Smile, You’re on Kandid Kush
Behind the lens with leading cannabis photographer Chris Romaine.
Chris Romaine didn’t expect to become a prominent cannabis photographer. Better known by the moniker Kandid Kush, Romaine was raised by fairly conservative parents and only took a mild interest in the arts during his youth.
“My dad was a cop,” Romaine laughs. “He taught D.A.R.E. and everything.”
Despite a childhood filled with anti-drug rhetoric, 32-year-old Romaine first tried cannabis at age 20. He loved the uplifting and creative vibe he felt, and smoking soon became a regular part of everyday life.
While working as an automotive painter, Romaine was given the task of snapping a couple of quick pics of finished work for his boss. It was his first stint behind the lens, with the exception of a basic black and white photography class during high school, and the somewhat menial assignment forever changed the trajectory of Romaine’s career — even if it would be several years before he realized it.
Creating a New Destiny
After reviving his interest in photography in LA, Romaine spent several years in Las Vegas, where he ended up in the hospitality industry. When not slinging drinks in nightclubs, Romaine taught himself the ins and outs of digital photography. He picked up a decent DSLR and started setting up shoots with models he would meet online or cocktail waitresses from work.
Six years later, in 2015, Romaine set out for San Diego to help open a new nightclub. It was at this time he also secured his first salaried product photography position at a local car dealership. He also bought some weed, obtaining a medical marijuana card as soon as he arrived in California (adult-use sales didn’t begin there until 2018).
“I went on Weedmaps like the first night I pulled up, and the photos were pretty awful,” Romaine explained. “You couldn’t even tell what anything was!”
After purchasing a few strains, the quick-thinking Romaine opted to take some shots of his own. He reached out to a delivery business with his work, and eventually hashed out a deal: one-eighth of cannabis for every product photographed. After a year and a half, the artist (who says he loves any and all Chemdawg crosses) moved up north to Oakland on a whim to fulfill his artistic destiny, given the Bay Area’s unofficial designation as the epicenter of California’s thriving cannabis industry.
‘Kandid Kush’ Is Born
In the Bay Area, Romaine was a relative unknown. It took time for him to break into the cannabis photography industry, but his attention to detail and the development of striking prints featuring hundreds of images stacked on one another were soon earning him gigs for well-known brands and dispensaries such as Garden of Eden. During his first visit to an indoor grow, when he toured the cultivation center for the top-shelf boutique brand Gold Seal, Romaine was taken aback by the immense beauty of fresh cannabis.
“It was the first time I saw live trichomes, and I was blown away,” he said. “The plant is crazy beautiful. I want to show the beauty and rid the stigma through my photography. That’s really my mission.”
Knowing he needed a brand of his own to fulfill his mission, Romaine got a few of his friends together and developed a simple yet effective plan: Everyone would write every word they could think of that involved cannabis and photography, throw them in a hat, and draw out combinations until something stuck. “Candid” and “kush” came out of the hat, and now, only a few short years later, Kandid Kush is officially trademarked by the United States government.
Working with Industry Icons
Today, at his studio in downtown Oakland, Romaine is busier than ever. As an artist, his meticulous nature may be considered borderline obsessive. After a recent 10 hour shoot at the Sherbinskis cultivation facility, Romaine went home with a jaw-dropping 160 gigabytes of data (yes, that’s a ton).
Romaine says getting to work with industry icons such as Mario Guzman, the cultivator known as Mr. Sherbinski, is a dream come true.
“I thought this guy was untouchable, and fast forward three years later, we’re smoking a joint and laughing like old friends,” Romaine says, adding that his first day shooting at the Sherbinskis farm was one of the highlights of his career so far.
Besides being inspired by the cultivators he works with, Romaine also looks to other cannabis photographers for creative guidance. Romaine says he considers the book “Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana” to be a big inspiration. The quintessential cannabis text by Dan Michaels features stunning imagery from Erik Christiansen, and Romaine says he would pour over its pages day in and day out while still honing his craft.
Years later, he found out that Christiansen at one point lived only a mile away from him during his time in San Diego. The two are now friends, which he says is a testament to the incredibly serendipitous nature of the cannabis industry.
In keeping with what he’s learned about the cannabis industry so far, Romaine encourages other budding photographers to stay focused, regardless of preconceived notions about whether or not there’s still room for them in the weed game.
“Keep persevering, no matter how many people laugh at you or tell you it can’t be done,” he said. “Things don’t happen overnight. Always embrace change and failure. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations to grow. I’ve failed so many times over and over again. I’ve even quit photography a couple of times — but I keep coming back to it.”
Why would a promising talent such as Romaine give up his art? It turns out his initial foray into model photography ended when one subject became threatening. The man he had photographed had posted unauthorized images of the shoot, and when Romaine requested he cease and desist, became hostile.
“It sort of pushed me over the edge in dealing with people,” he lamented.
With pot photography, the gorgeous plants don’t get hostile. Instead, they invite Romaine in with their intoxicating aroma and brightly colored buds, and he always knows they will only end up creating more happiness once they’re consumed.
A Vision of What Lies Ahead
Romaine believes the future of his craft lies in 360-degree photography, which utilizes augmented reality to allow viewers of an image to see it from all angles. However, he adds the nascent nature of the cannabis industry has led to a critical lack of standardization. For example, one producer’s product may look very different on one dispensary menu versus another. Currently, Romaine uses a 50-megapixel camera to gather macro shots and raw footage that showcase every last nook and cranny of the plant. Someday, visitors to KandidKush.com may be able to get as up close and personal with the buds as Romaine does.
This vision of tomorrow fits within Romaine’s steadfast dedication to his original mission: to celebrate the beauty of cannabis while normalizing its place in our society.
“One of the ways to normalize anything is to really get it out in the public eye,” he says. “I want to see trichome pictures on a billboard! I don’t think we’re that far away.”
But what does Romaine’s dad, the D.A.R.E.-teaching police officer, think of his son’s success?
“My dad is, like, borderline on the edge of maybe trying an edible,” he laughed. “Pretty huge coming from a guy who thinks you can literally get high by being in a grow room!”
Originally published in print edition of Cannabis Now.