Last month, I attended a panel on “The Future Of Fashion Photography” at Milk Gallery. In it, buzzy young photographer Petra Collins appeared alongside Vogue photography director Ivan Shaw, stylist Karen Kaiser, and School of Visual Arts Chair Stephen Frailey to talk about where fashion photography is headed.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion, which covered everything from being a bio-major-turned-celeb-stylist to making up a fake agent.
On how they got where they are now:
Petra: “When I started taking photos, I didn’t see a place for my work. I was never accepted into any magazines. Since I was a child of the Internet age, I decided to start my own website.” Though her art professors sometimes communicated that students need to wait for their degrees to gain access to the art world, she disagrees. “You just have to go and do your own thing and not wait for permission.”
Karen: Her undergrad major was pre-med. She sees a connection between medicine and fashion—they’re both about relationships with people. And the hours she works are similar to those of her med school friends in residency. She laughs, “So don’t do it for the money. Do it because you love it.”
Ivan: He started as a photographer, and now he’s a photography director at Vogue. “Be open-minded to allowing yourself to evolve.”
Stephen: “Don’t just consider yourself a photographer. Consider yourself someone who loves working with photographs”—then see where it takes you. He cites legendary photographers who ended up doing other things later in their careers, i.e. Cecil Beaton becoming a set designer or Edward Steichen becoming a MOMA curator and botanist.
Karen: Virtual reality models are going to be used in e-commerce soon. “I find it quite frightening! I still love real human beings.”
Petra: It’s not worrying, because people will always gravitate toward authenticity in the end.
On the relationship between fine art and fashion photography:
Stephen: Fashion photographers are sometimes marginalized in the classroom. Fashion photography is seen as “corrupted” by commerce; he says that if you applied as a ‘fashion photographer’ to a fine art program, you wouldn’t be accepted. This distinction shouldn’t exist—he says the best photographers transcend both categories.
On shooting film versus digital:
Petra: “I only shoot film, because that’s how I learned. It’s nice to have something tangible in my hands… With film, I have to be mindful that I only have 36 shots on each roll, and I might have only five rolls with me. It’s kind of precious and it forces me to focus.”
Karen: As a stylist, it’s nice to digitally see the shots as the shoot is taking place, so you can clip a shirt or tuck a hem as needed.
Stephen: He notes that some younger photographers who have grown up as digital natives find film more “authentic or emotional,” but claims “whether you shoot film or digital, it’s just another tool.”
On social media:
Petra: Does much of her casting through Instagram.
Karen: It’s good that it gives more access to the public at exclusive events a la fashion week, but she’s “still a creature who loves to touch and feel things up close. [Seeing it on a screen] is not the same.”
Stephen: Regarding fashion shows: “there’s a big difference between information and experience.” Regarding Instagram: it provides a way for photographers to tell a continuous story, rather having it segmented into disparate editorial shoots. However, there are negatives, too—sometimes the most celebrated work is the weakest. “People ‘like’ what they can easily understand.”
On creative block:
Petra: “I always get blocked; usually when I’m not reading or learning. The only way to get over it is to look less inside of yourself and look more outside.”
Stephen: “Treat creative block as an opportunity to approach the thing in a completely different way.”
Karen: “I think it’s important to give yourself a day or two every now and then to see the museums, read the newspaper. What’s happening in music? Art? How can you translate that message into a story?”
On competing in a saturated market when you don’t have an agent:
Stephen: “I think the only strategy is to make really good work. Make pictures that you’re interested in. You have to be doing this for a reason. Sustain a momentum with your work, and you’ll be fine.”
Ivan: “It’s hard. The numbers are against you. The only suggestion I can make is to try to be your own agent as much as possible. Think about the business of being a photographer. How well are you managing your portfolio? Networking? It’s a business. We get into it for the creative side, but it’s a business.”
Petra: “I made a fake studio manager email address until I had an agent of my own.” This made it so people were less likely to underpay her on the assumption that she was just a photographer who didn’t know what she was doing.
On making it in fashion:
Karen: “I think you learn so much from assisting—when to speak, when not to speak, the rules on set. Of course, there are lots of photographers finding nontraditional ways in, too. Both work, but there is a surplus of photographers, because everyone wants to create their own vision. There’s a lot you can’t learn from books, though. That’s the beauty of assisting.”
Stephen: If you do choose to go the assistant route? “It’s important to not get stuck. Get the information you need and then move on.”
Petra: “I think the key to it is building up a group of artists you appreciate and love.” Then help each other get jobs, assist one another on shoots, and climb together. “You’re powerful in numbers.”
Ivan: “Remember: you can get one break, and that’s great—but a career is built on more than that.”
All photos by Petra Collins.