There are few cities quite like Los Angeles. From Tokyo to London, New York to Paris, the unprecedented centralization of artists and creators found in L.A. has allowed it to stand tall among its famous counterparts. Due to both its history as being a launchpad for the world’s biggest stars, and it’s mystique as a metropolis built on the backdrop of a dreamy, urban-tropical landscape, L.A. occupies a sort-of mythical status as being the lynchpin of today’s entertainment industry.
For the last year, photographer Lloyd Pursall has been putting together a project that captures the essence of the ambitious go-getters in LA. From dancers to actors, musicians to athletes, Pursall’s upcoming exhibit, ‘To Live and Try in L.A.’, delivers a stunning variety of intimate portraits and jaw-dropping, editorial-style spreads from shoots with some of the city’s biggest rising stars. With the help of The Creator Class and the Canon Creator Lab, Pursall has documented his journey to getting here, and reflects on the importance of timeless photographs.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. You’re from the United Kingdom originally, yeah?
Lloyd Pursall: Yeah, I grew up in Wales, but I started visiting LA about eight years ago, and after my first trip, I was coming all the time – mostly for school. The transition wasn’t hard because I fell in love immediately and had already met so many great people because of that.
LA is glamorous, which is what pulls everyone in the first time, but there’s a lot of character and depth underneath all of that. You only discover that after being here for a little bit. It’s special. It’s not just a shiny place with hollow people. Once I realized that, I decided to go for it, and I finally moved here just under two years ago, around the end of 2015.
Your project is about trying to make it in Los Angeles, which is something that you are, from my understanding, also in the midst of. What caused you to start thinking of documenting both your journey and the stories of these talented people around you? Was there a particular moment or interaction that sparked the idea?
It wasn’t a particular person. I only take photos of people – I don’t really do landscapes or anything like that – so I meet a wide variety of characters everyday. What happened was, at some point, I realized I was shooting all of these different people – one day it could be an athlete, the other it could be a model, or singer, or just a good friend – and I saw this consistent thread amongst these people that wasn’t being spoken for. I wanted to curate a big story made of all of these small journeys.
Ultimately, everyone came here to fulfill a dream, and the scope of collaboration in LA is so wide that you’re constantly experiencing these intimate moments with the most interesting people. I just wanted to show that – the common spirit among the community – in a way that was honest and wholesome.
As a portrait photographer myself, I’ve found it hard balancing everyday work and really getting to know subjects who I want to work with more personally. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be in LA – networking with a big actor or athlete and convincing them to take time out of their day and come shoot with you out of pure passion.
I actually really like that you brought that up, because I really like to get to know the people I work with. I tend to spend time with people I enjoy working with, or want to work with, and they often appear frequently in my later work, because I like building real, genuine relationships with them.
If I shoot someone, it’s almost always because I managed to meet them before, and we just had good energy together. When you build a bond with someone on a human level, those opportunities just kind of come to you.
I think that’s a good segue into your collaboration with Ashton Sanders. You talk in the video about striking a balance between professionalism and intimacy. How did you and Ashton get to know each other?
It’s actually a little funny because I haven’t worked with many actors prior to Ashton. I’m used to models and musicians, athletes, celebrity types, but not actors. It’s still a little foreign to me. That aside, I really wanted to be involved with the whole [Moonlight cast] in one way or another, I just wasn’t sure how to make it happen.
A little while after the first major screening, I ended up at this second screening in Downtown LA that had an orchestra and all that. This was a little prior to when the Oscars started to heat up, and I was sitting behind Ashton. We didn’t get to talk very much – I kinda expressed my admiration for his work and we both agreed, very vaguely, that we would keep in touch. Then I didn’t hear from or see him again until a friend of mine brought me to an afterparty at the SAG Awards, and he was actually there.
We ended up setting up a shoot, and I went to the location, he never showed up. Turns out because of the Oscar frenzy, he got totally swamped. I thought like, “Damn, this kid is busy.” I was definitely a little disappointed.
Well, funny enough, the next day, I get a call from Calvin Klein asking me to shoot all the Oscar boys in advance of the show. When I got there, it was this very intense hotel in Beverly Hills, and it turned out to be a huge launchpad for me because everyone I was trying to connect with the past little while was there. It was all very organic. We shot the very official, suited-up, editorial stuff, and then some classic 35mm, behind-the-scenes photos, and at the end of it, I had so many great connections with everyone there.
From that point, it was super easy to just bounce [Ashton] a line. It kind of made me relax and stop overthinking things – just enjoy myself and put out good energy to those around me.
Authenticity seems to be at the core of your project, but I’m curious how you approach these shoots where you do get people one-on-one. How often do you curate an idea with the artist and how often do you just hang out and see what comes of a casual shooting session?
It really depends. Sometimes I just want to shoot with someone just to shoot! I think it’s good to not overthink your art all the time and just shut off your brain. Enjoy someone’s company and energy. Vibe off of them. Laugh. Share stories. Those shoots can be really fun, and as you probably know, sometimes the best shot you’ll ever take of that person is completely unplanned.
One thing I started to notice, however, was if you’re doing something with a bit more purpose, that’s where all of that past networking and personal relationship comes to use. Like, the first thing I noticed when I started worked with Pell is that he is very consistent in using yellow throughout his campaigns, so the first shoot I did, I got fabric that had sunflower patterns on it, and I projected a sunflower painting on his face.
For the actual editorial, I learned that he had never actually styled a shoot properly, so that’s when I got Jessie [Jamz] involved to come and help make something special. That, for him, was really exciting, because he never really had the chance to even play with clothes or surroundings. I think I helped him open up to the idea of, y’know, being a music artist, being much more playful and expressive in the kind of image he wanted to portray. I think the main photo from that shoot is going to be the main photo in the exhibition.
I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to ask about your exhibition. What’s your plan with that? I imagine there’s a lot of work to sort through.
It’s actually really exciting to me, because I’ve never exhibited before, and being in LA, most people don’t even know I shoot. [laughs] I wanted this first exhibit to be a bit of a shock. Make people go, “Oh, wow, Lloyd did this?” I also realized that I wanted to connect with people creatively on a level that I hadn’t before.
As a photographer, once you work with somebody and you create photos that they really love, it kind of develops into a deep bond that you can build off into something great. The double-edge to being in LA is that talent speaks loads, so the same people get exhibited constantly, and they’re often very narrow in the echelon that they work in. Famous photographers shoot famous people, but I wanted to mix everything together. Take famous actors and athletes and put them beside the talent that exists behind-the-scenes, or just people who are less recognized.
Really, I wanted to give myself the chance to show my work on my own agenda, but I also, perhaps much more importantly, put people of vastly different levels of success in the same room, on the same platform. There’s going to be a panel of influential people I’ve shot, and they’re gonna discuss the social hierarchy of LA – allow the people grinding everyday for the smallest bit of recognition to chat with people who are winning major awards and have turned their dreams into reality.
You know, what’s perhaps most interesting about this project is that you have told the tale of coming up in LA – both through making this massive project happen as a complete outsider, and through showcasing and giving a platform to such a diverse group of talent. How do you feel being this global citizen that has invested themselves and learned so much about a community they weren’t raised in?
It’s – I can’t really describe it. It’s just incredible. All I wanted to do was take photos of people I really admired, and hopefully give people a full-circle look at this city. Everyone’s struggling, or has struggled, but people make it. I feel honoured, happy, ecstatic, but I’m mainly just excited for the future.
Lloyd Pursall’s exhibition, ‘To Live and Try in L.A.’, will run alongside some of the work featured here. The debut show will include a screening of The Creator Class documentary featured above. See more of Pursall’s photos below.