When I was younger I remember watching the BBC series The Clothes Show on a Sunday afternoon which my mother used to view religiously. The glamour and luxury exuded by the fashion industry was something I found fascinating, so I found it rather amusing that years later I found myself covering fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris. Working in ‘the pit’ can be intimidating and scary for a new comer and there are definitely rules to learn and live by if you want to survive.
There’s a definite hierarchy of experience and the publications or agencies the experienced guns work for. Some of the photographers have covered fashion weeks for years and there are firm friendships and mutual respect for those who have shot side by side in the trenches, week in and week out during this time. Whilst it’s total concentration during the 15 minutes or so that the models strut their stuff up and down the runway, hours are spent by photographers queuing to gain entry to a show location and then waiting in the pit for the show to start. Turning up an hour before show time is normal and some of the bigger brands request photographers turn up two hours before lift off. It’s common for photographers to save a space in the queue or in the pit for a friend as they know the favour will be returned. So while there’s an amount of competition for the perfect spot, there’s also cooperation because you’re all in the pit together. Indeed one of photographers worked out that the amount of time spent covering the main cities of NYC, London, Milan and Paris four times a year was the equivalent to a normal 9- 5 job for a year. Fashion weeks don’t respect weekends and it’s a lot of time per year living out of a suitcase. One year I started in at the beginning of January and my first full non travel and non working weekend was at the end of March. Needless to say there was a lot of menswear, womenswear and couture, including my record of 28 shows and presentations in three days at Milan.
Given the requirement for the formulaic head to toe image that brands and publications require for each look that parades down the catwalk, there is obviously a certain amount of repetition. That said, it is a very specific skill set to be able to capture every look in full flight and there’s a veritable check list of things to get right. From the basics of battery life, adequate memory card space (and a spare in case the looks keep coming down the runway) to camera settings such as shutter quick enough to capture motion, the correct focus mode to track the models, to colour temperature of each show, there are a lot of variables to bear in mind. There’s obviously a certain amount of pressure to be able to deliver to your publication the required images and even more pressure if you’re ‘the house’ photographer shooting for the brand; you’ve only got a limited amount of time and space to capture every look and once it’s gone, it’s gone. No second chances. So it’s no surprise that most photographers shoot in burst mode. And beware the curveball of a newcomer or blogger who doesn’t know what they’re doing and thinks they need to use flash. You don’t; the lights will be strong enough 99.9% of the time and your flash is going to overexpose the images of everyone else around you and will provoke displeasure and ire.
Despite the allure of catwalk photography, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A certain street photographer was given a special location for years at Prada shows (the only brand I know that specifically allocates and marks up every photographer’s spot; usually it’s a free for all) despite the fact he couldn’t shoot runway. It took the street ‘tog quite a few seasons before actually being able to take a respectable shot that was in focus. The skill set for street photography didn’t translate onto the catwalk and the street photographer wasn’t technically accomplished enough to work out how to shoot a fashion show. This certain photographer also didn’t have to process the show images straight away and submit them within hours of the show finishing.
However despite the skill set required, the pit photographer is an endangered breed. Where publications once sent their own shooters to capture the latest runway creations, agencies are now offering a season of looks at rock bottom prices. In terms of simple economics, why would Vogue or Elle Brazil, Korea, UK, France, USA, Japan all send their own photographers when an agency can supply all of them with images? Yes, they’re all going to use the same set of images, but each publication has just saved £££. And now, a second cull has begun, with the larger agencies flexing their muscles. Where a small agency relied on a small core team and travelled from city to city incurring travel and accommodation costs, the larger agencies have teams in each location. No travel, no accommodation required and therefore a cheaper product. Where runway photographers were once adored like rockstars earning on €180k a year, back in the days of film, today’s show rate of even £300 is increasingly under pressure. Why pay that figure when an agency is going to provide a publication with every look, from every brand, including street images and detail shots of shoes and bags for between £500- 1, 500 for a whole season.
In this race to the bottom, small agencies and freelancers are disappearing. Years of experience are leaving the pit and not returning; in their place are amateurs and iPhones. The requirement of a good quality, original, image seems to no longer be valued. Variety is the spice of life, just not in fashion photography. Elvis has left the building.