Sometimes a trusty piece of equipment is more than a mere tool, it provides the inspiration that can launch a career. Photographer Katie Kauss’ parents had no idea when they purchased a Pentax K1000 camera that it would open the door to a passion for photography that would lead to their daughter becoming one of the country’s top photographers.
The gifted shutterbug has photographed the top names in country music, including Jimmie Allen, Brothers Osborne, Florida Georgia Line, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, Jon Pardi and Thomas Rhett as well as political candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama. She’s created playful photo shoots in colorful ball pits at CMA Fest, has worked both the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention and was in the delivery room when Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and wife Hayley had their son Luca.
“I always loved taking pictures,” Kauss tells Sounds Like Nashville during a sit-down chat at a Nashville coffee house. “My parents got a Pentax K1000 camera shortly before my older sister was born in 1980 and my whole life it was in the cabinet under the TV. I would take it and take pictures. When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I got to take my first darkroom class and that was the camera I used. I still to this day have that camera. I’ve always loved it.”
The more she learned about the art of the photography, the more she appreciated that vintage Pentax. “That camera is fully manual,” she notes, “and one of my first photography teachers taught us how to take off the lens and you could see the aperture go in and out and that’s how light is let in. Nowadays you are on a digital camera, but I still see that eye opening and closing.”
On her way to becoming an acclaimed photographer, Kauss had a lot of encouragement and she has particularly fond memories of her high school photography teacher Mr. Greenway. “There’s a store in NY called B&H, which is like the big camera store, and he would take the catalogue and put it on the table in the photography classroom and say, ‘What do you want to try?’ I still think like that,” the Atlanta native says. “Even in what I do now I’m like, ‘Oh I can try this process’ or ‘I can try that.’ It really instilled in me there is the traditional way, but then there are other techniques that can really enhance your photos. Mr. Greenway was the photography teacher that really did it for me.”
Kauss recalls watching America’s Next Top Model because she liked to see how they did the photo shoots. “I always wanted to grow up and be a photographer,” she says. “At the same time, I grew up wanting to know that I could support myself. That was important in my family to get a job and support yourself. The idea of a being struggling artist wasn’t appealing to me. Mom and dad were both unbelievably supportive of everything. They said, ‘If you want to be an artist, find a way to do it and make a go of it.’”
Kauss admits when she graduated from college, she was concerned she wouldn’t be able to make a living as a photographer, but social media opened new avenues. “Social media came out and the internet really blossomed as an outlet for photos to be seen and that really changed everything,” she says. “It has become easier to make a living as a photographer.”
Just out of college, Kauss moved to New York City and interned at two magazines. “I love all the aspects of a magazine, but I really wanted to work in the photo department,” she says. “That summer I interned at a magazine called Quick & Simple, which is no longer around. I was there two or three days a week and then the other two days a week, I was at Maxim Magazine and then shortly after those finished, I was interviewing for jobs at a couple different magazines, and I landed at People. I started at People.com and was there until I left in 2015. That was a really fascinating place.”
She admits her initial position wasn’t very creative. “I was the photo assistant, and my job was to make sure the bills got paid,” she says. “I would have to print out these little thumbnails of every photo that ran that week and I would have to aggregate it and send these reports to all the photo agencies to make sure they got paid. Then I slowly started editing photos. My editing was mostly cropping and things like that and then it just grew from there. Eventually they hired someone else to do that and I moved up.”
Being a Southerner living in New York helped open doors for her to expand her role at People. “The tipping point of how I ended up doing a lot of country stuff was I was a Southerner in the office, and they knew I liked country music,” she says. “The head of the video department came up to me and goes, ‘So have you ever heard of this band Lady Antebellum?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, they have one song out on the radio right now,’ and he goes, ‘Do you want to interview them?’ It was the first interview I’d ever done in my entire life. I remember writing my questions out, six or seven of them, and another editor looked at them and was like, ‘Yeah great!’ That video is still somewhere on the internet, I’m not in it. I’m off camera, but that was the very first time I ever did something for People. That was probably in 2008.”
Kauss soon found herself doing a lot of People’s country music coverage. “Country music was getting more facetime in New York,” she recalls. “There were more and more shows coming to town. Everything that Nashville and the rest of the country already knew about country music was finally making its way to New York.”
Attending CMA Fest in 2009 was a pivotal moment in Kauss’ career. “They handed me a little video camera,” she recalls of shooting for People. “I’d never touched a video camera before. They said, ‘Here go do interviews.’ It was the year that I brought a Polaroid camera, and it was before a lot of people started using them. That turned into like a whole thing that was really fun and we’d scan them and put them online.”
Kauss earned a reputation for being easy to work with and very creative. Soon country music publicists were seeking her out to do interviews and give their artists exposure in People. Eventually she received a new title and began working “a hybrid between the video department and the photo department.” The country music pieces she did generated great numbers for People.com, and Kauss’ coverage paved the way for country artists to get more exposure. “It grew incredibly fast,” she says. “The thing about the internet is there are statistics. There are numbers so they can see how many clicked on a story and they can see how many watched a video, so that really helped.”
After nine years with People, Kauss was ready for a change. She gave six weeks notice, packed a U-Haul and moved to Nashville in July 2015. One of her first big assignments was going out on the road with RaeLynn when she was on tour with Blake Shelton. Soon Kauss was juggling a variety of different assignments. She was photographing artists on the CMA Awards red carpet, doing photo shoots for record companies and going on the road with acts to document their tour experiences.
One of her favorite projects was shooting artists in two different ball pits she designed during CMA Fest, one at Music City Center and the other at Nissan Stadium. “There’s no photoshop on any of those images. People jumped in. People fell in. Luke Bryan’s was really great. Jameson Rodgers was having this photo taken and Luke just threw him in. Brandi Carlile and Trisha Yearwood were sitting in chairs and whoever was in the room threw the balls in front or back of them and it was funny. I would turn to someone on [the artist’s] team and be like, ‘Hey could you take these balls and just throw them?’ And they were like, ‘You mean I get to throw balls at my client?’ And I was like, ‘Yes you do,’” Kauss recalls with a smile. “Everyone had a lot of fun with it. Everyone would try different things.
“I always want a portrait studio to look like a cohesive experience,” Kauss continues. “I don’t want everything to look the same and that was a really good opportunity because people could be in these funky chairs. People could jump in and people could lay in it. We would change the background colors up. You knew that you were looking at something from the same event, but everything was different, and I really like that.”
Kauss says giving the subject something to engage with usually makes for better photos. “It’s very hard to be comfortable in front of the camera. Supermodels spend hours and hours and hours in front of a mirror practicing how to pose. For a lot of people, it’s not natural,” she says. “I like to get something to do, something to engage with even if it’s something to lean on, so they’re not just standing still. All these artists very much know how to pose, but I find if you give them something to engage with whether it’s a ball pit or to lean against something or I’ll have people walk towards the camera or tell them to lean back and forth. A lot of times you’ll see like guys fidget with their watches. Give them some guidance. I like saying, ‘Hey, welcome, this is what we’re going to do. These are your options.’”
Though good equipment is important, Kauss doesn’t see it as the most important ingredient to success. With the exception of her vintage Pentax, Kauss says, “I’m a Canon person. I shoot on Canon. That’s a very personal preference. A fancy camera doesn’t make you a good photographer and I’ve always felt like that. This isn’t my quote, and I don’t know who said it, but, ‘The best camera is the one in your hands.’ So take your iPhone out and start document something. You can use your iPhone to start learning how to frame images and angles and things like that.
“When I was in college, I competed in cycling and the bike I got was the bottom of the line because I was like, ‘Who knows if I’m going to keep up with this?’ And that was where I learned a fancy bike doesn’t make you a fast cyclist and a fancy camera doesn’t make you a good photographer. Being a good photographer depends on how are you framing things or how are you engaging with your subject or not engaging. Looking at photos that you’ve made in the past and saying. ‘I like that or I didn’t like that,’ and figuring out why. How do you become a good photographer? You pick up a camera and start taking pictures.”
For Kauss, one of the most gratifying things about what she does is knowing she’s earned someone’s trust. “There are moments that I realize that someone really trusts me and that’s a wonderful feeling,” she says. “One of the things I work hardest at and really take pride in is when I realize an artist or someone I work close with really does trust me, not only as a photographer but as a person. That is one of the most wonderful compliments. When Hayley Hubbard asked me to be in the delivery room when Luca was born, I was very flattered and realized that’s a huge compliment.”
Whether she’s on the road with Jon Pardi (one of her most recent fun assignments) photographing artists on a red carpet or taking photos of her nieces and nephews, Kauss loves her life. With her buoyant spirit and friendly personality, it’s easy to see why people open up and let their guard down in front of her lens. “I love my job and I think I’m the luckiest person in the world. Every once in a while, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness! I get to do this for a living and I make a living doing this!’ It makes me so happy. I have to pinch myself,” she smiles. “A friend of mine that I grew up with is getting ready to move out of the country. She was at her parent’s house and she texted me a photo that I made of her in high school. So when I think back to how long I wanted to do it, the fact that I get to do this now blows my mind. I work very, very hard to make this my living. There’s no doubt about that, but sometimes I feel like I’m still that 14-year-old girl with this dream.”