Known for a mix of celebrity and lifestyle portraiture, Australian Andrew Southam maintains a very honest and revealing blog for a working photographer. July 22-27, he’ll be teaching a course at the Santa Fe workshops called “The Fashion Portrait.” Among the techniques he uses to keep his work fresh, Southam regularly shoots on the streets of his adopted home of Los Angeles. He treats the exercise as a kind of sketch book to look for new ideas that he might try to recreate on a set when there’s no time for experimentation. Grayson Schaffer spoke with Southam about his upcoming workshop and how he keeps searching to reinvent himself.
Grayson: Have you fully embraced American culture? I think it’s sort of ironic that some of the best work of an Australian photographer is quintessential Americana.
Andrew: In Australia we’re sort of colonized by American popular culture—film and television. So if you’re a moderately sensitive kid you’re absorbing all of these American notions of masculinity, beauty, and heroism. It’s all pretty profound if you’re destined to be a photographer. Then I married an American girl. I have an American son who’s eight, so I’m deep into the sports world with him. I never played basketball as a kid, but I’m at all of his games and practices.
Grayson: With your workshop, are you focusing on portraiture or this kind of lifestyle? Is that seamless for you?
Andrew: Here’s how a I came up with that. They asked me if I would teach a fashion workshop, and I’ve always felt like a little bit of an imposter in that world—fashion. Fashion photography is a narrow cul de sac. If you’re going to be serious about it, I think you need to live in NY or Paris and eat, drink, and sleep it. I was never that fascinated by it. I began as a portrait photographer in Australia, and it was tough to make a living, because when you’re assigned a portrait you might get one or two pages. So I kind of drifted into fashion as a parallel career because then could get an eight-to-ten page story and the cover. Then the celebrity culture sort of blew up and that felt like a really natural place for me because I was always more interested in the person than the clothes . But you still have to have hair and makeup and a stylist, and you have to know something about how it all fits together. So when Santa Fe asked me to do a fashion workshop I had to explain to them that I really honestly wasn’t a pure fashion photographer but that I would feel comfortable teaching something called A Fashion Portrait, which is largely what I do. They’re portraits that have some sort of fashion knowhow with elements of hair and makeup. The clothes matter a lot in those pictures. That’s how I came to that. It felt like that was something I could teach and something I knew about.
Grayson: Is the styling part of the course
Andrew: Yeah, they get a local guy who’s great and he works really hard for us. With a dozen people in the course, that’s a lot of girls to do hair and makeup on. He worked in New York and Paris before he kind of drifted out to Santa Fe. It’s great for people doing the workshop to use talented stylists. Even if they’re not destined to become professionals they will leave the workshop knowing more than they would.
Grayson: About how a photograph is really a collaboration among everyone who’s on set?
Andrew: Yeah that American Dream series I did was with a stylist named Kelly Hill who worked for J. Crew and was a creative director for a long time. Just as a presence on the set, a stylist will have so many good ideas. There were shots in that series that she saw and I didn’t. Her contribution was irreplaceable on that particular project.
Grayson: Do you have any strong opinions on whether the styling should be sort of obvious or subtle?
Andrew: Well I think it really matters what your picture is and what you’re doing. For me it has to be subtle. If there’s any element of style in the photograph that announces itself overtly, then the photograph fails. If you think, Look at that hair or that crazy lighting, then, to me, that sort of defeats the image which is meant to be more of a feeling. In that American Dream series it sort of accrues picture by picture and adds up to something. But it’s never about, “Wow those jeans are so great on him.”
Grayson: Your first instinct is that it all happened naturally even though it was produced?
Andrew: Totally. That was the lovely thing about doing that project. We did three long days away from home. There’s something to be said about doing things where people are not racing back to their offices and their computers. Checking in with their agent every five minutes. My ambition now is to photograph people in what appears to be their lives and to try and make it as utterly real as I can.
Grayson: When APE spoke with you earlier, you were in the midst of a mid-career crisis and this American Dream project was your escape. Is this still what you’re pursuing?
Andrew: It’s shown me the way forward. It did get me some great work and it got me the biggest ad jobs I’ve ever done. I’m on my fifth shoot for Ugg Boots. (I shoot their men’s campaign.) They let me do my thing, and they really want it. They’ve allowed me to work in the capacity of a creative director, which nobody had ever let me do before. Obviously, I’d done that on my own shoots, but no one had ever paid me to conceive the shoot from the ground up. So now when I shoot I have that as a gold standard. Creativity is really is a muscle, and you have to keep working at it. I’d like it to be second nature but it’s still a bit like going to the gym when I leave the house with my camera.
Grayson: How important is the equipment for your work?
Andrew: I can only speak for the work I do. But I think it’s really about getting out there and taking photographs and deepening my understanding. Light, the way people appear—you need to practice that aside from work. Because when you’re on a set for real, you’re dealing with all these other things like the clock, a publicist, the client, hair and makeup, a stylist, and a lunch that’s late. But I went downtown the other day and took a bunch of street photographs. It’s like a notebook to me now: A guy looking over his shoulder in an interesting way.
Grayson: So you’re thinking, “Maybe that’s a look I want to try and recreate on a set at some point?”
Andrew: Absolutely. It’s incredible how the stuff that I find on the street is working its way more and more often into my job. I’m on this campaign to change my approach. If you and I were to go out now and take pictures of each other, it should be pretty effortless and fun. I want to get that feeling into my work. Otherwise it can become worklike. I want it to be like taking a picture of a friend, and I want to be unburdened by questions like, What does this magazine want? Who else shoots for them? What do they like?
Grayson: You mentioned that you’re trying to change the way you shoot. There aren’t many people in your position—well established—who are really shaking things up.
Andrew: Maybe shaking things up is too strong. I’m trying to get better at the things you saw in American Dream. That project was wonderful thing—almost in a way that makes it intimidating to go into the next one. In terms of changing: yes I am deep into my career—27 years—and I’ve found a groove. But I think I got so deep into the groove that it became frustrating and felt like I was doing less than I was capable of.
Grayson: The difference between a groove and a rut?
Andrew: Yes, well said.
Grayson: Can you explain a bit about American Dreams?
Andrew: It was me in that state of frustration dreaming up an assignment that I would love someone to assign me. So in the absence of getting the job that you wish someone would give you, you need to assign yourself. You have to be your first client. I know that’s tough and expensive and time consuming, but there are ways of doing it. You can cut corners. Enthusiasm is an infectious thing.
Grayson: So is that what you did, you leaned on people who you knew from more traditional shoots?
Andrew: The stylist from that shoot was someone I had a long friendship with. So I leaned on her, and she helped me find the talent, and together we found that car. The only other person on that shoot was my tech. I knew I’d be shooting a lot of images, so I wanted to have someone there making sure everything was safe. I paid him something, but certainly not his full rate. And it was a big adventure. The actors didn’t get paid anything; they did it for the pictures.
Grayson: How would you say that project helped you improve? Maybe tuning up your autopilot for when the rest of your brain power is consumed by working on set?
Andrew: Yeah and that autopilot thing, that’s what I’m trying to work towards. An effortless flow. And it’s a life’s work. You achieve it momentarily and then extraneous circumstances will get in the way. But once you know what that feels like, it’s definitely something to aspire to or conspire to make happen.
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting. If you want to join Andrew in Santa Fe for “The Fashion Portrait” go (here).