My daughter recently turned 12 and as part of the celebrations we watched R.J. Cutler’s 2009 documentary, “The September Issue.” Not exactly a typical choice for a coming-of-age film but still one that threw past and present into stark contrast.
As the documentary unfolded, it dawned on me just how much publishing and technology have moved on in the last nine years. None of the staff at Vogue was seen using smartphones. I tried to imagine watching it through my daughter’s eyes.
In one scene, Anna Wintour is waiting to view potential cover shots of Sienna Miller by Mario Testino. The team must wait to download large files, then print off the images from the shoot. Although the technology was already there, it was clunky and slow in comparison to today. We were looking at what is fast becoming history: Analogue fashion photography.
In less than a decade, the arrival of the smartphone and its high-tech capabilities has completely revolutionized photography and publishing. Nine years ago, Vogue was a fashion authority. Today, Instagram is. The hashtag Fashion Week has 15 million posts attached to it, #AW18 has 533,000 and counting.
We’re also sharing more photos than ever, 350 million per day on Facebook alone. Where we used to savor glossy A4 magazines, we now flick between images of sleeping cats and expensive brand campaigns on a one-size-fits-all device.
The instantaneous culture we are living in coincides sharply with the halcyon days of “The September Issue,” a time when art or creative directors such as Grace Coddington could afford to spend weeks perfecting and delivering the perfect shot.
Today it’s no longer about producing that one, beautiful seasonal campaign. Nor is it so much about the image quality anymore. Now it’s the attention and the engagement that counts, with technology having triggered a power shift to the new influencers, a tragedy for quality fashion photographers.
I’ve worked with some of the world’s most talented photographers and stylists, although one shoot, in particular, stands out. It took place almost 20 years ago during my tenure as design director of Collezioni Giorgio Armani in Milan.
I had to prepare for the campaign shoot with Albert Watson. Now in his seventies, the Scottish-born photographer has shot more than 100 covers of Vogue worldwide and is known for his celebrity portraits as well as his brand campaigns. He just shot the Pirelli 2019 calendar.
At that time, Mr. Armani had just settled into a new headquarters at Via Borgonuovo 11 and behind the building’s columned and traditional facade were state-of-the-art-offices. This not only included a fully functioning photography studio, but also full-time photographic resources and a casting department.
Back then, the first step in fashion photography was to brief the casting team and enlist their help. I’d meet with them to show them mood boards of the collection samples, the concept of the shoot, including guidelines on styling.
Lele and Mario, who headed up the team, would then hit the phones to various agencies in Milan. Within a few short hours, the office would be stacked with black leather-bound portfolio books, showcasing samples of work from photographers, stylists, makeup artists and proposals from location scouts. My job was to look through them and curate a shortlist of options.
The second step was to take the proposal of the photographer, stylist and model to Mr. Armani for his approval. Only then could the mechanism of shoot logistics swing into action.
The Armani offices had an in-house studio but we frequently used another studio in Milan for the main shoots. Situating studios nearby was crucial because we were shooting on film and we had to be close enough for couriers to bike the Polaroids and hard copy contact sheets back to the office.
Armani’s luxury global positioning was founded on consistent and bold campaign photography. He is known for his larger-than-life billboard and advertising strategies. These campaigns were a significant expense and a creative process that he still remains fiercely in control of from concept to delivery.
When the day arrived, the rigorous process of the shoot began. Models arrived very early with the hair and makeup team. The clothes were prepped and steamed. The behind-the-scenes team quietly and efficiently got on with their tasks.
Albert, in the meantime, was with his assistant, preparing. There was silence as we observed the photographer making many tests and adjustments, and ensuring that the set and lighting were just perfect. It was like watching an artist at work.
When everyone on the team was ready and the model was in the first outfit, Albert began to shoot the first test shots. Again, there was much back and forth as we tried and tested different models, positions and lighting.
Then there was the unique sound of the Hasselblad “pop,” the flash and the crunching noise as the Polaroid was pulled from the cartridge. There was quiet on the set as we all held our breath, waiting for the Polaroid to develop.
The courier waiting to bike the envelope of test shots back to HQ arrived and quickly disappeared. There was time for us to take a quick break as we waited for the Maestro’s word of approval — or not.
And so began the shoot, with a constant to-ing and fro-ing of bikes that ferried film cartridges to the developers, who later returned with hard copy contact sheets. We cut and pasted our picks, marked up the thumbnails with notes and biked it all back to HQ.
Once the shoot was complete, the final selected shots would be printed on large high-res photographic paper in A3 format. A layer of tracing paper would be laid on top. These hard copy prints would be laid out on a grand table alongside magnifying glasses and pencils.
The meeting was nerve-racking, as Mr. Armani would look very closely at each shot, one by one, choose the final images and write comment notes on the cover paper.
Today, it’s a whole different story.
Digital fashion shoots are very different to film. Instead of the calm and collected start, day teams arrive with banks of laptops, ready to display shots in real time. Selecting, editing and approval can be done instantaneously. Connectivity means we are decentralized. We can communicate in high-res, in real time, from anywhere in the world.
Lead times are much shorter, too. Just as brands and retailers are applying the fast-fashion mentality to products, photography is also on a rolling basis. It’s a constant refresh. Content and campaigns must be more frequent to keep up.
This high turnover of fashion photography puts a large strain on the purse strings. Now, instead of one shoot at one price, the strategy must be revised entirely to squeeze in three shoots, as well as video footage. Creatives must learn to be all things to all people, in half the time, with less budget.
Previously, there was an emphasis on the image and art — and the photographer’s talent. The photographer used to be central to the content and everything revolved around him or her. Now it’s all about results: clicks, online traffic and sales. The photographer is no longer the central figure.
I recently caught up with Jamie Stephen, the founder and director of JSR, a leading creative management agency in London. He agrees there’s been a big change in photography, especially in the last three years.
He said photographers are finding themselves “very much sidelined because they are used to having the stage and running the show. It’s their lighting and it’s their direction that gets the image. We’ve done photo shoots whereby our photographer will be paid a fee, which we think is a reasonably good fee, and the client then brings in a load of influencers, who will sit there, or stand, literally, behind the photographer, with their iPhones, capturing pretty much the same content, and then posting it out on their Instagram. It is really chaotic and it’s very much devaluing the ability, and the lighting, and the direction of the photographer,” said Stephen.
The end game is no longer that one perfect image. It’s producing a whole 360-degree visual experience and that has changed the brands’ creative requirements. In addition, clients are far more involved in the process and decision-making. Yes, they’re looking for good photography, but now budgets are swinging in favor of finding the right model, brand ambassador or influencer because that’s where the brands see the potential return on investment.
“For years, big name photographers were absolutely monopolizing the market. A lot of that was based on personality and charisma, and they were the influencers. This is almost a full-circle thing. Photographers no longer have that influence, and being a diva absolutely does not win you work anymore,” said Stephen.
“The September Issue” ended. I felt melancholic that the world of fashion photography would miss the unique talent of Grace Coddington at Vogue and photographers of the calibre of Watson and Testino, whose reputation has since been tarnished following allegations by male models of improper conduct. Coddington was one of a generation of art directors working in an analogue world where we had the luxury of time to create images of great beauty.
It’s also clear that art photography, which truly comes to life in print and large-scale formats won’t ever be the focus of the online content. Instead, we’ll continue to be bombarded with a steady flow of quick images.
This focus on volume of content, not quality, is not necessarily a good thing, for consumers or photographers. The sheer volume of images out there is preventing us from enjoying the art of photography. “The moment of greatest photographic plentitude has pushed photography to the point of exhaustion,” said the American artist Chris Wiley.
There is hope. The rise of quality bimonthly and quarterly magazines such as Buffalo Zine or The Gentlewoman proves there is a still desire for quality photography, but only for those who are willing to seek it out.
“Magazines will be made for display on coffee tables. Print magazines will have more art photography, and featured pieces by proper writers, content and interviews that you will spend more time to read. They will differentiate from the fast reading and commercial content online,” predicted Daniela Agnelli, fashion director of Vogue Poland.
It’s only a matter of time until the next change and period of recalibration. Until then, in this era of image overload, and until the fashion industry can truly analyze the ROI and connection of digital engagement to sales, the power shift from photographer to the new influencers will only continue. For now, only the biggest luxury brands, like Armani, will have the budgets to have both.
Joanne Yulan Jong is the founder of the strategic fashion brand consultancy, Yulan Creative and author of “The Fashion Switch: The New Rules of the Fashion Business.”