Professional Insights

Professional Insights

David Dare Parker

Rob Van Petten

Fashion (U.S.A.)

Art, Inspiration and Edge

Over the past 30 years, Rob Van Petten has been shooting fashion and lifestyle for advertising campaigns around the world. His pictures typically portray models and motion, with a strong emphasis on color. Metallic textures, modern architecture, cosmic lighting and computer manipulation are often signature elements of his images — natural choices when considering his passion for rock & roll from his youth as a professional guitar player. Light energizes his images, rather than simply illuminating a scene. His current portfolio, Near Future, is a resplendent collection of fantasy and retro-future imagery that brings us simultaneously back and forward in time to a safer, simpler vision of today's world, where modern is nostalgic and the future is fun.

An "overnight" conversion to fashion

Like most photographers who do this commercially, I became a fashion photographer by accident. I was actually a street photographer and photojournalist. I liked black-and-white street photography like Lee Freedlander, and I had a lot of images of people. In the late 1970's, people in advertising agencies saw my work and told me that they were looking for a new style of shooting — something edgy. Ad agencies started calling me to shoot fashion, but I had never done it before. Early on, I shot a piece for Timberland boots. They wanted black-and-white documentary-like images of people in their factory and people who wore their shoes. That job was a real quick, dirty black-and-white piece, but it won first place in New York at the Art Directors Awards. Suddenly I was a fashion photographer.

I started out shooting shoes around the time that many footwear companies — Converse, Reebok, Hyde and New Balance — began to develop their own apparel lines. Because I was shooting people, I suddenly became a prime candidate to shoot apparel. I put together a team of hairdressers, make-up artists and stylists and began shooting workout apparel and athletic apparel associated with these shoe companies. So I became a fashion photographer by default. At first, I did casual, sports-related fashion, usually with lots of runners. Then I moved toward cosmetics, such as eyewear and makeup. Soon after, Gillette took me in and I started shooting all of their personal care lines.

Fashion as fantasy, the photographer as brand

Many photographers follow the path of clients that hire them. What's different as a fashion photographer is that it's more about your own fantasies: you shoot your concepts using your own taste. You work out ideas on your own, and people begin to buy that style from you. Your inspiration becomes a part of their planning and their vision for the future. You become a trend forecaster for a company. You really lead your client's new vision of what the company offers next season.

I am now identified with a particular style that I call "Near Future." It has a bit of Barbarella and a bit of Alice in Wonderland. It's very fantasy-oriented, and it has a kind of retro feel in a modern environment. I think most photographers who want to be identified with a brand should develop a look that's really part of their own fantasies. Start from your own heart, and then develop this into your own personal style. My style just happens to be this light-driven, hi-tech, near-future style with very saturated colors. That became my identity. I shoot that on my own, and much of it is bought as concepts for advertising and fashion work.

I developed this style gradually working in a studio. As a young photographer, I wasn't really prepared to do the jobs that I was getting. I would get a job and spend all night in a studio trying to figure out how to do it, so I spent a lot of time with lighting, which really appealed to me. I have been told that my light activates and energizes my images as much as it illuminates the scene. I think that description fits — it resonates with me.

Making a successful fashion photograph

The job of a fashion photographer is usually to sell apparel, personal care items, jewelry or accessories. To sell an item, you have to engage an audience, and the final image has to last a long time. You have to capture the audience's attention. To do that, you create a scenario, and have a suggestion of something going on just beyond the edge of the frame. You play with pressure on a model, actor or actress, and you create the sensation of other activities that you can only see a fragment of. A fashion photograph totally works when the mood created by the lighting merges with the moment of action to conjure up emotions that an audience can relate to. That makes a successful photograph.

Being open to what's happening

I usually start with a problem that a client brings to me. If it's my own concept, then the idea is driven by a composition that I like or a moment that I witness. As an artist, you collect these: a song you hear, or a line from a book or a poem. It can be anything that gets your attention. You start to collect these moments, and then put them into action. Perhaps you notice a thread that runs through music and movies and theater, and you try to synthesize the pieces that appeal to you. When you are open to receiving this kind of information, you carry your camera with you all the time, tagging the things that you like. You notice the design of a car or an interesting pattern of light on a building. Then if you have a free day to shoot something, all these inspirational images begin to compound. For me, a lot of them are driven by light and color: the color of a wall, or the way light reflects off the Empire State Building. It's an ongoing lifestyle process to inspire yourself continuously.

Fashion photography and the high-resolution digital SLR

What I'm looking for in a camera is extremely high resolution. I shoot very quickly, so I also like fast responses. I use autofocus all the time — good AF is essential because I live with the camera in my hand. I need a camera that feels right. I need ergonomics because I shoot and hold it all day. Good metering is also a major factor.

High resolution is very important to fashion photographers because skin tones are essential. Colors are crucial. Dynamic range is important. Metal must look like metal, and makeup must look smooth and be rendered consistently across the skin. Hair, especially, must be sharp and full of detail, as that's one kind of image that I'm frequently shooting. The higher the resolution, the more options there are to play with. Fashion photographers do a lot of postproduction too, and if you do a lot of retouching and postproduction, you have more opportunities with a higher resolution file. Medium-format cameras were once the only option available for extremely high resolution, but I believe that the D800 surpasses that experience. It shoots fast enough to keep up with my models, and the AF, auto metering and other features are similar to the D3X. The resolution, dynamic range and color rendering just seem better than anything that has come before. This puts medium-format capability into the hands of the D3X shooter. On top of all that, I can use all my lenses with it: a major advantage for me, and for my work.

Discover more about Rob Van Petten's world of photography