Fashion Photographer Regan Cameron
Regan Cameron went from working in a supermarket in New Zealand to shooting covers for Vogue magazine and advertising campaigns for the world’s top fashion brands, before he was 30, without missing a beat. Cass Chapman speaks to him about how he did it and how to turn initial success into a long-lasting career.
I often flick through favourite magazines. It helps me get into work mode; there is something about the smell of the paper, the aesthetic and inspirational subjects that always get my creative juices flowing. As I prepared to write this piece on fashion photographer Regan Cameron, I looked at the July 2010 issue of British Vogue, still recovering as it was from being hurled through my letterbox. Cameron Diaz beamed from the cover, all California-gorgeousness and draped in gold, sequined tweed. The spreads of pictures were stunning. These were shot by someone who clearly made her feel relaxed, the images capturing her essence. Surprise, surprise, the photographer was Regan Cameron. Cameron’s ability to get inside a subject and capture them as they are, unarmed, unpretentious and unstaged, is what makes him such a success. Although he works mainly as a fashion photographer his work is honest, open and absolutely true to his subjects.
Born in New Zealand, Cameron had an upbringing that could not have been further from the bright lights of New York where he has lived since the mid-nineties. “It was my dad always pointing out things on the street that he thought looked great” is how Cameron begins his recollection of journeying into photography. “He was by no means a photographer or anything like that but I think, when I look back, that he was the start and then I cascaded into school magazines, which I shot for, and then somehow I got in touch with quite a well-known New Zealand photographer called Brian Brake.” He insists that “this is the short version,” ensuring I know that he didn’t have an easy and inevitable journey to his present artistic and commercial success. From New Zealand, Cameron found his way to Sydney and then took the giant leap of heading straight for Europe. “I thought I’d be high and mighty and go to Paris and be a photographer, which was not the right move at that stage.”
What turned out to be the right move, however, was a 1991 relocation to London. Going back a step, Cameron explains that his photographic knowledge was totally self-taught throughout his high school years, yet it quickly becomes apparent that his desire to learn was all it took. “I was working nights in a supermarket at that stage and getting a camera on a pay-off scheme. I just started playing with it and reading a magazine called American Photo that I was buying every month. I was planning in my mind to be a National Geographic photographer, when I met with Ansel Adams’s ex-assistant. That was a big turning point – seeing his sort of technical ability – and I look back at that time as a really solid grounding and a lucky stroke.” National Geographic was not Regan Cameron’s destiny though and, as he puts it, “somehow, somewhere, it all fell into fashion.”
His first British Vogue cover, which he still talks about with an enormous sense of surprise, was a pivotal moment in Cameron’s career. As we talk, he looks at the cover hanging on his wall and I can almost feel his sense of astonishment. It seems that from his home in New Zealand his career was destined towards that one cover, from which work “snowballed”. However, it was a very hands-on approach to learning photography and getting work that got him to that turning point in his life. He explains that he initially landed work with some New Zealand photographers and that he “started poring over books that were in the studios and finding out about photographers, namely a guy called David Bailey.” He chuckles as he recalls: “I was trying to emulate [Bailey] in New Zealand of all places. Bailey was a huge influence and I looked at that place in Hanover Square with that big Vogue sign (Vogue House, home of Condé Nast publications) and thought ‘Wow, it would be kind of cool to work for them one day’ but dream on…” This fantasy became a reality, although he admits it is still “such a blur to be honest, how that all kind of happened, but I got taken on, got some meetings up there, and I must have done something right because I got a job.” His first commission was shooting for the More Dash Than Cash pages for British Vogue, which are known as an effective starting point for photographers lucky enough to get a shot at them. If they are liked, they get taken on for larger spreads and even covers, which is exactly what happened to Cameron. With the September 1995 cover, Cameron’s career was launched. “It was on posters around town and it was just like, ‘are you kidding me’? Pretty amazing, and in London and suddenly you’ve got the cover of British Vogue. I am still a bit shocked by that to this day. It’s the best cover you ever do because you still can’t believe that dream has come true.”
Since that shot he has photographed everyone from Madonna to The OC actress Mischa Barton, Ray Liotta to Rachel Weisz, and there aren’t many in the world of film, music or fashion who haven’t been at the other end of Cameron’s lens at one point or another. He now regularly shoots for Japanese, French, Italian and British Vogue, and recent advertising campaigns have included DKNY, GAP, Estée Lauder, Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret, among others. Cameron recognises how incredibly lucky he was to get such a chance but I push him further, eager to know whether he really thinks it was fate, if one believes in such a thing, or just sheer determination on his part. Surely he was pushing himself at the time, not taking no for an answer, if he got himself a meeting inside Vogue House to begin with? “I really was on a mission to work for Vogue so I contacted them, but I think you have to put so much down to timing. I know it sounds like luck but there is so much of that involved with photography.” The only reference he makes to his obvious talent is done in a very humble way: “You have to be prepared with the ability when [your break] happens and not screw up. You have to carry on shooting consistently, because obviously it’s not just about doing one cover. That would have been in and out with the career.”
He admits that he never eases up on himself, continually pushing himself for the next job. “I am always concerned with longevity. I don’t think any good photographer ever gets complacent.” Although he admits to never getting complacent, surely he has management to help him along the way? “I manage myself but I have set it up so that I have a production company, an equipment company and also a digital company and they sort of umbrella me so we come with everything fully loaded. I’ve set it up in a slightly different business structure from the way other photographers usually do. We’re experimenting with that to a certain degree but it seems to work really well.” As he works continually in the worlds of fashion, beauty and celebrity I ask about his attitude to the current trends in professional photography. Having started at a time when film was shot and processed in a lab, has his work evolved alongside the evolution of Photoshop or has he resisted its temptations? He answers carefully. “I have used Photoshop primarily as a tool just to bridge over from film, using the same technique that I had with film, the same style which you’ll notice on my website. There hasn’t been a huge change in what I do.”
Cameron talks of film and photography as interlinked at this stage. “I use digital almost to mimic film. I was obsessed with making digital look like my film, with grain structure and anything we could do in as natural a way as possible, which is not as easy as you’d think.” However, the changes in the way in which campaigns are created excite Cameron, who seems as versatile and adaptable as he is creative. “I’ve just had an image purchased,” he explains, “that was Photoshopped into an ad. It was an old image I had shot a long while ago, and they put it into Photoshop and turned it into an ad. I can see a lot of that happening in the future.” Speaking of the future, it is one in which he sees people shooting stock images. “So you’d shoot and have [images] online and someone from an ad agency would take them and make them into a campaign. I think still photography may possibly be a thing of the past in a commercial sense, but not an artistic sense.” Pretty controversial words. “For art it’s going to be huge but there is definitely a pressure to shoot motion now. It’s the web that is generating that and now you see billboards that move, so we’re definitely being pushed down a path of shooting motion, which I love. I’ve been forced into directing and I’m just having a ball. It’s a whole new creative outlet. I’m like a kid in a candy store.” Although he is excited, he makes it plain that the commercial nature of this discussion is far removed from artistic photography. “You have to embrace things in a commercial sense but not in an artistic sense. There are two different things here.”
Cameron has lived in New York since 1996. “You can really aspire to some of the greats here. The Irving Penns and all that. It’s so inspirational on a day-to-day basis.” And although New York is “definitely home”, his New Zealand roots still, by his own admission, play a big part in who he is and how he works: “Definitely from a light perspective and in the attitude I have to my work – I think that all comes from being a Kiwi. I still keep really close ties there. But I also love coming back to London because I can have a laugh. It’s not quite as serious, which I love.” He has a book in the works, although he admits he’s been working on it for two years. “I just keep tweaking that non-stop.” Is that because he is a perfectionist? “Yeah, a little along those lines,” he replies. And speaking of perfectionists, is Bailey still an influence? “He is still definitely one of them. If anything, he’s just becoming more and more poignant. I think we’re realising all those great things that came out of London at that time, it’s just a moment in time that was so valuable and it’s just not happening again, is it? Where are the Baileys?” he asks. I wonder if Cameron may be one of them but that he just can’t see it himself.
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