Interview with Neil Kremer of the creative duo Kremer|Johnson

Neil Kremer is the other half of Kremer | Johnson, a character-based portrait and narrative-driven photography duo from Los Angeles, California. With his partner Cory Johnson, this pair excels in capturing authentic moments even within the most manufactured settings. They’ve delivered large and complex productions for clients such as Visa, DirecTV, Braun, Bulletproof Coffee, and much more.

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“Body Builder”, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

Hi Neil! What are you working on these days?

We’re always looking for our next personal project. We just finished our This Is Not Magritte series which was fun. Now it’s time to do something that actually brings us work. The Magritte series was more of a passion project and no one’s going to hire us to do that.

So for those that are not familiar with your work, how would you describe it?

I’d describe our style as elevated narrative driven conceptual portraiture. Which is probably a mouthful but in the end, it’s really just conceptual portraiture. I say elevated because we go through a lot of pain to make sure we get the lighting that we want. We probably spend too much time on lighting, to be honest, and our retouching is extensive because of creating color harmony following some color theory, making sure the skin looks the way we want and also removing or adding any detail to the frame.

So that’s why I call it elevated. But in a nutshell, to answer your question, it’s elevated narrative driven conceptual portraiture.

“Magelan”, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

You do something that is very rare in professional photography, you work on a team with Cory Johnson. How did this happen?

We both had different careers but we were part of the same social group. I was in design and manufacture for technical apparel. I made private label apparel for Harley-Davidson, Yamaha, and Honda. Cory had a production company and made feature films. We then lost our companies at the same time being around 2008/2009 when the financial crisis hit.

We both enjoyed collecting and looking at photography and found ourselves in a position where we just needed to make a change at 40 years old. So we decided to give it a try and reluctantly we’re still doing it.

In the beginning, we bought cameras and about six months into it, we realized that we liked what the other person was doing. So we started kind of just shooting together. We didn’t assist, we didn’t go to school. We just asked a lot of questions to figure things out and quickly realized we had something and started the company. It was really that simple.

It’s very challenging and may not be the best career choice and kind of a crapshoot. (laughs) Some months are fantastic and then you don’t get work for two or three months so you really don’t know what the future’s going to bring.

One person does all the marketing. The other person does all the planning and in the end, it’s a company.

You both could have worked on your careers individually and could have stayed in close contact?

Yes, but we noticed we both had the same aesthetic and we both gravitated to the same style. As far as building a business, we looked at other models and we talked to some other duos and it really worked for them. Also for us, in the sense that we don’t have to produce our own shoots so we’re saving money there. One person does all the marketing. The other person does all the planning and in the end, it’s a company. Where we see this going is eventually having five or six employees so we’d be a full-blown production house. We started with that end in mind and it’s working right now. We’ve already produced some of our biggest jobs and Cory has produced a feature film.

We’ll see where it goes but if it was just photography and I was younger, I’d be smarter to do it by myself. (laughs)

“Who can see the son of man” from the This is not Magritte series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

Do you see an advantage for you and Cory being more aged when you came into the industry?

I do! That’s why we were able to hit the ground running. We were both business owners in the past. We both know how to look at an industry and find the money. We know how to look at something with a subjective eye and know what sells and what doesn’t. You quickly figure out how to make that happen.

The disadvantage is going to be when I’m 50 years old and no one wants to hire me to do a Nike campaign because I’m so out of touch with the athletes. That scared me getting into this business. But then I looked around and the most successful photographers are all in their 50s and 60s. There is no one younger than me.

Are there clear roles in your team?

I’m better with the camera and Cory has a better understanding of lighting. So generally I do the shooting and he handles the lighting. However, everything is discussed and we are constantly in communication. That works out very well because he’s managing our assistants while I’m thinking about the frames composition and directing talent.

If it’s a video we’re both directing but never at the same time. It’s important that there’s only one director. If he has a better angle to the video we’re creating, I’ll tell him to take it and I’ll just be the DP for the day and vice versa.

And then there is pre and post-production. Cory handles all of the pre-production work which is considerable. I create our look in post and do all the retouching myself but it has become too much for me to handle now so I’ve developed a relationship with another retoucher and we create the style together.

Craigslist Encounters series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

Do you ever shoot alone?

I sometimes shoot by myself. The This Is Not Magritte series was pretty much my project but other than that we’re typically together. I also did the first 40 of our Craigslist Encounters series by myself because I thought it was a good project. Then Cory came on board. Whenever it’s any large construction or commercial job we’re definitely both involved the whole way.

Photography can be very lonely. You’re always questioning your sanity.

What is the biggest advantage of being on a team compared to being a lone wolf?

From what other photographers tell me, photography can be very lonely. You’re always questioning your sanity for the most part because you’re alone all the time unless you’re with a client. The biggest advantage of working as a team is having someone to bounce ideas off of and affirm your decisions. If I was alone I would be questioning my own judgment. Two minds are greater than one and in my mind, a team is always going to achieve more than a single person. Cory would agree with that. Also, we are able to split up the duties and get a lot more done as a team than we can by ourselves.

The giant disadvantage is, of course, splitting the money. (laughs)

“Card Game Shadow”, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

Do you think there is a reason more people aren’t working as a team?

One of the challenges, although, we do share a similar vision and style is that we don’t always see eye to eye. To create an honest portfolio it has to come from a singular vision. I don’t think a lot of people can give up what Cory and I are giving up. It’s a combined voice. A lot of people would be hesitant to give up that control and enjoy being a partnership. But for us, it works. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages for sure.

Let’s move the focus away from the team and toward your work. You have a very commercial style and look. Are you guys ever competing for editorial work?

Yes. We market to them very heavily but the money isn’t there for editorial. Also, even though we are in LA we generally don’t do editorial because we can’t get it.

Here’s the truth, there is a handful of maybe 40 photographers that get all of that business and they’ve been doing it at a very high level for decades. So for us to come in and trying to compete with that, it is almost impossible.

We’ve been trying for years to get magazines to give us a shot and none of them really will. Magazines look at us and think our work is just too commercial. We’ve been told that we don’t shoot to make people look beautiful which takes us out of anything having to do with the entertainment world. It’s a shame because we very much want to be in that world because we’re in Los Angeles. Another problem is that they’re all close to going out of business or have gone out of business.

However, we are asked to bid on a lot of commercial jobs and we work quite a bit on that side.

I’m going to do this until I die. Whether I’m paid for it or not.

So would you say the lack of editorial work is the reason for the large amount of free work you’re doing? To advertise your style and get fresh stuff for your portfolio?

Yeah! If we stop creating work that means we have nothing to market which means no one’s ever going to know we’re out there. It’s important to us! And more importantly, the reason we started doing this is because we love it. I have hundreds of projects in my head that I need to get out. So I’m going to do this until I die. Whether I’m paid for it or not.

“The Inevitability of Mankind” from the This is not Magritte series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

What was your approach with the This Is Not Magritte series?

I love surrealist paintings and have been a fan of Salvador Dali, but there’s not a single Dali painting I could turn into a photograph. So I looked into Magritte although he’s a horrible painter there’s a simplicity to his images.

If you look back on the last fifty years, you’ll notice the design elements of Magritte are used throughout advertising, more so than anyone else. So it was a no brainer to me to turn this into something creative that an agency would see and possibly find a way to turn it into a campaign. We’re really passionate about creating and then finding a way to make that also commercially viable. That’s how we approach our personal projects.

For the Magritte series, I wanted to keep the photos as close to the original Magritte paintings as possible. But if you look carefully there’s a little tweak in each of the images. For example in “The Inevitability of Mankind,” he’s painting an image of a bird. Today, it would be a drone. I tried to bring in one little piece of modern society and not be negative but just pointing out how times have changed. I’ve done that minimally with one small element in each of those 13 images.

No advertising agency wants to see the commercial work we’ve done.

Are you getting jobs from this free work?

Absolutely! That’s all they want to see. No advertising agency wants to see the commercial work we’ve done. They only care about our personal work. There aren’t any commercial jobs in our portfolio. It’s all personal work.

With Magritte, it could be there is no commercial use for the style but it shows proof of concept. It shows we can take an idea from beginning to end. It shows technical ability. So typically when we do one of these projects it turns into two or three commercial jobs for us.

Do you spend a lot of money on your free work and are you able to get it back through your paid work?

Usually, you have to waste a lot of money on personal projects. The whole Magritte series cost us about $2,200. We built all the sets ourselves and know all of those models, so we didn’t have to pay them. There’s a metal birdcage I made myself. There’s about two tons of sand in it. I literally drove to the beach with a truck five times to fill it. We calculated how much it would cost to create the Magritte series for a commercial job and it came out to somewhere around $700,000. It’s so expensive to make all this stuff. If you’re doing it the right way. Paying talent is a big part of it obviously. The producer’s, assistants, makeup it all adds up.

“The Posh Therapist” from the This is not Magritte series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

So do you ever compromise on your style?

Agencies and clients hire us for what we do. So they typically want what we do. We’re not really compromising on anything. In fact, we get better work done on commercial jobs because we can hire the best talent and build the exact sets that we want. We have three, four or five hundred thousand dollars in our budgets. So no, there’s no compromise. We would like to do more of it. Obviously, it’s what pays our bills.

So how does bidding on these jobs work for you?

The business is changing. We’ve seen big changes just in the last four, five years. It’s not for the better. It’s not going in the favor of a photographer by any means.

This last month alone we had bid on two jobs. One of them was with a big tech company. There were seven different estimates and two different treatments they required because they kept changing their mind. We spent a lot of time on our treatments, had probably 15-20 creative calls, and finally, they told us they were giving us the job tomorrow. Five days later when they weren’t calling us back we found out they gave it to someone else at the last minute.

This happened again with a giant pharmaceutical job. They made us bid it in five different countries. That’s maybe one hundred hours of work, essentially we need to produce for free when we’re bidding. That job also went to someone else at the last minute. In the end, all the pre-production work that Cory is doing with our agents and another producer is for nothing.

Commercial Work, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

And still, the client is always right?

Yes, the client is always right. Without a doubt. If they’re not, I will always push back. Not in a confrontational way but with suggestions. You can’t make those suggestions until you understand the project. Through today’s bidding process there’s almost no chance that you’re going to get a job unless you can demonstrate that you understand the job. With that being said having an understanding of what they want, I will certainly tell them there is a better way to do it. So, in the end, yeah they’re always right there. It’s their money and they typically do listen.

Do you still have to fight for a budget in your commercial production?

It depends on the industry. Without a doubt, some clients are trying to cut it because their business is going away.

We see everyone else’s bid for the most part today. We all come in right around the same price. It’s just amazing because we all know we have to back it off in the beginning. But we can’t go in high because we know where they’re going to end up and they know what the real costs are as well. Agencies know what it costs to rent a Profoto, they know what that studio costs and they know what a set build cost. So they come to you and they already know what this thing is going to cost them.

In some industries like pharma we’ve even been told to go up because a cost consultant is going to come in and just start taking red marker off half of your bid and the agency wants you to end up in a place where you make some money and you don’t need to compromise the quality at all.

So, yeah, we’re fighting for money. If it’s a healthy industry that we’re targeting there is plenty of money, sometimes shocking how much money! But if it’s an industry that’s not sure where they’re going… they’re cheap.

I think you’ll find out if you want to be a photographer through assisting. You’ll find if you have a voice or not and that’s all that matters.

What kind of advice would you give to someone that’s 20 years old and coming to LA?

I would honestly recommend assisting as many professional photographers as possible.

I think you’ll learn more doing that than anything else. I would recommend Art Streiber. He is a teaching photographer. If you can get in there you’re going to learn more than with any other photographer because he allows his assistants to develop.

Assist someone you admire and also pick photographers you couldn’t possibly imagine working for. I never thought I would like beauty photography and it seemed boring to me. But I did help a friend of mine once and I was hooked immediately because it’s literally painting something beautiful with light. I learned a lot about hard lighting that day.

I think you’ll find out if you want to be a photographer through assisting. You’ll find if you have a voice or not and that’s all that matters. If you really care about all the technical stuff you’re going to figure it out. But you’re not going to be successful if you’re just a technical photographer. No one is going to hire you. You might be hired to do some lessons or some shots but what clients want is your vision. That’s what it’s about. So if you don’t have a vision maybe you’ll be an assistant for the rest of your life.

Commercial Work, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

Is being in LA an advantage or disadvantage for you?

Both. It’s an advantage because people think L.A. is becoming the art capital of the world. I don’t completely agree with that but it is becoming the advertising capital of the world. Every agency is here. A lot of the New York agencies opened offices here in the last 20 years, closed the New York offices and moved everyone here. The advantage is having Hollywood and so many large ad agencies here.

Also for production, there’s no city like LA. We have everything here. Next week I could have a cobra, a giraffe, and a rhinoceros all in a studio. It’s amazing what you can get.

The disadvantage is that every photographer in the world says they’re from L.A. and many of them are. It’s a very challenging place to shoot. It’s very expensive because Hollywood is here. You have to pay to shoot anywhere whether it be a convenience store or bodega on the corner. People are asking for $5,000 because they’ve heard stories of a Hollywood movie being made in a similar location and they know what they can get paid. Everyone’s got their hand out. Also, the city doesn’t want anyone shooting, so you need a permit for everything, even if you want to shoot on your own property. That’s the downside. I’d say the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Also, Los Angeles is a giant concrete jungle. Nothing but strip malls and just ugliness. There’s not a lot of places to shoot. Honestly, there are not many exteriors that are beautiful. There is no vegetation. It’s ugly. I’d rather be in a place like Colorado, Oregon or Washington, where there are more opportunities to shoot outdoors.

Very successful photographers live in smaller markets and shoot here in L.A. every month. They just travel back and forth. If I were 20 years old and just finished school and know what I know now I would probably live in a smaller market where I could shoot more and travel to L.A. and New York. Let’s look at Randal Ford who is a fantastic photographer out of Texas and has built a phenomenal name for himself. He shoots here in Los Angeles every month for a commercial job but he remains in Texas because he got his start there with editorial. There are some very strong magazines that still do good photography work. And he was able to get that business. He would never get that business in L.A. where there are too many people competing for Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Entertainment Weekly. So he used that as an advantage.

Back to your free portfolio work. Can you tell me a bit about the Craigslist Encounters series?

It started out to me as a story. There’s a whole culture that lives within Craigslist. People go there for sex. Some people go there for jobs. Some people’s business is built around marketing through Craigslist. If you start looking at them or any other group of people I quickly find it to be a cross section of all of America.

We took everyone that emailed us about the ad. This is why we shot so many photos. It took an entire year to do and we published 65 photos. In the end, someone asked, “Why did you do it?” I really don’t have an answer. Somehow I wanted to.

Craigslist Encounters series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

How were these subjects different from famous people like actors?

With people off the street or Craigslist, you have to make them comfortable. You have to ask them a lot of questions and from that, I find an expression that I find interesting. I will then try to redirect them to that expression. I try to understand who they are and then find the moment and try and capture it. Putting these people at ease is the most important thing compared to an actor or model.

How is it working with actors and models?

With an actor, you have to direct them or they don’t know who they are. I was literally told once, “I don’t know who I am. I need you to explain to me who you want me to be. Otherwise, I’m going to sit here like a lump on steroids.” That’s completely different compared to a model who I don’t talk to. I just let them do their thing because they’re professionals and they will give me exactly what I want because I hired them for that work. To me, those are really the three types of people we shoot.

With Snoop Dogg we got to spend a whole day with. I have never met anyone like this man. He showed up in his brand New Porsche 911, had a guard outside watching it but left it running outside for twelve hours. There was a point where the guy came in and said I think we’re going to run out of gas and went to fill it up. (laughs) And he smokes nonstop. It doesn’t stop. Snoop was in front of the camera sitting and waiting for us to get our lightning right and he fell asleep. The director said, “Snoop we’re ready to go.” The music started playing and he came to and knew all the lines and delivered it as if he practiced for days. It was impressive. I would work with him anytime again.

If I ever really look at my work and say I love it then I think I’m done. I don’t think I could go on. Why would I want to continue to work?

Why are you good at what you do?

To be honest, I don’t think we are there yet. I think we’re too new in this business to say we’re good at it. I don’t think I’d use the word good. We’re learning, we’re quick learners. I’ll say that.

A big part of why I do this is because I love the final result. Once an image is done you can look back at how you got there and I want to share that. I’m happy with it but then three days later I hate it and I just see mistakes. But it makes me want to do better. If you’re not learning from your mistakes, you’re not growing. So if I ever really look at my work and say I love it then I think I’m done. I don’t think I could go on. Why would I want to continue to work?

“18 Months Later”, from the This is not Magritte series, Copyright Neil Kremer & Cory Johnson

So who are the role models that you had throughout your career or some that you’re just currently looking up to?

Too many to name! I’m a huge fan of  Dan Winters. I’ve read everything and I’ve studied every image. Margaret Bourke White is the one person that really made me love photography and this is before I picked up a camera. Another without a doubt is Sebastião Salgado. My love for his work came before I even picked up a camera as well. In the commercial world or even the editorial world, Martin Schoeller has been a big inspiration to me. Art Streiber without a doubt and Mark Seliger. There’s just a long long list of people. To be honest I spend way too much time looking at other people’s work.

Where do you find it?

Mostly online and as you know it starts with Instagram. What I really enjoy is finding older work or even newer work that I could go look at in a gallery or some kind of show because I very much enjoy printed photography much more than a backlit screen.

Thank you very much for your time and honest answers!