Photography for J. Crew Digital
with Bryan Derballa
When I was a fresh transplant to Brooklyn in 2006, one of my sources of photography inspiration was Love Bryan, a blog curated by Bryan Derballa. The blog came in an unusual format, displaying the work from several photographers in personal, long form photo essays.
I hadn't met Bryan, but I followed along with his career as I started seeing his name popping up in credits for the Fader, Vice and the Wall Street Journal.
More recently, I was excited to see his work on posts for the J. Crew blog. Coinciding with when Mickey Drexler took over as CEO in the early 2000s, the brand has grown into one that truly stands out in terms of creative direction. They are consistently creating fresh and forward thinking images. Their social media and digital presence is, in my opinion, one of the most well executed programs in fashion, and brands working in any area can take inspiration from it. In particular, I think the editorial/storytelling approach that they've taken on their blog is a brilliant way to create content that people actually want to subscribe and tune in to.
Bryan has a key role in creating visual content for J. Crew's digital presence on their tumblr, and Instagram feed. When I recently ran into Bryan at a seminar for PDN 30, I jumped on the opportunity to say hello, and a few weeks later we sat down to talk more about the work he's been creating for J. Crew.
How did your relationship with J. Crew start?
Several years ago I shot J.Crew’s presentation at Fashion Week for T-Magazine – I think it was only the second presentation they’d ever done at Fashion Week. I shot it and just did my thing. The nice part about working with T was complete creative freedom. They kind of wanted you to do whatever you did well.
Some people at J.Crew found those photos, and they passed it along to Jenna Lyons, (President and Creative Director of J.Crew). She liked it and they brought me in to photograph their presentation and backstage for the presentation at the next fashion week. They wanted it for their Tumblr and for their internal usage, and I think some photos might’ve got thrown up on Instagram, but their Instagram was still very new at the time.
It was the blog director’s first day. Her first day was my first day, and after that it just became this match made in heaven, and we worked on so many things afterwards together. It evolved from being just fashion week to a whole host of things.
So right from the start, it seems that there was a very editorial mindset about creating content?
Yeah, absolutely. I started in photojournalism; all my early clients were newspapers and the occasional magazine. But it was always very reportage style. That’s the kind of work I love most and that’s the kind of work I enjoy doing, and I think it’s really cool that J.Crew has seen that. They identified that in me and allow me to do it in a more commercial and fashion-based setting.
A lot of what we do is studio tours and factory tours. We have columns, like In the Kitchen, where we’ll go to someone interesting and photograph them making a meal. We do a lot of style features. We love to work with real people, not necessarily models, to see what the clothes look like on those people and to get more of their personality and to try to find a place where the clothes, the personality, and the photography all meld together.
That’s something interesting in terms of social media and marketing right now. You’re basically combining two things: the social media world and the advertising world. So a brand has to choose: do you want to take it more from the angle of how people are already creating content on social media with a more loose, editorial approach? Or do you want to think of it more like traditional advertising, which might mean things are conceived ahead of time and you’ve got an art director making up comps and clients signing off on concepts before they’re even shot.
One of the coolest thing about social media and photography, and one of the reasons I’m really interested in doing it right now, is that it hasn’t been totally defined yet. We know what advertising looks like in magazines or on billboards; we have an idea of what we’re going to see when we open the pages of those magazines. It’s often very slick and there’s production value and the clothes look good, people look good. We know what that is.
Likewise, we know what photojournalism looks like. We see the New York Times every day, Time Magazine, we have an idea of what that is.
But social media photography, it’s so new that it’s still being defined, and it takes influences from all these things that are still evolving. Twitter did so well because it gave people direct access to their friends and celebrities. If you want to know what Ashton Kutcher really thinks, or Shakira or whoever these people are that have really popular Twitter feeds, you can get an intimate look into their life and what they’re thinking. Even if it is filtered through a publicist, it doesn’t always seem like it, so you get this more raw and candid look at these things that we’re interested in and fascinated by.
So I think that the photography in social media does that really well – or at least it should be doing that really well. We’re not going to repurpose a photo that was shot for the catalog necessarily; instead, we’re going to get something more intimate, more behind the scenes, closer to the people actually making the clothes.
Or we might make something that has a little bit more personality, just to engage the viewers in a different way, because that’s what they want with social media. They’re looking for some kind of intimacy, and it gives you a feeling – it’s so personal. You’re looking on your phone, you have this little device, and it’s just you and the device. You’re choosing what’s on that screen. Unlike a billboard or a magazine or something that you walk by and it’s just there, you’re very interactively choosing, “This is what I want,” and it seems like that personal experience has shown brands and the folks that follow this kind of stuff that people want intimacy and the rawness and candidness, and just a sense of honesty in a world that is often so bombarded by artifice.
So what I’m really interested in, is taking a documentary approach and applying it to all kinds of different situations. It doesn’t have to be as serious as my photojournalism, and it doesn’t have to be as serious as traditional advertising. It can be more free-flowing and more abstract and strange and interesting.
So in a way, do you feel like you have even more license to be creative with it than you would when you’re shooting for the Wall Street Journal, for example?
Yeah, definitely. The Wall Street Journal, they’re great and do very important work. They have a defined readership and journalistic obligations. The images they choose to run in their paper need to inform and serve the story.
At J. Crew we can also share a photo that gives a feeling in a more abstract way, and it doesn’t require as much of an explanation but can still affect people in a way that goes beyond what we’re traditionally used to.
It’s exciting to imagine an emerging area in advertising photography where photographers have a bit more creative freedom and the shoots are a little more loose.
Yeah, it’s just a whole new way to engage and to push boundaries. And what else is cool about it – and this is from a more general perspective: everyone’s a photographer now. People are constantly going through Instagram and clicking on pictures that they like, and then they’re going out and trying to make photos like that. Often people just shoot the things that are important in their life, but they’re doing it so much more that they’re trying to figure out ways to do it in a new or creative way. They’re trying to see things a little bit differently, and they’re trying new filters and understanding the look of the picture rather than just what the picture is.
So I think that people on a whole are increasing their visual vocabulary. They’re becoming more sophisticated with it. When I first started shooting, for the first few years I was taking pictures that I thought were so smart and so visually sophisticated, but they were lost on people who weren’t photographers. Photographers liked it, but people who weren’t photographers, it didn’t really resonate. It looked weird or it felt uncomfortable or whatever.
But now people are becoming more and more open to that. I have a lot of tricks in my bag, and I like to employ them when making photos. That keeps it interesting for me. I like to use visual techniques to do things with images to make them more engaging. People are becoming more open to that, and I think that is a big benefit of Instagram.
How do things come together for a shoot for J. Crew in terms of production?
The blog director will come to me ahead of time with a few things that we’re going to shoot. We’ll schedule it, we’ll lock down our subjects, and she’ll send out call sheets, and then I’ll show up. Sometimes, but not all the time, there’s a creative director there as well.
What’s been really nice for me with J.Crew is that I get to work with a team. When I was working with newspapers a lot, I would have a lot of contact with my editors, but they were assigning so much and overseeing so much that they never actually came on the shoots. But with J.Crew, I always have my blog director and my art director there. They give me pretty free rein, but they also help to encourage me to try things that I may not see, or to point out details that I may have missed, or to help elicit something from the subjects to make it more comfortable to shoot.
That’s the process of shooting. I’ve pitched a couple things here and there, but in general I leave it up to them. Most of my time spent on coming up with photo ideas are for personal projects. And they have so many things that they need to cover that I could never even know about, because I don’t attend the marketing meetings, that I just leave it up to them.
Do you work with any other brands in the same way you shoot for J. Crew?
Not really. I've done it once for Nike. But I haven’t really sought out doing it with anyone else. J.Crew keeps me very busy. A lot of people don’t know what this kind of work is worth. But with J.Crew, I don’t feel that way
One of the things that’s interesting is how much they’re really invested in this. How do I put this… we shoot around New York all the time, and our shoots aren’t huge; it’s not like we have production RVs and stuff like that, but we do travel a lot with it. So far I’ve gone to London three or four times with J.Crew, and we’ve been to different parts of Europe. We go to California every year. Went to Hong Kong and to Tanzania.
All of this was to produce content for their Tumblr and their Instagram, and I think that that’s pretty unique. I think that not very many companies would take the risk of sending someone so far at such a high expense to produce content specifically for those things. So I think that’s really cool.
I do think that’s true. One thing that’s interesting, to me, though is that any component of an advertising campaign is the media buy. So if it’s a TV commercial or an ad in a magazine, they’re paying a lot of money just for that space. You can pay money to get people to see things on Facebook and on Tumblr, and on Instagram too now. But it doesn’t seem like that has been the approach by J. Crew.
Obviously the cost of production and your fees adds up but I would imagine that it can be well worth it if the content is great and people want to tune in and subscribe to the feeds and share it.
Yeah, totally. I never thought about it that way but that does make sense.
Another part of J.Crew’s approach that I think is so smart is having this long-term relationship with you. So it’s not like every time they do a shoot, they’re trying to teach a photographer what the brand is supposed to be, where they’re trying to take it, and the kind of things that they’re really interested in showcasing.
Have you felt that they’ve taught you about the brand and the direction it’s going, and if so, has it translated into you being able to take pictures that work for them better?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a two-way street, though. J.Crew has a very strong visual and brand identity. It took me awhile to learn those. I’d seen the brand and I knew a little bit about it beforehand, but now I understand so much more. I understand of course the clothes, and I can spot those from a mile away, but now I understand the style.
I can pick out the things that are going to be on brand for them in terms of people and personalities and music and arts and culture and all those things that are going to influence the J.Crew voice. I’ve become pretty well attuned to that, some through working with Jenna Lyons at fashion week, but mostly through my team, the blog director and creative director, and just all the other media that they put out.
But in the same way, I got to help define what their voice is for social media. I’ve been able to help define a look. I do most of the stuff for the blog and for the Instagram, but I don’t do all of it. Sometimes I’m out of town or sometimes they have multiple shoots going on at the same time, or sometimes they have something come up in a faraway place and they can’t get me there in time.
In those instances, they hire photographers with similar aesthetics, and the photos move pretty seamlessly. Another photographer recently covered the Hong Kong store opening, and those pictures didn’t look too much different than how my pictures look. I think that’s a purposeful thing. I think they know what they’re doing. They want to have a consistent voice and a consistent vision.
I’m lucky that I came in at a time when they were figuring out what that was going to be, and I got to help decide what it was going to be with my own vision.
Bryan's work can be seen at bryanderballa.com. Bryan and I will be sitting on a panel, How to Land Assignments for Social Media Advertising during PhotoPlus Expo on October 31st.