A Question of Photography: Priscilla Polley- Fashion Director for MONROWE magazine

Photography sets can be fraught with politics. Lots of opinions bubble up, usually with conflicting direction, and are wafted in the general direction of the photographer. Oftentimes it takes a mediator to instill some calm- someone trusted by both sides who can find the right balance to guide the shoot forward. This role is something MONROWE magazine's Fashion Director Priscilla Polley excels at, as well as being a first rate stylist, of course.

Having worked with multiple brands and publications - Belstaff, True Religion, Under Armor, Versace, Armani Exchange, InterviewWWD, etc. - Priscilla’s insights into working with fashion photographers are based on vast experience, and a deep category knowledge. 

In this candid conversation with PhotoOp, Priscilla tells us what she looks for in a photographer's portfolio, her expectations for an editorial shoot & when a photographer should consider themselves ready to start pushing the crazy...

David Beckham for Belstaff - styled by Priscilla Polley

David Beckham for Belstaff - styled by Priscilla Polley

PhotoOp: Tell us about where and how you work with photographers.

Priscilla Polley: As a fashion stylist, my job falls into two categories: Commercial and Fashion Editorial. And they’re very different from one another. On a commercial set I am essentially the bridge between the client and the photographer. I help the client accomplish what they need, but done in a way that doesn’t detract from the creative vision of the shoot. 

PO: On commercial jobs, are you working with an ad agency or with the client direct?

PP: It depends. For example with Under Armor, sometimes I’ll work with their advertising agency, Droga 5. But with True Religion I work directly with the brand’s Creative Director. 

Commercial shoots are interesting, because they are so politically complicated. I have to make sure everyone is happy. I often find myself bartering between the client and the agency, whereas the photographer is very protected by the agency. The agency has picked the photographer for their style, and they want the photographer to have the freedom to explore that style as much as possible. They want to stop the client from being too conservative.

But on-set I am responsible for the client’s product being captured in the right way. I work with a lot of different people on the client side - their design team, their merchandise team, their creative team. And on-set, these guys are all talking to me - because I am the one who is handling their product. So I’m in the styling area talking to the client about clothes, then I leave the client in the background to go on-set and chat with the photographer and the agency. I manage a lot of the communication between these two areas.

PO: Do you prefer it when the agency is or isn’t on-set?

PP: There is more tension when there is an agency for sure, because there is perhaps more risk being taken. The client is forced out of their comfort zone and more innovative work is usually the outcome. Often the risk is too high internally to take without the agency. The ad agency gives the brand the opportunity to take bigger risks. 

The Face- styled by Priscilla Polley & shot by Guy Aroc

The Face- styled by Priscilla Polley & shot by Guy Aroc

PO: How does it work with fashion editorial shoots?

PP: It’s a bit different because in most cases there is no client paying the bill. The goal of the photographer, stylist and magazine is all the same - to use editorial as an outlet to communicate their creative vision to potential / current clients, as well as other people in the community.

Since it’s self-funded the only expenses are to make the imagery even better. If the photographer says “Hey, if we shoot in this location then the shots will be that much cooler”, then we can explore that together.

PO: What’s the power-dynamic like? Are photographer and stylist equal partners?

PP: It depends. Usually editorial pieces run in magazines - and if the stylist is on the masthead then they’re probably involved in hiring the photographers, and therefore have more authority.

PO: As the Fashion Director of MONROWE magazine, I assume you are in charge of hiring photographers you shoot with?

PP: It depends on whether or not I am working on the story at hand. For the November issue, I shot with several people including Guy Aroch and a really amazing young photographer named Gabriela Celeste – both of whom were brought in by me. For the stories I wasn’t styling photographers were selected collaboratively with myself, our Bookings Editor and the Editor-in-Chief. 

PO: How do you find the photographers for the stories you are shooting?

PP: From our network, from models.com, from looking at other magazines that I think are equitable in their type of work and lifecycle. I am researching similarly new magazines, and seeing which photographers are working with them.

PO: What does the lifecycle of the magazine have to do with it?

PP: It doesn’t mean the photographers are any better or worse, it just tells me that these photographers are open to trying something new, something different. They actively want to work on new editorial projects. 

You want to build a group of photographers who will continue to work with the magazine as the publication matures. It’s about having consistent contributors. I want to build a long-term relationship with these photographers.

PO: Do you prefer to work with photographers who are with a talent agency?

PP: No. But I would say approximately two thirds of the photographers on MONROWE are repped, and those who aren’t repped were hired because of their exceptional work. 

PO: Is being represented really so important?

PP: The reason why representation is important for some is that it offers a safety net. It’s like saying this photographer is being vouched for, they're going to be able to accomplish the job in an industry standard way. Its a risk if you book outside of that community. Can the photographer deliver in the scenario you need them to?

Increasingly I am letting the photographer’s work speak for itself. I appreciate that the relationship with the agencies has changed with more and more photographers choosing not to have agents. Before if a photographer was traveling they were basically out of touch - so you needed someone sitting in an office to answer phones on their behalf. Now it’s easy to look at a photographer’s portfolio online and just call, text or email them directly.

That said, there are still certain jobs I struggle not to hire through an agency. I think you’re held to a higher standard of work if you’re not with an agency when you’re competing with others who are represented. If it’s you, and three other photographers - and all three of those photographers are repped, but you're not, then your work is going to be under more scrutiny than the others. The question arises: if they are this good, then why are they not with an agency? And for me the answer has historically been “professionalism”.

Interview Magazine - styled by Priscilla Polley and shot by Elle Muliarchyk

Interview Magazine - styled by Priscilla Polley and shot by Elle Muliarchyk

PO: Having decided a photographer’s work is good enough to merit an in-person meeting, what are you now looking for?

PP: Well, if Peter Lindberg calls then I don't think we need to go through the formalities of an in-person! But otherwise, I am looking for someone I can collaborate with personally. I have already seen the work, now I want to understand how it came to fruition. I want to hear the thought-process behind the pictures. It's about seeing if the photographer will be a good match for how I work.

PO: When you’re looking for a photographer, how much do you rely on your network vs. trying to find someone new?

PP: I want to say 50-50: on the one hand I want to work with photographers who represent less risk, and who I know I already have creative alignment; on the other hand, I want to meet new people who do different things. A lot of my work in my personal portfolio is with the same photographers and it's important to me that I don't just look their personal stylist. I want to work with photographers who will complement whats already in my book. If I am working on an editorial piece then I am more likely to try someone who is potentially more risky because the margin for error is higher. 

If a commercial client comes to me and says “Hey we need to hire a photographer, who are your suggestions?” I would be very wary about taking a risk - irrespective of whether or not they’re with an agency - I want someone I know can deliver technically accurate, quality photos. And that is a lovely, lovely person. Someone who I will personally vouch for when being introduced to this client. My reputation is on the line in this scenario.

PO: Are there any other considerations you have before hiring or recommending a photographer?

PP: A major hiring factor - and I have been hearing this a lot from a few different creative directors recently - is consistency. How consistent is your work? What people in hiring positions are seeing is if the photographer can hit it out of the park with a certain style. 

Interestingly, this applies to stylists too. For a while I was trying to show a lot of variation across my portfolio but my agent wouldn't use some of the images. And there was nothing wrong with these pictures. I realized they were being omitted because they were not consistent to the style I had already developed. I was better off sticking to a specific style and having a point of view. So now I stand for something, which I am known for.

I firmly believe standing for something will lead to greater creative success. It may take longer to get commercial success, but when it comes it will be deeper and more lucrative.

PO: If you were hiring or recommending a photographer for a commercial job, what relevance are other types of photography they shoot?

PP: If I am looking for a still-life photographer, and this person’s book is almost all still-life, but at the end they have a couple of on-figure shots - that would be a red flag. If you're committed to being a still-life photographer, and then why do you have this little section at the end? I don't understand. If you’re exceptionally into two things, then brilliant. But show you care about both. Don’t let the second type come off as an aside that looks out of place with the rest of your work.

PO: What’s the difference between a good photographer, and a great one?

PP: A good photographer has consistency. They know how to hit the picture they’re being hired to hit every time. They can do the amazing in-studio seamless shots without missing a beat. 

A great photographer has that consistent base, but is then willing to build off that base to take major risks. Risks that could be potential failures. They must have the technique to know what they're doing, and how to do it well so they can fall back when the crazy isn’t working. But they’re also willing to go all at it and try to push the creativity.

Amanda Seyfried in WWD - styled by Priscilla Polley, shot by Guy Arc

Amanda Seyfried in WWD - styled by Priscilla Polley, shot by Guy Arc

PO: Surely anyone can push the creativity and get lucky with a shot?

PP: You can try, and it may work once or twice but very rarely are people innately talented enough to pull it off. A lot of photographers start by trying to do crazy stuff - I see it all the time in test work - and its trying too hard too fast. Not everyone can shoot models dressed as over-the-top nurses tied up in an insane asylum. You and I can’t do that. Steven Klein can do that, But Steven Klein can also shoot a stunning shoot consistently in a studio, of a regular person doing normal things. 

Whenever I’m flipping through a new photographers portfolio and I see something crazy - they wrapped a stocking around a model's head and she’s not wearing any pants - then I’m say "whoa, whoa, slow down". Do these things when you’re able to do them right. Because remember, it’s not just the photographer making that picture. There’s a whole team behind that photo. You can say to yourself “I’m as good a photographer as Steven Meisel”. But it’s not just Steven Meisel making these images what they are. That photo also requires an amazing styling, beauty and retouching team - without Patti Wilson, it’s not the same image any more. Its essential to spend time buidling a network of collaborators that can work with you to elevate the work, and that takes time.

PO: When you’re on set with a photographer, what kind of interaction are you hoping for?

PP: I am hoping for collaboration and understanding. Understanding is particularly important on an editorial shoot. Sometimes photographers will come to an editorial shoot with a very specific vision that requires very specific wardrobe, location, make-up etc. Stylists don’t have that luxury. Photographers have a lot more control: they can get the lenses they want the lighting, the studio, the location - it’s just a matter of budget. 

Stylists, on the other hand, are dependent on hundreds of show rooms, fashion weeks, PR companies and different people to obtain their materials. It’s not a matter of budget. It’s about partnerships, time, shipping, advertisers, etc. We have almost no control over these elements.

Before the shoot happens the photographer will have communicated a concept, a vision; but we don't actually know what we’re actually shooting. And in most cases we won’t know until the day of the shoot.

So for our shoot, we are basically saying: okay, here’s what we have. How can we fit this into the concept? I need a photographer to help come up with a solution. What I don’t need is the photographer saying is “I really wanted a green gown! Where is the green gown?”

PO: So how do you get the green gown? 

PP: From the stylist’s perspective this is such a null and void question. I could have requested every green gown from the season, but still didn’t get one. We have to move on. I will have gotten a lot of other amazing things that will work with the story. I just couldn't get your green gown. 

With editorial shoots, we are trying to build a story across multiple images - so it isn't about this image we’re shooting right now, its this image and 7 others. So how do we use the limited materials we have available to us to create the amazing story? 

PO: How involved with the shooting are you?

PP: While on an editorial shoot I would never tell the photographer what to do, it is still a partnership. So a photographer might say: “you know what, the blue hat just isn’t working”. So it could be a matter of removing or replacing the hat. On the other hand, I might suggest that the photographer shoots the hat in a different way, from another angle. It’s about give and take between photographer and stylist.

On a commercial shoot though, in many cases the photographer has to just shoot what they’re given to shoot. I have already defined and got the product approved with the client. So we are shooting it, regardless of whether or not the photographer likes it. They have dictated the "how" - the location, lighting and so on - but the "what" is the product, and it will be shot. 

PO: Do you have any on-set pet peeves?

PP: This is a tough one. I work with really nice photographers, I have to tell you. It’s bad though when you don’t know everyone’s name on set. It’s such an intense environment that I think you should know who people are. You’re running around with them, eating with them, sometimes crawling through a creek in the middle of the night with them. It’s important. And this is something I am not great at either I have to admit...!