How Kat Borchart Built a Career in Fashion and Beauty Photography

October 11, 2017

By David Walker

Kat Borchart.

Kat Borchart’s photography career started to take off three years ago, when the kitchen and bath brand simplehuman needed a photographer, and a friend who was directing a video for the company recommended her. “I put a PDF together of my beauty work [test shoots] that was in line with what they were looking for, but that recommendation was half the battle,” Borchart says.

With the money she earned from that job, she traveled to New York to show her portfolio to photo editors at Allure, Teen Vogue, Seventeen and other magazines. Minutes after leaving a meeting a stylist friend had helped her arrange with editors at Refinery29, a producer there called to hire her for a shoot with Secret deodorant.

“After those two shoots, the ball really started to roll,” Borchart says. She’s now with I Heart Reps, and has recently shot editorial work for magazines including Darling and Bust, and advertising for Ugg, Uniqlo, Old Navy, Subaru and Jeep.

“Someone once said pursuing a photography career is like pushing a giant boulder up a hill. You push and push and push and eventually reach the top” and assignment work starts to flow. “For me, pushing the boulder took—or at least felt—like the longest time.”

© Kat Borchart

An image from Old Navy. © Kat Borchart

Borchart built her career on a succession of internships and full-time jobs that started about ten years ago, when she was still a college student. Most of those jobs came through connections with people who noticed her talent and work ethic. But she was never sure where a job might eventually lead. “I graduated college with the idea of eventually freelancing but didn’t have a clear vision of how it would happen,” she says.

She earned a BA in commercial advertising from Brooks Institute of Photography in 2008. Obsessed in high school with Roxy’s advertising, she wanted to learn to shoot in their style. “Who wouldn’t want to travel the world with cool surfer chicks?” she says.

While at Brooks, Borchart photographed a surf contest “with the hopes of catching someone’s attention.” There she met a Roxy marketing coordinator, who told her Roxy needed someone with Adobe Flash skills to help with website updates. “I enrolled in a Flash class and started an internship four months later,” Borchart says.

The internship turned into a full-time job when Borchart graduated from Brooks. At Roxy, she helped manage social media, cleared model releases for look books, and assisted on shoots in Roxy’s e-commerce studio. One day she filled in for a digital tech on a Roxy campaign shoot with Dewey Nicks, and not long afterwards got an offer from his studio manager for full-time work as Nicks’s post-production supervisor.

She worked for Nicks for the next five years. “It was a huge game changer,” she says. “I got to see everything about what being a photographer is: promotions, treatments, pitches, managing the archive.” She adds, “When I went on set I absorbed everything I could.” She saw how Nicks worked with clients, handled talent on set and directed crew. “He shot a lot of celebrities. I saw how he gave them inspiration and direction,” Borchart says. “I also saw the importance of great hair styling and makeup, and [choosing] great locations.”

© Kat Borchart

From a shoot for Darling magazine. © Kat Borchart

A year or so into her job with Nicks, Borchart started doing test shoots again, applying what she’d learned from Nicks. She cold-called bookers at modeling agencies such as Ford and Next, offering to provide test shots of new models. An assistant stylist she’d met on one of Nicks’s sets offered to work with her on tests, and brought along hair and makeup artists. Borchart built a website, and eventually started doing email promotions. She got a few small jobs, mostly through referrals from model bookers and stylists she knew, or by making direct pitches.

But she wasn’t getting much traction. Dara Siegel of I Heart Reps had seen some of Borchart’s work and invited her for a meeting. “I saw the potential. She had charisma and an eye, but she was in the early stages of developing herself,” Siegel says. Borchart says, “I knew I wasn’t ready to freelance. I needed something else, but I didn’t know what.”

Around 2013, while Borchart was still working for Nicks, a casting agent friend told her about an online fashion retailer that was looking for an in-house photographer. Borchart felt she had a solid foundation of production experience. “I wanted to work less behind the scenes and more on the front lines of shooting,” she says. So she took the job. Looking back, she says, “E-commerce is not super fun, but you learn to [execute] brand mission in all different ways: for blog content, product shots on white, and look-book production.”

In 2014, after just a year on that job, Borchart was laid off in a creative department shake-up. “It was a surprise I wasn’t prepared for,” she says. She still didn’t think she was ready to freelance. Besides, she had “a ton” of student loan debt and little savings, she says. “In a panic I started looking for other full-time work.” While she was looking, her director friend referred her for the simplehuman job, and as unexpectedly as she had been laid off, she suddenly found herself freelancing.

For the first few months as a freelancer, she did some advertising and editorial work, supplemented by some e-commerce product shooting. “I really wanted to be at the next level,” she says. Without an agent, she had to figure out how to estimate jobs, hire models, book locations, buy insurance—“things I never had to deal with when I worked with Dewey,” she says. “I definitely had some sleepless nights.”

She bought a copy of Business and Legal Forms for Photographers by Tad Crawford to learn the back-office business tasks she hadn’t learned while working for Dewey Nicks. She also reached out to friends for help. “But when bigger budget jobs started coming in, writing contracts and negotiating budgets was really tough,” Borchart says. “You have to have an agent.” Eventually, she reached out again to Siegel at I Heart Reps.

“She had developed a strong style that was bright, polished, energetic and clean,” Siegel says. “It was beauty photography I hadn’t seen. She was creating her own world that clients would want to jump into, rather than creating work for specific clients that fit a certain mold.”

Reflecting on her time in the trenches, Borchart says, “I tried to absorb as much [as I could] out of each experience and [tried] to have a positive outlook….People get stuck in a rut and get bitter or burn out and I tried to balance any of those feelings with shooting my own work on the side.”

She says it was also important to show her work in-person as much as possible. “I think that is more valuable than any pamphlet or email can be. You also need to be respectful but assertive in getting your work in front of people…[They] are bombarded by new work on a regular basis, but if you have your niche and can catch someone’s eye at the right time then it totally pays off.”

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