SAM CONANT LIVES AND BREATHES MUSIC. HE SPENDS MOST OF HIS NIGHTS HANGING OUT BACKSTAGE AT CONCERTS WITH ARTISTS SUCH AS PHILADELPHIA’S OWN ASAAD, LIL UZI VERT AND THEODORE GRAMS, AS WELL AS ARTISTS FROM ALL OVER THE COUNTRY, SUCH AS DASH, G-EAZY, CAM’RON, CURREN$Y AND THE A$AP MOB. HE USED TO PLAY SQUASH AND HAS AN ENVIABLE COLLECTION OF SUPREME. CONANT, WHO GOES BY THE MONIKER SHOT BY CONES, IS A PHOTOGRAPHER. HE HAS BUILT HIS CAREER AROUND STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH ARTISTS AND A MOTIF OF POLAROID PORTRAITS WITH HIS SIGNATURE IN THE CORNER. WE SAT DOWN WITH CONES TO TALK ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, PHILADELPHIA MUSIC, AND CATCHING LAST MINUTE BUS RIDES TO SHOOT WIZ KHALIFA.
What made you first start photography?
I sucked at producing.
You were making beats?
I was trying. [laughs] Before that, I played squash, random fact. Then I broke my arm so I couldn’t play squash or any athletics and I went through a whole time where I was thinking to myself, ‘What the fuck are you going to do now?’. I thought my life was over. I didn’t have a core group of homies because I was always on the road [for squash]. Music was the only thing that kept me going. During my Junior Project at GFS [Germantown Friends School], which is a month where you work on something that you are interested in, I pretty much lived the life of a rapper, it was amazing. This guy Jimme Wallstreet, R.I.P. he was shot when I was out in Boulder, Colorado, but he introduced me to Meek Mill, Freeway, Beanie Sigel, a lot of huge people, and I started working with these guys every day. I was in these crazy rooms with all of these people like Meek, and I wanted a way to capture all of that without being the creepy guy on Instagram taking sly photos. So I got my first Nikon and I basically used it as a point and shoot before I knew anything about real photography. Then my parents got me a T3i for Christmas or my birthday as a way of telling me that they wanted me to continue with that. After that it was 110% me doing this on my own. I started using LightRoom instead of iPhoto. I started thinking like a photographer. I started taking pictures at shows everywhere, just because I wanted to capture everything. I was just the little young kid running around with a camera and doing all that, but then what ended up happening was that people started to want me to come with them to shows and I ended up making a lot of very good friends and connections. I used to sneak into Mad Decent block parties backstage, I stole Roots Picnic tickets two years ago because I wanted to get the best shots. I wanted to be there and be part of it. Finally people were just like, ‘Word, this kid is everywhere and he’s killing it, let’s start working with him’, and the relationships I’ve built here in Philly have helped make all of these other connections possible, because Philly is a really tough city music industry wise.
When did it really click for you that you were going to turn photography into a career?
The one time that it really clicked for me that I might have a future in this was during the time that I was doing all of these New York house parties at Webster Hall and Wiz was doing a tour with Uzi and I got a call to shoot the show around 4:00pm the day of and the show was in New York and I was in Philly, working at Ethik. I called everyone I could possibly call to try to get my shift covered, and once I got someone to cover me I hopped on the next MegaBus to New York, made it there, and when I was on the bus I was just asking myself, ‘Are you ready for this? You’re about to shoot Wiz, are you ready for this?’. Then, there was just a moment when I was shooting at the show, and I was really nervous and doubting myself, then there was just one shot I got that I was like, ‘Fuck yes!’. It just clicked, and it worked.
What do you think is most important for a music photographer to be successful?
A huge point with me is building relationships with artists. It’s really the gratitude that artists show that makes the experience, like when Curren$y posted my photo after the first time meeting him at SXSW I was baffled; all he said in the caption was ‘Thank You Shot by Cones’ and now whenever he comes to Philly we link up. It’s all about keeping those types of connections.
With whom, in terms of artists, do you have really good relationships?
I feel like I have ten artists that I’m very close to who I work really well with, someone like Theodore Grams because we’ve worked together forever. Or Swizzy, GrandeMarshall, Asaad, Dash, Keith Lawson, so many people that have helped put me here, like Chynna, she introduced me to A$AP Mob. I knew her from Philly, she was just an amazing model and artist. Then when she moved up to New York, she just basically became the female artist of A$AP, so whenever I came up there we would link up. And I would say Lil Uzi, he’s been a friend of mine, and now he’s just killing it. I realized that it’s all about relationships and keeping the relationship with that person. In Philly there are a lot of different crews, but everybody will be cool with me putting my camera up, everyone will just keep doing what they are doing because of that relationship. I don’t do studio photography, everything is just in-the-moment real life stuff with me.
Is that intentional or did it just come about that way?
I never took any photography classes, I just went out and shot. I don’t have the perfect lighting, I never will have the ‘perfect’ photo, but I make you feel like you are there. To me that’s what a photographer does, I want them to take me to where I can’t be. If it’s staged it’s not a real-life scenario, studio photography doesn’t scare me, but I would rather see people in their natural habitat.
You are known for your Polaroids, how did you get into that?
So, I keep all my Polaroid stuff, I have a collection of about 500. Whenever anyone asks me about this I always shout out Brock Fetch, who’s a photographer from New York who is very close with ASAP and everybody, and he was doing it in New York, killing it. He just wrote, in the corner, ‘Brock’ and the number. I was like, ‘Nobody’s doing this in Philly’. I didn’t want to be a copycat but I felt like it was a great way to give the artist something they could remember you by, you know. I pretty much use them as my business card. I don’t want to run to an artist and get in their face and be like, ‘You gotta check me out! Here’s my Instagram and some photos I took of you tonight’. Now, with Polaroids I can just be like, ‘Boom! Here’s a Polaroid and it’s got my name on it.’. Now the next time you come to Philly and you get another one, you can recognize that it’s the same dude instead of having another business card in your wallet, or on the ground, which is what they tend to do. [laughs]
Why did you decide to drop out of college and move back to Philly from Boulder, Colorado to do photography?
Because if I wasn’t taking that photo it wasn’t going to be taken. And, I hate to say this because nobody should feel this way about their first year of college, but I felt stagnant, like I wasn’t doing as much as I could be doing. This is now my second year living and working on my own, and it’s really tough to see all of your friends about to be seniors in college and judging your success photo-wise against their success with what’s going to come from their school. It’s just that school wasn’t for me. I’m the type of person that if I’m not particularly interested in a class, I’m just not going to show up. I’m going to be doing something that is more beneficial to me instead. So being back here, my whole goal has been monetizing a hobby, and that’s been the hardest thing. All of those people that I was working with in Philly before going to Colorado I had to now break that barrier by saying that I now had to be paid for my services. It came to the point where any tour coming through Philly, I shot. That’s how I met a lot of artists.
I know you are very close with Swizzy (DJ Swizzymack), how has he influenced your career?
Swizzy is like my brother. He keeps me in line, and I keep him in line if I can. We fucked with each other mostly because we were kinda the same age, he was coming up at the time and he really appreciated what I was trying to do. I worked very closely with Mad Decent, and they had this really cool residency in Webster Hall in New York where they would play the basement every Thursday when they had this thing called the Webster Hall House Party, where they would play all three floors and it was ridiculous. They would have Fetty on the third floor or someone crazy on the third floor doing like 2 songs and then the whole main stuff would be like Vashtie on the first floor and then Dirty South Joe, Swizzy in the basement. And that’s where I started getting into working with EDM artists and DJs. Anyway, there’s this whole thing with me and my website and giving my photos to the public, for a while I never gave people my photos. I wasn’t self-conscious about my photos, but I didn’t want to put them out until they were perfect and I was ready to brand myself as a photographer. I did this one Mad Decent Block Party for Swizzy and probably sent him only 3 photos because I wanted to keep all the other ones. My whole thing was to drop this website (shotbycones.com), I was up until 6am on my 21st birthday, not partying, not drinking, working on my website, because I wanted to release it on my 21st with 50 albums spanning 4 years, and that’s basically what it does. For a while I was very hesitant to release more photos but then Swizzy was kind of pissed at me a couple times about that, and as we started working more and working more, he would really book me for shows and I would have more deadlines and started releasing more projects.
In National Geographic, a photographer said that with photography you have to lead with your hand not a lense, would you say you agree with that?
Oh, absolutely. It’s always been about that with me, you can ask Theodore Grams, there were times when we would chill every single day, no matter what. I’m half a photographer and half a networker. I will talk to anyone in the room, I’ll keep it professional, but you can’t miss an opportunity. There was a time that we were at a Dipset event and I was talking to everybody and Grams just said, ‘I’m keeping you with me everywhere. I don’t even have to talk or do shit’. I’m not the type of person to take pictures with an artist. People can see my photos, they don’t need to see that I have a personal relationship with the artist. I’d rather just work, I’m the person just chilling and getting my work done. My friend is going to have all of that money and I know that, because of our relationship, we’re all going to eat and we’re all going to succeed. I’m more after simplicity.
I notice that you have a lot of Supreme, do you skate?
Yeah. I used to be a super-crazy Supreme fan; I used to trade and sell it all the time. Now I just keep my favorite pieces and buy what I like when I have the money. It’s kind of hard being a freelancer in that aspect.
Because we are focusing on Philly art, and trying to account for its underrepresentation, how do you feel about the Philadelphia art scene?
I love it. That’s why I came back here, I could have gone to New York, I could have gone anywhere but Philly is Philly. We’re starting to get that recognition. Honestly, what I wanted to do is shoot for Fader or Complex or someone, but do it in Philly. I don’t want to go to New York and skip out on all that’s going on in Philly. We went from having a concert a weekend to now having at least 4 or 5. It’s ridiculous now, especially with the opening of the Fillmore.
I saw one of your Polaroids was of Zoe Kravitz, do you shoot all genres of artists?
Yeah, I’m just so plugged in…. I tend to be in a group that just likes to do whatever the fuck they want to do. they are all musicians. That’s all I’m in it for, the music, and I want to shoot all of it. It just happens that my connections have led more towards hip-hop and EDM. My EDM stuff generally comes through the promoters, I’m very close with University EDM, EDM Boutique, Independent Philly. But the Hip-Hop stuff, the publications will be looking for me if a hip-hop show comes around. The EDM stuff I just do on the side now because I hate the rave kids. [laughs] It sucks because I used to be one of them, and now I’m so glad that there are barriers. Even if I go to shows where I’m not shooting, I’m usually able to get VIP and be backstage because I’m not able to deal with those crowds.
When you shoot concerts how do you balance enjoying the show and getting your work done?
That’s always a line that you have to toe. Me as a person, besides photography I don’t drink hard liquor, a pet peeve of mine is being out of control. When I’m working with Carnage or A$AP, yeah we are all having a great time, but at the end of the day that is still where I work, that’s my office, that’s my job. It’s crucial to make sure you have a good time but even more so to leave with what you came to get. Most of the fun shit will come after, like when G-Eazy came we were in his tour bus until 4:30am. It’s fun when the artist also enjoys seeing you prosper, that’s what I really like. Even with Swizzy and Asaad, when people are willing to vouch for you and show you a little bit and help you out, it’s big. And what I’ve realized is that I’m not the greatest photographer yet, but I’ve been able to get myself into some really great situations and cover some really cool moments. That has been my goal the whole time. Even if this doesn’t work out, to be able to show my grandkids some of these [pulls out stacks of hundreds of Polaroids]. [laughs] If I keep these forever, that would be perfect. It’s all about keeping it true to what you want to do. It’s really tough debating whether or not to go back to school, but it’s also the kind of thing that keeps you going and getting up every morning.
Advice to the kids?
I would say find a way to make yourself unique. There are so many people doing photography, music photography especially. Never compare yourself to someone else, that was a big thing for me, I was comparing myself to people that were older than me who had more experience than me. Find a niche that you feel that you can continue to make your own and work that and put everything else behind that. People seem to think that there is some sort of politics with photography but there’s not really, your work speaks for itself. Another thing would be, I know it’s cliched, but never give up, when you’re on manual and take a bad shot don’t just give up on it, figure out why that shot wasn’t the best it could be.
Words By Noah Rosenfeld Photography By Dariush Sosnowski