We first began following Byan Whitely’s work nearly ten years ago, and even as a recent college grad, the Brooklyn-based photographer’s work was breathtaking. Whitely has a way of turning out images from a casual test shoot that are worthy of an international fashion campaign. His work is organic, nuanced, and deceivingly simple, photographing models with very little indulgence from hair, makeup, and styling. We were lucky enough to catch the pro between shoots and even got him to share some of his favorite work of all time.
BLNCD: When do you remember first honing in on your point of view as a photographer? Was there an “aha” moment?
BW: In the beginning I would say most photographers will copy or emulate pictures that they find inspiring. It took me a while to get into a groove where I started to shoot imagery that I felt had my own perspective on it. I used to work with teams of people, hair and makeup, and styling. I started to realize I was getting better content when I removed most of the noise and just focused on the subject myself. This allowed me to play with the hair and clothing without stepping on other people’s toes. I like things simple. I love natural light, little to no makeup, no teams, minimal styling. That for me feels the most “aha” I can get into a creative zone and really focus on the subject when I’m left to do what I do, create.
BLNCD: As someone who has been photographing fashion models for over a decade, how has your work been impacted by shifts in the industry, in both technology and culture?
BW: Social media for sure changed things. Images and content that was strictly used for internal marketing and promoting talent was now being put onto social media platforms. I would say this kind of showcasing made me even more particular on the imagery and content I create for talent. Early on when I first started shooting for agencies, If there was hair in the face I would always be asked to retouch it off, but now it seems like it’s fair game and stylistic if done properly. In the past ten years, I’ve definitely noticed a big shift and change in diversity and representation for all.
BLNCD: Your campaign shoot for Orcé Cosmetics is breathtaking. What unique challenges or preparations went into your work on that campaign?
BW: Thank you. The biggest challenge I face is finding balance amongst different energies. Collaboration is beautiful once all parties understand we are working toward the same goal.
BLNCD: There’s a clear theme in the look and finessing of your portraits. Do you see your process of editing your photos as a proprietary secret?
BW: I think a photographer’s greatest gift is what they can emote and capture out of their subject, which is happening in camera. When it comes to post work, I believe less is more. To me, this minimalistic approach translates to a harmony of artistic freedom that is also sellable for the model and agency.
BLNCD: What is it about the photos that you treasure most, your very favorites, that makes them so?
BW: The ones I treasure most are the ones that just can’t seem to get off the website or portfolio. Many of the images in the album “grain” on my website are images that I find timeless and special.
“I shot this when I first moved to New York. I didn’t have a studio and was shooting out of my tiny apartment. I would use the front yard as a backdrop. I love how her laying in the sun almost appears like she is on the crucifix.”
“I draped Adam with a very light black silk chiffon. It has a somber quality, and almost a film grain effect with the fabric in front of him.”
“I love this image of Ruby, sometimes you get the hairy to blow just right.”
BLNCD: Is there a lot of work that goes into finding a common language with the model? How much communication is happening during a typical shoot?
BW: I would say there is much communication while shooting. First, you need to have some sort of mood. I like to have music, and a vibe going. Sometimes the subject is stiff and needs encouragement to start moving, while others, even new talent, can emote and move effortlessly. I like to use mirrors a lot while working. I think it’s helpful for the talent to be able to see themselves while being shot. Many times the styling can be very unusual, so it’s helpful when they are able to see what is going on.
BLNCD: Having developed a sustainable career as an artist, what is your advice to younger creative who are looking to take the leap?
BW: I had a great professor in college that said, “show what you want to be shooting.” I think that is good advice for young artists. What do you want to create and get paid to do? Show that. Constantly keep creating and the work will come.
BLNCD: What are you looking forward to in 2021? What new uncharted challenges are you looking to tackle?
BW: I want to expand and grow creatively. 2020 provided a lot of time to really take a step back and refocus my energy on exactly what I want to. After working in fashion for about ten years, I started getting curious about other mediums. I had this idea to start shooting things that were less idealized, or things that most would consider unappealing to view. I started getting fruit and letting it deteriorate and mold. While photographing I was surprised to find that some of the most grotesque food still had a kind of beautiful quality to it.