Fashion Photography Series: Interview with Jay Mawson

12th September 2018

Fashion Photography has long been an esteemed art form. Showcasing both the model as well as the apparel and accessories, it is safe to say there are always two subjects in such photographs. We love fashion as an expression of identity, beauty and creativity and with Fashion Week all around the world, we wanted to highlight the fashion photographers who are truly redefining the genre of this ever evolving industry. High fashion is fast becoming a much more open and diverse playing field with different cultures and messages being front and centre, and we’re thrilled to be speaking to the champions of this new generation.

Can you talk a little bit about your background and how you got into fashion photography?

My route into photography - and fashion photography in particular - wasn’t the most obvious. I’d always had a love of photographs, but not necessarily of photography. I didn’t buy my first SLR until I was in my thirties. I was stuck for a Christmas present so asked for DSLR. A Nikon D80. I fully expected it to be on eBay by Easter. Instead, I immediately fell in love with the ritual of photography and spent every spare moment out with my camera or devouring online photography resources. I was still working as a Projects Director when I applied for a Channel 4 programme to find Britain’s next photographer and was selected to be on the show. Up until that point I’d only shot street photography and landscapes. The first week’s challenge was portraiture - I’d never shot people before and even though (I thought…) I did a great job, I didn’t make it through to the next week. I don’t take failure well, so challenged myself to learn to shoot people. I got a studio space in a run-down mill and it rolled from there. I quit my job and gave myself three months to start making a living as a fashion photographer. That series of happy accidents was ten years ago now.

What camera do you use? If you had to choose one lens which would it be?

I still shoot on Nikon - I currently use a D850 or D750 depending on the job. All my glass from Day 1 has been Nikon so you tend not to change systems on a whim. I’d say I shoot 75% of my images on the Nikkor 70-200 f2.8. It’s definitely the lens I’d miss most if it was taken out of my kitbag.

Would you say your style has emerged or was it always very distinct, how has your work changed over the years?

Initially my style was a lot more graphic - I was very precise about straight lines and graphic composition. Now I think it’s more about my 70s obsession and a love of colour. Working commercially means you have to learn to be flexible in bending your style to your client’s vision. My personal work is quite different to my commercial work.

Can you tell us the story of a photograph of yours that stands out?

I met my girlfriend on a shoot five years ago. Shortly afterwards we went over to Italy and stayed in a beautiful hotel that were open to us shooting in the grounds. There’s a frame we shot on a diving board that still comes to mind whenever that question is asked. Whether it’s simply a personal connection to the frame or whether it’s a great image is irrelevant - everything’s subjective - it still stands out to me.

What is your creative process like, do you have any notable routines?

My creative process has definitely changed over the years - it shifted from “How can I make the best image” to “How can I make the best image for the client”. It informs your personal work too - you move from shooting purely to satisfy yourself to having one eye on your market and what buyers and art directors might be looking for. The one thing I try not to think about is Instagram. I really dislike how Instagram has had the same impact on photography as iTunes had on music - rather than release an album of songs that works as a coherent whole many artists now concentrate on singles. Similarly, Instagram promotes the single hit image - the formulaic shot that will stand out in a sea of similar images. It means that many great images with layers of meaning or nuance are often overlooked in favour of more obvious frames that work within Instagram’s limited format. I prefer the depth of long-format editorial works. Go check out @insta_repeat on Instagram…

Where do you draw inspiration from? What do you think your message is?

Unfortunately I draw inspiration from 1970s California. Which is a difficult pill to swallow when you live in the North of England circa 2018. For me, the most innovative photography comes from 70s fashion photography and is just perennially rehashed. I get far more hung up on the feel of an image than the technical merits. For a period the race to squeeze more and more megapixels into cameras produced a lot of photography that was technology led rather than emotionally led. The rise of analog filters and film cameras was a reaction against that and there’s now a happy medium where flaws are once again embraced as part of the overall message.

I don’t know that I have a singular message that I’m trying to pass on through my photography other than perhaps anything can be beautiful when framed through a lens. Whether I’m shooting walking gear or lingerie, I still want the viewer to want to live in the image.

In what ways is this particular field different to other areas of photography? How do you feel about the fashion industry as a whole?

I think the main difference with fashion photography in all it’s many guises is that you’re almost exclusively working with people that are paid to be in front of the camera the same way that you’re paid to be behind it. I don’t think I could shoot weddings or school portraits or exclusively still life or architecture or landscapes - there are too many random variables. With fashion photography you have complete control over virtually every aspect of the image within the bounds of the brief. Whilst this affords you the luxury of making beautiful imagery, it also places the responsibility for the final image firmly at your door. If you’re doing your job right then it’s all in your hands - the right model in the right styling portrayed in the right environment with the right makeup lit in the best way to make the best image.

What did you want to do as a child?

As a child I was never taught that working in a creative industry was a viable career. So basically I grew up wanting to work in a bank. I mean - there were the usual stages of bin lorry driver, train driver, astronaut, F1 driver, but ultimately I figured I’d end up working in finance. My Grandad was a keen photographer - but he was mainly a detective with the police force. Photography was something people did for a hobby. I didn’t know anybody who had a career in anything remotely creative so it never registered on my radar. I fell in love with magazines from an early age and always had a subscription to one or two from the age of 9 to the present - from Smash Hits to Look-In to The Face to Arena to i-D but it still never crossed my mind that working for them was a realistic career choice, that a whole industry existed to create those photographs. I always spent more time letting the images take me somewhere than reading the text. Given all that it was almost inevitable that I ended up working as a stockbroker for 10 years or so.

What would you say to an aspiring fashion photographer? What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt? What would tell your younger self?

This is the question that ties everything together. My viewpoint is probably slightly different from most working professionals, born out of a different experience. I could write a book here - but I’ll try and distill it into a few key points.

1. Don’t study photography at college. If I could give just one piece of advice it would be this. Unless you manage to get a place at CSM or LCF, where the contacts you make will be priceless. But even then, study another course rather than photography. Study Fashion Marketing. Study Visual Merchandising and Branding. If you’re anywhere else in the country study general business or marketing. If you’re going to succeed as a photographer, if you have a talent, an eye or a viewpoint you’ll be honing your craft regardless of your college course. I have friends who swear being made to study something they love through somebody else’s eyes killed their passion and almost made them put down their cameras. Ultimately, being a working photographer is a combination of running your own business, a lot of lucky breaks and good contacts.

2. Move. There isn’t a huge demand for fashion photographers in Hull or Lincoln or Carlisle or Bristol. There isn’t even a huge demand in Birmingham or Leeds or Edinburgh. If you want to only shoot editorial fashion you have to move to London - because all the other photographers who have already moved there have a head start on you. I moved from Leeds to Manchester purely because I was spending my entire life either on the M1 to London or the M62 to Manchester. It’s not just clients either - these are the only two cities in the UK that have any kind of developed support network - you need studios, model agencies, makeup artists, stylists, creative directors. Once you’re established you can move back to wherever you want. But be prepared to do a lot of travel out of that place.

3. Learn your craft. Your camera and lights need to be part of your body. You can’t be thinking about what you’re doing, it has to reach the point of being instinctive. Learn the physics of light so that your brain processes every scene in terms of light. Anybody in front of your camera can immediately sense if you’re out of your depth or unsure of yourself and will switch off. You have to be in absolute control of the situation. If you get the opportunity to assist a working professional take it. You learn so much from that experience that you’ll never learn from YouTube videos. It’s my biggest regret not being able to afford to assist.

4. Understand what social media is and isn’t. Instagram can be an amazing platform for photographers - but if you look at the accounts of many fashion photographers who are working every day they have a much lower following than somebody taking photographs with both eyes fixed on attracting followers and likes. I think many brands have passed the point now where they’ll hire one photographer with 100k followers to shoot a campaign and another with 300 followers to actually light the thing properly. The urban street style aesthetic has gone about as far as it can and as fashion always moves forward (or finds a different epoch of history to plunder) it will inevitably return to beautifully crafted images that involve more than a tour of London’s brutalist landmarks on a sunny day.

5. Buy magazines. They’re still the best way of seeing a broad range of imagery that sits outside any particular internet filter bubble. Pinterest images have a typical aesthetic. Instagram images have a different one. Tumblr another one again. Users of each platform largely see different versions of the same aesthetic over and over again. Seeing images in print allows you to linger longer than an absent minded scroll. You see editorial set against adverts. Commercial photography sits beside avant grade fashion images. But the one thing they have in common is that people were paid to create most of them which means somebody places value on that work. On Instagram, on Pinterest, on Tumblr most of that imagery is created purely for those mediums. It’s much easier to create an image to please you and your followers than it is to create an image that pleases you and your client.

6. Very very few photographers are actually what people think of as fashion photographers. You have to be a commercial photographer that shoots fashion. You can shoot commercial briefs with the eye and aesthetic of a fashion photograph but it is still commercial photography. There is still a client, a brief and a product to be sold. You cannot survive as a fashion photographer shooting only what would be termed editorial fashion. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

Who inspires you? These can be personal or professional.

Hopefully I’ve avoided too many photographer-interview clichés up until this point - but that ends here. I’m inspired by whoever is in front of my lens on any particular day. My images are better the more inspired I am by who I’m shooting. I always try to find some detail to inspire me in everybody I shoot. In terms of other photographers, there’s so many photographers spanning decades whose images inspire me every day - Peccinotti, Purienne, Bellemere, Roversi, Lindbergh, Garofalo, Ridgers.

Can you tell us how people can find out more about your work? Anything particularly exciting coming up this year or next?

I have a perennially out of date website at that I’m never happy with that would hopefully illustrate some of what I’ve talked about above. If you look at the differences and - more importantly - the similarities between the work in the ‘commercial’ and ‘editorial’ sections you can see how I try to bring an editorial fashion aesthetic to what are ultimately commercial fashion images. You can see how my personal images still hark back to where I started with minimal human presence in them. Or check out my sorely neglected blog. You can have a look at my instagram @jaymawson and see my ongoing struggle between posting images that show my work and those that will garner likes and follows.

The most exciting thing is never knowing what exciting thing is around the corner. I’ve travelled to so many places in the last couple of years that I would never normally had the opportunity to go to - places like Finland, South Africa and Anguilla - all of which have come with a few weeks notice. It’s not an industry to be in if you like to know what your diary looks like in advance. In fact, in that respect it can be terrifying. You’re only as good as your last job and have to stay relevant to keep working.


All images ©  Jay Mawson 2018