Kyle Steed is a public artist living and working in Dallas, TX. His work ranges from large scale murals to small doodles on paper. His sense of humor and hunger for the next challenge has developed into a style uniquely all its own.
Known by many for his exquisite hand-drawn illustrations, lettering, and typefaces, and by others for originating the popular Instaxagram picture-within-a-picture format on Instagram, Kyle’s is a creative soul that has found its calling, and we’re all the beneficiaries.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
That’s such an easy question, but it’s not easy enough to answer. I try and do a lot of different things but I always try and focus in on my long term goal of being more of an artist, of an illustrator. It’s hard to tell somebody that you’re an artist and have them understand exactly what you do. It’s hard to tell somebody you’re a designer and they understand it.
I think one of the best titles I’ve given myself is Professional Doodler. I feel most of my time, that’s what I’m doing, is just doodling and having fun with what I do and people tend to relate to it and enjoy it and, surprisingly enough, pay me to do it.
But then, with the Instagram stuff, with photography, that’s something that is really hard to put into words and describe and to even take myself seriously to say that I’m a professional photographer. I view it more as something I thoroughly enjoy and something I’ve spent over 10 years doing and shooting a camera.
If somebody were to ask me what I do today, I’d just say I work for myself drawing and designing.
Four. I did four years and that was plenty.
My last three years were in Japan. My first year was split between training. For the Air Force you do your basic training, which is seven weeks in San Antonio. That’s where everybody goes. After that, it’s really up to what job you’re going to be doing. That will depend on where you go for what they call tech school, just short for technical school. That’s where they train you to do your job.
I spent a year in tech school and I spent six months out in the desert in Arizona. I spent three months on the beach in Pensacola, Florida. I thought the desert was bad, so I was looking forward to Florida and then Florida was just not that much better.
I wasn’t really making artwork, posters, or design as I am now. Most of my outlet during training was photography and the same when I got to Japan. I had my Polaroid 660 One Shot. It was so great because you could still just find it anywhere you wanted. I miss those days.
I went into the military at a time where I was really interested in the Lomography movement. I got my first Lomo LC-A camera. When I went to Arizona, I had my LC-A. At that time, I was shooting a lot of cross process film.
I have a bunch of photos of people I was in tech school with and just some of the scenery in and around Arizona and Florida. I would definitely do that, keeping a journal, writing, and just doodling in those.
Everywhere I went in Japan, I just about had a camera on me. I really enjoyed having the Polaroid there. I picked up this little Sony digital camera after I’d been there for a few months and carried that around with me for a bit. I think I was still so drawn to the analog, to just the beauty of a Polaroid.
I have a whole book of Polaroids at home from Japan. I actually went and I found an old land camera with the pull apart film. It was so finicky. You had to be in the brightest of light for it to get any type of exposure. I think I probably burned a whole pack of just test film trying to figure out all that, what the best light to shoot in was.
I guess that is kind of funny to reflect on it and see that photography probably was one of my greatest creative outlets through the military. Keeping a journal of course, but a journal is very personal to me. It was very emotional, just my own thoughts and stuff.
Anybody that hasn’t been in the military, you can’t really understand being just stripped of everything you’ve known growing up of family life and of friendships. It’s not like the end all be all of your life, [laughs] but it is for me as a creative person who relies so heavily on having support of friends around me. It was difficult.
Now, with my wife being a sociology major, I found out I’m an INFJ on the Briggs Meyers Personality test, which the rarest of types. I’m very much an introvert, but at the same time I thrive with people around me.
It’s hard to say that there hasn’t been a time where it’s gone to my head. Maybe anybody with any amount of success could feel like they deserved it or whatever. I just really try and put it in perspective.
There’s only, probably, a handful of people that would leave me a comment on any photo that I would really respect and I’d be like, *Oh, that actually means something.
All comments are very real. Every double tap of a like is a real person on the other end seeing and expressing an interest. Everybody that leaves a comment, whether it’s just saying, “Cool! Great Job,” or whatever, I recognize that and I’m so thankful for that. That’s a real human being that’s looking at something I did and appreciating it. I don’t take that for granted.
But also, I guess, knowing only about a handful of people on there that I’ve actually ever met in person or had a conversation with or people that I respect. Their word would be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a legitimate comment. That one makes me feel good.”
Prior to getting an iPhone, I remember my friends that had them and I was so very jealous and trying to shoot photos with my Blackberry Storm was just awful.
Instagram was probably the first app that I downloaded. I think I’d already been in this mode of mobile photography, of having the Storm, as horrendous as it was. But I was just so excited. I was ready to get my hands on it because I knew what was coming. I knew how great the camera was. Just so ready, excited, to share.
I think in the beginning I shared so much. I was just like snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. But I always tried to compose things and have things just minimal.
When I started to shoot my clothes, I would just take the clothes I was going to wear that day and I would lay them out on my floor or on my kitchen table and then stand on a chair. I’m 6’4″ so it doesn’t take much for me to stand above and shoot the bird’s eye perspective, for people that don’t know that about me.
I just started taking some of those and this girl, Carly, a super sweet girl, she and her husband do wedding photography. She had seen it and, I guess, liked it enough to do her own version. She had commented on a few of my photos before so we just had this small little dialogue of chatting through Instagram comments.
When she posted one of her own versions like that and mentioned me in her comment, I believe at that time she had around 60,000 to 70,000 followers. For me, that was a huge deal because then my numbers just started increasing. It was this snowball effect of getting more followers every day, every week, every month.
I didn’t ask for it. I don’t know what happened. It’s just so weird. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to be falsely humble or whatever but it’s just I don’t think that was ever my goal, starting out, to say, “All right. My goal, by the end of this year, is to have over 100,000 followers. Go!” It was just to do what I do and to try and progress and make stuff better.
My best friend, Matt, who I do Folly with, has a saying: Consistent and progressive. I wouldn’t say that’s a personal mantra but I guess that is what I always strive to do is to consistently progress and make what I do better.
I know the day I got my Fuji Instax camera. It was two years ago, right before my wife and I took a trip to Colorado in the summer. This would have been the summer of 2011.
The first Instax I ever shot was an old laundromat here in Dallas. It was just the perfect time. The sun was setting. I’d just driven by that place earlier. I think I’d gone to have dinner with some friends and we passed it on the way there. I drove back by it and it was just perfect, the perfect hour, the golden hour. That’s the best time to shoot.
I pulled over and I had my phone with me. I shot some with my phone. Then, I had my Instax in my car and I was like, “Oh, let me grab just an instant one.” I shot that and I was looking at it and I was holding it up looking and I was like, “Oh, wow. What if I took this, held it up, and then shot this with my phone and backed up enough where it would be in proportion to the rest of the scene?”
The photo would be there and then you shot it on the iPhone where it was filling in the gaps. The photo was filling in the gaps of the background scenery and then the focus was on the foreground on that photo. I think that was the very first Instaxagram photo I took.
But then it’s broken into this thing, which has been great, with my friends and with other people, as a way to do portraiture. I love photographing people. People are the most interesting subject to photograph because you just capture so much about a person’s character and who they are. A photo says 1,000 words.
I think there’s a lot of younger people that use that shot. I always laugh when somebody comments, “What app did you use to make this?” Usually, other people within the comment stream will educate them and tell them that it’s not an app.
But yeah, to see other people picking it up and doing it…It just feels cool to see other people exploring that route of combining an older, more analog, form of photography with this new digital form. I like the blending of the two.
I like pushing the boundaries on things or testing myself, testing the boundaries of my own self, in the way that I work. But, yeah, definitely combining the way that I work of using a sketch and scanning it and bringing in that raw quality of something that was actually crafted by hand, that’s not completely perfect, but putting that into a medium that is…not perfect but very clean and just cold, even. So to add some warmth and character and human qualities to it, I love.
I love new and old things. I love flea markets. I love antique malls. I love all things that are old and have character and value and things that were made in the U.S.A. a hundred years ago that’s actually made with real metal.
That’s such a fad right now, everything being Made in America, or Made in U.S.A., but when I see anything, even things with Made in China on the label, those are all made by hand.
It might be made by thousands of factory workers. But there’s still an essence. It’s mass produced, but still…
I think if there was ever a shift in the paradigm of the way that I thought about taking photos, I come back to one particular memory of my first design internship in 2001. I worked under an art director who came from a print background. She just had a good eye, traditionally trained and everything.
I had a book of just black and white photos up to that point, that I had shot. I brought them in one day because they knew I did photography and painting and stuff. I showed her the book and she looked through them and she just very plainly said, “Those are really nice. But what are trying to say?”
I didn’t really have an answer for her because I didn’t know what I was trying to say at that point. It was all about lighting and composition and the way shapes and shadows and things just looked to me. Like the way that the shadow of a chain link fence in a high contrast over black and white would be on a wall or something. I can’t remember what all those photos were of.
But it really just made me stop and think a little more intentionally. If I’m going to be taking pictures maybe they should mean something. Maybe I should be trying to say something with each photo I take instead of just snapping away.
That’s carried over, for sure, I think, into my recent work, my current work of how I document my life or things that I draw, projects that I want to be a part of. I guess I just feel like that’s kind of traveled, always just been on my radar in ways that I think about photography or design or anything creative, if that makes sense.
But yeah, I think you’re right in terms of not having the constraints around my photography, of always thinking in terms of being produced, whether it would be for editorial or for whatever. Because without having constraints on it, you’re free to explore anything. You’re only limited by your own imagination, of what you could do.
But I also think I just… I like things very simple and so that always finds its way out of my work.
I do have a Nikon D40, which I love. It’s the smallest little compact Nikon DSLR you could ever buy. I just have a fixed 35 millimeter lens on it. It’s super sharp. I’ll use that if I need some higher res, a little bit crisper photos than my iPhone.
I just did these letters on a storefront window here in town. I wanted just to have some better documentation to show people as a portfolio piece, I guess. To shoot those with a Nikon was going to just give me better lighting, crisper quality.
I shared that process again through Instagram because I love documenting in the moment as I’m working on stuff. But to get back on track, that would be it for digital. It would just be my iPhone and the Nikon.
I have older 35 film cameras that I haven’t picked up in a while but I did just buy some new 120 film from a friend. I want to put those back in my Holga and shoot some more of that because those were the original Instagram photos. The Holga with all the imperfections. That’s what all these new iPhone photo apps try to capture with their filters and stuff or what all these beautiful…
I wanted to get another LCA, the Lomo camera. I think the last I had I left in Japan on a bus. By the time I remembered and tried to go back and find it, it was gone.
That’s kind of a sad story. I really liked it just because it had a fixed lens. It was just a point and shoot, basically. It was great. It was so sturdy and you could feel it.
I was thinking back to this a few months ago. Some of my earliest memories taking pictures are when I was just a kid. I had this old, 110-film camera that was just like a little brick. We went down to the park and I took pictures of ducks and trees. I don’t know why, but I still have those prints to this day, little 3.5″ x 5″ prints.
And then I guess just growing up, creating and drawing, I was really into architecture. That’s what I wanted to be growing up was an architect, actually. I remember always being interested in taking pictures of buildings and things like that.
But it wasn’t really, I guess, until after, when I graduated, my dad bought me a Cannon Rebel, an old 35mm. Just a little starter kit thing to go to a class. It was like an intro to photo. I don’t even remember the teacher’s name or what I learned that day. I just remember I was so excited to have it. I think I spent the next year or two shooting hundreds of rolls of black and white, very just light and dark contrast shadows.
I lived in Nashville at the time. I remember I would just drive downtown on a weekend and park my car and spend a few hours walking around by myself, sometimes with my girlfriend at the time but other times probably just more about exploring and just seeing what I could see. It was really just training my eye. I don’t know if I would have phrased it that way, but looking back, that’s what it was.
Oh, yeah. At one time early on, I was like, “I would love to be able to travel.” Do travel photography, just getting to see all sorts of different places all over the world.
It’s just funny now because with an iPhone in your pocket and you travel, you do get to do that in a way. [laughs] It’s different from a company like National Geographic paying you to go on location and shoot, but it still has that.
Professionally, illustrating didn’t become a reality until two or three years ago. When I got into doing Web design in 2007, it was right after I moved back from Japan and I got out of the Air Force.
I think it was just through that process of picking back up my sketch books to sketch out ideas and to get my thoughts out. I’ve kept a journal for 12-13 years now, consistently. I can remember 10 years, 12-13 years ago, looking at just some of the silly doodles and stuff, but being really excited about that and wanting to turn that into something that I could one day do professionally, which is what I’m doing today.
It had been laying there. It was always there. I was just rediscovering, again, that I really enjoyed to draw. I could really express myself more clearly if I jotted something down or if I was doodling.
It makes more sense to me to sketch something out than to try and put it into the computer, because I felt so limited. I felt more free to express my ideas. That stems all the way back to making pastel drawings, acrylic paintings [laughs] when I was a kid, and even into high school.
It was the dots coming connected in my own way and my own time of realizing, “OK, I don’t have to be like these other people that make really killer things on a computer. I can be my own who I am and do my own thing.”
I think it was even earlier than high school. When I was a kid, I would just sit in my room and draw house plans as awesome as that is. I don’t know where that came from and what exactly sparked it.
I can just remember having pads of graph paper. I think I would maybe just doodle and sketch out the floor plan of my house. Then I would make these elaborate dream houses with three basement levels, with full football fields, and bowling alleys. Very elaborate. Very kind of you would never build this house type of thing.
I don’t know. It was fun to me. I can remember showing them to my friends and my family. Then my mom put me in a summer course. It was a week or two weeks one summer. It was actually with a local small little architecture firm.
They taught about… I can’t even remember everything we learned in that class. I remember one was a photo walk, where we went downtown. As we walked around and had little cameras, we took pictures of the different styles of architecture, just some of the ornate detailing on some of the gingerbread homes, or some of the columns.
One of the things I would love to do would be to have a book, just probably more of a coffee table book. I don’t know, or maybe not. Maybe it tells more of a story of an Intaxagram book of the style of shooting with the analog and the digital and what stories…
The website that I started, Instaxagram.com, was more about just having greater control over those pictures and being able to elaborate more on the story behind them and the story behind how did I know this person? Because the majority of them are of people. I think there’s a few of just landscapes or locations.
It gives a chance to tell the story behind the photo where a lot of times I’m not one for much of leaving lengthy comments with my photos on Instagram like some people. They write a whole book and try and fill you in on every little detail of their life. I don’t think Instagram’s the platform for that. I think it’s just a great way to share and document your life in a very accessible and easy manner. But that’s just my personal opinion and take on the matter.
I think going and taking this photos off on into another blog format has been really great for me to expand on that and share them in a different way. It’s the same photo, but now you’re getting a peek behind the scenes of what this photo means or who this person is to me, I guess.
The idea itself is pretty simple. It’s just to showcase some of best Instagram photography and have it, around the world, have it more… well, at least, the goal is to try and have it more on a global scale eventually, showing in Europe, Asia, and anywhere else we can get it.
We want to hit the big cities because there is a higher density of creative people and talent in those big cities that would come out and support this, than, say if you had it in the middle of Kansas somewhere.
So we’ll try to hit San Francisco, L.A., and New York. I’d love to have it obviously here in Dallas, since that’s where I’m located. Then in Europe, maybe start in London, then Paris, Berlin It would be awesome to do something in Japan with this, maybe other places in Europe or Asia I’m totally open, too.
I like the idea of having it very simple. If we had 50 photographers on Instagram and they each submit three of their best photos. Then we got it curated down to just one, so we’re picking out the best photo from each of these photographers. Then that’s the exhibition. Maybe give them the chance to write a piece about the photo and who they are, so that travels around.
That’s the way this gallery is showcased. It goes from city to city and gives people an awareness that Instagram, that mobile photography, can be taken more serious, and that it’s not really so much about the tool that you use but it’s about how you use it. Hopefully.
My buddy, Brenton, is a great example. When we met, the first time we met, he had seen my work. He had seen my design work, seen my Instagram stuff. It was actually they were invited to our home for a dinner party. There were some other friends that we had just met a little bit earlier, a month or so before and they were good friends of them.
Brenton and his wife, Jamie, came over. It was [laughs] instant bromance, whatever you want to call it. We just clicked. We had so much in common with one another. He actually lived in Dallas at that time, which is great. We got to spend a lot of time together. Our friendship was formed from them coming to our house. What we had in common really helped keep us close and build that relationship.
Now, they live in Arkansas, so I get to see them I’d say four to five times a year. Every time we get together, it’s always good. We always enjoy going out, making fools of ourselves, just having fun, and just documenting and shooting fun, silly, Instagrams. That’s one of the best examples. I wouldn’t say it formed over Instagram, but Instagram was one of the common themes of what we share in our likeness.
I think people are the most important things in this life. I always try to make it a point in my life to put them first before business, before I make money, or whatever. It’s just cool how it all happened. These platforms are so great to give us an opportunity to connect with others.
I guess in the last year, especially, I’ve pulled back the reigns a little bit on that life. I’m not out networking as much. I’m not trying to make the connections as strongly as I was even two or three years ago. I guess my sense of identity has changed. I don’t want to spread myself so thin, where I want to be known as a person, not ‘working’ Twitter, Instagram, or whatever.
The title doesn’t matter to me anymore. So I just focus more intently on the deeper relationships that I feel I have, and to invest in those more heavily than trying to just have a bunch of different, smaller relationships along the way. That’s meaningful to me.