Remote photoshoots and digital styling: Creative responses to social distancing in the fashion industry
Author: Marion Derouineau, photographer, UK. Marion’s Instagram profile can be found here.
During the pandemic, a lot of cultural endeavors have been done remotely – remote television interviews, remote podcasts, remote concerts and so on. In the fashion industry, professionals have also been forced to adapt to the circumstances by finding ways to generate visual content while being physically separated. The fashion industry relies heavily on visual communication, especially in our era of social media, and nowadays platforms such as Instagram enable creatives to share their work, and brands to stay in contact with their consumers. While creating professional-looking images normally requires the presence of many people on the set of a photoshoot, as well as a lot of close contact between beauty and style teams and models, relying on technology and digital tools has enabled those in the fashion industry to remain productive during Covid.
In this article, I’m exploring how fashion practitioners have been impacted by social distancing measures, and how these have affected the production of fashion images. Being myself a photographer based in London, I reached out to other photographers but also talked to stylists, makeup artists, and models in the UK, France, and in the US to understand how they have been able to work remotely, and sometimes to transfer their skills digitally, to continue creating fashion media. This continuity is primordial in a field in which you have to remain constantly active to display your creativity and skills, and for artists, staying creative is also a way to cope with the general anxiety and to stay connected to others.
Remote work in the fashion sphere
Social distancing has forced fashion practitioners to rethink how to create images, which has led many to experiment with the innovative form of remote photoshoots. As a photographer and an avid consumer of fashion images, I came upon this concept quite early during the lockdown when only few people had shared remotely shot images, and I decided to give it a try. Remote shoots consist in a model posing in front of their webcam or smartphone while the photographer captures images through messaging apps such as Zoom or FaceTime. Some artists choose to work with screenshots, while others prefer to use their DSLR camera and photograph the device used to communicate with the model. During my own quick test with my friend and model Juliette Cecile, I was just sitting in front of my laptop, taking screenshots and guiding her on how to turn and tilt her camera, directing her on how to pose and how to find the best light.
Once the initial enthusiasm of being able to work together had worn off – we have been living on other sides of the globe for a few years – we quickly realized that if creating fun images and experimenting with setting and quirky poses is easy to achieve remotely, reaching a certain quality of image, finding the right light and maintaining a consistent quality via Internet is trickier. Weeks after our test, remote photoshoots have become increasingly popular, as a quick search online under the hashtags #facetimephotoshoot and #remoteshoot shows. However, to personalise the somewhat repetitive imagery of models in their home, captured through the wide lens of a smartphone, photographers have had to experiment with different tools, technologies and editing techniques. Varying from photographer to photographer, these techniques allow artists to push the boundaries of their creativity and challenge the viewer’s perception.
Photographer Arturo Torres, for instance, communicates with the model through a messaging app on a tablet or smartphone, which he then photographs with an external DSLR camera. This way of staging the device – on a shelf, against a fabric backdrop – creates a sort of decorative screen-object that adds another layer to the remote photoshoot, while being self-reflexive about the practice. Similarly, Alessio Albi chose to work with in-app screenshots and to include his own avatar vignette in the final shot, playing with the discrepancy between the model’s image and his own. As we can see, remote photoshoots are often a demonstration of an artist’s creativity, as well as a statement about what is achievable with affordable, everyday technology. Thus while many artists play with the vernacular, poor quality of webcam imagery, others, such as Jenn Collins, strive to achieve the highest definition in their remote images, making the viewer question what they are seeing.
Post-processing also becomes essential for most artists who experiment with remote photoshoots and push the boundaries of technology. Such is the case for photographer Elizaveta Porodina, who manages to blur the lines between medium through editing techniques – the details of which she keeps to herself – transforming her quarantine images into canvas-like surfaces. Some have also managed to reach beyond the limits of virtuality and used collage and editing to combine the work of different team members scattered across the globe. This is the case for mixed media artist Jon Jacobsen and makeup artist Lisa Eldridge, who have said they worked with a “digital make-up palette” which was applied to the makeup artist’s skin and then transferred digitally onto the model’s image.
While we could think that remote shoots are just a fun way for creatives to stay connected, and could never go beyond Instagram’s virtual world, many brands and magazines have also resorted to them to create content during Covid. Designer Simon Jacquemus partnered with photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti and renown celebrities Bella Hadid, Steve Lacy and Barbie Ferreira for a remote campaign; fast fashion giant Zara sent clothes to models who then posed for a Spring/Summer lookbook remote edition, and the April number of Vogue Italia featured a remote photoshoot with Bella Hadid ‘shot’ by photographer Brianna Capozzi. As these images become trendy and the demand for visual content increased dramatically during lockdown in both high and low fashion spheres, remotely shooting commercial images has enabled a lot of image makers to keep afloat. This is the case of Leeds-based wedding photographer Tim Dunk who has become quite popular with his fun and creative images, which have enabled him to maintain his activity at a crucial time when wedding season was compromised. Creating fun photo sessions which have the potential to break the monotony of lockdown for his models – and partially donating the funds collected to people affected by the pandemic – his remote photoshoots have gained a lot of attention which is something he was not expecting:
“I don’t think I thought it would still be a thing after lockdown a couple of weeks back but it seems to be getting bigger and bigger and it’s just such a fun way of working and meeting people. […] I’ve shot 250+ sessions and am now partnering with big brands.” (Tim Dunk, photographer)
The current incapacity to physically be present on set and the production slowdown it has caused has also been an opportunity for many creatives to learn new skills, or to think of ways to transfer them onto the digital sphere. Many photographers and makeup artists have set up their own online courses and tutorials during lockdown, which is an occasion to rethink their practice. Similarly, as London stylist Jubbi S. explained to me, while she can neither work on set nor in shops as she usually does, she also does a lot of ecommerce, and part of it can be achieved from home by shooting flatlays, hanger and pack shots. While this requires skills that she already possessed, it has pushed her to perfect her talents to provide professional images to brands.
Some projects also appeal more to one’s creativity than others: doing digital styling for a brand for instance is similar to what a stylist does on set, as Jubbi S. explains about her experience working for the brand Aurum London:
“The project consisted of ‘digitally’ styling two looks to accompany two chosen earrings from a jewellery designer, one for day and one for night. The designs left the brief pretty open so I had lots of creative freedom with it. [the client] then assembled the looks and these were posted to her Instagram stories throughout the week, each day featuring a new stylist and how they would do a day and night look for the same pieces.” (Jubbi S., stylist)
However, while it can be a way to keep afloat and stay creative during lockdown, working remotely and digitally also has the potential to exacerbate solitude and sometimes bring other issues to the surface. For models who are confronted with their own image on their device as they are posing for FaceTime photoshoots, this new way of working can be as positive as it can be frustrating. “I find it helpful to see myself as I can perfect my pose when I can see what’s wrong (some photographers are shy to tell you)” says Annie Wade Smith, a model based in London, whereas some models have said they couldn’t help focusing on their own image, and thus struggled to achieve the perfect posture. Moreover, not working on set but from one’s own home reveals some inequalities: people who have access to good equipment and nicer environments can produce higher-quality visual content. Similarly, Annie notes how she was already used to creating her own images, as generally curve models have to produce a lot of their own content and assert their visibility in social media more than others:
“I think for curve and plus models generally there’s a lot more agency on us to make a strong portfolio on Instagram. Straight size models have a very ‘usable’ look for many campaigns, I feel for us our social media content has to be fresh and interesting to be usable. “ (Annie Wade Smith, model)
Wellbeing through Creativity
During lockdown, being able to create new images and experiment, even digitally, has also been a question of wellbeing for creatives within the fashion industry. When asked why they started remote photoshoots, many artists I talked to answered that being creative was a part of them and that they couldn’t imagine not practicing during the months of quarantine. Many people living in countries that have begun to ease social distancing express their joy at being back on set, but for those who still have to remain at home, creativity is a way to cope with the current anxious climate. In order to maintain a form of contact with others, some have been engaging with their audience on social media to create challenges sparking their imagination. In April, Paris based makeup artist Ludivine François invited her followers to send her a picture which she would use as an inspiration to create a makeup (on herself): “I’m so bored/Send me a picture or a word to use as makeup inspiration/It can be whatever a flower, a painting, a color, a theme/I’ll do a makeup based on it if I’m inspired.”
Several models mentioned the playful aspect of remote photoshoots, as well as the joy felt to be able to connect with other artists around the globe. Stylists and makeup artists expressed a form of gratitude at having more time at home, which enabled them to re-discover their own wardrobe or makeup kit, experiment with new combinations of clothing items and makeup products:
“I have been thinking lots on ways to still keep creative styling wise, but for the time being my own wardrobe is keeping me entertained! Plenty of time to try out new combinations […] Honestly, I even dream of trying out new ways of combining things that I already own, so I’ve been enjoying having that time.” (Jubbi S., stylist)
A slower pace, a return to what one already possesses and to the material, a more hands-on approach to one’s practice seems to resonate within fashion creatives during this period of uncertainty. This is the case for Elena Cremona, who is a photographer and film developer in London. She explained to me that using only screenshots for her remote photoshoots didn’t feel right to her; instead, she used her 35mm analogue camera for FaceTime photography sessions and developed the film herself. This technique allows her to be more involved in her practice, more “hands-on in my own process, which is something that I NEED to do for myself.”
Additionally, I have noticed browsing social media to research for this article, that the emphasis is often put on the act of creating rather than on the finished product. When fashion artists share on social media behind-the-scenes of their virtual photoshoots, it does not only show their followers that they are remaining active creatively, it is also a way to celebrate the act of performing that creativity and the connection made between people, even during lockdown. The final images may not end up being used, but the joy brought by the moment of creation provided a moment of relief from the general anxiety.
Rethinking the Medium
As we can see from the popularity of remote photoshoots, the pandemic has been a way of rethinking fashion media for many of its practitioners. As social media have enabled us to stay connected during the pandemic in a globalized world, it seems like the blurry, wide-angled aesthetic of FaceTime photoshoots has the potential to resonate with everyone who has had to endure a Zoom meeting. Moreover, the emerging success of remotely shot images might indicate that this practice is here to stay; and while many people mentioned this might be a temporary trend, a lot of others also said that it enabled them to rediscover aspects of the medium that they would like to explore further post-lockdown. “I’m working on a project about the longing for human touch,” says Elena Cremona, “I do think that I’ll be more up for doing virtual shoots […], seeing as the outcome sometimes can be equally as good!”
Furthermore, as it invites more creativity, participation and control over the resulting images, this type of photoshoot also has the potential to rethink the agency of models within the production of fashion images, as they become their own stylists, makeup artists, set designers and to an extent camera operators. One of the models I talked to, who has managed to shoot remotely with her own DSLR camera and a control software which allows the photographer to operate it remotely, also raised the debate around copyrights: “If I’m the one doing my own styling and makeup, in charge of the set design, if I’m using my own camera, and if the images are stored directly on my computer, I think we can also wonder who the images belong to in terms of rights.”
Many creatives have emphasized the fact that these digital or virtual forms of working are ways of coping with difficult situation, financially, but also give an opportunity to rethink one’s work, challenge themselves and realize that they already possess a lot of skills which they can reuse in other projects. In a digital era enhanced by a global quarantine, it is also interesting to note that practices have been diverse, and by playing with the medium artists have further challenged the virtual. Photographers who usually shoot film have not all turned digital during Covid but rather have merged their practices, developing, printing and sharing their images on social media. As creatives in the fashion sphere are more and more expected to possess many different skills and to embody the role of different professions on set, so too does the image become a hybrid medium, both a tangible and virtual object.