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The Visual Arts: Norman Jean Roy

The fashion photographer on what makes a great picture.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Music issue 09/04/2008

The fashion photographer on what makes a great picture.

Fashion Rocks Magazine relies on some of the top names in the fashion photography world for its glossy, glam look. Annie Leibovitz, Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, Terry Richardson and Craig McDean are just a few of the top shutterbugs who have participated over the past five years. WWD caught up with Norman Jean Roy for his thoughts on shooting for fashion rocks, models and European versus American fashion  photography.

ON SHOOTING USHER IN THE DESERT: “We wanted to do two days of hanging out together….I’d never photographed in the desert and knew I wanted to do something there, so we just spent a couple of days together. We shot in Ray Charles’ recording studio, and then we shot somewhere in the middle of the desert [for] the expanse, the light, the reflection.”

ON WHETHER CELEBRITIES MICROMANAGE SHOOTS: “The vast majority of photographers who are at a certain level in their career are there because they’re able to persuade and balance and modify the flow. Ninety percent of subjects, particularly the pros, know when they’re in the presence of someone who knows what they’re doing. I haven’t been challenged in a long time as to my approach. By the time they get to me, they know who I am, they know how I do things. So why would they challenge me?”

ON CELEBRITIES VS. MODELS: “The only difference is the level of attention they’re going to dedicate to the shoot. With a model you’re a little bit luckier because you can ask a model to stand a certain way for a certain amount of time, and models  can dig from a large pool of references visually to accommodate or facilitate the photograph. With portraiture and photographs, which I tend to be drawn to, it’s a lot more challenging, which I like. Long gone are the days of the personalities of Linda, Christy, Cindy, in the early Nineties and early Seventies. The girls [now] don’t really carry the personality that the other girls did. And I don’t know why.…There’s something missing in the way they’re being portrayed that unfortunately kind of takes away from their personality coming through. That’s the thing that portrait photographers strive to get, a connection that’s human, that reflects the person’s vulnerable side. I think it’s the fault of the magazine, the industry and the model agencies. If you look at it collectively across different mediums, just like a record company would give an artist the chance to prove themselves and develop themselves, nowadays they test them and they don’t even release the album.

One of the great things that Anna Wintour has been trying to do over the past few years is really develop these girls. That’s why she uses the girls over and over again. She wants these girls to become ‘The’ girls, and I commend her for that.”

ON HOW HE PREPARES TO SHOOT AN ARTIST: “There’s a fine line between not knowing anything about a person and knowing too much. There are certain things that occur that are kind of foot-in-the-mouth and magical when you don’t know anything about someone. Then you can take risks you might not take. Some people get a kick out of the fact that you know nothing about them, and others are offended. My rebuttal would be, well, do you know anything about me? It’s a two-way street.”

ON HIS OWN STYLE: “I think my work is very cinematic and very storytelling without being overly obvious. I try to always connect with someone on a very human level. I  always try to become a bridge between the viewer and the subject — it’s as if you feel the air of the moment kind of passing through you, you can almost smell them. You get lost in the photograph rather than looking at a two-dimensional photograph.  Ninety percent of what’s in magazines, particularly portraiture, is very flat. Not  to say that my work is necessarily better, but certainly that’s my intent every time. Whether that transpires is arguable. All I want is to connect in a way that makes me disappear between the viewer and the subject.”

ON AMERICAN VS. EUROPEAN EDITORIAL FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY: “Arguments can be made for both sides of the pond. People can say Europe is edgier, but Europe wishes it had the audience of the American magazines. Striking a balance between art and commerce  is what [photographers] struggle with. The ones that do it most successfully get the best market share….I have a tremendous respect for all the European editors and the American editors. Each of them understands their market, and as long as you  don’t alienate your audience and elevate the bar, you’re a great editor.

The sensibility of European photography tends to be extraordinarily boring. To be very edgy for the sake of being edgy — just because it’s edgy, doesn’t mean it’s good, or just because it’s commercial or more visually friendly, that it’s bad. That’s not to say Maxim is as good as Vogue — my God, it’s not — but they both have  their own validity.”

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