Photographer Kent Corley Looks for Meaning in Pandemic Life

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My name is Kent Corley. I’m a fairly grizzled, middle-aged photographer that first found a passion for still photography in the last days before the digital revolution started. Before I knew what street photography was or what the possibilities of the medium were, I was wandering streets at home (North Carolina) and abroad taking candids of people and situations that meant something to me. I can still recall the first three images I ever made that hinted at the idea that I was finally finding a medium that could help me express something I couldn’t otherwise. To finally feel like I might be reasonably good at something and have an interesting perspective was huge.

Later in the 90’s I was seduced by the business/financial possibilities of photography and fell into commercial/catalog and event work that paid quite well at the time. What I didn’t foresee was that to work on project after project after project that ultimately meant very little to me as a photographer would diminish my passion for the medium.

“As a lifetime southerner who finds himself at odds with the prevailing culture of The South, it’s a bit of a struggle to keep the cynicism and judgment at bay. I aspire to understanding and empathy over judgment and dismissal.” 

In the 21st century, I find myself often grappling with the how and why. How to sustain yourself as a photographer and make images that mean something rather than just sending more static out into a world that is already filled with it. Now I’m back to bringing my own perspective to people, places, and situations that I find worth exploring. Often my themes are psychological and from a bit of a darker perspective – especially in 2020.

I photograph to find meaning, make connections, and elevate conversation (hopefully). I photograph to stay sane in a world I find difficult to make sense of. In the current situation, that means exploring my immediate environs more than ever. As a lifetime southerner who finds himself at odds with the prevailing culture of The South, it’s a bit of a struggle to keep the cynicism and judgment at bay. I aspire to understanding and empathy over judgement and dismissal.

For commercial work, I shoot Canon and Nikon primarily, but my personal work has migrated to the Fuji X series (XT3/XT1 with a variety of lenses) and vintage Polaroid SX-70. I use lights from Buff, Profoto, Speeedotron, and Godox and love to work in available light (this time of year in particular).

I got into photography because it gave me a license to explore. I was always into testing boundaries, and with a camera in my hand I could test them further and come back with a tangible document of the experience. Hopefully an artful one.

My have a myriad of photographic influences. David Alan Harvey opened my eyes once again in 2017 through a workshop I took with him in NYC. I was suffering from burnout and needed a new fire lit beneath me. I got more than I bargained for. I came away with a new passion for making personal work, printing and digging deeper for meaning and story. Beyond David, I deeply admire Fan Ho, Alec Soth, Todd Hido, Antoine D’Agata, Lori Vrba, Salgado, Gilden… each for their own reasons.

I’ve been actively shooting since 1995 and have evolved immensely over the years – aesthetically and philosophically. Most importantly, 25 years on, I’m more aware than ever of how much there always is to learn. I was classically young and arrogant in my early days, and though it got me a little mileage, I ‘wish I had known then what I know now’.

My photographic identity? Wow. I am an explorer. I aim to find meaning and beauty and order in a chaotic world. I hope to embody empathy even in looking hard at difficult subjects. My greatest goal is to make images with heart and meaning that can actually make people stop and think and possibly make a change.

As far as gear is concerned, I’ll address the Fuji system I use for my own work. The X series brought me back to a place where photography was fun. The controls are intuitive, and I actually feel a bond of some sort to the machines. My favorite lenses vary from day to day, but I keep the Mitakon 35mm f.95 close at hand always. Again, the tactile nature of the lens is huge for me. The aperture is de-clicked and it is a manual focus lens. Paired with the EVF on the XT-3 I can slow down and deeply consider exactly what image I want to make and why. Obviously, the shallow DoF at f0.95 is attractive but I *try* to limit how hard I lean on it.

I like the Godox flashes for portability and affordability. Combing HSSS with the XT3 can offer extraordinary results, though I lean more towards available light for personal work- possibly because it offers its own challenges and creative opportunities. Further, as someone that straddles the line between documenting and creating I choose what’s most appropriate for each shoot based on concept and practicality.

When I’m creating images there’s rarely one thing that is going through my mind- It’s usually several things at once… unless I get lucky enough to find that magical state where everything becomes heightened and immediate and I can be 100% in the moment. Though that’s pretty rare, I continue to seek it out. Otherwise, it’s a balance of the technical, aesthetic, and practical. If it’s a commercial shoot, I’m always aiming to keep the client happy and make the best images I know how to make under whatever circumstances present themselves. 

Lately, on personal shoots I’ve taken to walking and listening to certain minimalist composers until I find a heightened state of awareness and appreciation. It can be quite beautiful.

Mechanically, I’ve been working hard to unlearn the need to feel technically correct at all times. There can be beauty and the unexpected in mistakes. Think less. Shoot more.

I try to use minimal processing on most of my modern work. Basic corrections in ACR or Lightroom and move on. I use Capture One just enough to be dangerous.

Project: Strange Days by Kent Corley

In the early days of the pandemic, I was stuck in a state of uncertainty about everything. Remember- these were the days of ‘wash your groceries’ and ‘masks don’t work.’ I spent weeks on end at home trying to fill my time with all sorts of projects, except photography. At some point when people began embracing masks (around April?) I personally struggled with them. I knew it was the right thing to do but found the new world of masked friends and neighbors unsetting and personally uncomfortable. True to form for me I decided to confront and document these feelings by making portraits of masked locals. I quickly adjusted the style of the photos to feel more surreal through additional lighting (3 Godox off-camera flashes, 2 for rim light, one for key) and of course used the Fuji 50-140mm to maintain social distance. 

Several themes emerged from the work, depending on the edit- in one version the psychological effects of isolation on children is clear and striking. Other edits may just emphasize the surreal nature of the times we live in. I work from a pool of about 60 main images that I think came together best. 

All images and text by Kent Corley. Used with permission. Check out his website and Instagram. Want to be featured too? Here’s how.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.