Behind the Lens with Chris Lowell
You may have seen him in TV shows such as Veronica Mars, Private Practice, or most recently as Bash Howard in Netflix’s hit series, GLOW. Now, we take you behind the lens to get to know more about Chris Lowell — the photographer.
Chris was initially inspired by iconic street photographers such as Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, capturing street scenes from the hip. Years later, the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann compelled him to try portraiture. Since then, he’s been capturing memories in medium format, while still maintaining his style of shooting instinctively.
As an actor and photographer, what’s a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me basically consists of trying to distract myself from the fear that I’ll never work again. My photography career was born out of an effort to give myself more creative power as an artist. With acting, you’re dependent on others to give you a job. With photography, I have all the control, and it’s one of the most liberating feelings in the world. I take pictures of whatever I want, whenever I want, using the equipment that I most prefer. I’m not beholden to anyone for approval, and there’s great freedom in that. My photographs are a much better reflection of myself as an artist (for better or worse) because the vision is entirely mine.
So, a typical day? If I’m not lying in a fetal position on the floor, I usually wake up in my apartment in New York and try to fill the hours with as much creative stimulus as possible; going to museums, plays, galleries, concerts, seeing movies at film forum, reading memoirs of artists I admire, flipping through art books, etc. And I travel as often as humanly possible. And I take photographs.
I read in an interview that you started taking photographs because of a TV show that you were in; could you tell us more about it?
It was my first acting job; a show called Life As We Know It. My character was a photographer for the school paper, and Gabe Sachs — one of the creators of the show, and an avid photographer himself — gave me a Leica M3 and taught me the basic principles of how to use it. Because it didn’t have a light meter, I got pretty good at learning how to read light, and I just took a ton of photos. I was 19-years-old, wandering around Vancouver, teaching myself how to take pictures. And that’s basically what I’m still doing.
Who or what are your visual influences?
The photography books that are most dog-eared in my apartment are Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids, Elliott Erwitt’s Personal Best, and William Klein’s New York 1954–55. I love the subjects and postures in Egon Schiele paintings, and the atmospheres in Edward Hopper paintings. As for cinema, A Hard Day’s Night, Faces, The Conformist, and every Fellini film are great visual inspirations.
Your portfolio feels like a peek into your private memories with friends. What inspires you to capture these portraits?
I started out shooting street photographs, but eventually I wanted to have a closer relationship with my subjects. Sally Mann became an enormous influence. So did Mapplethorpe’s early work. I could feel the presence of the photographer in their images. And that’s what I wanted from my own work. So I turned the camera on the people in my everyday life. My favorite portraits are the ones that feel like a conversation between myself and the subject. I feel like I’m constantly trying to capture my relationships with these people, or maybe a better way of saying it is that I’m trying to photograph my memories of those relationships. I rarely ever stage my pictures. I still shoot with the impulse of a street photographer.
Some photographers still shoot film because they enjoy the feeling of the whole process, while some photographers believe that there is a distinct feel to film that cannot be digitally duplicated. Do you agree? What motivates you to shoot film?
I love the tactile nature of film, the process of loading the camera, winding the shutter, licking the tape to seal an exposed roll. It’s undeniably romantic. Having said that, I don’t disrespect digital photography. At this point, it’s more of a philosophical argument for me. With digital photography, you get the advantages of exactitude and accuracy. You can snap a shot and immediately analyze it: is the exposure right, is everything in focus, etc. With film, there is no reviewing process. You just have to trust your eye. It sharpens your instincts.
I take most of my photographs when I’m traveling, and it’s crucial for me to stay in the moment when I’m abroad. If I was shooting digitally, I would constantly be checking and rechecking my photographs, making sure everything was perfect, and if it wasn’t, I would keep trying to capture the image over and over again, each time lessening the truthfulness of what initially inspired me to take the photograph in the first place. Whereas, shooting film, when I see something inspiring, I take a photo and trust that, when I develop the film weeks later, the kernel of what initially inspired me is alive on the negative. Sometimes that means imperfect framing, or motion blur, or soft focus, but that gives it all the more authenticity.
What is your go-to camera and film?
A Hasselblad 503CW with a 50mm lens, or a Leica M7. I almost exclusively shoot Tri-X, though lately I’ve been exploring color, shooting Portra. And every so often, I’ll have the courage to shoot on a Holga, though I’m not very good at it.
Let’s say you’re given half an hour to shoot with your favorite camera. What would you take pictures of?
My better-half. Doing literally anything: sleeping, making tea, brushing her teeth, yawning… doesn’t matter.
Please share with us your current favorite photo and the story behind it.
I often come back to this photograph from the “Thirty-One Days” series. In a nutshell, my family owned a home on a lake in North Georgia where my friends and I all grew up; it was a real bedrock of my youth. When my family sold the house in 2011, I moved back in for the final 31 days of ownership and took these portraits, which are undoubtedly my best work to date, and this photograph feels particularly representative of what I was feeling at the time… “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Now here’s a GLOW question. You’ve posted some behind-the-scenes photos on your Instagram — any funny or weirdly memorable stories that happened while you’re taking these photos? I imagine it must’ve been a really exciting atmosphere, with all these colors and characters and costumes.
I’ve always brought my camera to set, to take photos during my downtime. GLOW was a particularly mesmerizing set, because it was so loaded with these insane costumes and characters and atmosphere. I shot more color than I’m used to. I arrived three episodes into shooting, and I was looking for a way to insert myself into this already-established community, and my camera served as the icebreaker. Everyone was open to me taking pictures. Sometimes it’s difficult to photograph actors because they have difficulty being themselves in front of the camera, but not these ladies. They immediately let their guard down in front of the lens. They were an incredibly welcoming group of people, and very quickly I was part of the family. I love all of these women so much (and Marc).
What do you still hope to achieve as a photographer?
Like any artist, I want my work to be seen. I want to keep pushing myself with the medium. I’ve been experimenting lately with collage work, and these commission art projects I’m calling “Memory Boxes.” I’ve been approached to take pictures for magazines and campaigns a couple times, which I want to do if they’ll let me do it my way. I want to do more non-profit work. I want to keep photographing the people that I love. I want to photograph more strangers. I want to find a way to photograph my parents. I want to keep shooting film. I want to be in museums. I want to learn more from the photographers I admire. I want to spend an afternoon in Virginia with Sally Mann. I want to wander through Elton John’s apartment in Atlanta and look at his collection. I want to teach my future children how to load a camera. I want to throw everything away and start all over again.
What advice would you give those who are new to photography?
Written by Sunshine Reyes. Originally published at lomography.com.