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.