A first in an ongoing series that explores the creative community and culture that surrounds this varied sport of running.
“Track was my first love at first, the magnet to photography, but other carrots dangled as a broader world engaged my new-found passion. The turning point for my life happened with an introduction to local photographer Hugh Barton, a master craftsman who’s vocation became my aspiration and I was invited to hang out and carry his equipment to shoots. Eventually he taught me everything – how to see, how to shoot, how to work with art directors and how to run a business – an ad-hoc apprenticeship I value more than a diploma. Thinking back the most amazing gift (of many) he gave me were the keys to his studio where I spent countless nights shooting for myself with his gear. It was an exhilarating life in small-town photo-land, and solidified my determination to create images for a living – just had to find my place.” Kevin Morris.
I first noticed photographer Kevin Morris’s work over at Runners World where his editorial work is a plenty. One story and his images in particular that really made me stop and take notice was of Michael Westphal, a 58-year-old carpenter with Parkinson’s disease, who recently qualified for the Boston Marathon.
Kevin’s editorial/ documentary work in the running community is 100% real, and really explores our sport and people past the commercial aspects. I love this. I’m super excited to share the first interview and hopefully some insights of how a professional photographer making a living from running culture ticks. Say hello to Kevin Morris.
How many years have you been in photography business?
Pushing 30 years all together.
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
I’m self-taught, and learnt from others (assisting, etc.) and read every book that I could find. Today is SO EASY to get a self-taught education with resources abound like never before. The technology also assures that making competent images is much easier too. I feel that it’s still the IDEA that makes the difference to stand out and create good imagery though. My advice is to learn to generate good ideas – then realise them.
Who are your greatest influences that inspired you to get into this business, and in particular the world of sports photography?
Walter Iooss, Ernst Haas, Jay Maisel, Harley Soltes, Warren Morgan, Brian Lanker. I’m also inspired by National Geographic, Eugene Register-Guard, and Sports Illustrated.
How would you describe your running photography? Event, portrait, documentary, commercial or a mix of everything?
Action and emotion captured and produced for editorial and commercial clients.
Are you a runner? Do you feel it’s important to understand ‘how a runner works’ to photograph them?
Yes, I do run, and it’s essential to my understanding and empathy for the sport and the athletes that I photograph.
Your images are fresh, real and connect with people. How do you find your inspiration, push the traditional envelope of event running photography, stay true to yourself so that people notice you and hire you?
I’m always- trying to get noticed. I just try to immerse myself in the event, and the effort of the athletes and try to capture the peak moment of athleticism, beauty and emotion, driven by always feeling like I can do it better than the last frame.
Like Walter Iooss says “If you want to stand out from the crowd shoot from where the crowd (of other photographers) aren’t.”
Can you explain your creative process on shoot? What do you look for? How do you compose a capture? Any preferred camera settings or kit?
I keep it simple but always ready for anything and everything with two cameras – a wide angle and telephoto. I’ll use zooms if action is unpredictable, with primes (non zoom) if controllable. I show up early, and stay late, with the attitude to always be ready to make a picture. Always looking, always moving.
I do now rely on the autofocus of the Canon SLR system, it allows me to get many shots that I never could have gotten before.
Do you have a story of a great shoot, where the ‘stars aligned’ and the results exceeded your expectations?
I’ve got to say all the extreme highs and extreme lows of shoots have floated away from my consciousness. It’s all about now and tomorrow.
A couple of recent “wins: On a whim I bought a air ticket to Houston for the Olympic Trials Marathon with no expectation of how I was even going to get from the airport to the course. Well, a lot of people were in town for the event so I just bummed rides, ran into friends, and “winged” it. No great outcome, but it did launch my passion into chasing big-time races, and showed me I could do it if I dream it.
The next time came 6 months later when I called up an old editor I had worked with 20 years previously and announced I was “back”and could he get me credential for the Olympic Trials track meet in Eugene. It wasn’t automatic and immediate, but eventually I got the press pass and spent the next 12 days shooting the best track athletes in America – over 35,000 frames that still move with sales now 3 years later. It solidified whatever fire was burning to get close to the elite action and capture it beautifully.
What is your advice for those who are starting out photographing the running scene?
If you’re young: find a way to hit the circuit of one type of running you are drawn to: track, roads, trails, ultras, tough mudders, whatever. Then get to know the players both on and off the field (coaches, agents, athletes, writers, etc.) Keep the gear simple, but top notch. Become an ace at Instagram, find your own “vision” and always push the envelope of your own quality.
If you want to stand out from the crowd shoot from where the crowd (of other photographers) aren’t.
Finally, develop an eye for what’s great and never let less than your best work be seen anywhere with your name on it.
Gear or experiences?
I’m always trying to pare down the amount of gear I own and use, and at the same time get better quality gear. We should replace digital cameras every 2-3 years as they become obsolete and the shutters wear out. I see a portable strobe kit as a way to elevate the image from ordinary to great.
What are you doing for marketing to get your vision out to your audience?
I’m increasingly ramping up my social media engagement; and also I do traditional marketing to a broad spectrum of prospective clients: email promos, direct mail cards, and updating my website. I’m trying to do one special thing promo every so often, and this time it’s a photobook of trackstars.
What are your thoughts on creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?
You have to absolutely do it!! I’m always pushing forward and trying to do something new and better than before, and fill a hole in the portfolio. It’s a hard and expensive process but it’s essential.
How often are you shooting new work?
Whenever I can make it happen – once a month?
Do you have a story of when ‘it all went wrong on a shoot’, and how you managed to see it
I always try to bring enough duplication of gear so that I can at least function, even if not at full capacity, if something goes wrong. I did shoot over a very important memory card on a big shoot that was unrecoverable Arghh!! I had to ‘fess up to the client and ended up forfeiting some of the fee we agreed.
If you could do something different when starting out as a photographer, what would it be?
As a young photographer I would have immerse myself into assisting for the hottest shooters, even if I have to live on bread an water to get by. I feel learning from good photographers is really valuable and can save so much time developing your craft.
What I’m glad I did starting out was to protect the ownership of everything I shot, and kept it (somewhat) organised, and pushed as much imagery out to stock agencies that I could.
If you had a promotional budget of $1000, what would you invest it in?
A custom printed photobook I could leave behind, and gas money to go see clients in person.
What’s your advice to make it as a sports photographer?
There’s so many ways to make it successfully as a sports photographer – and a million ways to fail too. You have to find your own path then stick with it though hell and high water, and never believe the naysayers, and never buy into the acclaim. There’s always someone’s footsteps that you are following in – and always someone right behind you, nipping at your heels. Good photography is just like a good sports performance – you have to bring your A game, concentrate and be loose enough to make the great pictures. Edit your work like your career depends on it.