Kenny Johnson Amplifies Diverse Artists through His Photography

Nov 16, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

Kansas City-based photographer Kenny Johnson’s specialty is portraiture, but shooting portraits can offer unique challenges depending on the client. Kenny has done everything from one-on-one shoots with just a model and himself to larger productions with multiple crew members and a cast of models. Most importantly, Kenny has found a way to elevate diverse artists through his work.

For smaller shoots, sometimes it’s me finding the client. So it’s things that I want to do, and I reach out. Every now and then I’ll have somebody actually reach out to me and say let’s collaborate.

Kenny Johnson Portraits Jewelry

An important part of the photographer’s work is utilizing local talent. For instance, when Kenny was shooting pieces from his girlfriend’s jewelry line, he called a friend to be the model.

If I’m looking for models, I first see if there’s somebody that I know, like friends that I’ve met somewhere on set.

Kenny Johnson Portraits BLACKKEN Rapper

Kenny particularly likes the freedom that comes with smaller shoots, because it gives him an opportunity to be creative. Beyond using editorial-style lighting and hard edges, the photographer enjoys being able to pivot to a new idea on the spot. In shoots like his one-on-one with local rapper B L A C K K E N N, Kenny was able to switch between shooting in color or black and white, using gels, and changing the lighting to showcase a different mood.

A little bit of extra freedom can go a long way. The client may not have a fully formed idea of what it is they’re thinking and then if they give me any kind of feedback, I can take that and move it along a bit farther.

Kenny Johnson Portraits Underwater Bathing Suit

Whether it means that he is given full rein to run with his ideas or simply giving his input on how to go about shooting, the photographer’s involvement in the planning process prior to a shoot is essential. In a shoot last year for an editorial in a local magazine, Kenny’s friend let him come up with an idea and layout for how the photographer wanted to shoot swimwear models.

My idea was to actually put the girls in the water, and I’d be in the water and shoot them in the water. My friend was like ‘you just figure it out and I’ll bring the swimsuits.’ So, we kind of just had a play day with the models.

Kenny Johnson Kansas City Ballet Instagram Screenshot

Even when shooting portraits for larger clients like the Kansas City Ballet (KCB), Kenny enjoys taking the director’s concept to the next level. The main difference that the photographer notes between larger shoots and smaller shoots is the sense of teamwork.

For KCB, they come in with a concept, and they know mostly what they want. The director speaks to the dancers, and then we talk about lighting and where they should be in the set. So, there’s a team of us trying to figure out all the ways to work things out.

Kenny Johnson Portraits Kansas City Ballet Josh Bodden

Though he gets less creative freedom with larger clients like KCB, Kenny’s work still showcases diverse talent. The photographer has been working with KCB for about ten years, and in that time, he has seen the ballet cast change significantly.

There are a lot more Black and Hispanic dancers now. I’d say even to the point where they don’t speak English as a first language. It’s very diverse at this point.

Kenny Johnson Portraits Dieynaba Diop Makeup

Regardless of the size of the shoot, to Kenny, part of being a photographer is creating a fun atmosphere where the models can relax. The photographer communicates with the models to get them to “drop the veil,” show a variety of expressions, and get comfortable in front of the camera.

I have a lot of fun pretty much on anything I do. I try to bring the fun with me. I know that we’re working, and I know that we have a job to do, but at the same time, there’s no reason for us to be so rigid about it.

Check out more of Kenny's work at kennyjohnsonphotography.com.

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