Corbin Chase came to New York on a whim five years ago to escape his Southern roots and discover what made him tick. He found it: in countless disposable cameras and the people and memories he was capturing with fervor. Since then, he’s transitioned to better equipment, to be sure, but his commitment to freezing those same moments, one photo at a time, remains. Chase shoots exclusively on film, and that comes with its own joys and challenges that differ almost entirely from digital. Read more about his transition to New York, and how having an unconventional education has shaped his craft. Above all else, Chase serves as proof of this: that the path less traveled is often the most rewarding, and there’s no such thing as a “correct” way to pursue your dreams.
This interview took place between Emma Banks and Corbin Chase at Milk Studios in New York
EB: When did you first pick up a camera and how did you get interested in fashion photography?
CH: Yeah. I was running away from Texas, I wanted a change of pace and wanted to do something creative. I didn’t want to do school anymore and it just felt like all the right doors were closing. I figured, why not pull open, as hard as I could, the New York door. So I came here, crashed with friends, and all of my friends happened to be going to art school and a lot of them were in photo. So I would sneak into their photo classes with them, use their photo labs, lied to literally everyone I talked to on that campus, and got a free education. [Laughs] So that’s my best tip to anyone: have friends who go to school for the field that you want to work in. And then come up with a lot of crafty ways to get in the same room as them without paying a dollar.
I just kind of fell into it and really liked it. I was shooting on all disposable cameras, pouring all of my money to get this shit developed, used to send it out from CVS and wait like 10 days to get it back, I was so grimy. But yeah I was just kind of around it, and then I fell in love with it. People are my favorite thing in the whole world and I feel like photographs are the best way to hoard them or remember them in a certain way or be selfish with your memories. You’re really choosing how it looks and feels, so that became really important to me, as I was in New York and constantly meeting incredible people, and ending up in the weirdest places and it was always fascinating. I was talking to whoever I could, and then ipso facto I was shooting whoever I could. That’s how I fell into it.
With fashion, in New York there’s so much fashion production that happens here. So many makers here, so many designers who are inspired, so many creatives and so many roads that lead back to fashion. It’s this giant monster. New York is chic as fuck. Why would you do fashion in LA when you could do fashion in New York? And I don’t have a visa so I can’t do fashion in London or Paris. So New York is it.
What are some of the challenges that come with having a sort of abnormal education?
Well number one imposter syndrome. Immediately you feel like, because you didn’t go about things as legitimately or traditionally as others, it feels like the pictures that you’re taking are somehow less professional or less valid. But that’s also a confidence issue. It really comes down to how you define your success, in any industry. I think a lot of people in photography would say their success is defined by which publications put their work out, but for me I feel like it’s so person to person. When you start something as strangers and leave as friends that to me is how I go about it. So that helped me to combat not feeling legitimate or not having a real shot at succeeding in taking the pictures that I wanted to take, because I put the emphasis not on where they ended up or who saw them but whether or not I really enjoyed my time creating them. I know that a bunch of different artists can tell you the same shit, but the reason they do is because it’s true. People who are passionate about what they’re doing are going to stick around to see it through. And also, the key to making it in New York is to stay. Do anything you can to stay because you never know who’ll you end up in the same room as or who you can become friends with, and other people might see your vision and be able to plug it in somewhere else. And that’s ultimately my goal - what can I add from my experiences to help something succeed that has a positive effect on people.
But yeah, imposter syndrome is real. There have been certain situations where there was equipment I didn’t know, and I would get really embarrassed about it. But don’t psych yourself out, just be open to new experiences and open to learning. If there’s something I don’t know, I need to be absolutely upfront with someone about it, get that knowledge, and move forward. It’s just about not getting embarrassed about the things that you missed because you didn’t take the school route. But one of the benefits of this route is that I hear all of these people lamenting that photography school or art school gave them so many rules, what to do and how to do it, what’s bad and what’s good, and I’ve had several conversations of people telling me, “It must be nice to be able to take a photo and not be worried about breaking a rule or displeasing someone. Not having those silent critics and worrying about what you want to do." Whereas I have a completely empty canvas and nothing’s holding me back. So I’m glad that I got to pursue something that’s a passion of mine with an open mind.
What makes a great photo? Or how do you know when you “got the shot”?
One of my favorite quotes of all time, I believe it’s William Eggleston, is “The best photos are the ones you don’t take.” There are times where I put my camera down and just get to really experience something. It makes the whole process of finding images so much sexier and more romantic. But on set, I’m very vocal, very intense, I shout a lot — not in a mean way or aggressive way but I’m very energetic. And I can tell when someone is so distracted by the performance that I’m giving them behind the camera that they’ve loosened up, they can’t even think about being insecure or how they want to present themselves, they have to focus on me dancing around crazy with a camera. And then when I can see that look in their eyes — when you can see just a little bit of that insecurity drop, that’s when I know, damn it, take that picture.
Also, counting to three and shooting on one and a half is one of the best tricks of the trade. People get so mad and it’s such a fun little game. I love it when people are directing and they know exactly what they want and they’re not going to give up until they get it. But I really connect with the idea that every time you get a subject and a photographer, that it’s an experiment. And often it’s a lot of people playing around to just see what happens. That to me is a lot more exciting than, “Oh I know exactly what image I’m going to get and this is how I’m going to get it.” When you know, you know. With film, you don’t get to immediately check. You have to be careful. I'll charge someone $3.50 if they blink during one of my pictures!
For me on set, it’s an energy, it’s a connection with the person, there’s a tangible feeling in the room when that barrier has been broken and there’s a little more trust established, and that’s when I feel like you really start to get happy with your clicker because you really start to get some nice photos. One thing I always try and do is just catch people off guard as much as possible. There is nothing more boring than seeing someone look into a camera the way that they want you to see them. It is so much more interesting to get someone off guard — to see their nostrils flare in a way you haven’t seen, or maybe their neck is strained or they’re licking their lips — something fucking weird that’s very specifically them. That’s always what I want to see. If I have a roll of 36 photos that are all smiling and posed or whatever, I didn’t really get to them. I know I got to them if they’re picking their nose or grabbing their ear. They weren’t acting. You know what I mean.
What’s your favorite part about being a photographer?
For me it’s very selfish. I very much like to hoard and collect memories, all the things that have happened, I feel like going the weird route in life of dropping out of school and just showing up somewhere and saying, “I hope this works.” So when it does work, every small little victory means so much to me. Part of being in photography is when I get a roll of film back or I’m looking at old photos, and if the photo immediately evokes what was happening there in that moment, then I did a good job. Having so much evidence of what happened, of what we created, it is exciting. It’s mine, it doesn’t have to mean shit to anyone else, I did that, and it reminds me of life and living and not fucking checking my phone.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to shoot fashion?
I think when you’re shooting fashion, it’s difficult. Unless you are fully producing your own shoot, and the vision is yours to play with, but when there’s a client involved, that’s someone who has put their blood sweat and tears into these designs and into the process. To be responsible for how it’s presented to the world — you have to have lengthy conversations, lots of planning, etcetera. I like to shoot for myself and have my own projects, and that’s a lot easier sometimes than having a client. Bringing someone’s vision to life means covering all of your bases, getting reference images, making sure people understand what about that image or moodboard you want to highlight. Good photography, especially in fashion, comes down to good communication. Every time I shoot someone, I always try and ask for images of themselves that they like. Knowing how someone likes to be seen is a major advantage on set. So with fashion, it’s way better to have references than to wing it.
Start with: what are our goals? What do we want to get out of this? Have we seen something that inspired us somewhere else? Make sure you’re all on the same page. And when you’re shooting, the most important thing is to look at the clothes. Yes you want a good expression from the model and specific body language etcetera. Watch the clothes. A person can always be adjusted. Be really clothing-oriented and prioritize that. And most importantly, if you’re not having fun you shouldn’t be doing it. Fashion is fun. What people create is incredible. There are a million different ways to show it, so pay attention and be meticulous but have fun and let it be organic. If you’re shooting film, and your third roll is not blowing it out of the water, something’s not working. Each roll should be more exciting than the last. So: communicate with your client, go slow on set when you need to go slow, don’t rush yourself, and make sure you’re having fun. It will always show in your photos.