David Leslie Anthony – An Interview with a Master Photographer

15 01 2010


All Images ©2009 David Anthony

David Leslie Anthony – An Interview with a Master Photographer

I have had the great fortune of becoming friends with fashion photographer David Leslie Anthony. I have to say, during the journey of my career as a professional fashion photographer, making friends with other photographers in this business hasn’t been easy. Last year, David and I signed with the same agent and he made contact with me, which kind of surprised me, to be honest. From our first phone conversation, though, we hit it off. His honesty and integrity really impressed me and I’ve sort of been “hooked” on him since that first call. I have known of David and his work since the early ’90’s when we both emerged as working fashion photographers and I’ve always admired David’s eye. I truly believe his work is evidence of his incredible vision. But as I’ve gotten to know David over the past year, I have discovered that our friendship has been a gift. He is a top-notch businessman. He’s also very funny and has great stories! Aside from being amused by his sense of humour, I always learn something that helps me understand the business side of the industry. A few weeks ago, during one of our marathon phone conversations, we talked about me interviewing him for my blog and he kindly agreed. I think it’s important for my readers to learn about other photographers and how they got started and how they stay on top of the ever-competitive and quickly becoming overly-saturated market of Fashion Photography. I put together 20 questions and emailed them to him, also asking for him to submit some of his work. He replied with his answers and images and I quickly opened the zip file to dive in and read his replies. I have a feeling you’ll get why I am so taken with him. He’s the Real Deal. He’s been doing this a long time, he is a master at his craft and he thoroughly understands the business side as well. I am a huge fan of his work, a deep admirer of his work ethics and I’m grateful to call him my friend. So without further ado, let me introduce you to David Leslie Anthony!

1.    Can you talk a little about what sparked your interest in becoming a fashion photographer and what the progression was in the early days of your career. Ie; did you go to college or have any formal training?

I had always loved fashion and photographs growing up, because I’d sit with my Mother and pore over fashion magazines with her as a child growing up.  Later, when I began college, I was getting my hair cut, and I noticed all these great looking women getting their hair done.  So I began attending Beauty School in Los Angeles during the day, and college at night (because I figured it was a great way to get laid).  Making a long story short, I ended up quitting college, finished Beauty School and found I was actually good at the creation of design and imagery.  I soon became a sought-after platform artist, creating hair designs for product companies.  This was quickly followed with becoming the International Artistic Director for some of the leading Advanced Hairdressing Academies in the industry, and performing on stage in major shows around the world.  Around this same time, I was creating hair design work for hairdressing magazines, and this opened me to a new world of creativity:  Photography.   I bought some books on understanding exposure and how a camera works, and began reading them.  The first camera I bought and began working with was a Canon AE1.  And I started to shoot photographs.  I shot all the time, and every chance I got.  I kept notebooks (which I still do today), and would record everything I did, along with clips of the contact sheet or transparency.  I would record my “mistakes” as well and learned from them.  I made friends with the people at the lab I went to, and they would teach me more about “why” certain things happened, and what it created.  To me, “mistakes” were simply wonderful opportunities to make better photos.  Later, I bought another Canon and would shoot with one camera, and hock the other so I could pay for film and processing.  I began photographing my own work for the magazines, and feeling that I had accomplished all I wanted in the beauty industry, decided I wanted to embark on a whole new career.  I would buy magazines and study various photographers work who inspired me, and made me “see new things”.


In the fall of 1989, I discovered what happened when you “cross-processed” film, by accident.  The lab told me what I did “wrong”, and I was so fascinated by what I was getting, I bought and experimented with every type of film and filters I could get my hands on.  I learned how to control the colours and the skin tones, how to “bend” the look to my way of thinking through understanding and knowledge of light AND the quality of light.  At this time, only a handful of photographers were doing this kind of work.  One such person was Javier Vallhonrat, a Spanish fashion photographer who was just doing amazing work in cross-processing!  I studied all the work I could on this person.  I studied the black & white work of Peter Lindbergh, the energy of Arthur Elgort, the clean lines of Herb Ritts, etc.  By this time I had “retired” from hairdressing and became a “photographer”.  Friends I had met began teaching me more things and model agencies gave me people to “test shoot” to build my viewpoint and “style”.  In 1990, I got hired to shoot the national Z. Cavaricci campaign shooting it in my “cross-processed style”.  This was followed by Kad Clothing Company, Khaki & Whites, and a handful of various denim companies shooting their ad campaigns.  I traveled to New Orleans where I shot a few jobs down there, and up to Vancouver, Canada shooting some work there.  In 1994, I returned to Los Angeles, and sat down and began thinking about all that had happened thus far in my new career.  Unlike MANY of the young “photographers” today (who have huge ego’s and “legend in their own mind” attitudes), I realized I had JUST been lucky and that I really didn’t know a damn thing.  I realized that IF I really wanted to earn the right to call myself a photographer, I had to relocate to Europe and train and assist under some of the best photographers I could find.  I packed some clothes, packed my two cameras, and took what monies I had saved and moved to Paris.  I needed to be in the heart of fashion and photography IF I truly wanted to be where I wanted to be in the profession.  I sacrificed a lot at the beginnings of my career.  I got a job assisting one of the top photographers in the business, but I had nowhere to stay.  I learned another valuable lesson once in Paris.  Before you travel somewhere, make sure you know what the true value of your money IS in the country you are going to.  I “discovered” that due to the exchange rate, my money was now worth half of what I had brought.  So….I lived in a hedge grove in a park, bathed in the park restroom, and worked until I had enough to get a small cheap room in the 14th Arrondissement in Paris.  I lived and worked in Paris and Madrid for just over 5 years.  It was the best education I could get, and provided the foundation for where I am today in my career.  I learned about the technical aspects of photography, the business side and how to work with budgets, how to work with clients, and how to make a photograph “feel”, to say what I wanted to say.  FINALLY, I felt I could call myself a photographer.

2.    In your opinion, what makes for a successful shoot?

I guess this really depends on what it is for.  If it’s for yourself and you achieve what it is YOU want to achieve; then it IS successful.  If it’s a commercial shoot and the client is happy with the results, then THAT is successful.   Then IF the client or magazine picks the right photos to run, then THAT  shoot is successful.  In the 20 years I’ve been a photographer now, I’ve NEVER had a shoot occur without something not “go wrong”.  You could book a Make-up artist that you have worked with many times before, and on THIS particular shoot she/he “just does not get the concept”.  You could be working with a model you have worked with prior, and today she get’s her period and she does not feel “into it”.  You could have an assistant fail to pack certain equipment, and they didn’t tell you, and you suddenly need it…..and it’s 1500 miles away from your location.  It could be a bright sunny day, and suddenly become overcast.  It’s HOW you deal with these situations that makes a true professional, and is part of what I learned by being an assistant.


3.    Are you ever 100% satisfied with what you just shot or do you think about the things you would differently “next time”.

I don’t think an artist and/or photographer is ever truly “satisfied” with their work.  For me, I’ll look at my work afterwards and think “what could I have done more?  What could I have done better”.   That is the “growing process” that true professionals continue to deal with, and what keeps them on top of their own careers.  It’s what makes them who they are.  Anyone can learn the technical aspects of photography from books.  Anyone can buy a digital camera.  “Style and feeling” NO one can teach you.  You either have it or you don’t.  When I read comments from young photographers about how they consider “their own work amazing”, 10 out of 10 times…it’s utter crap!  WHEN you become “self-satisfied” with your own work, you have stopped growing!  Since I am under contract with Conde Nast, I have been fortunate to meet photographers like Craig McDean, Mario Testino, Albert Watson, etc. and I’ve NEVER heard or read about them saying “how wonderful they think their work is” or “how amazing their shoot was”.  These are some of the MOST humble people I’ve ever met.  As I’ll always say it’s the “run-of-the-mills” who have the biggest egos.


4.    What do you love the most about this career?

The ability to do what I love, and get paid for doing it.  The fact that I’ve been to so many countries around the world, met so many wonderful people, and again…got paid for it.  The ability to then take the money I’ve been paid, pay my bills, THEN shoot whatever I feel like shooting and not giving a damn whether anyone likes it or not.

5.    What do you dislike?

The way the industry is today.  Back when I started, you had to KNOW photography before you could ever call yourself a photographer, and before anyone took you seriously as one.  Today the photo schools are turning out nothing more than “digital technicians”.  I’ve had some of these people contact me wanting to be assistants, and they don’t know how to work a light meter, have never shot film, never been in a darkroom, don’t know any other camera formats other than Hasselblad.  Today everyone “calls themselves a photographer”.  They buy a digital camera, do a 5 minute photo, then do everything in the computer.  That is NOT being a photographer.  That is being a technician.  Why spend 5-10 hours on a computer doing something that in a few minutes you can do on set   I shoot both digital and film, and I do 95% of my image on set, at the time of shooting.  That includes lighting, metering, creating any special effects, etc. so all I have to do in post is clean up the skin of the model.  In New York (the market I work in), they now have “two schools” of thought.  They say there are the Photographers and there are “digital illustrators” who ONLY know digital and photoshop.  Do these people even realize that the SAME plugins and filters THEY buy and use are the SAME ones the person down the street can buy??  The argument of “oh but I do it different” does NOT hold water.  Why?  Because all the plugins work the same way, giving the same results, at the same angles…for, and to everyone.  The people AT the top of this profession are NOT some 20 somethings, but are photographers who CAME from a film background and are in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and older.  THEY are the creators, the innovators, the true avant garde!  They are the one’s creating the looks and visual styles that the young are trying to copy.  They are the one’s you always see in the major magazines such as French and Italian Vogue, W, and others.  These magazines also are (in my opinion) the true avant garde publications.  Magazines such as Surface and Zink are nothing but poor clones of mediocre digital work.  In fact you often have to look for the name to see if the “photographer” has even changed from one editorial to the next.  Where as, with Paolo Roversi, Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti, David Sims, Steven Klein, and more..you know their style.  It’s unmistakable.  I always tell my assistants “You MUST know the past, BEFORE you can create the future”.  Because the future is made up FROM the past.


6.    Besides photography, can you talk about the things that inspire you, that feed your art and your eye?

The street.  Often times I will go out at night and just “watch” what is happening on the street.  I’ll see people in situations that might find its way into one of my photographs.  Music plays an important part in my photographs and my films.  I’ll make special “playlists” for each shoot I am doing.

7.    Who are some of your “heroes”?

I don’t know if you would call them heroes, but I LOVE the work of Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Paolo Roversi, Mario Sorrenti, David Sims, Michael Thompson, Satoshi Saikusa, Ruven Afanador, Albert Watson, and many others.


8.    Do you have a “secret wish job” if you hadn’t become a fashion photographer, what else would you be interested in to do?

A multimillionaire.

9.    If you had it over to do again, would you have become a fashion photographer?


10.    What makes you laugh?

Interviews and the questions they ask.  Giving “shit” to people and having them whip it right back.  It shows they have a sense of humor and they are not intimidated.

11.    Does your life imitate your art or does your art imitate your life?

I think my “art” imitates my life.  So much of what is in my photographs comes from experiences and people I’ve encountered in my life.  Of places I’ve been to, of places I’ve lived.  Of women I’ve loved, and the periods of life I’ve lived through.  Of what I’ve seen and felt.  These emotions are put into and come through in my photographs.  A great photograph MUST have emotion and “feel”.  And for us to become great…we must feel.

12.    Was that a stupid question? People always ask me the same thing, so I though I’d ask you.

Only you can decide that.


13.    Choose one favorite picture you’ve taken over the years and tell us why it’s your favorite. ( I know, I know, just take one that you really love)

I actually have a few.  Two of them work together and were shot for Harper’s Bazaar.  Unfortunately, they did not run because the Editor’s thought they were “too edgy”.  It’s the woman in the pig’s mask wearing an Oleg Cassini dress and flashing her breasts (shot in 2001) and the photo of the two girls sitting on the streets of New Orleans spitting beer (1998) shot for German Vogue.


14.    What are your feelings about digital. And what are your feelings about the extra work in post-production?

As I said prior, there are Photographers, and there are “digital technicians”.  I do shoot digital and I still shoot film.  I came from a film background where you HAD to know photography before you called yourself a photographer.  I do 95% of my work AT the time of shooting and use the computer like I did when I was in a darkroom.  Whenever I see work that has been SO retouched, my first question is “I want to see the raw files”.  THAT will tell you whether someone knows what they are doing or not, and whether they are just another “guy/girl with digital camera”.  There is one duo in the business that have SO much digital work done such as arms, heads, legs exchanged, etc. and so much post work, that I do not regard them as photographers at all…just as digital illustrators.  How do I know this?  I was privy to seeing their raw files and I was ALSO shown the 157 layers it took to “make” one photograph.  Lastly, I do all my own post work.  No one touches my photos but me.  IF you have someone else do your post work, and all you did was snap the shutter…who then is the REAL creator of the work?  In NYC, there are many retouchers demanding the same fees as the “photographer” AND demanding photo credit.  What does that tell you?  Now don’t get me wrong.  In the hands of real photographers, computers and digital are wonderful additions.  In the hands of “technicians”…simply the usual crap.


15.    The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

The Rolling Stones, hands down!!  Keith Richards forever!!

16.    During your career, how many fashion photographers can you count that were your good friends?

Many aquaintences but very few real friends.  I find that the photographers at the top, are the nicest, most supportive people, and the one’s at the bottom have the biggest egos and have that “legend in their own mind” attitude.  They are the one’s who think their own work is “amazing”.  Very few people are actually truly happy you’ve  accomplished what you have, or who you have shot for.  I’m the type of person who wants to see success come to people I regard as friends in the profession.   For example, if I am considering signing with a new agent or agency, I want to be with an agency that represents better photographers than me.  Why?  Because the better the talent, the better we ALL look in the agency.  Quality breeds quality, and I want to be proud of the other talent I’m associated with, and hopefully they will be proud to be associated with me.  My agent in Canada for example represents three photographers:  Bruce Weber, Nigel Barker and me.  I consider myself a “hack” compared to these guys, BUT because I’m with the same agency, clients consider me in the same league.  I am NOT afraid to tell another photographer that I like their work!  If you remember Melissa, I sent you an email telling you how much I enjoyed YOUR work.  I am a professional and feel VERY SECURE in telling a fellow professional that their work is good!


17.    In your opinion, why do you think the fashion photography industry is so catty and competitive? I mean, it certainly isn’t as high paying as say, commercial advertising or car photography or even lifestyle when you get down to it.

I stated it prior…the photographers at the top are the nicest people.  Why?  Because they are very secure in who they are and what they have achieved.  They have their own way of seeing the world and they have their own style.  I find this “cattiness” comes from the many that have never done anything, yet they all think they are doing “something new” that “no one has seen before”.  IF they got off their trite ego’s and started looking at photography from the 40’s and 50’s, they just might find that everything you see today was done back then AND much better.  Most of these ego’s stem from the one’s on these “wannabe photo/model sites” who have absolutely no talent other than stroking each other, and talking about “how terrible” Terry Richardson’s work is.  Do they actually think Terry gives a shit WHAT they think??  These “people” do bullshit work, trying to attract a bullshit audience, and consider themselves “innovative”.  I mean WHO made them the judge of my work or ANYONE’S work   I shoot what I shoot and do what I do.  The ONLY judge is the person paying me.  THAT is the only opinion that matters.  And if we want to jump on the “commercial fashion photography” bandwagon, let’s NOT forget that the esteemed work of people like Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton was ALL shot for commercial assignments.   It’s the same with knowledge.  You and I can buy the same film and the ONLY thing we do the same is put it in the camera.  After that, it’s how “we see”, it’s how we expose the film, how we rate it, how we develop it, and how we print it.  People who are afraid of “giving out knowledge” have no knowledge to give.


18.    How do you handle a shoot that is running astray? Are you a screamer or do you have someone scream for you? Or do you hold hands and meditate with your crew?

Yeah, we all sit around and hold hands singing “kumbaya”.  The photographer is the Director of the shoot.  Period.  He/she is the one that has to answer to the client or ad agency.  When a client hires me, they are hiring me with the knowledge that it is me who books the model(s), the hair and make-up people, and the wardrobe stylist.  I decide the look and “feel” of the assignment which I’ve discussed with the client,  and I direct my crew to this end.  Everything rests on “my shoulders”.  If the model is a flop, it’s my fault.  If the make-up artist does a bad job, it’s my fault.  If it rains that day, it’s my fault.  Why?  Because I’m the one who hired the crew.  It’s MY job to have the best people ready and prepared.  I’m the one who should have checked the weather and had “plan B & C” ready.  Lastly, there is NO democracy on my shoots.  It’s a dictatorship.  I tell my crews that WHEN the day comes that they tell me AND the client that “hey, this is what I want to do, and if it does not work, I’ll pay for the cost of an entire reshoot”, THEN it will be a democracy.  I often times work with ad campaign production budgets of $500,000 and more.  It is ME who is responsible for that shoot budget, so trust me when I say “it is MY way”.  I am NOT there to be anyone’s “best friend” on a shoot.  I have a job to do.  You and I could share a meal together the night before, tell jokes, and have a grand old time.  The next day, if you are not giving me your best, I’ll be all over your ass.  Friends are friends, business is business.  Regardless of how long we have worked together.  Shoots where the make-up artist does what they want to do, a stylist that shows up “with anything”, a model who “just goes through the motions” and/or “pose A and pose B”, and “photographer” who does not know what they are doing and/or does not know how to direct…well the shoot can be summed up in one word…clusterfuck.  I’ve also been asked before and I never allow people to “watch” a shoot take place.  I don’t need a bunch of JAFOS on my shoots.  What does JAFO mean??  Just Another Fucking Observer.


19.    What advice would you give to the kids starting out in today’s market?

1st:  Learn the past.  Study the photographers who are at the top and WHY they are at the top meaning their work.

2nd  Realize, and I DO mean realize that A LOT was accomplished by many long BEFORE you were born.  That you are dealing with numerous people in this business who know MUCH MORE than you, have SEEN much more than you, have EXPERIENCED much more than you, and did so when you were simply “just another sperm  cell”.

3rd  Don’t mistake “a photographer’s style” as how a photograph looks.  The visual imagery will change every season just like fashion AND life changes.  A “photographer’s style” is how they see things, how they view the world, how they view music, life, sex, the people they love and have loved, etc.  THIS all goes into creating a “style”.  “Style” is a viewpoint.  If you look at my work, see the kind of models I book, the strength in how I have them move, what I get out of the shoot.  THAT is my “style”.  The physical look is simply that.  The look I chose for that particular shoot.

20.    I love you. What can I say?

Does that mean you’ll clean my house?





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