Veteran Fashion Photographer Pamela Hanson Talks About Her Enduring Career

October 11, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

More than 20 years after she broke into fashion photography with her personal, intimate images of her friends, Pamela Hanson is still sought by editorial and advertising clients for the style that has become her trademark. While the fashion world is constantly chasing new trends, clients such as Michael Kors, Esprit, Christian Dior, Lindex and numerous magazines in Europe and the U.S. turn to Hanson for her experience and her ability to deliver “a certain spontaneity and intimacy and energy in my pictures.”

“I think that’s the hardest thing to do as a photographer in the long run: To stay true to your own vision,” says Hanson. “First you’re the new, hot, young thing everybody wants, and next you’re ‘Oh not her again, let’s find someone new.’ In those times, I think it’s important to remember what you’re really good at.”

Hanson became the “hot young thing” in Paris in the early 1990s, a time when there were few women fashion photographers. Born in London, raised in Geneva and educated at the University of Colorado, she had shot portraits and model tests in Boulder, Colorado, before she was offered a job assisting fashion photographer Arthur Elgort. The first portfolio she brought to art directors showed snapshots of her life and her friends, mostly models and fellow Americans trying to make it in Paris. “It was very documentary and very intimate and personal.” She was “tenacious” in approaching editors, she recalls. She stood out in a male dominated industry, and clients began turning to her when they wanted “energy and intimacy, and a female point of view that was different.”

Her images from the 1990s of supermodels such as Niki Taylor, Amber Valletta, Milla Jovovich and Naomi Campbell seem to offer glimpses into playful, romantic moments in the lives of gorgeous young women. “The model is not just a clothes hanger for me,” she explains. After Hanson moved to New York City in the late 1990s, her ability to capture believable moments brought her advertising assignments from consumer brands, including Johnson & Johnson. As fashion editorial shifted from using models to showcasing celebrities, Hanson shot more portrait assignments. In the past two years, magazines such as Porter, Vanity Fair Italia and Esquire have hired her to photograph not only actresses but also many of her old model friends and their kids.

Some of her work today comes from people she worked with two decades ago. She worked with former French Vogue editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld, for example, on a story for her magazine, CR Fashion Book. Last year Hanson photographed style icons at the Vogue Festival in England for editor-at-large Fiona Golfar, a longtime colleague. Hanson stays in touch by calling occasionally just to say hello. “It’s good to remind people that you’re around,” she notes. “That’s where I think Instagram is helpful—and editorial [assignments].” Her Instagram feed mixes recent work, images of family, friends and her dog and images she’s pulled from her archive.

© Pamela Hanson

From her new book, Private Room, photographed in a New York City hotel that reminded Hanson of her early days in Paris. © Pamela Hanson

Over the years, she’s switched from film to digital, and adjusted to the fast turnaround that clients now demand. Her vision has evolved, too. “If you are a visual person, you can’t help but absorb things,” says Hanson, a voracious viewer of films and photo exhibitions. But she has always stuck to what interests her most: capturing “people and their personalities.”

If some of the new art directors who have recently hired Hanson know her as “the iconic whatever I was,” she says, “I try not to think about it, because it’s not relevant today.” She explains, “I’m always excited about the shoot I’m doing tomorrow.” In her portfolio, Hanson shows only her newest work, because clients “want to know ‘What’s she doing today? What’s she up to now?’ which makes perfect sense.” Shawn Brydges of McKinney Brydges, which now represents Hanson in the U.S., says the agency’s website has a section for Hanson’s “classics.” Says Brydges, “People may know one of her photographs very well and not realize it’s hers.”

Her classic work also demonstrates her wealth of experience. “Its biggest effect that I’ve seen is the confidence this instills in the creatives,” Brydges says. When anxious clients fret about rain on the day of the shoot, Hanson is calm. “I think that it’s the value of age and experience that it takes a lot to get me ruffled now,” she says.

The books she’s made from personal projects have brought her press and attention. In 2001, she published a collection titled Girls, with a foreword by novelist Susan Minot. Its success inspired her to publish her book Boys a few years later. Her newest book, Private Room, is due to be published by Damiani this fall. It was inspired by a story she photographed with model Camille Rowe in 2012 in an old hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that reminded Hanson of her days scraping by in Paris. The shoot wasn’t published, but Hanson decided to pursue the idea further, working with stylist Susan Winget to shoot nudes and semi-nude photos of eight young women.

Projects like those express Hanson’s love of photography. “I’ve been through a lot of personal challenges, and it’s the one thing that kept me going. It’s something that I love to do that has always interested me and motivated me.”

What motivates a client to hire her or not is, she says, not something she can know, so she doesn’t let it worry her. “If you try to second guess what’s going on, you’re screwed. Any bad periods I’ve gone through in my work came from second guessing, from people saying, ‘Don’t keep doing that, you should change your style.’” She prefers to focus on her work, she says. That’s a lesson experience has taught her.

“I’ve learned in the end that it doesn’t really matter what people think of me, because I have no control over that. That’s the benefit of age.”

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