How the Digital Revolution Upended My Path as a Fashion Photographer
Social media influencers democratized a gatekeeping industry, but I’m nostalgic for the time in my career that didn’t rely on algorithms.
When I think about taking photos, the early parts of my career stick strongly in my mind. They were so pure, so uniquely different than today. The community that I put together back then didn’t exist online—it didn’t cut its teeth against an algorithm. It was a community of physical people, and the photographs I look at from that time reflect that—moments of casual exchanges, unposed feelings, memes in all but the word.
To say we were more innocent is an understatement; we just couldn’t even fathom what was coming, even as the foundations we stood on were shaking and shifting. It was as if we could tell that working in an industry that was really an expensive daycare, full of the best toys, was worth something in a way that hadn’t been monetized yet. That our experiences, even the slightest and most simple ones, were magically important because of the sheer ridiculousness of them. Back then, there was no complete desire yet to post every image you took, to document in static the life you led. Rather, our half-analog brains—the last in existence—found it far nicer to save them, to hold on to them and to explore them.
I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs recently, memories from my past that don’t exist online. In today’s parlance, they never officially happened. When I first moved to New York to become a fashion photographer, Twitter had just emerged, and almost no one I knew was using it. Instagram hadn’t even been thought of yet. It was weird transitioning from offline to online in my career, and it's one of the things that slowly pushed me away from the business years later. As I write currently, I have taken a full break from the photography industry and left it behind for carefully painted greener pastures. But back then, I was shooting for me and for the people I thought might find my photos in the pages of magazines.
Blogs and Social Media Forecasted the Digital Revolution
Blogs were a hot new thing, a sort of new digital playground for your ideas. I had one, and it did feel revolutionary but not isolating. The internet could host my photos, making them available for whoever could find them in the wilderness. But the best ideas were saved for the pages. My ambition was to get them in a magazine, one that would cement me as certified. Dazed, i-D, Twin, The Gentlewoman, Love. These were some of a celebrated set of names that were like a drug—verified checkmarks without the actual mark itself. Making it meant being present and seen and the real life we lived was definitely physical and personal.
I moved to New York at 19 with no money and a contact I had picked up while in Paris with the “bloggerati,” a group of original fashion bloggers, one of whom I had been lucky enough to know from my hometown. I got off the bus and felt invincible. I think the reason for the feeling was because it felt unknown—as unknown as I felt, like I could disappear and reemerge as a fully formed person somewhere below 14th Street.
Luckily, New York hadn’t become a fully digital experience yet. I didn’t have to pretend to understand someone’s impact based on a numeric figure next to their name. Instead, value occurred in person.
Every generation of New Yorker has their own New York state of mind. Most will tell you it was better before you got there. In all my youthful wisdom, I guffawed at that statement. I was young, and it was still a hell of a place to get lost and find yourself.
Facebook had emerged when I was in high school and had become a sort of domestic social experiment, where virtue signaling was new and friendships weren’t hierarchical in an obvious way. It was a place to deposit a connection that you made in the physical world, a storage of people that you needed more time to figure out how to connect with. It was built for awkward undergrads and teenagers to hit on one another, if that gives you an idea about its innate lack of real nuance.
It was the beginning of a place to interact in a more casual but direct way with the fabulous people I would meet at the parties. My experience with technology, intertwined as it was with my move to New York, was in lockstep with how I climbed up the various ladders, stairways and catwalks that made up the industry. People in positions of industry power were older and, to a degree, held their noses up at the notion of a digital fashion world. Style.com was there, but the arbiters of the industry regarded it as some sort of inside joke on the “regular folk,” pretending to give them an access point to an exclusive club. It was like crumbs for the birds. Little did they know how much they would end up scrambling to pick up the pieces as the digital rebellion took off.
Instagram Began The Rise of Influencer Culture
There is an iconic picture, taken in Paris in 2009, in which my friend, the fashion blogger I mentioned earlier, is seated in a row with Hamish Bowles and Anna Wintour. By this point, the bloggers had no longer been relegated to the fringes; they were seated directly alongside the old guard in the front row. Looking at this photo now, one thing jumps out at me: the way that the bloggers’ very presence completely demystifies the people sitting around them. The fashion executives look downright human.
The blogs had done their job by being the torch in the darkness, showing with sheer analytics the power of digital democratization. Money could be attached to the digital personas emerging. By the time Instagram arrived in my third year, bloggers had grown to be parodies of themselves. The industry all knew the power of these bloggers now, and their masks came back on.
In turn, their photos became retouched to death and over-stylized. What we ended up with was a cheaper version of the editorials we saw in the magazines. It was peak meta, or so everyone thought. The previous digital platforms had catered to the collective, favoring mass adoption to any sort of editorial consideration, but Instagram with its “medium as message” was only made for the people with lives to show.
It was back to the individual again. Young photographers began to experiment with curating their offline life for an online visual experience. Models paralleled this phenomenon. The platform provided a unique opportunity for them to realize their own individual power. In one post, they could share work, establish their role and job and align themselves within preexisting power structures. But their next post could show inside their apartment, creating a separate entity and foreshadowing what would change the industry again.
This online group was a sleeper—it had always been online, but it had been kept out by the gatekeepers—and with the digital platforms unlocking the gates themselves, it hit the ground running. This group would become known as influencers, composed of people from various walks of life, another edifying chapter in the utopian gospel of digital democratization. The originals who laid the blueprint for future adoptees, especially in the fashion/celebrity world, however, weren’t pulled from a broad spectrum. They were the progeny of the wealthy and powerful, the new generation: young, rich and pretty in a very particular way, real-time versions of a fashion-staged tableau. They had been vacationing their whole childhoods in the same places fashion shoots took place. They all knew each other from various exclusive schools and family alliances. They arrived so dramatically that the industry couldn’t separate itself and was forced to adapt to them.
My Artistic Vision Was Co-Opted by Metrics and Traction
I can remember distinctly seeing this in real-time. At this point, I was shooting and working with a legendary casting director in the city as his assistant, a position that saw me interacting with all levels of the business. We were sort of unicorns, halfway between creative and business, seamlessly bouncing between the politics and the fantasies of the brands. We worked directly with the designers, helping to create the magical worlds they saw in their heads by curating a group of young women and men who could embody their vision on a runway or in a magazine. However, we were also responsible to the editors and the stylists, who themselves were responsible to the advertisers. Which meant there was a delicate balancing act going on behind the scenes like a giant game of Jenga.
While working for one such designer—an absolutely legendary vestige of the old fashion world glamour—we encountered one of these later-dubbed influencers. The model’s agent and our marketing team explained that this model “needed” to be in the show so she could get digital traction. She was valuable because of her following, and although she didn’t fit our vision, she had to be included. I believe there are correct times to mandate this for reasons of inclusivity and diversity. This, however, was done for profitability.
My boss accepted this requirement with some apprehension. When she was due to arrive, I was instructed to “suss her out.” I stood in the foyer of a Midtown building, and the elevator doors opened revealing this particular young lady. She was dressed in a hoodie and sweatpants, standing far shorter than the other girls that had come and gone throughout the day. But immediately, I was struck by something about her: She had none of the concern or fish-out-of-water energy that most young models had. She seemed almost bored to be there.
I chatted with her for a bit, and I admit she was charming and rough in the way that only highly polished people can be. After some time, I led her into the main salon room to meet the designer, a page-perfect older woman who had survived 50 years of changes to the industry. She glanced up from the girl’s portfolio book that laid on her lap, adjusted her glasses and slowly pronounced the girl's last name with a syrupy-thick South American accent. Then she asked her if she was related to someone else. “Yes, that's my gran,” the model said. And just like that, she was in. The industry embraced a new beacon in a way it never had before in such obvious terms.
I’m Nostalgic for the Time I Could Experiment Offline
A couple of years later, I moved to L.A. and turned my back on the industry to some degree. By my reckoning, if it was going to turn its participants into semi-celebrities to keep its shareholders happy, then I figured I should work with the silver-screen celebrities. Or at least that's what I would have captioned under my post of the Hollywood sign. In reality, I left because I no longer felt invincible in the same way. I didn’t have the last name, or the money, and had entered the business when a sense of sheer stupid determination was enough to get you in the door. There would always be those who skated by on the work their parents or family had done or not done, but there was a level of anonymity that people like me and my friends had been able to find.
That's not to say I didn’t embrace social media, but I miss the time when I was allowed to experiment offline with the work I wanted to do and the people I wanted to know. I built my dearest friendships and creative connections before there was a personal fact-checking device. People didn’t hang out or work with me because of my following or my influence but because they actually either liked the work I did or liked me, un-fluential as I was.
Or maybe they just thought I was cute and I’m as delusional as the people who live and breathe strictly on the platform these days. But as I click through 35mm film scans on an old hard drive of faces who were once the creme de la creme a la mode, I wonder if I should make a book. A real physical one, with pages and everything. Make it wide format, not square, with multipage layouts that are resistant to swiping. And then not sell it or even give it away to anyone so that it could never exist online. But hey, I guess then it wouldn’t be real, would it?