When I arrived at Splashlight Studios in New York's Hell's Kitchen early one morning in mid-November, something quite extraordinary was under way in the well-appointed ground-floor studio.
A Fresh Approach
To the casual observer, it looked like a typical commercial photo shoot. Models, digital cameras, scads of lighting gear arrayed on a huge white seamless background, a clutch of photographers and art directors scrutinizing enlarged sections of images on big monitors, lighting guys and a makeup artist scurrying around making last-minute adjustments. Creative tension filled the air.
The difference was that all the photographers and technicians were Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) students, and the models were refreshingly natural-looking young women, not heavily made-up supermodels.
Education was certainly a major thrust behind the remarkable event unfolding before me, but this was no mere student project. It was a real, live commercial photo shoot made possible by the vision and commitment of major companies, which supplied the equipment and much of the tech support.
The MAC Group brought in top-of-the-line gear to supplement the equipment already in place, and assigned their technical guru, Cliff Hausner, to offer advice and untangle technical snags.
The crew shot with Mamiya 645 AF D cameras and lenses, Leaf Valeo 22 digital backs, Profoto Pro 7A 2400s, beauty dishes, light stands, a five-foot parabolic reflector, various softboxes, the latest Sekonic meters, and PocketWizard wireless triggering devices.
Splashlight Studios provided the services of a digital-imaging tech and the use of their cutting-edge computer system, in addition to committing their space and time.
The client was Dove, a beauty-products line that's a division of Unilever. To help the students communicate the brand identity in visual terms, they held "brand immersion" sessions, showing them how the concept of Dove evolved from pure white soap into an extensive line of beauty products aimed at "real women" whose "beauty is more than skin deep."
This enlightened image, far beyond the surface beauty hyped by most of the cosmetics industry, fits in perfectly with the fresh approach of using aspiring commercial photographers, and selecting models who look like real people.
Success Formula: Collaboration
How successful were the FIT photographers in fulfilling the assignment? The students' attention to the details of lighting, coiffure, makeup, and expression was incredible. But perhaps even more significant in this age of unabashed self-promotion, this was clearly a team effort.
As art director David Klimek explained, stated, "There are no egos in this room. If there is any credit, it goes to the group. Nobody here is a full-fledged pro; we're all working under FIT's Curtis Willocks as a team, but we're not willing to compromise on the final creative product. We all have a hand in selecting the images."
The images I saw were well beyond stereotypical glitz and glamour, and very effective in conveying the concept of inner beauty that transcends artificiality—that's the Dove marketing image.
What did the students think of the shoot, and what did they get out of it? To find out, I chatted with a few of the dozen of FIT Photo Club members who participated in the project.
Erica Singleton was all smiles when she told me, "It's a great experience! Working with a real client and a real art director makes this a real-world situation. I had some previous experience using Profoto lighting equipment, a Mamiya 645 AF D with Leaf digital back, and a PocketWizard, but this was my first actual project where the end results really count. I'm convinced that a commercial pro must be a team player, because you can't do everything yourself—you basically set the tone for a positive group effort."