Originally from the D.C. beltway area of Maryland, Evan Kafka is a New York City photographer who has something most artists aim for: his own signature style. You may like it, you may not, but clients such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Verizon, MetLife, MasterCard, Kiplinger’s, Forbes, Fortune, and many others love it and hire him regularly.
After high school, Kafka attended an electronics trade school and fixed hardware for the Associated Press in Washington D.C. upon graduation. During his three years in that job, he got into photography as a hobby. Luckily, his department was close to the photography department, and he developed a comraderie with the shooters there. Kafka picked up all he could from the AP shooters, and eventually left to go to college.
While at R.I.T. Kafka undertook newspaper internships, and thought he might become a newspaper photographer. In his last year he gravitated toward magazine work, and studied increasingly under the advertising program to learn about lighting and large format photography.
Kafka graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1995, and headed directly to New York City afterwards. He began assisting, which only lasted six months. Working as a photojournalist, he began getting reportage assignments and documentary style weddings before they were all the rage. Those two styles afforded him enough money to stop assisting, “before I got to learn anything,” he adds, laughing. Not having a mentor’s style heavily imprinted on his own work is one of the benefits of assisting for a short time.
Shooting professionally in New York for the past 15 years, Kafka has always forged his own way. “My style is something I’ve developed myself. I’m sure it’s been influenced by things I’ve seen, but I can’t really point to any one source or photographer I’m trying to be like. I learned most of it on my own by making a lot of mistakes. For eight years I used a Mamiya RZ. Part of that time I used it to shoot Polaroids, then shoot 35mm film,” he says, highlighting the irony. “Most people would say that’s backwards, but it helped me find the style I’ve become known for. Now I shoot all-digital.” Before he got the RZ, he also used a Polaroid 600 SE camera with a Mamiya lens.
One of Kafka’s most recent high-profile job has been a campaign for the Broadway musical Next to Normal. His intense headshot enlargements, ten feet tall each, fill the six doors of the Booth Theater with the six characters in the play. Tourists are often seen outside taking photographs of Kafka’s photographs. Similarly, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has plastered New York City with black and white reproductions of his headshots for As You Like It and The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes. ”Both of those jobs were totally lit with Profoto gear,” says Kafka.
“For the past year I’ve been focusing on really tight headshots, trying to make them as intense as I can. I want to bring out the character of the subject, the landscape of the face. I’ve always been interested in this kind of shot. I was doing them with my Mamiya RZ on film for years, but I felt I could only get so far. With the advent of digitial and new lighting techniques, I feel I’ve finally found a way to arrive at something I’m interested in. I’m really concentrating on the eyes, for one thing. There’s a lot of catch lights, a lot of texture in the eyes, and it’s all done through the lighting. My main light for these kinds of shots is a Profoto Softlight Reflector. That’s my favorite key light at the moment.”
As far as gear goes, Kafka’s main camera is a Canon 5D Mark II. He uses a Sekonic L-558R light meter. Profoto gear features large in creating his signature style. Kafka does this with two 1200w Acute packs, one 2400w Acute pack, one 600B Acute pack, and six Acute heads ] . He also owns one Magnum reflector w/grid. His Profoto rigs are fired by two PocketWizard Plus II transceivers and one receiver. Kafka also transports his lights in Tenba cases.
“I got into Profoto products because of the quality of the light shaping tools,” says Kafka. “I was always renting them when I first started out. They’re the industry standard. The reliability is always there, and you don’t have to worry about them not firing. Profoto gives a certain high-quality look to images which I think is identifiable. When I look at other photographers’ work, I can often tell when Profoto gear was used.”
Lately, Kafka has aimed his signature style at babies. “It happened naturally after shooting my young daughter,” he says. “The response has been very good. I’ve sold some as stock photos, and they’re doing quite well. For me it’s all about expressions, character, and intensity. I took that same approach and did it with babies. I shot last week for Huggies, and I’ve done a stroller company shoot. People like seeing babies this way. This kind of look and this kind of lighting is something I haven’t seen applied to babies before.”
Kafka has scores of financial magazine covers to his credit. “I primarily shoot for business magazines,” he explains. “Those magazines have been hit worst of all in this economy. Those guys were heroes, and now they’re scoundrels—probably neither of which is very fair, but that’s the perception now. Because the magazine industry has been hit so hard, I’m moving more into commercial photography, and I like it.”
Kafka can often be found shooting at his own Manhattan professional refuge, Some Studio. “It’s a great studio I own and rent out to others,” he says. “It’s a great space.” Wherever he’s shooting, indoors or out, Evan Kafka makes his subjects look like they were photographed by Evan Kafka, and that’s what any artist with a signature vision strives for.
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