A high school drop out at just 17, Noah Agemo's shots are an incredible testament to what hard work and determination can achieve against the odds. Steeped in gorgeous analogue grain, his portraits represent not just a deep understanding of light, shadow and cinematic scenery, but — more importantly — what it takes to follow your passion. Oh, and did we forget to mention that he took some snaps of Kanye West? We caught up with Noah to chat about street photography, the people that inspire his creative process, and his unwavering love of film.
Hey, Noah! Welcome to the Lomography Magazine. How did you get started on your photographic journey?
Thanks for having me! I started getting interested in it when I was about 10 years old. I used to borrow my grandpa's Pentax and shoot with that. I actually just found one of the first rolls I ever shot, got it developed and scanned it right away. The photos aren't great, but they're fun to have! That got me interested in photography again and so I bought my first camera not long after that. I studied photography in high school but dropped out when I was 17. I felt school wasn't really the place for me, so I started my own company as a photographer and just went for it — best decision I've ever made!
What I aim to do, and what I want my photography to be is honest and real. I want whoever is looking at one of my photographs to instantly connect with it and feel something. Whatever you feel, feel it. I want my pictures to leave an impression on you. It's a tough goal, and I don't know if I've succeeded yet, but that's what I aim to do.
Your analogue shots are breathtakingly beautiful. When did you start shooting film, and what was it that drew you to the medium?
Thank you. As I said before, I started when I was quite young, but then digital cameras came along and I forgot about it for a while. Then, maybe eight years ago, I bought my first rangefinder and started shooting with that. But when I started shooting more professionally, I had to shoot digital just because it's a lot faster. About two years ago I decided to start giving the option of film to my clients, and for the last year/year and a half I've shot almost everything on film.
What drew me to it was a few things, but I think the biggest one is not having a screen to separate me from whatever I'm shooting. Because every time you look down on that screen you lose some of the intimacy you have with your subject, and that is something I value a lot, and something I always look for when shooting people. Film is so fragile and delicate you really have to be respectful of it and work with it, rather than abuse it like you would with your 5D for example. And then there is the dynamic range, the resolution, the texture, the grain, the fact that it is something tangible, the list goes on and on...
You’ve taken some incredible nighttime street portraits styled with neon elements. Can you tell us a bit more about your creative process?
Thank you so much. What I really like and enjoy when shooting is working with my surroundings. I like working with the things that are already there. Working with restrictions is great, because it forces you to be creative with what you have and can't change — it broadens your perspective and creative thinking.
As a street and portrait photographer, where do you usually go to ‘‘hunt’’ for your images?
It depends on my mood and what I feel like I want to shoot. Sometimes I just walk out the door, get on the subway and go wherever I feel like. Sometimes I go to an area or neighbourhood I've shot before and try to find new things to photograph. I really like watching and studying people, and I think that's what drew me to photograph strangers and the streets. Trying to capture someone's personality that you don't know is really challenging but also really fun.
We’re dying to know, what’s the deal with your Kanye portrait?
Thank you. The Kanye photo was really like any other street portrait I've ever taken. He walked into a store I was in while in LA. I asked my wife to keep an eye on him while I ran out looking for a good spot to potentially photograph him at. I eventually found a dark back alley behind the store — it was perfect. I went back to the store sat down on a bench and waited.
He eventually came out with a friend and his bodyguard. As they walked towards me I stood up, introduced myself and asked if I could take his picture. He said no. I said fine and handed him my portfolio which I had brought from my car. My portfolio looks sort of like a magazine, so it's a great gift. He looked at it, asked me if these were my images and said he really like them. So I asked again if I could photograph him. He looked at his bodyguard who said no, and told me they were in a hurry.
But for some weird reason they didn't leave, and so I spent the next five minutes convincing him to let me take his picture, and he finally gave in! So I took him to the spot, shot four frames, thanked him for his time, shook his hand and then he left.
If you could work or collaborate with any photographer, artist or person, dead, alive or fictional, who would it be?
There are a lot of creatives I would love to sit down and talk to. Everything from directors to painters and photographers to musicians. And I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented people this past year. But if time travel was a thing, I would go back to the late 1990s and photograph Eminem. I have always loved his music and I think we would have been a great fit.
What is your favorite photograph? Does it have a story behind it?
My favorite photograph of all time is a photo from a series called Hyena Men by the photographer Pieter Hugo. I believe it is shot on a 6x6 Hasselblad, but I could be wrong. That series is incredible and I think every photographer should look into his work, he is very talented. Pieter Hugo and Anton Corbijn are my two favorite photographers.
Finally, what’s coming up for Noah Agemo this year? Any interesting projects you’re working on?
A lot of different things actually! Both professionally and personally. Some projects I want to keep for myself for a while, just because they're still in the process of being made. But I can share one: I have a book project that I'm eager to share with the world. It was shot on 4x4, 127 mm film. Hopefully that will be out for everyone to see within a year, maybe sooner. Other than that, I'm going to keep taking pictures and burn all my money on film!