By Jeff Hodges
In the early 1980s, when fashion was starting to loom large on the cultural landscape, I found myself on the riser with a horde of fiercely competitive photographers who deeply resented my presence.
We were pioneering the use of video to record fashion shows—a medium that ended up transforming staid runway shows into highly choreographed spectacles. And although we didn’t threaten the mode of distribution claimed by the photographers, we took up a lot of real estate with our big cameras and unwieldy tripods. And because the designers had hired us, we couldn’t be bullied into altering our locations or configurations.
Photographers were an unruly bunch in those days. Arguments over positions or sightlines sometimes became shoving matches or fistfights. If a model didn’t display her outfit properly, curses and imprecations would erupt from the riser. When the first girl hit the runway, shutters clicked and flashes popped and the venue took on the existential intensity of a war zone. A lot of money was riding on getting the perfect shot in this maelstrom of profit and pulchritude.
We always had a portable control room somewhere nearby, with a director who called the shots. Our headsets sounded something like this:
“Camera 1! Zoom In! Head to Toe! Give her Head Room! Head Room!”
“Camera 2! Hit the Floor! Get the Shoes! Pan up to the Bag! Focus! Focus!”
“Camera 3! Get the Collar on the turn! Stay with her! Stay with her!”
“Camera 1! Get the next girl! Zoom in! Zoom in!”
“Camera 2! Head and Shoulders! Pull to a Waist-to-Face! Slowly! Slowly!”
“Camera 3! Get the Hem on the turn! Hem! Stay with her!”
“Camera 1! There’s a lens in your shot! Lens in the shot! Get that guy out of there!”
We tried to work with the photographers ahead of time to make sure we had clean shots. Even though we were nestled into a thicket of cameras and lenses our videos had to look like they were from the only cameras in the room.
“Can I see how you plan to be shooting?” we’d ask politely. Most of the time the photographer would oblige, but not always.
“Can you sit on something a little lower? Or pull back closer to my tripod? I’m sorry, but I’ve got your camera in my shot.”
Sometimes a photographer, exhausted from his trek to London to Milan to New York, would yell “Impossible! Impossible! I’m here to do my job just like you! Raise your camera!”
“No! No! No!” the photographers behind would shout. “You’ll block my shot!”
Sometimes the only solution was to say into the headset—“I’m having a problem with a photographer. I need a utility out here.”
Utilities were the guys who set up the cameras, ran the cables, and loaded in and out of the venues. They were large and muscular and not endowed with a surfeit of patience. A utility would glower over a photographer until a solution was reached—most often with a subtle tweaking of a camera position or a few simple adjustments in pitch and yaw.
Mishaps on the runway were not uncommon. Slips, falls, wardrobe maladjustments, flash mob invasions by PETA activists, broken heels, hopeless entanglements in ball gowns and bridal trains were often a part of the show. One time a Japanese photographer, trapped backstage, bolted down the runway, weaving through the girls like an errant running back. Long afterward, at the start of many a fashion show, some wag on the riser would yell: “Cue the Japanese photographer!”
Eventually, we got easier on each other. Camaraderie replaced discourtesy and the utilities were called upon less often. Late arrivals were hoisted onto the riser with the care and concern afforded shipwreck victims. You could still always tell a new guy by his rudeness and aggression; but more often than not we helped him find his comfort zone with the detachment of old T-group veterans.
In the past couple of seasons, smart phone cameras have started to appear on the riser. We shake our grizzled heads and make wry jokes about “phoning it in” but as the number of big shows starts to dwindle and the maw of social media widens in technical acceptability, we may have to face the fact that fashion shows are changing once again. If fashion shows become downsized, and pandemics and carbon footprints keep us closer to home, ”zooming” into a model may someday take on a much different meaning.