Lou Noble takes pictures, saves lives, surfs, eats pumpkin-related products...occasionally there's ice cream.
Pictures of faces. Those are the first thoughts that come to mind when we think of Lou Noble. The captured light. The symmetry of faces. The humanity documented in photo after photo coalesce to form his signature style.
Many faces staring back at you. It’s the key to the addictive nature of his photos. But, Lou’s work is much more than merely pictures of faces. They are pictures of people.
Burger snob, writer, avid movie watcher, photographer, and comic book nerd, Lou is much more than the sum of his parts. We enjoyed our chat with him and are proud to invite you to the beginning of our journey.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I started shooting Polaroids back in 1996, just for fun. I got serious about it in 2005, after a guy on Flickr told me about a camera I should use, the Polaroid 680. It ended up being perfect for what I wanted to do. I ended up just wanting to use the camera all the time.
I’d always shot people. Even when it was casual. It was the only thing that really interested me. I’ve never taken pictures of anything but people.
When I was younger, when I wasn’t really shooting all that much, it was a great way of talking to people. It was a way of breaking the ice. Initially, it’s probably was why I even started shooting.
By the time I got the 680, by the time I was serious about it, I had been taking pictures of friends for 10 years. Nothing else really interests me. People are what I’m interested in. Portraits are what I take.
I don’t consider myself a professional. I have friends where that is their job. I consider them professionals. But, I can’t really call myself an amateur anymore because people give me money.
It’s my passion. It’s what I like to do most. But it’s not what I choose to make my profession.
When I was younger, I always thought your passion should be your job. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that too many people that make their love their job, end up hating it.
For now, I work as a medic. I take pictures. People pay me for both. And that’s perfect. I don’t need to stress about either job.
Definitely. The subject matter not so much. The style not so much. But how I relate to people, it had a lot to do with my in comfortability in talking to strangers.
Being an EMT gave a lot of experience in talking to people all the time. I can talk to anyone about just about anything. If I can talk to a wife while her husband is having a heart attack; to a doctor when he’s busy saving a life; to a nurse who’s had a horrible day; to a patient who’s having horrible times… then I can talk to a model, talk to an actor, a basketball player, anyone.
I consider 2005 when I started as a photographer, rather than just casually taking pictures. I was looking for something completely different before that point. I was looking just for a pretty picture; a pretty face; for something cool. It was a lot more shallow.
I’ve continued shooting and met other photographers, which was a huge part of it — just talking to people. Teaching.
I’m looking for something a little deeper than just a pretty picture these days.
In July 2010 a photographer I know who runs a studio in Brighton, Kevin Mason, had been teaching classes there for a year or two. He jokingly on twitter asked for more teachers. So I said “hey man just fly me out. I’ll do it.”
He took me up on the offer. That was pretty much it.
Before I got out there we hashed out what the class would be like. When I got there we really fine-tuned it. We ended up with a four hour workshop that I’m pretty happy with.
The workshops done since then have continued to be honed. Seattle was a buddy who wanted me to do one up there. The LA one was just me wanting to do it. I put it all together myself. The one I did in Bristol, someone else put it all together for me. It’s all just depended or where the workshop was.
All of it was because of one guy I know liked my stuff. He thought it would be cool for me to teach other people. For me, teaching is just talking to other people about how I do what I do.
Nothing else really interests me. People are what I’m interested in. Portraits are what I take.
You know, the only through-line in my day right now is the fact that I wake up around 5:00 to 5:30 AM. Some days I won’t do anything. Today, I was around the house. I didn’t shower until 4pm. I played on the Internet all day. I edited some photos. Worked on the book that I’m putting out. At 5pm, someone came over and I took some pictures. I usually try and take pictures at least 2 to 3 times a week.
Tomorrow, it’ll be something different again. There’s not a lot of routine to my life anymore. I used to fear that. I used to work twelve hour days, four days a week.
That thought of going freelance, in any capacity, was terrifying. It represented a lack of security. Now, I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I lose in security, I make up for in freedom. Which is HUGE.
I wake up early. I go to sleep early. In between that can be anything.
It spiraled out. It started with out with just friends. Then went into friends of friends. Sometimes a friend would say “Oh I have someone you totally have to shoot!” The more I was well known on the Internet, the more I could just cold call people.
I shot a few people like Zoetica Ebb and Katie West and that got me a bit more street-cred. The more people you shoot from Flickr, the more people you can shoot because “Oh, he’s shot Zoetica, he must be OK.”
These days I’d rather kind of meet someone and want to shoot them or have someone tell me about someone rather than just find someone on a modeling site. If they’re all models, it can be limiting. I’m always trying to shoot a much wider array of people. That’s the challenge, to find different kinds of people to shoot.
I wish it was something high falutin’. It’s really all luck. Like the Mardi Gras Light… I found it at a garage sale for 5 bucks and I was like “Sure why not? I’ll try that.” A lot of the stuff I try is because I get bored. It’s situational.
When I feel the urge to do something different, I ask myself “What have I been drawn to lately?”
I’m not a visual person. I’m not horribly imaginative in terms of coming up with “this big thing” like a David LaChappelle, Gregory Crewdson, or anything like that. It tends to be a lot smaller. Simple little tweaks.
It’s like when you get a new car. You have take it out, see how it handles in those turns. I take each one and put it through their paces. I gotta see what it can do.
The 5D does some things really well, and does other things not so well. The Mamiya, same kind of relationship. Once you play around with it, and pay attention, you figure out what they do well. That’s how I slot them into my shooting.
I got a new camera, a Contax T2. It was crazy. My friend Dan Schwartzbaum just gave it to me. I saw that Zeiss on the lens and I knew the quality was going to be high. Shooting on 35mm film is a bit new for me. I’d never really done that before.
With shooting on 400, there’s a bit of grain. I’m kind of figuring out where grain fits in for me. The framing is a little bit different. It’s a lot lighter and I tend to kind of snap away a little bit more. I treat it like the point & shoot it is.
I carry it around all the time. I don’t carry my 5D around with me. I carry my iPhone and my T2 right now. So on the roll that comes back there tends to be a lot of “oh there’s a shot of the bar” and let’s see how that looks. I need to see how it handles a lot of different environments; light in certain situations.
Film vs. Digital is not a conversation for me. They’re just all tools. They’ve all got different qualities. There are some times I prefer to use the 5D and some times that prefer 35mm or medium format. My Mamiya can’t do everything my 5D can, and vice versa. It’s about the person, not the tool. The constraints definitely make a difference, but it’s about the person.
I was talking to Aaron Feaver years ago about Digital vs. Film. When I first started shooting Polaroid, I hated digital. Then I went to medium format, I still hated digital. Then I got a 5D and changed my mind.
With iPhone, I had a big problem with Instagram for a long time. It’s all the filters, not the program on its own. You end up with a set of filters that people feel compelled to use. The shots all have the same palette. I resented it. It was kind of opposite of how I feel about photography. Now, I just use it without the filters, using Instagram as a social network.
Digital offers options. Part of the process is taking a few pictures, laughing it up with someone, talking to them. Those pictures aren’t even meant to be used. Those are shots that are basically just get my subject used to hearing the shutter. Right now I love having two hundred shots to play around with. What I’m trying to capture sometimes takes more to get. Sometimes I’m searching in a shoot. If I only had twelve shots, I wouldn’t get what I’m looking for.
It’s a tough one, nudity, because there’s a lot outside the photo itself that’s involved. There are some photographers who are great at just doing nudes because they really have an artistic mind for it. I’m not one of those guys.
For me, it’s got to be specific to a situation. There’s got to be a reason for it. When I first started doing it, it was just that it was exotic. It was something different; it was a novelty. But as I’ve done more photography it interests me less and less. When I do it, there’s got to be a reason.
I shot with my friend Randi who works for Suicide Girls the other night and we did nudity. That shoot was specifically about shooting a Suicide Girl in a very non erotic way. It was about the form and getting her to do different things than she was used to. They were inspired by this guy, Billy Kidd. He shoots all of his subjects on really clean backgrounds, really stark. So I latched onto the starkness part. How do I make this more stark? It’s a lot of just experimenting with stuff.
I’m not interested in most nudes I see online. They’re either very sexualized or exploitative. Neither of those are very appealing to me. For some people, yes it can be revealing. But for just as many others, like those who take self portrait nudes, it’s kind of a smokescreen. It’s the illusion. It’s the illusion of intimacy. You feel connected with them. You feel like they’re showing you something. I think that impression is incredibly false. At times there’s a sense that folks are abusing that sense of intimacy for attention.
It’s definitely a conversation I’ve had. But, I look at a successful picture as conveying something to the audience. For myself, I don’t subscribe to the whole “I do it for me” idea. I do it because I enjoy it, but I consider it a successful photo when people connect with it.
Now I don’t necessarily think that my audience knows better than I do about what I’m doing. I’ve also dealt with that question by having more than one place to put my photos. The Flickr audience tends to want a certain kind of photo. Whatever would be classified as the “Lou O’Bedlam Shot” tends to go on Flickr. The stuff that’s a little more off message tends to go on Tumblr.
I think the depth that I found surprised me. The people that I ended up interviewing were far more open than I was anticipating.
My questions evolved over time as I learned more. It started off pretty light, and got into some real good serious stuff as time went on. I was really surprised by what people were willing to say and share with me.
I thought it was just going to be a fun trip where we’d shoot the shit a little bit about relationships, but people were really open. It led me to craft more probing questions. By the end, I’d come in serious and I’d get serious back.
Well, I avoided the South altogether. [both laugh]
I went to Texas, New Orleans and Atlanta and that was it. These feet did not touch the deep south. But people, honestly, were just really nice everywhere. I didn’t really have any bad times.
What I realized is that I’m not a big travel person. It was a great trip that I will never do again. It was very hectic and I just love LA. I think a lot of people travel to see stuff. I am just very content in that way.
My main reasons for travel have always been people. I probably would’ve never even gone anywhere had I not had good friends move after High School. I would’ve never gone to New York or San Francisco. If not for Kevin Mason in England, I would’ve never gone to Brighton to teach. Without my buddy Ed Peterson in Seattle I would’ve never gone there. It’s all about people. All the cities I went to were because I knew people there and wanted to see them. Every single city had someone I hadn’t seen in awhile.
It’s all about people.
I don’t think of it as showing myself, as much as the work. I think about the pictures a lot and their relationship to the internet, which is really their relationship to the public. I don’t think too much about how I’m going to look because I’m pretty confident in the fact that I’m not an asshole. I tend to curate the work more than my persona.
I think I had more of a persona earlier. 2007–2008 were really interesting because I was meeting online folks who had a completely false idea of me. They only saw the guy who got to shoot a lot of attractive women and assumed I was “Hollywood”. So that’s how they would treat me.
It formed this weird sort of middle ground between who I am and who people thought I was. For a long time I kind of lived in that skin, being that super confident guy who could take pictures of anybody. Then I became a little more comfortable with myself.
My goal with photography is to become as idiosyncratic as possible, to refine my style to make it more and more “MINE” as time goes on. I was super jazzed when people are like “Woah, that’s a Lou O’Bedlam shot!” I was like “YES!!”
I’m handicapped because I’m not very visual. I don’t have this strong, very loud, visual sense that I can define myself with. It’s more about capturing the same kind of moments.
I really think all restrictions help. I think someone who can do anything is screwed. I think Jay-Z’s raps aren’t nearly as good as they used to be, because he’s rich now. I think that it’s those restrictions that really force you to be creative to bring out the creativity.
I met this woman Traci Matlock, in Houston, whose work I’ve been following for years. She was telling about how you need restrictions. You need a box, a frame, to work in. If you can do anything, there’s really no impetus to push yourself.
You know, I lead a charmed life. I’ve been lucky. I don’t think you can codify my photographic career and have other people do it. I think if you want to be a professional photographer you’ve got to hustle. It’s all about the hustle. I hate hustling. I just despise it. I grew up an only child, so I think I deserve everything that is handed to me.
Having to go out and get work? It should come to me.
I think that plays out in a much more concrete way. You know, I try to be a good person. I am definitely an asshole to people I don’t like. I try to rein that in a bit.
I get work because when I get there, people like me. So they call me for the next gig. People I shoot with a lot, they like shooting with me. So, they shoot with me again. I think in that way, it works as Karma would.