I wrote a post a little while ago where I interviewed three top fashion photographers, and asked them to tell the story of their first paid fashion shoots. What they had to do to land the job, how the shoot went, what did it lead to down the way, any funny stories or helpful tips to share etc. Fashion photography is something many photographers aspire to, and it can seem like an impossible leap from “wannabe” to “fully employed”. Which is why I continue to ask the question: “tell me about your first paid fashion shoot.”
This time around, we’ve got five—FIVE!—established fashion photographers revealing the juicy details of those first forays into the business. Read on to hear the stories of Richard Warren, Jason Christopher, Jordan Doner, Hugh Kretschmer and Chloe Crespi.
And by the way, if you leave a substantive comment on this post, I will donate a canned food item to a local charity in your honor.
[click “continue reading” below for more…]
So the question is what was my first paid gig. Well that was a long time ago and probably for some aspiring model which I have long forgotten and inconsequential to what I believe people will find enlightening, and or informative. My first paid fashion shoot was 35 pages for Bazaar Italia and while it was also a big break; it was the first paid fashion assignment I had ever done and there is a story!
I should preface this by saying I assisted for five years prior to getting this assignment and knew many people in the fashion business including buddies with Vera Wang (then a Vogue editor) and fashion designer Rebecca Moses. These days you can’t just mail a promo card or drop off a portfolio and get a fashion editorial from a major fashion magazine. Now you really have to know people which I did back then through assisting a Vogue shooter. So I guess the small break was getting an assistant job with a Vogue shooter and that was done by mailing a resume and the timing was right. Why I find the story informative is that at some point in your photographic career you realize that you have to sell yourself, and to be effective in doing this you have to be aggressive. Most people are not this way by nature so it becomes a question of “How much do you want it”. If you want something enough you will change your nature to get it. This story is how I went from being a guy with a portfolio to a working photographer and how I finally became so frustrated with the system of getting a job I took a risk…. a big one.
The story. I assisted for 5 years in New York then moved to Milano. Its different now but at the time you could go to Milano and if you had assisted a well known photographer the magazines would actually take appointments and review your portfolio in person. Most of the fashion editors spoke English so the hardest part was getting past the secretary, with me speaking very limited Italian, just to make the appointment. I met with Ugo the fashion editor of Bazaar Italia (Italian Bazaar) and he kept making promises but I was told to come back in 3 months. When the three months were over I met again and was asked to come back in another three months. In the back of my mind I knew he was putting me off because I could not stay living in Italy on credit cards forever. Eventfully I would run out of money, go home, and he would be done with me.
After two of these Put-offs I felt I had enough and actually went to the magazine without an appointment. Not sure what came over me as normally I am not this forward, but it was like something clicked in my brain: “ If I don’t do this now I may never get a chance”. It was not logical because for sure Ugo would think I was crazy and never hire me. It was a desperate act on my part but one I felt I had to do. When I arrived at the magazine Ugo was in the middle of a fashion shoot in the courtyard of the building where the magazine was located. He was horrified that I should just walk in unannounced. He was frantically nodding his head “no” and motioning his hands like he was shooing a fly or something. Before he could show me to the gate to the street, the photographer who was shooting (Nadir) asked if he could look at my portfolio. Nadir was curious about me for some reason and although he never spoke to me directly he was turning the pages of my book saying “bella bella” while Ugo looked over his shoulder. So based on how much Nadir liked my book, Ugo hired me. I’ve never done anything like that since so I am not suggesting it as a path to success. But it is the story of how I got my first paid gig in my current profession.
I interviewed Jason over the phone, and he told me his story:
Jason started out doing a few headshots here and there. He wanted to get into fashion, but was afraid of approaching modeling agencies for talent. This was long before the advent of ModelMayhem and similar sites, so finding modeling talent was difficult without an agency. Jason admits he was very much a homebody back then, wasn’t working much, and had barely been out of the house in months when for some reason he decided to head down to the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. While sitting in the coffee shop area, he overheard three people talking: an older woman with a Russian accent, a beautiful young woman and her mother. And they were talking about ‘the business’. Zed cards, portfolios, agents…his ears perked up.
When the mother and daughter left, he approached the older woman and introduced himself as a photographer, said he’d overheard their conversation and “wanted to shoot models”. She asked him if he had a portfolio. No. Just some family portraits and headshots of his sister. But by luck he actually had these with him while in the coffee shop. Jason had only been shooting for about a year, and these were unretouched prints. But for some reason, this woman seemed to like them. Lucky for him, because she was a talent scout for LA Models and the Ford Agency. She gave him her number, they spoke a few times after that, and she decided to give him a break.
Marina, as her name turned out to be, started sending Jason “new faces” girls from the agencies to shoot tests. Some of these girls had been brought over from Europe and needed proof they were ‘working’ under the terms of their visas, so these unpaid test shoots sometimes ended up on covers of smaller European magazines. No one got paid, but everyone benefited.
This model scout came along on the shoots and did some informal “art direction” on them. Jason credits her for giving him an intensive and sometimes painful education in proper posing and the making of a good fashion image. Shooting slide film was expensive, and Marina would go through each slide, look at it briefly, saying “nope” in her heavily-accented English, and toss the slide aside. Minor posing problems, expressions not quite right, little things like that. And there’s nothing to focus the mind like someone throwing your hard earned money away, one slide at a time.
Jason did these tests for about a year, all with his own money earned from a part-time job, and it started getting expensive. He was also getting pretty good at shooting by this point, so he summoned up the courage and told Marina he needed to start charging her for the shoots.
She said no. End of relationship.
However by that time, he had built his portfolio quite substantially, and was able to start charging models for portfolio shoots on his own. He got on the agency lists of preferred photographers, which made finding clients much easier. And at the early stages of the internet boom, he got his website going and his career picked up the pace immediately.
His first paid fashion shoot, with an actual apparel company as client, came about because of his model portfolio images on his website. A women’s purse manufacturer found him online and hired him for a two-day shoot. His fee was $800 per day for the shoot, and the client handled much of the production: they arranged for a condo complex in Marina del Rey for the shoot location, and did the casting, provided the make up and hair stylists etc. Jason rented a digital camera, which was a big deal back then (Canon 1ds he thinks). And there was no budget for assistants, so he press-ganged one of his friends into helping. The shoot went smoothly, and he worked his ass off. Displaying this campaign and future campaigns on his website led to more and more clients. His early adoption of the web gave Jason a big jump on the competition at the time.
Jason’s advice to aspiring fashion photographers? Go shoot some film. Or at the very least, use small-capacity storage cards. Don’t machine-gun your way into a lucky frame, but rather take your time. Make each shot meaningful and thoughtful. This gives you time to connect with the models, to observe what’s going on around you, and catch that decisive moment. Human expression and capturing that special moment are what make a great image, so make sure you’re moving slowly enough to see it when it happens.
My interview with Jordan:
Matt Haines: When was your first paid fashion shoot?
Jordan Doner: My first editorial shoots were for this ‘club kid’ magazine… now notorious..because it involved Michael Alig who was the club kid murderer played in the movie by Mccauley Culkin. The magazine was called “Project X”. Anne Christensen who was Grace Coddington’s assistant at Vogue and is now the fashion director of NY Times Magazine, “T“, was the stylist. At the same time I photographed Neo-Geo painter Peter Haley for Vogue Itallia. Can’t remember if I was paid. If I was, it was less than my expenses and the rest was plugged with favors. The first paying gig I remember around that time was for Pantone colors, who had me do their ads for NY Fashion week, which were up in the tents in Bryant Park. I low-balled the job and did three ads for the price of one but got the gig.
MH: Were you already a professional photographer at that point, in other words shooting in some other genre or field? Or was this your first paid shoot period?
JD: I think I thought I was, but in retrospect my capacity to get jobs outstripped my logistical and technical skills.
MH: How did you make the contact with these clients?
I was shopping a shoot I did with a friend of mine who was assisting Hiro at that point. I knew Ralph Lauren’s son who was starting a magazine. I was helping him find photographers. We interviewed some cool assistants to Meisel and Klein and in the end my friend Jim who was assisting Hiro suggested we shoot as a team. I showed the shots to Julie Jewels, who was doing Project X, and to Peter Haley who was
being profiled in Vogue Itallia. Both liked the shots I had done with Jim for David Lauren and gave me some pages.
MH: Anything particularly memorable about the shoot or the client interaction?
JD: I didn’t meet Michael Alig at Project X so that’s a plus in retrospect. I did however destroy my car on the Vogue Itallia shoot. I hit the mother of all pot holes. The car was so trashed, we had to take a cab to the next location!
MH: What sort of crew, if any, did you have on the shoot?
JD: Friends. Favors. Great guys.
MH: Was the client happy?
JD: I got projects again so that’s usually the index of client happiness if you’re a photographer. The shoots were further apart at first. It would be weeks, and sometimes months between gigs at the beginning.
MH: Can I ask how much you made on those first shoots?
JD: It can’t be more than hundreds or a few thousand on the editorials. I maybe cleared 10k on the first ad job.
MH: Any tips, words of wisdom or encouragement for aspiring fashion shooters?
JD: If you can be at least as much about your team, the clients, the talent, as you are about photography and the vision, things can progress nicely.
[I must preface by saying that Hugh has been a top-tier photographer for many years, and has relatively recently been called upon to use his imaginative, illustrative style in the fashion genre]
My first paid fashion shoot was in 2006 for LA Magazine. I’ve been shooting professionally for twenty years and through all that time I would say most, if not all, of the work I did has been photo-illustration. The series I did for LA Magazine was more of the same, but now it was a fashion story. The magazine turned to me because another photographer was unable to take the job. I really wasn’t pursuing them at the time because I had just landed back in LA after living in NY for twelve years, and was really just getting to know the city again.
I have gotten to know the photo editor quite well now. Kathleen Clark is her name, and she is no longer with the magazine but owns a gallery that represents me. Two of the pieces I shot for her are currently in a show at the gallery.
I got some great shots out of the series for LA Magazine, and it has won four major awards that I know of. The results were very satisfying. But during the shoot itself, I did experience “my eyes were bigger than my time frame”, as we ran into overtime a lot. It was due to my inexperience with how things run on location shoots in LA. In NY it is different and that is what I was used to. I had a really good crew of about 10-12 people, from make-up and hair to wardrobe and set builders. All very professional and capable. Beyond so! And they were very patient with me.
During the shoot it was a little stressful but the images were really turning out well and that helped. Afterward, I really enjoyed the post production on it because the magazine gave me all the time I needed to finesse the retouching. And in the end, the client was happy.
This fashion shoot didn’t lead to others right away, but I have just finished another fashion spread with the magazines and have pursued other fashion related subjects. I am about to venture off into a series on nightmares for another magazine that incorporates some techniques I have explored through my fashion work.
My one tip to aspiring photographers: dare to be different.
My first real paying job came a year after i moved to NY to pursue photography. I had absolutely no technical knowledge or experience, and had only been shooting for about a year. My passion is natural light, and I was completely intimidated by strobes at the time and had no experience with them. I met an up-and-coming model at a party one night, and he asked if I would take some pictures for his portfolio…and of course I agreed as it was just more practice which I desperately needed. The test shoot was in his loft, and even though the model was extremely good looking I have to say that I killed that shoot, and the pictures turned out amazing.
Little did I know that his boyfriend was an executive at one of the top fashion labels in the world. A week later I got a call from him, saying he saw the pictures and was impressed and would I like to shoot their next look book? I had no idea what a ‘look book’ was, or what it entailed, but of course I said yes. Fast forward two weeks later and I’m in one of the biggest photo studios in New York with a huge crew and big budget. I couldn’t believe my luck. All I can remember thinking is that at any moment they would find out that I was a fraud, and didn’t know what I was doing and fire me. The shoot went well, and ended up opening more doors for me, it was certainly the break I needed. I wish I could tell you it was all easy sailing from there, but it wasn’t. The road has been paved with many mistakes, ups and downs, times where I would search the couch for enough change to eat…but over all it’s been incredible. I think to seriously pursue a career in photography right now is a tough path, but nothing can match the feeling when you know you have just made a beautiful image. I think overall the moral of the story is to try and take every opportunity that is offered to you, because you never know where it will take you.
Thanks so much to these great photographers! If you, the reader, are just getting started in the world of fashion or commercial photography, I think you’ll find these stories inspiring.