It’s a striking image: blue-tinted suburban houses lining a curved road, the tail lights of a car glowing under a technicolor sunset. The diversity of color and texture, a quiet moment captured in the composition- it’s a quintessential shot from photographer Alex Yllanes, who searches for unique beauty in the Triangle.
His approach to landscapes carries over into his event photography- performer’s bodies are rendered as topography saturated in stage light. Meanwhile, candid moments are emphasized in Yllanes’s portraits- natural slopes and lines that draw the eye to the bright smiles of his subjects.
Yllanes’s style and his unique position in the Triangle creative scene have put him on the ground for some of the local music scene’s most exciting moments. I caught up with Yllanes on candid portraiture, how he represents the Triangle in his photography, and the most memorable concert he’s shot.
What is your origin story? What inspired you to become a photographer?
“Photography was always something that piqued my interest, the idea of creating/capturing images that, if you do it right, can speak to people in a way that’s hard to express verbally. A couple years back I started to really try and integrate myself within the Triangle creative scene, at first as a fan of artists’ work. From there just continuing to go to events and shows I started making connections with people who were doing music, photography, videography, etc.
I met a guy from NC State, James Huang aka Sakyboi, I had recognized from a film club when I was there, and he was working on photos and videography and he really gave me the first big push to wanting to create to just doing it. Once I actually got started going to street meets here and there, and then shooting the concerts I would be going to. Anyway, I just got a lot of joy from capturing moments that I found to be evocative.
The creative release was a pretty important part in the beginning, having something to focus on and challenge myself with that came with the reward of images I hoped others would enjoy as well. It’s still what will drive my photography now; the idea that anyone other than me could feel the moment I had caught just by looking at it. Being able to share images like that is a challenge, but anytime I get a response to an image that it really connected with someone, it means so much to me, that’s what keeps me pushing my knowledge.”
On your website, you explain that you “always work to capture candid moments with my subjects,” and it shows in your body of work. Why do you prioritize candid photography? What do you do to facilitate the capture of candid moments?
“I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being able to capture moments in time, however incidental they are. Practically, it largely stems from the first few concerts I shot and having to find the moments throughout without any directional input on my part. To this point, it’s been an easier way for me to tap into a creative vision and find what I’m looking to get out of the shoot; and not being able to control the subject at a concert allowed me to think more about what I would ideally like in terms of my own direction on a shoot. That’s something that I’ve gotten a bit better at over time, too, is not just letting the moment happen, but directing a subject to perform actions and still work on getting those moments in between.
I think it really stems from a personal desire to try and find the best in everything, so finding these little moments is a bit of a therapeutic way to approach a shoot. That mentality carries over into every aspect of life for me now, and I’d have to say allowing myself to be drawn to these moments in photography has helped me grow mentally and overcome a lot of my own mental obstacles in life. Essentially what started as a practical necessity evolved into a much more important viewpoint on my photography and on life; as that evolution took place I think it drew me in to that style even more.”
You’ve worked in many locations in the Triangle as a street photographer- Carrboro, Raleigh, Durham, and Apex. How do you want to represent the Triangle in your photography?
“Ideally I can represent it as a place full of beauty and character. Living here you can really find a little bit of everything in the Triangle, from nature trails to high rises and I really enjoy seeing how varied a region we have. For me it’s showing that variety in landscape but as I’ve said before, just how easy it is to find something beautiful in each environment.
I think everyone experiences things differently based on what’s going on in your mind at that time, and I like to think that I can show images of a place and people that not everyone sees, either. Sometimes it’s just marveling at a sunset in the suburbs or craning your head back to see up to the top of a high rise under construction; but I really like the idea that I can capture something that will make someone look a little differently at their surroundings the next time they’re out about town.”
What’s the most memorable concert you’ve photographed? What made it special?
“This is a tough one, but I’d have to say that taking pictures at the Kooley High show at Kings last year in April was a highlight. It wasn’t the first Kooley show I’d shot, but I remember that night Rapsody was in town and came to the show. She was mostly hanging at the back of the stage with DJ Ill Digitz and Sinopsis, and it was already crazy just having her there. When she joined in with Charlie Smarts and Tab-One it took the show to a different level, having the OG Kooley group back together on stage was incredible. I was just super psyched I had my camera that night and was running from the stage to the crowd that whole set just getting shots in between, soaking in the moment for myself.
After the show was done I chatted with her and the Kooley crew for a minute and got a shot of them backstage together; that was a really awesome moment for me personally. Having been a fan of the group for going on 6 years at that point, 7 now, I’d always been inspired by their drive and through photography getting to know them better and being able to capture that moment with them is definitely a Top 5 moment so far.”
When you’re in the field, what inspires you to take a photograph of something in the moment? Are you first drawn to the potential aesthetic appeal of a shot, or do the aesthetics serve the story you’re trying to tell?
“I’m definitely drawn in by the aesthetic appeal of a shot, it’s always easier in my head to find a spot that “looks cool” and gravitate toward it. I think it’s just been a matter of evolving my definition of what looks cool to me. I think as I’ve progressed, I’ve done a better job of trying to tell some kind of story in an image, whether it comes across all the time is a different story. But I feel like now I do enjoy taking shots of things I think look good, while also keeping in mind that I want to try and convey something about the space, or my subject, or for a concert the moment in time that artist is sharing with the crowd. To that end I think overall it’s become even for me to aim for the aesthetics themselves, or how they fit in within a story I’m picturing in my head.”
If you could ask one question of any photographer, living or dead, who would you choose and what would you ask?
“I’d be lying if I said I had an encyclopedic knowledge of photographers and all their works; that said, there’s definitely a few I try to draw inspiration from. I think even before I really delved into the history of photography and different photographers and styles, I found myself somewhat in line with what some of the characteristics of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He pretty much shot exclusively black and white film with natural light only, the latter of which has pretty much been my M.O. as well.
When I shoot I feel like a lot of the time I end up being too precious with my shots and my thinking, even with a memory card that can hold ~1000 shots, I can find myself getting in my own way. I’d love to ask him how he allowed himself to be comfortable with his decisions in the moment, or how he was able to get out of his own head for those candid moments. I feel like it’s a pretty loaded question, but it’d be really interesting to hear his mental process and try and glean something from that.”
What do you know now about photography that you wish you knew when you first started out?
“Looking back, I wish I had known that social media, namely Instagram, is not the be-all end-all for engagement with my work, or the objective quality of my work. Starting out I think I did use it well as a way to showcase what I was doing and interact with other creatives around the Triangle and outside of it. But I also know that I put way too much stock in how many likes all my pictures got, or trying to emulate a common style that was perpetuating social media at a certain time.
Ultimately I ended up finding myself highly overcritical of “underperforming” shots and posting less because I wanted and more to maximize the validation and “coolness” of my shots. At this point social media has very much taken a back seat in my head, not having posted in a while, but it is something that as I get re-engaged with it for it’ll be a much healthier relationship. Out of everything that’s probably the only thing I’d have done a bit differently from the get-go.”