25 Questions for David Leslie Anthony

Fashion photographer David Leslie Anthony and I started roughly around the same time in the early ‘90’s. We were both based in Los Angeles. And I can admit, we were not friends. We were competing for the same gigs so there wasn’t a warm, cozy feeling between us. 20 years later we found ourselves represented by the same agent. I got a surprise phone call from David and we ended up speaking on the phone for hours. We finally met up and we formed a nice friendship where we are able to be honest with each other and speak frankly about the ups and downs of our industry. We’ve both been to hell and back and maybe that’s what’s been the fire pushing us both to be able to stay in this business for over 25 years. I can just honestly say that it has been a gift to be able to stay in touch with another fashion photographer and be able to be honest and open with him.

So without further delay, meet David Leslie Anthony!

At what age did you become interested in photography? 

I don’t think that consciously I was “interested in photography” at any certain young age, and I certainly didn’t ever think of it as a career choice. I do know that I always was very interested in books, reading, and the photographs that enhanced the stories. I was always drawn to the photographs in magazines such as “Life”, my Mother’s issues of Vogue, and other magazines, as the photographs helped make the words on the written page come alive.

How did you start your career? What were some of the hurdles when you encountered in the beginning?

I would answer this question with, photography was not my first, nor original career choice. It was while I was in my early years in college (I was a Pre-Law major/Art minor), that I was getting my hair cut at a salon in Los Angeles, and I noticed all these great looking women coming in to get their hair done. So I asked a few questions, and I thought to myself “this would be a great way to get paid and get laid”, so the following week I enrolled in Cosmetology School. I was attending during the day, and college at night. During my time in Cosmetology school, I found I had an aptitude for the beauty industry, and upon graduation, began working for a top hairdressing organization. I moved up the ranks quite quickly, and eventually became the North American Creative Director for the company, in charge of the visual imagery for shows, advertising, and editorial. At this time, I was based and living in London, England, amongst the creativity of the mid-70’s and early 80’s. A great time to be in fashion, music, and the arts! During this time was when I gained an interest in photography, and bought books and a cheap camera, and began teaching myself the mechanics of this visual medium. I started off by doing shoots with some of the hair models, making lots of “mistakes”, and keeping notebooks of everything I was doing. As I shot more and more, the “photography drive” grew. One day, a photographer I had booked for a shoot wasn’t able to make it, so I did the shoot myself. These photos were published in Hairdressers Journal (London), where a top British Designer saw my photos and hired me to shoot her next campaign. That was when my love for fashion was born! While in the beauty industry I traveled with the show team, performing on stage internationally at the major hair shows around the world and stateside. I also took as many photographs as I could, honing my fledging skills. After 5 years in London I then returned to the states and became Creative Director for another company. In October of 1989 I “retired” from the beauty industry, after achieving all I felt I could, as the pull of photography drew me into another world which totally fascinated me! Starting out in my “new career”, the only “portfolio” I had was hair and beauty photos I had done while in the beauty industry, so packing these up, I went to visit some model agencies. One of the first hurdles I went through was to convince the agencies to give me a chance. Hey, I was “just another photographer” wanting to shoot their models, who the hell was I? My work was crap, I didn’t know what I was doing, BUT…I didn’t walk into the agencies with an inflated ego. Back then, you had to know photography before you could ever call yourself a photographer or be regarded as one. Some of the other hurdles was finding quality hair, make-up, and stylists who would work with me in the beginning. Other hurdles were learning and gaining more technical knowledge. Photographer friends I had made taught me some things, and I started to learn how to develop B&W and colour film, spending nights in a darkroom. It was 1990, and one day, I went to the photo supply store to buy colour chemistry, and purchased the wrong developer. I was developing E6 Transparency, and bought chemistry for C41 Colour Neg. I proceeded to develop my film, and suddenly I had these strange wonderful colours. I made contact sheets and took them to my friends who worked at A&I , and they told me what I had “done wrong”. I used the wrong chemistry. However, I was so enthralled with what I got, I began to buy every film I could and experimented. I used various filters on my lenses, and even went out and bought outdated film to experiment with. To me, there are no “mistakes”, only learning experiences. I was at the advent of what was called cross-processing, and quickly learned that this was something I had NOT “discovered” and that there were photographers such as Nick Knight and Javier Vallhonrat doing great and wonderful work in this form and technique. Nick Knight was shooting in this manner for Issy Myaki, and Javier Vallhonrat was using this technique in his advertising work for Sybilla. There are 25 ways and more to achieve the same things. What works for one person, may not work for another, and vice-versa. Both are right, and none are wrong.

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Did you go to college for photography?

I am self-taught from books, trial and error, and assisting. Actually, I am quite happy I didn’t go to photography school, as I don’t think my path as a photographer would have turned out the same.

Why did you decide to become a fashion photographer? 

Fashion for me was “love at first sight”, and was a natural progression from beauty and hair. I loved what I was seeing in the fashion magazines. I loved the fashions, I loved the models, I loved the photographs, the energy, the mood and feeling I was living within the photographs I was seeing. I felt excited again and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to photograph more!

Do you remember your very first fashion shoot?

My first “fashion shoot” was a model test shoot in Los Angeles, where I started my new career. I was shooting a model from Elite, and I still remember what the booker at Elite told me after I showed her the contact sheets. She told me that technically I was “all over the map” but that I had a “style” that she really liked, and what I was getting from the model, so she began giving me more young models to photograph. This was followed by other agencies starting to give me testing shoots, and eventually, I started getting paid for my work. Personally, I thought my work sucked, but I realized that I did have a certain viewpoint to my work. When I began doing model test shoots; film, processing, and contact sheets had to be purchased first before I would get paid by the agencies. Since I was new in this business, I had to come up with a creative way of financing. The first camera’s I was shooting with was the Canon AE1, and I had two of them. What I did was to shoot with one, and pawn the other one to pay for the shoot expenses. I’d then get paid by the agencies, and proceed to get my other camera out of hock. The pawn shop got to know me extremely well.

Do you remember your first job, and what followed afterward?

My first actual “paid job” was a fashion shoot in 1990, for a small company called Khaki & Whites, in Los Angeles. I think the entire budget was $100 plus a sack lunch, but what was more important, was that I was actually shooting something that was a real job and going to be published as an ad. This was then followed by a series of ad shoots for denim companies such as Kad Clothing Company, Theodore’s, Lawman Jeans and small editorial shoots for even smaller magazines, honing my skills, my viewpoint, and learning about client briefs. Then one day in 1991, I received a call from the ad agency who handled the company Z. Cavaricci. They had seen some of my cross-processing work in a model’s portfolio and contacted me about shooting the Fall/Winter campaign. I was being considered along with another photographer from NYC. I met with the agency and left my portfolio. The ad agency and the wife of the owner wanted to hire me, but Jim Cavaricci decided on the other photographer because his style was similar to what they had already been doing. They had him shoot it, and they didn’t like what they got, so they had him reshoot and still were not happy. Then I got the call to shoot the campaign. That Fall, it was my photographs running the campaign which appeared in magazines such as Glamour, Interview, Mademoiselle, Vogue, and others…with MY name running down the side of the ads, and in my cross-processed look. After a few years, I realized that it wasn’t that I was any good but that I simply had been lucky and needed to learn so much more. So tiring of shooting denim ads at Zuma Beach, I decided that IF I really wanted to become a fashion photographer I needed to assist some top photographers and go to where the heart of fashion was….Paris. I took what money I had saved, my cameras, and my excitement and moved to Paris, “the city of Light”. When I arrived, I learned a major lesson. Always know how much the funds you have, are actually worth in the country you travel to. In 1995, the French Franc was actually worth more than the U.S. dollar, so I had less money than I had planned. I had gotten a job assisting a top photographer, but the wages were meager, and because of the exchange rate, really couldn’t afford a place to live and make my money last. During the first few days, from walking around the city, I found this great park with huge hedge groves, trees, a public washroom, and at night empty. So I bought a sleeping bag and for the first few months, I assisted during the day and slept in a park at night. For me, it was not a depressing period, but a time of great excitement, a chance to see Paris at night in ways the normal tourist never experiences, to “see pictures” in my mind, and in a way romantic. Eventually, I made enough money to get a cheap little room over a fruit and vegetable store. Assisting a top photographer was one of the greatest career moves I ever made! What I learned has been invaluable throughout my career today. Lessons I try and impart to my own assistants. I learned that technique is important, but trying to be “too technical” can often time make a photograph void of any spontaneity. I learned a great photograph must “ask as many questions of the viewer, as it answers”. I learned about budgeting jobs, how to work with agency art directors, and how to work with magazine editors and fashion directors. I learned production details in always hiring the best make-up artists, the best hairstylists, models, and wardrobe stylists, and I learned that the success or failure of a shoot rested on my shoulders. That I was the Director of the shoot, and it was my job to make sure everyone had a clear vision of the shoot.

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Have you traveled much throughout your career? What are some of your favorite locations that you’ve shot in?

I have been very fortunate that I have been able to travel much in this chosen career. About 75-80% of shoot assignments I get booked for are on location. I have done shoots in Moscow, St Lucia, San Juan, Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Toronto, Montreal, New York, and throughout the U.S. I love New Orleans for its culture, food, and locations.

Who are your favorite photographers? 

There are numerous photographers whose work I favor. Many whose work I would study starting out, and influence me still today. Photographers like Mario Testino, for his range of style and work. Steven Meisel for his longevity and vision. Guy Bourdin for the influence he has had on photography and photographers still today. Helmut Newton for the visual strength of his models. Many others such as Peter Lindbergh, Mario Sorrenti, Deborah Turbeville, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Mert & Marcus (who have greatly referenced Guy Bourdin), and many others. I had the great opportunity to be doing a shoot at Sun Studios in New York, where both Albert Watson and Christoph Micaud were also working. A few hours later, there I was sitting and having coffee with two great photographers, talking “shop”.

Were your parents supportive? Were they artistic? 

My Mother was always supportive of everything I did. In my younger years in elementary school, she supported my love of painting, drawing, and books.

What kind of DSLR do you shoot with?

I shoot with numerous cameras, from digital to film cameras. In the summer, I shoot with Canon because the sensor is cooler. Nikon in the winter for its warmer sensor. I also still shoot with my Nikon F3HP and my Hasselblad film cameras if I have good lead time, and for my personal work.

What is your proudest moment so far?

Hmmmmm. I think I’m most proud that I’ve lasted this long, and that I am still in demand by clients.

Do you belong to any photography associations or groups?

No. I attended a few meetings of APA in Los Angeles, and the lack of camaraderie I witnessed turned me off to such organizations. It is quite different in Paris and London, where photographers, artists, writers all get together.

What is your favorite photograph ever? 

Wow, you are really trying to get me to commit...haha! I’m going to pass on this question as I don’t know if you are referring to photographs in general by other photographers, or my photographs.

What have been some of the obstacles or challenges you have faced in your career? 

One of the biggest, was the transition from film to digital. I was shooting all film up until 2000, and I still feel that film is richer and purer than digital, but it was a transition I needed to make. The other has been how changeable the industry is regarding one moment everyone loves you, the next, no one remembers your name. Then, you are in demand again. Up and down like a yo-yo. Lastly, adapting my viewpoint and look to what the client needs and requires.

If you weren’t a fashion photographer, what would you be? 

I don’t know of anything else I would be doing. I never could have seen myself as an attorney, and I’ve never given thought to being anything else.

How do you get inspired? What are some of the things you do to get inspired to shoot? 

Prior to many of my editorial shoots I will walk the downtown streets at night, much like I did when I lived in Paris. For me, it helps clear the way I envision the shoot. I’ll see various scenes, the way the nightlight falls, the way people interact, etc. I’ll draw from life experiences and I’ll make special playlists which I put on my IPod to listen to while I shoot, setting the mood and feel I desire in my photographs.

What kind of skills do you need, outside of being really talented at shooting, do you need to make it in this industry?

Today, you also need to have a solid working knowledge in retouching skills, or have good retouchers you work with who understand the look of the photograph and client budgets. You need to build strong working relationships with editors and art directors, make-up artists, hairstylists, and wardrobe stylists. You need to build networks, and maintain educational resources such as The Breed, among others, which provide solid educational professional knowledge, and not bullshit. You need to have solid technical knowledge when on a shoot, and not just rely on the computer afterward to “make your image”.

How do you market yourself to your clients?

Besides using periodical print promo pieces, I use email promo pieces and send them to selected mailing lists I have made of clients I currently work with, and clients I would like to work with. The important thing is to send these out in a structured mailing, but not so often as to have them end up in the junk mail, or unsubscribed.

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What are some important things young photographers should know in order to get and retain clients?

I tell my assistants that getting a client one time is the easy part. Getting them to keep coming back is the hard part. Something that they don’t teach you in photo school, and something that a great many young photographers don’t know, is understanding a client’s demographics. What are demographics? They are the client and/or magazine’s marketplace and who they are selling to. As a photographer, you must be able to adapt your “look” to what the client wants and to bring something more to the shoot, within the client's needs. Mario Testino is excellent at always adapting his look to the client shoot at hand. For example, when I am shooting for British Cosmopolitan, I am not shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, so I don’t try and make it look the same. I am catering to different readerships, so I need to adapt to the magazine, not the other way around. When I photographed the in-store advertising for Calvin Klein, the shoot was against white seamless because that is the look for their in-store images. That was not going to change simply because I may think differently. My job is to shoot the best “white seamless work” I can because that is what I was hired to do. Clients spend many years and dollars building their image, and they are not going to change that simply because you showed up. This is something that many young photographers never learn, and is one of the many reasons that the top magazines and fashion clients keep working with the photographers who are in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, etc.

Do you have an agent?

Yes, I do. I have assignment agents in South Africa, Paris, London, and Chicago. I also have syndication agents in New York and Australia.

What has been the worse job you’ve ever shot? 

I’m not going to name the client as it was back in the early 90’s, but what made it worse was that I lost control of the shoot. It was also a major learning situation. The make-up artist decided that she was going to do what she wanted, the hair artist then went on a tangent, and the model did pose A and pose B. I wasn’t getting anything worth shooting, and the client was not happy. To cut to the chase, it was a clusterfuck. I learned that day, that I had to control every aspect of the job, that was what the client hired me for as well as the photography. This is a business, and you are not there to be everyone’s “best friend”.

Is it really as glamorous as the media makes it out to be?

It’s work and a business. We are dealing with, and are responsible for client budgets from $50,000 to $500,000 and more. We are responsible for every dime. We are responsible for the success or failure of the shoot, the manner in which a model performs, the work of the crews, whether we have an alternate plan if we are working on location and the weather suddenly changes to rain. It’s not a Disney movie.

What advice would you give to a young photographer who is just starting out? 

Where do I start? I’ll just start listing some of the things I try and teach my assistants.

1. You need to know and be aware of the past, before you can create the future, because it is the past, coupled with the present, that make the future.

2. Don’t mistake a photographers “style” with the way a photograph looks. That is simply the look chosen by the photographer for the direction of the shoot and the magazine or client he/she is shooting for. A photographers style comes from the life they have lived, the people they have met and loved, the places they have traveled to or lived, the time periods they have lived in and experienced, their knowledge of what has been done and by whom. These all help shape a photographers “style”.

3. Remember that the editors and fashion directors of the major magazines are not some young person, but are people in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and even 70’s. There is nothing they have not seen, and most of them have worked with the very best photographers, so who the hell are you? You are in your twenties. What have you experienced or lived to bring anything “new” into the equation? At this point, all you can do is copy what already has been done, by much better, long before you were born.

4. Lose the ego. This industry has no place for people with a “legend in their own mind” attitude. Simply because you got 40 people on Facebook “liking” your photo does not mean its any good, and usually its crap.

5. Be a photographer, not a digital technician. Strive to create at least 80% of the shoot in-camera/on-set. Think about what you are going to do in post AT the time of shooting, not after. When I see a photo heavily retouched, my first thought is “I want to see the raw files”. That will tell you whether the person knew what they were doing or not.

6. Anyone can have a model “stand there, looking blank” and photoshop it to death. That takes no talent. Creating a “feel and mood”, to get emotion and movement from the model that “tells a story” within the overall shoot, to “bend light” and properly meter…THAT takes both talent and knowledge.

7. Learn to work with and understand the clients needs. They didn’t hire you for YOUR viewpoint, they hired you for THEIRS. If you don’t learn this, you’ll end up a broke photographer that no one hires.

8. Develop a range to your work and “style”. If you only shoot one way, you’ll always have to wait for a client who wants that one look.

9. I am a commercial fashion photographer, I make no bones about it, nor do I apologize. I shoot for the clients needs and direction, and I get paid very well for it. Then I take the money, pay my bills, and shoot whatever I want and not give a rats ass whether anyone likes it or not. THAT is true creative freedom to me.

10. Lastly, learn business. The photographer who does not know business, contracts, negotiation, etc. is a broke photographer.

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Who do you love shooting most, men or women?

I shoot both but since I love women, my preferred choice would be women.

Are you working on anything at the moment, either for a client or for personal? 

I’ve been quite busy with both editorial and advertising shoots, for clients and magazines in Chicago as well as abroad. I’ve also been getting celebrity and personality portrait shoots from magazines, so I consider myself fortunate.

Beatles or Stones?

The Rolling Stones hands down!! I’ll take the lyrics “Yeah, a storm is threatening, my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, Lord I’m gonna fade away”, over “I want to hold your hand” any day!!! There is a definite reason Martin Scorsese has always used “Gimme Shelter” in his films. The Stones are, and will always be kool. They were the renegades in music, marching to their own beat. They changed with the times, yet were still true to themselves. Keith Richards could miss a cord and STILL come out sounding great, and he just didn’t give a damn. The Beatles to me are like doing the same overly retouched photo, over, and over, and over again. Boring.

Melissa Rodwell