How to Channel a Daily Vision into a 20-Year Photography Career
Noah Kalina, the photographer behind cult-loved books, a deeply respected art photography practice, and a viral video project that has amassed over 44 million views, opens up on his early days as an artist and his unlikely new medium.
In January, an eight-minute video ricocheted across the internet. In it, photographer Noah Kalina chronicled some 7,300 self-portraits, taken daily over the last two decades. As he stares wide-eyed into the camera, we watch a 19-year-old aspiring artist transform—ever slowly, over the years—into a man with a deeply respected photography career. As the video makes clear, this change didn’t happen overnight.
Kalina, who moved to Lumberland, New York from NYC in 2013, got his start photographing restaurants and shooting $20 headshots off Craigslist in the early aughts. Today, he’s the photographer behind the enchanting and cult-coveted Cabin Porn books and a self-published book on intimate, sculptural bedding forms; a stunning campaign for the reopening of MoMA; and maintains a luscious, daring, endlessly fascinated, and continuously evolving art practice. Most recently, he’s reimagined the email newsletter as a medium to share projects and rethink narrative photography, entrusting subscribers with weekly stories about raising chickens, his local post offices, piloting drones, or a day in the life of his rooster, Marcel.
Here, Kalina shares advice for young photographers from his early days as an artist; how he continues to evolve, be inspired, and keep his mind working every day; and why email just might be the medium of the future.
Q. When did you first pick up a camera? Do you remember a particular moment when you realized photography would be a significant part of your life or career?
A. In high school, my friends and I were the alternative kids and it was the cool thing to do. We had this teacher who would let you stack up three periods of photography on the same day and just hang out in the darkroom. Obviously back then we used film, so you’d shoot and then spend time printing photos. I was encouraged by my parents, especially my dad, to pursue photography. I wasn’t really a good student—art school was the place I could get in. So I went to SVA [School of Visual Arts] for photo and just kept going.
Being in art school for photography is helpful because it keeps you in that world; it’s what you think about and learn about. But my experience was definitely more focused on art rather than commercial photography. I had to specifically take commercial classes to potentially have a career, not just as an artist, which was good and bad. It gave me two minds. At that time—almost pre-internet and definitely pre-social media—there was still the idea of “selling out,” where you’re either an artist or you’re commercial. I always thought that was bs and I could blend the worlds and do both, but this wasn’t totally accepted yet. I still live with the question in my head: “Am I selling out if I do this?”
Q. How did you figure out the commercial side of things?
A. It’s that survival thing where you just figure it out. My work in school was landscape art photos and I knew I was never going to make money doing that, so learned how to take photos of people. I used Craigslist and posted for $20 headshots and basically learned how to take pictures of people by having them come over to my apartment. I increased the price over time and got about three people a day. It was totally not what I’d learned in art school. It’s kind of funny, I was shooting these headshots with a wide-angle lens—they’re the worst!—but many of these people were dipping their toes into acting so they were like, “whatever, 20 bucks.” It was a good way to learn, and I met a couple of cool people through it. It wasn’t even that shady or sketchy, which it feels like it could have been.
Q. You recently wrote about your early years photographing restaurants around New York and how you would say, “I don’t leave my house for less than $100 a day.” Were there other parameters you set to look out for yourself and your work—and to make a living?
A. That’s pretty specific to that job just because I’d get paid $15 per place so it didn’t make sense to go way uptown to shoot two places. I’ve always been pragmatic about my approach to work and being efficient, making it work however I can.
We run into these things all the time where we weigh the cost-benefit analysis. I’ll shoot a commercial job now for tons of money and then next week it’s, “Can you do this for $100?” If it’s a cool subject I might as well; it could lead to something. This is a pitfall for everyone because it’s hard to know what’s going to be worth it. You have to trust your instinct. So you weigh these things and consider your time and energy.
Starting out, you have to be as active as you possibly can. Say no to the things that are crazy, but for things that sound fun or are things that you might want to do more of, absolutely say yes if you can. But always try to at least get something. Free is kind of tough, for anyone. But even $100 is a token that you’re appreciated. Most people can do that.
Q. What other advice would you give to your younger self or to photographers embarking on the beginning of their careers?
A. Wake up early. And don’t sleep too much. I usually wake up between 6–7am, and I’m accomplishing more in a year waking up early than I did over a decade in my twenties because I slept in. Plus, the light’s so much better in the morning. I was always kind of like, “whatever, morning light, twilight’s nice too.” No. The morning is amazing. Definitely just get up and don’t sleep in.
Also, wait around. Don’t just do it as quickly as you can and leave. Wait for the light to get better. I still fight myself on this one, but a lot of times you get there and you just want to shoot it and you work with it. But you just gotta wait.
Q. Your “Everyday” project shows the evolution of your life from age 19 to 20 years later as a successful artist, which is beautiful to see. What significance has this project had on your journey as an artist?
A. It’s complicated. It was a project I started when I was in my dorm room in college with a digital camera, which was not common at the time. I feel like I had one good idea. I kind of live with that now. Like you said, it has gone viral a couple of times. It is this thing that I do that’s part of all of my work, but at the same time it almost exists separately from everything else that I do.
If anything, it makes me recognizable. People who haven’t met me know what I look like because if they Google me that’s probably the result they’ll find. But I’ve had such a love-hate relationship with it. When it first became viral in 2006 it was amazing, but then I was just “that internet guy” and it took years to move beyond that. But six years later I embraced it and decided it was just this thing that I do. I guess because I became more comfortable with myself, I was able to accept the project. I’m happy that it exists and I still do it and will always do it.
Q. How does it connect to or inspire your other work?
A. In terms of the obsessive nature of it, I’ve since started projects that are serial-based where I go to the same spots—not every day but whenever I can—and photograph these things that change subtly over time. There’s a series that I do on a corner in Williamsburg that is just an empty lot. I knew eventually it would become a building and saw recently, theoretically, there is going to be a skyscraper built there.
I’ve been waiting ten years for that. That goes back to my advice: you just gotta wait. Sometimes things don’t appear good at first but if you wait it out, it gets better. Also, people reward commitment. An early impetus of “Everyday” was to take a picture every day because it would make me a better photographer. It’s an exercise, and by doing something over and over, you get better at it.
Q. You have a number of these serial or “obsessive” projects like “Bedmounds” or “The River” where you photograph a subject again and again over time. Is a daily practice important?
A. I don’t know if it’s right for everyone, but I do think it is helpful to become obsessed with something and keep doing it over and over again. A lot of these projects start with snapshots on my phone or a point-and-shoot camera. When something develops out of it, I start taking it more seriously and use my real camera. If you focus on something and look at it over and over, it helps propel you forward and to become more serious about a subject matter.
Q. The “Everyday” video went viral several times—reaching over 44 million cumulative views across its three releases from 2006, 2012, and 2020, and was even spoofed by the Simpsons. What has virality, and social influence, meant for you and your work? Is it important for artists today?
A. I’ve gone through so many different platforms over the years where you can show your work and you build a following. I was on Fotolog, then Flickr, then Tumblr, and then eventually people went on Instagram. You just kind of ride the waves. You want your work to be seen, so you should be on the platform where people are looking at work. I don’t know if you necessarily have to be big on that platform, certainly it helps, but at the same time the numbers can lie. I wouldn’t get hung up on trying to get followers. If you’re making work and it’s good, they’ll come.
Q. Your newsletter uses email as a medium to share projects and ideas and to rethink narrative photography within constraints. It succeeds Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, and is a joy to follow. Is this the future?
A. It almost seems like a retro thing, like, why do a newsletter now? But these platforms start getting old and everyone wants to find the new thing. Email is the one app that people are never going to delete. People check their email every day, hoping that something interesting will come along that will save their life, and I might as well be in that space.
I was inspired by other people who are using the medium and realized it’s a new medium I can play with, where we end up making our work to fit the platform. Like on Instagram, you end up making work almost for it instead of just because you’re making work. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s good to work within the parameters of a platform and have it inspire what you make, but what I do in the newsletter doesn’t really work on Instagram. I want to tell stories and thread narratives that I could kind of do on Stories, but it feels better to put them on “paper” and send them off that way.
In some ways it’s like my own magazine. I have a topic in my head and my goal on Monday is to go to press. I do whatever I can throughout the week to put that together, so it’s a new challenge. If you go deep in my Instagram or Tumblr I was never a caption person; I liked the idea of being mysterious and letting the pictures speak for themselves. But I guess I’m changing and getting older and I just want to tell these stories and have fun.
Q. Your work continues to evolve and you’ve dug into new skills like drone piloting and subjects like chicken raising. How do you keep evolving, learning, and reinventing?
A. Lately, I’m interested in a million things. [With my newsletter] I get excited about all of these amazing things we have around us that we overlook. A lot of these things—chickens, post offices—there’s so much you can learn about them and so many things you don’t know; it’s a great way to stay inspired and keep your mind working. So I make something out of them and put it out there.
Q. What has been your greatest triumph as an artist?
A. There’s never a triumph. I can never be content with what I’ve done. Certainly, I can look back and be proud of the work I’ve done but I just want to be better. I hope the best is coming.
In my newsletter I did the decade in review. That was amazing because there are so many times when I can feel down about what I’m doing, but when I did this I realized I’ve done so many cool things. It was the first time I was able to pat myself on the back and be like, I’ve done okay, I know it doesn’t feel good enough but just relax. At the same time, I hate saying that because I don’t want to sound like I have it figured out or I’m set. So here we are, living in this dual world. But there’s no life I’d rather have. There’s no plan B. I either struggle and suffer all the time for this, or what? It’s not like I’m going to get a real job! So this is amazing. I have to accept that and be happy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.