Friday, November 1, 2013

Carving Out a Place in a Crowded Field of Photographers: My Conversation with Simbarashe Cha of Lord Ashbury

It seems fitting to end my Menswear Week with an interview with Simbarashe Cha, the photographer and blogger behind Lord Ashbury. Simbarashe, after all, has been running his own "mens' only" coverage all week. It's worth checking out. I met up with Simbarashe a couple of weeks back at a midtown Manhattan deli. We'd already been communicating for weeks via blog comment threads and Facebook, and I'd been impressed with the critical edge he invests in his online coverage of fashion events. Like many of the best street style bloggers, he is something of an amateur visual anthropologist. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

B: How long have you been in the street style photography game?

S: It will be two years in January.

B: So we’re talking about 2012. That’s a point in street style, as you well know, where there’s lots of dudes out there. In New York alone, you’ve got Phil [Oh of Street Peeper], Scott [Schuman of TheSartorialist], Adam [Katz Sinding of Le 21ème, and [Youngjun] Koo [of I’m Koo], all sorts of guys. I’m sure you were somewhat aware of that at the time. Did it feel like this was a crowded field to be entering into? Was that a concern of yours at all?

S: No it didn’t feel crowded at all. I didn’t start shooting street style full time until after the fashion week season (around March of 2012), and for me, when I started, there was Scott and there was Garance (Doré of Tommy (Ton of Jak & Jil)for me came around a little later, I always knew Phil was there, but I didn’t know there were hundreds or thousands of street style blogs. I didn’t know any of that stuff until later. It was sort of a gradual process. I think I didn’t become fully aware of the scope of how many photographers there were until I went to Paris Fashion Week in September of 2012.

Photo by Simbarashe Cha

B: And what inspired you to start the blog in the first place?

S: I was going through a rough time in my life, a pretty significant break up. And I needed a hobby, something to do to keep my mind off of things that were unhappy. When I first got my camera, I started photographing my friends at parties, and I thought that it would be kind of cool to be an event photographer, or maybe even a wedding photographer, something like that. And when I started Lord Ashbury, it wasn’t really supposed to be a blog focused on photography. I was just going to write about guy stuff. I wanted the blog to be about cool things that guys like, kind of geeky, but maybe a little bit more sartorial. And getting into street style on a daily basis, or as a primary function of the blog was more an accident than anything else.

I went to New York Fashion Week in February of 2012, when I had been doing the blog for about 6 weeks. It was still sort of an internal project, so, maybe a couple of friends knew about it, but nobody on Facebook knew it existed, or anything like that. My assistant at the time suggested that we go to Lincoln Center to take pictures, because then maybe I would have something good that I could put on the blog. And so I went on Saturday, and I took some pictures. But I was really timid of the other photographers. I stood back. I had my zoom lens. And when I got home, all of my pictures were at a distance. They weren’t all that good. I was a little disappointed in myself and decided that on Sunday I would go back and make a better effort of it. And on Sunday, I had taken a photo of a woman getting into a fur coat, and I posted that photo on Sunday night. I thought it was pretty cool. It was the best photo that I had taken that day. And the very next day, I started getting emails from my friends saying, “Hey, you know that woman that you shot, The Sartorialist put up a photo of the same woman.” 

Simbarashe's fur coat image from New York Fashion Week. To see the shot of the same woman by The Sartorialist click here.
I was like, “Really? He was there?” And the next day on my blog I saw that I had gone from around 30-40 hits a day to all of a sudden having like 400 hits. And then I was just like, “Oh crap! If these people come back tomorrow, I need to have more content, or else they’re never going to come back.” So I went back through my shots and found another good one.  I think I had one of Solange. So I put her up the next day. And of course everybody came back, and I was like, “Oh crap! I need to put something up the next day.” And then Friday came around, and I was like “Oh crap! I need to walk around the city and take pictures all weekend so that I can have stuff next week.” That’s how I got into street style. It wasn’t a conscious decision by design. It just sort of happened.

B: How much do you think about making sure that you’re providing content for your readers? Like, how much does that enter into your decision-making process?

S: I don’t know if I have the highest output of the street style blogs, but I think I have one of the highest outputs. I post 3 or 4 times a day with the idea that if people are sort of even aware of my blog in a sort of ancillary way, every time they come to Lord Ashbury there is something new there.

B: That makes sense. And when you were just starting out, who were you drawing influence from in your photographic style?

S: Before street style my biggest influences have always been cinematographers. I wanted to be a cinematographer. So I always saw the world that way. When I started shooting street style, I mean, Scott [Schuman, of The Sartorialist] was kind of it. I’m not afraid to say it, I learned a lot from Scott, in terms of blocking people, lighting, and rendering photos in a way that the clothing and the subjects come through as sharply as possible.
   Valentina Siragusa, Paris.Photo by Simbarashe Cha
B: I think you’re not the only person who was influenced by his style. Though it seems to me that these days street style photography has taken a very different turn than Scott has taken. I think Scott is going more into a person within context thing. He’s using a lot wider a depth of field for instance. He’s playing with a lot of light and shadows, and it seems like the norm right now in street style photography is more what I’ve identified on the website as the “School of Blur,” focusing largely on details, people in motion, heavily blurred out backgrounds with certain details that are in sharp focus. Where do you position yourself within the trends you see in street style photography right now?

S: I think that with Lord Ashbury, it has always been a little different. It was always a little different from the start because of how ignorant I was of everyone else and what those trends were. And by the time I became aware of what those trends were, I was sort of proud of the fact that I had carved out my own niche. I think one of the things that would separate my blog from some of the other street style blogs is that I’m always about the person and the presence of the person in the context of their surroundings, before specifically the clothes. When I find people to photograph on the street, it’s less about what handbag they’re carrying and more about the way that they’re carrying it. For me the energy of the person is really what attracts me to even decide if I want to take their picture, and if I can take their picture. And there are some people on my site that are admittedly not that fashionable, but there was something about them that sort of compelled me to want to shoot them in a fashionable way.  I’m a lot more inclusive in that regard.

Photo by Simbarashe Cha.

B: How do you recognize that energy in a person? How do you know that it’s there?

S: It’s like a magnetic field. When I first started shooting street style, I used to go up and down 5th Avenue on the weekends, which is a horrible idea, because it’s so congested. There are so many tourists. You can’t isolate anyone when you shoot on 5th Avenue. But what shooting on 5th Avenue taught me is that there was absolutely a fixed distance from where I stood to where the person stood for me to decide if it was someone I wanted to shoot. So maybe it was like 7 or 8 meters. Once a person reached that threshold distance for me, I knew yes or no, right. So I would set my manual focus field to that distance and just walk around, and as soon as I made up my mind I would release on the shutter, and more times than not, I was pretty close on the focus, and that’s how I learned to shoot from the hip. But I also realized that that was the distance where I picked up other things about that person. Sometimes it was the way that they were walking. Sometimes it was the way they were lost in their own mind. Sometimes it was just their presence and the way that they were commanding the space around them. All of those things became very evident within that distance.

A Paris candid by Simbarashe Cha
B: So once you’ve decided that you want to take a picture of somebody, what’s the process whereby you decide that you just want to take a candid of them, rather than actually stop them and have them pose for a shot?

S: I always try to go for the candid first. Sometimes I’m not prepared. If I’m not prepared, then I have to decide if stopping them would still be worth it. You know, some people look beautiful the way that they’re pulling their fingers through their hair or drinking their coffee, but as soon as I stop them they become very normal. So when it comes to the candids, if I miss the candid, then I usually have to maybe follow them for a bit or maybe just study them for a few more seconds to make that decision of whether or not it’s worth stopping them. There are some people, on the other hand, where I absolutely want to stop them because I want to make sure that I don’t miss the shot, or I deem that I’ll be able to get a better frame if I stop them.

B: So what’s the experience like of shooting in New York, specifically these days? How does it differ from other places you’ve shot street style photography?

S: New York is very easy for me now. I think the best lesson that I’ve learned is that if I don’t get a photo for whatever reason — if I’m too hesitant to ask or too far away, or I do ask and they say “no” — there’s always someone else. There are ten million people in the city. I will never ever run out of people to photograph. And that took me like 5 or 6 months to understand. When I first started, if I asked like 2 or 3 people and they said “no” consecutively, that might wreck my whole day. That might wreck my whole weekend.

   Elena Perminova at Burberry, London. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
B: I know the feeling.

S: Yeah, and the thing that you have to understand when it comes to communicating with people and convincing them to trust you to take their photo is that it all starts with your own energy. So if you’ve been beaten down with rejections and you go to the next person, they can feel it. They may not know what it is, but subconsciously, as soon as you walk over to them they can feel it. Getting over that, and learning to combat that for me was probably the biggest lesson that I could learn.

B: Where are your favorite parts of town to shoot in these days?

S: I think the backstreets of Chelsea are really underrated. I love Greenwich Village. You can always find somebody in Soho, but I wouldn’t say that that’s my favorite. I think it’s a little harder for me to get photos [than other street style photographers], because I go off the track a lot. Like, during fashion week we didn’t run into each other once.

B: Do you ever run into other street style photographers when you’re out shooting?

S: All the time.

B: Who are the people you’re most likely to run into on any given day?

A London street style shot taken "off the grid" of London Fashion Week. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
S: I run into Adam, Koo. I run into Ryosuke [Sato of As Usual] a lot. And Brandon [Stanton] from Humans of New York. He was the first street photographer that I would run into on a regular basis.

B: Do you feel a sense of community with the other street style photographers in New York, or what’s the relationship like?

S: That’s an interesting question. There is definitely a community. I don’t know if I’m in it. But they all know me. They’re all friendly with me. We’re friendly. I would even say that some of us are friends. But I think there’s a little more communication and coordination that goes on between them than with me. Often when I see the street style guys they’ll sort of be parked, like taking a break, and they might be, like, 6 or 7 deep. And I’m just passing through. I’ll stop and say “hi,” chat for a couple of minutes, and I’m on my way.

I feel like I’m in the community more during Fashion Week. I can travel with those guys and get information from those guys, like where I need to be at a certain time, things like that. They’re very helpful in that regard. When I answer the question, I don’t want it to sound like it’s a negative thing by any means. I think in my life, [and with] my personality type, I’m always sort of on the outside of big crowds. That’s where I’m comfortable being. I don’t always like being there, but that’s sort of how I’m wired to be.

Hanneli Mustaparta, shot on a crop sensor camera. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
B: Is there a sense of competition among those street style photographers you know?

S: I do not think that there is a competition among the established photographers, because of the unwritten rules of street etiquette. Some of those guys — and the girls — they have their set up. They’re shooting for a magazine, or they have a commission to deliver photos to someone or some entity. So, it’s not like they’re all freelancing and all sending out photos to all the magazines at the same time. It might be a little more cutthroat [if that were the case].

I think where the competition really comes in is with the new faces that they see seasonally, the people that don’t necessarily have the etiquette, and will just go in and remove a shooting situation for everyone else.

B: Let’s talk about those unwritten rules of street etiquette. What are some of the rules that you’ve observed?

S: Well, there are what I would call like the junket rules, [that is], rules that apply to every professional photographer who’s working alongside other photographers, things like, you carve out your space. You mind your space. You don’t intrude on other people’s space. You don’t obstruct or remove a shooting lane for other people. Pushing and shoving, that happens in France. It doesn’t really happen in New York so much. Even in London they’re pretty polite mostly. And for the new photographers who are on the scene, being respectful to the people who clearly know what they’re doing goes a long way.

Simbarashe's most popular post of a man, reposted over 7,200 times on Tumblr
B: So are there consequences for disobeying the rules of street etiquette?

S: There’s one consequence that’s not always apparent, and that is: if the photographers don’t like you, they won’t talk to you. And sometimes the only way that you can get information or be in the position to succeed is by communicating with the other photographers, and being friends with the other photographers, because at the end of the day, there’s competition, but right equal to that there’s altruism. You know, it’s very common that you’ll see, [for example], Adam and Koo shooting next to each other. Adam will get his shot. Then he’ll get up and move so Koo can get his shot. And if they don’t like you, maybe they’re not that courteous. If they don’t like you, maybe they won’t tell you that there’s this show that’s going on at this secret location. You don’t want to be, even in business, that one person that no one likes. And if other people know that everyone else hates you, then maybe they’re going to hate you too.

B: So you recently got back from Paris and London Fashion Weeks. Tell me about your experience at both. How was this year different from previous years you’ve gone, for instance?

S: London was great. I got to shoot a lot of shows, which is important for me, because aside from shooting people on the street, I’m really trying to be more serious about my general base of fashion coverage. Paris, I get shut out every season, but the best street stuff I shoot is in Paris, so it’s never really a total loss. Developing contacts at the different media outlets and being able to send stuff is really critical to the experience not being expensive, and it’s still sort of an ongoing learning process for me.

A runway shot from the John Rocha show in London. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
B: And are you able to learn about that and get those kinds of contacts from other photographers, or are these contacts you’ve got to make yourself?

S: You’ve got to make them yourself. That’s where the competition is. I’ll just say that.

B: It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you’re not as focused on the style icons as a lot of the other New York photographers are. There are certain people, like, just off the top of my head, Miroslava Duma, Anna Della Russo, and Kate Lanphear, who everyone gets shots of at every one of the Fashion Week locations. Where do you stand in all this?

S: I have so many shots of them that I’ve never posted. I get the shots too. You know, I always wonder if maybe strategically I need to post them more. I don’t know. With Miroslava in particular, because I really love her style, I’ll take photos of Miroslava wearing three different outfits in a day, and then I just don’t know what to do with them. I guess because of the fact that I’m unsigned, uncommissioned, I still beat to my own drum.

Miroslava Duma. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
B: There’s not that expectation that you would be focused on the style stars, in other words.

S: Correct. But I have no problem shooting them.

B: Are there particular style icons that are exciting to you to shoot?

S: I’ve never gotten a clean shot of Anna Wintour. That would be cool. Michelle Harper is probably my favorite, but I rarely see her. I see Miroslava lot. She’s one of my favorites too. There a lot of people who get called fashion icons, but in my opinion there are maybe ten who are actually fashion icons. I think Michelle Harper is definitely in that category.

B: I don’t know if you’ve had this experience too, but it seemed to me that just comparing New York Fashion Week in February vs. New York Fashion Week in September that a lot of those style icons who get photographed the most were a lot less receptive to being photographed this time. Are these people who have become famous via street style getting sick of this whole thing? Has street style perhaps overstayed its welcome in the fashion industry? Am I right to think there’s a kind of backlash happening?

Ladene in Soho, NYC, Simbarashe's most popular post of a woman, reblogged on Tumblr over 5,800 times.
S: I can’t really speculate on what they think. But I know that every season it gets more crowded with photographers. And I think that probably lends a level of anxiety. Like Miroslava, for instance, I hear a lot of people say, “Oh she doesn’t want to have her picture taken.” I don’t ever get the sense that she doesn’t want to have her picture taken. I just get the sense that sometimes she’s just overwhelmed by how many people are crowding her. For example, Miroslava was stuck outside of Christopher Kane’s show in London. And she had walked over to a backstreet, and maybe 7 or 8 of us photographers drifted back there, and no one else was paying attention. And she gave all of us an opportunity to take her photo. But you contrast that with the next day when there were like 75 people with a camera in their hand, and she didn’t want to deal with that. That’s just too many people.

B: Yeah. I get that. That’s fair. So what interests you more these days, the candid everyday shots you get on the streets of New York, or the fashion week extravaganzas where everyone’s dressed up?

S:  They’re apples and oranges. When it’s not fashion week, and I’m out shooting street style, I’m shooting primarily with the singular goal of going in to the next fashion week as fit and as sharp as I possibly can be. So the entire year for me is essentially training for Fashion Week. And then, when I’m at Fashion Week, I try to relax, and just say, “You know what? I’ve been preparing all year. I’m ready. I’m just going to do what I do best.” I can’t worry about everyone else standing next to me, running along with me, or jumping in front of me. I just have to use my instincts and take photos that are true to what Lord Ashbury has always been about.

A Paris candid by Simbarashe Cha.
B: Is it difficult to maintain that sense of what Lord Ashbury is all about when you’re in the thick of the action?

S: No. It’s the one time of the year when I will actually spend a lot more time looking at the other street style blogs on a daily basis and see what they’re up to. Sometimes you get some clues as to how everybody starts shooting the same way, things like that. And there’s some of those things that I’ll pick up for myself. I’m not gonna lie. But I think my presentations for Fashion Week are just a little different. When I shoot backstage, for instance, I’ll post backstage photos in color. Nobody else does that. And like half body shots. People don’t really do stuff like that anymore. But I do them. I think they look great. I’m comfortable and affirmed knowing that the level of material is going to be better. I just need to continue to do my job, and the material will sort itself out.

B: So you talked about Lord Ashbury as having a particular sort of brand identity attached to it. Is it possible for you to describe what that brand identity is?

S: I would like to think that Lord Ashbury is two things: it’s the balance between high end fashion and very real, very attainable fashion. And what I mean by that is that when it’s not fashion week season, I’m primarily interested in people who have a strong sense of individual style, regardless of what their fashion is like. We were talking about their presence earlier, and that’s paramount for me. When I started getting emails from people around the world saying repeatedly how they are inspired by the fact that there’s a blog that exists of fashionable people who are also real people, I felt more and more obligated not to change that formula.

B: Is there a character in your head that you picture that captures Lord Ashbury?

S: No.

B: So you’re not imagining that there’s this type that it closely adheres to?

S: I’m imagining myself in more expensive clothes. Maybe a nice blue Tom Ford suit and a Burberry trench.

B: Where do you see all this going? Or where would you like it to be going?

S: I would love to shoot for the magazines. I really try to experiment with my photography for the blog. I’ll do things like shoot little editorial spreads every once in a while to strengthen all the tools that I have in my tool belt. I just want to one day be considered in the conversation of the best street photographers. That’s my goal. Whether or not that comes with magazine contracts. Shooting for magazines would be nice. But if I can be the best then I know that I would have accomplished at least something in my life that I really set out to do.

B: Is the hope also to have this as a full-time gig for you?

S: Absolutely. But I’m not in a rush. I’m a very patient individual. As long as it takes. I will shoot as long as it takes and I can afford to shoot.

B: You know, one of the things that’s really fascinating to me about the phenomenon of street style photography is that most of the people I know who have gotten into it are not themselves formally trained photographers. This has become something like an alternative path to getting into fashion photography, and the idea at least, certainly the popular idea, is that this signifies a kind of democratization of the fashion industry. But I think it’s an open question, now that certain names have risen to the top that we can easily name and recognize as being at the top of their game, that perhaps it’s not as open of a field as it once was. And I’m curious about your thoughts about that. Does it still feel like it’s going to be possible for you to make your place within that field? Does it feel more closed off? Like when Phil Oh started out, for instance, he didn’t really have any competition. It didn’t really matter if he was an excellent photographer or not. Now it kind of does.

One of Simbarashe's more "editorial" shots. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.
S: I think for me if it’s an issue of quality then I wouldn’t be concerned, because I have nothing but confidence in my ability. But if it’s a question of opportunity, all of the guys and girls I know that are working, some of them have switched magazines since I’ve met them, but I’m not aware of any other photographers who have gotten a brand new contract. So in that sense it’s very possible that it has closed up. Or maybe it is capped. But if I were to be dismayed by that realization, it would betray the reason I started shooting. I didn’t start shooting to be in magazines. I started shooting because I thought I would be a good photographer. And if it just so happens that street style as a business collapses, let it. There’s always something to shoot. I’ll figure it out. And if I can’t figure it out, and I have to keep my job, luckily I have a job, and they treat me really well. It doesn’t matter, as long as they still know that I’m the best, and I become the best. That’s what matters. I think with excellence comes opportunity, whether it’s the opportunity that you intend or not.

1 comment:

  1. As a long time fan of Lord Ashbury, I really enjoyed this interview. Thanks!


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