Photographer of the Month - David James (July 2020)
How did you get into fashion photography?
I really wanted to shoot bands for album covers. I got into photography because of artists like Mick Rock (the photographer) and David Bowie. I had this photo album of Bowie at home when I was 13yo. And I remember thinking: ‘this is the answer to everything right now’. I really liked his post-Ziggy days in Paris and Berlin. It just exudes cool. And I was definitely not cool!
I actually failed the photography module in art class. Even though I wanted to do so well. I was heartbroken.
When I was 21yo I got a job in Toronto, Canada working in a studio (I was that kiwi traveller looking for an adventure). I knew I wanted photography in my life, so I worked for free for about 2 months - sweeping floors, painting sets, cleaning the loos, getting coffee - until they relented and gave me a job as a runaround. I got to learn the real work-a-day process of shooting a catalogue or lookbook. Very boring but I LOVED it. Even though I was just the studio bitch basically.
When I came back to New Zealand I started shooting bands in Wellington. A young fashion designer named Lela Jacobs saw my work, asked me to shoot a lookbook, and the rest they say is history - that was way back in 2009, I think.
Then after some time, I travelled to New York City to get an eye-opening lesson in the commerce of fashion photography, where I found myself - once again - being part of a big machine in a bigger process. I learned so much about image, branding and the business of fashion.
But I had also brought a pretty gnarly drug and alcohol dependency with me. And it flourished in that environment.
Eventually I got sober and pulled myself out of the quagmire by returning to NZ and picking up the camera again. Since then I have been working for Lela Jacobs, Jimmy D, Lost and Led Astray, Company of Strangers, The Service Depot, Goodness Boutique and Public Library Showroom quite a bit. It’s been a huge personal journey for me as well as professionally.
Being sober I feel darker and meaner than I have ever felt. And that all goes into my work now. All the villains go into my fashion work. And I still treat my fashion work like I am shooting an album cover for a band.
Is your photography style dictated by the brand you are shooting or from a deeper emotion?
I ALWAYS talk to the designer about their collection now. I never used to. I used to jump right in and see what happens. Nowadays, I really want to know the inspiration, about the fabrics, or the story behind what they are doing. I also need to know their goals. I love talking money and sales, just as much as I love talking about all the gooey creative stuff. That way I can understand the full scope - from moodboard to final presentation. I want my clients to actually sell shit so they can keep doing what they do. Simple!
But as far as my style is concerned, I really do need to have that connection and energy with the models. When there’s movement and energy and emotion the photos just have this authenticity to it that I want to be drawn to. It has to convey some kind of story.
So here’s the trick - strip everything back enough so all the technical crap doesn’t get in the way of that connection. If I’m fiddling around with lights or gear, I’ll never get what I want from a shoot. That’s why it’s often just a camera and a flash or natural light for me
Is photography more than just a creative outlet for you, more than a source of income?
I have tried SO MANY TIMES to give up photography and do something else, But it keeps crawling back into my life. I think I am cursed to do it.
Do you use different cameras for fashion shoots and portraits?
Yes. As much as try to strip things back, I also like to try new things. If I can afford it. I do use my Canon 5D Mark IV for everything grunty - lookbooks and model tests - and for the more grittier campaign stuff I used both film cameras and the Canon DSLR. I really love the Minolta Freedom Zoom. I have two of them. Cheap and cheerful. And I have fallen in love with the Kodak Pro Image 100 film. It just nails it. And I used it alot in the latest Jimmy D campaign. Such a great studio film.
If you use point and shoot flashes, then you really have to make that flash pop hard. And 100 iso film will really make your little camera work hot.
Do you approach your wedding photography in a similar way to your fashion photography?
Everything reinvigorates everything else I do. Weddings are so physically and mentally demanding, but they are also massive problem-solving enterprises. You turn up, the light is the way it is, the vibe is the way it is. And you have to make it work. I think being able to do anything and in any condition is something I have learned from weddings. And all of that goes into my fashion work. I can often turn up and solve problems pretty quickly in the studio and outdoors.
However, I see a lot of my brides love my fashion work now. And they wanna look like a badass on their wedding day. So that’s fun crossing that genre over.
Can you point out how your photography has evolved?
I listen more. I am far more vulnerable now and willing to take advice and input. In the past I was so insecure that I had to act like I knew everything, or else someone would think I was a faker. But nowadays I am less scared of that.
I have also simplified everything. Less editing. Less fluffing about. I just get the job done. Listen to the client and really serve the purpose of the brand story. I want the client to be happy.
And a lot of people might think: oh you’re compromising your art if you do that. It’s not really being a true creative. Blah blah. That is such a load of bullshit. The very nature of creativity is compromise. Taking your limited tools and resources and making something spectacular with them. I can’t be more certain of that.
Can you offer any advice to the younger generation of film photographers?
FUCK YES. Please ask questions. Don’t be afraid to NOT be cool. If that makes sense. Stay vulnerable. Coz it’s not about being cool at all. It’s about using your imagination and playing and making stuff. Film photography is about acceptance, patience, and letting go. Find a camera that suits your vibe (I like small ones, not big ones). And just shoot lots.
I know it can be expensive sometimes to shoot film, but you can make it happen. If that’s all you wanna do - where there’s a will there’s a way! Work an extra shift - whatever. Because if you build something the world will come to you.
And just one more last thing: So many younger photographers ask me - can I get a job in fashion photography? Simple answer is: no-one is going to do that for you. You have to make it yourself. And that’s the best thing about film photography in fashion. It’s whatever you want to make it really. Get some friends, borrow some clothes from a student designer - get out there and shoot. Find your language, and eventually everyone - and everything - will come to you.
Quick fire ten questions
- 35mm or 120? 35mm - it’s cheaper and gnarlier
- Colour or B&W? Colour - all my memories are in colour
- Zoom Lenses or Fixed? Doesn’t matter to me now. Just find a focal length you like.
- Portrait or Landscape (Orientation)? Portrait. Dunno why.
- Flash or Natural Light? Flash - cause it’s so sleezy looking.
- SLR (or TLR) or Rangefinder or Point and Shoot? Damn. I love point and shoot. Sorry. It has the sleezy vibes I am after.
- Must be razor sharp or more about the aesthetic? Mate. I love some blur if it’s still got the attitude.
- Favourite Camera? Right now - the Minolta Freedom Zoom 110 can do no wrong.
- Favourite Photographer? Juergen Teller. He kills me. No one can do what he does with such honesty.
- Favourite Photo Book? That Bowie book - I can remember it’s name now. ‘Bowie Annual’ or something.