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Q&A With Tom Munro

Tom Munro has shot everyone from Nicole Kidman to Justin Timberlake, but he considers himself to be a fashion photographer first and foremost.

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Thirteen years into his career, and Tom Munro seems to be living the photographer’s dream. The New York-based Brit, who got his start assisting Steven Meisel, has photographed the likes of Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, Janet Jackson, Dustin Hoffman and Lady Gaga; shot ad campaigns for Cover Girl, Lancôme, Moschino, Armani and Tag Heuer; and directed music videos for Madonna. His images have appeared in Vogue’s British, Italian and American editions, as well as in Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, W and Details. What’s more, he’s a go-to lensman for Justin Timberlake (he shot the pop star’s Givenchy Play ads) and the Material Girl calls him a close friend (Munro traveled with her to Africa last year to document the work of her charity, Raising Malawi). Madonna also wrote the foreword to his first, self-titled book of celebrity portraits (Damiani), out May 1. Yet for all the big-name faces he’s photographed, Munro considers himself to be a fashion photographer first and foremost. Here, he talks to WWD about his fashion roots, the pressures of shooting celebrities and the perils of Photoshop.

WWD: How did you make the transition from assisting Steven Meisel to being a photographer in your own right?
Tom Munro: I was with Steven for two-and-a-half, three years and obviously I met a lot of the right people in the business. While I was with him, in my last year or six months, I started taking pictures and doing tests with people that I knew — Stella Tennant, for example, and then those tests became tear sheets in magazines. Franca Sozzani asked me to do covers for Italian Glamour. So when I left Steven I had a book of tear sheets, and I guess it was that book that appealed to British Vogue and there started the journey.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

WWD: When you started out did you want to be a fashion photographer or a celebrity-portrait photographer?
T.M.: Although this first book is my celebrity archive, I consider myself to be more a fashion photographer than a celebrity photographer. It’s just another arrow to my bow, if that’s the right expression.

WWD: Do you have any special tricks with celebrities — when you first walk into the room, how do you put them at ease?
T.M.: I can’t say that I’m really phased by celebrity anymore. Most celebrities don’t want to be treated differently by other people. There are some that are slightly grandiose, but I suppose having done what I’ve been doing for a number of years, most people that I shoot know of me or have had positive feedback about me, so they come into the studio or wherever we might be shooting with an open mind.

WWD: With celebrities, oftentimes you get a very short amount of time in which to shoot them. What do you do to make sure you get something out of the time you have?
T.M.: It can be pretty frantic at times. The first time I shot Tom Cruise, we had specifically an hour and 20 minutes, not an hour and a half. You just have to be well prepared. Occasionally, I have conversations with my subject before the shoot, and sometimes you just wing it. One of my most memorable shoots was with Dustin Hoffman for L’Uomo Vogue. We went to a location — and we did a cover and 18 or 20 pages in a day. I didn’t really have any references; we just wandered around this location and took pictures.

WWD: But with the stars you’ve shot, do you worry about making your images stand out from all of the other photos of them out there?
T.M.: I guess my personal style defines, in some way, the picture. And I would say my style and approach is fairly classic. I often shoot black and white and quite high contrast. I mean, these people do get photographed a lot, but I think the prime celebrities don’t, really. We think we see them all the time in various magazines, but they’re often only working with one or two or three photographers. I have a great relationship with Leo DiCaprio and Justin Timberlake, and I do a lot of work with both of them. They feel that I’m going to respect them and look after them, and that’s part of my job — to protect them.

WWD: How do you protect them?
T.M.: Hopefully by taking a good picture. It’s my job to do them justice.

WWD: What role does retouching play in your work?
T.M.: I certainly retouch — it very much depends on the shoot. If you look at the pictures in the [recent Los Angeles] exhibition and in the book, I’ve certainly manipulated some of them. I was trying to make them into more art pieces than straightforward photographic prints. So, I’ve used Photoshop and retouching in a creative way. There are certainly times, whether it’s with a model or a celebrity, when one uses it to enhance an image or a figure. I try to do it as subtly as possible without being too extreme.

WWD: Would you say you’re guilty of having slimmed someone down or changed a body, either at a client’s request or not, to a pretty unrealistic weight or height?
T.M.: I wouldn’t say that I’ve manipulated pictures to the extreme [to] where they’re not honest. Certainly most pictures are retouched and perhaps, at times, stretched or pulled or slimmed. It might even just be a calf; it might be an arm or a leg or elongating someone’s neck or changing a head. I guess there’s been a lot of controversy about it, but it’s an artistic tool.

WWD: Are you over shooting celebrities?
T.M.: I feel I just started. Someone asked me the other day what photographers I most admired and I said to them, ‘I most admire anyone that has longevity in this business.’ It’s a tough business to be in. It’s very competitive; it’s a way of life. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. And you’re only as good as your last picture — that is a very true and valid statement.

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