Craig McDean On His Legendary Career As a Fashion Photographer


Craig McDean On His Legendary Career As a Fashion Photographer

Photograph by Christian Ferretti. Published in Vogue, June 2011.

If you’ve ever flipped through a fashion magazine, then you’ve come across the work of Craig McDean. The British photographer is a regular contributor to some of the biggest names in publishing, shooting A-list celebrities and fashion editorials for newsstand titans like VogueW, and Interview. The world’s most revered fashion houses have also sought out McDean’s knack for edgy sophistication; Jil Sander, Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Gucci, Emporio Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent have hired McDean to inflect their collections with personality.

Amber, Guinevere, & Kate Photographed by Craig McDean 1993-2005 is the 49-year-old photographer’s latest work, and showcases McDean’s uncanny ability to elevate the most beautiful women on the planet into otherworldy creatures. The 150-page coffee table book from Rizzoli is a paean to three of his favorite subjects, the supermodels Amber Valletta, Guinevere van Seenus, and Kate Moss, and marks the final years of McDean’s time as an analog photographer. (Like the rest of the industry, McDean made the switch to digital in 2006.) Here, McDean reflects on his friendships with his muses, how the digital revolution has changed fashion photography, and the one celebrity he loves photographing.

Do you think the creative process of taking a photo is still an analog one, or has digital photography and the reliance of post-production eroded some of that?
It’s changed it a lot. When we used to shoot on analog we had to wait for the film to come back. You’d sit, like a writer with a book, and spend hours going over the film with a loop. There were days when we’d fly to Paris to meet the art director, and it would be a month-long process from when we’d take the photo and make the final decision. But now we can decide on the same day. Whether it’s better or not is debatable. But it breeds a lot of insecurity. All of a sudden, everyone wants to see themselves on the screen. It instantly changes the dichotomy of how you work.

What are some things that you miss about film? Do you ever use it?
I do, I have a fridge full of film. I don’t use it for commercial work anymore. It’s more personal work. Most of what I did back in the day was on a ten-by-eight plate camera. I’d shoot six hundred sheets of film for a job, process it, and then come back.  You have to understand I come from a time where I can actually process film. I can print color and black and white in a darkroom. Nowadays you have Photoshop.

Has the shooting process changed for you over your career, in terms of aesthetics and trends?
No. I still use my old RZ67 camera with a digital back. I’m still using old technology with the new technology on the back of it. It’s like driving an old car with an electric engine in it. The thing I miss is spending the time going over contact sheets, late hours and late nights with the loop. Now we go over photos with a laptop in front of us.

Looking back over your career, how did you choose the theme for your book?
Amber, Guinevere, and Kate were the three girls I grew up photographing from a very early age when they had only started their careers. I suppose I took more pictures of those girls than most other models at the time. You develop a rapport with girls that you work with.

What did you prioritize when making the selections for this book?
I just basically looked at every picture taken in those years and got a contact sheet out. It was actually quite fun to do. It wasn’t like I was doing a retrospective; the story was already told.

You’ve seen these three models grow up in front of your lens. How has shooting them evolved as they grew from girls, to women, and then to mothers?
I never really thought about it until I did the book. You see their youthful faces grow into women. I didn’t think of them as mothers during that time. It’s just fascinating to work with those people and see how their beauty changes.

What does the book capture in the arc of time between 1993 and 2005?
It’s me growing up and working as a commercial photographer in the industry. I’ve shot a lot of other models and people, and lived in so many different places before I came to America. I was putting a lot of work out during that time, and also I had great clients to work for, like Jil Sander. They were doing great catalogs back then.  You had a vehicle to put these great pieces of work out. They’ve become monumental collector’s items, and to do that was amazing.

What do you think the reactionary aesthetic of the ‘90s anti-supermodel signified in its time? And what about today? Is the waif model a character that will always be present in fashion?
Models are a reflection of the time. I was never really into the supermodel thing. Kate came along and I just thought she was so different. She was Kate.

Who do you think are today’s Amber, Guinevere, and Kate?
That doesn’t exist. It’s never going to happen. No one is the new anyone. People always say that but it won’t happen. These girls have their own identities.

What has fashion photography lost since the ‘90s? What has it gained?
I don’t think it’s lost anything, I just think it’s moving into a modern world. Things are so fast these days. You know that feeling in your stomach when you get into a car and accelerate? That’s how it is with this moment in photography. There’s not as much down time as there used to be. Everyone thinks digital makes it easier, but it doesn’t.  It enables you to do a lot more work.

Video and moving image seems to be the next step in the technological evolution of fashion media. What do you like about the medium, and what do you lament about it?
I think nowadays everyone wants more content. Before it was just concentrating on stills, but now everyone wants the backstage video, and I think it’s very hard to concentrate on all of them. A lot of these shoots you don’t get the extra day to plan these things, and sometimes I think photography suffers for that. There’s a lot more going on in the shoot than there used to be.

You shoot a lot of celebrities as well as models. How is the process different?
With models, it’s your editorial idea. You create the story, and it’s your idea of how the hair and makeup should look. It’s the transformation of the girl to a story. With celebrities, you have the handlers, agents, and everyone is quite opinionated. Also you have a screen now, which they see immediately. It makes them very insecure about themselves. The one woman I love photographing is Tilda Swinton. She looks incredible in anything.