Fashion Photographer Norman Jean Roy Says Digital Is Killing Fashion Photography

Fashion Photographer Norman Jean Roy Says Digital Is Killing Fashion Photography

If you have ever opened up a Vogue or Vanity Fair, you have seen some of Norman Jean Roy's work. He is truly a master of his craft and a well sought after photographer. In this interview with Norman discusses how he believes digitial photography is killing fashion photography.


"Though primarily identified as a fashion photographer, Jean Roy describes his work as portraiture. "A great portrait needs to first grab you and then let you sit in there and continue to draw you in. [Whereas] with a lot of fashion photography, it really hits you hard and then it slowly fades away," he told the Cut. "To me, that's the fundamental difference between a great photograph and a great picture." When we stopped by Jean Roy's West Village studio to speak about sixteen of his most iconic works, he added, "It's a real wrestling match always [having to] work and make a living in one of, quite possibly, the most self-absorbed industries in the world." In the slideshow ahead, Jean Roy talks about making portraits of George W. Bush, Cate Blanchett, Florence Welch, and others."

There seems to be a connection between portrait photography and psychology because photographers need to be perceptive with their subject's body language, mood, and eye contact.
I'm a photographer as a means to record the events of my life. The psychology involved in understanding human emotions and character is deeply attractive to me. It changes every single time from one minute to the next and you can never harness it.

What role does the camera play in the relationship between the photographer and the subject?
The camera is a very neutral prism, if you will. The camera has no opinion, no emotion, it just renders — and so the emotional components of a photograph live on each side of the camera. When you have a discussion with someone, there's nothing to neutralize the situation; the camera does that. It's really how, for example, most photojournalists can go into war or famine or atrocities and witness it through the eye of a lens and stay very natural in that moment.

Then, isn't the camera a photographer's shield?
Oh, absolutely. There's no question. I am not interested — at all — in revealing myself to my subjects. That's not the purpose of what I'm doing. This is also why I absolutely enjoy the process of being photographed by another photographer.

When you shoot for fashion versus more of your traditional portraiture, do you ever become annoyed having to work with a team of stylists, beauty, and production people?
Working with stylists and beauty team has its function. I'm not necessarily frustrated with that part, as much as I am with the current state of fashion photography. I think, with the advent of digital photography, the dictatorship aspect of photography became democratized and over time became a group effort, which I think is bullshit. I'm sorry, but photography is a dictatorship; it's not a democracy. At the end of the day, I don't sit here and tell the hairstylist to move the hair a little bit this way when they're working. I'm sure as fuck not going to have someone tell me what to do with photography. With that said, as a photographer it's your responsibility to fulfill the needs of your client. You don't want to be a dick about it; there are plenty of people who do that, which, I think, is equally bullshit.

What has been the result of a more democratized world of photography?
If you look back even fifteen years ago, fashion photography was fun, lively, and full of humanity. I'm hoping to God the younger generation coming out now is going to be able to recapture that. It's where creativity lives. It's certainly not in the digital process, and it's certainly not in the team effort. The team effort works when all of the people come together in assembling an image.

And you usually shoot on film.
When you shoot film, you don't have the luxury of seeing every single image coming out. And because of that, you stay very focused. Everything [becomes] hyperreal, so when you get it, you get it another time, and another time after that just to make sure you got it. As a result, you have a much better version of, I think, the moment. That's much more real, honest, and broken, too.

Part of a perfect image is that it is imperfect. With digital photography, it's very easy to perfect the image. You kill the image when you perfect it. You basically suck the life out of it. An image, to me, lives when you can look at it and it's just slightly off. Like, when you put a primary red and primary green together, you have that vibrancy between the two. A great photograph, not a great picture, needs to have that vibration. It would be very easy to take any one of my photographs and I can tell you where I could have fixed this and fixed that.

There are many fashion photographers working today who perfect their subjects to an inhuman degree.
Oh, yeah. Any photographer can do that. And the ones that do that are the ones who destroy their image. There are lots of fashion photographers who destroy their image. Again, I'm not dissing it; to me, that is what I think is fundamentally wrong with fashion photography. It really is directly because of digital capture.

So you never shoot digital?
If and when I have to shoot digitally, I always shoot to card and never show anyone. I usually give myself a day or two before I look at the session. It's the same thing you would do with film, you shoot your film, it goes to the lab the next morning and you get it back that afternoon. That space in time between [taking the photograph] and looking at it after is a really important thing. It's kind of like counting to ten when someone makes you really mad. If I said something awful to you and you just counted to ten, your reaction would be different than just [snaps fingers]. We're in such a hurry to make sure we "got it" that in the process I genuinely think the results today are infinitely inferior than where they were ten years ago.

Some of Norman Jean Roy's work.

Caroline Trentini & Hilary Rhoda for Bally (Fall 2012) by Norman

Linda Evangelista for Vanity Fair Spain (September 2012) by Norm







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Yep. He's dope. Rocking the rangefinder Mamiya. He used this to shoot that huge spread in the September issue of Vogue 2012. I like this guy.

Wow, finally a straight-shooter that tells it like it is! Nice

I could definitely be wrong, but I think that what he means by saying "photography is a dictatorship" is that the role of a photographer is supposed to be clearly defined. This is extremely important in fashion photography because production always requires a team of specialists (wardrobe, hair, makeup, prop-stylists etc). A fashion photograph is a "composite" work of art. Each component of the photograph requires a specialist to do a specific task. In order for the production to work smoothly, each specialist within the composite must have executive control over his/her specified role. The photographer's role, as well as that of the makeup/hair etc, must be clearly defined. When each person has a function then it's possible for the entire body of specialists to work together creatively on a single production.

Unfortunately, digital blurs the lines between roles and specialties. The makeup, hair, wardrobe etc can all be altered in post. People see digital images right away on a monitor and then feel free to tell the photographer to change this-or-that. Digital leaves everything up for grabs and the teamwork necessary for a production breaks down because nobody's role is clearly defined anymore.

Ultimately, I think that digital is great for low budget, guerilla-style and/or amateur productions. But for large serious productions and "composite" working situations, digital is creating a real mess.

and nailguns are killing the carpentry bussiness

The Dark Room Co.'s picture

despite the "slight" irony of the the digitally retouched images.......I agree

I think Mbutu echoes what Norman was saying the 4th question

I do prefer being the "only" creative mind involved in constructing/deciding the final image

It is sort of ironic, but then again he really has no say when a company like vogue tells him to shoot digital so they can retouch them. 

He isn't just a an artist with his camera, his eloquence and point of view is also very awesome and beautiful.

I love that thought of taking a moment between taking the photos and then looking at them after a shoot. I do that, but not because of how he stated it, but just because I want a break from the shoot. Like looking at a computer all day and going home to look at a computer some more ... your brain needs that break. And I love how Mr. Roy here gave the analogy of being mad and taken moment vs just snapping back. This is a great interview. And gives me new respect of how I look at my photos now and my respect to his work.

Interesting perspective and thought provoking interview from one of the best.  Overall, just his opinion that many of us agree with and many of us do not.  Keep shooting world!

The man makes a slew of incisive points.

Great piece

great photographer, with great skills. not a hyped one where you dont know why he is famous.

Jens Marklund's picture

Great perspective on things, this guy. Only thing I find odd, is "The hit girl" photo, where everything is pouring rain - while she doesn't have a drop on her.

Also, nice copy/paste Fstoppers -  In the slideshow ahead, Jean Roy talks about making portraits of George W. Bush, Cate Blanchett, Florence Welch, and others.”

Adam Gasson's picture

I can see the point he's making about digital in the sense it's too immediate, it's often good to revisit shoots a day, week or month later when you have a fresh outlook.

Out of interest did fstoppers get permission from the NYMag to completely copy and paste their interview?

Vid Vorsic's picture

It is sad to see how a majority of people who comment don't get what he is trying to tell.

c'mon. is he really saying he's never asking hair stylist/MUA/fashion stylist to adjust anything at all of what they are doing on a particular shoot? so even directing a model is wrong, right? since no one can tell  the photographer what to do with his photography, no one can tell a model what to do with her modeling. he's making very good points in this interview, but that thing about photography as a dictatorship is bullshit. especially when the subject matter is team work indeed. 
correct me if i'm wrong.

Best thing I've read for a while, very refreshing, particularly the last 4 paragraphs. I'm going to use this "Part of a perfect image is that it is imperfect".

Well then ...
He claims that digital photography is killing fashion photography but then ... all I see are photos that are highly retouched in PS to become the final images.

Technology doesn't kill any form of art. Technology modifies the way we work and what we can achieve.

agreed. what's the point of film vs. digital in this particular case, when in the end film is digitally acquired to be digitally edited in a digital environment like photoshop? 
[besides larger latitude, of course]

The point - as I read it - is that the WORKFLOW is very different, resulting in a different vibe / character / persona in the final photos. Specifically, with digital you have instant results, and as such instant feedback from your creative director, client, models, and your own perceptions. If you do agency work with a "team effort" (stylists, CD's, AD's, etc) it's quite a different experience than weddings or portraits, as you are shooting with 4 people looking over your shoulder at every shot, and providing their opinions. In these settings - such as the fashion industry - then film would give you the advantage of buying some independence. That is by no means a knock against wedding / portrait, rather just an added complication of agency and large production work.

once upon a time, in the film era, there used to be something called polaroid, which was used to proof the sceen before the actual shots. 
if you feel like you need to take your time between shooting and watching the results, you can just have someone backup your cards, then hide them for a couple of days. i do it quite often. or simply wait for the next day. my behavior is similar to what mr. roy describes - with different results, indeed!! :D
i mean, of course i see the point of having to deal with clients which usually pretend they know waaay more than you do, back in the days when i was assisting a fashion photographer, one of my roles was to protect him from the crowd of people gathering at his back whilst shooting... 
it doesn't happen much to me [as i'm not into fashion industry, neither i'm looking after it], but i tend to make very clear what's going to be photographed, how and why, so at the end of the day we just sit and talk and choose the pictures.

Less art and more getting clients what they want?
Art means the photographers gets more control of the look and what photos are chosen for the selection list.
With digital tethering, everyone looking at it means the client gets more of what they want (showing clothes a specific way, etc.) and the photographer is taken more out of that process.
What clients want may not be as artsy.

I think that's what he said...

I definitely, while reading this, laughed out loud at one point and absently muttered "wow...this guy is super cool".    I developed my first roll of film today at the age of 26 so i'm pretty much half way there... right? :P

i don't know... let's see the pictures and we'll let you know.. ;-)

Joey Buczek's picture

My father helped me develop my first roll of film at age 6... I'm still on a journey of discovery with photography and I'm in my 30's now. Not because I didn't figure it out, but because you can never stop learning and improving.

Spy Black's picture

The only real point he's making about shooting here is the concept of precognition you develop shooting with film, which if you entered photography entirely in the digital age you simply don't have. It's a very powerful skill to have. However the whole thing about dictatorship is a bit delusional. He's an established name and is better involved in the creative process of the shoot than most.

However the end result is strictly the product of the art director. The photographer is merely a link in the chain. The art director is the dictator. It's what he wants that matters, and everyone on that "team" is there to achieve the vision the art director wanted for the shoot. Period. The art director created the "look and feel" that was signed off by the client for the ad. From there on in is was the art director's responsibility to realize the concept. The art director then communicates with the team so they can achieve the goal.

The photographer is probably the closest in command after the art director. It is very much like in a film shoot where you have the director, and director of photography. While the DOP creates the beautiful image that you see, the director is the man in charge. And so it is with the art director.

exactly. you made the point about commercial photography. it's a dictatorship when you're on your own. otherwise you HAVE to deal with some other people, right?, usually those who had the original idea you've been called to work on. sometimes they give you more freedom to interpret, sometimes they ask you to merely execute the idea.  
i started taking pictures a while back, i'm 27 but my first roll happened to be exposed when i was 11, or something... i'm sure i've taken pictures even before, on film of course.
but i can tell you i developed some kind of precognition during the last 5 years with digital photography. I simply work with the display turned off, non tethered camera, taking 3-4 shots to be sure i'm exposing right as I would do with film+polaroid, and then i'm on my subject. when they ask me to review the shots in camera, i simply try to avoid it by saying that "I feel we got it, let's move on, we're running out of time!" sometimes they buy it, sometimes not.. :D

Lindsay Beyerstein's picture

I think he's missing the point. It's not film vs. digital, it's heavy-handed retouching. Obviously, digital makes it easier to go overboard. But there's no law that you must just because you can.

If fashion photography is getting less artful, it's because fashion editors want high concept catalogs to sell clothes, not art. Digital makes it easier for the client to get what she wants. It's the market, not the technology. 

Sorry but while Norman brings up a great point he is in no way a "Master of his craft" but his assistants are! This based upon my first hand experience working with him. Norman may be able to light a match but he can't light a set.

absolutely correct ... there is nothing to add