The Coffee Shop Sessions With Kai Eason – Fstoppers

Saturday mornings, for most people, are about errands or relaxation. But for photographer Kai Eason, Saturday mornings are spent at local coffee shops, photographing a film photography portrait series known as “The Coffee Shop Sessions.”

Kai Eason is an avid film photographer based in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve been following his work for a while because he is constantly experimenting with new cameras, lenses, and processing techniques. I’m always curious about what his next photo will look like. He is a photographer who doesn’t get stuck in his ways and is always experimenting and trying new things.

Recently, a series of film portraits known as “The Coffee Shop Sessions” that he has been developing caught my attention. It’s a series of 100 film portraits that Kai has been working on for a little over a year, all photographed at local coffee shops.

For Kai, though, this series isn’t just about the photos. As he puts it, “We live in a world where a lot of our interaction is done over social media, and it’s nice to get up and have a real conversation with somebody. The photos are important, but it’s not the most important part of the whole thing. It’s about getting to know someone, having a conversation, and creating a connection that transcends photography.”

Kai wanted to develop a series of portrait images and found inspiration in coffee shops as being a source of connection, community, and gathering. The first Coffee Shop Session took place on a whim in January 2023. He wasn’t expecting much to come of it, but word started to spread, and interest started to build. People wanted to be a part of it, proving Kai’s initial intent for the project to be true – we are all desperately craving connection and want to feel a part of something.

With Kai’s Coffee Shop Sessions, connection and conversation are the first priority, and photos are second. Each session begins by walking into a local coffee shop, sitting down with a cup of coffee, and talking.

The importance of the photos to me is creating an authentic environment and authentic photos. You don’t have to be perfect. I’d much rather you not show up overly made up and dressed. I really want to photograph you. I want to capture who you are, and I want you to be relaxed.

With authenticity being the primary goal, the photoshoot only happens after an hour or so of solid conversation.

We’ll talk about what’s going on in our lives or what we’ve experienced. A lot of times you find these commonalities of stuff we’ve been through, stuff we’re going through, or stuff that we are going to have to go through.

For Kai, it’s just as important for him to make himself vulnerable within these moments of connection as it is for his subject. Kai’s belief is that once you get on a level with someone like that, it creates a sense of comfort and allows people to actually relax and be themselves in front of the camera.

I found this to be true from my own personal experience. My interview with Kai, of course, took place at a local coffee shop. My two-hour interview with Kai ranged from talking specifically about his Coffee Shop Sessions to discussing upcoming travel plans to our unique philosophies about what photography means to us, as well as touching on deeper personal subjects like grief and an impending loss I knew I was about to experience.

Kai is right. We are all going through the same things, and we can find comfort and connection in that. Even though I typically hate being in front of the camera, when it was time for my photoshoot to take place, I felt comfortable and at ease. When I saw the finished photos, I felt like I was meeting myself for the first time. There was a vulnerability to the images that I usually try to hide. Like I mentioned, at the time these were taken, I knew I would be experiencing the loss of someone close to me soon, and I can see a glimpse of that sadness on my face in these images. There is an honesty and a depth to them.

These Coffee Shop Sessions grew into something that Kai looked forward to every week. With a goal of shooting 100 Coffee Shop Sessions, he is now only 5 or 6 away from making that a reality, with a portrait of himself serving as the 100th and final image in the series. His hope is to turn this series into a book or a gallery show at some point in the future.

Kai photographs these sessions using a mix of cameras. The majority of the photos are shot on black and white film using a Rolleicord III from 1953. His go-to black and white film stocks are Kodak Tri-X 400, Kodak T-Max 400, and Rollei Superpan 200.

For his color film photos, he uses a Pentax 67 with Fuji Pro 400H or Kodak Aerocolor 100. And then he always mixes in a few digital images as well.

He shoots more black and white film than color and processes all of the film himself because of the week or two delay that usually comes with sending your film out to be processed. He prefers to shoot something and develop the film while his settings and techniques of the shoot are still fresh in his mind so he can analyze and adjust for future shoots.

Kai has a unique system for processing his film. Instead of using a developing chart to develop his black and white film, he uses a technique called stand development. Stand development is a method of developing photographic film that involves using a highly diluted developer solution and an extended development time. In stand development, the film is left to soak in the developer solution for an extended period, often without agitation or with minimal agitation. Kai uses stand development because it requires less hands-on attention and allows him to develop multiple rolls of black and white film at once of different film stocks. To Kai, scanning and developing film is the reward for putting the effort in.

Watch the YouTube video for the full interview with Kai and to see more work from his Coffee Shop Series, give him a follow at @kai_analog.

Jada is a photographer and director specializing in conceptual portraits. Her work is known for its bold, colorful, and surreal style. Her creative style of portraiture lends itself nicely to work in both fashion and the music industry. She is one half of the creative duo Jada + David.

People can be the ultimate in photo subjects. Question: Does he get verbal approval to take the photo? Is that all that is needed? I find it interesting in this time of high tech that he still used film.