For about a year and a half, I have been obsessed with London-based photographer Nhu Xuan Hua. I bought an issue of a magazine called "DANSK" in Barnes and Noble because the cover caught my attention. It was beautiful, minimal, and tan (three of my favorite art adjectives). When I started reading and got to the cover editorial, my jaw dropped. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I started getting teary eyed just looking at the amount of creativity that went into the editorial. I turned back to the first page and saw the photographer; Nhu Xuan Hua. When I first started thinking about where to study abroad, Xuan was the reason I chose London. I never forgot that editorial and still have not to this day. Xuan was also one of the first people I ever contacted in London and she quickly accepted my inquiry to assist her on a shoot one day.
DAY 0 - Pre-Production
Xuan asked me to come a day early to help our set designer, Paulina, build the numerous set pieces for the shoot the next day. There were stilts, giant birds, an abstract wood skeleton of a giraffe, godzilla scales, and loud R&B playing in the background. I knew this was going to be magical. Paulina had me as her assistant for the day. I ran errands, hot glued, sanded, held up things while she tinkered with them and while it didn't seem like very significant work the tiny tasks helped her stay on schedule quite nicely. I didn't get to talk much to Xuan who was in her office upstairs with other crew members, but Paulina and I hit it off. She asked where I was from and why I chose to study here. I told her quite honestly that the US does not have the creative force that Europe has. I could never dream of seeing a photoshoot like the one I saw in pre-production today in Dallas. It just wouldn't happen. She seemed surprised but later told me she had never worked outside of Europe and wasn't very familiar with the market in the US. However, Paulina did tell me that being a creative in London isn't without its downsides. She immediately told me there is barely any money in the creative field.
Day 1 - Models
Our day began at 8am and wrapped at 8pm. We walked away with about 15 final images. There five models, fifteen crew members, and a big table of snacks to get us through the day. From the time I arrived to the time I left, there was always something happening. Models were getting changed, sets were being modified, lighting was getting adjusted, etc. I had never been on a set as large as this one, and things were moving fast. When I say 15 final images, a majority of those shots required full set changes, make up alterations, wig placement, and last minute prop building before the shutter was even clicked.
There was a lot of collaboration on set. I have been told that London is a very creative city with a huge emphasis on collaboration in order to culminate an amazing final work of art. Throughout the day, every member of the team was trying to have their work highlighted. Make up, hair, nails, clothing, set, photography, every piece of the puzzle was crucial to communicating the concept. The final piece of the shoot was the client themselves. There was a balance of being on brand with the magazine but also being free to create elaborate images. Xuan's natural shooting style is very dramatic and dark but the theme of the issue was, ironically, lightness. We had to communicate the idea of "monsters" without being too grim, but still playful.
Observing Xuan's shooting style was very interesting. She would take very few frames and once she felt we got it, we immediately moved on. Prior to the shoot, she showed me her mood board, visual references, and even some pages from her notebook. She would go back to these references to plan each shot before the model got to set and knew exactly what she wanted. Personally, I shoot a LOT of frames when I am on shoots. I usually don't know what my final product is going to be, so I try to think on the fly on set. I learned that planning and being intentional with your work is much more efficient and smarter. Your team benefits, your work is more cohesive, and your vision is better communicated prior to the day of the shoot.
I had a few moments to talk with the first assistant for photography who set up Xuan's lights and laptop. He told me he grew up in Europe and has worked all over in different countries. He re-iterated what I have been hearing time and time again that while there is no money in London (ESPECIALLY in editorial), that he loves London the most because of the potential of the art.
Day 2 - Still Life
The next day, things were much calmer. The crew was myself, Xuan, her set designer, and her stylist. We started with a simple meeting to review the images from the day before and figure out what kind of still life images we wanted to make in order to compliment the portraits of the models.
We started around noon, and wrapped up around 8pm. We had zero final images.
Sometimes, creativity and collaboration can be detrimental to a shoot. When you have an INSANELY creative team with many ideas and opinions, you start to lose focus of what you are trying to accomplish. For one set that we made, we spent about two hours adding and taking away props until things were starting to look right. After a while, the prop stylist said "guys. we've been at this for hours and have nothing to show for it, I think we should come back to this one."
I was stunned. We had spent a good chunk of the day on this ONE shot, only to table it. We moved on to the next shot, which had similar results. Then we tried another set up. After getting a great image from it, Xuan commented that while the picture was good, it had no relevance to the rest of the story so it wasn't usable.
Hours were spent putting clothes on a wire frame, building a backdrop, cutting holes in a mattress we found by a dumpster, me holding said mattress for 30 minutes so it would stand up on its own, only to have us call the day a wash, nine hours later.
It taught me a huge lesson. In my head, I had built the high fashion industry as this group of rockstars who create gorgeous amazing work and know what they're doing. That assumption, was made correct. These women ARE rockstars because they love what they do and want their work to something they can proudly show. Often times, when I'm on set and something isn't working, I freeze. I stress. I think oh goodness I'm wasting time, energy, money, talent, etc on this lighting issue or bad location or idea. I have come home from a shoot thinking I let people down so many times when more often than not, the end results are fine. Walking away from that shoot, I learned that its okay for an idea to fail or to regroup for another day. If one of the most talented teams in one of the best cities in the world for my industry can struggle, so can I.