Fashion photographer Sebastian Kim converses with his friend Laura Vignale to give us a clearer picture of the man behind the lens. As captivating as his photos, Sebastian talks about his early years as Richard Avedon’s assistant, to his current life in New York and maybe one day moving to Paris to polish up on his French.
Photo by Leonard Fong
You are this cool guy living in New York City, in the middle of the scene, djing all hype parties; part owner of a great restaurant, shooting fashion… what is the thing that makes you the most excited these days?
There are always so many things to get into in this city, but I’m really psyched about exploring restaurants right now. Being involved in An Choi, having friends like Tuan, Huy, and yourself really got me into it… it’s like acquiring a taste for wine. You drink it but you take it for granted, you don’t think about all the work that went into it. I’m realizing what’s involved in preparing the food, hearing the stories behind it all, and you realize you can’t take it for granted. I really started to appreciate the whole experience. I was recently in Italy and all we did is talk about food. I think that eating out is the new coolest hobby in New York… My problem is I get sidetracked a lot and start to fantasize about exploring other things, like writing music.
Is music something you want to explore? If you weren’t doing photography, what would you want to do?
Music is something that I’ve become more and more obsessed with. I really started to want to get to know the structure of it and how it’s done. Everything is so accessible now on the Internet, I would research and read on the history of specific genres of music. I got obsessed with Italdisco about 5 years ago and I’m still really into it. I track down rarities on ebay. I still spend lots of time with friends, digging for records.
How did you get involved in the An Choi restaurant project?
Tuan and Huy Bui asked me if I wanted to be involved. I’ve known Tuan for about 7 years, and we had always talked about it. He was originally going to open it with some other people and it fell through; I was talking to another friend about investing in another project with another friend of mine, but it didn’t happen. I was born in Vietnam, and I’m passionate about the food. I believed in him and what he wanted to do… and I knew Vietnamese sandwiches would be a hit!
You have quite the story, born in Vietnam, raised in Tehran, Paris and California… how did you end up in New York City?
I was born in Vietnam. I lived outside of Paris, between the ages of 5 and 10. I attended college in Santa Barbara, at Brooks. Six months before I graduated there was an opening in New York at Avedon’s studio. I left school to try out and I got the job. I didn’t want to take the position, I wanted to graduate and get my diploma; that was my first priority. However my professor really wanted me to take it; he talked to the rest of the faculty and they agreed to give me the rest of my credits as an internship in order to graduate. I was very grateful for that push. I was hesitant and very young, I didn’t know if I was cut out for it.
My mom lived in Flushing so I stayed with her on her couch. I told her I would only stay with her a year and ended up on her couch for 4 years! I was working all the time; went home, slept, went back to work. That was 13 years ago…
After working with Avedon, you then went to work with Steven Meisel. How did that come about?
I was leaving Richard Avedon because I had just gotten my own studio with my friend Billy. I was 26 at the time and we were both really excited to start shooting. A month before I left Avedon, Steven’s first assistant offered me a position. It was a tough decision because I wanted to do my own thing, and then this opportunity arose to go back into assisting. But since I was still only 26 I thought, “I can do this.” I worked with him for 7 years. I’ve been assisting for… what’s 4 + 7…. 11 years!
What was your first camera?
My mom gave my brother a Nikon F3. My brother didn’t want to use it; he didn’t want to spend money on film. So he gave it to me, I was so excited. I was skateboarding at the time, so I just wanted to take pictures of my friends. That’s how I got into it. My first publication was for Transworld Skateboarding Magazine. My idol back then was Spike Jonze, when he was a skateboard photographer. It’s so funny to recall someone you idolize as a kid and then to see him become one of the most influential directors of our time.
Who is your favorite model right now? Do you have a muse?
I don’t really get stuck on anybody. I see a lot of what’s great about some of the classic photographers; Avedon, Guy Bourdin, they all had their muses. These days, everything changes so fast so it’s hard to hold onto to one girl. It’s all so political with the agencies so you can’t get too attached. I think the most I’ve ever shot the same girl is for two different stories maybe… there are so many new faces, old faces, big names that you want to shoot.
Who would you love to shoot?
Lately the assignments that I’m most excited about are photographing the people I admire. Bands that I like, the djs, the musicians, the artists and directors. I was so excited to photograph XX for Interview; they’re a band that I listen to. I get so much more enthusiastic about that than I do about fashion. With fashion you have to think about all the production aspects of it and the concept. It’s a lot of work.
With portraits you feel the intimacy between you and the subject. That’s why Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, all those big photographers became such great portrait photographers. I feel so grateful when I’m asked to shoot people like Morrissey and Robert Smith; I’m very lucky to be able to meet the people that influenced me in my childhood, and the people that influence me now. It makes you really think about the person and how you want to portray them. I do a lot of research beforehand; I conduct a little study on them. I just finished reading Annie Lebovitz’s new book, and in seeing the progression from her documentary days to the kind of photography she is doing now… I was really inspired by the way she approached photography, her early career, shooting for Rolling Stone. I felt the greatest sense of appreciation.
I feel like I’m still trying to figure out the fashion thing, I figured out the portrait much faster. Interview Magazine commissioned me, and Karl Templer was pushing me to shoot people and guiding me through it. This helped me create a sense of direction of how to approach my portraits. In fashion, it’s a little different. I often get asked what it is that I am trying to say. Like “what’s your personal take on this?” And I don’t feel that I have a strong perspective. The more I experiment the more I discover what I like and don’t like. The other nice thing about fashion is that it doesn’t have to be so iconic. You are trying to capture something about the fashion now… it’s throwaway, you move on to the next project and you’ll probably hate what you shot 3 months from now. It’s very temporary.
For me it’s about creating balance between shooting portraits and fashion.
How have things changed since joining Jed Root?
Certainly joining Jed Root has really changed my career. I wasn’t doing commercial work before and it’s great having someone able to get you that kind of work. You can go broke doing editorials, shooting them in the hopes of making a living afterwards. I had been shooting editorials for a year, maybe even two before it started to pay off. Without the commercials there’d be no editorials to shoot.
Do you still love New York or is there another city you would love to live and work in?
I’ve always wanted to live in Paris. It holds lots of childhood memories for me, and I want to polish up on my French.
All photos courtesy of Sebastian Kim
edited by Onwyn Stacey