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Meet the small but powerful group of photographers who shape society’s prevailing notions of beauty by filtering what we see through their lenses.
For most of us, the world can appear small while peering through a camera’s viewfinder.
But when top fashion photographers stare through their lenses, they see unlimited opportunity to elevate their subjects—and themselves—to larger-than-life status.
Such enviable power is wielded by an insular group of global photographers who have shaped beauty’s collective visual vocabulary by lensing nearly all of the high-profile images on which we’ve laid eyes during the last decade—from influential magazine covers and editorial spreads to ad visuals and TV commercials.
Their images have defined current notions of beauty and created a common aesthetic. Recall Mario Sorrenti’s black-and-white Calvin Klein ads with Kate Moss. Or Juergen Teller’s ironic and stark images—like the ad campaign he photographed for Marc Jacobs last spring, featuring Victoria Beckham collapsed inside a giant shopping bag, her legs sprawled clumsily over the sides. The July issue of Italian Vogue rocked the fashion industry with its “Black Issue,” in which Steven Meisel photographed only black models, including Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, Liya Kebede and Alek Wek. The issue generated so much buzz, publisher Condé Nast (parent company of WWD Beauty Biz) increased newsstand distribution of the special issue by 40 percent in the U.S. All have impacted not only the worlds of fashion and beauty, but popular culture overall.
“It is very difficult to make an image that stands out in today’s society and that, at the same time, is relevant and sells,” says Giovanni Testino, founder and chief executive officer of Art Partner, an agency that represents such notable photographers as Mario Sorrenti, Mario Testino and the duo Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. “Real creativity starts with the artist, not the magazine they’re working for.”
In addition to Testino’s stable at Art Partner, photography’s established guard is dominated by the likes of Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber and Nick Knight. In the last decade, their ranks have expanded to include Michael Thompson, Craig McDean, Terry Richardson and Steven Klein, among others.
Their ranks are limited. But in an industry where the competitive stakes are high and ad budgets stratospheric, this small group of veterans is known to deliver. “They’re holding their place in that world by delivering results for companies with global dimensions and so much at stake,” says Doug Lloyd, creative director of Lloyd & Co., a creative agency that counts Jil Sander, Oscar de la Renta and Estée Lauder among its clients. Lloyd notes the top guard has changed little over the past decade. “For the most part, it’s been the same names,” he says.
When Lloyd’s company does decide to mix things up, chances are he’ll enlist a different photographer within the select group, rather than go outside of it altogether. For example, McDean has shot nearly all of Estée Lauder’s ads for the past three years. “We tend to use the same team for two or three years so we have consistent imagery,” explains Aerin Lauder, senior vice president and creative director of the brand.
Last year, though, Weber photographed Lauder for French Vogue and a trust was formed—and in the sharp-edged fashion and beauty business, trust is currency. When the brand decided to create new imagery for its Pleasures and Beautiful fragrance franchises, Weber was tapped.
Pleasures new ad features spokeswoman Gwyneth Paltrow laying on emerald green grass, a guitar aside her in lieu of the puppies traditionally used for the brand, while model Hilary Rhoda was photographed for Beautiful. “We’re always looking at ways to keep the brand fresh,” says Lloyd. “Bruce Weber is amazing with natural, lifestyle photos.”
Like most in fashion and beauty, Lauder monitors select domestic and international magazines as one source of inspiration when mulling a creative direction. Among the most influential are Vogue, French Vogue and Italian Vogue, W, Harper’s Bazaar and V and Visionaire.
In turn, each magazine has its own stable of go-to lensmen who help define its look and feel. For example, Annie Leibovitz, Testino, Meisel, McDean and Klein shoot for Vogue; McDean, Alas and Piggott, Klein, Sorrenti, Teller, David Sims and Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for W, and Leibovitz and Testino for Vanity Fair.
“The key is to develop a juxtaposition of different points of view, so in each issue there is enough of a dialogue between different photographs,” says Dennis Freedman, creative director of W, which is often credited with making photographers. “It’s about putting together a synergy of work, a rhythm.”
Smaller, independent magazines, such as Dazed and Confused, Another Magazine, Purple and Pop, are also key outlets for many. “In Europe or small circulation magazines, you can sometimes push creativity a bit more, due to the fact that their economic realities and their respective number of readers is smaller,” says Giovanni Testino. “However, perhaps for those same reasons, one could argue that it’s in the bigger U.S. magazines that more creativity is required in order to deal with so many commercial parameters and still make a lasting image.”
Contracts with such magazines are highly sought after. The details of these agreements range widely in terms of level of exclusivity required, years covered and, of course, compensation. Industry experts estimate that annual editorial contracts can range from eight to 24 stories, and pay from $100,000 to several million dollars, depending on the photographer.
Jed Root, founder of Jed Root Inc., an agency that represents leading fashion photographers, stylists and hair and makeup artists, explains, “If a photographer has worked with a magazine for awhile, I may push to solidify the relationship before another magazine tries to snatch the photographer away. Or, if another magazine does attempt to snatch up the photographer, it may precipitate contract talks.”
Getting to that level is far from easy. It’s not that the industry doesn’t want to catapult an emerging photographer to stardom. Rather, it’s been difficult to match the talent at the top, which most agree keeps getting better and more versatile. “It’s rare to find a photographer who has developed his or her own voice,” says Freedman. “That takes time and experience—and not just experience taking pictures, but a way of seeing the world.
“It’s easy to copy or imitate technically proficient work,” he continues, “but to develop a voice is much harder. It’s not that we’re not looking. We always are.”
Assisting a famous photographer is the most common way to rise through the ranks. McDean apprenticed with British photographer Knight; Sims assisted Robert Erdmann and Norman Watson; Thompson worked with Penn, and Mikael Jansson apprenticed for Richard Avedon. “Rarely does someone just appear,” says Freedman. “You can’t learn without being exposed to all the people involved in a shoot—hairstylists, makeup artists, models and stylists. Unless you’re exposed to the best, you’re just never going to learn.”
The top fashion magazines serve as a portfolio, of sorts, for a photographer’s work, and photo credits are assiduously noted by creative directors and marketing executives on the hunt for a hot name or a sure bet. Editorial work establishes their worth, but a steady stream of commercial work is what catapults photographers into jaw-dropping tax brackets.
Creative agencies often rely on magazine spreads and photographic agencies to unearth developing talent, and fashion and beauty firms, in turn, look to creative agencies to help select the best photographer for a campaign. In the fashion world, the most coveted include Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Giorgio Armani; in beauty, they include Lancôme, Lauder, L’Oréal and Coty, among others. The reward of landing such a campaign is rich, indeed: The upper-echelon photographers charge a day rate of between $70,000 and $130,000 (not including royalties, mind you).
In the fashion industry, familiarity breeds contentment. “I’ve been working with the same people for 15 years,” says Olivier Van Doorne, president and worldwide creative director for SelectNY, a leading creative agency. “I believe in experience and maturity. There’s a time in life where you have both experience and a spark. I get unexpected results with the expected culprits,” he continues, naming Knight, who shot Lancôme’s 2008 campaigns; Lindbergh, with whom he worked while he was creative director for Lancôme in the Nineties, and Sims as frequent collaborators.
Van Doorne has recently worked with two younger photographers—Carter Smith for an upcoming JLO scent and Alexi Lubomirski for Wella hair care. Lubomirski, who used to assist Testino, is perhaps best known for shooting the nude and pregnant Britney Spears for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, prior to her precipitous fall from grace last year. Still, Van Doorne quickly adds that the current climate, where the industry is focused on return on investment and profit, is not the most opportune time to develop new talent.
For his part, Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird + Partners, a New York–based creative agency that works with Coty, Gap, Donna Karan and Juicy Couture, has his eye on a notable crop of photographers emerging from the fine art world, Ryan McGinley in particular. “He’s coming from an art point of view, and his pictures and models don’t look like anyone else’s,” Laird says.
Be that as it may, though, Laird, too, tends to work with the same group. “The top photographers are getting better and their viewpoint is getting stronger,” he says. Referring to advertising images, he adds: “These are very powerful tools that define a brand. They become part of popular culture.”
Laird notes that, before Juicy Couture’s fragrance launch in 2006, the brand hadn’t defined itself with a particular image. Evocative of a punkified Marie Antoinette–esque tableau, the scent’s ad visual featured five models, elegantly dressed in softly colored gowns of pink, yellow, blue and green in a parlor setting, replete with a crystal chandelier and a large, regal-looking fragrance bottle.
“Now, the [fragrance ad] image has influenced all the brand’s campaigns,” says Laird. “Calvin Klein was the king of this strategy. His fragrance ads were the brand. That’s why the stakes are high, especially for global launches.”
Laird has worked with Coty on the relaunch of CK One and its growing portfolio of celebrity fragrances, including those by Vera Wang, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry and Gwen Stefani. In the case of Stefani, Alas and Piggott—lauded for their use of stark contrasts—shot the ad campaign for her first scent, while McDean was chosen for her latest fragrance, Harajuku Lovers, a quartet of whimsical doll-shaped bottles. The ad features a model with soft pink cheeks, wearing a subtle doll-like expression and an elaborate arrangement of fragrance bottles in her hair.
“Craig shot it almost as if it were a high-end shoot for Vogue. It was very mature,” says Catherine Walsh, senior vice president of American fragrances for Coty Prestige, who says the aim of the campaign was to avoid an unwanted Hello Kitty aesthetic.
Walsh juggles seven celebrity and designer brands—Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang—and uses a host of creative agencies and photographers. “You often hear, ‘Oh, it’s the same people.’ But I’m not even remotely tired of the photographers I’m working with,” says the executive, who studied photography in the master’s program at Ithaca College.
Walsh, who says asking her to name her favorite photographers is akin to asking a parent to name a favorite child, says the work done by the seasoned few is increasingly awe inspiring. This summer, within the same week she worked with Meisel for the steamy Calvin Klein Secret Obsession shoot, featuring a nude Eva Mendes, and the “superstyled” ad for the fragrance Vera Wang Look, which began appearing this month.
“[Meisel] might not seem like a new name, but he’s so versatile that he constantly surprises,” says Walsh. Turning to the Secret Obsession shot, she continues: “The campaign is completely modernizing the franchise. It’s gone from the sex in a bottle of the Eighties to a sensual and relatable image of Eva Mendes.”
The finely crafted point of view of a photographer can intrinsically link him or her to a brand. Take Marc Jacobs’ work with Teller, whose images for the designer and in his editorial work display a rawness, reality and a sense of irony that at times can make the viewer feel slightly uneasy. “Juergen has created the house image for Marc Jacobs,” says Walsh, “but his images tell a story, as the most memorable photos do.”
Brands pay dearly for that talent— and expectations are equally high. Though all declined to specify numbers on the record, multiple sources agree that the cost of an advertising shoot can range from $500,000 to more than $1 million. “There is limited room for error…. You get one shot,” says Neil Kraft, founder of advertising agency KraftWorks, which has developed campaigns for Calvin Klein, Barneys New York and Ralph Lauren, among others.
“The top dozen do amazing advertising work, and the stakes on the advertising side are much higher. They understand marketing,” Kraft continues. Such hefty budgets weigh heavily on creative directors’ shoulders. Kraft still recalls when years ago Calvin Klein killed an advertising shoot by Meisel. “You remember it because it’s quite scarring if a designer kills a shoot,” he says.
“Making an image is not just pushing a button,” says Laird, noting that behind the scenes are set designers, casting directors, a creative director or editor, hair and makeup artists and a stylist, all working under the aegis of the photographer. “A great team works together like a machine.” Hairstylist Odile Gilbert, a fashion week fixture who often works with Lindbergh, is one such team member. “You have to love photography to understand what makes a great picture,” she says. Her personal collection of photographs and books includes works by Avedon and Penn; her recent shoots include a TV commercial directed by Sofia Coppola for Miss Dior Chérie and a spot for Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle with Keira Knightley. “When you work in the field of photography, you need years of experience,” says Gilbert, who started styling hair at 17 years old and emerged as a notable name at 33. “In fashion, everything takes a long time.”