Interview: Justin Kosman


Justin (down for the) Kosman is one of the busiest, hardest working dudes I know. He seems to have an endless supply of motivation and quest for knowledge that is far from quenched. A few years ago Justin moved to Carlsbad and instantly started rounding up riding crews. When he is home, he consistently has a full minivan to go film and shoot photos… Oh yeah, he openly loves minivans because of there practicality, which I think play to his character. When he is not running his one-man-band of BMX media wrangling, you can find him surfing and riding himself.

-Gary Young

Justin, How the hell are ya? You’ve probably just come back from somewhere or are about to leave for somewhere. Which is it?
Last night I shot a video piece on Pierre Luc Gagnon for an upcoming ESPN feature leading up to the X Games. I was at the Red Bull Stomping Grounds event in Chicago last week and the X Games in LA is coming up quicker than it ever has. This month I’m dedicating a bunch of time for a Haro project and my dad is coming out next week for the Barret Jackson auction. I am home in Carslbad fixing up my place and trying to clean out the garage for whatever he buys. I was on the east coast a bunch this winter/spring for some snowboard shoots and a Scotty Cranmer shoot and then in Spain with some of the SD riders.

Seeing as practically the first 69 spreads in every Ride are photos you’ve shot, it’s no secret that you stay busy. What’s been keeping you on the move lately?
I do a lot of work for Vans and there is always something going on with them. From updating the blog, shooting print ads, catalog photo shoots, sales meeting videos, commercial pre-roll, skate stuff, pro-tec stuff – they are a great company to work for and there is always something on the to-do list. I produce videos for Bnqt.com and do some consulting for them on other projects as well. Early in the year I had a grip of shoots for Matador with Dennis Enarson and their other athletes. A lot of the San Diego riders have been coming up the ranks, so plenty of our work has been showing up more places lately.

Content is king, so I will write down photo concepts and film concepts on note cards and tag them to a bulletin board so they stay in the forefront of my plans. I see writing things down as a way to birth an idea into the world – and once it’s born you have a responsibility to feed it.

Even though you dabble in a bunch of different media, I primarily consider you a photographer. I want skip the stock “how did you get into photography” question, and find out what KEEPS you into photography?
When it comes down to it, telling a story with one still image is a challenge no matter what you are shooting, because each time you go to shoot a photo, you are about to create something that no one has ever seen before. If that doesn’t keep you motivated, check your pulse. When I film and direct, I look at every shot as a chance to tell the story. The fewer shots the better, simplicity is the goal.

Let’s say you were to hang a photograph up in your house, who might it be shot by?
Sometimes I get asked why I don’t have any BMX photos at my place, and I think that every photographer will answer that the same way. Maybe it’s a curse that comes with this job, but if you’re the guy who turned all the nuts and bolts, you’d rather be onto the next concept than admiring yesterday’s work. But to answer the question, it would be a Morgan Meredith photo shot maybe 7 or 8 years ago, that I saw in Bike Magazine. It was a double exposure, black and white of a roadside sign that had the letters arranged to read: YOU WILL NEVER BE MORE THAN YOU THINK. It’s always been a reminder to keep a positive attitude and set your owns sails, no matter which way the storm is blowing. Morgan is a good friend of mine and I think that has something to do with it too.


Morgan Meredith Photo

Give us quick breakdown of how you’ve gotten to where you are today as a freelance photographer/media guy.
As funny as it may sound, Richard Marx’s song Hazard was my first major influence. I was eleven years old and had heard it on the radio a handful of times, but when I saw the music video it stopped me in my tracks. The Hazard video was a generic version of a daytime TV drama reduced to a five-minute slow motion mist montage of angry mobs and muddy flashbacks. I hadn’t seen many music videos at all because we didn’t have MTV or VH1, and it wasn’t at all how I imagined it in my mind. “Why would this guy make up a weird love song about murder and prejudice in Nebraska?” Because he can. That was definitely the start of my fascination between the written word and pictures – as random as it may be.

A couple years later, my brother and I dug through trash cans for a couple summers collecting cigarette packs for the redeemable Marlboro Miles. He bought a sleeping bag and steak knives, and I got a point and shoot camera. That thing kept me shooting at the BMX races for quite a few years until I picked up a Pentax K-1000 in high school and started shooting black and white, discovering double exposures by accident and learning at a rate equal to the free supply of expired film from our local photo studio.

When I was studying English in college I met a sports photographer who I ended up assisting for four years when my nose wasn’t buried in post-modern literature. He had full digital systems for Nikon and Canon and he put my arse to work hauling lights, setting up strobes and shooting a bit of film and digi. He is the guy who basically taught me digital. After school I went on to be an editorial intern at Bike Magazine in San Juan Capistrano as a last minute alternative to moving to Bend, Oregon and working at a bike shop. I was an assistant copy editor for the few months during the photo annual production, so there wasn’t a whole lot of copy to edit. Consequently I was going to Sheep Hills a lot, which is where I met Robbie Miranda who I would eventually live with for a couple years while I was working TV production for ESPN – a gig I got through an editor at Powder Ski magazine.

I shot my first spread ad with Robbie for DC Shoes and was sporadically contributing to Ride Magazine and Ride UK. Living the dream in Huntington Beach, riding trails, shooting photos and paying $500 a month in rent. No overhead, no savings, no plan, no worries. Then my brother killed himself back in Illinois and it really brought me to a crossroads where I almost packed it up and moved back to the Midwest to take a job at a local newspaper. I stuck around and shortly thereafter, Transworld BMX closed it’s doors and Kevin McAvoy and I ran a magazine called Twenty for about one year. The bare bones operation lasted twelve months, and when our publisher pulled the plug I had a ton of un-published photos that I started selling off to companies. A particular group destined for a Mike Day feature were licensed by Red Bull and that started my relationship with the Austrian energy drink giant and I found myself on a beach in Colombia shooting a two million dollar race car with armed guards for two weeks. On that trip I made contacts to go to the Zooom agency in Austria to intern with the Red Bull Photofiles team and spend a month learning some cutting edge digital post processing. That was three years ago and I’ve been keeping a fast pace ever since.

When it comes to shoots that people hire you for, how often do you have freedom to shoot what you think will work versus what a company/client may want? Do people trust you to do what you do, or is it 50/50?
On the bigger shoots I receive a pdf with a shot list, wardrobe list, photo samples, art director notes, etc. When I hear “do your thing,” – it’s on. Game time. That’s my X Games. The goals are defined, you get the money shot and everyone is happy if it takes an hour or 5 hours. If they want some really wild stuff it will be pretty obvious from the initial conference calls, but for the most part they’ve seen my stuff elsewhere or I’ve been recommended by another agency so trust exists.

When shooting photos for fun, do you find that your personal style varies from how you would work and shoot on paid jobs?
I really like shooting available light, low depth of field when I’m shooting from the hip. I also get psyched on interesting shadow patterns and more subtle things. Sometimes I’ll geek out and use a shiny soda can as a reflector for a cell phone shot, but most of the client stuff ends up being strobed.

You must have gathered a lot of work over the years. If you had to pick 6 choice photos (of any genre) that you have taken without thinking about it to much, which would they be and why?

**continue clicking through for answers

  • dre

    haha a delorean

  • http://chrisriesner.tumblr.com Chris Riesner

    Amazing interview, Kosman is so on top of things.

  • http://www.davidlangphoto.com DavidLang

    Kosman for prez. That Colombia story is crazy!

  • NB

    “I never go to a female agent. She will look at those batteries and yank the bag asap. A guy in his late/early thirties to mid forties won’t give you a second look.”

    Everytime!

  • http://www.tittaycitay.com dirtron

    good job bud! few people will ever know how it feels to work as hard as this man.

  • juaquin

    props to justin!

  • Ryan

    Really good read. Cheers!!

  • http://www.jeffphoto.net jeff

    wwjkd, Great interview!