Kayla Varley is a lifestyle and fashion photographer based in Southern California. In 2005 she was gifted a tiny camera, and began to document her teenage life.
Varley's work reels you into a spontaneous, but intentional space, where every photograph feels like a poignant moment in her life. She thrives on the philosophy that time not spent being creative is time wasted.
Kayla's self-driven desire to be her best has yielded a pure, singular, photography style. Unemcumbered by the desire for views and popularity, Kayla seeks inspiration in the beauty of the written word and daydreams. Wary of the false accolades and potential bubble that social media may bring, Kayla instead focuses on producing work that meets her own expectations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
…I feel like an asshole when I let people down.
Yeah, there’s plenty that I have to finish. I feel so much pressure to finish anything in my life, but more for photo related things.
Because I just want to be the best version of myself that I possibly can be, every single day. I don’t know why I have that inner drive to constantly be on top of my game, I think it’s probably due to how we’re raised as Americans, we have such a strong sense of “work work work”, whereas other countries don’t necessarily have that. My dad also really pushed me to be the best, so I think that all of it just makes me really hard on myself.
Yeah, but I also really love it, I think it keeps me happy. If I wasn’t as hard on myself I would be really bored, I think, and boring! Haha!
I’m not shooting personal stuff, really, I don’t shoot day-to-day things, which is really sad, actually. As far as commercial work, I’ve been doing about two or three jobs a month, which is keeping me pretty busy since I retouch all of my own work. As for editorial, I probably shoot once a month, because those are kind of harder to get it, it takes a lot out of me to do it because I don’t have always have help with a producer.
This year’s been super busy with commercial work, which is awesome, because last year was the complete opposite. It was so slow, but I think it’s just one of those cyclical things that happens. You work for so long, you’re bound to have a slow year, and then all of the sudden things change for whatever reason. This year (2017) has been really good.
I’ve had the craziest year. Everybody else has been saying that it’s slow, but I feel like it’s been a lot busier for me, I don’t know why.
Best decision I’ve ever made, I’m not kidding.
I think Art Center is really great for someone that’s a designer, or an illustrator, someone who wants to get into advertisement. But as a photographer, I just felt kind of stifled. And maybe certain artists will feel the same way I do, it just depends on the person. There was so much heavy work and such strict deadlines and guidelines for shoots in order to build these skills that I lost myself, and I didn’t feel good. I think leaving allowed me the space and time to grow and to really find out what it is I like to do. I was so young- I was barely 18, and the median age of people going there is 33 or something if I remember correctly. I feel like I blossomed after I left. It took a few years, but I was able to figure out what I wanted to shoot without these guidelines. It allowed me the space to grow as an artist, really. And yeah, the financial aspect was just killing me.
It’s a great school, and at the beginning of it, it taught me how to work constantly, which is another reason I think I put so much pressure on myself, because every single day you had an assignment or shoot due, and you kind of work yourself to the bone. That was great, because it taught me how to constantly be on it, and sometimes, to this day, I work until midnight; I don’t need to. Or I wake up at 6am trying to finish a deadline…I work with London now, and they’re in a different timezone so I have to get up earlier certain days.
Yeah, it’s 10 or 11 hours. I’ll wake up too late some days to emails that are like, “shit it’s urgent right now,” and I’m like “oh my god”, but just that mindset of having to work constantly and being on top of it- I think that’s what was so great about Art Center. It was a little too stifling for me- I’m so loose and fluid with the way that I work. For someone who’s really strict with themselves and likes to be a total to-do, I think it’s a great school.
Like a process for each shoot? Or just teaching myself how to…
Right. I read a lot. I read on the internet, I read books, I watch TV. I take information from everything and store it in my brain, and then I can draw on it later on. I really just feel like I teach myself from the internet these days, because there’s such a vast wealth of knowledge online- I don’t know if that’s a weird answer but…I would say reading and watching interviews, and even watching music videos, things like that, they all add to the way I view art and the world. I’m constantly learning. Even just through meeting people, I feel like face-to-face interaction helps me understand my emotions better, and I think a huge part of my work is being intuitive, and knowing when someone’s nervous or upset or sad, and being able to tune into that and be more sensitive to a situation. During a shoot, for example, if someone is on guard, I can pull back and let them come to me, if that makes sense.
Because I’m so sensitive.
Yeah for sure. There’s probably nothing better I could have done in order to build my skill set. I was able to shoot myself and find my angles – which helped me find angles of other people, figure out what I thought looked pretty, what looked interesting to me aesthetically.
No, not at all.
It helps you flesh out your feelings or emotions, and then also helps you figure out what you think looks beautiful, or what you’re drawn to. Then it helps you direct models, which is huge. I think it’s a huge part of our job – how to interact with someone, how to tell them in a polite way, what you want them to do without hurting feelings – it’s such a dance.
Yeah, for sure. It’s a lot more subconscious now than it used to be. I used to really think about, in the moment, what I was saying to someone. Now I don’t really think before I speak while directing, and I just know how to, it’s so inherent in me now.
Yeah, I trust myself to be kind and loving and open to energy, and allowing things to flow a lot better. I said it already, but I’m super-sensitive to people, especially the models I work with. They’re all so special to me, and they’re sensitive, too. These people are all human. Some photographers treat models like meat, and it’s not fair, so I always want to make sure they’re taken care of. That’s a huge part of direction, for me.
Mm hm, yeah. Some models will tell me, actually -I’ve had a few say that nobody is as nice to them as I am, and that makes me feel so good, that warms my heart. Then they’ll tell me horror stories of how people in this industry are rude about their bodies, or just the way they look in general, or the way that they’re emoting. It’s frustrating. So I try to be that one exception. Whether or not I’m achieving that, I don’t know, I mean I think I am, but it makes me feel better about my job, because it can be draining and difficult sometimes to have to be in such a superficial environment and industry where you’re basically trying to sell this certain idea of a woman and/or person.
Sometimes. I don’t ever want to make my work political, and I don’t think it is political, but yeah I definitely want to be that person who’s making a difference, however small, but it’s still something.
I’ve never thought about it like that!
Right now…how I would describe my work right now…can I say how I used to view my work?
I feel like my work is going into a direction that’s a lot more segmented or compartmentalized, compared to how I used to view fashion and lifestyle. I feel like I was always trying to amalgamate the two into this thing called “fashion-lifestyle”, which worked for a little bit, but now that I’m viewing my work more separated, I think it’s hitting hard in each category better. My lifestyle work is very lifestyle, and then fashion is very much like fashion, and it doesn’t feel like lifestyle anymore, and it’s a bit more posed and feels a little more mature. My lifestyle work feels so young to me.
And it always has this youthful freedom and happy feeling, and I don’t know if that is going to be me for the rest of my life, so I think it’s good that I’m trying to differentiate the two.
It’s my favorite thing to shoot, I would say, it’s the stuff that I would shoot day-to-day that I don’t really do anymore. I would take my camera on trips or vacations, and shoot more candidly…sometimes I would actually pose things, too, but I feel like it’s more organic when it’s real. I’m evolving, and I would say my work is evolving. I don’t know how I would put it into one simple sentence. But I don’t know, it’s becoming different.
When you start out shooting at such a young age, your work’s going to keep changing, and with that, you’re just going to have to keep getting better at what you do and making sure that the market you’re trying to hit understands where you are.
And I don’t know, I never want to pigeonhole myself to a certain time in my life….
I don’t ever want to be stuck in one place. So yeah, I guess that’s the way you describe it, ha!
You know, I don’t really try to pay attention to too many names, because there’s a lot of social media fluff these days. I don’t really try to hang out with other photographers.
I mean, my fiance is a photographer and he’s super-talented, but I can definitely say that he’s the only person that is a photographer that I really involve myself with.
I talk about work, it’s not so much about the art or process of it. When my friends and I get together, it’s like, “oh god, I’ve got this stupid deadline,” or like, “this job is killing me!” For example, I had a freakout last week, a full-on meltdown, because I’ve been so overwhelmed with talking with London, and waking up in a frantic state because of these emails, their emailing me in the middle of the night, how do I deal with this, and that’s what I’ll talk about. But I won’t necessarily talk about the shape or the light, or the technical side of things. But if I see stuff that’s beautiful, of course I’ll call it out, because how can I not?
Oh god, Instagram is kind of killing the world…
I could seriously do an entire interview on that.
No, not really. Like I said, I don’t know if it’s on purpose or just that I don’t trust people…
Well, I’m very trusting with people I don’t know, but when I see a certain side of people, I’ll just completely withdraw.
I feel like a lot of people in this industry are in it for themselves. And that’s kind of why I probably don’t involve myself with other photographers. I don’t know if that’s me being overly-worried and critical of myself and my art, but I have to protect myself. What I do is super-dear to my inner-being and soul, and I like to make sure I protect it.
Yeah…I talk with my agents a lot, especially my agents in London, Morgan and Alex. I’ll ask Dane certain questions, but for the most part, I don’t really like to give up too much of what my vision is. I don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid I’m going to jinx myself or give away my mojo, but if I have an idea and I know that it’s good, and I call somebody else and they’re not into it, I’m afraid that it could potentially ruin my drive or something. So I don’t necessarily tell anybody else about ideas or work or concepts until they’re completely fleshed out in my head, or on paper, or on the computer.
I do work with this creative director a bit, her and I talk a lot about projects. If I’m working with an art director or a client, then I’m going to be talking with them about it. It’s usually never a photographer that I’m going to bounce ideas off of, it’s going to be my art director friends if I do.
I edit everything myself.
Yes. I make my selects, I edit my own website, I don’t have anybody else do that, I don’t trust anybody to edit my work for me. My agents in New York have a certain edit on their website that they’ve made. The girls in London have a different edit of my work, and they’ve kind of taken what I’ve done a little bit, and elaborated a bit more on it, and I love that. It’s really cool. I know instantaneously what each photo means to me, what it’s trying to convey, I just see it and I know that’s the one.
I think so. I’m pretty sure. Obviously when I was younger, I was making shitty work, so it wasn’t that way. I wasn’t taking the best photos, but I also didn’t have the knowledge and experience to be able to edit my work properly, but I think as I started growing, I found my eye and developed my certain style. Now I can just look at stuff, like a group of photos and just be like, that one, that one, that one, that one.
Not necessarily. If I get to a shoot and it’s super-concise and too strict, it sometimes will fall flat and I’m not into it. But if there’s tons of room for spontaneity and creativity in the moment, then that’s like a dream. Those shoots turn out the best because I have literally no expectations and zero pressure on myself. Of course, commercial jobs are different, but editorial-wise, if there’s a little bit of room to kind of do things how you see them, then those are when the magic moments happen, and those magic moments keep me excited and makes everything worth it. It’s like a drug, and I keep going back to those moments because I need them just to be alive.
I think this past year has been so busy with client and commercial work, that in my free time I literally don’t want to pick up a camera. I want to go for swims or I want to go for hikes, or I want to read a book, I want to get out of my head. I really wish it wasn’t that way and I need to get better at it, because I miss taking photos on the fly, I miss taking photos day-to-day and just hiding behind my camera. That’s something I want to do better, moving forward in my life, over the next couple years. But I don’t know, when you’re a doctor and you’re constantly operating with knives and things with people, I would think in your free time you wouldn’t want to do that, because you’re probably working super-long hours.
It’s not a great analogy, because photography is completely different than that kind of work, but it’s the same idea of needing to break away from it. I don’t know, like I said earlier, I put so much pressure on myself, so, I have to have those little bit of breaks because I’ll go crazy, and I’ll burn out really fast, and it’s not fun. Because then I go psychotic!
Oh, the result, for sure. I love re-touching. It is so therapeutic for me, I love colors and finding that end goal. What I don’t love the most is actually shooting, which is the opposite of what most people say. I’m in love with editing and creating the final image. I really just want to see it finished, and see the pictures. I want to see the pictures at the end, that’s all I’m…
Really? That’s so funny. I mean I guess at certain points in my life, I could probably answer differently, too, depending on where I am with my work. That’s the funny thing about art, it’s always going to keep changing and evolving. Your mind is probably going to change 10 times in the next 4 years, you never know.
Yeah. Books, because those are in my head and I’m reading words, I’m visualizing them myself.
I really like, this one I read recently, for example, is called Ready Player One.
Yeah, you’ve heard of it? Or read it?
It’s so dark and twisted, but I love stuff like that, things that are a little bit weird or creepy or have this dystopian view on society. By the way, that book freaked me out – I think that’s going to happen to us. I really think so! So there’s books like that, then there’s documentaries, and I’m obsessed with documentaries!
And then there’s Pinterest, and there’s Tumblr. Pinterest, when I’m going to create a board or a concept for a shoot, that’s usually where I go first to sort of figure out what it is I’m looking for and what I want to do, then I can just place everything in one area online, and then I can kind of edit it down, because if there’s stuff I’m over by the time I finish it, then I can just pull them out, and I can send it to my creative director friends, or whoever, I can send them to the editorial magazine so they can approve, then I build a PDF from there. Then that goes out, that’s kind of the process of concepting for a shoot, is usually Pinterest, PDF, emails, then it’s gone. Then I print it.
I’d say internet and books. I’m trying to get back into reading, it’s so good for my soul, I need it to be a functioning human, I think. What’s so interesting about reading, for me since I’m such a visual person inside of my head, is that I can place myself in what I’m reading and visualize the entire room or the environment of the people that I’m reading about, and it’s really fascinating. I love to be able to picture things, and visualize. I love to daydream.
Yeah! You’re able to lose yourself while you’re in a moment of real life.
I would say, right now I’m interested in women that don’t really fit the mold of the standard stereotypical model. People who look different, whether it’s like a weird gap tooth, or freckles, or crazy hair. I’m really getting into shooting fashion, it’s so different from where I feel like I’ve come from. I guess I would say fashion in general is where I’m taking myself and what I like to shoot these days.
Yeah, in 10 years I would love to be shooting ad campaigns for huge brands, and traveling, and hopefully I’ll have a little family, and I want to be able to live somewhere other than LA. Yeah. I definitely want to be shooting advertisements, that’s the end goal. I don’t necessarily want to be shooting editorials or little online lookbooks, I want to be shooting billboards, posters…
You know, it’s funny. It’s really helped me, it’s been a very helpful tool in getting me work, because without it I don’t know that I would be where I am today. On the flipside of that, I also think it’s ruining our society and creating a false sense of identity for a lot of people out there, not just for photographers, but also models. I don’t know, I could really get into it and I don’t want to say something that’s rude.
The fact that you can have a name and curate images of your life for yourself, or your family, whatever, and then you have a number to that name. I feel like people that don’t need to be famous are all of a sudden getting famous, and they’re getting paid for that. However, I feel like it’s taken away from the actual talent of true musicians, or artists, and now the idea of fame is going to be no longer. We’re not going to have these people like Tom Petty who just died, we’re going to have Instagram Famous people, do you know what I mean by that? Fame is going to be a thing of the past and everybody’s just going to be famous for themselves. So I don’t know, I wonder what it’s doing, the damage to the young people’s brains- I worry.
It’s a necessary evil, for me.
Yeah, I mean it’s great, it’s really helped me, like I said, it’s just, it’s hard to watch as such a sensitive human. There’s people out there that are taking jobs for really low money, really low pay, in order to get exposure, because they’ve never had that, and these huge brands are taking advantage of them.
Oh business, totally.
I feel like creatively, it’s probably made my life worse. There’s too many photos out there, it’s over-saturated, there’s just a constant feed of photos, so you forget what’s original anymore. You don’t know what you’ve seen or what you’ve thought of, and then you go to sleep at night, and you’ve just got these photos flashing in your head of everything you’ve seen; it’s intense, it’s overwhelming.
No, just harder to concept because you don’t want to do something that’s been done before.
I try not to judge myself against others, but I definitely judge myself against my past work a lot, which is probably good, it’s probably helping me grow. It’s a struggle, I have to be very aware if I start comparing myself to others- it’s something that I have to completely stop and not do, because it’s a slippery slope and it’s not healthy. I get hired most of the time because people see me on Pinterest or Instagram and they reach out, and I think that’s why social media has been so good for business, because I wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise. The fact that I also have a couple thousand followers is also apparently a reason why people reach out to me, too, and I wish it wasn’t the case, because I feel like it doesn’t matter.
Right. I just wish I wouldn’t get the emails from people asking to gift me things so I’ll post about them on my Instagram, and it’s like….. really?
Hire me for my work, not to do that! Some people offer to pay, too, which is weird.
I need pressure on myself, but I can put myself through that every day.
I need that, I like that it drives me. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be as on top of my shit as I feel that I am. I need that pressure in order to keep working consistently.
Will drive me crazy. I don’t know, it’s like my life is constantly in balance, my rising sign is Libra and my moon sign is Libra, so I think I’m constantly craving balance. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but I believe it a little bit.
I like to pretend that it’s real, it kind of helps me…I feel like it’s fun and interesting to pretend that whatever’s happening in the stars is happening in my life, keeps things interesting. I don’t know, I’m always in need of that balance of too much or too little, and if I go over one way, I check myself and go back, figure out what I’ve done wrong. Constant self check, I’m so self aware, it’s nuts. I need someone to shut off my mind for me, for just a day.
It’s enjoyable sometimes, sometimes I’m just like “why do I think about things so much?” I’m so analytical, I’ll probably analyze our conversation later on today.
I wish I could shut my brain off. At times I think it’s great because I can really think about things, and get to the bottom of it in my head, but then there’s the other side where I’m driving myself insane thinking about something over and over. I guess that’s the joy of my brain, I’m just one of those people that thinks too much.