Lauren Greenfield on shooting spring fashion for New York magazine

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Twice a year, New York chooses a photographer from outside the fashion world to document the big fashion shows (spring and fall) from his or perspective, with the resulting photos taking up nearly an entire issue of the award-winning magazine. This year, photography director Jody Quon selected Lauren Greenfield for this plum assignment. “This is just one of those things that you’re happy to be tapped on the shoulder for,” Lauren told me in a phone interview last week. “New York magazine has very special fashion coverage where, instead of taking the clothes and producing a fashion feature around them, they do reportage coverage. They give it space and let the designers’ and stylists’ vision come out this way.”

Lauren had never shot runway fashion, and though she’s done some fashion stories—including for Elle, The New York Times Magazine, and German Vanity Fair—they weren’t the usual aspirational, glorify-the-clothes-and-girls photographs. “I’ve done unconventional fashion,” she said. “I use models, I use the clothes, and then I make a story that takes place in real locations in scenes that relate to my personal work, whether it’s about girls wearing lingerie-inspired clothing on the street or the over-the-top body culture and exhibitionism in Miami. I make social commentary in the fashion pages.”

For New York’s spring fashion feature, Lauren photographed more than 50 runway shows in New York, Milan, and Paris over a month’s time. The magazine gave her a simple mandate—“Get pictures”—and access. The rest was up to her. “What I tried to do was deconstruct the process,” explained Lauren, who also shot and produced a video about the shows that’s now on view at nymag.com. “When you live in that world all the time as a runway photographer, you take a lot of things for granted.”
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Here, she talks about how she prepared for the assignment, literally getting out of “the box,” how shooting video helped refresh her creatively, and the magical experience that was to be Alexander McQueen’s last show.

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Click on image to access video.

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What kind of research did you do?
I looked at movies that showed the designers, and their personalities and a little bit of behind the scenes. Valentino, which was directed by a high school friend, Matt Tyrnauer. The September Issue, which was directed by R.J. Cutler, who produced my first documentary film, Thin, and Lagerfeld Confidential. I looked at previous coverage of the fashion shows too, but it’s hard to find something new. I think that’s the big creative challenge: Fashion is so photographed—how do you push the envelope and do something new? The other challenging thing was that there are 50 shows, and each one has a similar kind of process. You just have to keep pushing yourself to see something new and use the repetition to your advantage.  In the end, the repetition became part of the story.  There was an assembly-line quality to a process that, at the same time, is fueled and intensified by individual creativity and ingenuity.

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Three cities and more than 50 shows in less than a month—sounds intense.
It was pretty frenzied. Usually, it was all I could do when I got back to the hotel to download and back up everything and maybe take a quick look. There wasn’t time to really reflect. It was fun, but it was grueling. The last few people who had covered [fashion for New York] before me are war photographers, so that was likely good preparation. [Laughs]

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Was access ever an issue?
There was a huge amount of work on the magazine’s part in terms of pushing for access on each show. The hard part creatively and logistically was getting out of “the box.” At all the shows, there’s the cage where all the photographers are, and they can’t move. So what we would push for in each venue was that I needed another perspective. In one show, I was kneeling down next to the runway, crouched in front of the fashion director’s legs. In one show in Paris, I literally hid behind a light on the stage and prayed that I couldn’t be seen. In some shows, I decided not to see the show from the front and just stay backstage. At Christian Dior, I had to photograph “from the cage” and my view was so obscured by other camera people that it created a vignetting affect that resembles a peephole. What I knew we didn’t want were the runway pictures that go on the wire right away. I didn’t have any mandate in terms of needing to show the clothes. The magazine wanted more of a focus on people.

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Lauren Greenfield backstage at the Gareth Pugh show during Paris Fashion Week. Photo by Mark Leibowitz.

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What did you see that surprised you?
One of the things was how hardworking and down to earth it all was. It’s so hands on, and the designers are nervous, and the models go out and you really appreciate the craft and hard work behind design and couture. It’s very equalizing. There was a moment during one show where there was a guy looking at a monitor, making sure everything was okay onstage. I thought he was the stage manager. I realized after I had photographed him that it was Marc Jacobs. That’s the thing—everyone’s just running around working, and it’s not very hierarchical. That’s why it was nice to photograph. The photographers are one of the workers, just like the designers and the models and the seamstresses who put the sequins and finishing touches on minutes before the show.

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You also shot and produced a video with the Canon 5D. Was video part of the assignment?
I wasn’t planning on shooting any video. My mission was really still photography. But there were times when I needed to refresh myself creatively. There’s a scene in my video of a girl getting her makeup applied, with all the frenzied activity around her. I had already made a beautiful makeup shot, and I was in a room where the light wasn’t that great and I didn’t see what the next shot was. So I shot some video. When I got back home to California, I felt like I could tell a different kind of story with the video. The photos are moments in time, but when they become part of the video, they start to tell a narrative. I tried to put all of the shows together, as if they were one show, and start with the makeup and prep and take viewers through the process of the actual grit and the pain behind the beautiful shows. There’s a girl crying from the bleach on her eyebrows, a woman falling on the catwalk… I worked with Catherine Bull from Spotwelders. She came up with this idea to frame the video as a grid of eight images that change and layer and sometimes repeat, which I thought was brilliant—it shows the construction and deconstruction of the incredible process behind these shows.

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This month, the fashion world lost one of its biggest stars, Alexander McQueen. You photographed what was to be his last show. What do you remember from that experience?
I’m not coming to it from a fashion background, so I’m not an expert on the clothes, but I thought it was the most brilliant show. And I got the most unusual pictures there. We actually made his show the finale of the video, and the last picture in it is one of my favorites from all the coverage. It’s a woman fading into white. Now it’s really poignant. It was his last great show, and it was the kind of show where you just felt special to be there.

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New York magazine's spring fashion coverage opens with one of Lauren's photos.

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The opener for Lauren's 20-page fashion portfolio.

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Lauren's portfolio ends with a photo she took at what was to be Alexander McQueen's last show.

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The magazine's Table of Contents also featured a photo by Lauren.

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