with Minolta, a Cannon, then I bought a used N90s and I was hooked. I love the speed, the clarity, even the way it feels in my hand. It's been Nikon since 2011.”
Calvin also has his eye on lighting: “I'm the kinda guy that, if I want something, I'm just gonna buy it. That being said, I don't own a ring light. And that's probably the only thing that I want which I just haven't bought yet - but will soon. Maybe right after I finish this interview? What I would love to own, sometime in my fantastic future, is a digital medium format camera.”
As he thought about his future ring light, we asked what future could unfold for the upwardly mobile Calvin:
“I have worked in other countries. I have shot in Germany. I travel to New York whenever I can take time off work from my full time career. Will I ever leave Dallas? Well I used to think so. I very much wanted to relocate myself to New York permanently. And I even started taking steps to prepare myself. Until a thought hit me - there are so many talented photographers in NY. Everyone goes there, I've even seen successful photographers go there and shortly return back to Dallas. Same with a few models. Dallas is growing, it's one of the fastest growing cities in the country. More and more people are hitting this city on a daily average than almost anywhere else in the world. And you know what, I wanna be here for that growth. I wanna see Dallas become more of a fashion city. I want to see more agencies open here, more models realize the capital growth here they could have. So, for now, I don't plan on moving. Traveling is a whole other thing. I want to travel a ton more. New York, LA, just to name a few that I'm already planning on traveling to. And the reason, for those trips, is to work with different agencies and new models. Even to shoot a little more editorial and not be in the commercial realm of Dallas.”