Vol. 30
Kent Hall Typography Portrait

Assembling communities and collages with Kent Hall

March 2018

Poet, instant photographer, collage maker and professional fan.

My introduction to Kent was when he reached out to Caffeine & Concrete, representing Blurb, who had taken interest in what I was using their services to produce. Kent would later play a big part in the relationships I have forged with the wider Blurb community, including Dan Milnor (featured in Vol. 20). As we’ll discover, this creative community facilitation is Kent’s passion, helping brands connect with their customers and helping them get their work out there by introducing like minded people to each other.

Aside from community management, marketing and event hosting, Kent is a creative force in his own right. A writer, photographer and bookmaker, Kent’s eccentric creativity melds retro style and modern practices. These creative skills have been put to use in San Francisco in a variety of roles for companies like Yahoo! and Blurb where his writing, photography, video production, art direction and experiential marketing has helped them promote their products and build customer communities.

Today we’ll hear about his journey and how his passion for creative community building formed.

"Every time I checked into a hotel I would find some place where I could setup my Polaroids and this became a way for me to track where I was and what I was doing."

Kent Hall--- 16 February 2018

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

What I do? I kind of do-- annoyingly, I kind of do a bit of everything right now, you know mainly my-- I studied creative writing in school and writing’s always been a part of my life but I found it pretty frustrating. The process of writing sometimes can be a little difficult and so I started doing visual art, despite the fact that I’m not very good at drawing or painting or anything. I’ve always loved collage, always loved photography-- my dad was a professional photographer so I grew up around cameras and I’ve particularly, in the last five years, I’ve been really working on melding my collage and my photography and then really recently starting working with my writing as well… so kind of trying to bring those things together.

You know mainly, I’m kind of a notebook guy [flips through pages of a notebook packed with interesting collage layouts], kind of try and do stuff as often as possible and working on a couple of zines right now and a couple of small publishing projects. So, I’d like to say I have some sort of great success or some particular plan that... but, you know, I always just kind of push myself to be creating all the time and hope that something good ultimately comes out of that.

You studied creative writing, what inspired you to pursue that?

Ah, I had a teacher in tenth grade who really liked an essay that I wrote about Lord of The Flies. I didn’t really know I was a good writer and she thought I was and that started me taking creative writing classes in high school and then in junior college and then college. I started doing creative writing at San Francisco State University and you know, learned poetic forms but was mostly a fiction writer, but really began to enjoy things like sonnets and sestinas and villanelle. All those things that have rules that you can be creative inside of.

You worked at Yahoo! and became a content producer, how did that come about?

Yeah, so when I graduated from school the first tech boom was happening in San Francisco and really I wanted to go into publishing, but I couldn’t afford to go into publishing so you know tech happened and I started working in tech. I worked at Yahoo! in the ‘search’ capacity for a long time and it’s probably not worth going into…

Lorenzo: No, it sounds interesting, I read a little bit about what you did there, please…

Kent: Okay, I was what was called a Search Quality Analyst and it had two components; search relevancy testing which was essentially-- they would bombard search engines with certain actual user queries and it’s like a blind taste test, you have to say-- honestly, one of the queries was “old wood sailboats” and you would get, you know thirty search results back and you would have to say, “this is perfect, this is excellent, this is good, this is fair.” So it’s making all these tiny little judgements in order to train the search engine how to find the right things. So, there’s a lot of very disparate subjects out there that I’m kind of an expert on [laughs] just because there’s so many websites about them.

And then, the other part was fighting spam, so search engine spam and in particular I was involved with adult content, so another entire series of subjects that I know way too much about!

So, later at Yahoo! you got to do a little bit more of what you wanted, working with creative communities?

Yeah, so I started working at Yahoo! Video which was a distant competitor to youTube unfortunately. I mean youTube was kind of the behemoth but you know (we) tried to build a good little community there of, you know, video makers that weren’t finding a lot of success on some of the larger platforms. And it kind of went back to my work, when I was at SF State (San Francisco State University) I was managing editor of the literary magazine and it was there that I kind of discovered that while I really do enjoy doing my own writing and my own artwork, I actually rather enjoy helping other people do their work more and that’s kind of what I found really compelling about community management-- was I got to fade into the background and you know, sort of help people figure out what works. Like, you know, how-- what it is that is really successful and try to promote them and talk about them.

And to me-- that kind of goes to my training as a writer and as an english major is, you know you’re looking at a work and trying to figure out what actually works and of course this all really came-- really all came together when I started working at Blurb, which I know you’re obviously really familiar with [laughs].

“I kind of discovered that while I really do enjoy doing my own writing and my own artwork I actually rather enjoy helping other people.”
Kent Hall

You definitely expanded on this concept of community management at Blurb. Why do you think it’s important to nurture their communities?

Yeah, I mean it’s kind of a really profound thing, you look at sort of the history of corporations and you know, largely they’ve been these sort of faceless entities back there you know. There are a few counter examples. I think one of the pioneers of this was probably Polaroid. If you look at the history of what Edwin Land (co-founder) did there in terms of fostering, you know creative communities, you know getting the product out to people. I think Polaroid was really big in that.

There’s an excellent book by Christopher Bonanos called Instant: The Polaroid Story that really speaks to that. I don’t know, I kind of took them as a guide in a lot of what I’ve done. It’s important for companies to have a human face you know, particularly when they’re in a creative space too. You know, there’s a tendency for creators to feel like they’re a bit lost in the sort of machine that’s, you know, “we want to accept your content, you know we sort of want to utilise it” and it’s important that there is that human face, that there is someone that says, “you know we actually do care about it.”

I often look to Fred Seibert, who was one of the founders of MTV and I heard him speak at a conference and he was talking about you know his early years at a record company and then you know starting MTV and he said, “at one point, I figured out I wanted to be a professional fan.” I thought, “that’s the coolest job description!” And I think that’s a lot of what community management is, I mean there’s a part where you have to you know, solve problems and often work through difficulties but in another sense you’re a professional fan, you’re really trying to promote people and encouraging them to keep going and just really like what they do and that’s always been a really fun part of my job.

“It’s important for companies to have a human face.”
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 30

Where did your love of photography and especially Polaroid come from?

So my dad was a scientific photographer at the University of California, Davis. Our styles are vastly different in-- you know he’s a very technical photographer of course and we often haven’t seen eye to eye on [laughs]-- but I do think there’s something about, you know, seeing these photos that he did of you know mould spores and like giant, microscopic images of fleas that-- that may have influenced my abstraction and my sense of kind of like looking at patterns and things. I really tend to like the work of like Aaron Siskind and you people that are kind of looking at walls and things that are kind of these abstract shapes.

So, you know, cameras were always around me and so because I can’t really paint very well or draw very well, you know-- it’s why the camera’s great right, it’s very-- it’s a very democratic artform.

You have a love of vintage objects, what is it about them that inspires you?

Yeah, you know that-- I don’t know where that came from exactly. Yeah, if you were to look around my desk right now I’ve got a vintage ouija board back there from 1890, I’ve got tin soldiers and a book on Punch and Judy. I don’t know. To be be honest I though, at this point in my life I’m a little tired of living in a museum [laughs] but you know, you can’t get away from that stuff it's-- the-- I guess that sense of mystery and that sense of the tactile you know, particularly in a world where things are increasingly mass produced, to look back at things that are really machined, that are made and do things in a physical or chemical way; I think I still find (them) really compelling. So, I’ll never really get away from it but I think at this point I’ve stopped accumulating dusty, dusty things.

“In a world where things are increasingly mass produced, to look back at things that are really machined, that are made and do things in a physical or chemical way; I think I still find (them) really compelling.”
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 30

How did your relationship with Blurb begin and how did you find your time there?

Yeah, I mean Blurb was a great opportunity for me, as I said I always wanted to be in publishing but I found it increasingly hard to get in and so when I saw a copywriting position at Blurb I thought, this is like a backdoor way into publishing for me, as a job. What I realised is that it was a larger metaphor for how people in general use Blurb, it’s really about getting around those barriers that have always existed, you know. I think everyone should make a book, I think all photographers and artists should make a book. I think you learn more about your work trying to put it into you know-- just getting twenty photos together and making them make sense in a book will just teach you so much about what you’re doing. I think so much more than Instagram or Flickr or anything else, it’s-- it’s that commitment and going to a-- really one of the most, I mean, foundational means of communication in our culture.

So, yeah, Blurb opened up a whole world for me and I saw how it really changed the lives of people who used it.

“I think everyone should make a book.”
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 30

You’ve done quite a bit of travel, how has that shaped your creativity?

Yeah, I mean of course travel is fantastic for going to see new things, although a lot of what I was seeing was the inside of convention halls or various places [laughs] but you know, there’s the aspect of meeting your customers around the world. I met people in Amsterdam and London and Paris and Toronto and New York and Seattle and-- so there’s that aspect from, you know, professionally which really helps, I think nurture-- nurtured my understand of how people are using us.

And for me personally, I mean, you know that’s-- that’s really when the notebooks started and really when I was discovering Polaroid. You know there were times when I had traveled to-- there was a time when I was gone for five weeks and I was on three different continents dealing in like, you know four different currencies and I would-- every time I checked into a hotel I would find some place where I could setup my Polaroids and this became a way for me to track where I was and what I was doing and it really started-- really the first time I travelled for Blurb, on a window sill I put up these Polaroids. No matter how faceless the hotel, I would walk in and there was a gallery of my stuff. It was a way for me to check-in with myself and personalise my space and then of course the Polaroids would come back and often they’d become part of a book or something else but yeah, they were really-- I think they were really key to keeping me sane out there.

Did you ever feel pressure, when you were out there on a panel, in front of a crowd giving advice to people who were trying to get their work out there and if there was pressure how would you manage it?

Yeah, yeah, the best way I found to manage it was not to drink too much coffee [laughs], actually I found that very detrimental to my performance. I’d realise suddenly I’m hyperventilating! Yeah, I think because I loved what I did so much and I loved the work of the people I was talking to, you know, at my best, you know, it was a real conversation but you know there is a point when you realise these people are looking at you and they’re all on social media and anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of social media.

Mostly I think I was pretty lucky in that it’s not about me, that’s-- that’s actually one thing that I’d always say to people when I was travelling around with Blurb and that’d come up and they’d look at the books and they might have used us or they might be seeing them for the first time and they’d say, “God! You know, I love what you do, what you do is so amazing! What Blurb does is so great.” And I would always say, “you know it’s not us it’s you, or it’s the creator” you know, from looking at your work (Caffeine and Concrete!), no amount of-- we provide the tools but we didn’t do anything to, you know make your vision possible. (So) I think making sure you’re always centred on the creator is what’s important.

“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of social media.”
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 30

How do you find using social media, both as a communication tool but also as a way to present your work?

Yeah, you know it’s probably a terrible thing for someone to say that’s in-- you know working in social media-- it’s a good thing and a bad thing, I for instance-- I will admit to finding myself too much of a slave to wondering how well something is liked, you know, and put something out there that I really enjoy, that’s very meaningful to me and you know, it sinks like a lead balloon [laughs] or-- the two things, it goes down like a lead balloon or you just hear crickets.

And, I actually made up a story-- I haven’t done anything with yet but about a bunch of crickets who who build a lead balloon to try and get a bunch of attention and then go around and find they can’t get any. But you know, it feels great when suddenly something you know explodes and you get all that positive attention, but it can really make you doubt yourself and what you’re doing if it’s not and I think that’s sometimes worth remembering. That on Instagram you’re just getting a few seconds-- not even, sometimes someone’s fraction of a second and you know, the work may require you know, much deeper looking than that… and the context may be totally wrong to and you just have to kind of remember that it’s not all about social media and that’s something I really love about the analogue process. Is getting away from that instant gratification but, you know, once that analogue thing is done, you can post it on Instagram and suddenly you’re right back in the maelstrom, so… I wish I knew what the right answer was, other than you know, I think we all just have to take time to figure it out.

You’ve spent the last year as book designer, moving on from Blurb, what brought about the change?

Yeah, I left Blurb back in March (2017) to do some other things and they were interested in going in some different directions so I thought, there’s some things I want to do, I want to go back and develop my own film, like in my kitchen sink. It’s a lot cheaper [laughs], it’s pretty satisfying, you know-- I continue to make work, I continue to make collages, I wanted to keep my writing up, that was really important to me. Heaven forbid I started writing poetry again, it’s-- I’d forgotten how, when you’re writing poetry, you’re thinking and making connections in a different way than prose or, you know, even in visual art and it’s been really freeing and kind of wonderful.

What I really need to do now, it’s always the big challenge, is put something together and get it out there. You know I spent-- good lord, I spent so much time telling other people how to do it I need to be better at telling myself to do it. You know, “physician, heal thyself”. You know, that’s my challenge and right now I’m interviewing at a few places to do some full-time community work which is really exciting, nothing I can have the confidence to annonce now but I’m excited to get back into that space and really help focus on bringing other people’s work out there.

“When you’re writing poetry, you’re thinking and making connections in a different way.”
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 30

I noticed you've done some cataloging of Bob Mizer’s work, how did that come about?

Yeah, so I knew I needed, when I wasn’t having a regular nine-to-five job anymore, I needed to, well to do something with other people still and there’s this really great website out there called volunteermatch.org and I looked up photography opportunities and there was a photography archive that needed help you know, archiving slides; it was the Bob Mizer Foundation. I didn’t know a thing about him, turns out you know he was kind of the beefcake photographer from the 50s up through the 90s and they needed help calaloging the slides and maybe working on some other tasks and to me it wasn’t important what the content was and, gosh, I’d worked in adult content on a search engine for a long time so, you know, seeing naked people was kind of nothing but it’s a fun group to be a part of and it’s preserving a legacy. It’s really important to a lot of people, this history of male nude photography, particular at a time when men, gay men couldn’t, you know, often really express or find their desire out there and so this is really important, so it’s interesting to go through and kind of help uncover this story. I’ve done a little bit of writing for them as well and a little bit of photography more recently in terms of cataloguing the cameras that Bob Mizer and some of his other photographers used so I just think it’s important to keep active and to keep involved in the communities that are important to you.

I guess there are sometimes opportunities that at face value don’t seem all that appealing, whether it’s because of pay or time, yet sometimes you take them and find they become so much more.

Yeah I think it’s super important, it’s kind of too easy to-- again, to disappear into social media or other things that are just a little more introverted, it’s important you get out there and yeah, you end up discovering things that-- opportunities that you didn’t know and hey, employers like that you do volunteer work as well!

So, speaking of opportunities, what’s next for Kent?

Yeah, just working on a few-- I’m gearing up to work in a really small zine show here in San Francisco. So, trying to get some work together for that. Probably print some on-demand books and then a few of the classic, cut-and-fold zines; incorporating writing and photography, sort of put that out there for the first time so that’s-- that’s kind of mostly what I’m working on now. Still love doing the instant photography, it’s expensive though so doing a little less of that yeah and I’m really, really looking at the next step right now...

The idea of many employers seems to be becoming more common, rather than being tied down. A lot of the work you’ve described in community management doesn’t really seem nine-to-five-ish, what are the trade-offs between the routine and the more liberating world of freelance?

Yeah the-- and you’re right, Blurb wasn’t strictly nine-to-five, in particular when I was on the road. I personally like for whatever I’m doing, for there just to be a lot of variety. To me the worst thing is kind of just going into work everyday knowing exactly what’s going to happen which is, to me, the appeal of doing community-- you know community management is-- which is kind of an awful term because you’re not really managing the community at all. You’re hopefully-- what your doing is encouraging the community. Communities can’t be managed, they do their own thing but either way it’s that wonderful thing of watching something evolve kind of organically and having those surprises and working with creative people and in particular working, you know, for a product that enables creators to do things, keeps that varied.

If you really want to do well freelancing, you have to be a good hustler. I’m not great at hustling, so I think for me, the perfect job is probably one that has that regularity of going into the office but you also get to get out and get to work on video shoots and community meetups and then you have some days where you sit at a desk and you have to, you know, do reports and prove why you’re valuable.

Find Kent at kenthallcreative.com and on Twitter and Instagram, @windsorknot

Proofreading by Luke Yates. Photography by Lorenzo Princi.