How to Get Screwed by an “Ultra-Hip” Magazine

15 01 2010

The Truth. “Unveiled”

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The reason I started this blog was to do something I’d always wished someone in my industry would do: pull back the veil of mystery shrouding professional fashion photography. I wanted to write about things that could be useful to other photographers, whether they were just getting started or already established. I wanted to present an honest, no-holds-barred account of what it’s like to work as a photographer in the hyper-competitive world of fashion. And I wanted to include it all: The good. The bad. The ugly.

Not long after I published my first post, however, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to write quite as freely and openly about everything as I’d first imagined. In other words, while I can be brutally honest and truthful about  most of the facets of my job, there are certain subjects I need to stay away from for the sake of professionalism. I’m a working photographer, and I need to maintain good relationships in the industry I work in. It quickly became obvious that not only students and other photographers were reading my blog. The Industry was reading it. Clients, potential clients, agents, colleagues, contacts, etc. were on here reading my words. So I’ve been careful about what I’ve presented here, and I’ve censored myself to maintain a certain level of decorum.

Until now.

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Today is the day I’ve decided to let out some truths about the uglier side of this business. In the past when I’ve wanted to speak frankly about an unpleasant truth about something or someone, I’ve been told, “You can’t say that, Melissa.” Today, no one gets that opportunity.  Here’s one truth that no one likes to talk about: Sometimes shitty things happen to good photographers. Promises are broken, politics are played, back-stabbing takes place, and all kinds of ruthless shenanigans go on in this industry. It has always been this way, and I suppose it always will be. There have been times that the politics in this industry have almost completely worn me out, and I’ve wanted to quit. But as I said in my video: I feel blessed and grateful that I have this career. I make a living doing what I want to do, and I wake up happy most days because of it. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not love your work, but I know it must really suck. So I thank my lucky stars every day that I am living authentically and living my purpose here on Earth. And I treat that gift with the respect and dignity that it deserves. Sadly, there are many others in this industry who do not have the same amount of respect or gratitude.

So here’s what happened to me, a good photographer that got, well, screwed! The following story is a perfect example of how you can put a ton of work and resources into a project that seems as solid as they come, do excellent work, and still have it all come to nothing due to circumstances beyond your control.

A few months ago art director Douglas Little approached me to shoot a 16-page editorial (Shown Below) for Flaunt magazine. Douglas had this great idea about shooting a twisted gothic love story on the beach for Flaunt’s “pre-fall fashion issue”–pre-fall meaning the clothes still had a “summer vibe” but with a sneak preview of fall fashions.  I immediately said yes.  The idea was great, and I was really inspired to shoot it.

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So I set about casting the perfect models for this shoot. I e-mailed about five LA model agencies asking for submissions. I chose about 20 to see in person. Douglas and I settled on the idea of using two boys and one girl, a sort of “Jules and Jim” twisted love tryst. I knew I wanted to work with Ridge Redmond from Ford Models, because I had worked with him recently and he has such a great look and very cool presence. I found the other boy through an LA Models e-mail submission. I asked to see Peter Ursich in person, and once I met him, I knew he’d be perfect. The girl, however, was a bit more difficult to cast. I poured over hundreds of girls from e-mail submissions, met 10 in person, but still couldn’t find “her.” I asked the agencies for  more submissions, and finally, through a Next Models submission, Scarlett Kapella screamed through on the sheet of thumbnails. All in all, casting took about two weeks.

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Next I wrote to the editor at Flaunt and asked him which of their advertisers they wanted us to pull some of the clothes and products from. Once I got that information, it was time to choose a stylist. From the beginning of prepping this shoot, I had a particular stylist in mind. I even waited two weeks for him to return from Singapore so he could meet with Douglas and me. At the last minute, though, he pulled out. I suppose he’d decided that the shoot was too complicated for him to jump in on. (And he was right. Looking back, I want his psychic reader, thanks!) Still, we had a shoot date scheduled, holds on models that took weeks to cast, and a magazine waiting for the images. The show must go on, as we often say in Hollywood. So I put in a frantic late-night call to my dear friend, uber-talented stylist George Blodwell. George agreed to style the shoot, and all was saved. I forwarded him the list of advertisers and then went about working out the shot lists and making lists of gear and props that would be needed to shoot our concept. I did my best to cover all the bases, though nothing could have prepared me for the incredibly stressful shoot that finally arrived on June 5!

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With a crew of 14, half of which were  up to 2 hours late to the Malibu location due to a fatal car accident on PCH, and storm clouds threatening to rain us out on the beach where we were shooting, the day was already proving that it was going to be more difficult than most. In fact, during the second shot, with six more to go, we did get rained on. When it started to downpour, assistants and crew members had to scramble up to the parking lot to rescue a million dollars worth of couture clothing while I finished getting the shots in the can!

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Did I mention I had a crew of 14? You read that right. Along with my trusted intern Carmen Chan, I had two male assistants, Matt Stone and Zack DeZon. David, of course, was there taking care of the digi-teching. And my raw nerves! I had a makeup artist, Drew Krake, who I had never worked with before, but thankfully, he turned out to be wonderful! I worked with another person for the first time as well, hair stylist Anthony Cristiano from Artists by Timothy Priano.  He also was just great!  As I mentioned, the stylist was George Blodwell, who came with two assistants. Douglas Little was the art director, and he had two assistants. And then our three models.

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We shot at El Matador beach, an easily accessible beach in Los Angeles, favored  because of its moody and timeless feel, yet there it is plunked down in the middle of celebrity-cheesy Malibu! We had a honeywagon/trailer stationed in the parking lot to do the hair and makeup. To get down to the beach, and to our shooting location, you had to make your way down about 100 steps. I stayed down on the beach in between takes, but my assistants were running up and down those stairs all day.

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Even though the images turned out beautifully, it was definitely a hellish shoot. There were personality conflicts of major proportions, newbies who were nervous, there was the threat of rain, then there was torrential downpour. There was enormous sexual chemistry being flung around in all directions by more than one member on-set. There was a lack of patience among some key players. There was bitchiness, drama, a $30,000 rented Hasselblad, and a million dollars worth of clothes and antique props being subjected to sand, wind, and salt air. The only thing missing was animals. We should’ve had animals with their neurotic trainers to complete the fiasco! Wait a minute, we did have one dead octopus. Does that count?

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Ironically–or maybe I mean hilariously–this hell shoot to end all hell shoots was recorded on video for posterity. Dimitrios Papagiannis and Tim Glass from The Eye Lab came out and shot this magnificent short film. They came to my house the night before the shoot to interview me about the preparation that went into doing this editorial project. They then came down to the location to document my shoot.  I think the results are amazing, and I’m incredibly grateful to Dimitrios and Tim for their efforts and their talent. They really captured the essence of this shoot perfectly. I have to admit, I was particularly keen to work with Dimitrios because we both graduated from our beloved Art Center College of Design here in LA. We alumni from Art Center seem to stick together. Plus, he just bowled me over with his charm and humour!

So where’s the bad news? Read on.

When the issue was finally published, nothing had prepared me for the shock of seeing my “16-page editorial” reduced down to two pages with only six images spread across them. I was given no indication that my editorial was going to be hacked to shreds. Also, I was given no indication that no one besides myself would be credited, not even Douglas Little or George Blodwell, the Art Director and THE STYLIST!! I mean, that’s almost criminal. In the 23 years I’ve been shooting editorials, this has never happened to one of my shoots before. Never. It’s such a huge slap in the face to everyone that took part in this shoot. The models weren’t even credited. Neither was hair and makeup. And everyone did this shoot for fee-waived.

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Look, I’ve done editorial that had a few pages shaved off of it. I’ve shot for 10 pages and only had eight run. I’ve shot for eight pages and ended up with six. I’ve shot cover tries that never made it. And I’ve had times where the magazine has done something to the color or the layout that I’m not over the moon about. Still, I got at least four to six full-page tear sheets from those projects. So this experience with Flaunt is just ridiculous. I have always had good communication with every magazine I’ve shot for and expected similar professionalism from Flaunt. So the fact that I wasn’t given a heads-up that the editorial was cut to a two-page spread and that nobody else who worked on the shoot was going to be credited, well, I’m more than a little disappointed.

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Rest assured, I will never let this happen again. I’m embarrassed for my crew and I’m the one who will bear the repercussions, from the modeling agencies down to the hair and makeup people and the stylist. They will all call/write/picket my house asking WHY? And I don’t have an answer for them. I didn’t even know the magazine was out until a friend told me she saw it earlier that day on the newsstand. No one even called or e-mailed me to let me know the issue was out, as is customary.

But back to WHY? ?Politics? Perhaps. Maybe something transpired between someone who worked on the shoot and the magazine head honchos. I will never know. Does someone inside the magazine hate my guts and wants to slight me? Perhaps. Again, I will never know. Did someone ON the actual shoot who has more weight than I do at Flaunt get so frustrated over something I am clueless about that happened on set that they decided to sabotage the whole project? Perhaps. Did someone at the magazine dislike the photos because there were no bare breasts and nobody on set looked like they just did a hit of smack? Maybe. These things can–and do–happen all the time. High-profile projects are killed all the time for reasons like these. Personally, I think my pictures are fantastic.  And I am my harshest critic. Truth is, it’s like a ghost town over here–we’re all scratching our heads while we can hear the whistling of the rusted old storefronts with no one inside. No one has a clue as to what exactly transpired that caused a 16-page editorial of full-page photographs to shrink to a two-page spread with six thumbnail-sized photos laid out like cartoon panels.

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Here’s some good news, at least for me. This sort of thing happens to good photographers all the time, so I needn’t take it personally. But how do we usually save face when this sort of thing happens? By saying, “Oh well, shit happens,” or “It doesn’t matter, I don’t like that magazine anyway.” We pretend that we’re “bigger than that” and try to take it in stride, because no one wants to come off like a cry-baby. We don’t complain when we encounter unprofessionalism in someone we’ve worked with, either, because we don’t want to be associated with anything negative. We do this because photography is a freelance field. We’re always looking for work, and jobs most often come through people you’ve worked with before. We want to have a good reputation.

Still, there’s a negative side to that kind of white-washing. I started this blog to talk openly and honestly about issues that are important to working in this field. And not all of them are pleasant. Politics are ugly. But they’re there.

I don’t think that any professional photographer, myself included, ever gets used to being stepped on. Sure, we’ve developed tough skins over the years, but I don’t think we ever deep-down feel like it “doesn’t matter” when we think our work is devalued. It’s especially trying when the work is done for free–for exposure, or as a favor to someone, or done on spec. I really think it’s time that magazines become more responsible in their treatment of photographers and their crew. The days of being bitchy little fashionistas and throwing their power around like the days of the Tudors are finished. Give me a break. You’re just another magazine. And there are plenty that keep popping up that are prettier, shinier and newer than you. Lemon, for example. Great magazine. So is Wonderland. Check them both out when you have a chance! My only hope is that the newer mags treat the people that supply them with their content, that keep the magazine looking the way it looks, better than Flaunt does. A magazine is only as good as its content. Talented photographers supply the content that makes the magazine popular.  Why step on the photographers, then? Did nobody teach them how this works?

So enjoy the video. Dimitrios and Tim did an amazing job and we all did it with you guys in mind, knowing how much you love my BTS videos. And the only way I know how to end this post is by saying this: it won’t be last time I will be disappointed. But we can all demand better treatment and change if we start insisting on it. When we stop taking shit and start demanding respect, we’ll start to change the industry. I was nervous to open my mouth here and say something but I know that the time has come that we need to start calling people out on their poor and unprofessional behavior!

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