Interview with photographer Adam Wells – working with clients is about relationships, not transactions
How we tell our story is how we live our lives. Knowing where we come from and what we stand for helps us navigate with an open mind. At Pixieset, we're lucky enough to have clients who dare to be true to themselves in spite of everything. Their creative identity is so well-shaped that they cannot detach from it. It simply governs their style, their vision, and life itself.
Adam Wells is a photographer and filmmaker based in San Francisco, California, with a formal education in architecture and a broad spectrum of interests and passions. This particular mix makes him a unique voice within the industry and someone who’s not afraid to approach things differently.
During our conversation, Adam sheds light on what it means to be a brand narrator, how he creates a genuine liaison between brands and people, and why bringing motion into his creative mix helps him become a better visual storyteller.
What words would best describe you as a creative?
I like thinking about the creation of memories - a lot of my work is born from a place of curiosity and exploration, and captured with a sense of nostalgia and romance. We remember things not exactly as they happened but as they felt. For me, creating something in the present that’s already imbued with the patina of a memory is a joyful challenge and pursuit. I’m trying to find and bottle significance. In the same way poetry can cut through the noise of reality to deliver a few salient lines, I aim to find those visuals through lines in my photography.
What does it mean to be a brand narrator?
To focus on brand narrative is to very nearly ignore the product in favor of highlighting the lifestyle and story that a product occupies. Who is using this thing and what makes their shared experience (person & product) interesting? Why is their life improved or aspirational as a result? I search for genuine stories that connect brands with real relatable people and the lives they live.
How do you think your architectural background influences your approach to projects?
Studying architecture as an undergrad helped me establish strong design fundamentals. My curriculum challenged me to think about design’s power to shape an individual’s physical experience through space and time. Compression, expansion, texture, light, leading lines - these are all visual cues that lend themselves to an enriching experience in both the built and photographic worlds.
Your portfolio gives a sense of motion to the viewer. How would you describe your style?
Thanks for that. A quick tip of the hat to the legendary photographer, Jay Maisel, who has a book called “Light, Gesture, & Color” — I believe those are the 3 core traits that can individually or collectively make a great image. My favorite kind of beauty is found in candid moments where everything lines up, balanced and a bit dreamy. I gravitate to those unscripted moments which means either me or my subject are most often in motion as I chase some kind of symmetry and alignment. For me, motion and gesture in particular has a unique capacity not only to capture a moment in time but the fuzzy edges on either end of that moment too.
In which manner does videography help you reach your vision, that photography can't?
For me, the beauty and curse of photography is that so often the exalted images tell a full story in one frame. That “hero image” is your one chance to pull in viewers. But that often leaves so many smaller details on the floor of the editing room. I’m grateful I’ve had opportunities to grow into video work because it requires a different approach to visual storytelling. I’m able to layer in smaller moments and tighter frames — like textures or hands at work — to establish a sense of place or a feeling in ways that I’ve struggled to find an outlet for in my commercial photography.
What did you learn from working with big brands and publications?
It always comes back to relationships. There’s an astonishing number of ridiculously talented photographers out there and it’s pretty rare for someone to recognize your work out of the blue and reach out to you about working together from such a small touch point. Most often things begin with an existing connection. Part of making it as an independent photographer is cultivating and nurturing a large professional network and creative community.
How do you foster relationships with your clients to make them last over time?
It’s always good to remind myself — I offer a service, not a product. I try to make my client interactions relational not transactional. To me that means treating my clients as people, leading with kindness, and exceeding expectations.
How does travel shape your creative vision and worldview?
I spent the first 21 years of my life in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. When I moved away after college I was extremely hungry to see and understand more of the world. At first, photography was a hobby I leaned into while traveling. Pretty quickly it evolved into the vehicle that allowed me to travel for work and rapidly expand my worldview in the process.
Humans are such adaptable creatures. We very quickly adjust to new situations and begin to normalize those conditions. That's why I think the fresh eyes you have in a new place are such a blessing. Colors, objects, people, plants - for a brief moment in time everything is curious and new — and for me that feast for the eyes is a real photographic opportunity.
How do you think working with Pixieset impacts the experience you offer to your clients?
Pixieset is a valuable tool that allows me to provide my clients clean, immersive photo galleries. It makes it easy for them to review the work we’ve created together. The albums I deliver also serve as a shared archive that both my clients and I can access at any time.
Who are your biggest critics, and how do they help you grow and evolve?
Everybody is their own worst critic — at least that certainly rings true for me. My inner critic, at its worst, prevents me from putting myself out there and taking risks… but at its best motivates me to continually raise the bar and be the very best I can be. The self-doubt that says “your work is no good or uninteresting” is also the force that pushes me to seek out the thing I AM interested in. The key for me is to push past that state of wanting into a practice of becoming.
When was the last time you changed a core belief of yours and why?
In late 2016 I stopped believing I could be a passive member of society. Working as a freelancer began feeling fairly individualistic and so I started volunteering and making monthly donations to humanitarian and environmental groups and causes I cared about. To be a photographer is a real privilege and on a fundamental level I felt it was important to start using that privilege to support people/causes outside of myself. Civil engagement is essential to a healthy society and planet and I continue to pursue ways to lend my skills as a photographer to the causes I believe in.
What do you feel is your biggest contribution to making the world a better place?
There is a dilapidated oil pipeline that runs through the open waters of the Great Lakes actively threatening the largest freshwater system on the planet. I’ve made a short documentary and hosted two photo exhibitions that were aimed at decommissioning that pipeline and fostering closer connection between people and their local water sources and I’m proud of my efforts as a water protector. I’m actually currently producing a photo essay for the Sierra Club addressing the Line 5 pipeline and the people and places most at risk due to its continued operation. The story is scheduled to appear in print in mid-March of 2023.
Seeing how photographers such as Adam Wells are impacted by an entire spectrum of things: from his architectural background to his appetite for videography, from building human-centered brands to being involved in humanitarian actions, shows the power of knowing your values. Once you put them at the forefront of your decisions, your work and life overall will get better.
Today, the photography community needs more people willing to recreate the rules of the game and push the boundaries for a better future together.
You can can get inspired by Adam's beautiful work on his website, Instagram, and Vimeo. Once you stop being amazed by his outstanding photos, read the previous interviews. Learn from KT Merry why every photography job is an audition for your next one, and from Ashlie René about why you must let go of your ego and focus on helping clients.