Amidst the content deluge that biannually floods our Instagrams and RSS feeds (and mental capacities) during New York Fashion Week, there's always, always an instant that, however fleeting, makes us realize how lucky we are to be a part of this great, funky circus. Sometimes that light-bulb flicker comes just as a show begins, the lights dimming and the bass of the music filling the house; sometimes it's while we're at a brand's after-party, chatting with colleagues you only see twice a year over flutes of champagne. For photographer Alyssa Greenberg (@smallgirlbiglens), it's the images she captures backstage that convey moments of her own to which we can all relate.
I first discovered Greenberg's work as I do so many things these days: Because a label I follow on Instagram — perhaps it was Coach or Prabal Gurung — gave her photo credit in an image they posted shortly after their ready-to-wear show. I've followed her for a few seasons now, thoroughly enjoying her aesthetic, and have found myself looking forward to those moments we, sitting in the front-of-house, never see, but that she captures backstage.
Though Greenberg, who grew up in the suburbs outside of Boston, has only officially lived in New York since October, she's been a player in the fashion photography scene for several years now, commuting from Boston every week for three years. "I don't know when you can call yourself a New Yorker, but... Yeah, I'm getting closer," she says with a laugh.
In her time at NYFW, she's certainly earned her stripes and accompanying relationships with brands like Coach, for whom she also photographs their parties, among other projects. But it's a different muscle to shoot the notoriously hectic backstage than it is to do almost anything else, and she's still learning. "It's definitely challenging because, I think, I have to speak up more for myself — to make sure I'm getting what I need, but everyone else is trying to get what they need, too," she says.
On the eve of NYFW, I spoke with Greenberg about everything from how she got her start in fashion to how she prepares for NYFW to, of course, which models she expects to see everywhere this season.
Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Yes and no. My family's in advertising, so I grew up watching TV commercials and being on set; my dad would always bring home photo books or mailers. So, I was surrounded by photography from an early age, but I didn't know it was something I wanted to do until high school.
When did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
I'm not sure what it exactly was, but I was always shooting. I joined the photography club in high school, which was really just a bunch of girls who were friends and there was nothing photo-related in it. [Laughs] Everyone was a senior and I was a freshman, so when they left I was in charge of the club. I shot for the yearbook, and had what I guess you could call a business in high school. I shot people's yearbook photos. But [it was] just for fun, nothing like running a business. That was my early start.
How and when do you start preparing for New York Fashion Week each season?
I start preparing a little bit more than a month in advance — it comes up so quickly — but my schedule doesn't come together until a week before, maybe even less. Once the schedule gets out, then it's easier to see where I'll be and what jobs I can take and what overlaps. But sometimes last-minute things come through… You just never know until it starts.
What does that NYFW prep look like for you?
It varies depending on what I'm doing. If I'm shooting in-house, there's a little bit more prep, talking to my client and figuring out what I'm doing — you know, if I need a retoucher or an assistant or an editor to help me — then I like to figure that far in advance so I can have that all prepared; it's hard to find someone last-minute because everyone [at] fashion week is busy.
Before fashion week, I always make an inspiration folder of what what people shot in past years. Maybe it's not fashion week-related at all, but I try to switch up how I see fashion week every season so I stay fresh and my images look new and different.
I know every day is different, but what does a typical day during NYFW look like for you?
A lot of running around; I would say I'll hit two or three shows a day. Backstage starts about two hours before showtime — sometimes more, sometimes less depending on what [show] it is. I like to get there early and check in, and the shows never run on time, so I'll prepare for what I have to be at next and figure out when I have time to edit, which varies. When I'm shooting in-house, I'm editing throughout the show so that they can post in real time. If my edit isn't due right away, I do it right after, if I can, when I feel like it's fresh in my mind. I usually don't get home until 9 o'clock, but then I have to finish up the edit from the day so I'm up a little bit later.
How did you get your start shooting backstage?
I started to going to fashion week when I was in college. I was shooting for a website called Beauty News NYC, and they asked me if I wanted to cover it. I took a week off at school, came to New York, stayed in a hotel and started shooting shows. I absolutely loved fashion, so fashion week is very fascinating to me. A lot of people who shoot it do it because they're interested in other aspects of it, but I purely love fashion. I was so caught up in all the chaos that is backstage that I knew it's what I wanted to keep doing. After I graduated, I kept shooting and assisted for a bit. I also worked as an editor, but I basically started to build up my book, and once that happened, I started to get more requests and offers to shoot shows. Now, I shoot for all of the same clients every season. Sometimes new ones pop in, which is really nice.
Which shows did you shoot during your first season?
My first season I covered Zac Posen, Rebecca Minkoff and Vera Wang. Oh, and Alice + Olivia! I came down and just covered four shows. Not all those four shows were in the same day and I had time in between, so I also shot street style for fun, which was a really interesting experience. I had no idea what I was getting into.
How does street style differ from the type of work you normally do?
For backstage and runway, it's typically all the same run-of-show — you know where you have to be and where everything is going happen. For street style, it's completely all over the place. You never know what you're going to get. You have to be prepared. You're also waiting around a little bit longer to make sure you're at the right shows at the right times to get people coming and going, so, it's a little bit different, timing-wise. I admire people that do it. I don't do it too often. I think it requires a lot of skill to shoot street style.
I'd imagine that you have a really good read on which models are going to be super-buzzy any given season. Who should plan to keep on our radar?
Definitely Bella [Hadid], Taylor Hill, Romee [Strijd]. It's special when you get to see them backstage. I have a list of my models that I love to shoot or see backstage. I love to shoot Slick Woods. I think she has such an interesting look. I love her vibe. She doesn't do a lot of shows, but I know Fenty Puma is on the schedule so she may walk in that because she has in the past.
I think more plus-size models will be seen on the runway this season; I predict Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine will walk in more shows. Torrid will be showing this season, which is amazing. Last season Ashley walked in [Michael] Kors, so I expect she will again and we'll see more diversity on the runway in terms of models and sizing.
How do your fashion week gigs differ from what you might work on normally during the year?
That's a good question. Some clients I shoot for fashion week I shoot all year round, like Coach. I shoot their show, but I also cover parties for them or their behind-the-scenes work, or their product work.
They're a great team and I adore working with them. It's so nice when the people make the job. I love my clients and the people at Coach; they're just so nice and so great to work for. It makes it enjoyable. Fashion week has a similar family-vibe to it, too. I see the same people twice a year, sometimes three or four times. But, it's nice to catch up with those people and see what they're shooting and what they do in their off time.
But I do a lot more editorial and behind-the-scenes work, which is similar to fashion week — you're still capturing the moment. [But] it's just you, so you have more of a chance to create moments as opposed to backstage at fashion week; sometimes you don't get that chance because it's too chaotic and you're competing with 30 other people for that shot.
What are your goals for any given show season?
If I leave with five photos I love, then I couldn't ask for anything more. I tend to leave with more than five, but I keep it at five because you just never know. Sometimes shows don't end up being what you want or you're not capturing what you need. The first couple of days last season, I was getting the same stuff and it felt very repetitive, so I didn't feel challenged creatively. I always try to create something new every week where I can look back and be like, 'That fashion week photo looks totally different than what I shot the season before.'
What's your main piece of advice for newer photographers looking to do what you do?
I would say, shoot whether [someone hired you for it] or not. When I started my first fashion week, I wasn't getting paid. I was shooting shows because I loved them. I was shooting the street style for fun to kill time in between shows. I ended up moving to [New York to do] that. I got hired to do stuff because people saw I had the capability and creative talent to do it. So, if fashion week is what you want to do, make connections and network the best you can. If not, go to the show and stand outside and shoot people coming out — do street style — and partner with bloggers because they attend a lot of shows. But, I would shoot for you because you love it. The rest will fall into place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.