James K Lowe
James K Lowe is overwhelmingly modest for someone who can list exhibiting in the 2011 Paris Photoquai Biennele, an Auckland Festival of Photography Commission, and editorial work for New Zealand heavy hitters Karen Walker and Huffer on his resume. All this, and he hasn’t yet hit 30.
Born and raised in Auckland, James didn’t particularly enjoy school - with the exception of a few art subjects - and jumped at the chance to leave early and go straight to Elam. The Fine Arts degree at Elam doesn’t focus on majors, this sudden absence of limitation meant opportunity to explore. It wasn’t until his second year, however, that James first picked up a camera - large format film - and through trial and error gradually began to master the temperamental nature of film. James points to an early shoot where "we flooded my friend’s kitchen, and we had to redo it three or four times because I had the wrong [light meter] readings, or loaded the film in backwards".
It wasn’t long before James’ work began attracting attention, and in his third year he had his first solo show, Ever, ever, at McNamara Gallery in Wanganui, followed by a second show, American Night, during his Honours year. In a perfect example of the New Zealand creative community’s close-knit nature, Paul McNamara put James in touch with esteemed photographer Anne Noble, who in turn put James’ name forward for the 2011 Paris Photoquai Biennele. Just months after graduating, James became one of 30 international photographers to exhibit there.
James fell in to fashion photography almost by chance. In 2008 his older sister Katherine, who works in graphic design, was gifted a blog with the domain name 'Katherineisawesome' as "kind of a joke". Joke or not, the blog soon took off, with Katherine being named among the top young bloggers and influencers in New Zealand. As the blog began to build, she wanted imagery for it, and naturally turned to her brother. "Her introduction into fashion was my introduction into fashion", he says. The siblings began collaborating on self-styled shoots, the very first of which included Clyne models Emma Boyd and Renee Wilkinson Foster. "It’s interesting to see where they’ve ended up, that was Renee’s first shoot and I was shooting with Renee [again in May 2017]". Emma Boyd was also a model for James’ recent series 'Murkville', which showed as part of the AIPA’s Hyperreal exhibition in March, 2017.
Since starting out in fashion, James’ editorial and campaign credits have come to include Lonely ("the only client that’s asked to have something shot on [film]"), Karen Walker, twenty-seven names, Huffer and Georgia Alice. Magazine credits include Black, i-D, Viva, Remix, Nylon - the list goes on, and it’s a lengthy one.
Part of the social-media generation, with a huge Instagram following (over 125k and growing), he has guest-instagrammed at New Zealand Fashion Week for i-D/Vice, and Samsung NZ.
James admits he prefers to shoot in studio, where he has more control. "The sun is a single source of light with so many variables," he says, "to me it’s so much easier to add light than to try take it away". While his art practice tends to gravitate towards film, shooting on film is impractical for his fashion work – the large-format camera is too heavy to hold, and each shot takes a long time to set up, allowing little room for spontaneity. Digital photography becomes a necessity. Even so, his digital images have a dreamy quality; the kind usually associated with the fine grain and haze of old film.
James has recently begun to build his own sets. The idea came about through work: "I had just shot a campaign with Huffer – I designed a set, and they actually had people come in and build it. It was a massive room with slanted walls, they started at 8am and by about 12pm they were finished." This inspired him to buy a nail gun, and learn the art of set building himself – a slow process (his first attempt took eight hours to complete), but if recent shoots are anything to go by, worth it in the long run. This move further into image construction was also a catalyst for James to go back to Elam in 2017 for a Master of Fine Arts.
James is "still trying to find that balance between making work for myself and for others". While there remains a contrast between the commercial and fine arts aspects of James’ practice - not least because of the technical differences - his images are still visually distinctive, recognisably "his". Many of his images are staged in such a way that they appear lit naturally, outdoors – hyper-real, in a sense, or fantastical. Sunlit shots are literally a trick of the light.
Though he has travelled extensively over the past few years, James admits that he finds it difficult to work overseas. He spent a year in South Korea, after first graduating Elam, and would love to return there eventually. New York and Sydney also stand out, and he was brought to San Diego by Adobe for the 2016 AdobeMax conference. Unlike in New Zealand, however, where work comes through connections and relationships built over time, the networks simply haven’t been there overseas – yet. For now, he’s balancing his studio work with his Elam experiments, shooting on different films and mixing mediums, proving that "photography is more than the medium it's printed on".
Text by Arielle Walker. Banner image © James K Lowe.
Last published June 2017.