A reader sent me these questions regarding getting work in editorial fashion photography, politely asking me for any feedback. I though that they were specific enough that they’d be good discussion starters, and I stress, discussion, b/c as usual, I neither want to be didactic nor pedagogical here…or anywhere really – it comes with too much responsibility. Furthermore, as a man much wiser than myself once stipulated: there’s no right answer in this field…but there are certainly wrong ones. So take what bits help, leave the rest, and add what you will.
Q: “What were some of the first paid mag assignments and how did you get them? Do you really think it is a pyramid process where you have had to start small and then work your way up? Or do you think it is better to get your book seen and higher level mags?”
A: It’s not really this clear cut. First off, until you’re major, forget including magazines and getting paid in the same thought, especially for fashion. You’re probably going to have to foot most of the costs for these shoots. A lot of people ask about this and look stupefied when I respond there is no pay, but here’s the thing: 1) this work should be the some of the most exciting and fun work you do professionally, and, 2) you need to look at it as part of your advertising budget, as it’s years of meager but fun editorial work that is going to build you and make you known, generally. The exception to no budgets is regional magazines out of smaller cities. B/c they don’t have the immense, transient talent pool to milk like the A-markets, they tend to have some money to motivate with. They can be a good place to get your feet wet with the whole process.
Now, the actual act of breaking into it is SO different for everyone. Don’t look for a formula. Some people nail it and pick up right away. Some it takes decades and decades. I’d suggest not to expect the standard 2-3 year get in the black or close the door business model. It takes patience and attrition, but again, I think the part that a lot of people leave out when talking about how hard it is is that it is also a lot of fun if you love pictures and fashion.
As for showing work, well, in retrospect I think I showed too much work to too many people early on. Then one day I realized where I stood (an important and difficult piece of perspective to develop). After that I totally backed off and spent three years tuning things. I’m still tuning, but now, I show work to very specific magazines (basically ones I think would be a good fit), but even then I don’t show or hustle as much as I should. Alas, I’d rather spend the day out shooting on the street. I know people that live for the hustle and bustle and networking though. They don’t really do better or worse; it is simply different personalities and different ways of going about things. I think at the end of the day, if you’re consistently present in a good market and you’re getting work out, and it’s good work, people will notice. But don’t be surprised if it takes 2 years or so of subtle schmoozing and boozing to get into a magazine. And then don’t be surprised if they use you once and never again. It happens. Lots and lots and lots of politics. I personally ignore that as much as possible for my sanity and concentrate on good pictures. Again, though, this is just me, and I’m by no means a staple fashion photographer. I love it, but I also have my own perspective that makes me do things my own way. I suggest the same to anyone, just for life in general. Be good and honest and deliberate about it.
And, if in doubt, as a prison guard told my kid brother at a Med/Max prison while he was standing with a fearing-for-his-life gaze across his face: “Mitchell, keep moving, and look like you know what you’re doing.”
Finally, on this point, I think there is a common misconception of making it, so to speak. As you get further in your career, I think you can rest a bit on some fronts, but I don’t think you can ever back-off. Many of the big guys that line the rosters of the big reps work at this stuff as tirelessly as they did when they were young. It’s an illusion that they’re sitting back and the work is rolling in. The business is constantly shuffling and reorganizing, and everyone is trying to get ahead or hold their spot, no matter if they just moved to the city from a small town or whether they’re on the roster of A&C.
Q: “For the original fashion stories in your book, how did you put them together? Did you find people off Craigslist willing to do work for free? I’m not really clear on how this process works when you are starting out and don’t have a “Name” or connections.”
A: Find MU and hair reps and call them, ask them for names of people who want to test. Find stylists assistants and ask if they want to test. If your not in a big city, my first suggestion would be to find a local modeling agency (the best one you can) and talk to them about testing. They’ll usually have connections with hair and MU people too. This part seems intimidating, but once you start doing it it becomes second nature to produce for yourself. One person leads to another. You jive with some, you don’t with others. Be up front that your testing, but if you love it and believe in your idea, others will get on board and work on it. Don’t be insulted if someone says, “I don’t test any more,” just politely ask them if they know of anyone who does. Over time you get better, and the people you work with get better. It’s part of a process, and like I said, for editorial fashion starting off, there’s no money, so you eat rice and beans, you live in a small rooms, you learn to shoot cheap, you learn of networking while making friends, and you do everything you can to make it the best you can.
Q: “I read on your blog that you were in London a few weeks ago and read the article by Sebastian Kim. Do you think London is more receptive to young photographers than NYC or is it pretty much the same everywhere? Tough.”
A: Everywhere is tough. London and NYC are pretty tied, and the community is small enough that most of it is overlapping and people know of one another, but there are some differences. NYC has more money (or did ?), but it’s also much more commercial both business wise and aesthetically (think Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc. W is amazing, but huge. V is great, but still big name. etc etc.). London has a larger base of indie publications (Dazed, i-D, Tank), that tend to have more progressive work in them and more room for younger talent, b/c of this I’d argue it might be a better place to build a look and gather momentum. On the other hand, an advantage to NYC is I find that here everyone just wants to connect and work…at least amongst the younger crowd. People are excited to meet and give each other a shot, it’s a constant buzz. So it may be easier to get things going in that respect. While London, in my very very limited experience, has a bit tighter of a circle to get your foot into.
All these are generalizations. I’ve honestly not figured this part out yet myself, and am in a way still floating around trying to find magazines that fit. I thought of a move to London for the reasons above, but after being there for just a few days I realized how much the day to day energy and people of NYC inspire me…even the light in NYC is something I constantly watch and learn from…and those sort of thing’s, right now, are more important to me.
Hopefully this kicks off some discussion or thoughts.
Oh, and to keep you on your toes, to show you what I mean by “good” work, here are a few younger guys doing rad shit:
Sebastian Kim (w/ Jed Root),
photo: ©Sebastian Kim.
Josh Olins (w/ CLM), (duder, way to go on pwning that first issue of LOVE),
photo: ©Josh Olins.
Chad Pitman (w/ CLM),
photo: ©Chad Pitman.
Benjamin A. Huseby (w/ Rep Ltd),
photo: ©Benjamin A. Huseby.
photo: ©Chadwick Tyler.
Someone sent me these 3 videos on Mario Testino (thanks, Brandon!), and they literally came across my phone as I was looking at the current Testino spread in V magazine featuring Natalia. It was all fitting, since I was thinking of how Testino’s work is quit simple in many ways but that it nearly always works, and how he definitely deserves a nod for what he’s done over the years.
photo: Natalia in V #58, S09. ©Mario Testino.
And an old favorite add that Testino shot for Gucci back in the good ol’days of Tom Ford. I believe this was from ’98, but don’t hold me to that.
photo: from Gucci campaign (1998?). ©Mario Testino.
You can check it, here.
Being a few days old, this has probably already been discussed in web-o-land, but someone just sent me a link to this NPR On the Media episode discussing editorial portraiture w/ Martin Schoeller, Jill Greenberg, and Platon.
Here’s the MP3:
audio: NPR’s On The Media, “Snap Judgments”, Noverber 28, 2008.
They summed it up right off the bat when they said it’s about money – I’d specify for the magazines and the photographers. After all, I’ll hullabaloo with the best of them on art and integrity and. But editorial remains a business (even if it’s the biz of getting tearsheets). And the end of the day ethics of business is profit.
Okay, so here we go, part 2 to this post I did some time ago.
There is more than some apprehension on my part in writing and posting this. Not b/c I’m harboring a secret, far from it, but b/c I feel like it is pedantic and pretentious to act in accordance as though some sort of secret exists to being with (it does not). That’s not my intention, and I hate to risk it seeming so. No doubt, I’m betraying something of myself here, but whatever. With that, these are pieces of advice that were given to me at one time or another, or they’re things that I feel took me hard time to figure out. Also, they’re things I will say light heartedly at one moment and then dead seriously at the next, b/c there really are no rules, so embrace them and mock them with propitiousness. As the intellectual Ivan Karamazov said, “everything is allowed.”
Though, some diffidence is maybe not a terrible idea, so it’s also good to keep in mind that, as a Lit. professor used to say when a student would make a eager, ill thought out, and soon regretted comment, “there are no right answers in this field, but there are certainly wrong ones.”
Finally, I implore others to offer their feedback here, agree and disagree, and most of all add your bits of advice too.
-If you want to shoot fashion, forget the photo editors; rather, get to know the fashion editors. In my experience, photo editors have remarkably little to do with the fashion work in magazines (sweeping generalization). Now, if you’re looking for portrait work or feature work, then get to know the photo editors.
-Don’t set your heart on fashion b/c you think it’s going to make you cool. It’s not. In fact, it might be the least glamorous of the genres b/c it’s so saturated and near cliche and self-parody. Plus, I believe there are many other areas of photography ripe to be reinvented. I look at anything from portrait to landscape to still life and think they’re areas wide open for a new poster child from our generation. But if you love clothes and the aesthetic of clothes, then by all means, jump in! Be sure that jump’s with alacrity on your part though or I’ll suggest it’ll be wasted.
-Along those same lines: some of the happiest and most successful photographers I know work in B-markets and are names you’ve never heard of. They have big studios, work all the time, make lots of money, and have really nice lives. As you get older you learn that survival and maybe even quality of life might be better to come before those tunnel visioned dreams of posterity or fame. Not that I heed this at all, but still: try to keep an eye on the big picture and be realistic.
-Study! This forum is a testament to my love of learning from what others have done before us.
-This one is kind of personal, but adopt it to your liking: take walks w/o a camera and find pictures. Often I find it makes it more natural to learn to see when the act of taking pictures is not even present. This will inform your work when you do have a camera in hand. It’s not a practice in Zen; it is a practice in developing an intelligence of envisioning a photograph before you pick up the camera.
-(Advanced advice) D-76 leads with the shadows, Rodinal with the mid-tones, HC-110 with the highlights.
-Do not be afraid of mistakes. They’re often the best thing that will happen to your work. But oddly at the same time, your mistakes better be damn fine b/c you can’t afford to get it wrong.
-You can’t control anything past the tip of your nose.
-Regardless, as the photographer, you are responsible for everything in the photograph. As far as you’re concerned, the blame stops at you.
-I’m despondent to admit that it is probably true that if you make prints that are both big and with a substantial amount of red, you’ll probably get a show and sell it out. (There was a wonderful list full of humor and truth on Alec Soth’s Blog by a professor of photography that humorously went over “to dos” and “not to dos” to be a successful fine art photographer, but Soth’s blog archive is currently down so I can’t link it…)
-There’s no substitute for raw talent and inspiration, but at some point it comes down to putting in the time. As Gaddis wrote in one of his novels, and I paraphrase, a young artist can get by on honesty, but an old artist must rely on skill. Wait…or was it Vollman who wrote that?
-Be prepared to discover that much of the biz is politics and who you’re friends with, and that there’s lots of independently wealthy, good looking, connected people that seem to have a serious upper hand. No point bellyaching about it; it’s the invariable games we humans play. But, at least in rags to riches ethos of this country, it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you make yourself valuable to others.
-The petty and ubiquitous statement that the other guy could shoot it so well b/c he/she had lots of assistants and a grip truck and a budget is, to put it simply, bullshit. Even if it’s true, and it probably isn’t, nobody cares or wants to hear about it.
-Be patient. Like any business, and certainly like any competitive business, it takes a long time to get your footing. Don’t let the insta-rising-star stories of McGinley and etcetera confuse expectations. I know talented guys who have been sweating for a decade and are still just getting by.
-There is no secret club or secret world in NYC or London or ____. Sure, there’s bars that most people can’t get into and that are good to be known at, but for the most part you can call art buyers at any major agency or photo editors at any major magazine and make an appointment and they’ll meet with you and see your work. If you’re not in NYC or London or _____, then spending money on a plane ticket and doing this twice a year is, imo, a way better investment than getting that new camera. Then again, Meatyard kind of proved years ago it doesn’t matter where you’re at, just what you do.
-Do not be afraid to begin something great.
The list, of course, goes on, ad infinitum. But at some point it becomes less about photography and more about the crags and gullies only your therapist is qualified to be digging around in.
So I’m ending here.
Kodak asked if I would let them use an image for their booth at the upcoming Photo Plus Expo. I did mull it over for a bit but in the end obliged with this shot. I wanted to give them something that I personally don’t think could have been done on anything other than black and white film.
photo: from Bolivia series. © Graeme Mitchell 2008.
And, yes, this was indeed shot on Kodak film, Tri-x. And for those photo dorks out there, notice the increased edge of density where the image meets the negative border (i.e. edge effects). Call it a fault, or call it an interesting byproduct of using a paraminophenol/non-solvent developer invented in, like, circa 1890.
A scan of an ad I did for Covet, found it towards the front of the Sept 08 issue of Zink:
Unfortunately, one of my favorite parts of this photo was a big-noir-Hitchcockian bird pasted ominously in the sky like an act of God collage, but, alas, it was cropped of the top to make page dimensions. Oh, the crop, how it can break my heart.
Recently I had a photographer write me with two questions that I thought would be worth discussing here, as I think they’re common questions and good questions.
Question “1) [w]ith so many formats available (e.g., 35mm, medium format, and large format), what guides your decision on which format you shoot with for an assignment? I know that the output print size is a major part of the decision as well as portability and ease of use. But are there any other issues that you consider?”
Format is something I consider with every shoot, but it’s hard to explain any logic in this choice b/c only about 17% of the decision is logical. The other %83 is a arcane go-by-my-gut sort of deal. I think most photographers are like this, and that’s why we’re all vastly different in how we approach our gear. Some shoot three formats during the same job, some can only shoot one (I’m definitely of the latter category). So, vague answer: it is something you figure out over years of trial and error.
That’s boring though, so as a more specific and personal answer, I know that I shoot differently with each format and each format has a slightly different quality (less so with digital). These things are part of the process of achieving what I want the pictures to look like. Then I consider reproduction sizes (not as big a deal as most people think) and budget (a bigger deal than most people think) and other practical matters to further direct these considerations. It’s a mix of what’s practical and gets things done, and what feels right for the idea or the moon’s phase or whatever.
It’s something you get relaxed about after a few years as you develop relationships with different cameras and learn that they’re a small part of the process. But I do understand when you’re starting out it can be nerve racking, as is the simple questions of what film you should use, what light modifiers, on and on. I’ve two pieces of advice that worked very well for me in these regards.
First, do not loose sight of the big picture. Go ahead and write that on your mirror. In fashion and portraiture the key things are people, clothes, taste, ideas, light. Concentrate on these. Learn to understand how they work for you and how you work for them. The details of cameras and films and small stuff becomes a unnecessary distraction imo, b/c frankly they make much much less of a difference than we think they do. Yeah, you need to know what you’re doing b/c the photography part does matter, but it’s mostly stuff you learn from simple testing and playing around. A day of shooting will teach you more than a year of reading internet forums.
Second, (as a way of not getting wrapped up in the details), when you’re starting out I always suggest to radically simplify your gear. Pick one camera and shoot it for a few years. Learn to really control that system. Pick one film and one developer and master it. Pick one lens and master it. It is a way of teaching yourself how to bend the basics to your needs, and in doing this you learn the principals of the medium Then it’s like learning a second language; once you become fluent in one, others will come easily.
I did this out of necessity rather than choice. When I first moved to NYC I had sold most of my gear for money; not that I had room for it anyway (lived on couches), so all I had was my Nikons and a few lenses. And I was broke, so all I could afford to do was shoot black and white and process it myself. My back-to-basics wasn’t a pedagogical choice, rather a financial one, but I quickly saw the benefit of it in my work and it soon became a game: “if I can’t do something amazing with this camera and this film, then the problem is me and nothing else.” Your kit might be 8×10″ and tmax 100, or a digital point and shoot, you’ll know when you hold it, but whatever it is use it until it’s as natural as…well, whatever comes naturally to you.
Question “2) I’m planning for my first fashion story; it’s personal/portfolio work, so I’m simply shooting for myself and for my team. I have a team of five: two models, a hair stylist, a make-up artist, and me (the photog). What role do the hair and make-up artists play while the photographer is photographing the models? Are they usually with the photographer and the models during the shooting? Or are they out doing something else[...]“
As above, this all depends on you and what you’ve figured out for yourself over the years. It also varies job to job, set to set, mood to mood. Some photographers blast music and have groupies hanging out, others close sets and it’s just them and the model. For most I think it lies someplace inbetween depending on their personality, the shoot, and the team. I’ll close the set if things get distracting or I can tell the model would benefit from it. Personally, I prefer not to though. If I’m working with my usual team, or people I am confident in, then they’re all right next to my side and very much a part of the process of making pictures. The shoot is an open dialogue where everyone can contribute. This is important to me personally b/c it’s one of the reasons I was so interested in fashion photography, b/c it’s such a collaboration. For me, there’s nothing better than a good group of people just loosing themselves in making a cool image, totally open and honest, dishing and taking, and having fun. Again though, everyone and every shoot is different. As an example of a quirk that makes us all different: I love collaborating and that energy, but once I start burning film and concentrating on the model it has to be quiet; there can be music, but no distractions or pointless noise. Kind of weird, but a big deal. Obviously, for me, having so much faith in my team and wanting them to work so tightly with me makes them a specific sort of people and ones that took a long long long time to put together. And still, the dynamic and people are always shifting as life sees fit. You’ll meet all sorts of people shooting, some who you like and others your don’t like, all that affect the day, and all who you can learn something from.
Still really haven’t answered the question have I? So, my suggestion in starting out with a team is to keep communication wide open, don’t be afraid to direct but also to let people do their thing, and most of all to watch what they’re doing so you can learn it, so you can begin to see what they’re seeing. If you’re into fashion you need to start to understand hair and make-up, and there’s not quicker way to learn it than while working with people on it.
As is my usual advice in receiving advice, often the smartest thing to do is to ignore it all and do what you want.
(Do any other fashion photogs visit this blog? If so, feel free to leave your answer’s or experiences about these questions in the comments. Because I’m not for a moment trying to persuade anyone I’m an authority of any sorts. More thoughts are better.)
Nicholas Nixon gets a fair amount of respect in the photo and art community. Rightfully so, I think. These two photos of his blow me away. The first one I could only find a small jpg of, but still look closely at all the kids’ faces from side to side. Wonderful. And not to get geeky on the “how” of it, but that he does this with 8×10 is impressive.
photo: from Patients series. ©Nicholas Nixon.
You could write a book on Winogrand and his short but unique life and the even more unique working process he had in creating what I think is a seminal and arguably one of the most representative bodies of classic American documentary photography ever produced. What I find most appealing in his photographs is how full of life they are, not only in literal content, but that there is a also sense Winogrand’s brimming taste for existence in them. Partially it comes from the archetypes that he was drawn to and how they effortlessly inspire narratives, but there’s more to it that that. It’s as though you become Winogrand in the shots, you take on his gaze, you know his intelligence and humors, you feel as he did and see the narrative he sees. This presence, the presence of the photographer, doesn’t ever shrink from the photographs, and thus the notion of the photograph as an artifact is also never lost. So a strength of these photographs is that they’re clearly one man’s fiction, like they’re written in first person, opposed to most photographs that are in the third person voice. This is amazing and bizarre to me b/c it is a specific and a rare thing. Or at least it seems rare to me. Like I said, a book could be written, or at least a many-paged Master’s dissertation.
Furthermore, as far as street work goes, I think anyone who has ever tried to or even succeeded in photographing daily life would be humbled by what Winogrand achieved. I certainly am.
(A side story I found interesting: when I was last at the MOMA I was with my friend, Benjamin. He enjoys photography more than you’re average Joe but is by no means versed in it or attempts any sort of sophistication in regards to it. In short, he enjoys whatever catches his eyes. Well, there were prints from any number of the greats hanging on the walls, including a series of maybe 10 pictures that Winogrand had shot at the NYC Zoo and the Coney Island Aquarium. If I recall they hung between Koudelka’s early work on the Gypsies and Diane Arbus‘ later work of the mentally handicapped Halloween outing. Imo, the Winogrand work was much more layered and much more difficult to appreciate. I’d have expected Benjamin to be drawn to Arbus’ otherness or Koudelka’s darkness. Yet, I watched him pass quickly over those and then come to a stand still at Winogrand’s photographs. He found them amazing. I complimented his taste, but I also became aware of something commonplace in Winogrands work that makes it something that anyone can be awed by, lacking pretense of high-art-conceit, which is why, I guess, I consider him the American street shooter, of the people and for the people. (Compare this to his more inaccessible contemporary Friedlander, who, btw, Benjamin didn’t take a second glance at…))
Finally, I caught this 2 part video at the 2point8 blog. It’s a clip of Winogrand with Bill Moyers:
And the second,
“I have no ethics.”
Or are your ethics just bigger than the commonplace, Bruce?
I recently spoke to a class at Parsons, invited by the wonderful fine-art photographer and super sweet gal to boot, Amy Stein. Seeing what interested this next generation of photographers and the fashion work they were doing was enlightening for me and took me completely out of my usual box of viewing the landscape of photography. I had a feeling I left the talk more inspired than the students!
We of course touched on technique and equipment, and it was nice to see most of the students embracing 35mm for fashion work and their surprise and positive reaction to much of my work being on 35mm. It’s obvious from this blog that I’m far far far from an equipment junky or even from being interested in equipment beyond its working and not breaking. I will use about any camera within reach or that I happen to have film for, but with that I’ve always been fond of 35mm b/c it’s a format, like all, that if given a certain kind of love can give unique results other formats can’t. The smaller negative if well shot has a bite and crunch to it that can’t be mimicked by other formats, and well shot is the key word here, b/c you really need to be a technically superior photographer to shoot well on 35mm: any errors are magnified many fold when repro sizes get big: try printing a soft 6×7 neg to 11×14 and it’s pretty; try it with a 35mm neg and it looks, well, soft…that is if sharp is your cup of tea, which it may not be, like H.C. Bresson you might facetiously humor focus as conceit of the bourgeoisie. Also, a lot of people pick up 35mm and default to candid on all production fronts including the very basic use of light, while a seasoned 35mm photographer (hey, Peter Lindbergh) never forgets that good light is good light, no matter what size the film is. You know? Anyway, this is an ode to those guys who don’t shelve the Nikons on shoot day and to those up and coming kids I met burning up all 36 of them frames. 36 chances at fame! Keep doing it.
A first edit is a difficult thing to do, approached chock-full of biases and nerves and without any distance from original intentions…so, well, possibilities are often missed. I’d like to say I casually return to contact sheets again after a few months, after a few years, to find what I’d missed, but honestly by then I’m tired of it and done with it and on to more pressing matters, namely, the next piece of film to be exposed.
I recalled this image from the portrait of Benjamin, but didn’t remember noting it, or even scanning it, but last night while backing up files, I saw it and its implicit complications suddenly became interesting. And the only reason I even had a scan of it was b/c Benjamin had seen the contacts and specifically requested it…I’d never have bothered.
Doing an edit is a series of conflicts, practical and personal and everything between. Despite frowning upon showing my contacts to anyone, I believe the strongest edits are those I’ve done alongside other people, be it a photo ed, my team or just people I trust.
Rarely do I talk about the process of work; attempting to seems full of fallacy, but, recently, I tried to explain to a good friend my discomfort towards people’s assumptions when I photograph on the street. If I’m lucky I am supposed a tourist, but more often I fear the presumed role of colonizer, in regards that I sense heavily the assumption of exploitation – and the hate of some reactions can’t be underestimated…it can leave an awfully miserable taste in my mouth. But there is little I can do to share the imperative that I do this with a unimaginable amount of compassion; nor to share that attempt to recognize universality in the harrowing despotism of the day in and out; nor, furthermore, to share a glimpse at a pursuit of a truth. As this is what it amounts to for me on some inordinate yet fundamental levels. Sure, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so to speak, but if this aphorism is speculative then I refuse it on a personal moral level.
Maybe it’s more simple to understand this through another conversation I had with another friend, an older photographer, when he warned me in realizing projects of these kinds; he chuckled in tones full of terrifying nihilism that he had known a photographer years and years ago who similarly photographed the street in NYC and had subsequently lost his mind and ended up being committed, to end up I think dieing alone and crazy in some sordid fashion that you’d usually associate with a man broken by war or likewise.
This, I thought to myself, was very easily imaginable.
Polaroids from a spring editorial. Keep your eyes on the newsstands, should hit’em in May.
polaroid: ©Graeme Mitchell, 2007
polaroid: ©Graeme Mitchell, 2007