Setting out to become a fashion photographer is a lot like deciding to be a rock star: There’s no proven formula for success. It helps if you relocate to New York, know the right people and cultivate a unique aesthetic. Still, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
Melissa Rodwell has spent her 25-year career bucking the established route to fashion success in every way other than the one that’s most important: cultivating a unique aesthetic. Her "rock ‘n’ roll couture" is defined by no single technique repeated ad nauseam, but rather by an edgy appreciation for mystery and shadow that cultivates a sometimes bizarre, gothic sensuality.
The Los Angeles-born photographer resisted the pressure to relocate to New York for the bulk of her career, acquiescing eventually when the continuous cross-continental back and forth simply stopped making sense. Her work was always in demand, but in recent years her reputation has grown to veritable rock star status surely due to the caliber of her photography and also to a higher public profile. Rodwell started her own photo blog, one of the few—perhaps the only—to offer a meaningful look behind the scenes of the fashion world. It spread like wildfire.
"When I was first presented with the idea," she says, "I didn’t want to do it because I thought I would get a lot of flak from the industry. Fashion photography and the fashion industry have always seemed to be sort of secretive. When we were shooting film, you didn’t give away your lighting secrets, your exposing secrets, your developing secrets. But knowledge is worth nothing unless you give it away. And I haven’t gotten any flak, so it’s been good. I like to write. It’s a fantasy of mine to be a writer. I don’t think I’m very good at it, so I’ve stuck with photography."
As expected, it’s the personal jobs and editorial assignments that allow Rodwell to be most creative. At this point in her career, she says she’s fortunate to no longer have to show traditional work in her portfolio alongside the images that really define her style.
"I still get hired to do the catalog and the clean white background stuff," she explains. "When I was starting out, my work was extremely edgy. I had to bring it in and water it down. I was constantly being asked, Can you shoot on a white background? Well, if I can shoot like this, of course, I can shoot on a white background. I had to show it and prove it to them, and that part I don’t have to do so much anymore. I used to have to show that in my book, so my book looked all over the place—I had the weird editorial stuff and the clean catalog stuff. I didn’t really like representing that. Now I don’t have to show that so much anymore. "You get to a certain level with photography," adds Rodwell, "and we all pretty much can accomplish a job. If we’re assigned a job, we know how to do it. I’ve always been taught to have a distinct style to stand out, just so that people know you by your style, not be somebody who can shoot lifestyle or bathing suits and then go in and do something gothic and dreamy. My work is a little bit dark and edgy, and I try to stick to that when I shoot editorial. That’s like my name card. It’s how I want to be presented to the world—also, that kind of shooting makes me the happiest."
Rodwell splits her time between studio and location work. This helps keep her look from stagnating, as she chooses locations, even rental studios, based on the needs of a particular assignment. Rather than rely on the same technical crutches from job to job, she’s free to reinvent her approach to creating that signature look with each new assignment. That carries over into technique, as well.
"I don’t find myself that much of a technical master or guru," Rodwell says. "I see light intuitively. I’ve always been extremely sensitive to light since I was very young. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I would see everything through shapes and forms and shadows. I still do. I’m very much in love with light, and how I go in and light things is really intuitive. Sometimes I can’t even articulate it."
"I don’t particularly like the look of strobes, per se," she adds. "I think you need to manipulate them so they become a little bit prettier and more interesting. I like shadows, I like negative space, I like mystery. And when you overlight things, there’s no mystery. I’m also a devoted fan of fashion, of clothing and fashion design, so I pay great attention to the detail of the clothing when I’m shooting, to highlight the clothing and make the clothing stand out and be the star.
"I use a lot of indirect and side-light placement," Rodwell continues. "It’s intuitive. For example, the Opium Bed shoot, I shot that with a flashlight. I opened up a door and I blocked a window. I put a big black piece of duvetyne over the window, but then I opened up the front doors and let the light flood in. The other one was too bright, too harsh, too much. The light coming in through the doorway was darker and more controllable. The light on her face, that’s a flashlight. And then somebody is cupping part of the flashlight, so it’s only a little bit of it. It’s not just beaming it right into her face. It could be bounced off a card or bounced off the ceiling, or it could have a hand cupped over it like a mini-cucoloris or a mini-snoot."
Adds Rodwell, "If you know how to light, you can definitely roll with a great location and a great model, but you need to know how to light. You need to know how to go into that situation and expose for the beautiful natural light. If you can learn how to light, you can use a light bulb to light something."
While Rodwell may prefer breaking the rules when she’s lighting on location, that doesn’t mean she’s winging it. All of her shoots—whether client-driven or personal—involve extensive prep work and deliberate previsualization to the point where Rodwell knows exactly what she’s going to create before she ever sets foot on set.
"I’m planning an upcoming shoot in the forest," she explains, "so I’ve sent my casting submissions out, and I’m locking down location shots of the forest that we’re shooting in for the different times of day so we know our start time and how many shots I’ve got to get when that magic hour light is perfect. Looking at the weather and working with the stylist and seeing the clothes—it will be a whole week of this. And then by the time we get to the shoot, everything is nailed down, and I know what the final images are going to be already in my head. I’m formulating that now.
"You get some happy surprises and some things you were
n’t expecting," Rodwell says, "like when you’re there and you’re like, wow, this is an awesome angle, this is an awesome location inside of the location, let me shoot something here real quick. Then you get these happy surprises, but for the most part things are really nailed down."