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Behind The Camera: Sam Gehrke

Photo by Noyel Gallimore

At first, you might not expect Sam Gehrke, a soft-spoken, quiet person, spends much of his time making punchy, high-energy concert photography. He looks like someone you might expect to be in a band (arms covered in tattoos, shirts from bands you’ve probably never heard of, etc.), but Sam’s photography extends far past Portland’s most notable concert venues. Whether it’s Sam’s impromptu street portraits, his work in photojournalism, or even weddings, you’ll see the common theme is people.

“Before the pandemic, the bread and butter of my work was either events or music or concerts,” says Sam. “I love going to concerts, but I'm not much of a dancer. I fall into the category of the person who goes to a show and stands with their arms crossed in the back. Not because I'm not enjoying it. It’s just that concerts are a scenario in which I'm gonna bring a camera, because it makes me feel more comfortable. It gives me something to do and I feel like I'm contributing in a way.”

Sam got his start in music photography when he was still living in Eugene and working a nine-to-five job as a video editor. “I connected with this guy, Chris, who ran a magazine called Vortex Music Magazine. At the time Vortex didn't have a lot of photographers working for them. They just had a signup sheet and you could sign up for the show you wanted to shoot.” They’d get Sam a pass to shoot the show and then he’d submit his photos afterward. “I was not at the level which I felt comfortable even accepting money for photography,” Sam says, “but Monday through Friday, I would usually do my nine-to-five, and then as soon as I'd get off work, drive up to Portland and shoot a show. I was doing three to four shows a week, and then driving back the same night and then going back to work. That was the point where I was like, ‘I really wanna do photography.'" Sam had gone to school for video production and cinema studies and, like many of us who go to college, was sure that it was what he wanted to do. But as soon as he started doing it as a job, he became a little bit bored of it. “When I got hooked up with Vortex, I was like, ‘okay, I want to go all in on this. This is what I want to do for a living,’” reminisces Sam. “Going up here to Portland every day from Eugene and driving back and forth didn't seem that bad. I mean, it seems bad now,” notes Sam.

“I loved working on my own and I wanted to make my own schedule,” says Sam about his decision to become a contract/freelance worker. Sam left his job as a video editor and moved to Portland to be closer to the shows he was shooting. Sam makes sure to clarify, “I learned pretty quickly after moving up here that in order to make the freelance photography thing work, I could not sequester myself as much as I wanted to. I would love to be able to just do one thing and have that pay the bills, but I figured out pretty quickly that I was gonna have to get pretty good at everything,” Sam says of his decision to shoot everything from weddings to product photography to portraiture to family portraiture.

Sometimes shooting everything still meant shooting some video, mainly music videos, for clients as well. “I've directed and shot a few music videos now for different people. I've done a few for this band called Soft Kill. That's a local band here and usually it's just really like bare bone stuff,” explains Sam. “One was basically just filming nonstop from pre-show to filming during their concert. And we've done a couple of others that have more story arcs to them, but the production is usually just me with a camera and then I edit it all together and it looks good. It's crazy, a lot of the music videos that I’ve shot are zero budget and they look pretty good for what I can work with.” And what Sam was working with at the time was a Sony A7RIII. “The video was great on the Sony and I liked the A7RIII for a little bit, but it was a little too clinical for me. The color profiles made me feel like I didn't know if I had a good picture or not until I put it into Photoshop because everything was very cold.”

“I had a Canon 5D IV before. With the Sony, I didn't get the same feeling and as soon as I got the [Canon] R5, it just felt better. If somebody hasn't been doing photography for a while, or they don't do photography at all, it's weird explaining why you would choose one camera over another but sometimes it's just that it just feels better,” Sam explains of his switch from Sony back to Canon. When talking about his lenses, Sam says, “I don't have many [RF lenses]. I have the RF 50mm. I just carried over a lot of my lenses from my 5D IV and they work great with the adapter ring Canon makes. I have a 24 to 70 F2.8 and then I have the 70-200 zoom lens, and I have the 8mm fisheye. Those are the lenses and body I use for digital photography.”

“Concerts and shooting music aren't the most financially viable options for a contract worker. It might be a different story if you're a fabulous photographer in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. But in a town like Portland where you work with local bands a fair amount and a lot of local bands are on the same level as you as an artist, there isn’t a lot of money to throw around.”

“That's not a slight against Portland bands,” Sam quickly adds. “It's hard for artists in general here. Money aside, I’ve met some of the best people through music photography, so ultimately money takes a backseat to the friendships and experience. It's just not like LA. LA is such a center point for arts and culture and commercial opportunities. There's a lot less of that here [Portland]. There's places like Wieden and Kennedy and a fair amount of other agencies that you can work for, but that's also like a weird thing to navigate as well.”

Difficult or not, that navigation was something that prior to Covid Sam was starting to figure out. “I was actually doing a lot more traditional commercial work for agencies before the pandemic. One of the biggest things for me, pre-pandemic, was just getting out and interacting with people and having them see my face, like reminding people that I'm here and I have a camera,” describes Sam of his agency networking. “When I couldn't do that, I feel like it kind of wiped out a lot of what I had built up over the past few years. I probably could have been more proactive about reaching out to people, but I just got used to not having to plug myself or advertise or reach out to people. I was happy with what I was doing and work just came in naturally.”

I think the pandemic made me reevaluate that attitude. It made me realize I should be happy with where I'm at, but also I should start aiming higher too. It's a weird push and pull when you’re on your own and you set your own rules. You don’t have a boss telling you what to do. There's nobody in your corner being your cheerleader saying you should do this or you should do that.”

The pandemic also brought about other changes in how Sam created his images. “It wasn't really until the pandemic hit that I switched back to trying film more. I started off with cheap film cameras. I got better and better at it. Now, it's to the point where I'll actually do entire shoots, portraiture mainly, on film. I like it a lot more than digital at this point. I think the main reason stems from the abilities that I have in post as digital files become more malleable and bigger. I find myself being overwhelmed by the number of options that I have with a photo in the editing portion when I shoot digital,” Sam explains. “While I'm shooting, I think the knowledge in the back of my head that I have those options, started to make me lazy while I was shooting. Maybe it wasn't something that I was realizing at the time, but it's like, ‘well, why should I shoot this straight on or even pay attention to the lines or how bright the background is or something. 'Cause I can just use a slider and change that in post.’ There's a big difference between a scanned 35mm slide and a 60 megabyte file that you got off of a Canon R5 in terms of how you can change it. And of course when I'm scanning film, I have those options, but it's more tangible and it doesn't feel as impersonal as a digital photograph. So that's why I started liking shooting film more. I'm more at peace with shooting something and scanning it in and being like, ‘that's that.’ With digital files like the ones I got from the Sony or my R5, I could do a portrait and I could edit it for hours. It's like it is just never ending. Not everybody's like this, but I think that knowing that I can change something and then I'll change it and change it and change it. And it just gives me anxiety. It's not like I hate digital entirely. I still shoot a lot of digital, but it's mainly for gigs and such.

There's more variety in the cameras themselves. And it really shows in my rotating stock of film cameras. I'm always switching it up,” Sam continues. “I usually will get a camera and film cameras now generally retain their value if you treat them right. So if it doesn't stick, then I just sell it and try another one.”

Venice Beach - image made on Contax G2

Currently in Sam’s film camera line up, he has a Hasselblad 500 CM, a Leica M6, a Contax t3, a Pentax 67ii, and a Roloflex-like brownie camera. “Before these I had a contact G2 and I had a Fujifilm GA645. And I briefly had a Mamiya RB67, but that broke. But yeah, I switch it up a lot. Plus I ended up selling a lot of my cameras for the Leica M6.”

Sam’s current favorite film camera is his M6. “It's everything that I imagined,” Sam says about the camera. “When I was probably 10 or 11 years old, I was in Samy's camera down in Santa Barbara and I remember holding a Leica camera. I didn't really have any interest in cameras at that point, but I just remember it felt really nice. And ever since then I've wanted something like that.”

Shatoya - image made on Cinestill 800T

“The film part of it [film photography] also figures into why I like film more than digital. I've been doing a lot more color photography lately. I hate to admit to falling in with the trendy things, but I do think that Cinestill is the best film stock right now. I love both their color film stocks, especially the 800T. I've been doing more studio shots with that and I just love the way that it looks. I wish we had more neon in Portland, but yeah I've been shooting a lot of Cinestill lately. Also I got one roll of the new Cinestill, the 400 D. It's really good. I was waiting for that to happen because I think that's the only thing that I don't like about Cinestill, you got very low end ISO and very high end ISO. It's good that they're doing one in the middle.”

image made on Cinestill 50D

I also really like Ektar. I like Ektar for portraits. I don't shoot Kodak Portra a lot. People say Ektar is too red-ish. I think that a lot of the time it'll bring out the red if people's faces are flush or something but I prefer it to Portra. I like that weirdness in the colors. And I haven't shot in a while, but I do like Lomochrome Purple.

La Luz - image made on Lomography Lomochrome Purple

“It's funny, I don't think too much about film stocks usually. Especially for black and white. I feel like all I buy is Ilford XP2, because it's C-41 processed and well, I don't like waiting for my film. So I will shoot that solely so that I can get back quickly from Pro Photo's lab," states Sam.

Push Movement, Go Skate Day 2022 - image made on Ilford XP2

"The only other black and white film that I shoot with consistently is the Cinestill XX. My background is so rooted in cinema, I went to school for film and cinema and thought movies were gonna be my life, professionally. So I think is another reason that I like Cinestill film, it has that backstory and visual to it.”

image made on Cinestill XX

The theme of switching things up is common with Sam’s methodology as well as his gear. “I switch it up a lot. I'm always trying new things and trying different things. And I think that you see it in my photography. If you're looking at my photography, what I’ve done over the past four years. It doesn't move in a straight line. I'm jumping all around and I'm not focused on one thing and just doing it over and over again. That applies to what I photograph and the cameras I have and the film stocks I use,” Sam says.

Impromptu portrait of Aesop Rock on Belmont

A lot of Sam’s free time is spent doing street photography, more specifically doing impromptu portraits of people he meets while walking around with his camera. “I don't have many interests outside of photography,” proclaims Sam, “in a way, it's nice that I've been doing it for so long that even when the paid work may not be so interesting, it doesn't burn me out creatively. I can shoot for a day doing mundane work, make a paycheck, and then just walk out and do it for another four hours on my own time.”

And wonder for hours Sam does. “I use a Ricoh GR III as well for street photography a lot. And actually, the GR is my favorite camera that I have had in forever. It's so small and easy to use. I have scaled back in terms of options recently. Sometimes I like to have the GR on auto settings and be able to just pop it outta my pocket and photograph something as it happens,” Sam says of his favorite camera for digital street photography.

I really think that my love of street photography was born out of being so shy. In middle school I got the skateboarding bug. Tony Hawk's pro skater came out and everybody wanted to skate. So I started skating and by the time we were in high school, my best friend was a much better skater than me. I would often just tag along with him and photograph him. I took film photography classes in high school, but I really started photographing in earnest on a digital camera,” Sam remembers. “I think the first serious camera that I got was the Canon 5D II. I vividly remember getting it on eBay and then realizing that I had been scammed after a couple weeks of not receiving it. So I had to file a claim through PayPal and, and get my money back. But then I finally got one, so that was my first camera.”

About this same time, another pivotal point in Sam’s photography was about to take place. “Once they opened the WJ Skatepark underneath the Washington Jefferson bridge overpass, that was the first time that I told myself that I was gonna go and photograph people that I didn't know,” proclaims Sam. “It seemed like the logical way to enter into it for me. In my experience, skaters and skate culture was one of the most open to having somebody be around with a camera. It's a lot different than walking up to a person that's having coffee outside of a Starbucks or something and asking if you can take their picture. There's people doing things and they're stoked to have their picture taken. So that's how I started getting into photography and street photography. Eventually it did expand out into just walking around and asking people for portraits. Especially when I moved up here [Portland] from Eugene. At some point I decided that I needed to put myself out there more. And the street photography thing was one of those goals that I set for myself where I was just like, ‘okay, I'm gonna go out and just start asking strangers for portraits while I'm walking around.’ And eventually that translated into just being a more social person overall. So in a way it was a therapeutic exercise. It still is!

image made on Kodak Portra 160

Sam’s push to become more social was probably partially connected to his similarities to his dad, who is also a professional photographer. “My dad does photography and I'm really similar to my dad and take a lot of cues from him. He has been photographing still objects and collages and working alone for as long as I can remember. And he still does,” says Sam. “I think that maybe since I had already kind of fallen into the profession of a parent that I wanted to differentiate myself somehow, maybe even if that was a subconscious desire,” he continues. “Since my mom and dad retired, they've been able to do their own, their own thing. They moved up to Portland as soon as I got into college. As soon as they didn't have to raise me, they were done with Eugene. When I got up here and started looking for a studio, everything was so expensive. So I was just like, ‘Hey, I'll split rent three ways with you two, if I can be the third studio mate.’ It's great, they're both in their seventies, there’s very little to worry about having them as studio mates. They wake up super early and come do their work in the studio, so they're outta here by nine am.”

Sam admits photography has helped his comfort with other people immensely. “When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I often felt awkward. I liked being alone, especially in college. Taking my camera around with me to parties or concerts was a social shield. Having a camera in my hands gives me a sense of purpose. And it's a good conversation starter. It definitely was a big driving force in my life just to break me out of my shell and get used to being around people,” recalls Sam. “That’s one thing that has changed a lot about me since I started doing photography, my favorite thing is people. And my favorite thing about photographing people is the interaction itself, you know, getting to learn about somebody or even just having a good conversation with somebody. So yeah, it's been a complete 180 from not wanting anything to do with people to really loving being around people.

That love of conversing with strangers made Sam a prime candidate for one of his first jobs after moving to Portland. ”I worked for Willamette Week for three and a half or four years. I did the street section for the entirety of the time that I was there. I think that in the three and a half years that I photographed around 2,500 people. I was doing it every week for about three years and I'd have to photograph about 10 to 14 people per spread,” Sam explains about his major role at the paper. The street section of Willamette Week, for those who haven’t ever seen it, is basically a question of the week at the top and then 10 to 14 answers below with pictures of people next to their answers.“That was big for me. That gave me a lot of connections. That also fed into the street portraiture thing.”

You might assume with his love of taking portraits of people he meets on the street that Sam might still be doing the street section of the Willamette Week. “I loved doing that. I mean, obviously, I did it for almost four years. But my big frustration was I wanted it to be more than what it was. For a long time, I was pushing it more in the direction of a Bill Cunningham type thing. I wanted it so badly to be something else and I would end up spending seven or eight hours just walking around, finding people that I wanted to feature in it based on how they were dressed or how they carried themselves. It was definitely a labor of love for a long time. The question always came backseat to the photos, unless it was a cool question. And I honestly hated asking the question,” laments Sam. “That was the push and pull with it. I would curate those sections. And then I just got too tired to do it anymore.” Sam would continue on to do restaurant profiles and human interest stories. He then dabbled a little bit into covering politics.

Around the time Donald Trump was elected, he was photographing a lot of the protests and clashes between groups with opposing political beliefs. “That was the closest to photojournalism I had gotten. It was probably the most exciting and sort of terrifying at the same time. I grew up really liking James Nachtwey. From a really early age, I was attracted to his [James Nachtwey] approach towards conflict and war photography. And, at least on television, Christiane Amanpour was very front-and-center in my periphery as I started watching more of the news. They seemed like people that were making a difference with their respective art forms, and that was really appealing to me,” Sam explains of his desire to dabble in photojournalism. “I photographed some of the more recent protests sparked by the George Floyd situation. And it was also very nerve wracking. It felt very different from the Trump inauguration protests,” recalls Sam. “There were a lot more photographers there, and sometimes, it weirdly felt like it was a competition. People that I talked to personally went into it with the mindset of like, ‘oh, I'm gonna photograph this. I'm gonna take this picture that has the chance of being this thing that blows up, whether it be going viral or having likes on Instagram or being picked up by a major news source.’ And that turned me off to it. Photographing those protests, I had a little bit more time for introspection and at some point I just decided that maybe it wasn't my story to tell,” recalls Sam. “Definitely as I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood more fully that it wasn't glamorous and you had to be a very certain type of person. And I just don't think I'm that type of person. But you know, the protests were a good reinforcement to that feeling. I got some really good shots, but I did not like being in it.”

So, if you haven’t picked up on it yet, Sam shoots a little bit of everything. “As I got further and further into being a contract worker, the feeling of not knowing what my financial situation was going to be like the next month never really went away. I could do really well one month, but I was always like, ‘well, you know, the unpredictability. I don't know what my next paycheck is gonna look like next month, so I gotta fit in as much work as I can this month.’ And that went on for six years or something,” Sam says about his diverse work and constant work ethic.”Pre-pandemic, that was the mode I operated at. I could work 14 or 15 hour days and, I mean, I felt tired, but I just never stopped. All things considered, the pandemic was actually a good thing for me because when I actually had time to stop and think about it and realize how tired I had been.”

“I do miss shooting concerts. Since they've come back, I've kind of taken a backseat on that particular thing just because it tires me out. I mean, I'm 32, so I'm not that old, but there’s definitely a difference from when I was 21,” Sam laments. “I recently got on the contractor roster for Rolling Stone though,” he excitedly follows up with. “I mean the Rolling Stone thing is really big and it’s weird because I hadn't been doing concerts for a while. All of a sudden they were like, ‘Hey, do you wanna start shooting for us? Your first gig is shooting Olivia Rodrigo at the Moda.’ So that was cool. I guess it also figures into the whole not really trying to reach out to anybody but rather being content with where I’m at and things fall into my lap, which I feel a little bit weird about.”

And keeping with his theme of switching things up often, Sam tells us, “I'm starting an actual full-time job back in photojournalism with the Portland Business Journal. He notes that the stability of a salary, a 401k, and company provided healthcare will eliminate stressing about those things from his month to month. “It seems like I’m gonna have enough flexibility for me to keep doing freelance work, so I’ll be a little bit more choosy about what concerts I want to photograph and do some freelance gigs that are a little bit bigger and hopefully get paid better for them.” Sam leaves off with, “I'm just looking forward to working more, but also figuring out a better work life balance and doing more of the projects that I want to do.”

See Sam's go-to gear here and more of Sam's Photos here:



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