Photo Series Features Portraits of Complete Strangers Found on Craigslist

Photo Series Features Portraits of Complete Strangers Found on Craigslist

Los Angeles photography studio Kremer Johnson has come up with a unique idea for their latest personal project. The series features such impressive portraits you will immediately think you should know the subject. The thing is you don't; the photos are just that well done. All the models are simply people who responded to a Craigslist ad titled "Characters Wanted," agreeing to be compensated $20/hour for their time. I reached out to Neil to find out more about this brilliant idea.

The project, titled "Craigslist Encounters," is the latest personal project by the studio. I was told it isn't the first and certainly won't be the last either. Even if the schedule is packed, it is important to continue creating compelling personal work. As soon as you become a slave to the job, your creative growth can halt, and your phone will stop ringing. Isn't there some saying about all work and no play? Realistically, you probably shouldn't be driven to photography for the money in the first place. The few finding success selling online tutorials or fine art photos are heavily outweighed by the thousands of photographers working their butt off to keep the lights on.

The Kremer Johnson name is actually a combination of the last names of photographers Neil Kremer and Cory Johnson. They are described as a photography team specializing in character-based and narrative-driven environmental and studio portraiture.

Our images are both stylized and authentic, showcasing our subjects in engaging and impactful ways.

Kremer and Johnson have found that chasing trends and trying to shoot what is popular simply doesn't work. It doesn't feel right, and the work will eventually show it if your heart isn't in it. By shooting what they both gravitate to and see eye to eye on, the images end up being an honest result of their process.

Kremer and Johnson found each other after both went through their own businesses failing around 2008. They both happened to pick up photography as a creative outlet around that time. Johnson was mastering all the different ways to light people's faces, while Kremer was busy shooting landscapes and city shots from the rooftops of Los Angeles. Although they were friends at the time, neither really knew what the other was shooting. Once they started chatting about how hooked on photography they were, it became clear they needed to form a partnership.

It wasn't until 2014 that their path began to present itself. Like we have all heard a million times, it is incredibly important in today's competitive photography world to develop a consistent look. After a great deal of exploration, mistakes, and luck, they started developing the look they both felt strongly about. With the stars now aligned, work started coming quickly. Unfortunately, translating the sudden demand into regular work was still a rollercoaster ride.

The Actual Craigslist Ad

This project is in no way complete yet. They have run the ad 3 times now, receiving an overwhelming 70-100 responses each time. So far, 30 people have been photographed, and the team hopes to cover up to 150 total in the next year. Currently, Kremer and Johnson are envisioning about 18 photos in the final collection.

The process for validating the people responding to the ad has gone fairly smoothly so far. Everyone who inquires receives a follow-up email asking questions about who they are and where they live. This set of additional questions actually weeds out most of the people not willing to provide such answers. If they do respond and are deemed worthy of pursuing, the next step is gathering their phone number and address, no small feat for anyone familiar with the fears that can accompany dealing with strangers via Craigslist transactions. 

About 15 percent of the people responding turn into scheduled appointments. Even at that point, a few shoots have turned into wild goose chases even after multiple confirmations via email and text. As we have all learned, there are people out there with nothing better to do with their time than waste yours. While this can be frustrating and annoying, it simply gets blown off as part of the project.

When I asked how they found such interesting people to photograph, the answer was surprising. When going through the responses, they no longer look for characters. The best images have proven to come from those people who don't look interesting on paper. On one occasion, they arrived at a small apartment building with no parking for five blocks. They seriously considered leaving since it didn't look like it was worth it. Luckily, they stayed the course, because they met the most delightful person whose portrait is now a favorite in the series. Since that experience, the duo doesn't think about if someone will work well, they just schedule and shoot.

The process of meeting a complete stranger and getting them comfortable enough to photograph is the classic challenge for portrait photographers. Kremer and Johnson have a process they have developed to ensure this is the case. I'd have to imagine the process of meeting, learning about, then shooting a person to really capture their true self is one that only gets better and more refined with practice.

Most of the people photographed are already comfortable in front of the camera or they wouldn't be responding to a random Craigslist ad. So far, only two of the participants have actually accepted the $20 payment. Most walk away loving the project and happy to have played a role.

To help build the idea and aesthetic for each shoot, they discuss with the subject what they do for a living and what hobbies they enjoy. This usually surfaces what is truly important to the person. The next step is asking for permission to shoot them in that setting or location. With that squared away, a photo of the location is provided to see the size and colors of the scene. A wardrobe is then suggested to compliment the colors and feel of the location.

This entire series is being shot on a Nikon D810. While a medium format camera would be preferred, it is hard to justify the cost absent a budget. The lens is a Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8, and most shots are f/8 at 1/200th of a second unless they’re mixing ambient light with their strobes. The lighting consists of two identical Profoto B1 heads with a 60” octabox on axis for fill and a 30” Parabolix as the key light. The key is typically in the Rembrandt position. The simple lighting setup seems to really suit the project.

I asked about what the mood was like when meeting these people for the first time. In some cases, it’s all business and very matter of fact. In general, the people want to talk about their lives. They all have stories that add to the way we see them. This is one of the most important factors in composing and lighting the person. Being good listeners allows the person being photographed to really relax and tell us who they are.

I asked Kremer what his portrait might look like if he became a member of the series instead of its creator. He easily described himself in the studio covered in paint from his newly found love for hand-painted canvases. Johnson, on the other hand, would be in his living room working on a laptop with his two huge dogs and a newborn daughter. 

When I asked specifically about their how their stylized look is achieved and where it may draw inspiration from, I was not surprised to find some well-recognized greats:

I actually found out about this project and about Kremer and Johnson on the social network Ello. Kremer said there is a very art-conscious crowd over on Ello and they post their work there mainly because they like the other work found there. I asked where else they post work online and received some insightful suggestions. Behance is one of the sites listed that I don't hear mentioned often. Kremer said not only is there some great work on Behance if you know where to look, but there are also a number of actively watching industry creative directors. Workbook is a pay-to-play site that is very expensive, but is also a direct conduit to both art collectors and creative directors. Just being there shows that you are committed to your craft and important eyeballs will eventually find your work. Eyeland was also included on the short list due to their lack of fear in pushing the boundaries. Like most photographers today, Instagram is well positioned on the list since it is so fun and easy to use. It is also a great spot to post behind the scenes photos, which people really seem to enjoy. Like the rest of us, while Kremer Johnson has a presence on Facebook and posts often, not many people see it.

I hope you've enjoyed the preview of this work in progress. I look forward to keeping up with Kremer and Johnson and ultimately seeing the final release of "Craigslist Encounters."

All photos used with permission by Neil Kremer.

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Ben Pearse's picture

Intriguing idea, I've always enjoyed Neil's work

Absolutely Amazing!

Why are such projects always so purposely depressive? Do the photographers think that makes them more appealing?

Michael B. Stuart's picture

I wonder if it is a throwback to the look of old paintings where the subject had to sit for long periods so a smile or happy face wasn't possible.

Good point Michael; I didn't think of that. That recently discovered John Q Adams portrait being a perfect example.

Boinne Photography's picture

Funnily enough, done same thing altho for free, asked if there's anyone out there interested in some photos on Gumtree...done few shoots and it was amazing - had this guy with a piano, random as hell but really happy with the outcome.,medium_large.149...

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Great shot!

Boinne Photography's picture

thanks buddy!

The exact same two words popped into my head that Michael wrote when I saw your photo. It is a "great shot," and timeless.

Very cool idea, I also appreciated the mention of Workbook. They are a much better way to find good artists than the ever-cluttered behance