It’s spring in New York City and the hub of the world is in full bloom. Out of the dark, unforgiving winter, a warmth has begun to envelop the city. The uniforms of the season, the dark grays and the muted blacks, have been replaced with streaks of color. For the first time in too long, the city feels alive again.
On this same day, somewhere on one of New York’s maze of streets, a young man weaves through the city on his skateboard. He kicks with his right foot, glides for a few brief moments, and kicks again. His face is tanned, his cheekbones high, his brown hair streaked with slices of blonde.
His name is Keith Kandell, and in much the same way wind has a knack for blowing, Kandell has a knack for gliding through life. Always in fashion, always unintentional, and always with ease. This is not the story of a young man that follows trends, but one that creates them. Though at this point, he never fathomed that just shortly after graduating from film school at New York University, he would be jet-setting across the world, behind the scenes of million-dollar photo shoots for some of the world’s biggest stars and models.
On a crisp Hawaiian morning, Keith Kandell, now 34, is chasing his 2-year-old son Makua through the backyard of their home. Tucked away discretely near the base of Diamond Head, his home is spacious, clean and open, and his son’s laughter echoes off the walls. The entire abode exudes the happiness of a young family without a care in the world.
Kandell bends down, scoops up his son – who bears a striking resemblance to both parents – and passes him off to his wife Jyoti, who looks to have just walked off a Parisian runway herself. With a cup of steaming tea in his hand, Kandell and I gather at a table in his living room to discuss how a seemingly regular kid from Honolulu with a love of film found himself pioneering a new industry in fashion videography.
Growing up near the slopes of Diamond Head, Kandell fell in love with four things that would come to alter his life forever: music, surfing, film and a girl. As a student at Punahou School, all of the aforementioned subjects tugged at his attention. His passion for music would see him become a notable DJ in both New York and Los Angeles.
As an adept surfer, Kandell would base himself in locales close to lineups he loved. When it came to filmmaking, the chance to capture emotion and craft story from behind the lens kindled a passion in Kandell that would not only satiate his creativity, but also pay the bills and see him travel the world. And as far as his would-be wife Jyoti was concerned, well, falling in love with her was almost as predetermined as taking his next breath.
In 2002, after graduating from film school at NYU, Keith made his way to LA, where he freelanced as a videographer and editor, working on a variety of projects for a number of creative agencies. On the side, Kandell continued to DJ and surf as much as possible.
At the time, as a young 20-something, it felt almost idyllic. Sure, the money wasn’t great, but it was freedom, salt water and a creative outlet. And then one day, in a remarkable string of events, his life took a course that he could never have foreseen.
“When I was living in LA, I had this beat up old car that I had piled with boards to surf Malibu,” Kandell recalls vividly. “It’s always fun to bring a bunch of different boards down to Malibu to experiment and play around on. Anyway, on my way down to go surf, I stopped at this bank to get some cash. Going back to my car, I see a car parked next to me and there’s this guy in the passenger side trying to get my attention. I’m sort of confused because I immediately think I’m about to drive away with my coffee on the hood of my car or something. Anyway, this older guy signals me toward him and says, ‘My God, I love your look.’ I was instantly crestfallen. And then he went on and said something like, ‘I love your car, and my God, I want to take your picture.’ And I was like, uh, okay… Who are you? And he said, ‘I’m Mario, a photographer … Mario Testino.’”
In the world of fashion photographers, it should be noted that Mario Testino is not just any photographer. For more than two decades, the South American-born photographer has shot everyone from David Beckham to Jennifer Lopez, along with hundreds of other top models and Hollywood stars. In the world of fashion photography, Mario Testino is a king.
Kandell, who had little, if any, inclination or interest in the world of fashion photography, somehow instantly recognized the man’s name.
“He’s basically the biggest fashion photographer of the past 20 years. But I don’t think I would have normally known who he was by any means. At that point in my life, I had always liked fashion in the sense of style, but I wasn’t following it really at all. The way I recognized his name was actually through surfing and growing up in Hawai‘i.”
A phenomenally talented surfer in his own right, Kandell had grown up very much in the surf scene in Hawai‘i and had befriended professional surfer Chris Malloy, who, as it turns out, had worked with Testino on a North Shore photo shoot for Vogue.
“I told Mario that I was familiar with his name, he snapped a few photos of me, we exchanged contact info, and he drove off,” Kandell recalls. “And it was really funny, because not 10 minutes after Mario drove off, my friend called, the same guy I was supposed to go surf with. It turns out he had actually been a model for Mario a few years back. He said he’d give Mario a call and tell him that I was a DJ and filmmaker and that we should see if we could do some sort of project together. Mario was stoked. He told me to come down to a shoot he was doing for Dolce & Gabbana. It was a big group shoot, and he actually wanted me to DJ the shoot to keep the mood going. He said that I could bring my camera and shoot when I wasn’t playing music, sort of to see if we could do something interesting on film.”
As it turns out, Kandell was an ace on the turntables. But because he spent the majority of his time deejaying, he couldn’t fully commit to the behind-the-scenes video of the shoot and the end result, according to Kandell, was mediocre. Fortunately for Kandell, his prowess as a DJ continued to keep him in business with Testino and when the opportunity arose to produce another video, he leapt at the chance. This time, the behind-the-scenes edit he produced was met with rave reviews by both Testino and the client.
A testament to the old adage of “right time, right place,” Kandell had just unwittingly created a lucrative niche for himself in the fashion world. With the rise of the Internet as both a commerce and branding destination, an insatiable thirst for content arose.
Photo shoots were no longer enough to fill websites and in-store displays alone. The candid, behind-the-scenes moments of these million-dollar shoots provided enough branded material to fill an entire warehouse; all that was needed was someone to see the opportunity – and capture it. This someone became Kandell.
Gucci. Prada. Miu Miu. The clients lined up like it was going out of style. Where Testino went with his lens, so too did Keith with his camera. One week a photo shoot with David Beckham in London, the next Jennifer Lopez in Milan. Kandell was swept into enormously opulent campaigns and often found himself rubbing shoulders with the fashion elite on a daily basis.
When asked if suddenly finding himself in this undeniably strange world left him feeling the slightest bit out of place, Keith simply shrugs his shoulders. “It would have been easy for me to feel like an outsider being thrust into that world so suddenly,” he says. “But I’ve never really had any pretense to anything and I just kind of went with the whole thing. Plus, Mario was always very open and didn’t approach any project with any real pretense, either. It also helped that I was surrounded by a lot of surfers that worked on the production side and at that time, all the fashion people seemed to love the nonchalance of these big productions being essentially run by surfers. So it was easy for me to feel comfortable in that world. It felt like I had a foot in both worlds.”
With his reputation growing, Keith’s career shooting fashion snowballed and he was soon picked up by New York-based agency The Magnet in 2007, which supplied him with a steady flow of international jobs.
“Shooting fashion videos turned into a career and at the time I loved it. I had total freedom to do what I wanted. The photographers weren’t too familiar with video and neither were the fashion companies. They all knew that they had to have this thing. These behind-the-scenes edits. They were paying these crazy rates for photographers and models, and so for them to capitalize on this video, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
As the years went on, Keith’s work became even more in demand. If you can think of a high-fashion magazine or brand, there’s a good chance that Keith has worked with them extensively. But it wasn’t necessarily the money, or the fashion itself that kept Keith’s interest, but rather the freedom.
“For companies like YSL and Gucci, the videos were almost an afterthought at the beginning, and then it morphed into more of a real project that paid really well,” he says. “It’s trippy, because it was all kind of a fluke that I was able to get involved in fashion, and I loved the freedom I had. When the shoots were over, I would go back to my home in Echo Park in LA, and I could be alone to work without someone looking over my shoulder. I would literally be doing the edits lying around in my underwear from my home and uploading them to the studios in Paris, London or New York. I’d work with these giant companies back and forth and I was completely autonomous. It was wonderful.”
In 2009, Kandell and his wife decided to move back to Hawai‘i, and in 2010, they had their first child, Makua. While he’s still spanning the globe shooting high-end fashion spots – and bringing his family with him on almost every project – Kandell hopes to slowly transition out of the fashion world and renew his focus on his first love: independent filmmaking.
“I think I’m ready to start slowly segueing out of fashion and back into filmmaking. I’ll continue working in fashion. I do love the visual side of it and a lot of the work, but I’m also really excited to get back into filmmaking and start a new chapter.”
In the coming years, as Keith begins his slow transition away from high-end fashion videography and wades deeper into independent filmmaking, there will continue to be a single constant: his devotion to his family.
“I’ve been able to travel with my son and my wife so much. We’ve seen a lot together and I feel so fortunate that my job has been able to keep me close to my family and we’ve been able to do the things we’ve done. And to be able to post up some roots back here in Hawai‘i and raise my son here and have a family – that’s just very special.”