Fashion photography is most probably one of the most desirable fields of photography. We are lured by the prospect of working with the hottest and trendiest people out there. That is where I come from and all I can say is: what does not kill you makes you stronger.
Fashion photography, it is a genre of photography that focuses on displaying clothes or other fashion items. Said like that it seems so bleak compared to its magnetic power. What started as a commercial need of brands to illustrate their collections became in the last 50 years a galaxy on its own revolving around a new sun, this season trendiness, and full of stars; stylists, fashion editors, fashion brands, hair stylist, make-up artists and obviously models. You cannot shoot a fashion spread without a crew. It is collaborative work where connections are way more important for a photographer then their lighting skills.
A career in fashion photography requires, well a lot of things. First of all if you want a real shot at it, you need to be in one of the fashion capitals, Paris, New York, London, Milan, where fashion is actually happening and where you can gain access to a crew. To help you bypass the queue in front of the door of editors or fashion houses, you are required to have patience or connections (ideally both if not you might have to consider cryonics). It demands that your favorite dish is pasta out of a can, as you might not see any real money for quite a long while. It calls for a lot of self-control as you often work with prima donnas. Finally it entails a lot of will and creativity to build a portfolio with a recognizable style.
Here are a few reality checks so that you know what to expect.
I often hear photographers pest about image-makers that work for free. Working for free is normal in the fashion editorial world. And that is where you need to be if you want to be taken seriously. If it was just working for free for the time that you need to build your name, you could find a moral/economical investment to justify it. But it goes further then that: sometimes you actually pay to work. Does that sound ridiculous? Yes. And yet. It is common practice. Some editorial work pays a photographers fee, some reimburse your cost (and that is already great), and some pays nothing, leaving you to cover the production costs of a shoot, ranging from food for the crew to the retouching. Obviously when you begin you start at the bottom of the ladder.
Weirdly enough when you do get paid you can find yourself being limited in what you are allowed to do. You will not be able to choose your styling or your model or even your crew. The stylist or the fashion editor becomes your client even if they are paying you pocket money. There are two ways of getting out of that jam. Either morph into a star photographer to whom people will unroll the red carpet, or lockdown the direction of the shoot before. If you feel that you are not given freedom, weigh the value of being published in that magazine. If it is not that crucial to your career move on and don’t look back. Avoid yourself the frustration for time spent on something that does not embody your style.
The funny thing about money in the fashion industry is that there seems to be quite a lot of it but unless your name is part of the star system it seems to avoid your pocket. Clients rarely pay on time and some clients tend to forget about paying altogether. Agents and agencies are not to be always trusted either. My agent ran off with my money and exiled himself outside of France. No legal options possible. I guess he is sipping a margarita somewhere under a palm tree while I am learning voodoo.
There used to be a time when fashion photographers would not allow interns, assistants, or anybody that was not essential to their shoots on their set. This paranoid behavior was explained by the fact that when photographers were shooting film, their light set-up was the ink for their signature. They did not want their lighting secrets to be stolen. Today with retouching it is not that important anymore. But beware of idea thieving.
I worked for a Parisian brand that was just starting. I did their two first catalogues and my images ended up by bringing them an increase in sales rating 50%. Every time I got them deals on studios and crew, gave them very affordable photography and retouching services, and educated them on what was needed to make their shoots interesting for an efficient marketing approach. When I realized that they were choosing images for their catalogue based on how well the clothes looked and not on how good the images were I discussed the need for them to have a look book for their upcoming collection. I shot it for a low budget so that I would have more creative freedom on the advertising images.
For their third collection they took all my ideas, my light concept, my location, but used another photographer. I stayed in bed for a week finding solace in Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I was young. I was an idealist. I thought that I had shown them enough good will and that we had built an honest working partnership. I was wrong. Don’t expect a happy client to come back to you. Appreciate it when they do. They might be happy with your work but they will still want to change. Don’t give your creative ideas out for free thinking that it is an asset. Give your client what they paid for (with a smile!) and only that (keep on smiling when you say no!). There is no other way to be respected.
You might also encounter publications that shred your layout to a point where you are not sure if you shot it, they can also forget to tell you that, ups, they cut the story all together and they never send you the printed magazine and sometimes not even the pdf. I have seen all that happen. It is shocking the first time. Not the second time around. You grow thicker skin.
Fashion photography being based on a collaborative workflow, your crew is your secret weapon. It takes time to find people who you can count on to technically make your visions reality, who work with you towards a common goal, and who you like as human beings. Once you have found them you want to keep them with you on every shoot possible, especially if your careers have grown together. It just makes things fun and easy. Sometimes it is conflicting schedules that make it impossible, other times it is politics. The stylists and hair and make-up people that have careers in this domain work a lot, way more then photographers if you compare the actual time spent on sets. This translates in less excitement and less patience. They want easygoing days. On editorials, stylists will often impose either a hair or a make-up person, or both, because they want a friend that they can gossip with when they are waiting around. Clients that have contacts will do the same. Team members who are imposed on you have an annoying habit to overstep their roles and suddenly start directing the model, the shoot, or make comments on your light. That’s when self control needs to step in. To a point. If you let yourself be walked on once they will want to do it again. Channel the diplomat in you but make sure they get the message. Respect on a shoot might need a metaphorical bitch slap. Of course with a smile!
You might be doing all the right things and still end up with a team that just does not click. The hair guy hates the make-up artist so they will go out of their way to make the hair and then the make-up escalate during the day until you end up with a panda that put her fingers in an electric slot, the stylist did not order the clothes you asked for (“Daaarling I thought this would be more modern!”), the models agencies forgot to tell you that the model cut her hair yesterday and needs to leave 2 hours in advance to catch a train, and the art director shows up after lunch and decides that he prefers to shoots outdoors because "indoors is so 2009." In a nutshell: it is a shitty day and you are asking yourself, "Why did I decide to shoot fashion again?"
That’s the tipping point. You either embrace the craziness or you move on to greener pastures. At last if you decide to hang on to the fashion merry-go-round you will have some emblematic stories to tell during social outings. A sense of humor to the disproportionate is a lifesaver. I am still practicing.