“I do find I need to be as cunning as a cat at events these days. I see people watching for me so when I catch them looking I just wait until they go back to enjoying themselves. Then I pounce!”

Black Cravat Photography is absolute debonair deviance, ladies and gentlemen, it really is. It’s masterful, mischievous and fun. Very, very, very fun. And beautiful, too. Gorgeous in fact.

Run by Sam Adamson, Black Cravat Photography is one of those cool and enjoyable little enterprises that you find lurking in some previously unconsidered location like the small town of Newmarket, UK. But MG is built on stories like that – it’s exactly what we like.

Winner of the first prize in the Major Players ‘Major Image’ competition, Sam runs Black Cravat out of her little studio beneath the Ink Couture tattoo shop. As with most photographers, Sam spends her time doing photo shoots, weddings and portrait work, but she also regularly covers The Neon Moon Burlesque and Cabaret club as an events photographer. It’s her knack of turning events photography into a fine art, that makes Sam such a cheeky specialist.

Something that I really love about Sam’s work is the depth she gets to the subjects in the photos. It’s really cool and they have a 3D quality to them. Not only are they like animation, but you could put your fingers into the frame and peel out the person inside the photo. Or better still, pick them out like they’re a doll or a figurine. This work makes you want to dive inside and swim in its alluring weirdness.

Joe Black by Black Cravat
Joe Black by Black Cravat

Frozen frames of animation is a really good way to describe Sam’s photos. They have that darkened Disney quality to them. They’re really luscious and sugar filled, but a little bit dark and devious at the same time. It’s like a caramel and nougat filled chocolate baked Alaska covered in psychedelic candy. You can chew on it and enjoy its sweetness and its decadence. It’ll go straight to your brain, but that’s what’s so great. It has that spark and it has that satisfaction.

When it comes to the events, the night is her photo shoot, the venue her set, the crowd her extras, and the performers her actors. By capturing all of this, she’s making still frame movies of the occasion. Sam isn’t only capturing the performers of the UK’s Burlesque and Cabaret world, she’s also creating vivid mementos of the audience as well.

Without sounding like a complete and utter stalker, Sam’s awesome to watch when she’s at work at an event. She’s like a badass wildcat slinking and dancing through the audience in search of her prey. Sometimes she toys with them, other times she creeps up and then stares them straight in the eye.

Have you ever watched one of those goofy cat documentaries where a camera is placed on the head of a cat and we watch it wander through the night meowing and clawing and generally having a naughty little adventure? This is what it’s like when you see Sam at work and you see the results of her night’s escapades.

Photo by Black Cravat
Photo by Black Cravat

The culminating photos are a curious cocktail of hallucinatory candyfunk – a charming surrealistic odyssey into the night. These pictures are edible. Eat ’em and you’ll trip into a room full of demons, kinksters, steamfreaks, and burlesquers. If you’re lucky, you’ll pick up a little drag queen ether too. From the decadent and depraved leather clad harpies, to the pretty corseted sweethearts, Black Cravat’s work always offers surprises.

These surprises can be anything from a man wearing a giant bird head, a tattooed lady in leather and lace, a latex wearing steampunk, creepy doll-face masks, sugar skulled faces, the list goes on. Anything goes and that’s what is so marvellous.

An inquisitive creature, Sam’s nocturnal explorations are filled with life’s oddities and curiosities. She really has a great eye for the funky little things in life that make you snigger and wink with pleasure.

I’ve been looking for a definitive picture to sum up Sam’s work and I really haven’t found one yet. Which is actually very cool because it means she hasn’t taken it! I’m very excited to see what she captures or comes up with next.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Sam Adamson of Black Cravat Photography…

How long have you been taking pictures and working as a photographer? And how did Black Cravat come about?

I think I always remember trying to take pictures with one contraption or another – I just spent a very long time not taking them very well! When I was sixteen I discovered I could use my dad’s copy of Photoshop to alter my birth certificate and use my new ‘photocopy’ to talk my way into nightclubs. So that was the beginning of that love affair!

I had a friend; he was a really great friend. He was also great photographer. Cravats were his trademark accessory (. .. he was also quite partial to a little leather and a dab of PVC MG, so this magazine would have been very much his cup of tea!)

I got my first real camera in 2008. He would travel up to visit me when I moved to Cambridge and we’d spend some time playing around and shooting random stuff. I woke up on April 1st 2009 to a phone call telling me he had died in a car accident. Grief is … well it’s grief isn’t it? It’s miserable. I missed him a lot.

I started taking photographs again on my own. I was trying to distract myself from being so pissed off at life, I did it with internet photography tutorials! I’d sit up all night making photos and sort of feel like he was still about. When you miss someone the tiniest feelings of connection can be addictive. That addiction built me a whole portfolio.

Three years ago I was given the opportunity to open a little studio under my friend’s tattoo shop. I pinned up some sheets to the wall and I invested in a legal copy of Photoshop. In memory of my friend and first mentor, Black Cravat was born.

What excites you the most about art and photography? And what challenges you the most?

Art isn’t something you have to network your way into anymore – it’s a finger stretch away from everyone. Now everybody has a voice, tools to express themselves and access to an engaging audience in every corner of the world.

I think art as a whole is probably at a point where it is more exciting than it’s ever been.
For me, I’m just happy to have my foot in the door of it. If you can make something you can place it in the eyes and ears and minds of people all over the world. People you would never meet in the flesh can connect with something you have created, even if only for a second.

There is a numbness in humanity. I think we can be quite desensitized to the media and the stories of horrors and harmony in the world. Art still makes people feel something.

In regards to what challenges me – it’s me. I am my own worst critic! I think it’s because I
am self-taught. Recently I’m a bit easier on myself but it never really goes away.
I’m told I suffer from ‘Imposter syndrome’! (google it, it’s a thing..)

Major Players by Black Cravat An award winning picture
Major Players by Black Cravat
An award-winning picture

Tell us about the Major Image Campaign. How did all of that come about? And how did it feel to win and be involved in the project? Has it created new opportunities for you?

A good friend sent me a link to this creative agency Major Players, they are based in Covent garden and are a pretty swanky bunch! They were running a campaign to find a ‘major image’ and the winner would receive exposure in their headquarters gallery and a £1000 prize. There was only a day to go until the deadline, I didn’t think about it much. Then fifteen minutes before the deadline closed I remembered this picture I had. I found it, gave it a quick edit and sent it in.

I got an invite to the party to announce the winner – I saw free champagne, I saw free canapés. I thought it would be rude not to, you know? There was not even a minute that I thought I was going to win it. If I had I would have rehearsed something clever to say!

The curtain came down and in total unprepared shock I stuttered a bit! I got everyone’s name wrong, I thanked them (with the wrong name) about a thousand times for the £1000 cheque they put in my hand.

The best thing about it was that it was judged by Tim Flach – that guy is internationally acclaimed and he is awesome. He had some really positive things to say about my work.

It did wonders for my confidence in what I do and it’s definitely given me that little push of credibility I needed to get my foot in the door of the very exciting recent projects I’m currently working on. I don’t want to work in mainstream advertising/media though.

Creative agencies find the right people to bring about the vision made by a brand. There are huge teams of people for every aspect – the Photography, the styling, the editing. That’s not me. I like flying solo.

How did you get involved with The Neon Moon Burlesque Club? Had you done any events work before?

The Neon Moon was yet another happy accident. I’d had a go at one or two weddings before the Neon Moon but no other real events photography. I hadn’t even attended one of the nights before I photographed it. Catherine Watling, the creator and art director, had seen my studio work through a mutual friend on social networks, so she invited me along.
I didn’t know what to expect really – I knew nothing about the Burlesque scene. I’d never seen anything like it.

The guests were immaculate, the venue was grand, the acts were incredible but the ATMOSPHERE.. it was something else. I just kept clicking my camera. Everywhere I looked there was something interesting happening. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the pictures that I decided I could really go wild with it. People dress up and let their guard down. It’s like they enter a different world there. It’s a lot of fun.

I wanted people to look at the pictures and see what being there feels like. I love Photoshop and on this occasion I was able to indulge in my love in a totally over the top and lavish way. I went so crazy with it that when I handed in the pictures I was half expecting Catherine to tell me I’d gone a bit over the top. She loved them, lots of people did. So our beautiful collaboration took root!

Bird by Black Cravat
Bird by Black Cravat

Studio photography and event photography are pretty different. How do you approach them both? Do you have to be as cunning as a cat to do live event photos?

Studio photography and event photography are very different but I love them both for the same reasons. I am a lover of people (most people). I rarely photograph anything that doesn’t have a person in it. There is a pretty big contrast in my studio work and my location work.

I go into the studio with a very modern attitude. It’s clean and it’s glossy. Kind of pop-ish I guess and I’m told very its very ‘now’. Everything else I go into with a ‘fine art’ approach.
Getting the chance to play with both styles keeps it all fresh for me and I feel lucky to have found that balance.

I do find I need to be cunning as a cat at events these days! At first merging into the shadows was easy.. now they expect me to be doing that and I see people watching for me. Generally when I catch them looking I just wait, finger on the trigger until they get back to enjoying themselves. Then I pounce!

[MG: haha this is true! I’ve seen it and experienced it!]

Your events work has a really unique look to it, and a lot of your pictures feel like they’re frozen frames of animation. How aware of that are you when you work? Or is that purely just the way things come out?

Frozen frames of animation, that’s a great way of describing it! I like that! I am absolutely more drawn to people being animated when I work. I love people in motion. Their minds are too busy thinking about what they are doing than worrying what they look like.

Total honesty – I found the style of my images by consistently fucking up. It’s true. It happened purely because I didn’t know the ‘right way’ to use my camera. I didn’t know what equipment I should use or how to work with light. I was learning from trial and error so I’d try all sorts of things because I had no idea that I shouldn’t!

When you don’t know the rules you have no idea that you are breaking them. Having no choice but to get creative with a library full of really shit quality photographs led me to some interesting discoveries.

As time has passed and I’ve really learnt my trade I’ve been able fill in the gaps and direct things a little better. Recently I’ve been using real knowledge to experiment and I’ve noticed I’m getting quite a ‘Technocolour’ feel to my Burlesque work, which I’m quite liking!

So is any of this intentional? Well, once I realised I could do that it became intentional but like most things, I stumbled upon it completely by accident!

We’ve said similar things before to other photographers and film makers, but with your work you are not only documenting Neon Moon, but also a small piece of the UK Burlesque world. Again, how much are you aware of that when you photograph these events?

The suggestion that I am helping to document and promote the UK Burlesque world is pretty mind-blowing! It is so fun, exciting and varied, and the UK holds some serious talent!

When I started this I was a complete burlesque virgin. I didn’t have the first clue about what to expect, whether or not there was a scene or how worldwide that scene was.
I get the opportunity to photograph some incredibly talented people who perform all over the world and because of this I’ve seen my images being shared by people in places like Paris and America, and even Taiwan! To me that on it’s own is a dream come true.

I don’t really think about it until I see things like that happen and when I started in this I had no idea that it would happen. I just hope that if people are paying attention they think I am doing it justice.

Doll face by Black Cravat
Doll face by Black Cravat

What do you look for when you’re wandering through the crowd at an event? And how much fun is it wandering around a room full of fabulously dressed freaks and oddballs?

I am looking for the people who are genuinely having the time of their lives. People who are having too good a time to notice or care I am there. I get to work with other super talented photographers at The Neon Moon and we all have different styles and strengths.
Some are very structured with their approach and are wonderfully talented at creating intentional portraits of the guests.

I am an opportunist photographer when I am there. You can’t look in any direction without finding something or someone interesting to photograph. I couldn’t construct a shoot like that if I wanted to. Although I am working there I am also always thoroughly enjoying myself too. It’s one of my very favourite jobs.

Has your approach to photography changed over your career, and if so, how?

Well, I’ve definitely relaxed! When I started working professionally I would spend a lot of time looking at what other people were doing. I’d see someone enjoying some success with it and think – my stuff looks nothing like that, I must be doing it wrong. I realise now that doing things differently is a good thing.

It doesn’t matter if my images aren’t technically perfect. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t go to college. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll just figure it out. I used to feel like I had to be doing every type of photography and applying for every photography position I could find. Now I’m relaxed enough about what I’m doing to just concentrate on the work I really enjoy doing. No matter how much you love what you do you still need to make time for the rest of the things in life. When I lose that balance in life I lose my ability to be creative. I have learnt that lesson the hard way!

What camera lenses and equipment do you use and what is your favourite combination?

I’m a Nikon girl and a sucker for a wide angled lenses. I love them! I’m a little obsessed with 24mm lenses right now but I only actually bought one and upgraded my camera a few months ago. I still don’t have the most professional or the most expensive camera. I built my portfolio that started my career with a Nikon D60 which you can pick up now for less than £100.

My favourite camera is a Nikon D5100. I also have a higher spec Nikon D7100, but I still go back to my D5100 all the time. I just feel comfortable shooting with it, but even that is pretty mid-range and nothing to brag about.

A lot of people think the magic is in the equipment and that expensive equipment makes great photos. It can make your life easier, no doubt. Photoshop is an astounding program though. Check out what you can do with it before you invest big money.

By Black Cravat
By Black Cravat

What kind of photography work are you looking to do or challenge yourself with in the future?

Right now I feel like I’d want to make pictures with a message. I toy with this idea a lot.
I’m pretty opinionated about world issues. There are whole list of them that I would like to address! Creating a whole concept and having full control over all aspects of a shoot is something I’ve not tried to do a lot of. I want to work on a series of photos and publish them in my very own book. Maybe even try and sell a copy or two. That would be a new challenge. So yeah, that’s what I’ll do next! Take control and crack the whip…‘wink wink’ MG.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s an exciting time for me right now. A group of us have just been granted a significant sum of money to create a new show by Arts council England and Escalator. Together we are creating a unique circus-inspired vaudevillian theatre show that incorporates responsive projection and sound. It’s a unique fusion of complex but accessible AV technology, international caliber circus and cabaret acts and sumptuous vintage aesthetics.

Bit of a mouthful that isn’t it? It’s the most exciting thing to have happened in my career so far. Everyone I am working with is so ridiculously talented! I’m just ecstatic to even be there.

As well as making images I’m also learning how to create animations, working with video and trying my hand at blogging! I’m out of my comfort zone in a big way but I love every second of it. Have a look at what we have been doing here at the Electric Rodeo Circus.

For further images and insight into Sam’s adventures (and a whole host of beautiful pictures), please go to blackcravat.co.uk.

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