Exclusive Interview: Kyle Thompson Discusses His Haunting Photography

by Nathan SpoorPosted on

Kyle Thompson is a young photographer on the rise. He began shooting at age 19 in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and in the last couple years has amassed a substantial body of work that shows a surprisingly adept and concise voice for such a young artist. This work, just released in a book titled Somewhere Else is comprised mostly of self-portraits taken in various abandoned locations found while on a road trip traveling the country.

Thompson’s images go beyond the typical narrative, transporting viewers into a personal moment that exists only as a fleeting instant captured within his camera’s eye. By capturing these strange and beautiful, and often quite surreal moments, Thompson wishes to produce images with no beginning or end, a moment that lives on in a continual loop in and unchanging state. Join us as we get an exclusive interview with Kyle Thompson and a peek into his ephemeral world.

Tell us a little about your backstory, Kyle. As we’ve heard, you got into photography at a fairly young age around your local Illinois area?

I started by exploring abandoned houses in rural Illinois. I would drive a couple hours out every weekend, and shoot in them. I wanted to take portraits but had no idea who to take photos of, so I shot a bunch of self-portraits. I started expanding from there. I think it was a lot easier that way since I didn’t feel like I was being a burden to any one else by asking for time, especially when I had no clue how the images would turn out.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re self-motivated and not school-taught or a photographer’s assistant coming into his own. How did you begin learning all that necessary skills and tricks needed to to achieve these beautiful and surreal scenes in your photos?

Yeah I never went to school for it, and I learned it on my own. I really just spent a ton of time shooting. Doing so many self-portraits early on definitely helped, since I didn’t have to wait until some one was available to shoot, and I was able to constantly be working on something. I’ve always been really critical of my work, and I think that pushed myself to improve. If a photo I took is over six months old, I probably don’t like it any more. But I think that’s good, because it signifies growth.

Your work seems to take place in abandoned houses or woodsy areas. What was it about the abandoned houses or nature locations that really drew you in or inspired your creative interests?

There’s definitely an inherent beauty in emptiness, and a curiosity in seeing how other people lived. Abandoned houses create this fragmented portrait of the people who used to live in them through whatever they left behind. It’s really interesting to piece things together and learn about them through that.

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found while going through the abandoned houses or buildings that you shoot and how long do you tend to stay once you find a good spot?

I’ve found a bunch of really cool locations just by driving around. I found an old abandoned airplane in a field in Illinois a long time back. Inside houses, I’ve found stuff like old journals, photos, guns, animals, etc. One house I found was in a town that was known for having a big circus. The house was owned by a couple that were professional clowns. There were clown decorations everywhere, and photos of them dressed up. I’ll usually stay for a few hours, but sometimes longer. On a big trip last year, I found this huge ghost town. There were tons of cars all over the yards, and a dozen houses. I found the one with the cleanest bed and slept there. I ended up staying for two days.

Growing up in Chicago must have offered some interesting challenges and adventures, but you’ve recently relocated to Portland. What prompted this move and what have you found on the road?

Chicago has been great, and I love the city, but otherwise Illinois can be incredibly boring. Especially when I’m trying to scout for locations, it just seems too monotonous. I spent six months driving all over the US last year and Portland happened to be the place I liked the most. I met some really cool people out there and made a spur of the moment decision to move there right after I returned from the trip.

You have a unique way of setting up shots, and of using yourself as the model for many of these photos. Can you tell the readers a bit about how that all comes together?

It varies a bit, but I usually draw images out before I shoot them. Just as a way to figure out how I want things to lay compositionally. My work is mostly pre-production, and taking the time to set up everything perfectly. For self-portraits, I’ve tried different methods, but the easiest way seems to be with a remote timer. Basically the same thing people use for time lapses. I plug it into my camera and set it so it takes bursts of photos in different intervals. So its mostly that, and running back and forth a ton to make sure its working.

What is it that inspires you to pursue making a new picture, is it an idea that comes to your mind or is it more of a location that you see?

It’s usually the idea first. I live in a great spot now, so if I drive an hour in any direction I can find an interesting and unique location. I have this backlog of locations, and I usually figure which location to use after the idea is set. Sometimes the location is more involved in the idea though, so it can come in different ways.

Now that you’ve been shooting and traveling to new locations for a couple years, and I’d assume you’re meeting new artists and probably getting offered jobs and managers – so at this point, what is your favorite part of being a photographer?

I love being able to travel and discover new places through it. Photography is definitely an outlet for me, and it’s really therapeutic. I can’t imagine not creating anything. Before photography I worked with all sorts of different mediums, but I think I like the instant gratification that photography has.

Tell us a little about this new book that is being released, titled Somewhere Else. Is this a collection of your early or best works to date?

“Somewhere Else” is a collection of work that I created while living out of my car and driving around the US for six months. It’s kind of a mix of a travel memoir with conceptual photos documenting the emotional strain of living in the unfamiliar. It’s definitely the biggest project I’ve worked on so far, I spent all of last year working on it.

Now that we’ve whetted the appetite of the readers properly, where might we find your work in the future? Are there any upcoming shows or projects that you can tip us off to?

Well right now, I’m working on a series called “Ghost Town” which shows a fabricated flooded town. I’m creating these really vacant, lonely landscapes with the water consuming its surroundings. I’m showing it with a huge grid of portraits taken through water reflection, distorting the images into hazy reconstructions of itself. I’m exhibiting the series in February at One Grand Gallery in Portland. Otherwise, just some traveling, commercial work, and some series that are in really early stages!