Creative Lives — Candid, magical, complex: We get to know photographer Alexander Coggin

Posted 30 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Casting a surreal and almost otherworldly spotlight on the world, Alexander Coggin’s flash-filled photographs expose everyday life as being anything but. Effortlessly switching between subjects, Gigi Hadid, glasses-wearing greenery and HP Sauce have all featured in a body of dazzlingly rich photos that he describes as ‘magical realism rooted in reportage’ – several of which have found their way inside the pages of publications such as Esquire, The New York Times, VICE and The Gourmand. So it might surprise you to learn that the theatrically-trained photographer didn’t pick up a camera until 2010, as he looked for a means to express himself outside of his degree. After relocating from Berlin to London (where, he says, the light isn’t quite as unique) he’s currently enjoying expanding his network, recently adding work for The Fall and Canderel to his expansive portfolio. We caught up with him as he tells us how theatre remains central to his practice and about the magic behind a successful image.

Alexander Coggin

Job Title

Photographer

Based

London (originally from America)

Selected Clients

The New York Times, The Gourmand, Zeit Magazine, Esquire, SOFA Magazine, FT Weekend, Port Magazine, Capital Magazine, Vice (UK and US), AnOther, Spike Art Quarterly, Ordinary Magazine, Sleek Magazine, The Fall, Weltkunst, Phile, Monocle, Neon, de Volskrant, Museum Magazine, Canderel

Previous Employment

Self-employed since 2013

Education

BFA Theatre, Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts (2003–2007)

Website
Social Media

Alexander Coggin

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
I’m a photographer, usually shooting editorially and sometimes commercially. I also focus on personal work and have my upcoming second solo exhibition next month in Düsseldorf. 

My work involves either finding and seeking images or creating images through narrative. I’ll pitch stories to editors, investigate potential environments, people and places for personal work and do pre and post-production and delivery on images. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
I have pretty strict desk hours and try to log an eight-hour day as much as possible. Most of my desk time is spent curating images from my massive working library. This could be for prints, exhibitions, books, licensing requests, or gathering work examples for a pitch. I’m constantly tailoring PDFs and zipping them off to people. I’d say my time is spent 60% at my desk and 40% shooting, which has tilted more towards desk in the past year. I work at home and am bursting at the seams! I’m planning on moving to a studio in April. 

What do you like about working in London?
Moving from Berlin, I found that London has a much larger pool of ‘desk-creatives’, or, gatekeepers, in a lot of ways, who commission or write about work. So I’ve really enjoyed being here and meeting as many people as possible – something that didn’t feel nearly as enjoyable when doing everything digitally from a more remote city. I find that I’m a lot less inspired to shoot on the street in London, though. The light isn’t as unique as other cities I’ve lived in. 

Personal work

Personal work

Personal work

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I shot a fashion story for The Fall in December. I don’t usually do fashion, because I often find that what I really love in photography (specificity, character, candidness) is usually de-prioritised in favour of a more arbitrary beauty. But I met with The Fall’s creative director, Josh Hight, and he loved my work and was open to pitches for their next issue. The theme was ‘family’, so I pitched him an idea I’ve had in my back pocket for a while – a family telephone loop inspired by Norman Rockwell’s Telephone Loop, (done in 1948 for The Saturday Evening Post), and cross-bred with split screen telephone calls often seen in movies. 

I loved the process of casting and working with an amazing set designer, Karina Rocha Valentim, who worked with me to perfect the visual life of the characters. I’m really, really pleased with the end result.

What skills are essential to your job?
Annoyingly: a thick skin. I’m an incredibly open and feeling person, but I have to protect that somehow when I’m working. If you’re put on hold for something and it doesn’t come through, or if your editor wants to see a wider edit, you can’t let those things get you down; you have to be a little bit like Teflon, move forward and not torture yourself. Also, the ability to self-generate work, and to be the change you want to see in image-making. 

“What interests me in photography has the fundamentals of theatre attached: candidness, character, story.”

Character photography

Character photography

Character photography

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I build a body of street photography work on a daily or weekly basis. I’ve also got a project in pre-production that involves theatre. I read plays for pleasure, and I’m currently amassing scenes or characters that I’d like to re-stage. Working with a set designer, taking those moments and trying to put everything into one frame. 

What tools do you use most for your work? 
Well, firstly, I go literally nowhere without my small pocket notebook and pen – I find that the ability to take notes down quickly is the difference between creating or not creating. I shoot with a Nikon, I edit on Lightroom and then Photoshop, and I’ve got a range of flashes I use.  

Work for The Fall, inspired by Norman Rockwell (below)

Norman Rockwell, for The Saturday Evening Post (1948)

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
An actor, no question. I’ve always loved theatre. When I was really young my parents took my older brother and I to commercial auditions, so I was the ‘kid’ in community theatre productions. After high school I went to Emerson, starting in the BFA musical theatre programme and then transferring to the much more serious BFA theatre programme after two years. After I graduated, I needed some way to express myself without the structure of school or a production, other actors or a director. So my then-boyfriend, now-husband, bought me my first camera for Christmas in 2010. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I think of my photographic work as a domestic voyeurism. I grew up with four other siblings, and I think my photographic curiosity (and maximalist aesthetic) comes as the result of growing up in a noisy, chaotic and busy household.

My mom and I also used to take a lot of walks at night (which I still do), so I would see a lot of families in their homes, living rooms, and kitchens at night, which definitely had an influence on my curiosity about people – and how I could capture that candidness in photography.

Work for Canderel with CLM BBDO

Work for Canderel with CLM BBDO

Work for Canderel with CLM BBDO

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How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Oh god, it majorly connects. What interests me in photography has the fundamentals of theatre attached: candidness, character, story. I love catching people and faces in those really alive moments, when you can read an image and project the dynamics that you sense – this is all true in theatre. 

What were your first jobs? 
Well, thinking I wanted to be an actor after school, I waited tables for a long time. In Chicago, I worked as a customer service representative at Apartments.com for two years. From waiting tables I learned how to read people and from office work I learned great desk discipline and how to organise workflows. 

Street photography

Street photography

Street photography

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Alexander spent 48 hours photographing Gigi Hadid for The New York Times

Alexander spent 48 hours photographing Gigi Hadid for The New York Times

Alexander spent 48 hours photographing Gigi Hadid for The New York Times

Alexander spent 48 hours photographing Gigi Hadid for The New York Times

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What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
Zach Sokol, who was my editor at Vice. He encouraged me to pitch my own stories, to open my curiosity beyond just being a photographer and use photographs as a supplementary tool in storytelling. To lead projects and not just be an outsourced component.

Also Jody Juba, who started House of Juba and was my first agent (I’m now with Making Pictures). She gave me a huge confidence boost when she signed me in 2015, encouraging me to take my work seriously and spending countless hours helping me to contextualise my body of work and focus my interests and aesthetic.

“You can’t let things get you down; you have to be a little bit like Teflon, move forward and not torture yourself.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
The covers and photo story I did for Zeit Magazine when I was living in Berlin. I learned how to read a brief and interpret it, communicate with editors, be resourceful, and defend storytelling. The story was about German men in therapy (a new craze at the time) and they wanted different interpretation of men on the therapist’s couch. 

And shooting an ad last year for Canderel, through CLM BBDO in Paris. It was amazing to shoot an ad, and I was allowed to bring my own aesthetic to it, which was such a gift. I also loved working with a large crew, where everyone is as invested as I was – working alone on personal projects can be so different and lonely. 

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes, actually. 

Work for Zeit Magazine

Work for Zeit Magazine

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?     
This year is much less about ‘finding’ images and much more about ‘creating’ images, throwing myself back into the studio. I learned how to shoot in a studio, and I took those lighting principles into the real world. Now I’d like to take what I’ve been able to capture in the real world and try to recreate it in a studio.   

Could you do this job forever?
I think so...I’ve got other things I want to do, for sure. Comedy. Filmmaking. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Commercial work, running a large studio, submitting to the throes of Capitalism. I don’t know if I’ll do all of those things, but that’s certainly an expected path. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
My advice would be to not listen to anybody and don’t take this advice.

Posted 30 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Alexander Coggin, Making Pictures
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