Eric Kvatek has made a name for himself as a fashion photographer through his honest, uncompromising, and sometimes fantastical pictures. A far cry from the spiritually inert, white-backed images that come to mind with the word “lookbook,” his work is distinguished by its focus on nontraditional models in remote locales. Recently, Eric was kind enough to answer some questions about his life, career, and the shoot behind the new Kapital products at Mannahatta NYC
Alongside great design and an authentic appreciation for history as told through clothing, Kapital has a unique voice that you have captured in many iterations through your photography. The now-famous and collectible lookbooks are a cornerstone to the brand and welcome push in the direction of weird and irreverent. But how did this all begin?
Kiro and I both worked on the 45rpm shoots in early 2000’s so he had an appreciation for the art and power of having a book for each collection.When Kiro took over as the creative force behind Kapital it was natural for him to have a Kapital book. I was not involved in the first few books but starting in 2005 I started shooting, planning and producing the photo shoots which I have now done for fifteen years. Right from the beginning, one of our goals was to make something unique, not just a catalog or lookbook.
You and Kiro Hirata have a well-documented friendship and creative chemistry. Can you tell us about how this relationship came about? What do you enjoy about working together?
Kiro was the mens designer at 45rpm and he spoke very good English so at meetings in Japan and on the photoshoots Kiro was just always either next to me or working with me. Of course I realized there was something special about him and very quickly he went from being just some stylist on the shoot to somebody I enjoyed spending time with and then one of my very best friends. Somehow we share a very similar sense of humor, a kind of casual nonchalance, and I think enjoy many of the same pastimes, vintage shopping, shooting pool in old bars, eating at mom and pop owned restaurants. Working with Kiro has for the most part been very organic. Our meetings are spread out over a few days, so while driving or taking a train, having a beer, hanging out on a street corner waiting for a store to open, we are gradually talking about the project. To a casual observer it might look like we are just screwing around, but more than anyone I’ve ever known, his brain is constantly pondering things, planning, solving design puzzles.
Between your background as a vintage dealer and photojournalist, it makes sense that you have an ability to create images that evoke the past but offer a glimpse of a possible future. In the stories that your photographs tell, do you feel that you are the author - or that you are capturing a story that is already there?
On the Kapital shoots we are really trying to create our world, sometimes called the “KapitalWorld”. I don’t know if you saw the Kapital World Movie but in it Kiro and I talk about this world we try to create. I would say it’s a kind of happy go lucky journey by the characters we have cast, traveling through these disparate locales occasionally causing mischief. But we do allow for specific elements of the locations to influence us and the story. By including local people, very local locations, we try to allow local spirit and issues find their way into our photographs.
Do you have a favorite era of vintage fashion - or one that holds personal significance to you? Any favorite pieces in your collection, or things that you are looking to find?
I seem to be drawn to late 60’s, early 70’s biker style, Harley T shirts, bootcut jeans, Buco and Bates leather jackets from that era. But not from any thought out process. For sure I was influenced by my grandfathers, my uncle and my father, my cousin. I admired them when I was a kid and also the movies that I loved, Taxi Driver, Shaft, Dirty Harry and TV shows like Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Sanford and Son, and sports heroes like Mean Joe Green, Joe Namath and the Juice. So this was a very organic process and not some contrived plan. When I was five years old I asked my mom to find me black boots and black jeans and somehow she did it for me. I never really changed that much.
As you have mentioned in the past, shooting on-site means that you inevitably encounter a lot of surprises. Could you tell us about your process and the attitude that enables you to take advantage of the unexpected?
This is actually part of what I really enjoy about my job. Of course on any photo shoot there is a plan. But using all natural light, mostly outdoor locations of course we have to constantly adjust to the weather and unforeseen circumstances. Very often on Kapital shoots we see a guy walking past us and Kiro or I are like that guy needs to be in our shoot! So somebody runs over and asks him to join us. Or we see a cool car or a funky old bar or an amazing dog. So the way I make the plan, there’s the schedule and locations but within that I allow for adjustments, diversions, even chaos. Ultimately, when weird stuff happens, you can panic, or you can just look at the situation and figure out how do I fix this? A big part of my job as the photographer and the producer is just solving problems.
Past lookbooks have taken you all over the world, and while Kapital clearly owes some of its aesthetic debt to Japanese and American traditions, I am interested in how travel has affected the process of creating a cohesive vision. Does this global perspective influence the way that you personally think about clothing and photography?
Personally for me, there was a time when the regional differences in the US were very pronounced. So when I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 80’s it really was very much like moving to a foreign country. I was extremely excited and eager to shoot on the streets. But over time the US to me became all too familiar, homogenized. Somehow I ended up in the Philippines and really fell in love with the streets there. It was this place with no major chain restaurants or stores. Plenty of old American cars, old bars from the Vietnam War era. People still almost dressed vintage but just naturally. I went from being bored with photography to totally re energized. So for me, travel has always been a serious factor in my personal photography and my desire to explore, hunt.
What brought this particular lookbook shoot to Vietnam?
For this shooting it was totally Kiro’s vision to shoot in Vietnam. He wanted to showcase very Asian designs but also some surf and counterculture styles. So back in November we flew to Saigon for one day with Lauren Yates of W’menswear brand. She has some experience so she was able to very efficiently show us around. Seeing Saigon for a few hours convinced Kiro and I that Vietnam was the perfect place to shoot. Thanks to Lauren’s information we chose the surf area of Da Nang and the old cultural town of Hoi An.
What were some highlights of the trip? Do you have any favorite pictures or stories about particular shots that you’d be willing to share?
Just being in Vietnam was exciting as it was my first experience there. I really loved the warm misty rain that occurs there and its also a really great atmosphere for photography. A kind of funny thing happened where my main camera died, so I rented a replacement camera that turned out to be broken, that broken rental camera was stolen while shooting at the beach. But amazingly, it was returned to me a few days later. This was while I was shooting the surf scenes which also was really exciting, being in the water and simultaneously directing and taking photos. But all in all, just being with the Kapital guys and the entire crew is great. I think the last thing I shot was the army theme with the Jeeps and when it was finished we got to ride in the Jeeps back to our hotel. It was very surreal, but an incredible feeling and a wonderful way to kind of end the journey.
2020 has changed the way that many of us consider our position in the global economy, and as citizens of the world. Suspicions are high, as is empathy. How do you think this hyper-sensitive climate is going to affect the way you travel and work? Do you have a new story to tell, or to capture?
There’s so much going on right now, it’s really difficult to say how this all turns out. But I’m hopeful. I have faith that goodness and common sense will prevail.
The new lookbook is centered around the idea of Kung Fu, which is a product of Buddhism and as much a practice of meditation and mindfulness as it is a martial art. Is there a link between the themes surrounding Kung Fu and the state of the world right now?
Kiro was interested in Kung Fu mainly as one aspect of Vietnamese culture. His father was a martial arts practitioner and Kiro was an athlete in his youth so I think he’s familiar with the Zen aspect of conditioning and the mental and physical discipline required to succeed. I guess in a way, people, organizations and movements succeed because they are disciplined. Luck can only take you so far.
How did you discover Mannahatta? What are some of your impressions of the shop?
So Lauren who I also shoot for told me there was this really cool store in NYC with awesome owners and was like ya sure because all too often I can be very wary of things at least in my private life. But I lived near your store in the Lower East Side for ten years so one day when I was feeling nostalgic for my old hood I just thought I’ll stop in and check it out. Of course I was very impressed. Visually speaking it's very captivating, the mix of fashion and Native American art. The space is really well utilized for its size. And of course the owners are really awesome. So thanks Lauren!
Words By Dominic Frost
Kapital Photographer Eric Kvatek