Q&A with Alex
Welcome to this plateau. (laughs) So you've finished the workshop?
Awesome, actually, it's ... What's that?
You're not too cooked?
I might be about there, but to be able to talk about something that has been my entire world for the past two years feels really good. Not just for me to outline it, but to be able to share it with others.
I've been listening to 90% of what you said, pretty inspiring. So I've built a set of questions around that.
And from past experiences of you and I, and from your work in general, so with further ado can I just proceed with first question?
Okay, so when I look at your photos I see there's a definite universe, like it's color, props, atmosphere. So can you tell me about what's the Forrest Mankins Universe?
Yeah, absolutely. To me it starts with my childhood, and I grew up in Oklahoma and have two awesome older sisters, and we had this just felt like a t...
otally idyllic childhood. We were out in the country and would play out until dark every day, every night. And so that whole universe is like the same feeling that I'm trying to capture in my photos. It's this kinda warm, safe, happy summery kind of feel. And that's been the biggest thing for me is just trying to bring that joy that I felt as a child into my photos now. So we are dealing with real subjects in real places, but we're trying to capture this bit of, I guess, surrealism and translate it into these images.
Tell me about your approach to color, not just in your editing, but in your shows of props, motorcycles, cars, clothing, is there a reasoning behind it? I think there is, but I'd like to hear about it.
You know there must be, and maybe part of it is a product of growing up and kind of everything we had was old I think. I think I inherited the love of old trucks and old motorbikes from my dad and that sort of thing. But those colors, just to me feel like home, just plain and simple, and it might be a bright color, but it's lost a little luster in the sun, right?
Yeah, a little bit, it's maybe halfway in between something really subtle and something really bold. And it just feels, I guess in my photos, I'm always going for simplicity in a way. And I think that comes through in the colors as well.
I think that goes along with childhood, I think we walk around every day and we're doing whatever we're doing, but our mind there's 100 other places. So looking back at that time in childhood, if I'm out climbing a tree and it's getting just dark enough and the crickets are coming out and I see the kitchen lights glowing out into the trees outside of the house, I wasn't thinking about anything else. It was just that. And so that simplicity is what I'm looking for in my work, and in the stuff that the places we go and the things we do to get those photos now, those still bring back that mindfulness to me currently.
How do you bring back this almost innocence from the early days into a commercial shoot?
You know that's been a tough one to reconcile because we're faced with another person's problems, right? So someone could hire me, they've seen my body of work what they do, and they wanna work together, which is great. But all of a sudden we're introducing an agenda into it. I mean, I have my own, but someone else's, so we'll name it. And that's to me why I try to be so not picky about what I shoot, but I try to be so deliberate in what I shoot and what I share, because I'm trying to get clients that will let me do, well, that will let me create my own vision for them. And so sometimes there's just too much of an overlap and I feel like I can't take the job, I could create it, but would I love it? And would I be exceptional at it? So it's always a bit of a challenge. And for me, it took this period of, I think creating, I was starting to head to where I'm at now years ago, but it's become a little bit more refined. And I think in the beginning you don't have such maybe hard thoughts or boundaries or you haven't thought about it enough. So in the beginning I did do shoots that I look back now and I wouldn't have done it again, and not that they were bad clients or anything like that, I was just shooting something that was outside of my world. So honestly, someone else that was totally focused on that could have probably done it better. So I'm trying to just have this narrow focus of what I love and if clients come into that, that's great. And usually they give me the room to paint it how I would have it.
Yeah, we'll touch on clients a bit later on. I wanna take a step back and talk about a few years ago, four years ago when I met you for the first time. So you were driving through Montana.
Yeah, four or five. I can't remember exactly.
Yeah, five, wow. I feel old.
You were driving through Montana and you stopped by this cabin we had, and you are on a mission, remember.
So can you tell me about that mission and why I'd like to hear about it?
Sure, so I think I have to back up a little bit to give enough context to this, but I was doing music and playing in a band for years before and which we know doesn't pay 99% of the participants, including me. And in between tours, I'd take these trips and go out west in my truck and just hike around, take photos, sleep in the truck. I was just trying to decompress from this lifestyle that I was quickly finding out what was not for me. And so I went on this trip to Alaska, I got my first ever photo job, and came right back to the client and said, "Hey, I'm going to Alaska." I was not going to Alaska. "If you want some more photos, let me know."
You just pretended?
And I was just like, if they say yes, I could go. And so they ended up saying yes, and I went there.
Who was the client?
Desakis, actually. And I shot some stuff for them, but I went there and I was in Homer, and hanging out in the Spit and I met this old Swedish guy named Kent. And he took people over to (indistinct) and let them photograph bears and stuff. But he told me the story of how the first time he came to Alaska, he just couldn't believe it, didn't wanna leave anything. And he saw no feasible way that he could remain there. And basically after that conversation, he gave me the advice of sometimes we have to jump without knowing where we're gonna land. And so I think the next day or something I called the guys in the band, told them I'm quitting. (speaking simultaneously) uh-huh, I'll do one more tour. You can find a replacement and then I'm gonna go do photo stuff. And I had no clue how any of that was gonna happen.
So that's excellent segue into my next question. So this is a conversation you had with somebody, Kent. Was there anything else that made you commit to full-time photography besides just knowing you'd take the leap?
Well, it, I mean, it was so attractive in the way that, the more I did it, the better I liked it, the better I felt. And with music, while I loved the people that I was doing it with, the more I did it, the more I felt stressed and anxious and just going from city to city every day was not for me. And so there just seemed to be all these pluses with it. And I just felt like if I could find a way to get into this, if I could just maybe bridge that gap to getting some sort of momentum. And if I could jump to get to that side, then all of the other benefits just outweighed any risk involved.
When you did that, did you have any jobs lined up?
So on the trip that I met you, there was this now defunct outdoor, technical outdoor ski clothing company that was doing ...
Yeah, I'm a big skier. (both laughing) But they told me that they would give me $800 USD to travel, I was in Oklahoma to follow them around on their little Western ski film tour. So we were in Jackson.
Yeah, Cold Smoke. So we were in Jackson and where else, like Bellingham, there's a couple locations, but it was two weeks of me being gone and traveling. And they actually tried not to pay me at the end of that. But to me at the time, I was like, I have the promise of $ and I only have to be gone for two weeks and ...
So I was like done. And I asked my friend, Garrett, who I knew from the music world. I was like, "Hey, I'm going to Seattle for two weeks or I'm gonna take two weeks, get to Seattle. And why don't you come with me?" So that was the trip we met you on. We did not yet know we were going to Alaska or anything like that, but.
Oh, wow, okay.
So yeah, you met me and I didn't know who you were, you invited me over. I was like, okay, let's go try it out. We drove through a snowstorm to get over to Ennis, and yeah, I mean, that was the start of it all. I mean, that was right after the jump for me. So to see this sort of hospitality and friendship and warmth and just to see all of that was super encouraging.
And Morgan was there too.
Morgan was there, yeah.
(indistinct) was there.
I think he had just left before I got there, but.
He showed up twice.
It was just like, I felt this camaraderie that I had never really felt in the music world with strangers. Yeah, and it just felt like another bit of encouragement, of course, this is the right thing. And so we ended up being gone for six months, and then I think pretty soon after you and I teamed up and did a project with Travel Alberta. And that was the start of this momentum as well. So yeah, it was this big jumping point, not that I was leaving a bunch coming from music, but it was what I knew and what I was doing. And this was completely new direction.
This is anecdotal, but what happened with your tires when you were after Lieutenant, 'cause I still remember that.
So I left in the land cruiser and the tires on it were totally bald. And I get out to Oregon, and I'm on 205, I think it's and I have a blowout. I'm like, oh man. So I go look at the spare tire. The spare tire is like the wooden floor here. There's nothing left on it. And as I'm crawling around, I see the other tires. I'm like, oh no, how is anything holding air right now? So at that point I was like, well, it's time to sell my camera and lens. (speaking simultaneously) the original Canon 5D and like an old bust of about 1740.
What was this thinking? I was like (chuckles).
Because it's your income machine, right?
I know, but at that time things weren't even rolling yet. I had jumped and just got out there, and was like I don't know what else to do kind of thing. And it was good that it happened, kind of helps you build some things.
So you didn't have to sell it. What happened?
So I put up a post that I was selling the camera gear.
I remember it, yeah.
And someone asked how they could pay me. And I showed them my PayPal or like, yeah, if you want it, you can pay this. And people started messaging me, people that I had never talked to. I mean, people from all around the world. That was the first I ever heard of Ben Brown. He messaged me, he sent me like 200 bucks for, but people saw my PayPal link, which I hadn't put out there to broadcast and sent me around 1100 bucks, which paid for a new set of tires. So it was this ...
I didn't know ...
Yeah, this totally unexpected altruistic support from total strangers that were. Mm-hmm, and they were invested in what I was doing and I just couldn't believe it. I mean, I still can't, it's so incredibly humbling. And it was another thing, meeting you and this outreach from people. And that was one of many things that were told me, this is the right thing to do, but yeah, I was gonna sell my camera (laughs).
It was maddening, I'm glad you didn't sell it.
So just changing up gears here, still in Montana, when you come, we've shared an office for a few years, when you come up here in Montana, and you go into the woods for like 20 days, come in, come out, come in, come out.
Do you often go camping in the same places?
And for me, it's super tough to go back to the same places. So I'd love to hear, yeah, I'd love to hear your take on going back to the same places over and over.
Is there reason for that?
There are a few. One, to shoot the stuff that I love that puts me in the places that I love more than anywhere. So, I have that, what's over the hill, what's around the corner thing too, but spending time out there brings this deeper relationship with the place. And so we start to learn things about an environment and what the light can do in it and what different weather can do in it. And sometimes it's the matter of seeing things over and over that allows us to see it differently something that was already there. So for me, it's about trying to get deeper into a place. Maybe I took a good image there the first or second time, but, and the search for trying to get and be better, there's this allure of putting the days in and trying to just take it a little bit to the next level, trying to put in the honest work to get somewhere deeper.
So do you feel like you're building intimacy with these places in some way?
Mm-Hmm, absolutely. It's the same as we talked about, working with subjects.
That's my next question.
Yes. So on this intimacy, how do you build intimacy? When I look at the photos again, of sometimes you work with models that you've met once, and sometimes you work with the same people, but how do you build intimacy in such a short amount of time? How do you do that?
Well, to me, it's about information and just honesty. So before I shoot with anyone, I try to paint this whole world for them to answer all of the questions they could have. And I normally leave one or two things missing, but I try to send them maybe some example images of some of my work or some things that I'd like to make. And I like to let them know that, please bring your friend or your partner or family, please do, I wanna do whatever makes you comfortable. 'Cause I wanna collaborate on something. And so I'm really trying to one, layout all the information for them, but really to put control in their hands, 'cause think about meeting up with a stranger and they want to take photos or do whatever, it's a total leap of faith, right? I mean it's a pretty vulnerable spot to be in. So I think prioritizing that, like what can I do if I were in the other position, what would I want to have? And then also during the shoot or shoots, just trying to build everything as a positive, I wouldn't say, "I don't like how your arm is." I might say, "I like this light."
Just positive reinforcement.
Yeah, we just build on positive and positive and it could be a slow process, but it's definitely taught me, I'm hoping I'm getting better, but it's definitely a teacher on just communication in general. 'Cause I'll find that in the beginning I was just overlooking a lot of things or things that I assumed and knew and weren't properly sharing. So it was this indicator of, okay, we need to lay out everything and just put it out there and give the control away.
Beautiful. Now this section of questions I have, it's a bit more tactical.
Yeah, so this one is pertaining to film. What would you tell to someone who's like, "Hey Forrest I'd like to start shooting film tomorrow, where should I start?"
So I'd tell them to get Canon AE-1 or a Pentax K1000. It's just like the stock run of the mill.
Yeah, a Canon AE-1 or a Pentax K1000. These are just basic SLRs that a lot of film classes used to use, they're about 100 bucks.
Oh wow. Any lens recommendations for them?
Any lens recommendation for them?
They usually come with a 50 millimeter, which I love. I shoot with the 50 a lot. So, and I would tell them, why don't you pick maybe Fuji 400H or Portra 400. Doesn't have to be your final film, just buy a few rolls of one, doesn't matter which, close their eyes and pick one and just start shooting. There's some, do you want me to talk a little bit about the technical stuff?
Yeah, imagine this person is, understands photography and settings, et cetera. They know how to use DSLR that's digital, but film is a bit different. So anything you might share is useful.
I think when you're coming into film, you don't have as much confidence as someone who has shot film, and duh, right? But there's this thing, with digital, I only shoot in manual mode. We want this precise control of the exposure. And especially when we're worrying about losing our highlights, because once it's gone, it's gone. And so I think most of us have this one to one exposure idea with digital, you go up a stop, it's a stoplight or you go up another stop. And with film it's much softer and more forgiving. So you can take color negative film, which is like the Fuji I talked about or Portra, and you can over expose it a stop or two stops or sometimes even three stops and you get a fine image. So to me, it's almost like this is easier. It's as when you're starting, you're just blind to it. But when you get some rolls back, you go, oh, okay. And so with film, I shoot on aperture priority. I pick my depth of field. So I would tell them get some old camera that's working, buy four or five rolls of film, shoot all of that film and shoot it in bright light, shoot it in the shade, shoot it in the morning. Just try to get some different examples to see how it really behaves. Yeah, I mean really I would shoot those rolls as quickly as I could because the first thing we're trying to do is just to build some confidence and love for it. We're hoping to get maybe one or two images from those rolls that make us get it, that kind of puts it in here. And I think most people will get that on the first roll. So my thing is just, it's gonna be a little scary. I have to put just a little bit of money into it, but the returns are awesome.
Speaking of that then, how much is it to get some rolls?
So you can get a roll, you can get a five pack of Portra, which is 36 exposures on each roll for around 40 bucks.
And then the developing?
Developing, my lab is about $11 per roll.
And that's scanned too?
That's scanned. So you'd mail it out. And about a week later, you get an email with a Dropbox link basically. So you still have this digital workflow with the warmth and everything from film, because if I were to just getting negatives back or something like that, I wouldn't do it. I don't wanna scan my own. I don't have time for that. I just, I want someone that's good at that to do their thing and yeah.
Who's your lab?
State Film Lab.
I've used it too.
Have you? Do you like them?
Yeah, well, thanks to you.
Billy just had, he and his wife had their first kid.
Shout up to Billy, should put a photo of him right here.
Yeah, I know. I mean, I love them. I've shot, I had this year and a half journey actually of finding a film lab. I had one that I was super happy with. And then I started getting these scans that I wasn't really a fan of. And so then I tried some of the most expensive ones, like Richard, I tried ...
It's always expensive.
Always expensive. And then I found my good buddy, Adam Naples recommended State. And once I found them, I've just been like, that's my guy. (speaking simultaneously)
Yeah, and even if it's not State, I think finding a lab that is your constant thing is a great way to have a relationship and you can give them feedback on what you like and what you don't like. And oftentimes they'll go, well, you changed this. And so it's nice to have a lab that actually cares about it 'cause they will help you out with how you're shooting.
Excellent. Now on the same tactical zone, what would you tell somebody who struggles finding their direction with their photos? 'Cause you talk a lot about direction, and having ideas and concepts. What if somebody doesn't have any of that, but has the know how?
That's the hard part. And we talk about it the way that worked for me, which I feel like it's pretty applicable to many people is just taking a little time from it. I think often we can get lost, and if we remain in it, whatever it is, we were still stuck in these same thought cycles and feeling the same limitations and emotions and maybe negativity. So for me, and although it was so hard because during that time that I had the burnout and just lost direction was like, well, what do I do? I was still obsessed with photography and thinking about it constantly. I mean, which was even worse because I was like what do I shoot? But it took some time to just separate from that. And then to start thinking about if I could do anything, what would it be? And not what could I shoot here in this season with the people I know, it's like no, if I had unlimited resources or anything, what would it be? What would I shoot? And that just separated me from that reality I was in of limitations and failure and internal pressure. And it just made this blank canvas that I filled in with ideas. So I think that's the best way that I can tell anyone to move forward, find a new direction.
Beautiful. Now, even more tactical, someone who is struggling with getting the edits they want, I hear that a lot from people, it's like, "Oh, I watched your workshops, but I still don't know exactly how to get the edits I want. It's never exactly what I have in my mind." What's your words of wisdom here?
I think trying different light is one way to start. And so you'll remember I went through the period of shooting basically almost exclusively blue hour for a long time. However, I think I had that 2414 just glued to my lens, And I kind of felt that I was having trouble editing in some of the brighter light. And I think I was also a little bit sophomore being like, this is the light, this is my light and excluding myself from some other opportunities. But part of it was that I didn't really like how I was able to edit those photos. And I spent a lot of time just messing around with different edits, and I'd maybe learn a little something here or there, but I think finding inspiration and just seeing how other people have shot in that light for me was a big deal, because I'd have these ideas about different kinds of light, because we know you can take maybe capture your edit settings from a sunrise shoot and then use them on the same place at noon and it's totally wrong, right? So I had these ideas about editing in different light or just what photos had to look like in different light. And when I started to find new photographers, I started seeing photos in light that I didn't think I could shoot in light like this late afternoon. And they were just beautiful. And I thought, okay, if they can do it, maybe I can at least get a step closer, right? So, I think it's really important to take inspiration and draw on the knowledge of others. We don't have to be islands. Why are we making this workshop? So it was really just taking a minute and looking outside and going, okay, someone else can do it. I'm gonna identify one thing from this photo. I look at this harsh midday photo and somehow the shadows aren't boosted up in an HDR way, but they're not dark and crunchy. How do I do that? And I would focus on this one thing, like how can I do that? And I tried different ways to do that. And then maybe I learned just a little bit, and I kept doing that with things and I still struggle with that and work on it. But yeah, I think we don't need to be afraid to look outside of ourselves for help and guidance.
Agreed. Now someone who's struggling to shoot more work for brands.
Yeah, what would you tell him?
Okay, so this is the hard work boots on the ground kind of thing. And this is a big deal for me is I got way busier as a side effect of doing the things in this workshop. That's where most of this came about. And so number one, we have to put in that time and identify what we love. 'Cause if we love it, we're gonna work harder at that than anyone else will. And then we have to basically make it and produce it. No company is gonna come to you and say, "We've heard you have great ideas, we're gonna give you a budget. And like, why don't you just go out and make something." You have to make it. And so that's why I think being able to take wherever you are working with, whatever you have, whoever you have to articulate these ideas is the most crucial thing. So someone that lives in the Rocky Mountains or Atlanta or Singapore or something, wherever you're at, we need to just be able to work within our means. And even if that's nothing, no budget, there are still ways to figure out and be able to execute these ideas. And it's just, the thing that drives the hard work is the love for it. So to me, it almost feels like the thing that you have to be doing, whether or not someone was, or is going to pay you for it, it's just like this thing inside of you that you can't ignore. And that's why I'll go out for 20 days in and out every day, things like that. So it's like this hard work driven by love and with the end goal of creating exactly the work that we want to.
Beautiful. Now it's my last question. And it goes back in time again, what would you tell the Forrest Mankins of five years ago?
Well, that's a tough one. (laughs)
Yeah, what would you tell that Forrest?
Hmm, I think I would say, and I would tell myself this in both photography and music, but I think I would say that I could have done, I could have had a better time and maybe done better with less fear. And I think I could have given myself fewer limitations and made my box bigger. While I was trying to work to identify things that I did like, I was also identifying things that I didn't like and labeling things as good and bad. I'll shoot in this side, I won't shoot in this side. I'd shoot this as a subject, I wouldn't shoot this as a subject. And while I was narrowing in on maybe an aesthetic or a vision or something, I was also excluding the rest of the world. So to me, I think we can celebrate the things that we do learn to like, but also think about the things that maybe we don't like just as, or maybe just in a way where we don't know enough about them or we haven't thought about it. So I would tell anyone and I still tell myself, let's not preclude ourselves, let's not exclude ourselves from opportunities or just new things in general.