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Lindsay Adler: Bending the Line Between Fashion and Fine Art

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This post is part of a series called Women Making It Happen In Photo and Video.
Women in Photography: a Story Still Being Written
Myriam Abdelaziz: Passion, Presence, and Creative Adaptation

Editors Note: In our article for International Women’s Day, we looked at the contributions women have made to photography and how they’ve shaped photography for their own goals. Inspired by the women we profiled, we're continuing with the 2015 theme for International Women’s Day and, over the year, will profile women who are currently “making it happen” in photography and video.

The first profile is of a photographer mentioned in the original article: Lindsay Adler. A portrait and fashion photographer based in New York City, Lindsay Adler is carving her own path as both a successful fashion photographer and a sought-after photography instructor.

Lindsay Adler headshot
Lindsay Adler

Talking with portrait and fashion photographer Lindsay Adler is an energizing experience. Lindsay is passionate, focused, and intelligent: energy pulses around her as she talks. She knows where she’s going, is aware of the changes and shifts in her profession, and is resolute in pursuit of her goals.

Lindsay emerged into photography as a child. Both her mother and grandmother were photographers. While neither of them pursued photography as a profession, the practice of photography was ever-present. Childhood games involved photography scavenger hunts on the family farm, pursuing photos of mushrooms, cows, plants, or whatever was on the list.

By age thirteen, Lindsay had made her first photo sale. She sold a vacation photo to a calendar company for $150. Her response to the sale was perhaps naive: “Sweet. Photography. You can make money at this!” Lindsay mocks her belief that she could become rich as a photographer, but is clear that the experience launched her pursuit of photography as a profession.

It was a pursuit Lindsay’s mother enabled. Together, they attended day seminars, training courses, and workshops. Lindsay photographed her cousins, her cousins’ friends, and anyone willing to have a portrait taken. Lindsay quips, “If you want to be a professional photographer in a small town, portraiture is the way to do it.” And so at fifteen, with her mother’s help, Lindsay completed and filed the necessary paperwork to launch a portrait business.

Duality Photography by Lindsay Adler
Duality, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Success is Hard Work

Lindsay is not precocious or lucky; rather, she’s diligent and thorough. Lindsay is also quick to acknowledge the importance of her parents’ support, especially her mother’s. “They never pushed me to get a ‘real’ job. They’ve always been supportive of my photography. My mother maintained that if you find something you love, you should do it. And so I have.”

By the time Lindsay was ready for college, she already had a solid foundation in the basics of photography and was certain she wanted a career. Still, Lindsay embarks on nothing without a great deal of thought and research, so before heading off to college, she spoke with “every photographer who would lend [her] an ear.” Academically accomplished, Lindsay wondered how much effort she should put into a college education and when and how she should pursue an arts education. The advice she received from the photographers she spoke to was consistent: don’t go to school for photography; go to school for business. Photographers advised her that she could be a mediocre photographer but with good business sense, could still succeed. Conversely, she could be a stellar photographer, but without good business sense, she would fail. So, off to college Lindsay went—for a degree in photography and business, and, just for good measure, political science.

Enchanted Forest Photography by Lindsay Adler
Enchanted Forest, Photography by Lindsay Adler

“My early work wasn’t good,” Lindsay acknowledges. People think that I am successful in fashion photography because I’m in New York City. But I’m not from here. I grew up in rural U.S.A. without even a mall. You start small and take one step a time. And keep going.”

Lindsay’s mastery of lighting techniques is an example of her philosophy. Lindsay is known for her lighting, especially the way she is able to light skin and, more recently, the way she is able to use light to animate hair. Her skill, like so much else in her life, is a result of research and diligence. She learned her lighting techniques by studying Albert Watson’s work and replicating his effects. In her senior year of college, Lindsay booked about 20 hours of studio time a week. She engaged anyone who would model for her in exchange for photographs and used her studio time with the model, practicing the techniques she’d gleaned from Watson’s work. Between studio sessions, she’d study her photographs, comparing her images with those produced by Watson. She’d identify the similarities and differences, and make note of how she would improve her technique in the next session.

Hair 13 Photography by Lindsay Adler
Hair 13, Photography by Lindsay Adler

When I asked Lindsay what obstacles she faced as a woman in photography, she was quick to point to the challenges she faced after graduating from college, launching her career in fashion photography. She identifies the fashion sector as male dominated with a self-perpetuating cycle of male dominance. The way into fashion photography is to serve time and learn as a photographer’s assistant, but photographers want those assistants to be male. The argument is that men can carry more gear and work longer hours. Women, it’s expected, are unable to carry and move photography equipment, essential skills for a photographer’s assistant. So established male fashion photographers hire male assistants who themselves become established male fashion photographers who hire more male assistants. Nonetheless, Lindsay broke through the obstacles and, shoot by shoot, staked her claim in the industry with quality and vision.

Vision and Fashion Photography

Vision is especially important to Lindsay. She works hard to realize and stay true to her own vision and ideas. Everything in a photograph is to be under her control. She uses form as a graphic element. A person becomes an abstract, or curves become the composition. Composition and movement are purposeful. If they look rehearsed, Lindsay considers it a failure. The result is clean, bold, graphic elements that slice through the noise of advertising.

Royal Blue Photography by Lindsay Adler
Royal Blue, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Sharing Beauty

When I asked Lindsay to comment on the body image controversy in fashion, she noted that conversations about body type pop up more online than in her immediate world. For her, whether it’s a question of body type, appearance, design, or something else, she sees beauty everywhere. “We all see size and colour. The question is do we all see beauty in each? I see all of it and try to share what I see. There’s always some element that is very beautiful. It may not be the whole of a person but rather the form, hair, skin or skin colour, shape, or texture.”

Dark Orchid Photography by Lindsay Adler
Dark Orchid, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Motivated Images

The average person today sees about 5000 or more “motivated images” a day. These are not just visuals but visuals with the purpose of capturing viewers’ attention, persuading them to take action. Fashion photographers need to make their work stand out in that sea of images, make the viewer pause or look twice. Lindsay notes that while some brands use highly sexualized images to catch viewers’ attention, an emerging trend is to seek images that can be appreciated as art and not just commerce. Indeed, some fashion magazines are now looking for fine art photographers rather than fashion photographers to shoot the magazine’s work. Artistic, painterly images offer viewers an opportunity to visually rest and pause. The images provide peace in the mix of visual noise screaming at viewers. Viewers may no longer be able to distinguish whether the work was meant to hang on a gallery wall or be published in a fashion magazine.

Golden Goddess 24 Photography by Lindsay Adler
Golden Goddess 24, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Art and Commerce

It is this ability to bring her vision to the result that attracted Lindsay to fashion photography. She began as a portrait photographer and enjoyed showing people at their best, but fashion offered her an opportunity to blend the distinction between fine art and commercial work. The product—the resulting photograph—may still be oriented toward certain goals and a specific audience, but the photographer’s vision and interpretation influence the outcome. Fashion photography is also dependant upon creative collaboration with others—creating vision with fashion designers, makeup artists, set designers, and hair stylists. Lindsay finds the collaboration inspiring and fulfilling.

Red Dragon Photography by Lindsay Adler
Red Dragon, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Personal Projects

In addition to her commercial work, Lindsay creates opportunities to give rein fully to her own expression in personal work. She tries to have one or two personal projects in progress at any given time and is intentional about using gaps in her commercial schedule to work on her personal projects. At present, Lindsay has two projects in development.

“Body Beautiful” is a study of the variety of human forms. Inspired by a series of nudes shot by Irving Penn and aware that she predominantly shoots models—and thus, one certain body type—Lindsay has set out to deliberately stretch her skills and photograph people with body types not typically seen in fashion. She’s enjoying the pursuit of beauty in line, folds of skin, and movement.

Lindsay’s second project, “Red,” introduces saturated colour as an element in her photographic style. Reaching into her favourite colour, this project uses the colour red to demand attention and arrest the eye. Having spoken with Lindsay, I can see that her “Red” project is also an expression of Lindsay’s personality. The photographs in this series vibrate with the same energy that Lindsay projects.

Red 19308 Photography by Lindsay Adler
Red 19308, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Teaching

Lindsay’s other passion is teaching photography. In teaching, she is as generous as she is driven in fashion. She recalls attending workshops as a student and being frustrated by instructors who just wanted to hear themselves talk: “I paid for the courses but they didn’t teach me anything! They just showed me their pictures.” She was, and remains, determined to offer students useful skills they can apply in their own photography.

Lindsay’s teaching output is impressive. A skilled writer as well as a photographer, Lindsay has published a number of guides on posing, social media in photography, portfolio building, and lighting. Known in the business for her mastery of studio lighting, Lindsay’s lighting guides are comprehensive and practical. Shooting in Shitty Light helps photographers deal with real-life situations  of undesirable light. Her latest e-book, Studio Lighting Guide, is, as Lindsay describes it, a cookbook of lighting recipes.

Creative 52 Book Cover by Lindsay Adler

Lindsay also teaches photography and Photoshop workshops through CreativeLive and travels to teach on-location. This is a field where being a woman has been an advantage. Until recently, there have been very few women instructing photography. However, Lindsay noted that in contrast to male dominance in fashion photography, women make up the majority of participants in photography conferences and workshops. Her latest workshop, offered in Dubai, was dominated by women photographers from Middle Eastern countries looking for opportunities to learn. She speculates that many women are attracted to portrait photography by a desire to connect with their subjects and give them a portrait that makes them feel good and beautiful and happy with themselves. “It’s women connecting with women,” she said.

Queen of the Desert Photography by Lindsay Adler
Queen of the Desert, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Lindsay maintains that shooting plus teaching makes her a better photographer. Teaching puts her in touch with her own creative processes. Travelling to teach gives her an opportunity for new experiences and exposes her to new beauty. She also finds it “endlessly rewarding to help people reach their goals quickly and with confidence.” Electing not to favour one over the other, Lindsay does both. “I love [teaching and fashion] equally. My life path doesn’t have to match anyone else’s,” she declared. “I blaze my own path, do my own thing, and do them both.”  Because the busy seasons for teaching are opposite the busy seasons for fashion, Lindsay can use the counterbalance in planning her work. She also looks at how editorial or client work can be used as teachable moments, and takes advantage of leads in teaching jobs to secure client work in fashion.

Inspiration

When I asked Lindsay who inspires her, she quickly and emphatically again named her mother. Then she named two women photographers who are both remarkable for breaking tradition and establishing successful, unique styles. Like so many women photographers before them, both of these women are known for being experimental. Both women also placed art before commerce.

Void Photography by Lindsay Adler
Void, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Lillian Bassman (1917-2012) was a contemporary of Irving Penn, shooting fashion in a decidedly male world. Bassman pushed boundaries and broke standards in fashion photography, creating, in the process, a unique style that has not since been replicated.

Sarah Moon (1941- ) is a French photographer, born Marielle Hadengue and initially a model. She adopted the name Sarah Moon when she turned away from modelling and devoted her time fully to photography. Moon is best known for eschewing erotic and sexual overtones in fashion photography, developing, instead, a dreamy, sensual, disengaged style.

Lindsay also mentioned Sarah Silver as a contemporary she follows. Silver is an established fashion and beauty photographer, known for technique in capturing grace in her subjects’ movement. (You can read an interview with Sarah Silver here on Tuts+.)

I also asked Lindsay to name a woman we should be watching for in photography. Her choice is Brooke Shaden.

Brooke Shaden (1987- ) is a fine art, conceptual photographer known for other-worldly photo creations. Shaden’s painterly, story-telling images are often created with several photographs. Shaden’s work is, in many ways, a new genre of photography. Lindsay respects Shaden’s candour and generosity. She openly shares her creative processes and shows her vulnerability. The result, Lindsay notes, is that others are inspired by Shaden to push their own boundaries and stretch creatively.

Luscious Red Photography by Lindsay Adler
Lindsay Adler, Photography by Lindsay Adler

Last Words

Before wrapping up our interview, I asked Lindsay what I would be surprised to find in her camera bag. She listed two items. The first is an acrylic snowflake ornament, used to create in-camera lens flare. The other is a tube of red lipstick. “No matter how I’m feeling, I always feel a bit more presentable and high fashion when I put on my red lipstick.”

Here’s to red lipstick, Lindsay Adler’s eye for beauty, and her drive to help others “make it happen” in photography. As this series continues, we'll carry that spirit forward to meet a variety of creative and talented women who have forged pathways to success in photography and video.

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