Thursday, August 15, 2013


by Jamie Goodsell
All images © Chloe Aftel
website •

I was turned on to Chloe Aftel's work in college and was immediately taken by her vision and aesthetic. Her work conjures up scenes of vivid emotions and a truly genuine approach to taking pictures. She's connected the instrument to her vision to create an individual style in fashion, commercial, editorial, lifestyle, among many other genres of work.  Some of her clients include: Harper's Bazaar, Levi's, Rolling Stone, Spin, Subpop Records, Vanity Fair, Vogue Italy and Wired etc. She sees things a bit differently and I wanted to find out why. 


Where did you grow up? 
Berkeley, California which is right next to San Francisco. I grew up there and I lived there through high school. I went to undergrad at Berkeley and I spent a year abroad and then I lived in L.A. and New York for another two years.

Where did you spend your time abroad? 

I lived in Paris for a year. I think going abroad is great and seeing what other countries are doing in terms of work. There's a lot more experimentation happening in other places which is nice to be exposed to.

When did you first pick up a camera and what event caused you to pursue it as a career? 

I first picked up a camera in high school but it was not a formative experience. When I was in graduate school in L.A., I was learning a lot about film, how to shoot and a lot of the principles for film shooting were translatable to still photography. I was not very happy with my experience in film school. I felt it was pretty stifling and underwhelming, so I started shooting stills on my own. I tried to figure out a way to take a lot of the cinematic values and techniques and put them into film photography. For me it was about figuring out how to tell a layered story in one frame. 

How did your education influence your photography? 
I was not educated formally in photography. I just picked up a camera that a friend had and started using it. Through trial and error, playing with lighting, and just shooting constantly, it helped me to figure out what kind of photography I wanted to do and to go from there. That was the thing for me, it was putting in the time and playing with different cameras, different lenses, different film stocks and figuring out what it was that worked for me and then trying to push that forward.

How did you start to market yourself in the beginning? 

Marketing is very hard. You have to be very clear about what your goals are and for me a large part of the goal was to make it financially viable because it's so incredibly hard. So part of it was to make a living and the other part of it was to find a way to take what I really loved and make it commercially viable. It's an important line to figure out, how do you take something that might be much more of sort of a happy lifestyle and make it your own and make it something that feels genuine, authentic, and fulfilling to you. That's a hard line to walk, and I think a lot of people go for just over exuberant happiness, rather than something that you look at and you feel (at least for me) like oh there's a whole scene going on here, and happiness is derived from something in the world that I'm putting together and shooting. 

What kinds of things did you do in the beginning to get your work out there? 

I put a lot of time into promotion and books. My book is very carefully designed, it's got a very specific color combination, and I worked forever with a friend of mine - her name is Deanna Staffo - (who's really a fantastic illustrator) on the logo and then I figured out that I wanted most of it printed on kind of a watercolor paper. So presentation wise, it was a very beautiful book. I also did little printed books that people got to keep, a postcard collection, and stuff that I would leave behind or mail to people. It would be something that would have a practical application but also be what I felt was some of the highlights of my work. So for me it was about an incredible amount of money, time, and thought going into presenting the work as something that was thought out, crafted, sort of hand done, and a very distinct personality rather than some glossy thing that just let them know I was there. 

What do you have in your camera bag today?
I shoot multi-format on almost everything I do. If I'm given my choice and I'm allowed to do whatever I want, I will most likely shoot my H2 cause I love it and it's great. If I am traveling around and I need something that is very simple and easy, I'll take my Contax G2. I take my Polaroids everywhere but when I need more of a work horse Polaroid camera, I'll use the Polaroid Spectra camera. There's always two camera bags and they're always chock-full of stuff. It's very hard for me to travel with just one camera. For digital I use a Canon Mark III

Who were some of your influences early on and who are some of them today?

When I first started I was in love with Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Joel-Peter Witkin. I liked rock photography, like that old Annie Leibovitz stuff. I would look at anything and try to figure out what worked, what didn't work and what I was interested in or not interested in, and also what had been done. Who do I like today? One photographer I think is really great is my friend Annie TrittFor me at least, the large part of my stuff is just trying to walk in with a plan...but if the plan doesn't work, figuring out other ways to acclimate a sense of their personality. 

Can you talk about your personal work a little bit? 

The work that I do for myself, that is a little bit out there, I really love and enjoy doing. Work that people respond to very strongly, doesn't really have a place commercially. When I would put it into other books and those other sections, it seemed to sort of confuse what I did. It just made more sense to me to take them out and to make them their own divided section of personal work. 

Could you talk about the image with the Indian headdress?

That image caused quite a little stir unto itself that I never expected. That image is shot on fade-to-black, it's a film that the Impossible Project put out for a very limited amount of time. It was regular film but without the emulsion stuff in it, so it just processes which is why it's called fade-to-black because it just fades out to darkness and there is no negative or positive, it's just a black frame. I was doing a shoot with this girl and I just found this old headdress and thought it was cool, so I put her in it. Literally the last shot of the day, we were driving back down Malibu and there was this big, wide ocean area and I new that fade-to-black had to be done at the end, because you literally only have like an hour window to scan it before it starts to change. So I took the image, went home and scanned, and thought that was that. However, there's been a lot of issue with that particular image because some people feel strongly that it's an appropriation of different cultures and that it's problematic. That particular prop was problematic in certain ways that I never anticipated. 

I feel  a sense of love and mystery in your fashion work, what are you trying to produce within that genre? 

I'm not so interested in the image strictly being sort of prototypical dead eye fashion photography where there's just this woman in the clothing and it's being presented in sort of a non emotional way. If the model is really expressing herself in some way, I find that much more interesting. What I aspire to do is capture the girl and also capture a story. If there's an environment, there's something going on, there's attitude, there's a response that seems indigenous to the girl, it's a piece of who that girl is. 

What are your top 3 film types of all time?

1. A September batch of the Impossible 680 film
2. An old Kodak 120 stock, I want to say it was 160 VC
3. Illford 3200 Black and White

Are your photographs all done in camera? 

Almost everything you see on my website is presented as it was taken. With the double exposures, with the diptych's, with personal thing is very little post. For me, I shoot the left and the right because I think it allows for you to get a different kind of framing on each of them. Instead of shooting a wide one and cutting in and cropping or moving it around, I very much believe that you've gotta do your best to get that thing in camera. With the double exposures, everything on the site is done in camera. It's something I really love doing and I think it's something that takes a lot of thought to get it done correctly. I'm comfortable taking risks and doing some weird stuff and if it works great, if it doesn't then you learn from it and move on. If you have not done double exposures, I strongly encourage you to. 

When did you start to get more well known clients and did that start the ball rolling? 

My first client was Hewlett-Packard, I got them in early 2010. When I started, it was a different time economically, everything had crashed you know. The first ad turned out great and it was exciting and wonderful. There was just not a lot of work at that time and I think looking at it now where there is a lot more money in the industry and a lot more people willing to pay for original content, I think my client list is very helpful which I'm grateful for. Those first couple of years was just a lot of hustling. I just want to keep working, whether it's a small job or a big long as it's interesting. 

Do you find a lot of your images are in between moments? 

I think the key is to just shoot the subject while they're running around or thinking about things, getting make-up done or whatever. When they aren't trying to be the person they think you want them to be is when you can get a lot of stuff. A lot of people have that personality that is just wonderful in front of the camera, but if they are not those people then what I do is shoot them while they're doing other things. Whatever it takes to make them not think about themselves and their faces, or how their mouth looks and all that stuff that brings so much tension. I'll tell jokes, I'll run around, whatever it is that they need so that they feel comfortable is my priority. 

Tell me about the image with Winona Ryder.

That picture is particularly funny, because it was an end of the day grab which of course people ended up really liking. I was doing a portrait of the girl you see fixing her clothes and they happen to be best friends so Winona was there. Of course I wasn't going to ask her to be in a picture because I'm sure she didn't wanna deal with that. We were just finishing up the day and she said, "Would you take a picture of us?". So I just bumped the ISO as high as it could go without it being problematic and Jenny - who is the girl who has a clothing line called Geronimo (which Winona wears all of the time) - just started fixing her clothes and I just took the picture. It was very unexpected, and it was so lovely to work with two people who are genuinely friends just sort of doing whatever.

Why do you think it's so important to photograph for yourself?

Don't think you're going to meet all of your needs just doing what people hire you to do. 
The only way you get a lot of the weird shots is to explore where you can go by shooting for yourself. 

Could you open people up to some of the responsibilities of a photo shoot? I feel like most people think we just push a button and it's done. 

It's interesting because it really depends on the shoot. If it's you and one person somewhere, obviously there is a lot less to bear in mind. That being said though, when it is a full team you have to supervise rather than pull everything together. Then there's that thing in between where maybe it's you and one assistant and you're lighting and putting everything together and dealing with a client and giving feedback, so I think there's a variety of responsibilities. Before the shoot, planning everything out, having a location, location scouting, having hair and makeup, choosing the right model, going from there to the execution of the whole shoot, how you want it done, whether or not the lighting that you had in mind works. I think the huge part of our job is that we'll have an idea about something and how to execute it and then you get there and you're like oh no, that's not what I thought. Then being able to readjust or change so that it doesn't waste time. I think that sort of fluidity and the ability to work with people and to shoot whatever comes out of an organic situation is a huge part of the job. Making sure everyone's needs are met and talking to your model, trying to build a relationship with them. There's a million working parts and I think that we have to be aware of all of them at all times. 

I feel a lot of sensuality in your work, could you elaborate on that? 
Sure! I for whatever reason, really enjoy shooting women. There are a couple of girls who I shoot over and over again because we have a good relationship and I really enjoy working with them. I find female sensuality to be really fun to shoot. Oddly enough I don't think I've ever gotten a job that was a real correlative of that. No one has ever said, oh I want you to shoot women in a sensual way (which I've long wanted to do)...but maybe one day that will happen. There's a wide variety of girls...they're not all thin, they're not all the same ethnicity, there's a variety of different types that I very much enjoy shooting. 

Do you find that it's easier to be in the position of being a girl and getting other girls to get undressed for you?

I am sure it is. I mean I think a girl or a gay man...I think a straight man has got to be really careful how you do that because...I mean a lot of the girls I know tell me terrible stories of men being incredibly inappropriate, but as a woman at the same time...I'm very aware of that. For me at least, I just constantly check in and ask if they're ok with it. It's never an assumption that they're going to be fine with whatever it is that I want to do, but it's about feeling out what their limits are. As a guy, there are ways to do it that relieve some of the problematic nature of it and also there are some guys who do it really well that's just incredibly professional. But I'm sure it is a difficult line to walk because it's difficult for me as well.

What kind of lighting are your drawn to?

I love natural light but there are a ton of different ways I like to shoot and a lot of different lighting techniques that I'm interested in. I've been lucky enough to do ad jobs where I got an amazing lighting crew who will make anything happen. I love lighting and I love natural light. For me though, it has to all make sense with the subject that you're taking the picture of. 

Can you tell me about a new series you're currently working on? 

I have a couple of series I'm working on now. The first series I'm finishing up is Children with Rare Genetic Conditions. So it's children who have a variety of very serious ailments and taking pictures of them just as they are, very naturally. I'm working on wrapping that up and hoping that I can raise some money for a variety of causes which would be great. I'm also working on a project called Furries at Home which has also been challenging because they are an insular community and they have been portrayed very poorly by the media over and over again.

What do you want people to say about your work after you're gone?
I think the best thing that anyone can hope for is that they did something that hasn't been done a million times before. I guess that would be my goal, something that was worth doing in an interesting way. You can just do the best you can do with the time that you have and then do weird stuff on your own time that helps you push past the current level. All you can do is put in the time and do the work and struggle and figure it out. I don't think there's anything else you can do besides that.

Check out more of her work at the link below and get inspired.