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An image from my first ELLE shoot with Karlie Kloss. Photo: Bruno Staub for ELLE
My ability, and almost necessity, to work under the gun, has come in handy over the course of my career. I live for a challenge. And maybe sometimes I treat my job like a game show—you could win, you could lose; it’s anybody’s guess—but some of the most satisfying shoots I’ve put together are the ones that are completely on the fly. I call them “panic-mode shoots,” characterized by the fear that this time, you’ve met your match: There’s no way, I tell myself, you’re going to be able to pull this one off. This is the job that will surely get you fired.
When I was styling projects for Vanity Fair, photo shoots were big budget, highly planned labors—true labors—of love. I didn’t complain; there was a great luxury in having so much time and money to pull off a certain project. But something was missing. There was no running around. There was no panic. And so there was no adrenaline. What’s more, the stakes weren’t as high, because if the photo didn’t come out well, there was often the option of simply not running it. There was always a backup, and a backup to the backup.
But I thrive on chaos, and I love being scrappy. I want to sit on the floor, roll up my sleeves, and be as literally hands on as I can be. Magazines like W and ELLE have sizable budgets, comparatively, but every year they seem to shrink. At ELLE, if a story was planned, we always ran it. If you shot Lea Michele for the cover, there was no backup. So it had to work, whether you were given one hour or eight, a generous budget or a not-so generous one. But that was fine by me. I can have four hours or I can have twelve hours. I find that if you know how to manage the time you have—and you know what you’re doing—the results will be the same.
This is also why I have never turned away any celebrity or subject because of time constraints. For ELLE’s September 2013 issue, we featured Karlie Kloss in a six-page fashion story. It was the first time we’d ever featured Karlie in ELLE, and I was super excited. “She’ll be at the SoHo House hotel giving a presentation,” her rep told me. “She can give you 30 minutes during one of her breaks.” 30 minutes, I thought. Really?
But what came out of my mouth was: “No problem.” And I meant it. When the day arrived, my assistant booked a room in the hotel. We removed all the furniture and had the photographer set up a white seamless backdrop along one wall. I put the entire crew on standby. A freelance stylist and I assembled potential outfits knowing we’d have mere seconds to choose between them; the photo assistants were ready to rearrange lighting at a moment’s notice. “When she comes up,” I told everyone, “we have to move like lightning.” And that we did. During one of her breaks, Karlie rushed up to our room. I changed her into the first look as the hair and makeup people she’d brought along with her touched her up, then put her in front of the backdrop as our photographer, Bruno Staub, began snapping. Our crew of 15 lined the edge of the room, ready to jump in but out of the way until then, as I and Bruno’s digital tech sat on the bed—which had been shoved into a corner—looking at the images as they came through Bruno’s camera. I’d hover behind the tech, my eyes fixed on his computer monitor, where each frame would appear in the seconds after it was taken, and yell “next!” as soon as one came in that hit the mark. We got everything we needed in 30 minutes. Karlie blew everyone air kisses as she rushed off back downstairs.
“Well, that was fun!” I announced to the crew. We put the room back together and headed downstairs for lunch.
Excerted from That’s What Fashion Is, by Joe Zee.