Interview: Gen Kay

Gen Kay interview, Catalogue Magazine Spring 2013

Inspired by the work of Corinne Day and Jeurgen Teller, this self-taught photographer made it big in Japan before making her name in Australia. Now she's in demand in both countries, and she tells Chloe Sargeant she's loving every minute of it.

Gen, I know you've done a lot of work in both Tokyo and Australia during your career. But can you give us a little more insight into your journey?
Well, I started out in Tokyo 11 years ago. Photography was a hobby, so I’d never assisted or studied - I had no idea about anything! I’d just enjoyed taking photos of friends or on my parents’ farm… I wanted to get out of Australia and live overseas for a year. And I ended up in Tokyo! I took over a photo album of 6 x 4 inch prints, and somehow started getting work. It sounds crazy talking about it now – but it was really that simple. I didn’t have a burning desire to be a photographer; I didn’t really know what the next step was career-wise for me. But that was the beginning. It just kind of happened… I still feel a little like I’m fooling people sometimes! [laughs]

So was the move just out of boredom? Why Japan?
Noooo… actually no, you’re right - it was boredom more than anything else [laughs]. I’d lived overseas before in London and done the working holiday thing, and was ready to do another stint anyway. I loved Hiromix’s photos and the Tokyo she portrayed in her photography, and I wanted to see and experience that world. Japan will always be so important to me, because it is where I got my initial breaks, which may have been more difficult to achieve here in Australia. Those breaks are crucial when you’re starting a creative practice and small business. Being an outsider and showing images of a different lifestyle and environment definitely gave me a point of difference in Tokyo, and it worked in my favour.

Where is home to you now? 
Melbourne. Melbourne’s always been home; my base that I travel from. I was in central Victoria for my high school years, which is where my parents’ farm is. But Melbourne is home to me. 

Your photography is celebrated especially for its bright, natural, youthful vibes - is that something that’s always on your mind during each shoot?
It’s a theme, and natural light has always been my starting point. Even with the photographers that were my initial inspiration, Juergen Teller and Corinne Day, the images of theirs that really resonated with me were always the ones that were outdoors, or using natural light. Ultimately, anyone can take a good photo – it might be a fluke, but it’s a medium that’s accessible to anyone. If you shoot with natural light, you don’t need the skill set for other lighting techniques. So it’s a medium that you can teach yourself, and for years I only shot natural light because that’s all I knew and understood. I didn’t use an assistant for the first four years of shooting, purely because I did not know that using an assistant was an option [laughs]. There was a lot of learning on the job.  

I got a bit of a vintage vibe from shot of yours too… Are you influenced by certain elements of the past when creating new work? If so, which?
Not really, but I am passionate about shooting film, and the entire process that comes with it. I started out with film, and recently I’ve gone back to it for some editorial and portrait bookings, so I think that’s perhaps what you’re responding to. I love the confidence that comes with shooting film, knowing you’ve got the shot without referring to a laptop screen. Shooting digitally often overloads you with options, and I don’t need that many options in my life! I like shooting digitally, but I love shooting film. 

Now you did a heap of cool stuff in Japan – including shots for Vogue Japan and Nylon. How did these jobs come about? Tell us a little bit about them.
My first commission for Japanese Vogue was a portrait of designer Antonio Marras, who used to be the artistic director for Kenzo. I had done jobs for some street magazines and fashion labels including Relax Magazine and X-girl. Those commissions created a small folio which opened doors and gave me opportunities to access people. Everything leads to something in this business!

A lot of models I know say Japan is a pretty hectic place to do a contract. Is it the same for photographers?
Probably not quite as crazy! If you’re a model, I’d encourage you to be well-rested before you go to Japan. It’s hectic for the models with their castings – they go well into the night. But, the early starts and late finishes for photographers are on par with the models. I had a preproduction meeting at midnight in Tokyo once, and no one else thought it was unusual…

I've noticed you've done a lot of fresh face portraits as well. Is there something you particularly enjoy about shooting fresh faces?
It's such an intuitive thing when you spot a face that you respond to. It may be striking cheekbones, intelligent eyes, a soft persona... but I find castings easy, purely because it is so intuitive for me. The girl you want to shoot always stands out, and she may be the quieter, more invisible girl in the corner. I'm usually not so interested in a girl's folio, I’ll always request casting digitals or video of girls as a starting point.

While I was doing a bit of research, Google Images kindly informed me that you had shot Daniel Radcliffe. Now I see you've done quite a few celebrity portraits, including Marianne Faithfull. How did you get into doing this? Any awesome stories to share?
Oh yeah! Yeah! Daniel Radcliffe. He was so memorable because he was just such a likeable guy. We were shooting in Melbourne, and there were security checks in the leadup to the shoot as it was near his 18th birthday, which was when his first Harry Potter earnings came into play, so I assume there was some fears around his safety. Which would have been fine to deal with, except he needed to go to the bathroom, and instead of going somewhere private away from crowds, he walked straight into the Sun Cinema and asked to use their restrooms. A CINEMA. Out of all the places! [laughs] And Marianne Faithfull is just… wow, amazing. Amazing.

And you shot Grimes for Australian magazine SRC783 recently too. What’s Grimes like?
It was literally 15 minutes! We shot a back cover and 9 pages, it was quick but she was so, so nice. 

She’s so adorable – I want to hug her all the time.
Yes! From what I've read about her, the promotional shoots aren't really a priority for her and it's not something she enjoys but she was so obliging and kind. And she is a true artist, uncompromising, and such an inspiring feminist.  I grew up during the whole riot grrl era, and there were so many inspiring women making music with a strong voice, and I think about who young girls of today have for role models and I always think, 'Thank god they've got Grimes'. She’ll steer them in the right direction!

You also create films featuring models. Is photography your main love, or is films something you can see yourself focusing on one day?
Photography has always made more sense to me than film. It is a really natural progression for photographers to move into film; though some people do is successfully and some people don’t. I’ve had a concept for a film project that has sat stagnant, as I need to devote 6 months to it – so maybe one day! But transitions like that take time, money and resources, so it’s a matter of finding those first. 

The B&W video of Nick Cave's son Jethro is quite ethereal and very emotive. Can you tell us a little bit of the inspiration behind your films?
Jethro’s a Melbourne boy; I did some of his first test shots in Melbourne. There is so much going on in his face, so much going on in his eyes. He was only fifteen when I first shot him, but he was already such an old soul, and this beautiful outcast. I did a few films with him around this time including one of him using eyedrops as fake tears, but it never saw the light of day as it turns out that the camera was broken, unbeknownst to me! But all of these films are model studies, really. 

What do you mean by 'model study'?
I'd define it as a personal interpretation of the model through 1 minute of film footage. A film producer described them to me this way and it's stuck, as they don't have a narrative to fall into the short film category, and don't have a fashion focus to fall into the fashion film category!

Whose work has influenced you the most?
Different photographers have influenced me at different stages but I'll always love the 35mm film photographers who rose to prominence in the 90's such as Juergen Teller and Hiromix and my go to photography books for inspiration will always include - 'The Lives of Lee Miller', Larry Towell's 'The View From My Front Porch' and Kenshu Shintsubo's 'Kioku'.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Living in Melbourne and having a career in Japan. It’s only in hindsight that I realise what an unusual setup and achievement this is. 

Is that because Sydney is regarded as the fashion capital of Australia?
Yeah exactly! I don’t have to be based in one of the main international cities to work in one of the main international cities. I’m proud of that.

What's your next goal/next project?
Traveling and building up a new body of editorial work.

Finally, what advice would you have for someone wanting to break into photography? Is there something you'd wish you'd known when you first started?
I think my advice would be to go and explore outside of Australia. If you find an opportunity to be based in Europe or Asia, do it! Even if it’s just for a little while, a year, whatever – find a way to do it. Find a supportive community. Follow your heart and don’t imitate.