Bill Kund interview – Part 1

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When we were racing bicycles as teammates for the Pasadena Athletic Association 50 years ago, little could we imagine that one day we would reconnect as creative professionals.

We competed in races in California, Michigan, New York, Mexico, and England together. Bill was a 1964 Olympian, a National Champion and holder of several national records in cycling. In 1970, we were on the US team that competed in the World Road Racing Championships in Leicester, England.

Now as a professional photographer, specializing in Architectural and Interior subjects, he has used that drive as an athlete to rise to the top of his field. The route to his current profession at age 40 was a circuitous one, to say the least, while mine was more direct.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s too late for you to pursue your creative dreams. It wasn’t for Bill Kund, it doesn’t have to be for you either.

I hope you’ll be inspired by Bill’s story. You may not be a photographer, but there’s stuff in here for every artist. Enjoy!  (Click images to enlarge)

Bill Kund

How did your interest in photography begin? It’s a huge jump from having an interest to becoming a professional, how did that happen?  My father was a very good photographer and used his skills to help support us in post World War II Austria.  We emigrated to the United States in 1955 when I was 9. He taught me the basics of photography and darkroom work.  I drifted in and out of photography as a hobby.

After high school my parents and I discussed career ideas.  I brought up photography but they felt I should choose a more stable career, like teaching school.

While I was in high school I also began racing bicycles seriously. I rode in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and placed 14th in the Kilometer.  The following year I won the National Championships in the 10 mile and set 3 national records. Cycling dominated my life through high school, 5 years of university at Cal State Northridge and five more years racing in Europe in the pro class.

1964 Tokyo Olympics, 1 kilometer (1000 meters) time trial.

I couldn’t make a living racing, so I taught school for 10 years. My degree is in German with an English minor.  I taught high school German for two years in Saugus, California, and physical Education and Dutch at the American School of Rotterdam for 4 years after that.  After I stopped racing, I moved to England for 4 years and taught German, English and physical education at the American Community School in Cobham, Surrey.

I also played a little music and used that to supplement my income from the time I finished university through my stay in England.

While I was in England I started playing around with photography again. I became friends with the manager of a local photo shop near Kingston on Thames and started getting positive comments about my photography from him and several friends.

In 1980 there was a professional 6-day bicycle race at Wembley Arena in London and I talked my way into getting a press pass.  The photos from that race yielded first prize in  a contest in an English photo publication called Amateur Photographer. I wrote a couple of articles for Velo News, an American Cycling Publication, using photos from that race, as well.

One of the benefits of photography for me was that it taught me to “see” better.

In ’83 I won second prize in the Nikon Photo Contest International 83/84 with one of those images and, two years later, got an Honorable Mention in the 85/86 version of that contest with a Karate photograph.

One of the benefits of photography for me was that it taught me to “see” better; to become more aware of details in my surroundings. I started a project photographing English telephone boxes.  I wanted to show that an item people walk by on a daily basis without noticing can become an interesting object once they are made aware of it.

When I moved back to the United States I had a photo show at Appalachian University in Bone, NC titled “Through My Eyes” using many of those telephone box images.  It was at this time I decided to try my hand at making this my profession.  I was almost 40 years old and had decided on a career change.

I had always loved street photography and the work of the Time/Life photographers.  I enjoyed shooting sports, but none of these specialties pay enough to make a living.  I still enjoy doing that type of work but realize there is no real financial reward for it.

Are you self-taught? How did you prepare yourself for this career, and how difficult was it to get established?  I’m basically self taught.  My father got me started with the technical aspect of the craft and I have never been shy about picking people’s brains for more information.

My father and I did have a short talk about composition one day when I was in high school.  He told me to use diagonals and curves to lead the eye through the image. I just ran with that concept.

I’m a former school teacher – I was very naive about the business end of things.  Initially I did the newspaper work which I enjoy doing  and went to the old standby – weddings and portraits which I didn’t like much.  I got lots of exposure but quickly learned there was very little money to be made in that type of photography.

What were the most important steps you took that established you as a professional?  In ’85 I was having brunch in a restaurant in Blowing Rock, NC with a lady friend. The English Telephone Booth Collection was on display there at the time. A gentleman came over to our table and introduced himself.  He was Bob Gayle, president of the Alderman company in High Point, NC. He gave me his card and told me if I ever wanted to work for them, just to give him a call.

I had never heard of Alderman and knew nothing about the furniture industry or furniture photography. I quickly came to find that Alderman was the oldest and one of the most respected furniture photography studios in the world. I made the phone call that eventually changed my photography career.

Alderman is one of about seven furniture photography studios in the High Point area. It’s a 280,000 square foot facility that had approximately 50 bays to create whole room scene setups.  When I started there we were still primarily using large format cameras – mainly 8×10’s with a couple of 11×14’s.  Everything was shot directly to layout size.  I’d never seen a view camera before I started there, but came to love the versatility of the format.  The Alderman experience was like going to photography school.

There was no natural light in the studio.  All lighting was “created” using either “hot” lights used in the movie industry or large studio strobe systems. It was the most intensive education in photography imaginable and ended up shaping my whole photo career – not without some bumps, however.

I quickly discovered that working in these large studios is basically a factory job with long hours and low pay. The front office is basically off limits to the staff and, although I had been recruited by the president of the company, I was now just another guy on the factory floor. I stayed 6 months and used my tenure there as an intensive lesson in high end, high quality technical photography. I don’t know many photographers, outside that part of the industry, who really know how to light a set.

Just as I was starting at Alderman I had become engaged to my third wife who was a fairly prestigious interior designer. She educated me in the workings of the furniture industry. I wanted to go out on my own, using the skills I learned at Alderman to do location architectural and interior photography but discovered the ultimate lesson –

If you’re not making money it’s just a hobby.

She told me I had to learn to sell my services.  This is a major problem for many photographers because we fall in love with our photo creations and having to sell them is considered somewhat demeaning.  To bridge that gap she convinced me to learn sales by selling something other than my photography.

I did know something about bicycles. Banking on that reputation I formed a rep agency representing companies that made bicycle products.  Just by chance I happened into an industry starting a huge growth spurt with innovative new products.  I represented Descente, Look and Scott, among others, just as they were starting to revolutionize the whole retail cycling world.  I did this for eight years and learned enough about marketing, sales and business management to be able to relaunch my photo career some eight years later.

Once I restarted the photography business I made an arrangement with another of the High Point studios as an independent contractor. I did sales for their studio work, freelanced for them as a studio photographer and had an arrangement enabling me to work with my own location photography clients, as well. This combination, which lasted about 10 years, was the launching pad for my solo career.

What brings you the most satisfaction as a photographer?  At this point, knowing I can handle any job that comes my way is very satisfying. And then, of course, having an image come together that I can look at repeatedly and get pleasure knowing I did that.

You’re a terrific designer, do you have design principles that you always adhere to?  I usually tell people: ”I don’t know what I’m doing, I just make it up as I go along.” I don’t have any formal training in any of this. I have, however, worked hand in hand with talented designers in the studio photography world, shot countless furniture room scenes and been married to two interior designers. All this exposed me to a plethora of design possibilities. If, however, I’m not confident in my design capabilities for a particular job, I have a large number of people I can draw from. In general, though, I feel I have it figured out pretty well.

Are you known for a certain style of photography?  For a long time I was known as the guy who photographed the red telephone booths. From the business standpoint I bill myself as an architectural and interior photographer because that, in my opinion, is a very specialized field which requires the largest skill set. I have, however, done a variety of other work.  In the last 10 years I’ve also worked in the nautical industry – mainly sailboats.  I took up sailing after stopping cycling, so that’s a natural fit.

Other than maybe design and subject matter, what distinguishes one photographer from another?  Composition and lighting are at the top of that list. We all have our own way of setting up and lighting interiors.  This was one of the advantages of working in a studio with a couple of dozen other photographers.  If I had down time I would wander around the studio and study other people’s lighting set ups.

Ross Lowell, who developed all types of photo lighting systems, writes in his book “Matters of Light and Depth” that…

Lighting is visualizing the scene as a series of planes at various angles to the lens and positioning lights to reveal or conceal those planes effectively.

There is a bit of snobbishness about being able to light well. The glossary of Lowell’s book refers to the term “Illumination” as “lighting without craft or someone else’s lighting setup.”

We had photographers in the studio who had a formula that worked for them.  It was expedient and efficient but not always very creative. Occasionally, in the studio, I tried to surprise myself by going into a set and blasting a key light through the windows to see what would happen – what sparkled and what didn’t – then light around the rest of the shot.

On location I will do the obvious first shot and then try to figure out  what I can do differently.  It may make me a bit less efficient, but, I believe, somewhat more creative.

I believe the most important aspect of my work is to create a subliminal feel for the subject.  The photography has to be more than just a recording of the subject. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it better have something to say.

Getting away from the architectural work, when I shoot sports, for example, I like to get into the heads of the athletes and figure out a way of getting that across.  I love shooting  musicians and workers using that mindset too; lots of close ups and interesting lighting.

I did a lot of advertising photography for Pacific Seacraft Yachts and handled their whole advertising and marketing campaign.  When we started their ad campaign in sailing magazines I suggested we stay away from shooting boats initially.  Every boat ad has a sailboat, full page.  Pacific Seacraft prides itself on high quality finish work.  I chose to photograph one of the carpenters with a close up of his hands and a plane.  That carpenter was like a rock star at the boat show that year.

As a commercial photographer, how connected do you need to be to the subject; in other words, do you need to love the assignment in order to produce a great photo, and what needs to be present in order to get your creative juices flowing?  I usually find a way to be connected to the subject matter.  I have even made a municipal waste water facility look like an engineering work of art.

Probably the only thing that keeps me from enjoying a job is a bad attitude by the client.  I typically ferret those out before the job starts and just beg off doing the work.

How do you market and promote your work?  I’m actually working on a new marketing campaign now. There’s a whole dynamic I’m trying to plug into working with a new generation of art and advertising directors and their perception of photography.

***Next week: We will conclude this interview as we get down to the nitty-gritty of creating award winning work.

To view more of Kund’s work, click HERE.

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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.


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