British photographer Frazer Harrison has been shooting fashion week runway shows for 12 years, and as a photographer for Getty — IMG's official partner — he's covered back to back shows every season at Bryant Park, Lincoln Center and now at the Skylight venues. He's a runway specialist (meaning he doesn't do backstage or front row) who focuses on capturing every look perfectly as it comes down the runway. Even though he covers fashion weeks around the world, he spends most of the year shooting celebrity red carpet events such as the Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys.
I spoke with Harrison at the Getty offices in Tribeca the day before New York Fashion Week began about the dynamics in the photographers' pit, getting people thrown out by security and why crossed legs in the front row are such a huge problem.
Where will you be shooting this fashion week and how many shows will you cover?
Hopefully my schedule will keep me at one venue, which will be working at the Skylight at Moynihan Station. I got a schedule for tomorrow and I think I'm shooting six shows. I'll probably be shooting in the region of about 40 to 45 shows, so that's actually a reduction for me. My highest year was around 65 shows. Lincoln Center was hectic but we worked the schedule out. It used to be that I shot every show back to back to back, and that was hard... you're finishing 12 hours a day straight and you've probably pulled maybe 9, 10 fashion shows in a row and you just want to cry. You want to know how it affects you emotionally? You want to cry.
It was so, so bad in those days. It was mental, there was no space [laughing]. Our jobs changed over the years because media's changed over the years. In the good old days it would only be photographers up on the extensions, and now you have photographers, videographers, bloggers, social media people — if they have a camera. We actually have people in there with [iPhones] on tripods. When you're at a big show and you see somebody shooting next to you on a $120 camera — or a $300 camera, let's be realistic — you're like, why? You shouldn't be here, I'm the professional here. Over the years that has changed, really. It used to be so crowded that it would physically hurt you, it wasn't healthy. You'd start to feel faint, literally.
Have you ever seen a photographer faint in the pit?
Not in the pit. I've seen somebody die. An audience member a couple of years go, she died just as the show started. The woman next to her started to panic a little bit, the models were all walking down the runway and we were like, "What's going on?" Click, click, click. Oh yeah, she's dead. Security ran across the runway in between models and picked her up. You can Google this.
I've seen photographers collapse from exhaustion or because their boxes collapsed or their ladders collapsed. Accidents happen, but very rarely. We've had an extension collapse on us, literally standing there. The platform dropped maybe two feet. I heard a huge crack and then the thing dropped but my feet just stayed in the air. Bang! Everyone was screaming because the show had just started; they were screaming to them to stop the show and they would not stop the show.
How do you find the right spot in the photographer's pit?
There's a hierarchy that works in this industry. While I am the house photographer for NYFW/IMG, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm the top photographer working at that particular show. That accolade would go to whoever's been hired by the designer in theory. The designer's photographer, whoever that may be, would take the prime spot. My mission as the house [photographer] for IMG is to take that prime spot but not encroach on the designer photographer. That's the hardest part about it. Only one person can get dead center. You can go dead center but then your elevation changes because you're behind them.
Timing is one of the most important things in our job — timing on counting steps, looking at the feet. I'm looking at the feet because the shot that they want is one foot in front of the other, flat. Then the arms swing and you want to try to keep both hands in the picture because there's nothing weirder than seeing somebody with one hand. You count steps, you get into a rhythm and you try to wait for that one magic moment where everything just comes in.
Do you get any information about the show from the designer before it all starts?
[Sometimes] the show choreographer will come out and say, "Hey guys, we've got 45 looks, they'll all be walking dead center, we'll have a medium pace." Sometimes we don't even know what the lighting's going to be like. But it doesn't change that much. We like to mess with [rookie photographers], they'll come in and ask, what's the color temperature? And I'll shout, "Daylight!" or "Tungsten!" If you're stupid enough to listen to me, then it's your own fault when you screw up a show [laughing].
Do you claim your spot by arriving early?
Not every show is packed because simultaneous shows do happen. So [for example], if Donna Karan has a show at the same time as a small designer in the main venue and Donna Karan's doing hers off-site, then Donna Karan's going to have all the photographers. And that's an IMG logistics problem; we can't be everywhere at once. [Ed note: Donna Karan did not show a collection this season and Getty decides which shows its photographers cover, according to a representative for the agency.] Some photographers have to pick and choose what shows they want to go to. I'm lucky enough that I'm at the same venue literally back to back. I can stay and watch the rehearsals and see what's going on.
One of the funniest things is, when we talk about hierarchy, if you jump in from show to show and you get to the next show — and you see this so many times — you get there and [I say] "Oh excuse me, sir, you're in the house photographer's spot." [He responds] "I was here before you. [I say] "Sorry, sir but it doesn't work like that" and he says, "I've been waiting here two hours for this." I'm like, "You could have been waiting here for a whole fucking week for all I care, if you stay in that spot, if you refuse to move, security will remove you."
Have you done that before?
Yeah, I've gotten people thrown out. It's not my favorite thing to do. We call them tourists. Tourists are people who are not professional photographers. They like to play professional photographers and they would argue that they have every reason to be there. But the reality is, I work for the biggest photo agency in the world. They can get the pictures from there. Unless you're WWD or whatever, there's no reason for half of those people to be there.
There's one photographer who has a little bit of a temper and shoots for many houses and I always tell these [new] guys, "Oh, you're in the designer [photographer's] spot. While you're not bothering me if you stay in that spot, you're going to have a problem in about 30 minutes." And they don't listen and he comes in and says, "You're in my spot." They're like, "Well, I've been here longer than you." And he says, "I don't give a fuck." I've literally seen this guy physically pick people up and drop them [laughing].
How do you deal with multiple designer photographers?
It's a tricky one because some of the people who are hired by the designer aren't professional, either. They come and they're clueless. I like those guys because I put them somewhere else. Those that know what they're doing, they're the problems because they come in in teams. The designer might say, "I need shoes, I might need the backs of outfits." So the house photographer could bring four people and five people in that space that's physically only big enough for two people.
I sometimes hear photographers yelling at people to uncross their legs. Is that a common problem?
There's two things that affect us: one is people's feet. They cross their legs and what they don't realize is that their feet are dangling over the runway. I don't want to see it, the designer doesn't want to see it and you don't want to see it on TV. Feet are really a problem to us, people holding things and cell phones have become a real pain.
How do you get your images uploaded online as quickly as possible?
We're geared up so our technicians will run cables underneath the runway to me, and then I'll be doing real-time uploading. I have an ethernet cable plugged into my camera and as I'm shooting the show, the images are electronically transferred to a team of editors backstage who work on the images in real time and post them as close to real time.
[The editors] have no control over what they get or how they get it — if I have to pull that cable out for whatever reason, the feed stops or it arrives 20 minutes later. It's pretty merciless. We still hand the cards over to runners because we want to make sure the content was all transferred so the memory cards are downloaded immediately after a show.
What's your routine before each show?
My first show is at 10 [a.m.] so I'll probably get to the venue around 8:30 in the morning. Hopefully I'll be able to see the first rehearsal, do all my lighting checks. The first show is the most important of all the shows that I do in the week, the first frame. I always think it is when that first model walks out, that's the moment when you really go to get it right. Because when you don't get it right on the very first one, you're done.
You can't recover?
You're not allowed to miss a shot. [The designers] don't want to see one shitty picture out of 50. A lot of people would say well, it's only one. But guess what? The designer doesn't care because that's the one outfit that he wanted to use on the front of his look book. It has to be a 100% success rate every show. 90% doesn't work. 99% doesn't work. You have to shoot every look, as well as a head shot, a half length, a full length and accessories.
You shoot all those yourself, since you don't have a partner?
Yes. We are in this job to sell images and every image has the potential of being used. For example, if I do a tight head shot of a model and she's got great makeup, Revlon or Maybelline, they want those pictures — tight shots of the eyes, lips, makeup and all that is very important to these people. Maybe not so much the designer, but they are working with the designer and they want to get all of that stuff as well.
It's using the right equipment and being able to work out the timing. I go for the full length first, then the half length, then the head shot. Then I’m looking for accessories — handbags, rings, earrings — makeup, backs of outfits, backs of hair if there's complicated hair. And then I make an arty picture. Some of those work, some of those don't. It's very involved. A lot of people say it’s like shooting fish in a barrel... but there is a certain way to fish out of a barrel.
This interview has been edited and condensed.