Photographer Sandy Kim on Her “Personal, Twisted Version of Reality”

All photos courtesy of Sandy Kim

Los Angeles-based photographer Sandy Kim is known for her intimate depictions of the dark side of cool, melding the worlds of glamour and trash, celebrity and Skid Row, to reveal the duality of being a young person living in a cultural epicenter. Both the neon aura and pock-marked underbelly of life in L.A. get the 35mm treatment, and Kim approaches both highs and lows with poise. From shooting Sky Ferreira for the cover of Playboy, to collaging heroin stamps and her own bloody underwear, Kim’s photos possess a hallucinogenic quality that transcends subject matter. Whether coming up or coming down, the energy in her work is infectious.

As I See It, Kim’s impending book and solo exhibition (on view now at Brooklyn gallery Muddguts through July 27th) is no exception. The 222-page glimpse into Kim’s reality chronicles years of work, with about half of the images appearing publicly for the first time. In one of my favorite shots, a melancholy heiress lounges in a pit of mud, her filthy white dress wrapped in plastic. On the next page, Kim and her boyfriend sit naked, kissing in the hills beneath the Hollywood sign. The juxtaposition speaks to the depth of Kim’s practice: her work examines how even the upper crust gets filthy and freaks can find love in a place as fucked up as Hollywood.

Kim’s rise to notoriety began in San Francisco about a decade ago before she moved to New York and started flourishing in the city’s party scene. There, she gained the support of legendary artists like photographer Ryan McGinley, who wrote the poetic fever dream that forwards As I See It. A few years ago, Kim and her boyfriend, Colby Hewitt (formerly of DIIV and Smith Westerns), decided to move to Los Angeles, where her career has continued to explode — without sacrificing the sensibilities of her art that put her on the map in the first place.

Today she’s among la creme de la creme of in-demand photographers: See her Sky Ferreira photos for a Playboy cover; John Legend for Numero; Robert Pattinson in drag for Wonderland; Heather Graham for the NYTimes; Travis Scott at his home; Donald Glover for New York. She even got fully nude with Young Thug to shoot the cover of his album, Barter 6. Most recently, Kim released the pics from a new Converse campaign, featuring a dressed-down Zayn from unexpected angles.

The book’s accompanying solo show falls in line with Kim’s tendency to overshare her personal life in gory and glorious detail. As I See It attendees will have the option of purchasing limited edition “nipple” umbrellas, printed with a giant photo Kim’s boob, and naturally the work has tits, dicks, and menstrual blood printed large and exhibited so her body, her life, is in-your-face in all the best ways. MERRY JANE caught up with Kim to talk about her new book and solo show, moving to Los Angeles, and the art of oversharing.

MERRY JANE: Can you tell us a little about your new book, As I See It?
Sandy Kim:
I think everyone sees the world differently. Like, all of our experiences, everything we go through growing up, all the good times, the laughter, the friends, the parties, the boyfriends, as well as all the bad times, the tears, the pain, addiction, breakups — all of that helps mold these personal distortion filters that no one else can really comprehend. I think it’s fascinating how two people can look at something and be affected in completely different ways. These filters make such a profound difference in the way we cope with the craziness of modern life.

It might sound crazy, but I like to think of my point and shoot camera almost like a periscope. It’s not just a camera, it helps me see my world more clearly. That’s what As I See It is all about, an attempt to visually explain my own personal, twisted version of reality. If you were to attach my filter over your lens, this is the world you would see.

Have any of the photos been published before?
About half are old images and the other half are new, unseen photos.

You’ve received a lot of support from pillars of the art community like Ryan McGinley, who wrote the intro to the book. How has encouragement like his helped to shape your career?
Ryan McGinley has been a supporter of me since day one. If it wasn’t for him and his recommendations, I would not be where I’m at today. I actually used to work for Ryan when I first moved to NYC. He would hit me up every now and then and offer me work at times when I was super broke. I never had a permanent role. It was more like on-call work ranging from casting, hyping, modeling, and digiteching. It was super helpful to see how a real professional worked.

How has your move from NYC to LA influenced your work?
It’s changed a lot. Now I take photos of sunsets and palm trees — it’s funny lol. That’s one of the reasons I like to travel as much as I can, because your surroundings really influence the photos you take. I find that when I’m in one place for too long, I start to run out of things to photograph. My surroundings start to feel dull/boring and I’m less excited about life in general. As a result, I take less photos. But then I’ll take a trip somewhere, and I’m inspired all over again.

What has been your favorite shoot, staged or spontaneous?
Sky Ferreira for Playboy. That was the most intense day of my life. Sky creative directed the cover shoot. We shot in the scorching hot desert, borderline heat stroking while rushing over to the next location to catch sunset behind a drive-in theater. We ended up missing the sunset, of course. Sky and I drove down to Palms Springs the next day and ended up shooting in a hotel room for 12 hours straight, except for the pool shots in the early morning. We could’ve taken those literally anywhere, but I don’t think we would’ve been able to create the same results in the end.

Your photos offer an honest window into a particularly hip subculture of artists, musicians, skaters, and stars, as well as the world of sex and drugs and the hot people who love them. This unflinching lens extends inward as well, documenting your relationship with your boyfriend. Do you ever feel self-conscious sharing such an intimate portrait of your world? Where do you draw the line?
I got over being self-conscious immediately after I posted my first topless photo on my blog. Then I took it to the next level and published a photo of my pussy. Once your pussy has made its rounds on the internet, nothing’s really embarrassing anymore. I’m not saying I’ve never been self-conscious of my body and images of it; it’s only natural to feel that way at times. But the reaction I receive from showing these intimate portraits overweighs the embarrassing part.

How has Instagram transformed photography, and the photographer?
Instagram has ruined photography.

Is there anyone you’re dying to shoot right now?
Snoop Dogg!!

What’s next?
A movie, my directorial debut.

“As I See It” is on view at Muddguts Gallery in Brooklyn through July 27th. For more on Sandy Kim’s work, visit her website here and follow her on Instagram.

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