Kerry Hallihan and the women who don't need 'likes'
Today, so much of our lives takes place online. We share images of ourselves, often altered, smoothed, sanitized, and we crave affirmation from “likes.” But photographer Kerry Hallihan’s subjects don’t need to be “liked,” and she doesn’t either.
Kerry grew up in Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s. “It was the time of Herb Ritts and strong independent amazing women, who owned it and shined as themselves,” she says. “Peter Lindbergh’s images were all everywhere. His women really inspired me, as they had a sense of self, ease and ownership. The fashion felt timeless.” She’d purchase copies of The Face and Vogue Italia at Book Soup in West Hollywood, and saw Interview magazine everywhere.
At home, Kerry’s father took pictures as a hobby, and he encouraged her to use his camera. While observing the world around her, she began to recognize the effects of light. “In LA, I was inspired by the unique way sunlight casts an air of mystery over architecture and ordinary objects.” In college she found inspiration on the crew team. “From my early mornings on the water, I became fascinated with the way light highlighted an object’s natural beauty.”
Armed with a degree in photojournalism and inspired by photographers including Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and Robert Erdmann, Kerry decided to focus on fashion and portrait photography. In New York, she assisted Steven Meisel and Steven Klein, and working on American, Italian, French, and British magazines gave her an international perspective on beauty. “It was interesting to see the stylistic nuances, and how chic and often masculine tailored so many French women are,” she says. “They can have a blazer, jeans and a t-shirt and be quite masculine but sensual and self-confident at the same time. Dressing for themselves, not the eye of someone else.”
Eventually, Kerry moved to London, ready to step out on her own. “[I had] to free myself of all the muscle memory of the past years—which lens to put on, the height of the camera, lighting. I needed to find my own voice, and not default to the two photographers I had been working for who had distinct signatures.” Some of her first shoots were for Arena Hommme +, i-D, Spin, The Face, and Interview, bringing her back to some of the first magazines to inspire her.
But navigating the industry as a gay female photographer wasn’t always easy. “When I first started out it was a bit of a reality check,” she says. “So many people embraced me when I was assisting, but it was another story when I started shooting. I remember an editor told me that I was too butch. Another time, I was told the client wanted to spend the day with a cute boy, not a lesbian.”
But Kerry didn’t need anyone’s permission. Rather than letting those experiences get her down, they drove her to show women as powerful, no matter their shape, size, or identity. “For me, it’s more important than ever in this climate of disposable imagery that my subjects exert authority with their stance and the emotions they reveal,” she says. “I want them to own the frame and force you to really look at it and analyze it. Draw you in, and come back to it.” In Kerry’s shoot for The Sunday Times UK, Maisie Williams stares directly at the camera, unapologetically. Away from Game of Thrones’ swords and battles, Williams is just as strong as her on-screen persona, and more importantly, as her male costars.
Kerry aims to capture a raw moment, an image that no one has seen before and may not happen again. “On every set, I hope for that ‘moment of emotional truth.’ I know I’ve doing something right, if at a certain point my subject stops trying to be the person they’re expected to be and—even just for a few moments—is themselves.”
Unlike the over-smoothed images on social media, Kerry prefers unique quirks and elements that are a little off, and keeps to that aesthetic during the retouching process. “I’ve always been very close with my retouchers,” she says. “It’s the same personal relationship you have with a printer. They need to know your vibe and style. What to hold back on, the feel the touch. You have to keep an element of imperfection, that keeps the twist and the realness. Our imperfections are true beauty. It’s what makes us unique.”
Above all, Kerry’s perspective is grounded in authenticity. “When the wave of crazy over-retouched, over-saturated colors set in, and reality TV personalities became cover stars, I found myself pushing back on so much retouching clients wanted,” she says. Instead, she began to focus on her own vision, pushing boundaries and highlighting the unexpected. In shooting non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon, who normally exudes edginess and attitude, Kerry showed them in rare moments of vulnerability and playfulness.
Kerry is also interested in challenging the boundaries of male and female. “Playing with gender identity has always been a part of my imagery from the very beginning. It’s made me conscious to push the fashion side of styling further. . . Styling is essential to the narrative, and conveying the character for the story.”
Appropriate for her boundary-pushing style, Kerry works with an unconventional assistant: her five-year-old daughter. “I’ve made a conscious decision to have my daughter edit with me. We discuss my first pass edit and I print out my refined selects, and ask her which images she prefers and why. She looks at their eyes and body language. Kids are very perceptive.”
Kerry says that this process has driven her to ensure she’s authentically capturing strong women who own their identities, much like the images that inspired her when she was young.
“Being a badass on camera is about giving approval rather than seeking it.” As Kerry Hallihan shows, that’s true when you’re behind the camera, too.