We are very excited to be launching the first of our “A Question of Photography” interviews. In the “Question” series, PhotoOp will speak with notable people working across the photo industry- asking them to share their experiences and opinions, as we look to shed a little light on this oftentimes murky business.
We’re kicking off the series with Bradley Browder, the Creative Director for flash-sale pioneers and e-commerce giant Gilt Groupe.
Overseeing a department of 60 people, Bradley is responsible for the photographic art direction for all editorial and product imagery used on the site. He ensures all the photos being captured are beautiful, on brand and - most importantly - sell product. This requires a certain type of photographer, and Bradley is very clear on what he looks for…
Speaking at Gilt’s office in midtown Manhattan:
PhotoOp: How long have you been at Gilt?
Bradley Browder: Over 5 years. Previously I was at an agency, where I oversaw all art direction for our clients lookbooks, ad campaigns, marketing materials. Everything. It taught me a lot about marketing, and working to business objectives. I also spent some time at Rebecca Minkoff, where I helped launch their brand and e-commerce capabilities. This was really before e-commerce was widely used by brands, so we had to figure a lot of things out that are taken for granted today.
PO: No doubt this experience helped you in your current role. The setup here is impressive.
BB: Yes. We have 10 studios, each capturing 60–80 shots every day, to get the editorial and product assets we need. We move fast, balancing quality and brand integrity with production efficiencies and business goals. There’s a saying we use: “retail on speed” - because we work at an unparalleled pace. Imagine changing your store-front every single day. But here it isn’t just one store front. It’s four. We support four verticals: Women’s, Men’s, Home & Kids.
We have 11 photographers on staff, and hire another 21 freelance every month. It’s a big operation.
PO: And how do you find your freelance photographers?
BB: We have an amazing production team - that stays on top of finding great talent - and we use agencies. We also tap the photographers that are currently working with us to see if they can recommend anyone. They know what we’re looking for.
PO: What key things do you want to see in a photographer’s portfolio?
BB: Most important is quality of light. I mean that's the art form. I also want to see a point of view. I need to understand who you are and your sensibilities through your work. It should feel concise. This is what you do, and you do it well. I need to walk away from the portfolio and know exactly what you’ll deliver if I hire you.
Also - and this is a pet peeve - don’t show me a fashion book with no fashion in it. Photographs of people wearing clothes isn’t fashion. There’s no story there. There should be an editorial point of view, and layouts showing how you brought that idea to life. I tend to gravitate to books that capture real moments. What do I mean by “real moments”? It’s a sign that the photographer can help tell a story, has been vocal on set with direction, and understands how nuance gives a photograph life. The photographer has captured a moment. On our sets, a photographer’s role is to work with the stylist and art director to capture the art director’s vision. And I can immediately tell when this has happened in a photograph, it’s very obvious.
PO: Do you still look at print portfolios? If a photographer only had an iPad portfolio would that be a deal breaker?
BB: No. We’re fully digital. I appreciate print portfolios, but they’re not necessary.
To give print the respect it deserves, you need time to read it. It just takes too long for me. I’m pretty restless when it comes to a work day. I know what I am looking for, so I scrub through very fast. If we’re meeting then I ask the photographer to take me through the work; but otherwise I go fast. Don't take that as a sign of disinterest.
If they are coming in for an interview, I’ve already seen the work. At that point I’m assessing character and personality– and also weeding out the divas. At our scale, we simply don’t have the time in the day to manage those kinds of personalities.
PO: Can you elaborate?
BB: Don’t ever book a job and show up thinking it’s a day to collect a paycheck. If you take the job then you come in and give 100%. A client’s work is on the line, and frankly your reputation. So promising something up front and then not delivering is a sign of smug talent. The most successful creatives build relationships and have a solid network with a proven track record. Shooting 80 pieces of ready-to-wear? Doesn’t matter. You signed up, you need to deliver. There’s clearly value to every job, otherwise the client wouldn’t need you.
The best shoots, the most fun shoots, are when everyone works as a team. I love it when I see a photographer taking the time to coach his assistant, or explain to the tech why they are lighting something this way, or that. Photographers that want to turn up at the end of setup, tweak a few things, and then take all the credit... they’re not going to work out at Gilt. We’re built on teams and collaboration.
PO: What do you look for when you meet freelance photographers looking to be hired?
BB: A big part is cultural fit. I want to understand their work ethic. I need someone that will come in, integrate well with the rest of the team on set, and work hard to get the assets we need, shot as beautifully as we need them. We hang our hat on quality.
PO: Do you always meet your photographers before they get hired?
BB: I always meet someone before they get hired full-time on my team. For the freelancers, I try to meet as many as I can. It’s definitely not all of them. I trust my Art Directors though, they have amazing vision.
We probably review 5–10 new photographers every week. Of those, only about 2 or 3 freelancers make it through to being hired, because we have a roster of photographers we like and tend to rehire them. It’s very competitive.
PO: How important is the photographer’s experience? Is it as important as their creativity?
BB: It all depends on the job. If it’s a big job, I’m going with experience. If it’s a smaller scope, and you are passionate, with good energy, then i’ll book you in a second. I like to help aspiring photographers whenever I can.
PO: Would you work with an “Instagram photographer” (someone who was found on Instagram)?
BB: Probably not for the studio work. I need to know you can set up lighting, that you understand your lenses, that you know your way around the set. Using a filter is one thing, but what we do here is fast, and requires deep knowledge with immediate adjustments.
PO: How do you look for technical prowess in a photographer’s portfolio? Is it important?
BB: It’s super important. For example, one of the photographers I use has this incredible ability to bring out skin tone. It’s amazing. And I will use him again and again for our swimwear stories.
Another example, I work with this photographer who is so technical in terms of lighting that he can deliver the vintage watch with barely any retouching needed. It is something that’s incredibly hard to shoot in the right way.
Actually, this reminds me of another photographer I worked with: he was so protective over his approach that he would set up more lights than he needed, so that anyone walking past the set wouldn’t be able to replicate it! It looked like he’s using 5 or 6 different lights, but in reality it’s just two and a fill card! I’m okay with this. They’re protecting their craft.
PO: Do any photographers stand out as being an inspiration?
BB: Three spring to mind, all for different abilities: Michael Donovan for storytelling; Jason Hardwick for his quality of light, and Tom Schirmacher for his energy.
PO: Now that we are 10 years in, what impact do you think digital has had on photography. Is there more talent out there, or more garbage?
BB: More talent. There is a lot of garbage for sure. But if you can’t evolve with an industry, if you rely on legacy, you’re done. Yet I still have an affinity for pre-digital. I’ve yet to see a digital photo as sexy as the film version. There is a story within film. It’s just not as efficient. There would be no e-commerce without digital workflows.
PO: Do you have any final words of advice for fashion photographers who might like to do some work at a company like Gilt?
BB: Come in with a smile, a strong point of view and get the proverbial “it.”