For this interview we are heading Stateside to Chicago, home of the White Sox, deep dish pizza and my favourite fashion photographer, Karl Rothenberger. Magazine editors and model agencies alike are continually drawn to Karl’s clean aesthetic with clients including S Magazine, Nylon, Cake and C-Heads filling his resume. We talk Bruce Weber, Kate Upton and whether location is an important consideration for new fashion photographers. We also feature a series of images from a recent shoot with the beautiful Katie Cook.
What first inspired you to get in to fashion photography?
My career in photography started out on the other side of the camera. While in school I was scouted by Ford Models and worked as a model for a couple of years before they tried to get me in to acting in LA – that obviously didn’t work out! All those experiences did however help me behind the camera; I often tried to pick the brains of the photographers that were shooting me – why they were using that lens or what did that big white reflector thing do? Modelling also gave me access to agencies and that’s where I started photographing my friends who were models. It gave me a certain level of sensibility in shooting new faces because I had been in their shoes. That’s the part that I utilize most to this day. I think new faces gain a level of comfort hearing the horror stories from early on in my modelling career and it puts them at ease knowing their initial nervousness is quite common and that it all gets easier over time.
You have assisted some amazing photographers including Bruce Weber – tell us about this experience. Is assisting the way to go? What did you learn from being an assistant?
Bruce and his entire team were great! What I learned most from that experience is that you can be successful and still be nice and respectful to others around you. Sounds silly right?! But you’d be surprised how many photographers are out there that put down others around them in order to make themselves look better in front of the client. Bruce wasn’t like that, he was nice to everyone; I saw him have a 15 minute conversation with someone cleaning up our tables after lunch one day which, in the real world, shouldn’t be looked at as a big thing but I’ve worked with enough photographers to recognize that it was. He was also very respectful of his assistants; I remember him using my name and saying please and thank you when asking me to move a reflector etc. A photographer friend once described a shoot as “We’re not saving babies over here!”. Why would you bring negative energy and stress to a job that doesn’t require it? Yes, you need to get the shot and, yes, you could run into obstacles along the way and, yes, money is involved but no-one is gonna die if it gets cloudy or you forgot the A clamps – you wait for the cloud to pass and run to CVS and grab some mini paper clamps. But then again, I’m an optimist and pretty laid back.
You moved from Chicago (by way of Arizona) to NYC to pursue your career – is choice of location important for a fashion photographer?
I thought it was at first, which is why I moved to NYC. Turns out I was partially correct; the level of talent you get to work with in NYC is amazing. For a while, it seemed like I was shooting a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model every week! On the other hand, LA has really grown since I first moved to NYC and the amount of work for emerging photographers seems to be abundant (or at least that’s what everyone’s Instagram feed seems to suggest). I mean, it makes sense right? You can shoot outside all year round! LA is still the entertainment capital of the world however, and an audition for a bit part on a show on the WB (that’s still a network right?!) still trumps my free (or relatively free) magazine editorial. I mean, there is so much money to be made out there in film and television it’s ridiculous! So I get it, I just don’t like it when it screws with my projects lol.
Chicago, where I’m at currently, is the best of both worlds for me; my family is here and it’s centrally located so I can fly to NYC, LA, or Miami for work pretty easily and inexpensively. When people ask me where I’m based, it’s always a difficult answer for me because I tend to travel quite a bit; I mean, I’m in LA about 4 months out of the year – so I just tell people “I float”, and I have great friends with extra bedrooms and Air B&B to thank for that. Floating is one part of the job I like the best; a change of scenery stimulates creativity and gives me a chance to reconnect with friends in different cities (and those cities always have a new whiskey bar to tryout).
Does a concept inspire your model choice or vice versa?
Kinda, not every girl is right for every shoot. I’m more into cute as opposed to alien-like. Lately portraits are my thing and I’m enjoying shooting girls with freckles. I just find them interesting, maybe cuz i don’t have them. There are a couple redheads that I shot recently that I want to do stories with, more of a lifestyle feel, which i know is not “cool”, but screw “cool”, sometimes it’s nice to see girls smile, and who knows, maybe it could land me a job shooting for Anthropologie or something.
How would you describe your style and where do you draw inspiration from?
Clean. Growing up in Chicago, architecture had a big influence on me and, if I wasn’t a photographer, I’d probably design buildings. I think you can see it in my work; a lot of linear qualities with a focus on the girl. It might not be currently trendy, but I think it’s a classic look that will withstand the test of time.
The last five years has seen a massive explosion in the number of fashion photographers and online magazines out there. Has this impacted the way you work and how do you make yourself stand out from the crowd?
Dude, I just keep doin’ what I’m doin’. I only change things up if I start boring myself with my own work. What I like is when models tell me that their client or someone who looked at their book said, “Oh, I see you’ve worked with Karl?”. That to me is the ultimate compliment because it means my work is recognizable and that I have a particular point of view that comes across. That just happens organically, I don’t set out trying to shoot like anybody. That being said, David Bellemere is awesome; he’s probably the only photographer I look at because his work is clean yet dynamic. I wish he had been around when I started; I’d bug the hell out of him to assist.
Do you have any advice for those starting out in fashion photography?
KISS! Keep it simple stupid. Now granted, it’s what I do for my shoots and that’s not for everyone – but you’re asking me so that’s my advice. I thought at the beginning that a photoshoot had to be a major production and yes, sometimes it can be – but for beginners, limit the amount of variables and you won’t get frustrated that your shoot didn’t turn out like the Steven Meisel one from that Vogue tear that you were trying to emulate. Concentrate on making your model look good, and you will get more models to shoot because agencies always love good clean shots of their girls. The more models you shoot, the better you will get at recognizing good light as opposed to bad light (noon outside) and the more confident you’ll be approaching clients etc because you’ll have a nice book with beautiful images – and who doesn’t like that? Oh, and try to shoot Kate Upton before she becomes famous. Heck, it worked for me! 😉
What is next for you? Do you have any projects that you can share with us?
I want to shoot that 70’s, redhead, hippy lifestyle story before the weather turns south. Other than that, a few trips to NYC, Miami, and LA in the fall and hopefully some new clients along the way. Right now, I’m neck-deep in post production from a number of recent shoots that I need to get back to; one thing they don’t tell you is how much of photography is sitting on your ass in front of a computer screen. Well, now you know – but it still ain’t bad.
All images copyright Karl Rothenberger – see more at karlrothenberger.com
Photographer: Karl Rothenberger
Model: Katie Cook @ Factor Women Chicago
H&MU: Kristina Marie Feyerherm