Andrew Southam is teaching for the third year at The Workshops this summer when he leads Fashion Meets Lifestyle, July 5-10. We recently got to know Andrew a little better when we spoke with him about his photographic background, his style, and his upcoming workshop.
Let's start at the beginning: How did you get started in photography? What attracted you to it?
I finished high school one day and I started in a professional darkroom the next. There was extraordinary luck involved: my dad knew someone who was a photographer, so he knew you could do this and make a living at it and he was really supportive. I was an artsy head-in-the-clouds kind of kid, always looking at images and film stills. I would tear out film stills and put them up on my wall. I loved painting and drawing, the arts broadly speaking, and I had a preoccupation with storytelling.
Did growing up in Australia influence your work and your style?I think it does, in a few ways. First, there's the Australian light. It's light unlike any other light; it’s incredibly pristine and unforgiving so you really have to learn to work with daylight early in your career if you’re going to incorporate daylight. I think when people look at my work they notice the light. I also think it is very humanizing when you photograph people in natural light.
Secondly, I think the Australian character is to take the work seriously but not ourselves. So I take the work very seriously but I don’t think I’m the center of the universe. I think it's just that Australian thing of unpretentiousness. I feel like I’m part of a team, I’m at the service of the subject. I want my set to be a warm and friendly place where my assistants feel acknowledged and respected. I mean, my best assistants feel irreplaceable to me, so I want to make sure they know it.
Also, Australian film was having a real moment in the 1970’s, so I think I was getting educated in imagery and storytelling at a pretty early age. Fred Schepisi, Peter Wier, and Gillian Armstrong all influenced me early on.
Why do you enjoy portrait, fashion, and lifestyle photography in particular?
It’s the human connection for me. Always, always, always it’s the people. I would never have been a landscape or still life photographer. My work's not conceptual, it’s about the relationship between my subjects and me. I feel like it’s an intensely social engagement when you’re shooting; you’re plunged immediately into a strangely intimate situation. The camera is an incredible passport into other people’s lives and I consider it a great privilege of this work that people will reveal themselves to me in certain ways. That’s extraordinary.
You've been photographing professionally for more than 30 years. What is the biggest change or surprise you've seen in that time?
I think digital is the most profound change. I was surprised how much I love it, because it allows you as a photographer to be braver. When exposing images on film, I was always very conservative about underexposure and lens choices. Today I’m shooting with wider lenses than I used to, because you see in an instant if it's going well. I grew up shooting Chrome, and if you underexpose that you’re finished. Today, if I want to try a little underexposure, I can see immediately if it’s going to work.
The only thing that dismays me about digital is how fast everyone wants everything. On the last day of a shoot we just did in Vancouver my assistant was up all night processing photos so the client could return home with hard drives full of images. It’s a staggering amount of work that has to happen on the set. There’s a client expectation that hasn’t quite caught up with reality. And we as photographers haven’t quite figured out how to regulate that expectation; it’s everyone’s impulse to say yes to everything, and when everyone is saying yes to these demands, it can mean we’re not being compensated appropriately for that intensity of work.
What has gone unchanged in 30 years?
I think what never changes is people wanting a really powerful, potent image. At the end of the day that's what people remember. So, whether the shoot was fun or not fun, or went quickly or not, it’s the images that endure. That’s true whether you’re making images with daguerreotype, or digital, or anything. Is it a remarkable photograph? No amount of resolution will answer that. If you can get an unbelievable picture with your iPhone, you’ll get more work than the guy with the expensive Hasselblad.
What’s the best thing about being a photographer today?
I just love the lifestyle. I love going somewhere I’ve never been before and meeting someone I’ve never met before, and taking photographs of them where they live and work. I just find that infinitely fascinating, and fun, and a privilege. I never cease to feel lucky. Then, making the photograph is the next fun thing. Because you’re solving all these problems; this is where the light is coming from, this is where the type needs to go, this is what the client needs, that’s the job of any commercial photographer. I love to solve the puzzle. How do you make that photograph in a new way? In a human way? In a way that engages the viewer and doesn’t seem contrived, and yet is new each time?
For fashion/lifestyle, you should never see the photographer’s hand in the image, it should look like real life. There are all these considerations and you’re trying to bring all this back to the human moment. When you're shooting and everything is going well, every synapse is engaged in that challenge, you’re unaware of yourself, and it’s a beautiful feeling.
What’s the most challenging thing?
I think the most challenging thing is to keep being new; to keep finding a photograph you haven’t taken before; to keep renewing your approach. To try and approach like a beginner in a way.
I think the danger of doing it as long as I have, is to go into a room and have an idea of how this picture should look, and default to that idea. In a way, you have to resist that impulse if you can, or get around it and try to do something new. If you do it precisely as you’ve done it before, you will have failed because it will lack a certain life and energy because you’re essentially copying yourself.
I mean, I know how to make it perfect, but sometimes perfect is kind of dead. How do you make some mistakes that make it visually exciting? So you’re looking for those little mistakes and little miracles. And that’s why you’re so alive on the set; because you almost have to be supernaturally attentive to what’s going on to notice those moments.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in fashion/lifestyle photography?
It’s going to be deceptively simple, but it’s advice I wish I’d had: You have to find your own way.
All of us are different, and I think for the longest time I wanted to be other kinds of photographers I admired. I’d see Helmut Newton or Richard Avedon, and think “I want to be that way” and of course you can’t. I’d think as a child from suburban Sydney, my life isn’t interesting enough, I’m not sufficiently sophisticated enough, or my point of view doesn’t matter enough. So I need to co-opt other people’s and cobble together a point of view out of that.
But the truth is we all have our own way of seeing, and what you have to do is find that. You have to make a lot of mistakes and evaluate your images, and see what’s good and think about why it’s good.
I think it’s Cartier-Bresson that said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." It’s just a labor intensive process: just doing it, and doing it again.
Working at it is a big thing, and it’s something I didn’t want to hear as a young photographer. You look at people that have kept at it, and aren’t just repetitive, but just keep at it, they do better and better at it. After a lot of time, you achieve a sort of ease with it. It’s just practice.
Your photographs have appeared in some pretty major publications: Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, you’ve exhibited in the Australian Portrait Gallery and racked up awards, but which of your photographs is your favorite, or if you don’t have a favorite, is there one you are most proud of?
There’s not one image above all. There’s three that come to mind. I love my portrait of Willem Dafoe smoking, it just has so many of the properties I like. I like that it feels simultaneously masculine and feminine, because he’s so masculine but there’s a delicacy to the way his hand is in the picture. I like that it’s simultaneously gritty and graceful at the same time. I like my own photos when they are more than one thing. That’s how people are and life is, and if I can convey a little of that, that’s a success for me.
Another favorite is my picture of Liv Tyler; actually the whole series. The one of her on the bed is probably the one that’s been most reproduced. It’s got kind of a life to it. Similar to the Willem Dafoe shot, its sexy but it’s sweet, it has a couple of different undercurrents, showing a girl at that moment, at that age. I like images that are sexy but I don’t like when they are sort of demeaning to the woman. So, for example Helmut Newton images where they are sexy but the women always look powerful and in charge.
The other one that comes to mind is Jodi Foster, because it was meeting someone who was a hero, and she was really humble and collaborative. So it was memorable to me to meet her; an unforgettable experience.
What’s the craziest or strangest photo shoot experience you’ve ever had? Most difficult? Most fun?
The strangest, I'm not sure. Oh, I know. OK, one thing I’m not conversant in is hip hop culture. I did a shoot with Naughty by Nature for VIBE magazine, and I didn’t really understand what they were saying, and they didn’t understand what I was saying. They showed up in bulletproof vests, I’m a boy from suburban Sydney, and these are hard-core rappers who have had legitimate death threats. One of the members wore a sort of terrorist mask the whole time, which was strange for me since I’m so much about eyes and faces. It definitely presented me with a challenge.
I ended up doing a kind of formal portrait that was weirdly graceful, and it was so much in contrast to how they lived and who they were, that contrast made for a really interesting picture. That's a trick I learned from Irving Penn, when he photographed the Hell's Angels. It was a subject outside of his bailiwick at Vogue, but he did these very elegant graceful portraits of these guys, and it came out very beautiful. So if you consume enough imagery, you will see these examples from the people who came before and that can be helpful.
But I got a beautiful portrait of them, it actually won an award SPD Society of Publication Designers. It goes to show… something. I think it’s if you look at someone closely enough even if you don’t speak their language, it’s the quality of looking that makes the photograph.
Liv was probably the most fun, because all my preconceived ideas worked, and she was completely equal to the moment. As a photographer, if you’re any good, you dream up what you might want to do ahead of time, even if it doesn’t go to plan, you think about it. This was that perfect moment where everything happens the way you saw it.
The hardest is when you’re out of sync with the subject. I’ve had shoots where the subject and I just didn’t mesh. I pride myself on being good at that, but once in a while it happens, and you just don’t connect. Something I’ve learned is that I have to be responsible for those moments too, and solve that problem. Now I kind of pride myself on being able to work through those moments, where you don’t lose your cool.
Can you describe your teaching style?
I think it’s much like my shooting style: I really want to be at the service of my students. I really want to facilitate something happening for them; some kind of shift. Whether they’re going to get an extraordinary picture during our time together, or learn something that will allow that to happen down the road.
I don’t want it to be about me and my career or achievements, because I want to create that for them in their future. I’m super supportive and something of a cheerleader. I’m very excited because I think of teaching and photographing as a transfer of energy, and it's my responsibility to give my subject some of my energy,
What can workshop participants expect from your Fashion Meets Lifestyle workshop?
They can expect to think about their work and then subsequently practically shoot their work in a way unlike they have before. They’re going to be engaged in their work in new ways. I’m going to give them tasks to do and share technique with them that will deepen their experience of taking photographs.
My mission is to make this more than a casual experience of just walking out the door and clicking the camera. To me it’s like a full body experience: how you are in the world, how alert you are to the light and the relationship you have with your subject. So I see it as an intensely energizing experience for subject and photographer.
It’s a quality of listening and watching, and seeing that’s very personal and intense if you do it well.
Thanks Andrew, we are so pleased you're joining us here this summer!
Thanks, Melyssa, I'm looking forward to it.
To learn more about Fashion Meets Lifestyle with Andrew Southam, visit the workshop page on www.santafeworkshops.com