Sam Orlin ’21: music photographer, rap enthusiast and walking pop culture encyclopedia

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Sam Orlin
Sam Orlin '21 with his cat, Uzi, at his house in Los Angeles, CA. March 25, 2022. Eddie Dong/The Occidental

It’s clear that 23-year-old photographer, artist and Occidental alum Sam Orlin* ’21 loves music, but if there was ever any doubt, his cat is proof of it. The photographer’s black shorthair is named “Uzi” after rapper Symere Bysil Woods, more commonly known by his stage name Lil Uzi Vert. Orlin, who has taken pictures of Alicia Keys, Swae Lee, MikeWiLL Made-it, Clairo, Tierra Whack and Snoop Dogg, is originally from Chicago and grew up immersed in the city’s music scene, which in the 2010s had just started taking off. At the time, smaller artists in the region, specifically rappers, were gaining national recognition, according to Giardano’s history of Chicago rap music. This moment of rap music in the city changed the genre forever, as Chief Keef, who has been credited with influencing an entire generation of rappers, pioneered Drill music and is dubbed the “Father of Modern Rap,” started releasing mixtapes. Orlin, who met rappers Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper as they were walking past his school in 2012, said the Chicago music scene, as well as his love for music in general, has influenced his photography.

“Definitely Chicago music has a big impact, being from around [the music scene] in Chicago, and creatively, the best stuff comes from Chiago. Not to be biased,” Orlin said. “I had friends with older siblings who were friends with Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, and knew these people, so I always felt like, ‘Oh I’m a little tapped in with this scene, just from the outside.'”

Orlin said he fell in love with music at a young age and quickly became obsessed. Orlin said he was influenced by the music that his brother, his friends’ older siblings and his family listened to, as well as findings on the internet, such as the music blog Fake Shore Drive. Orlin’s mother, Denise Orlin, an artist herself and a photography teacher at her son’s high school, said Orlin explored a lot of music on his own, in addition to the music that she introduced him to, like The Rolling Stones and James Taylor.

Orlin, who once tweeted, “damn big sean really posted one of my pics on his ig…11 year old me is crying rn,” said that being able to work with artists that had a big impact on his childhood has been amazing. According to Jake Orlin, Orlin’s older brother, his photography emerged out of a love for the musicians he admired and whose music he liked. Jake Orlin said that his brother’s current focus on music portraiture emerged organically from this passion.

“Sam was able to be sort of in touch with a lot of these really cool people who eventually became big artists, and he was always keeping tabs on people that he thought were talented. In general, he had his finger on the pulse,” Jake Orlin said.

Sam Orlin
Sam Orlin ’21 poses with “Skelly,” a paper mache doll, at his house in Los Angeles, CA. March 25, 2022. Eddie Dong/The Occidental

According to Jake Orlin, Pitchfork was Orlin’s first big photography gig. Pitchfork, a Chicago-based music festival held in Union Park during the third weekend of July, is an event that has headlined artists such as Tame Impala, Ms. Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Björk and Chance the Rapper. Orlin said he pitched himself and his work to Matt Lief Anderson, the main photographer and photo editor for Pitchfork, and asked if he needed an assistant for the summer after his first year of college in 2018.

According to Orlin, Anderson taught him how to set up portrait lights and change the backdrop color, and helped him in taking portraits. When Anderson was done shooting the artists, Orlin said he would walk around and take pictures of the musicians himself.

“One of Sam’s greatest skills is his ability to pitch himself as someone who can be trusted. He really believes in himself, and he is kind of fearless in the way he puts himself out there,” Jake Orlin said.

Before Pitchfork, Orlin, who graduated from Occidental with a degree in art & art history, said he started working for The Occidental as a photographer and shooting musicians such as Khalif and CupcakKe during KOXY Radio shows. According to Orlin, Occidental was where he began taking artist portraits, though he had been involved with photography since high school.

 

“I did an interview for KOXY and interviewed Kaytranada’s brother,” Orlin said. “That was the first person who I ever really took photos of, but those didn’t really come out. There was one photo that came out, but that was a learning experience.”

Orlin has a love for culture and entertainment that runs deep, according to Orlin’s former roommate, Carey Cannata (senior). Cannata said Orlin has a much more extensive cultural knowledge than the average person.

“He has a big passion for art history, and just like art in general, pop culture and music, fashion, all that kind of stuff,” Cannata said. “I think that gives him a very good sense of what’s in the cultural zeitgeist at the moment. He just has a very good sense of what’s cool at the moment. He’s like a pop culture encyclopedia sometimes too, especially with rap and hip hop, but his music taste is very eclectic.”

Denise Orlin said Orlin’s senior comprehensive project was influenced by Stephen Shore, a photographer who is known for capturing the everyday lives of Amerian people, and “shooting bleak yet lyrical scenes of the North American landscape,” according to the International Center of Photography(ICP). In a similar style to Shore’s, Orlin’s senior comprehensive project was primarily focused on landscape photography. Jake Orlin said that Orlin, who also does nature and landscape photography, music videos and digital art on top of music portraiture, has a way of capturing candid moments in his work.

“I think his portraits of [artists] in concert have a more candid quality. I think that’s what a lot of the artists who work with him like. In general, there’s a lot of stuff that looks really touched up, it looks posed,” Jake Orlin said. “He is able to capture the artist generally when they’re more relaxed, and I think that’s nice. They’re not putting up as much of a pretense.”

Cannata said Orlin’s work is not contrived or stylized but feels more like street photography in that it represents people in their natural element.

“There’s like a documentary feeling to his work. I feel like he can be a fly on the wall in that he can kind of take a step back and have an outside perspective,” Cannata said. “It does not have that typical kind of commercial sheen that I think a lot of photography of musicians and artists tend to have. I think the fact that he almost exclusively uses film lends itself to that rawness.”

Peri Wallent ‘20*, Orlin’s girlfriend, said Orlin has a unique perspective that comes from him being so observant.

“He has certain ways of going about life that I think make him really good for the job. He’s so good at recognizing people’s faces. We’ll just be out at Zebulon or getting tacos, and he’ll be like ‘Oh you see that guy over there? He’s a really famous producer,’” Wallent said. “Or I’ll be kind of head in the clouds not noticing stuff, and he’ll be like, ‘I’ve always thought that building was interesting, let’s go check it out.’”

Denise Orlin said Orlin’s photography is particularly effective because of his ability to relate to people. According to Wallent, Orlin is able to put people at ease when taking pictures. Wallent also said he is good at making her feel comfortable whenever he’s taking pictures of her, even though she was not always used to being in front of a camera.

“He’s just a likable person, and he gets along with people so well, he’s just a chill, calm presence,” Wallent said.

According to Cannata, this ability to make people feel comfortable influences Orlin’s style of photography, and lets his subjects show a more sensitive side to the camera.

“His personality, his demeanor, puts people at ease, which I think helps a lot in getting people to let their guards down and just be natural in front of the camera, so I feel like he’s really good at capturing people in their element, uninhibited,” Cannata said. “Whatever walls people typically have up, he’s good at breaking those down. I don’t know how he does it.”

Orlin said he can get a little nervous sometimes when meeting famous people, but ultimately remembers he’s just there to take pictures.

“I feel like my artistic style is, I try to let the artist or the person be themselves. I rarely tell people to pose or any of that, I try to keep it as natural as possible,” Orlin said. “I want my subjects to feel like themselves in front of the camera. I definitely don’t want to them to feel fake, or that they have to be a certain way.”

Denise Orlin said Orlin’s mind is always working, coming up with new ideas for videos, shoots and other projects. Orlin said he tries to surround himself with creative people and will write down ideas or record voice memos for days when he is less creative. Orlin said he wants to continue to take on bigger photography projects with a larger budget and broaden his creative horizons to include photos of the fashion world, but is willing to try whatever projects come his way.

According to Jake Orlin, Orlin’s biggest challenge is creating interesting shoots with a low budget and he is excited for Orlin to continue to get bigger projects and commissions.

“I think he’s going to have a great career, he’s got a lot to offer as an art, as a person,” Jake Orlin said. “I would love to see him get more funding for his work so that he can pay for better equipment. … I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do once he starts getting more funding and is really able to flourish.”

Orlin said he is open to talking to anyone who is interested in reaching out to ask him about photography. Apart from that, Orlin said he is grateful that he gets to take photographs for a living and hopes that other people enjoy his work.

“I definitely just want people to enjoy my photos,” Orlin said. “You know, photos are beautiful. I’m really glad I’m able to do it for a career. Definitely, there are times where I’m like ‘This isn’t going to work,’ and there are times I’m like, ‘Okay this is awesome.’ That’s what I’m here for.”

*Sam Orlin was a photographer for The Occidental.

*Peri Wallent was a culture editor, news editor and staff writer for The Occidental.