Samantha Keller, an artist in her twenties who goes by Sammy, got her start taking Polaroid photos of her Barbies and stuffed animals. Then she started experimenting with her mom’s film cameras, launched a freelance photography career, and began working closely with the local fashion duo Orenda Lou, building a body of work and a steady online following.
For the first time, she’s taking her work offline and into a gallery, in a show titled Twenty Something. The exhibit includes ten photos she says reflect her growth as a photographer, as well as videos and a zine.
"I feel like people my age feel weird about where they are in life," Keller says. "I think it's cool that we're still finding ourselves. I think people reserve that for teenagers. ... I wanted to show that even if we're in weird stages in our lives, we can create something really cool that we're sharing with other people."
We caught up with Keller ahead of the show to talk about film photography and why representation in the fashion industry is so important.
Westword: What do you look for when you’re taking photos?
Samantha Keller: I’ve always tried to find beauty, as cliché as that sounds, in weird places and notice things. I’ve always liked different times and wanted to preserve those. Anytime I see neon or crazy lights or anything that reminds me of a different era, I think, “I’ve got to take a photo of that.” The ’60s and ’70s is really what I have to come back to, because it all inspired me that way. It’s the idea of I can keep this alive if I make my own world and put it into the modern-day world, because the modern-day world just wants to get rid of everything. I get so bummed. I’m in Twitter battles with McDonald's over them destroying all of these 1960s and 1970s McDonald's. They’re tearing one down in Chicago, and I’m like, “Why are you doing this?” But everyone wants a very clean and modern look. So I want to preserve the past in a different way while keeping some modern touches to it, too.
With film, I feel like it’s pretty real time. With digital, you can take a bunch of photos and rely on the fact that you’ll find something on the SIM card.
I cringe when I hear some photographers snap stories. It will be them behind the scenes, and you’ll hear like a thousand shutters going off and the model moving so quickly. I couldn’t work like that. I want to keep the model there and pose it. I pretty much know the shot I want, and I don’t need a thousand different angles. I know what works and what doesn’t. It’s unnecessary and takes away how special the shoot is. I’m not hating on digital. The fact that digital exists is because of film. I think the two can work well together. I use digital editing techniques when my film is processed, and I’m editing it post-process and post-shoot. I use a lot of Lightroom and Photoshop to enhance my photos a little bit. They’re being scanned raw, so sometimes they need to be color-corrected through the scanner, so it’s cool to have them mixing together.
I think there is room for both digital and film to exist. I think people pit film against digital, and I get that. Sometimes I seem like a digital hater, but that is because film has more to lose than digital. So I really want to make sure it stays alive and make sure people aren’t just hyping it up and then going to let it die again. That would just kill me. I just want to make sure it’s around. So that’s why I drive home people using film. ... even if they’re shooting digital, to try to shoot some film too.
How would you describe the intention behind your photos?
Especially in regard to Twenty Something, I think showing girls who aren’t represented at modeling agencies. ... even though the industry is changing immensely and there is more room now for women of color and different body types and tones and shapes. I think it’s incredible what’s happening. I follow this guy on Instagram, Chellaman. He is trans and was just invited to the Asos Fashion Week to walk in the men’s fashion show. I love that. I love seeing different faces and so many people being invited to the table in the fashion industry with open arms.
I want to ensure that continues to happen, and that is why I’ll always take fashion photography, I think. As long as I get to show this beauty that you’re not seeing, that doesn’t fall into traditional beauty standards. But it’s indisputable that they’re beautiful. It’s just not the beauty that is getting showcased as much, and I really think it needs to be part of the conversation more and not just one campaign. I want to see this throughout every single day, just something we see on billboards, and not the same faces, either. I want to see people that aren’t as well known. I want to see all of it. [Laughs] My intentions are to get as many photos of girls that I think would be amazing representation for younger generations. That’s why I do what I do now. It slowly turned into that.
It’s that one step further or one decision beyond what you would normally do that makes the biggest difference. For younger girls to see something they connect to…there’s something about that representation that makes you feel like you can do it, too.
That’s what I want. I get so many film questions, and that’s what makes me so happy. I’m getting teenagers asking me, “What film camera should I start with?” Even if I’m not inspiring a girl to get up and model or even feel confident in herself. If I’m inspiring other kids to want to shoot film and also continue the message of shooting friends and contributing to changing this industry, I’m here for it. I want to help out as much as I can, because I love that. That’s why I love Instagram. I hope people on my Instagram are following these girls and following Orenda Lou styling and thinking, “Oh, I can do this too, and my friends can do this...we’re all beautiful.” I want girls to realize there is enough space for all of us, and that’s why I try to shoot with as many people as possible. We can all exist.
We don’t see enough of it. I hope we’ll see more, and I do think we’ll see more. That’s why last year was so important to me and a lot of other people, because we are seeing people taking control, trying to change the industry and trying to change the status quo. I just want to see more of that...people just discovering who they are. I think there will be a lot more of that coming from younger people.
Twenty Something, by Sammy Keller, 6 p.m. Friday, February 9, Melon Gallery, 200 Galapago Street.
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