Your dreams have to be bigger than your fears: An Exclusive Interview with Jennifer Avello
Photography is a hard business to get into and when someone mentions fashion photography most people envision an exclusive world that is nearly impossible to become a part of. However, our interview with Jennifer Avello, an international fashion photographer, has cast a more positive light on the subject.
Taking Chicago by storm, Avello has shot for some big names such as Nike, Ulta Beauty, BirchBox, Topshop, TJ Maxx, and many more. Avello believes that if you are interested in fashion photography, don’t feel your dreams are impossible. She has shared with us her photography experiences, advice about the fashion industry and how to make your dreams come true.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago, IL but grew up 20 miles outside of Chicago in the western burbs.
When did you first become interested in photography?
All my life I had always been interested in art. I grew up sketching, painting and writing poetry. I first became interested in photography while in high school. It was one of those moments senior year when you are at the crossroads of your early life and you have no idea what the next stage after high school will be. I always wanted a career, not a job. I knew I couldn’t make a living off of my paintings so I began to experiment with different mediums which I could still be creative with while also making a living.
How did you go about becoming a photographer?
After graduating high school early, I went on to attend Columbia College Chicago and majored in photography. College confirmed this career path for me. When I graduated, I was a little lost to say the least. I began assisting a couple of photographers while I continued to build up my book, because in college, that is what I was told was usually the next step. I didn’t assist for very long before making the conscious decision to not take any part time or full time jobs (that was outside of my industry) and really focus on building my business.
What does photography mean to you?
In a world, where images can say more than words, I am just happy to be able to contribute my thoughts and visions to a larger audience.
What inspires your work?
I’m inspired by my experiences, my thoughts, by the world around me. I am inspired by the words I read in books and the images I see in magazines and online. I am inspired by people; the people I meet, the people I photograph, the people I work with, the people I don’t know but wish I did. I am inspired by the process, by not knowing what I want but finding it along the way. But more then anything I believe in the power of getting up and getting shit done.
Chuck Close has said it the best,
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
How did you first start promoting your work in order to get your name out there?
Social media was initial how I began to promote my work. When I first started out in photography, I used deviantart and flickr to share my work. Now a days I use, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Tumblr and twitter. I also blog regularly. Additionally, I made a list of potential clients I wanted along with current clients and colleagues and started a mailing list. Every month I send out an e-blast and mail promos.
What makes good pictures stand out from the average?
To me, it’s an amazing moment when the stars align and everything in the image just seems to fall into place. If one aspect of the image is off, the whole image suffers.
What do you feel makes an amazing fashion photographer?
Being able to sell or showcase a product in the best light while creating a visually compelling image. I also think if you can make your clients happy, and give them what they want, while also making the image your own, then you have done the job you have set out to do.
What factor in the industry do you feel a personal photography style plays? How did you develop your style?
A personal photography style can play a great roll in the jobs you book. If a client is looking for a specific type of look or lighting style for their next project, more than likely they are going to find a photographer who specializes in this instead of taking a “chance” on someone who ‘may’ be able to pull it off.
A photography style usually develops over time. When you first start out, it may seem overwhelming. I remember sitting in photography class in college and being so distraught that I would never find my style because I liked so many different aesthetics. Which is completely normal! Eventually, what you are drawn to will show through in your work subconsciously. You can’t force it. You just have to let it happen. Your style will evolve and unfold before you as you continue to learn, experiment, and expand your portfolio over the years.
A big controversy with fashion photography is the retouching of models. Being a fashion photographer, how to you feel about this? Have you ever been singled out because of retouching a model?
A big part of my work is done after the photo shoot in post production. To me my job is to make the image the best it can be and to enhance the beauty that is already there. Although Photoshop and retouching is always a part of my workflow, I never want to alter a person’s attributes to the extent of being unrecognizable. I am here to enhance and refine the beauty, and the amazing job my team has already created with me in person, not to disguise it. Different clients and jobs call for different amounts of retouching. I have never had a complaint from a client yet.
Most people who have never experienced a fashion shoot don’t realize the production process of a fashion shoot. Can you touch on who makes up a team on a shoot?
As always, different projects call for different team members. Usually there is always a Photographer, Talent/Model/Subject, Make up Artist, Hairstylist, Stylist (Wardrobe, Prop, Food, Etc,) Photographer Assistant(s), and client or art directors on set. Depending on how large the job is there may be assistant Make up Artists, Hairstylists, and Stylists. A producer may also be call on if it is a large scale job that calls for a lot of production.
Do you have any go to team members who you love working with? How did you find them?
I don’t have a specific set ‘go-to’ team but I do have a group of artists I have worked with that I continue to work with on a regular basic. I have artists that excel in certain fields or genres and will call on them when their skill is needed for a specific assignment.
However, I am always working on personal projects and fashion specs in which I love to collaborate with new artists. The majority of the artists I work with have been found throughout various networking opportunities. Now a days I never actively go out looking for new artists to collaborate with it. I meet artists everywhere I go and I always save their contact information in my address book if they would be valuable to my company and my work. I receive hundreds of emails a month from a variety of artists (Hairstylist, Make up Artists, Stylists, Assistants, Models, etc) who reach out and would like to work with me. I try my best to review everyone portfolios and respond to every single inquiry. I always find that sending a direct email to anyone you would like to connect with is always the best way.
On average, how long does it take you to plan a fashion shoot before you even start shooting? What goes into planning a shoot?
Depending on the multitude of the job, the planning stage of my photo shoots can vary. On average preproduction takes 1-2 weeks prior to the shoot. Larger jobs could be months.
Most of my photo shoot pre-production consists of: Brainstorming, creating a concept/theme, building a mood board, a lot of emailing, building an estimate/creating a budget, hiring a team, casting for models, finding locations/studios, sending call sheets, planning a lighting set up, setting up the studio/location with sets, props and lighting.
When you shoot on location, how do you go about location scouting? What is the process of getting permission to shoot in locations?
I am always jotting down cool locations I see or visit within my day to day schedule. A lot of my photo shoot locations have been places I have visited and then planned a shoot around. I always call, email and scope out the location on foot prior to the shoot to ask permission or gain access to for my photo shoots.
Do you have a process, or work flow, on set for your shoots? Any rituals? Check lists?
I always send call sheets with mood boards prior to the shoot, in order to give my team time to get inspired and make sure we are all on the same page.
Shooting photography, especially when working with a team, tends to be a lot of pressure and problem solving. Do you have any stories of when you had a really difficult problem to solve and how you solved it?
I was shooting fashion specs during a terrible summer storm. While hair and make up was finishing up, we lost power in the studio. With no lights and the sky practically black we decided not to cancel the shoot but to get creative and shoot anyway. I shot the entire shoot pushed up against a small window a foot away from my subject, ISO boost way up and a silver reflected bouncing whatever bit of light appeared from outside. The portraits ended up being featured on Fashionising.com You can read more about this experience here: http://www.jenniferavello.com/2012/08/22/chicago-fashion-photographer-sometimes-problems-arise-just-for-beautiful-mistakes-to-happen/
Being a fashion photographer myself, I understand the importance of connecting with your model(s) and making them feel comfortable on set. How do you accomplish this? Have you ever had a model who you couldn’t get to loosen up? And if so, what did you do to help?
When I am shooting I am always interacting with my subjects. Whether it is just talking about their interests, their plans for the weekend or directing their posing. If I want my model to do something, I’ll do it first. There seems to be less confusion that way especially if they are relatively inexperience in front of the camera.
Additionally, I always have music playing in the background. Subjects choice.
What does your work schedule tend to look like on an average week?
On average I shoot 1-3 times a week. The rest of the time is spent emailing, consulting clients, having meetings, biding on jobs, planning shoots, updating my website, blog, and social media, sending out promos and editing and retouching open jobs.
What gear would we find on your set?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and primarily a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens. Most studio images are shot with a variety of strobes or mixed lighting conditions. I tend to favor 1-2 lights in studio. On location, outdoor photo shoots are usually shot with natural light and a reflector. I don’t like to use more equipment then I have to.
How important is this gear to you?
I always say, it’s not about the equipment. Sure, nice equipment can give you amazing results but, if you do not have the creativity or the knowledge behind it, whats the point? Invest in a decent camera and a good L lens and you could be set for the rest of your life.
I really love when people get creative in the way they shoot and come up with innovated ways of re-purposing simple ( and cheap) items into lighting modifiers, backgrounds, or props. I’ve seen poster board used as flags, bedrooms turned into studios, panel board used as floors, etc. It’s not about the equipment per say, it’s how you use it. Home Depot can be your best friend when you are starting out!
If you could go back and change something related to your education, or your life as a student, what would you change, or what would you do differently?
I wish I would have taken a business class. I still can’t figure out how that wasn’t mandatory?
Do you shoot personal work on the side or does your professional work blend into your personal work?
I am always trying to bring myself to my client work. It’s really amazing when my personal and client work merge. However at least once a month, I shoot something personal for myself to keep my book updated.
What are the pros and cons of being a fashion photographer?
I love that I am able to wake up and do what I love every day. It’s pretty amazing. One of my favorite parts of my career is all the talented, inspiring, and beautiful people I get to meet, work with, and form relationships with.
Being a photographer, just as being any type of artist, is hard work and severely unappreciated. Throughout my years of experience being a photographer, I have learned that marketing yourself, selling yourself and defending yourself are probably some of the hardest parts of this job. It never gets easier, it’s always changing, and often enough, if you hear the same misconceptions and notions again and again, you’ll start to believe them. But, you cannot let it get you down.
What do you feel is the most important skill a fashion photographer can have?
I feel like being a quick thinker, and problem solver, is an important skill for any photographer to have. In fashion photography you sometimes have a lot of people to please on set. You do not want to call any alarm if a problem rises or something isn’t working properly. You sometimes have to improvise and make things work a different way than you would have anticipated.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career thus far?
I’d have to say, my life was made when I first photographed Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion week, S/S ’13. It was an overwhelming feeling to be surrounded by everything I have ever dreamt and wanted. I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to be apart of something of such importance and hierarchy. I was very impressed and proud of myself; I wanted it so I figured out a way and I did it.
Do you have any advice for anyone who are aspiring to work in the fashion industry?
Taken from my latest blog post…The future is now. Live your dreams. Do what you love and do it often. Push through. Watch this and believe. Step outside of your comfort zone. And as always, never stop doing the things that scare you the most.
Do you have anything to add to this interview?
Just remember, Your dreams have to be bigger than your fears.
For more work by Jennifer Avello visit her website at www.jenniferavello.com