Is Instagram killing creativity?
By Sam Dameshek
Photographers Sam Dameshek and Mike Rosenthal open up about fighting the urge to shoot for social media
Sunday 13 February 2022 By Abigail Hirsch
At 15 Sam Dameshek was sitting in his high-school math class in Orange County sending hundreds of emails with his portfolio to break into the industry. Now, only six or so years later, he shoots magazine covers and talent such as Sydney Sweeney and Shawn Mendes, and he has Instagram to thank for it. When Mike Rosenthal was starting out, digital cameras were a foreign concept, let alone Instagram or any social media.
With an age gap nearing 20 years, the two photographers have different relationships towards working IRL and online. ‘I’m not opposed to finding work via the internet, but there is a magic to physically connecting the dots,’ says Dameshek.
Rosenthal and Dameshek step into the West Hollywood House Studios, powered by Genesis Motor America, to discuss gaining momentum as photographers in two very different eras.
MR: ‘I was familiar with your work before today, but did a deep dive when this conversation was put together. Really impressive.’
SD: ‘You’ve got quite the legacy yourself. It was cool to see a lot of faces that are still prominent now.’
MR: ‘It’s been interesting. I’m at the point now where I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. The marketplace itself has changed so rapidly and dramatically.’
SD: ‘100%. How many years have you been shooting?’
MR: ‘Roughly 22.’
SD: ‘You’ve seen the transition from analogue to digital. You’ve seen social media take it’s rise.’
MR: ‘Before photography I was working in the film business for the genius cinematographer who shot Titanic. Stills were transitioning into digital, but the motion side was still shot on 35mm. I went out and bought the Nikon D1, the first digital SLR.’
Both by Sam Dameshek. Above, by Mike Rosenthal
SD: ‘I wonder what my job would feel like if I started earlier. What would the landscape look like?’
MR: ‘On one hand, the industry offers more opportunities due to increased access. At the same time, I’m thankful that I’m not coming up now because it’s so hard to get noticed.’
SD: ‘Also, the added pressure of social media now. I don’t want to admit that Instagram alters the way I view my work, but it does. Unfortunately, a lot of what is good work from an artistic standpoint isn’t what ends up being well received on Instagram.’
MR: ‘Before, we were editing for print. A magazine is larger than your phone, so you have more room to explore the image visually. An image would also last for at least a month; you’re choosing the image to represent a certain period. Now you have an edit for that swipe – it just lasts as long as somebody’s finger can move.’
SD: ‘Recently, I’m caring less about what translates to an audience on Instagram. The right people watching are still impressed by the right work. I’ve seen a direct translation of photos that won’t perform as well on social as the photos that bring work or catch the attention of someone I want to work with.’
Above by Mike Rosenthal
‘Peter Lindbergh was shooting until he died. Helmut Newton was shooting until he died. There’s a reason why these greats don’t burn out. Annie Leibovitz is shooting all the time. You don’t have to reach the top in a short period of time'
MR: ‘Where do you see yourself going? Where would you like to be in 10 years from now?
SD: ‘I want to dive into the fashion world. I’ve shot in the commercial fashion space, but mostly in LA. I would love to shoot for luxury brands and have a regular place at, say, Paris Fashion Week and be booked by fashion houses in their home city.
‘Ten years down the line, I want my work to transition into the fine art world, where I can create as I please and sell those images to sustain myself.’
SD: ‘What did it look like gaining momentum as a photographer without social media? That’s something foreign to me.’
MR: ‘It was, and still is, a business of relationships. The people who got hired to shoot, say a Dior or Gucci campaign, were friends of the creative directors.’
SD: ‘It was very much working the editorial circuit. I strive to have shoots come about organically. I’m not opposed to finding work via the internet, but there is a magic to physically connecting the dots.’
MR: ‘There were only a few big names: Elle, Vogue, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan. Then V, and Wonderland popped up, and ID and The Face, which folded. Everybody was trying to get into those magazines, but they would have people under contract. Mark Seliger did every cover for Rolling Stone. Annie Leibovitz did every cover for Vanity Fair. It was their assistants getting any starter gigs. So, it was tough to get placed and build that momentum.’
SD: ‘I started in high school sharing my work on Instagram. In math class, I would make a fake email that looked like I wasn’t 15 and email 70 people. Eventually, if the work’s there, somebody will take interest.’
MR: ‘Have you had any points where you’ve either hit a stumbling block or felt out of your depth?’
SD: ‘I’ve had to put out quite a few fires. On a set, everything falls on the photographer. Say the model doesn’t show up. I’ve had jobs where the lab destroyed all my film. You develop a game plan; you figure it out.’
MR: ‘Because of social media people assume photography is easy work. It’s not. It took me a long time to figure out that people get hired because they’re consistent and reliable.’
SD: ‘At the start I thought, I don’t need artificial lighting, I don’t need to edit. Especially with this current film wave, I placed grittier photography at a higher level. I’ve gotten to do a lot because of Instagram, but there’s a whole other level to photography.’
MR: ‘You clearly have a talent for putting your subject at ease, which is the hardest part. For most photographers they’re shooting digital, so it’s easy to be loose if it doesn’t cost you any money. But you shoot film and get that same natural, spontaneous effect.’
SD: ‘It’s challenging, but it’s what keeps it fun.’
Both by Sam Dameshek. Above two images by Mike Rosenthal
‘I never want to feel like I’m becoming known for something that can get ripped out from under me'
SD: 'Can you identify any "I made it" moments throughout your career?'
MR: ‘I have two different qualifiers. The first is ongoing – getting a call for a job independent of any outreach. The other was the moment I was able to sustain myself with solely photography.’
SD: ‘Do you have a favourite shoot or moment from set?’
MR: ‘Working with Robert De Niro. Also, this simple cast portrait shoot for an animated film. Robin Williams, Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes, Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Coolidge, and Halle Berry made up the cast. I’ll never forget when Robin Williams walked into the room. He was short. He had hairy knuckles, piercing blue eyes and came in mumbling to himself, speaking in voices and accents. I was sweating through my shirt. I was shooting film. It was a crazy circus for 10 minutes and then it was over. What about you?’
SD: ‘Shoots where I find myself in a room with someone that I’ve spent my whole life listening to or watching.’
MR: ‘There’s been a remarkable shift in what it means to be a celebrity. I’m curious to hear who of the oldies do you still admire?
SD: ‘Actors and actresses with a timeless quality. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Jack Nicholson. Any musician who had a cult following. How I look at celebrities now: I think, do you have a timeless talent? Are you doing something meaningful if you strip everything away?
MR: ‘Do you find that many young celebrities have this iconic, timeless talent?
SD: ‘It hit me one day – iconic is not something you can create. Photos age to become iconic. I may have taken the most important photograph and have no idea what it is.’
SD: ‘Is there anything you wish you knew at my age?’
MR: ‘Peter Lindbergh was shooting until he died. Helmut Newton was shooting until he died. There’s a reason why these greats don’t burn out. Annie Leibovitz is shooting all the time. You don’t have to reach the top in a short period of time.’
SD: ‘The landscape of photography is constantly changing. How do you stay up to date?’
SD: ‘The goal is to create a consistency that remains the prominent selling point. I’m constantly taking bits and pieces of trends and throwing them in the Rolodex, applying them to who Sam is. I never want to feel like I’m becoming known for something that can get ripped out from under me.’
MR: ‘If you rely on a certain piece of tech or something in your kit as your style, that’s a dangerous road to go down. Anyone can download that tech or buy that lens to duplicate your style. Being aware of what the trends are in the cultural zeitgeist is important, because in the end this is a business and we’re all trying to sell art to make money.
'Finding that thing that makes you, you, and then incorporating those bits and pieces of what's current is the key.'