Through The Lens

Chris Haylett

May 5, 2011, by Chelsea Coyle

Meet the man behind the camera on the west coast of Canada; Chris Haylett.

No one gets the shot quite like Chris. He is an original whose rich imagery is creating quite a stir in the realm of fashion photography.

Keep watching Chris' career progress as I am positive there are more great things to come.

Each picture is worth a thousand words, but he has kindly offered more than two thousand others in this highly enjoyable and insightful Q&A.



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Coco Rocha (Charles Stuart, Elite, Specs) by Chris Haylett, in Elle Canada
styling: Leila Bani (They Rep); makeup and hair: Sonia Leal-Serafim (They Rep)

How did you get started as a photographer and what's your background?
When I was in film school I was starting to produce and shoot TV commercials and I needed a still camera to do some of the shooting. I'd never been into photography, not even as a kid and I certainly wasn't in the camera club at school, but I started shooting rock concerts for magazines just so I could get into the shows for free. One of the magazines asked me to shoot an editorial with a bunch of models in bikinis and they paid me $500. I figured that this fashion thing had some serious upside. I shot for a couple of years and then Herb Ritts saw my work and signed me to his agency, Visage.

How do you think fashion photography has changed in the last ten years?
Twenty-five years ago when Richard Avedon was being interviewed about why he was moving away from fashion and more into his portraiture he said that the fashion world had changed so much that he didn't recognize it any more. The traditional food-chain had been turned upside down and the photographer no longer had the autonomy he once had - he wasn't free to produce great images that were art. He said that in today's (1980's) world he would never have been able to shoot "Dovima with Elephants". He'd be spinning in his grave now.

I can remember in the 80's when Vogue L'uomo would have 40 and 50 page editorials where Bruce Weber would go off to some exotic location with Hoyt Richards or some other iconic model and come back with a story - I mean a REAL story. It'd be Hoyt on an elephant, Hoyt at the pyramids, Hoyt with a King Cobra, whatever Weber wanted to do, and it was pretty much always brilliant. Talk about epic. In fact, I've still got a copy of a L'uomo that all 200 pages were nothing but Hoyt Richards, shot by Weber, Avedon, Albert Watson, etc. The closest I've seen was Meisel's "Black Issue" Vogue.

The other game-changer has obviously been the advent of digital photography. There's the obvious benefits - no film and scanning costs - so that has democratised the business. The upside is that people can now get into the industry without having to spend thousands of dollars buying and developing film and printing. The downside is that people can now get into the business without spending thousands of dollars buying and developing film and printing. Every soccer mom is now a photographer with her 5DMk11 and her pirated copy of Photoshop.

It got really scary a few years ago when there was the movement towards the "amateur" photography look where the whole point was to make it look like anybody could do it. It was truly "Kafka-esque" - it all looked like somebody hung a single lightbulb from the ceiling and shot the model with a pinhole camera. I mean I do get it - it was a rebellion against the old style and the very polished look that preceded it, but it wasn't exactly a highpoint in fashion photography.

An encouraging sign has been the recent re-emergence of real photographers such as Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Weber, Watson, etc. They never really went away - they were still working, but they weren't THE dominant editorial photographers for a while. Now they're back in the top magazines, and a few great newer photographers with something valid to say such as Camilla Akrans and Nathaniel Goldberg are doing great work in great magazines.

The effect that digital photography/photoshop has had on fashion photography is very similar to when Mac computers came along and started to dominate the graphic design community. Everybody instantly became a graphic designer for a couple of years - beautiful classic typography that was used by experienced, educated designers went out the window, replaced by the hideous designs of untrained graphic designers that had been in the industry about five minutes and had access to the millions of gaudy free new fonts flooding the market. It gradually corrected itself and returned to a higher level but it was a real eyesore for a couple of years.

Fashion photography is coming back quality-wise too, but the great photographers that I mentioned are mostly in their fifties and sixties now, and I just hope the ones that replace them are up to it.

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Trevor (Richards) and Lawrence (LizBell) by Chris Haylett
styling: Deanna Palkowski (LizBell); grooming: Sonia Leal-Serafim (They Rep)

Which part of your body do you think is more involved when you are shooting? The heart, the eyes or the mind?
They all are to some degree depending on the nature of the job. On an editorial you are REALLY emotionally invested in it, at least you should be, so your heart is right out there on your sleeve. On a client job you are certainly invested in it, but ultimately you are often executing someone else's vision at times, so you care but have to know when to let it go.

In general how is your relationship with the stylists and fashion editors?
Haha... so who have you been talking to? With fashion editors it all depends on what the job is and what their expectations of me are. If you really want me to do what I do best, and that is what you are really hiring me for, then you've gotta let me do it. I know how to get to where I need to go, but it can sometimes involve a process. You've got to respect the process. As far as stylists, it all depends on how on top of the job they are. There are certain things that can make or break a shoot that the stylist must understand. Recently, I was shooting an editorial that was a kind of twisted version of an editorial I did over twenty years ago. The working title was "Amish Gone Wild" and it was a story about the Amish boys and rumspringa where they are basically cast out of the community when they leave highschool and told to live in the sinful city world and then decide whether they want to come back and live as Amish or forever burn in hell. The stylist I was working with did an amazing job on the clothes but just couldn't find the right hats. Look, it's Amish so you must have exactly the right hats or don't bother even shooting it. I spent four days driving around Mennonite country to find those damn hats. She was fine with me doing that but I know some other stylists don't appreciate it and think I'm a dick. But it's my name on it so I don't really care if they appreciate it or not.

How do you think fashion explains the world?
Fashion is sometimes nothing more than pretty pictures designed to sell clothes or amuse readers. Other times it's got something profound to say. When it's got something to say it can enlighten or inform by drawing attention to an issue - Meisel's "Black Issue" for example was a pretty strong comment about the under-representation of women of colour in fashion. I'm OK with fashion as a soapbox but other times just being eyecandy. Some days it's AC/DC other days it's U2.

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James Neate (LizBell) by Chris Haylett
styling: Leila Bani (They Rep); makeup and hair: Sonia Leal-Serafim (They Rep)

When you cast the models what do you look for?
Depends entirely on the job. Casting is huge. I learned a valuable lesson way back in the day when I booked a top male model for a Vogue Travel editorial and then I asked him to take off his shirt for a make-out shot with the girl. He just laughed and said "Dude, you don't want me to take my shirt off - I'm a suit model". Sure enough, he had the softest man-titties I'd ever seen. I was so anxious to work with this guy that I had mis-cast the shoot. Ouch. When it comes to casting - do your homework.

Where do you draw inspiration for your concepts for shoots?
Film, music, literature.

What is your favorite band? Movie? Book?
Right now I'm loving Arcade Fire and this incredible new band from Victoria called Jets Overhead. Best books would be D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow and Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat. Best movie without a doubt would be Apocalypse Now.

Please explain how the Vancouver market differs from the Toronto fashion market?
mini-me vs Dr.Evil

If you had $1000 to spend on something that was not photo equipment, what would you buy?
I just bought the hat I've always wanted - a mint vintage grey 1940's Stetson Open Road 25. I don't want or need anything now. If someone wanted to give me a thousand bucks for doing nothing I'd tell them to give it to the Sea Shepherd Society so they could go ram some more whaling ships.

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James Neate (LizBell) by Chris Haylett
styling: Leila Bani (They Rep); makeup and hair: Sonia Leal-Serafim (They Rep)

What was your first paid photography job? Did you enjoy it?
Models in bikinis. Hell yeah, I enjoyed it.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client?
Navigating that gulf between their needs and your process. For example, if they want that natural, easy-going J.Crew lifestyle-y thing, then you've got to cast it well, because not every model can do it, and then you've got to find the best way to get it out of the model and that maybe takes a hundred frames each time. If the client keeps jumping in at frame 30 or 40 and interrupting the process you'll never get to frame 100, and never get the shot that the client ultimately wants. So, if that happens how do you handle it? That can be very difficult and needs to be handled delicately. Ultimately, you try to explain the process and manage the client's expectations. Now, if the client didn't book you for your style, you're screwed.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?
Controlling my happiness.

Please finish this sentence...."The key to creativity is?"...
"... not having any constraints."

What music sparks your creativity?
Depends on the shoot. A while back we were shooting a rock'n'roll frontmen story for Zink magazine and I put together a play list of the frontmen we were referencing. It was stuff like Axl and Slash, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Mick and Keef. The music took me to the place where I wanted all of us to go, but it absolutely gave a reference point to the models. When we were shooting I gave the model my Gretsch hollowbody and showed her the power chords that the guitarist was playing and had her just do that chord over and over in sync with the music. I could tell that she really got into it and started to channel the actual musicians. For one chord she sounded just like them. She became Slash, Keef and so on. Recently we did a "spacy" "man who fell to earth" inspired shoot and we were all tripping on Massive Attack, Shriekback and Fever Ray. It just seemed right.

If you could only shoot one thing over and over, what would it be?
Variations on the theme of The Odyssey. I'm fascinated with the concept of the solo journey of a complicated and troubled man. It's a universal and recurring theme in great literature and cinema, as in Heart of Darkness and of course, Apocalypse Now. Check out Nathaniel Goldberg's brilliant Heart of Darkness shoot with Patrick Petitjean. I'm truly humbled.

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Dave Robinson and Crystal (John Casablancas) by Chris Haylett
styling: Deanna Palkowski (LizBell); makeup / hair / grooming: Negar

Do you have a funny photo story?
Oh yeah. I was shooting the Woolrich campaign in rural Pennsylvania with the male Ralph Lauren model at the time. He was a pretty big deal and wasn't loving our shoot at all. The days were really long and it just wasn't his thing. We had maybe 20 art directors, their assistants, account executives, a caravan of RV's, maybe 5 or 6, and a full size oil tanker truck which had been cleaned out and filled with pure stream water and then stocked with trout native to the region. Woolrich were sticklers for details. We posted up at a pitbull breeding farm where we were going to base out of for the day. They wanted the model to do a shot holding a live trout as if he'd just caught it and he was not interested at all and refused to leave the RV. In fact, he locked himself in the RV. He'd been a DJ in NY and had this really obscure mix tape of an old school rapper named Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolomite. He puts in the tape and repeatedly plays the raunchiest song ever written - it's called the Signs of The Zodiac and basically in excruciating detail describes every sex position known to man as they relate to the astrological signs. The RV was fitted with 6 external speakers which blasted this all through the Pennsylvania countryside as the ad agency types wandered around the pitbull farm in their Gucci loafers covering their ears and pleading with him to turn it off and come out and do the shot. He called his agent in New York and quit the shoot right on the spot and within half an hour a chartered helicopter arrived and dropped off the replacement model and took homey back to NY. It was absolutely surreal and nearly identical to the scene in Apocalypse Now where the choppers flew out the Playboy bunnies when the USO show went sideways. It was like Zoolander on crack.

Who has been your biggest influence in your photography work?
Avedon, Albert Watson and initially Bruce Weber, but then I found this photographer Fabrizio Gianni and was instantly connected to his work. He was shooting tons of GQ and big editorial, and his work was "cinematic." It wasn't remotely like anybody else's, and looked like perfect stills from a beautiful movie, like maybe The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia. Flawless lighting and perfect attention to detail. I found out later he came from the movie industry and had been the assistant director on Sergio Leone's Good, Bad the Ugly films with Clint Eastwood. In fact, he had come up with the Clint Eastwood look - the poncho, the flat gaucho hat and the cigarillo. I also found out he was obsessive about every aspect of his shoots and on editorials refused to compromise. I knew I liked this guy.

Any future projects lined up that you would like to share with our readers?
Just wrapped a shoot with Ubah Hassan that was an homage to Donyale Luna, one of the first black supermodels. It's a bit of a departure for her and I really like it when I can re-interpret a well-known model who has a clearly defined image and show a different side of them.

If you had to pick one last piece of advice for those of our readers who are looking to get into fashion and advertising photography, one thing that you consider has helped you the most and you would want to share with others, what would it be?
Do this because you love it. Yes, it's a job but more importantly it's who you are and how you've chosen to express yourself.


Blogs We Follow

Cailin Hill (The Model Burnbook)

Models x Models (Models x Models)

Liis Windischmann's (14+ LouLou blog)

Laura Kell (A Model Life)

Madison Schill (Chic Greek Geek)

Kathleen Burbridge (Kathleen in Wonderland)

Ania Boniecka (A n i a . B)

Shawn Dezan (motivated//ambition)