New Launch Pads for a Career in Fashion Photography: Fashion Week

By Meghan Ahearn

© Shawn Brackbill
Shawn Brackbill began photographing New York Fashion Week for Dazed & Confused. This image was made backstage at Mandy Coon for the magazine's website. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

New York Fashion Week started over 70 years ago, and in the early days was mostly attended by fashion editors and writers. Its current iteration, in which a majority of the shows take place in one Manhattan location, began in the early 1990s and has grown into a multi-million dollar event attracting over 100,000 attendees. The shows are still invitation-only, and the crowd is not only filled with journalists but also buyers and celebrities. This exclusivity, as well as the popularity of TV shows like Project Runway, has made Fashion Week part of the mainstream fashion culture and led to a high demand for coverage. Fashion magazines and designers alike have responded to the thirst for this type of content by posting photos from both the runway and backstage on their websites. This need for imagery also means a lot of opportunities for aspiring fashion photographers to not only fill their portfolios but also make connections in the often-insular fashion industry.

For the past five years, New York City-based Shawn Brackbill has photographed behind the scenes at the runway shows for magazines like Dazed & Confused, lnterview and Vogue. That work and the relationships he’s built with designers and PR companies have helped him land other fashion-related assignments such as shooting look books.

Brackbill got his start in fashion almost as a fluke: He offered to cover a music event in Brooklyn, New York, for Dazed & Confused that he photographed using rangefinder and Polaroid cameras. Three weeks later the editor called him to ask if he wanted to cover Fashion Week backstage for the magazine’s website. “She didn’t give me any direction,” Brackbill explains. “She basically sent a list of shows that I would cover and where they were … and it was like: Just go, shoot Fashion Week.” At the time, the event was held at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. However, Brackbill was assigned to cover “these downtown, off-the-beaten-path shows that were happening in other spaces” and being held by smaller clothing brands.

Though he wasn’t entirely sure what the magazine was looking for, Brackbill decided to take a “fly-on-the-wall” approach. “It took a while to figure out what I wanted to do backstage and how I wanted to do it, but I really like telling the story of what’s going on … behind the curtain,” he says. The photographer ended up shooting four seasons (Spring/Summer 2009, Fall/Winter 2009, Spring/Summer 2010 and Fall/Winter 2010) for Dazed & Confused. Brackbill then covered two seasons for Dossier and, thanks to a connection through a friend, was hired as the exclusive Fashion Week photographer for Interview—up until last year when he was asked to cover the event for Vogue

“[That] was a change for me over previous Fashion Weeks,” Brackbill says about shooting for the mainstream fashion magazine. “[Before] I would just have enough charge for the day and I would shoot, then I would go home and it would be a process that would keep me up until 3 AM, but I was getting the stuff done for next morning.” He adds that the turnaround time for Vogue is five hours from the start of the show. “They want the imagery up [right away] and I think it’s driven … by the demand for the imagery.” The photographer has had to create a special workflow in order to meet the quick turnaround times his clients require that involves getting shots in camera, editing on the fly and adjusting in Camera Raw. 

He’s been able to differentiate his work from the dozens of other photographers shooting backstage by only using available light. “There will be photographers backstage that have giant softboxes mounted on to their cameras—all kinds of crazy setups—and they’re using zoom lenses, so they have to supplement the light because sometimes it can be dark,” Brackbill explains. He credits his camera, a Nikon D700, and preferred lens, a 50mm F/1.4, for allowing him to shoot in his signature style. “It’s a very special camera,” he says about the D700, “in the way that it renders color and deals with low light—and it’s a manageable file size.” 

Aside from filling his portfolio with a range of fashion imagery, Brackbill notes that the best thing about shooting backstage at Fashion Week has been the relationships he’s formed with the designers and PR companies. He explains that when he was first starting out and covering up-and-coming brands for Dazed & Confused, “I was able to make relationships with the PR [firms] and the designers’ PR people because I was in a smaller piece of that world, there were less people around [and] I would always make a point to, if there was time, talk to the different PR people.” He adds that he would often see the same people throughout the week because the fashion PR companies handle more than one show during Fashion Week. 

“After two or three seasons of seeing them … they know how you work,” Brackbill says. “So for me they know that I’m not stopping the models, I’m not getting in their faces, I stay back and sort of look for my shots and take them, and then kind of move back again. I’m very courteous, if you will.” These connections have led to him shooting backstage for the designers, who use the imagery for their websites. 

Behind-the-scenes photography seems to also be in higher demand lately, a trend Brackbill thinks is the result of both the popularity of reality TV and the desire of brands to be in charge of their messaging. As a result, he’s been hired to shoot behind-the-scenes photos for major fashion advertising campaigns. The images are posted online and via social media as a way to drum up interest in the campaigns. Brackbill says that he was hired to shoot a look book for designer Tamara Mellon by the same ad agency that hired him to shoot the behind-the-scenes work. “So it was out of the Fashion Week work that the behind-the-scenes work came and then got me the look book shoot,” Brackbill notes. The Fashion Week work has also been licensed for various print publications, including a luxury magazine published by the auction house Sotheby’s. 

At the most recent Fashion Week, Brackbill covered shows for the Interview and Vogue websites as well as Lucky, which will be using the images for its print publication. “I can’t think of a single disadvantage” to covering the event, he says. “The advantages of doing it have been to really get my name out there and to make those connections in the fashion world that … it would be difficult to make if I wasn’t right backstage with these people.” 

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