In 1998, then-Tokyo-based ELLE Japan magazine designer Nahoko Spiess had a dream: to move to Paris and become a fashion photographer. Easier said than done, of course, but a creative eye, combined with a clear understanding of the fashion market, gave Spiess the confidence that she could get behind the camera to create fashion spreads rather than designing features with other photographers’ imagery. To learn the craft of photography, she took a pay cut and joined the ELLE studio in Paris as an assistant. By the turn of the millennium, she had the first of countless covers with her own photo credit.
In spite of the recent tragic events in her adopted home of Paris, Spiess and her fellow fashion industry colleagues continue to make the City of Light, La Ville Lumière, the indisputable capital of couture.
DPP: In general, what’s the Paris fashion market focused on? How does it differ from London, New York and Tokyo, where you’ve worked?
Nahoko Spiess: People here look for the couture maison, the brand, and the look of classic elegance. Their clients are the high-society woman. My style is quite romantic, feminine and soft. It adapts well for the Paris market.
London is more underground and rock ‘n’ roll. They like to shock people. It’s edgy, sometimes a bit weird for my eyes, but I do adore discovering all that kitsch and trendy style, colorful and original, perfect for that mysterious type of environment.
New York is energetic. It’s quite businesslike, with an emphasis on fashion for the businesswoman. It tends to be sophisticated, but can be sportive and easy to wear for daily life, as well. There is, of course, upbeat New York, where speed and action can be found, and the mood of the fashion spread is highly influenced by the location and the clothes, and vice versa.
Japanese culture, and Tokyo, in particular, is a mix of classic to modern—from falling cherry blossoms to beaming neon lights—and that’s reflected in the fashion periodicals. In Tokyo, there’s always the concert of costume play in the world of manga. It’s the fashion trend appreciated by very young women. I find that each city has its individual personality.
DPP: But Paris, in particular, seems to be the best fit for your aesthetic.
Spiess: Fashion directors, photo editors and advertising art buyers here started to recognize the expression of the joy and pain of love that’s in my work. Paris is, after all, known as the city of love. It’s the perfect place for photo shoots that invoke tradition and historical locations. I just love the light—whether it’s day or night, under streetlamps—there’s always that certain magic that can only be found in Paris. During the winter, we often have this beautiful overcast sky, where you can shoot with this elegant light in any direction at anytime of the day. Of course, there are other romantic locations throughout Europe, such as in Italy, where there are many towns where time stands still and Renaissance occupies the style. But Paris has everything here—the designers, the models, the magazines, the classic architecture.
DPP: How do you develop your concepts for a shoot? Are they usually your ideas, or do they come from the magazine or the designers?
Spiess: The concept depends on the client and what they would like me to project. If it’s a fashion editorial, I’ll discuss with my art director or fashion director the objective of the shoot, and then we work toward that artistic image depending on the style of the clothes. They’re always open to suggestions.
I’m not a particularly logical person, so I let my intuition guide me in my choices. When I take photos, I’m guided by my sentiment of that moment. I feel I project that to the models and its reflected in them. I’m very influenced by my emotions about love. When I’m in love, I have so many things to say and express, but instead of speaking, I express these feelings through the lens of my camera. My photos can be full of light, peaceful, romantic and feminine, but if I’m in the state of heartbreak and it’s appropriate for the pictorial, it can be just the opposite. If I cry or scream through my camera, my images become very expressive, with strong emotion. Then, by the end of the photo session, I feel lighter and I’m cured because I’ve exorcised the doubt, sadness or frustration from my dark side. This, of course, is tempered by the assignment. I’m conscious that I’m working in the fashion industry, where big budgets are spent on advertising. So I want to make an image that can speak emotionally, yet also show the important highlights of the collection.
DPP: Do you adjust your approach for catalog work?
Spiess: When shooting for catalogs, it’s far more important that the clothes are very visible, so I need to always stay focused and follow the mood, whether it’s sporty fun or romantic. Everything is a matter of choice, like a puzzle we put together. We work closely with the client to choose the location, the model, the style of hair and makeup. Given those basic guidelines, we can then work creatively within a framework to promote the look the client desires.
DPP: What equipment do you bring with you on location?
Spiess: My lighting is typically a mix of natural daylight and artificial flash used to catch the necessary details. I carry two Profoto B1 heads and a Quantum flash. These battery-powered lights are great for location work because they’re so easy to transport. As for my camera, I shot medium format for many years, but now I use a Nikon D810. My favorite lenses are the Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8 macro. The macro creates such a beautiful bokeh. I’m always very conscious of my ƒ-stops, particularly with that lens, to take advantage of its boke-aji—the quality of the blur. It’s quite elegant.
DPP: You started in the fashion business as a designer. Why the switch to photography?
Spiess: I studied graphic design at Musashino Art University in Japan, then after graduating, started working as an editorial designer for magazines, including ELLE Japan. I developed my know-how about layout and
cropping of images, how photography relates to text and how fashion shoots are produced. It was a great education. After five years of working in the field as a designer, I decided to move abroad to gain the knowledge of photography. I thought combining this with my background in editorial design would make me a very good choice to become an art director when I returned to Japan.
Paris, because it’s the capital of fashion, was my first choice, and because of my work for ELLE in Japan, I was able to become a photo assistant at the ELLE studio in Paris. This was an amazing experience, as I had the chance to participate in incredible photo editorials with some of the world’s most renowned fashion photographers, including Oliviero Toscani, Andre Rau, Riccardo Tinelli and Thiemo Sander. Toscani was amazing with his enormous Polaroid camera. He would take only around five pictures for each pose, and that’s it.
After this assisting experience, photography became my first interest. I no longer thought of returning to Japan to become an art director. Creating images from scratch rather than doing the final decoration with them became my focus.
DPP: Alexey Brodovitch had a profound effect on the photographers he worked with as an art director at Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. He showed what could happen when great photography was paired with great design.
Spiess: People sometimes forget that photographs are just part of the equation that adds up to a great fashion spread. I’m very fortunate to have experienced both sides of the process. I have a deep appreciation for both, as I believe the photographers such as Penn, Avedon, Hiro and Bassman did working with Mr. Brodovitch. When both the photography and the design come together, the results are magnifique!
To see more of Nahoko Spiess’ photography, visit her website at nahokospiess.com.