Kyle Thompson recently quit his job as a pizza deliveryman and dropped out of school to pursue his passion for photography. This may seem like a bold move for a 20-year old but in the last year or so he has become an international sensation.
His fame was kick-started when he uploaded an album to the social news site Reddit and it received over 4 million views almost overnight. Since then his work has been featured in My Modern Met, The Artful Desperado, Vogue and the French magazine Philosophie. His Flickr page currently has over a million views, and several studios have reached out to work with him including the Chicago-based Phlearn, where he has recently assisted in shoots.
Thompson has been interested in art since he was young, but his interest in photography was sparked roughly a year ago when he came across some photos by Francesca Woodman, a photographer known for her ghastly black & white portraits, often depicting subjects who are nude and exposed with obscured faces.
This, among other things, inspired Thompson to begin exploring abandoned buildings and solitary rural areas, photographing himself in them. Around this time, he launched his ongoing project, 365, where he pledged to shoot one photo a day for a year. As of December 3, he is on number 308.
Though Thompson frequently appears in his own work, there is a contrast between his work and his personality. Despite the bleak nature of his photos, he smiles and speaks in an amicable tone. His voice is both commanding and inviting, at one point he jokes about a work related injury:
I was doing one [shoot] where I thought it was water but it was mud, and I ended up stepping on a plant or rock… it cut my foot open and it was bleeding. It got full of mud, and it didn’t heal for a long time… It was winter so, [laughing] that wasn’t fun.
Thompson’s work is extremely vivid in every respect. Recurring subjects are the elements: flames, smoke, water and dirt. There are usually floating objects such as bones, knives, and hooks surrounding him or his subject. But Thompson keeps the work diverse and accompanies the painful associations with sentiments of freedom, bliss and tranquility. In the photo Embryo, for example, the subject is trapped in a plastic bag, gasping for air and seemingly asphyxiating—yet in another photo, Hurricane, the subject is levitating toward a pristine sky, a halo-like white cloth encircling him as he soars. Thompson’s intent is to convey emotion and make work that connects to others:
I want people to be able to either connect with it or be captivated by it for at least a second. I like photos [where] you stare at it for a second and think about it. I want to be able to do that for other people.
Nostalgia is also a strong theme in his work. With hundreds of photos of abandoned buildings, Thompson considers Chernobyl an ideal location to shoot photos. He recently traveled to Gary, Indiana (a city notorious for its forsaken houses), but he has also traveled as far as Bolivia and Peru — all to get the best shot. No matter where he travels, however, nostalgia resurfaces to some degree:
I like the old, rural looking stuff. The scenery, nature. I like abandoned houses because they’re so empty and have that feeling to them…. I can see how people used to live when I go through them.
This is not to say his work is monotonous. It is rich and varied, depicting the complex nature of human thoughts, feelings, woes, and desires. It has been said that what distinguishes humans from other animals is suffering — that is, pain coupled with contemplation of the pain. Thompson’s work speaks to this idea. Whether burning, drowning, flying, or sleeping, the subject of the photos consistently evokes strong emotion and contemplation in the viewer.
This strong sense of provocation in Thompson’s work has helped propel him into a viral internet star, which has in turn allowed him to evolve his work and make the transition from a hobby to a career:
It’s been really weird— I don’t think I’m big but I’ve been getting recognized in public—it’s kind of weird [laughing]… It’s made it seem a lot more like a reality that I’m doing this for a career now, which is really cool.
And make a career out of it he has. Selling prints of his work allowed him to make the trip to South America this past fall. Now he has big plans to road trip around the U.S., documenting it along the way. His future plans also entail creating a photobook and looking into galleries and exhibitions. His first priority right now, however, is finishing up 365.
When asked if he had any advice for aspiring photographers, Thompson stated:
Just practice a ton. Look at the photos that you take that you like and figure out what you like about them, and try to implement them more, and same with what you don’t like.
Thompsons work is readily available on his Flickr page, where he is still updating 365.