Originally from Long Beach California with a background in media communications, Kovi moved to London to study MA Fashion Photography at London College of Fashion. While studying he developed a strong relationship with his tutors which helped him explore the fluidity of his practice – ultimately leading to winning the prestigious Taylor Wessing Prize.
Kovi tells us about his time as a University of the Arts London (UAL) student, redefining his university experience within London and making a career as photographer back in his native California.
Tell us a bit about what the course entailed and your experience as a student?
I started off the course with a lot of confusion and uncertainty. I chose to do the MA Fashion Photography course for more practical reasons in terms of starting my career as a photographer, but I quickly learned that fashion was not really for me. I was more interested in exploring my identity through photography and photographing people and places beyond the context of fashion. I was lucky to have my tutors Nilgin Yusuf and Paul Bevan as close resources that I could express these feelings with.
Despite the fact that it was a fashion course, Paul came from more of a fine art / conceptual art background, and I really admire his way of thinking about photography. He encouraged me to stay on the course, and while I sometimes felt out of place, I never really felt tied down to the fashion aspect. However, I’m glad I decided to stay. There were of course a lot of lectures and collaborative projects that centred around the idea of fashion, but I sort of found my own niche in the course and learned to utilise the vast University of the Arts London (UAL) resources and archives to grow as a thinker and photographer.
I think that other students also started to realise that fashion could manifest itself in different ways, beyond the immediate inclination of what fashion photography is.
I made a project about Orthodox Judaism while on the course, and although the project was very much centred around portraiture and identity, there are always fashion components to a portrait in terms of clothing and garb.
London College of Fashion is known for fashion but has many different courses – would you say this mix of disciplines and creativity surrounding you had a positive impact?
There was a strong connectivity amongst the resources and campuses across UAL, and I tried to utilise those resources as much as I could. In fact, I remember spending a lot of time at London College of Communication and Central Saint Martins with some of my classmates that were working together with me on an exhibition. In terms of my own personal work, I’ve never really liked working with other people. There were many stylists and other creatives at London College of Fashion that were at my disposal, but my work never really lent itself to those sorts of collaborations.
For other American students considering study at UAL in London, would you recommend it as a University? Would you give any particular advice for making the most of your time here?
Yes I would. My biggest advice would be to see beyond the university. I would say that I was a resident of London just as much as I was a student of UAL. I went to tons of exhibitions, talks, museums, libraries, archives – there are so many amazing resources and sources of inspiration at your disposal.
You can really make what you want of it, and I grew so much being in London.
Your work is very much driven by people. Do you think being based in a city such as London benefited your practice?
Although I was inspired immensely by being in London and being continuously surrounded by so many diverse individuals, I’ve never felt a strong attraction or desire to make work in crowded places. If anything, being in London made me realise how much I like to make work at home, or in areas that are more desolate and remote. But that is not to say that being in London didn’t inspire, because it really did. It inspired me immensely and I grew a lot. Not just with my work, but primarily with the way that I began to think about life and my practice. There were so many different sources of inspiration that I absorbed daily, and it really helped me begin to form my practice.
As an American student what did you find the most different about studying in London?
Transportation. I barely got into a car while living in London, and this allowed me to explore and do things freely. In Los Angeles, you have to drive practically everywhere, which sometimes causes you to think twice before deciding to do something. While in London, I was constantly on the move and staying busy, which really allowed me to take it all in. I'd even take the train and get out of the city to the English countryside and travel across Europe when time permitted.
I think there are always a bit of nerves involved with moving to a new country, but I was mostly excited. My previous college experience was primarily dedicated to being a student athlete, and I was really looking forward to moving to London and having the opportunity to further explore my identity as an artist.
You won the 'Taylor Wessing Prize’ while studying at UAL, what an amazing achievement! Have you had your work featured in any exhibitions or publications since this time?
Thank you! Winning the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize while still studying at UAL was quite surreal. It was humbling to see my photos on the London underground every day on the way to class.
(My tutors) Paul and Nilgin were so kind during that whole process in terms of promoting my work, and I will always remember that. I've been part of the Taylor Wessing exhibition twice since then as well. I have been fortunate to have my work featured in many publications and exhibitions since then, and I am very thankful for those opportunities.
Some of my most memorable exhibitions, commission and publication experiences include: working with Salut au Monde in Porto, Portugal, featuring in British Journal of Photography, Paper Journal, California Sunday Magazine and The New Yorker. Exhibiting at Red Hook Labs and ROSEGALLERY, and more achievements which can be seen on my website.
Can you share with us some of your current work or anything we can look out for?
I oftentimes work on several projects at the same time, including a project in the California desert and another in my hometown of Long Beach. For the past 5 years or so, I’ve been working on a project called ‘And In Its Place, Another’ (previously called Borderlands), and I will be releasing this project as my first monograph with Deadbeat Club towards the end of 2020. Some photos from the project can be found on my website, but I have always visualised the work in book form and I am really excited to share it once it's ready.