New York City Fashion Photographers are Shifting Perspective in the Pandemic

Model Damilola Abraham gets fitted into her dress at Claire’s editorial photo shoot.

Photographer Sydney Claire has been running around since 8 a.m. Today, she is shooting for a company that will use the images to promote its brand.

However, instead of a frenzied scene of assistants, editorial heads and models running around, the SoHo studio is quiet save for the beep of the infrared thermometers that take people’s temperature. Everyone is masked. The six models slated to be shot in the campaign come in at staggered times to minimize foot traffic. Claire’s typical dynamic gesticulations are even more exaggerated because she is no longer able to get close to the models to position them. She has had to switch her usual lenses for ones that have a better zoom-in function, as photographers everywhere have had to accept as the new normal.

Claire has photographed Hamilton star Anthony Ramos Martinez, actress Ashley Blaine Featherson and contemporary artist Dan Colen, to name a few. She has solidified herself as a master of creating ethereal dreamscapes that incorporate light, explore depth of field and embrace color and vibrancy above all else.

She and many other fashion photographers have had to swiftly adapt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, from the scope of their projects to their creative processes and even the equipment they use on sets. Across the board photographers are reckoning with these changes, but while the obstacles remain plentiful, many are still managing to make the most with what they are given.

Claire, for instance, adapted by offering clients the opportunity to shoot via FaceTime.

“When you have no ability to produce work except for one way, you’re going to use that one way to get what you need,” she says of the FaceTime shoots, which she began to do for the first time in April to make money after she lost work opportunities. “I think that’s definitely why photographers have had to get a lot more creative about their processes and what they use and how they shoot.”

Claire learned how to virtually coach her clients over these FaceTime photo shoot sessions by telling them where to stand, what to do with their hands and advising them to turn their phone around so that they couldn’t see themselves. This is something that allowed the photographer to be able to mimic an actual shoot wherein only she could see the image. Plus, it helped clients be less concerned with how they looked, she says. Claire then shot the image on her phone through her camera lens. Later on, she used the live photo feature on her phone to capture the results instead.

“It’s little stuff like that that [is] so important in preserving the feel of an actual shoot,” she continues.

While production was still primarily on hold and she was conducting these virtual shoots, she says that the FaceTime photos of one of her friends who worked at the Fox network got noticed by the team in charge of the network’s Pride Campaign. Claire was subsequently booked for that project, which debuted in early June and featured Leslie Jordan, Bella Thorne, Raven-Symoné, Alex Newell and more.

At that point, the photographer had been behind on rent for two months and needed to find a new place to live. Before the pandemic, Claire had been making between $5,000 and $6,000 a month — a sum that quickly dwindled to around $1,200 during the hardest months when people were no longer booking her.

“It truly just seemed to come out of nowhere, but I was so excited about it. Those FaceTime photo shoots really opened the doors for me,” she says.

Since the campaign, Claire has been booking more jobs — in part because many creatives have left the city and in part because companies realize they can’t go too long without shooting new editorial or e-commerce content.

For other photographers, ways in which they needed to reinvent the wheel came in the form of in-person shoots.

Take Makeda Sandford, who has freelanced for publications such as Elle, the Financial Times and Glamor and also works as a social media editor at Jezebel. Last month, Sandford turned the lens on Danelle Prescod and Chrissy Ford, two veterans in the world of fashion who launched a consulting agency to field all inquiries that they were getting in the wake of George Floyd’s death, including how to combat systemic racism from the top down within a company and how to formulate sustainable long- and short-term goals.

The shoot, like many in-person sessions being done during the pandemic, was conducted outside and needed to adhere to newly mandated protocols such as temperature readings and a reduced footprint on set.

“Sets have definitely been smaller and there haven’t been any extra people on set to help. I also have to keep distance from the subject, so sometimes that requires using closer lenses or zoom lenses to help with that,” says Sandford.

Publications, too, are reckoning with these changes. For many magazines, new protocols mean that many assistants who are normally on set — from editorial to hair and makeup to the photography crew —are no longer allowed to be present, said Chloe Iturralde, assistant fashion and production editor at Editorialist.

“Typically, you have the photographer, the digital technician and the photographer’s assistant. For many shoots now, it’s mainly the photographer or the photographer and an assistant who also operates as the digital technician,” Iturralde says.

Additionally, shoots, which typically last an entire workday, have been dramatically reduced to end up to three hours earlier. Travel restrictions make it so that magazines and photographers alike are required to take quarantining and accommodations into account. One photographer Iturralde’s magazine worked with was flying in from Canada, so she was tasked with making sure that he quarantined upon arrival to New York and tested negative prior to the shoot.

However, photographers during this time have also been showing more enthusiasm and taking more creative risks on set, Iturralde notes. Case in point? Her publication has rarely shot in a studio since the pandemic began. Rather, it has taken the opportunity to capture images outdoors, which has allowed photographers to be able to play with light and the environment around them.

One of the only shoots that they did do indoors, however, still proved to be inventive. Veteran photographer Gilles Bensimon suggested that one of the looks be shot in full wardrobe in a shower. In the final image, the model Kate Beck appears in a marble shower wearing a Balmain jacket and Balenciaga cycling shorts and gazes directly into the camera.  

“They’re getting a little bit more creative because they’re like ‘It’s been so long, and we haven’t been able to do this in forever,’” she says.“So they really have been making the most of it, you know? There are definitely some good things that have come out of something that has also been really difficult.”

Sandford says that this year has certainly allowed her to feel more of a sense of purpose, especially amidst the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think that I’m in a good lane for what is popular and important right now,” the photographer says. “The pandemic definitely has helped me hone in on what I want and has make me feel that my time is very valuable, that all of our time is very valuable, and what we do should be very intentional no matter what.”

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Gretty Garcia currently attends Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. After graduating from Harvard College, she worked as the features at special projects editor at Editorialist and wrote for the Cut and V. A native New Yorker, Gretty is happy to be back in the city and explore and write about everything in it.

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