“There are a million and one people out there, and you never know who’s going to lead you to where you want to be next.”
Charlie Naebeck has some wise advice for those looking to break into the popular industry of fashion photography: get working and start chatting.
A student at the University’s School of Art & Design, Naebeck isn’t your typical college senior. He has been operating his own photography business for the past six years, and last summer, he had the chance to mingle with some of the elite fashion photographers during a trip to New York, as well as the editor of Vogue Italia while he studied in Milan.
“I just sat there going, ‘I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy,’ ” Naebeck joked. “It was my moment of aspiration. One of my goals is to get into one of the high-end fashion magazines out there.”
With thousands of other fashion photographers trying to do the same, Naebeck gave his take on the competitive nature of the business.
“Everyone’s looking to outdo the next person and have their ‘wow’ moment, but I’m looking to make successful work and to continue working, rather than go for those ‘wow’ moments. Sustainability is more my aspiration than having those 15 minutes of fame.”
Nick Azzaro, an alum of the University and former photographer for the Daily, said in addition to skill and quality, networking is of utmost importance to working consistently as a fashion photographer.
“An art director will be with a certain magazine for years and may like your work and use you, but the second the art director changes, there’s a new photographer in there,” Azzaro said. “So it’s about building bonds, but you’ve got to do good work and get out there and be visible.”
Azzaro said less than half his portfolio consists of fashion work, partly because the Midwest is not a big magnet for the industry, but thanks to the Internet, this once cosmopolitan world is starting to find its niche in smaller cities.
“You don’t need to have the fancy storefronts in big cities anymore. More people are using online stores, and with those, you can operate out of anywhere,” Azzaro explained.
As the market expands, there’s even more reason for those with a passion for fashion to pick up a camera and start shooting. Azzaro echoed Naebeck’s sentiments regarding the importance of kick-starting the crucial networking process and gaining experience — sooner rather than later — when he visited the School of Art & Design last week to mentor a few sophomore students.
“I told them that now is the time you need to be talking to studios and clients you might want to work with because if you wait until your senior year, you’re not going to have enough time,” Azzaro said. “Start networking now. Start researching where you want to work now. That way, you get your foot in the door and start learning from people who are in the industry and by the time you’re ready to do that, you’ll be well off.”
Azzaro mentioned the local Photo Studio Group, located on the south side of Ann Arbor, which functions like a co-op for photographers and is a great resource for professional networking. Anyone, from hobbyists to seasoned veterans, can rent studio space to use for shoots — professional or otherwise.
Owner Ben Weatherston called the studio “a labor of love” and said his primary goal for the business isn’t to turn profit but rather to be a resource for others passionate about photography.
“I’ve been shooting professionally since ’97 so now I’m in a position where I can help people, and I really like doing that,” Weatherston said. “The idea of a rental studio is not new or unique and they’re all over the country, but we try to be unique in the community feel that we have.”
Photographers can also sign up for a membership with Photo Studio Group, which comes with certain perks like “Study Hall,” when members gather for dinner and get to bounce ideas off of one another or even try out new techniques.
“People like Nick (Azzaro) and our other members are quite loyal and like the feel,” Weatherston said. “We kind of consider ourselves an incubator for photography business, because each person is a small business, on some level, so we consider their clients, too.
“We have this motto: ‘It’s not good enough to know your client; you have to know your clients’ clients,’ and I think most photography studios overlook that.”
Acacia Shanklin, a working fashion photographer in the area who has given lectures at Photo Studio Group and will be doing a workshop with them over the next few months, reiterated the importance of harmony with the client.
“There’s a lot of talented people out there, but at the end of the day, people who choose to work with you do because they like you,” Shanklin said. “People will pick you based on your personality, like how easygoing you are and how well they get along with you. Personally, I have chosen not to work with certain people or bring people onto my team as a stylist because of their attitude, and vice versa.”
Shanklin mentioned that being a woman in the business, though it provides a challenge, has been helpful when it comes to building that pivotal connection between photographer and client.
“It is a male-dominated industry, especially fashion, when you think about it, because fashion is primarily about women, advertised to women and women are the client base, but it’s basically controlled by men,” she said. “But one of the advantages is that a lot of women come to me, I think, because they feel very comfortable. A lot of female models tell me they don’t have to worry about being objectified.”
Take it from the pros: Successful fashion photographers must not only continue to grow as artists and hone their craft but gain fluency in the art of conversation. The key to making a living at what they love, that winning combination of “who you know” and “what you know,” is integral. After all, it’s art, but it’s also business.