The Fashion Frontlines

Frazer Harrison reflects on the high-octane, high-stress world of entertainment photography.



When we met up with Getty Images' entertainment photographer Frazer Harrison last Thursday, he had just finished shooting the Y & Kei show in Bryant Park for New York's Fashion Week, which wrapped up February 9. He was wearing a simple black t-shirt, slacks, and the slightly crazed look of a photographer who had spent the last seven days in "the pit" at innumerable runway shows and his nights at plenty of the after-parties. Over a cup of weak, machine-dispensed coffee, and talking headlong in a thick London accent, Harrison divulged the method to the madness of photographing Fashion Week -- from knowing your place to knowing who to trust.

How many shows have you done this week?

It's been light; about five a day.

And that's light?

That's pretty light, yeah, considering there's about 12. That's not counting the off-sight [not at Bryant Park]; we don't do off-sights. So in all there can be up to 16 shows a day, but me and one other photographer mainly do the tents.

How many fashion weeks have you done?

About eight seasons in New York; Los Angeles around about the same. That's over four or five years. Fashion wasn't my forte. I'm an entertainment photographer. Well, a photojournalist, that's my background. I worked at newspapers in England before I came out to America and didn't find fame and fortune.

Is that why you came out?

Why did I come out to America? I'd worked in newspapers since I was 18, just starting a year, two years in a dark room printing black and white, printing the photographer's work and learning that way. And then I always sort of wanted to be a photographer, and that was a step to actually achieving that. I managed to persuade my particular paper at the time that I was better than being cooped up in a darkroom. And then many years later, here I am in New York. Actually I'm based in LA.

What are your big events for the year that you always do?

Everything. This year so far other than the People's Choice Awards, I had a four-day stint in the Caribbean working with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones... then literally straight back from that for the Sundance Film Festival. Got back from that, a couple days' break, and then out to here, Fashion Week, fly back Saturday night to LA. Sunday morning I do the Grammy Awards, arrivals, and some Beyoncé party in the evening. And then I go comatose.

Tell me about the show we just saw.

Tunnel vision. It's weird. You do so many shows, and they really have to be outstanding shows to stick in your mind. The girls are all the same girls. They do multiple shows, you get different hairstyles, you get different makeup, and you get the different clothes. It wasn't outrageous. It was wearable. There was a lot of black, which is the trend of the minute. The show I did before that was Neil Barrett, and that was an hour late because they were waiting for Lenny Kravitz to turn up. And we're like, just get it started, please. 'Cause we've been stood in that area for going on an hour and it starts to get cramped and nasty.

Tell me about being in the pit, or whatever you guys call it.

It has numerous names. "The riser" is its official name. "The pit" is as good a description as you can get it. One description we like is, we call it "the cock pit" -- not in relation to airplanes. You get that many roosters together and then throw a hen down the runway, there's bound to be trouble. You wouldn't realize this, but there is order in there. And the order starts with the house photographer. He's the photographer that's going to shoot for the designer. They get the pick of the positions. Now they will sometimes shoot solo, sometimes bring a team in. Now you've got to remember, we're only talking about a small area. So then you've got us, Getty, we are house [photographers] for the whole of New York Fashion Week. We are obliged to take a very good position. Then you may have the other sort of house photographers. But yeah, there is a hierarchy there. So you've got this core of maybe 12 to 15 hardcore fashion photographers, and they all jostle for position. And they work that out for themselves. Then you have the tourists. The tourists being people who don't usually shoot fashion in the slightest who have no clue what they're doing. Who believe that just because they're the first one there and they're stood over the camera like this particular guy at the last show, believes that he has the right to shoot the best position in the house. How little does he know. How close did he come to actually getting thrown out by security? Very close. How close did he come to getting a fist in the face? Not by me, but he got close. So there was a little bit of drama.

So do you guys all just sort of know who's who and who's above you and who's not?

We do, yeah. It's all degrees. It's amazing how two degrees can effect what you actually shoot. People think it's easy, but it's not. It really is a high-stress environment. You've got to get your position in. You've got to fight with these people. There's a lot of psychological warfare going on. A lot of jostling around to try and find that gap. You know that if you are out of position, your pictures are going to suffer. Then you've got to deal with something like the designer being clever and throwing down three models all at the same time. Then you have designers who think it's clever to have tracking spotlighting, mixing daylight and tungsten.

Then of course you've got the hygiene of the pit. It starts to get a little bit rancid by the end of the week. It's not that bad, but if you've been shooting from nine in the morning to nine at night and you're in this sort of sweat pit, in the cold, in the sweat pit. You know, you start to get a little bit reeky by the end of the day.

Tell me what camera you shoot with.

I'm using the Canon EOS-1D Mark II N.

How do you deal with lighting?

You know what, it's lit up like a Christmas tree. The really important thing is color temperature. Most photographers on a daily basis don't even think about color temperature. They just have it on auto white balance. But fashion shows are totally different because you really need to make sure you're shooting on the right color temperature. You can white card balance.

Do you generally do that?

No, not really. There's always somebody who's already done it for you. But, yeah, a lot of the rooms don't change. They tend to be a constant 3200 Kelvin and now and again you get a surprise. But yeah, you have to check. If you don't do it yourself, at least ask someone you trust. Not really that anyone would stitch you up though because everybody is asking the same question. When we are talking about people who shoot color temperature all over the world, they're like, what temperature are we at?

So there is some camaraderie down there in the pit.

We'll help each other out, if need be. The biggest problem is, if you're camera fails on you, that's it, it's all over. You can't bend down in there, you can't take a spare camera, and you're literally shooting on one body, monopod, and whatever lens you decide you're going to shoot. I personally shoot with 70-200mm and use a 1.4x teleconverter. Where other guys are shooting with 300s and 400s, in some cases using Sigma 120-300mm lenses.

Tell me about what you know you need to get when you go in there.

You've got to get the full length, that's really important. The full length in the proper position, being flat foot forward. Left or right, doesn't matter. The girl's got to have her eyes open. Then you start to go for half length, then you go for the headshot, then you go for any details that you may have time to shoot. Again, that's really difficult, because you've got to clear the cameras, so you know that you can't shoot shoes. Jewelry's the hardest thing to shoot. But some of the best pictures I've done in the past have been using like a 400mm on jewelry. You're just looking for anything that's different. And that's pretty hard to do when you're in this environment. You're mobility's a little bit [limited]. Anyway, the other photographers won't tolerate that. They don't need flaying arms. I always think if somebody actually dropped down dead in that pit, they'd still carry on shooting.

But you also do the stuff that's not just photos of the dresses, right? You do backstage and front row?

I used to. But we've sort of got this down to an art now. I used to mix it up a bit... but it got to cause a lot of friction. The runway photographers are, you know, they're big girls. They like to have that regularity with the shooters. So we knocked it down to me and Mark Mainz, shooting runway because it causes less friction. The other guys know who we are, they respect us, and we respect them. And we don't have any trouble. Whereas all of a sudden if a stranger comes in and doesn't know how it works, I've seen this happen. All of a sudden they start fighting over an inch of space when there's no need for it.

So what do you do when you go to the Oscars or something like that? Are you moving around or are you the guy in the pit there too?

No, it's very similar to fashion. The only difference is at the Oscars we have a nice big space. No control over the position, but that's where they put you. It's all marked out; you get there, our tethering lines are already installed. All we do is plug in and cross our fingers and hope for the best. Then the celebrities arrive and we just shoot the heck out of them. It's different. If you noticed, you don't hear the photographers in fashion shows. Red carpet arrivals it's a different monster. You're whole mission is to get the attention of the celebrity. I'm always like, "Over to the Brit, yeah, the one with the funny accent, you know me." You're really balling. Then of course the other photographers are trying to put on crappy Dick Van Dyke British accents. And I'm like, "Forget about him, he was just a bad extra in Marry Poppins."

So do you guys all just go out and have a good time after all this making fun of each other?

We actually don't go out with other photographers that much because, generally, they're still working. We're lucky with the Getty crew because we've got a huge team of techs and they sit there and troll through our rubbish and pick out the good stuff and make us look fantastic.