Interview with Justin Kernes

Justin Kernes won the People’s Choice Award for our Environmental Portraits Contest last month with his awesome photo of a snake oil-styled accordion player titled, appropriately enough, “Accordion Player.”

This photo led us to the rest of Justin’s work, which we found to be colorful, dynamic, and full of zaniness and life. We asked Justin a few questions about his winning photo, his current projects, and what inspires him.

MPEX: First of all, let’s talk about this awesome photo that won the People’s Choice in our latest photo contest. What’s going on in this picture? Where did you find this man out of time? And could he actually play the accordion?

Justin Kernes: Yes! He can play the accordion, very well in fact. In the summer months, (late May through late August) I work at a high-adventure base for the Boy Scouts of America called Philmont, located in north-central New Mexico. Some 20,000 scouts each summer travel there take a 12 day backpacking experience. They will stay at a few camps, staffed by people like myself, and the accordion player, Kyle. Camps are themed, ours being a farming homestead by Austrian immigrants; the Risch family. We live the lifestyle of the 1900’s for three whole months; no electricity, no showers, a wood-burning stove, and we dress in period clothing. In the evenings, our staff put on a music show (also themed in 1900). Half of the 10 staff members could play instruments, extremely well.

I chose to do an environmental portrait of each person playing their instrument. Environmental portraits seem to be my style as of late. For each of the three summers I have worked there. I have brought out more and more photography gear. As a Strobist follower, I have gone with speedlites, wireless triggers, and enough batteries and stands to make a backpack depressing and soul-suckingly heavy. Each of the four pictures, I tried to capture the people as I grew to knew them. The vast open field, stoic pose, and dark stormy clouds seemed to work for the idea of Kyle that I had mind. Besides, who doesn’t like an accordion!

When did you start taking photos? How did you get started?

I got my first camera when I was 8, I recall, a Vivitar 600. A few years later, I got an automatic point and shoot Samsung 35mm camera. I begged for digital and received a 4 megapixel Kodak with some options I could fiddle with. Meanwhile, I took three years of 35mm black and white film in high school and another year or two in college. In early 2008, I bought my first digital camera, a used Canon xTi with the money I earned working at a film developing and printing store. I shot with that for 2 years and managed to trade up for a Canon xSi, which I still shoot with today. Currently working towards donating enough blood to acquire a full-frame digital camera.

I have always been interested in cameras. The idea of trying to capture something which I like and share it with people is very enticing. When I was younger, our family went camping quite a lot, something I’m very thankful for, and I always brought a camera. I took the obligatory nature shots of views, flora and fauna, and sunsets. I remember fondly my father inquiring me at Saguaro National Park as to why I didn’t put a person next to one of the huge cacti to show the scale. I replied, “I don’t like people”. Thankfully, that has changed, at least photographically, haha.

Your photos have a great sense of color and energy. What photographers inspire you? What else inspires you?

I continuously lie to myself and say I don’t have a style, but there seems to be a unique theme in all the pictures I take. Life is vibrant and I try to capture it to the best of my abilities. I want the viewer to pause, smirk a bit and breathlessly utter, “Cool.”

I have a few photographic influences. Dave Hill, David Hobby, the Brakha’s, Annie Leibovitz, Chase Jarvis, and Jeff Sciortino are all favorites of mine. I love the drama of off-camera lighting and powerful locations and characters. Photographically, I love challenges and trying to figure out how to accomplish the idea that I have.

I’m inspired by the great outdoors, the grunge of city-life, the taste of great coffee, and talented music.

What kinds of photo projects are you currently working on?

Rather perpetually, I have been shooting a series of doors. This has been ongoing ever since I have shot digital, and I don’t know if ill ever finish, but there are a few pictures I’m rather proud of. Ideally, I’ll manage to find, like, 50 doors, and arrange them chromatically in a massive print, but there is no rush in that project.

I did a recent series called “Tweaked Out” which was about the hectic life of school and trying to function in the world. I used lots of colored flashes and tried to create something overwhelming to look at. I printed 12 of them, framed and matted them, and had my senior gallery, required for graduation and a BA. I feel as though I want to continue to take pictures in that style. Very dynamic and crazy.

As long as I work at Philmont, there will always be a series on Southwest history. I’m in love with the setting there and the people I meet. I will always find things to photograph.

I’ve also followed a friend’s band for a few years and take pictures of them when I’m not busy. LoveWa[R]evolution play a poppy electro-house which allows me much creative freedom when photograph the fun duo.

I use Instagram, but take one abstract photo a week and upload it to Facebook, called Squared52.

Anywhere we can find your work on the Internet?

Currently, I post quite a lot of my work to my Facebook page. There are quite a lot of albums on my page. I’m in the process of creating a website, which I have said for quite some time. It’s a work in progress.

I also have a Tumblr, which I post to occasionally.

Don’t forget to enter this month’s photo contest, Strike a Pose! sponsored by Westcott.

Midwest Photo

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