Keeping up with the catwalk
By Suzanne Plunkett
Looking back at images from more than a decade ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that the job of covering catwalk season was once far less demanding, but just as fashions change, so do the demands on photographers.
When I made my Fashion Week debut at a DKNY show in New York in the spring of 1999, all I had to worry about was getting a well-exposed, in-focus photo of every outfit on the catwalk. Since we were still shooting in film, this came with its own stresses. Every time I finished a roll, there was a desperate scramble to rewind and change before the next model paraded by.
To ensure I didn’t miss anything, I adopted my own Fashion Week fashion: A particular leather jacket that had two pockets at chest level; the left side for unexposed films and the right side for exposed.
Because I then had to dash back and forth to the darkroom to develop the films between shows, there was no time to focus on the hullabaloo surrounding the shows. The circus sideshow of celebrities, influential fashion figures and trend watchers was largely ignored by the cameras.
Since the advent of digital, the stresses of juggling rolls of film have long gone (as has my leather jacket) but that hasn’t made the job any easier. While shooting the creations on the catwalk is still important, the appetite for different kinds of pictures has grown. Now in addition to shooting straight-up-and-down images of outfits during the show, Reuters photographers are also on the look-out for interesting details or wide angles.
Liberated by our digital cameras and laptops, we are able to capture the flavor of Fashion Week’s particular brand of flamboyant theater: the frenzied scenes backstage as models get dressed, the game of spot-the-celebrity in the front row and the street style of freakishly-coiffed fashion bloggers. I even get to write blogs myself.
Although we have more freedom these days, fashion week is still bound by routines. As the onset of digital and the spread of the internet has fueled the appetite for fashion images, the competition among photographers has also increased. To survive the scrum of photographers that crowd the end of the catwalk, preparation is everything.
At London Fashion Week, I usually arrive at a show one or two hours before it starts. Once I get through the gauntlet of security guards and public relations women armed with clipboards and wristbands, I secure a spot on an elevated platform built for photographers. This entails marking off a square foot with tape printed with the Reuters logo which I then slash into strips with a knife to make it too fiddly for a rival photographer to remove (it happens!).
Next, if I’ve been given access, I go backstage to photograph the models getting ready. This often produces some of the most striking images of Fashion Week – young girls lost in a sea of hands armed with lipstick, eyeliner, crimpers, hairspray and curling tongs.
Then it’s back to the catwalk to watch the models do a run-through with show lighting. This is a last chance to check my camera’s white balance settings and make sure no one is trying to steal my spot.
When the doors open to guests, I prime my flash, change my camera settings and prepare myself to compete with the paparazzi and showbiz photographers as the celebrities make their way to their seats. This is a tricky balancing act. If you spend too long chasing the fashionably late famous faces, you won’t make it back to the spot you’ve so carefully marked out. At the Matthew Williamson show this year, actress Sienna Miller arrived only seconds before the models’ high heels hit the catwalk.
Once I am settled into my place, the lights dim, I once again change my camera settings and wait for the music to start. When the show is over I scramble out of my position and find a place to file my pictures. Usually this is on the floor near the catwalk of the next show.
Fashions change, technology changes and so do the demands on photographers, but one thing remains constant: there’s no time for glamor in photojournalism.