I’ve been following the work of photographer Ren Adkins since she first came onto the Atlanta art scene around four years ago. Her images, which lit up my Instagram feed with beautiful people posed among punchy and vibrant settings, were evocative and yet also somehow approachable. While there are plenty of photographers working in Atlanta, there was something about Adkins’ images that was captivating. From the meticulous composition to her playful use of color, her images quickly gained the attention of some of Atlanta’s most familiar faces and brands. And then, one day, it was Maggie Gyllenhaal popping up on my feed.
Originally from Memphis, Adkins moved to Las Vegas and then Los Angeles before landing in Atlanta in 2018. As a child she gained an appreciation for photography thanks to great grandfathers on both sides of her family who had a true passion for the medium. They both had dark rooms in their homes and would routinely photograph landscapes, nature, and portraits of their families. Her paternal grandfather focused on studio portraits of his family while her maternal great grandfather leaned more documentarian. He would take pictures of every event that happened in the family and in their communities and catalog them into huge photo albums for posterity’s sake.
During her teenage years Adkins was inspired by a deep love for music and fueled by reading magazines such as the Fader and Rolling Stones. She was captivated by the portraits of musicians. Adkins later enrolled at the since-closed Memphis College of Art where she graduated with a BFA in Photography. “I just fell in love with it, I couldn’t think of anything else that I loved more.”
Adkins began assisting and soon realized a desire to teach, eventually relocating to Las Vegas where she received her masters in multidisciplinary art from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There she got involved with gallery exhibitions and the local fine art scene but after a few exhausting years she landed in Los Angeles. Adkins initially relied on odd jobs to get by so when a friend from college recommended Adkins as a photographer for a client on the West Coast she jumped at the chance. This set in motion a career of photography which would one day lead her to photograph some of Hollywood’s finest.
Adkins has produced some truly masterful portraits of artists and actors such as Questlove, Elle Fanning, Adrian Brody, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Macchio and William Zabka. “I want them to feel something when they see the photos. I think every artist wants that,” said Adkins.
A wealth of experience working with studio lighting that traces back to her school days helps her to create stunning images. She told me that she is at her best when she collaborates with teams of talented people who oversee elements such as set design, props, hair, makeup, and wardrobe. When she’s on a team like this it allows her to focus on her photography to create the strongest portraits possible.
Photographing celebrity portraits requires Adkins to strike a balance between overly preparing for a shoot and yet simultaneously accepting the unexpected. Often the shoot may only afford Adkins five minutes of a subject’s time, so Adkins has to be smart, clever, and positive. “You have to be willing to let some of the magic happen – you can’t plan magic.” Playful experimentation, when possible, often yields the best results.
Not wanting to lose touch with her desire to document treasured moments in her life, Adkins also looks for ways to use photography simply as a means of creative expression and sentimentality. “I like to keep a 35mm film camera on me at all times, I try to shoot about a roll of film every month to document my daily life.” She calls the practice a photo diary. “I find that when you choose your passion as your career there is a part of it that takes away the joy a bit and can discourage you away from the reasons why you started doing it in the first place.”
Today, Adkins is married and living in the Belvedere Park neighborhood of Atlanta. She chose Atlanta for several reasons; for one, she wanted to be closer to her parents in Memphis as they were having health issues at the time, and also she was drawn to the atmosphere and economic strength of the city. Starting fresh in a new city and soon after weathering the pandemic posed a significant challenge but Adkins didn’t let it hold her back. Instead she used the time to commit herself to attracting commercial photography clients both in Atlanta and in LA. So next time you’re flipping through a magazine and a beautiful portrait catches your eye, check the photo credit. You just might be looking at some of Ren Adkin’s work.