CRISTOPHER LAPP, a Copyright Alliance grassroots member, is a renowned Los Angeles based celebrity and fashion photographer. Cris has worked with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld (CHANEL), Giorgio Armani (Armani), Michael Jackson and more.
In this interview, Cris and I chat about how he got interested in fashion photography, misconceptions about his line of work, how cell phones have transformed photography, his experience teaching at The Braille Institute for the Blind in Los Angeles and his thoughts on social media and creative works.
Cecile Remington: How did you become interested in fashion photography and how did it become a reality?
Cristopher Lapp: In 1975, when I was very young, there was a film called Mahogany with Diana Ross. Not sure why I was watching it, but it was like getting hit with a two-by-four. I thought, “that’s me … I want to do that.” The seed was planted in my head. As a kid you don’t really know, but it was just something I was really struck by. Then my dad had a 35mm Konica camera, and it was boxed up in the closet. So, I basically snuck it down, would take it out and photograph all of the kids in the street playing dodgeball, but I didn’t have any film in it. I didn’t know I needed film. So I kind of already had a passion for photographing people, combined with the world I saw in the film Mahogany, not to mention both my mom and grandmother were both fashionistas. I was hooked.
I went to Pepperdine University in Malibu as an undergraduate and I guess I must have had my camera out enough that my professor asked me one day, “Would you be interested in photographing our new campus in Florence, Italy?” from a student’s point of view for the school’s annual report. I said no at first because it was going to delay my graduation. We then had lunch and he told me that the school would pay for airfare, tuition, and books, so how could I say no?! The school rented a wonderful Medici Villa; it was my first time in magical Europe. One evening we were out for a walk in the center of Florence, Princess Diana and Prince Charles were shaking hands with the crowd. Diana was so stunning in her pale blue gown, white gloves and diamonds. It was the first time I was near someone so famous and mesmerizing. That moment really left an impression on me. Not to mention store after store of amazing Italian style and design. Sadly, my year abroad ended and I headed back to Pepperdine to finish my degree. But I always knew I would get back to Italy and the fashion world as fast as possible. Of course, life happens and right out of college, I got an amazing job with Proctor & Gamble. I learned a ton about marketing and sales, which is a definite plus in the fashion industry. P&G is a huge company and I ended up doing a product launch in Seattle, WA. Right next to their local corporate office was a modeling agency. A woman popped out one day and asked me to model for a Neiman Marcus gig. Within two weeks, I quit P&G and moved back to Italy. Florence is amazing, but Milan is fashion, and I have been jetting back and forth there for the past 20+ years. Being a model was fun, but my model friends started asking me to take head shots for their portfolios, and this was good and consistent money. So I jumped behind the camera and from that decision onward, I have met so many amazing people, from Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Jackson, just to name a few.
Here’s my point, always say yes to every opportunity! You just never know what’s going to come of it!
CR: What do you think is the biggest misconception about your line of work as a fashion and celebrity photographer?
CL: There are a few of them. The first one is that there is huge difference between the emphasis placed on photography in Europe and in the United States. In Europe, the photographer is the creative head. Europeans are very passionate about their imagery, photography, and the creative process. In the United States, I feel it is more commercialized. I am not saying this is bad, it’s just different. I always joke that as long as the check clears, I am happy!
The second misconception is the fact that I make images for a living (I kind of say this with a little tongue-in-cheek). I basically do, but I also get paid to talk to the clients and talent. To make sure everything is managed seamlessly. I can hire 1,000 assistants who are amazingly talented at the tech side; I don’t hang my hat on the tech side as much as I do on the creative side for me personally. Anybody can be tech-y but not everyone can be personal and creative too. Anyone can figure out an f-stop, or an aperture, or this light or that light over time, but not everyone can talk someone “off the edge.” My job is really to get them in a place where they are comfortable and relaxed. Being in front of a camera is not easy.
CR: You have worked with some of the most illustrious celebrities and your work has been seen worldwide in haute couture magazines, can you take us through the process of creating a fashion spread?
CL: On shoot days, typically, I am always the first on set. Even if we have a 5:30 AM time, I will be there at 4:30 AM. I like to get a sense of the space, the energy, how I am feeling that day, zenning myself into what I need to do. I always wear two hats at the same time. Obviously, I am dealing with my crew and I have a very hierarchical sense to that. I talk to one person, my first assistant and he/she talks to everybody else down the line. I talk to the talent. I rarely go into the hair and make-up trailer, because there is a frenetic energy that I don’t want to pick up on myself. By the time the model or talent is ready to go, say the first shot is at 8 AM, they hand him or her off to me and we have chit-chat right in front of the camera. Everyone is behind me. I am just talking them through all of the scenarios that we are going to go to. I always say every time you hear the camera click, it’s a success, so remember that; and every time you see a flash go off, that’s a success, so remember that; so that should be your basis of confidence on how you are doing. Everyone in my crew knows that they shouldn’t look at the talent in the eye, that’s my set etiquette. My job is to make it super easy for them [the talent]. No cell phones ever by the way. That is super important. We go through the day; I pick out the music for either how I am feeling; or if it’s a famous person, I find out what kind of music they want. It’s all in the details, which can range from the type of sushi to flowers to champagne the talent wants.
What I have described is a client-driven advertising shoot, like let’s say for a fashion client. We would shoot that whole spread, they would take the images, edit them and then there is an embargo, no posting anywhere, until the ad or spread comes out. Typically those shoots are 3-6 months out, but the magazines are 3-4 months ahead of publication generally.
CR: What would you say is/was your most interesting fashion shoot story?
CL: Of course, each day and gig is completely different. I love that part, not to mention the thousands of crazy stories! Thousands! We did a desert shoot out near Death Valley. There were 8 models and a large crew of 30. It was amazing – the clothes and the shoot location. A swarm of bees decided to make a lighting stand home. All of us started running/ We didn’t know what kind of bees they were – killer, etc. Fortunately no one got hurt and it was a very successful day. Stuff always happens. That day, I started at 3:30 AM and finished at 11:30 PM without a break.
Eventually I’ll write a book. Photography can be a dangerous profession. So far, the following has happened to me, I’ve gotten gored by a rhino on a shoot in Namibia, Africa; a horse fell on me on a shoot in Ireland; and I almost got killed in a boat; a cliff. Frankly I stopped counting! It’s an adventure.
CR: I see that you taught photography at The Braille Institute for the Blind in Los Angeles, California. How did that happen and what did you learn from this experience?
CL: The Braille Institute is for blind people or limited sighted people. I had a friend who worked there who asked if I wanted to come be a guest speaker. I thought that’s weird, I am photographer. But it was a photography class, so how can you say no to that? There were 22 students in the class that ranged from completely blind to about 40%-70% sighted. The interesting thing about that experience is that I learned a lot, too. When I make an image, what I am really making an image of? Am I creative or is it a technical thing? I quickly learned that although they don’t have sight per se, they have other amazing skill sets like their hearing, etc. So I started giving them assignments with point- and-shoot cameras, and some of their images were incredible. One student started photographing this Barbie doll in the microwave every 15 seconds. She zapped Barbie and continued to do so until Barbie was completely incinerated. The images were unbelievable. That was her inner voice, her inner heart. Some took flowers in their backyard, some were in focus and others not. Use your heart I would always say. Why do we take a picture with our cell phone? It is a moment within our heart not our head. It’s something you are compelled to do.
CR: You wrote a book titled Instant Gratification: 21st Century Art & the Mobile Phone Camera in 2010, what prompted you to write on this subject?
CL: I had my first cell phone with camera in it in 2004 and it made really funky-like ultrasound images. It dawned on me, these photos looked like Georges Seurat paintings or had a kind of a Monet-like feeling to them. I went through 7-8 phones and made about 28,000 images, which had to be edited. So just by necessity, I made sub-folders (e.g. travel, food, pets, model), which to me looked like chapters in a book. So I pitched the idea to the Tate Modern in London and they loved it. In mid-2008, Tate Modern said they needed something to sell in the gift shop. That’s art and commerce. The 2009 financial crash happened and they shelved the project. It went to a publisher in New York and eventually got published here in California. It is the first book on cell phone photography ever to be published in the world. So I am very proud of that.
CR: How do you think cell phones have transformed photography? What are the upsides and downsides?
CL: You can see how much technology has moved us forward. This past fashion season, which is February/March in Paris and Milan, I only used my iPhone 6. Back in the day, we were shooting exclusively with Hasselblads and fancy 35MM and digital cameras. Now it’s about fast, fast, and fast with a very casual feel. That comes directly from everyone using cell phones just getting that “moment.”
I do like the fact that everyone has the ability to be personally creative and I think that it is fantastic.
The downside though is a beginner getting one or two lucky shots and thinking they are a professional photographer, and that’s not true. It goes back to the 10,000-hour rule – you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be great at it. Now that is true.
CR: When did you first become aware of copyright, and what makes you passionate about it?
CL: It was at the very beginning of my career at Proctor & Gamble. The marketing department had a situation where a photographer had mistakenly signed away the copyright of an image they were using on a big ad campaign, and he wanted to get paid for it. Sadly, it was a lawyer’s fight and the photographer lost. Lesson learned, once it’s gone, it’s gone.
In the fashion world, it’s mostly work for hire. What that means is that I get paid, and the client owns the images. Fashion is different that way. But, I am obsessed with these new photographers signing away their lives. This is very upsetting to me. I feel like there is not enough being done to stop this trend. How are they going to eat and live in the future with no photography income?
The schools have to educate their students that you don’t sign just anything just to get an assignment. I just saw this the other day on a gig contract, an “exclusive forever…” Once again, forever is forever. In fashion, that’s okay since you get your money up front, but with advertising, etc., no you don’t sign that and negotiate a better deal. Maybe a one to five years’ limited usage, and it is still your image to lease out again and again. So education is key. We have to figure out a way fast to make a standard of living so that somebody can actually live off doing this. Too many photographers give their creativity and images away for free.
CR: Have you experienced copyright infringement?
CL: No. Not that I know of. I can’t say that it hasn’t happened, but I can’t stress over it either.
There are now more than one trillion images uploaded a year. Wow. A trillion. So it is essential to tag your images and get them copyrighted before they are published. It’s much cheaper in batches. That way, you have a bit of protection. Also, there are programs that can scan the web for your images. This costs money and time, but again, get them copyrighted just in case and move forward.
CR: What is your opinion on creative works and social media?
CL: Clearly, social media is the 900lb gorilla in the room. The plus side of social media is that photographers and creatives can go directly to the clients (big or small) and say, “Here’s an idea that I have. What do you think?” Pitch them directly. So you have the ability to steer your career a little bit more. I mean photographers, models, and even actors are getting hired on how many Instagram followers they have. Where the future is, I have no idea but it’s a massive change in our social structure and the lives of working photographers.
CR: What kind of advice would you give to future photographers?
CL: First of all, if you have the inclination that you are creative or have that creative eye, then go straight to business school and get a degree with a focus on marketing, advertising, and social media. Then I would say, go to law school. Because I look at a lot of contracts and I’ve gotten pretty good at looking at them but if there is a comma, a ‘should’, a ‘would’ or a ‘could’ in a wrong spot, you are done. You just gave up all of your rights. The clients protect themselves with lawyers and you should, too. I am not trying to make the client out to be the bad person; they have to make a profit, too. Just make sure the playing field is as even as possible for you.