25 Questions for Fashion Photographer Melissa Rodwell
1. At what age did you become interested in photography?
I was 17 when I first became interested in photography as a career. I started becoming fascinated with it, though, when I was probably 10.
2. Why did you decide to become a fashion photographer?
I knew I wanted to do something in the fashion industry. Originally I was interested in becoming a fashion designer. But after seeing an exhibit of Helmut Newton’s work in a Paris art gallery, I changed my mind and decided then and there that I wanted to pursue fashion photography.
3. Did you go to college for photography?
Yes, I went to the Art Center College of Design.
4. How did you start your career? What were some of the hurdles when you encountered in the beginning?
When I started out, in 1987, we didn’t have the internet. We had the phone. I had to do a lot of cold calling and I hated it. I had to really get past my shyness and just force myself to pick up that phone. It was really hard at first.
5. Do you remember your very first fashion shoot?
Yes, I was really young and had been obsessed with Vogue Magazine. I used to take my dolls and make fashion stories with them, using a Kodak Instamatic camera. My first actual shoot with a model was in 1980, after I saw the Helmut Newton exhibit. I shot a pretty friend of mine.
6. Do you remember your first job?
My first job was while I was still in college. I shot for Paris Blues Jeans. I wrote about the story here.
7. Have you traveled much through out your career? What are some of your favorite locations that you’ve shot in?
Traveling was one of the perks that attracted me to the job in the first place. I have worked and lived all over the world. One location that really stands out for me is when I shot for Action Sports Magazine in Australia. They flew me and my crew up to Fraser Island in the Great Barrier Reef. The island was phenomenally beautiful. I just remember thinking to myself the whole time we were there that this is as close to paradise that I’ve ever seen.
8. Who was your favorite photographer when you were young?
Helmut Newton was a big influence on me. I also loved David Bailey for his black and white work, Guy Bourdin for his sexually ambiguous imagery, Deborah Turbeville for her romantic imagery, Dominique Isserman for her lighting.
9. Were your parents supportive? Were they artistic?
My father was an architect and he was very supportive. He understood, as an artist, that I had to follow my calling. My mother, on the other hand, never really got it although she wasn’t negative about it. She wanted me to be self-supporting and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a fashion photographer. She wasn’t entirely wrong. It’s been a tough road in that respect. But what she didn’t really understand was that I am an artist and I can’t really be a nurse or an accountant, which were two vocations she kept telling me I should do.
10. What kind of DSLR do you shoot with?
I shoot with Nikon. I’m a big fan of Nikon cameras. My first Nikon was a Nikon AE and my current Nikon is the D800. I have had every type of Nikon since the first one that I bought in 1983.
11. What kind of skills do you need, outside of being really talented at shooting, do you need to make it in this industry?
I suppose, like in any business, you need to have a good business plan and some strong business skills to run your business well. Charm and personality are a plus too. And then just being tenacious and strong willed to keep going even after being rejected a bunch of times.
12. What is your proudest moment so far?
I have been asked, over and over again, when did I feel like I “made it”? To be honest, I don’t feel like I’ve “made it” yet. But when someone asked me this at one lecture I did in Orlando, I remember saying, “When I shoot for Chanel and Vogue in the same week”. About a year later I shot for Ralph Lauren and Harper’s Bazaar Arabia where we did a Chanel story on a yacht in the Persian Gulf in Dubai. At that moment I thought, hmmm, I feel pretty close to that feeling of “making it”. I guess that made me feel proud.
13. Do you belong to any photography associations or groups?
I don’t belong to any at the moment but in the past I have belonged to APA because they have strong business support and I strongly recommend joining them, especially when you first start out. Read my article on joining the APA here.
14. What is your favorite photograph ever?
I get asked this a lot. I don’t really have one, single favorite photograph. But there are a few that stand out. One is called My Muse (at the top of this post.) It was in an exhibition I did entitled, “Boys”. I also really love my Mongolian Travelers story.
15. What have been some of the obstacles or challenges you have faced in your career?
I am a Los Angeles native and I love my home town but it’s not the city to really push through to the top in fashion photography. It’s been a real battle throughout my whole adult life to not be able to live in the city I love. I have had to travel extensively in order to shoot editorials and campaigns. When I was young, I was totally into traveling. I think there was a 3 year period where I lived out of a suitcase and I was more familiar with hotel rooms than living in an apartment. Now that I’m older, though, I actually am a little tired of traveling. Also, being a woman in a male-dominated industry has always been tough. You walk that thin line of being classified as a bitch if you have a voice or an opinion. When I was younger, I was more of a “people-pleaser” and would avoid conflict or speaking up because I didn’t want people to think I was a bitch. Nowadays, I’ve learned, people are going to think what they’re going to think any way and being a people-pleaser actually becomes something that looks like similar to a door mat. So now I speak up.
16. If you weren’t a fashion photographer, what would you be?
I am obsessed with criminal psychology and profiling. I would’ve loved to work with the FBI in hunting down serial killers. The brain and how it thinks is a subject that really fascinates me.
17. How do you get inspired? What are some of the things you do to get inspired to shoot?
It doesn’t take much to get me inspired. I can hear a song, read a poem, meet a new person, see a house, read a news story and go into a whole daydream about it. But music is a good one to note here because music changes my mood and it conjures up feelings and emotions that get me motivated to create.
18. How do you market yourself to your clients?
I have an agent now that handles my marketing but I believe in direct mailing and email marketing campaigns. I think persistence is key here. You just have to keep doing it. You can’t send out promo pieces once a year and expect that one promo card to land you a bunch of new jobs. You have to keep hitting them up with your new work.
19. Do you have an agent?
Yes, as mentioned, I have an agent. And I should note here too, that even though my agent handles my marketing, I still believe it’s a two-man job in that I need to work with my agent and also do self-promotion. I can’t leave the entire job to my agent. So we work in tandem to come up with good strategies.
20. What has been the worst job you’ve ever shot?
Gosh, wouldn’t want to say any names, but I used to shoot the album covers for a Gospel singer and her creative director and I did not “love” each other. I loved the Gospel singer, she was an awesome lady. But her creative director was evil. We didn’t get along at all which made those jobs rather difficult. It was strange, though, because the singer kept insisting on hiring me because she loved my work, despite the pleas from the creative director. Pretty funny, actually.
21. Is it really as glamorous as the media makes it out to be?
No, it really is not as glamorous as the media makes it out to be. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of sacrifice and it’s a lot of long days and lonely nights on the road, so to speak. I would land in a city and just start to form friendships and then I’d have to leave and it started to get to me after awhile, that there were so many people I’ve met over the years that I just have completely lost touch with. I guess when I was younger, it was a real trip to have a VIP card to the Limelight and hang out in that enfamous attic with people like Naomi Campbell. Today, that doesn’t impress me so much. The partying, the models, all that sort of thing is only 10% of what our industry is about. The other 90% is work!
22. What advice would you give to a young photographer who is just starting out?
Educate yourself as much as you can on anything and everything fashion. Fashion photography is the business of photographing fashion. It’s not the business of photographing models. In other words, don’t study the models, study the fashion designers. And become familiar with design and fabrics. My other advice is to shoot a lot and become more discerning with your eye. The more you shoot, the more you learn and the more you can “see” your work develop into a specific style, which is really important to have in this industry.
23. Who do you love shooting most, men or women?
I am 50/50 down the middle here. I enjoy shooting men because I find men attractive and I love their energy. But I love female fashion. So it’s an even split.
24. What is like being a woman in a fairly male-dominated industry?
It’s not easy. As mentioned earlier, as a woman you are classified as tough if you have opinion, hold your ground or speak up. And that’s not fair. Men get a slap on the back whenever they play tough ball but a woman gets called a bitch for sticking up for herself. It’s still a sexist world, especially in the US, and even though it’s gotten a lot better in the last 100 years, it’s still archaic thinking. I run across it everyday and it gets really tiring.
25. Beatles or Stones?
Stones. Without a doubt!