Nathalie Gordon: Light, Color, Beauty

Sun 09th Feb, 2020

By Admin in Los Angeles

London born, Nathalie Gordon, discusses her creative process, vision, and experience in the world of LA beauty photography with interviewer, Sherrie Berger.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: I’m so happy to have the opportunity to learn more about you and your work! Let’s start out talking about your background… where you grew up and whether or not that had an influence on your choice of career and style of photography. Other influences?

NG: Thanks for having me! So, I was born and raised in London. I loved it! To me growing up I was so arrogant that I lived in the best city in the world. Everyone wanted to come to London and I took pride in growing up there. My heritage is largely Caribbean with some Spanish and German thrown in the mix there too, so being part of a super human cultural city was amazing. Influences were everywhere. Growing up I listened to a lot of house and dance music from the age of 14 I just wanted to rave lol. My parents were big soul fans and we would jam to old vinyls usually on Sundays whilst doing chores. I would say music was and is still a big influence for me, it allows you to escape to places outside of ordinary life.

My entry into photography was through photographing music artists and gigs etc, however I should take a step back and explain that studying photography at university wasn’t fun, I actually hated it and got stuck with it in my second year which is when I grew to love it. We were only allowed to shoot on film and I found immense peace spending hours in the dark room, waiting to see what creations I had made alongside the anxiety of whether or not I had correctly exposed film.

Fast forward to me quitting my only full-time job at a production company. I had joined straight after Uni as I thought I wanted to direct music videos and wanted to learn the production process. Starting as a runner I worked my way up to production manager and was shooting/filming gigs concerts and my own videos outside of work and on the weekends. My salary was terrible so shooting concerts etc. was my way of getting to see all my favourite artists for free.

I got into shooting hair and beauty when my mother was randomly left with a salon, one that she had been managing for years. The owner just disappeared and locked up shop. We manage to re-negotiate a lease with the landlord and I started creating all the visuals for the salon. We would set up shoots as the space is huge. It started to become my own little studio, where I taught myself to light with a cheapo kit I found on eBay.

Not really understanding the process and business of photography I started to approach photographers to assist. I was a terrible assistant! I was so nervous with the kit because I knew how expensive everything was, I was afraid to touch the equipment and was so slow in setting up. At the time the POCP had launched (Phase One Certification Program) I loved to geek out on computer and was still understanding digital cameras (film was the only thing I was taught. Once I had my certification, I was a digital technician for a roster of photographers where I was able to trouble shoot enough issues that it felt like I was a 1st Ad, and one photographer telling me that one shoot was as much mine as it was his.

After about 4 years of being a digi tech I was itching to be more creative so I set up test shoots in between all my digi-gigs. I went to see a few reps in the UK purely for feedback and the response wasn’t good, I had only one solid critique and the rep said I should put more of myself into my beauty images (and to work on my retouching skills! lol).

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: And your move to LA. Were there stops along the way or was that always the destination you had in mind? Do you continue to work in New York and London?

NG: LA wasn’t at all planned. Whilst I was shooting alongside assisting, it was in my last year before I moved to LA that I was still trying to source my own clients but the rejection was tough and people only saw me as an assistant. I was on a 2 week assisting job in Miami and after the shoot, I had the opportunity to stay longer without it costing the client more to have my flight changed. I had some friends in Orlando so I drove up to see them. It was on the drive that something spoke to me and I knew I wanted to live in constant sunshine. That was March of 2015 and by November 2015, I found myself in LA with my camera and some clothes! It has been so surreal - everything after that started to grow. I’ve been gaining more and more clients in New York so I shoot as a local there and also back in London now, too.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB:  Your color palette is both universal and yet very sunny and evocative of LA, Miami, etc. Sunny locales evoke specific emotions as does your light and color. Please expand on your lighting and color choices.

NG: I’m not sure where to begin, most of my lighting choices are happy accidents! I think naturally I’ve always been trying to escape the gloomy skies of London. We didn’t get any sun for almost 85% of the year. There would be a few sporadic days/weeks where the sun was out and everyone was naturally in a good mood. Subconsciously, that happy mood has found its way into my images. I also had the wise words from one of the reps I went to see about making my images more personal. If you know me in real life, I’m pretty happy 97% of the time, so that creeps into my work.

I love the sun! It’s one of the reasons I moved to LA, prior to that I was traveling at least 4/5 times a year from London chasing the sun in whichever country I could find it. During my assisting days my favourite was being flown to Cape Town for 2 week long jobs. It was for a production company who hired various photographers and I really enjoyed watching how they captured the sunshine and colours so each time I was shooting back in London I was inspired to re-create that effect in the studio.

SB: Each time I look at your website I have a positive emotional reaction – it evokes strong, vibrant and joyous feelings. Each image on your home page appears to be a deliberate selection that creates a mosaic of you and your work. How is it reflective of you and/or your approach to your work? Can you expand on that idea?

NG: This one is quite easy for me, by nature I’m a very outgoing and happy person, I have a positive disposition which usually gets me into trouble (I get caught out thinking I can do everything and help everyone else whilst managing my own commitments). I wasn’t always so outgoing - growing up I was super shy and quiet. I knew that if I stayed this way, I would get swallowed up. I knew I wanted to do something creative in the media industry so I had a good talk with myself and forced a more outgoing attitude in order connect with people. I started by going to a few Adobe creative events in an attempt to learn to engage and make friends with people outside my own circle. I think the free wine helped massively lol.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: Is there one particular project of yours that you would like to talk about?

NG: I have a friend in the UK who is a branding and creative genius. We have worked on a few projects together both in London and remotely. He has self-published 3 amazing books and we are working on another one all about colours. We are still in the early stages of figuring out the narrative and I’m shooting small bits of content all the time, I’m super excited to collaborate with him on a larger scale.

SB: Are there certain face styles that you are drawn to?  Your light enhances all skin tones and all features – can you speak to your lighting?  Do you do your own post work?

NG: There isn’t anything that I would say I’m drawn to in terms of a models features. I usually try to find models I know I’m comfortable spending a whole day with! I’m happy to shoot models who have unique and interesting features and very commercial looking models. It all really depends on the ideas I’m working on.

My lighting is very simple. After assisting and seeing what’s possible with lighting, I usually scale it back to what I’m comfortable with, which is usually one or two lights. I really don’t like soft boxes so I don’t use them. If the light source is powerful enough then it’s usually one bare light without any modifiers. I have the cheapest brolly ever that is silver lined but it gives me some of the most beautiful light ever. If I get free reign in a studio with unlimited lighting options, I do have a play but it usually comes down to what I want and need to shoot. I always light the model first, get that right and then I build out, depending on backgrounds, etc.

I do not do my own post work. I’m terrible and I don’t have the patience. I’ve learned how to retouch but I’d prefer to be shooting as much as possible than spending 8/9 hours on one image. I’ve got one main retoucher who is simply amazing - she understands beauty and is always excited to work on my images. She really helped me (when I was still assisting) to get my portfolio looking like I’m ready to shoot for Vogue! I have a good selection of guys and girls for when my wing woman isn’t available. All are fab and have slightly different skills some have a more natural retouching process for skin and others are super polished. I work closely with them all as they help shape my style and vision.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: What trends are you seeing in photographing beauty recently and how does that differ from the past? What are the colors or styles you are seeing in the beauty, lifestyle worlds?

NG: This is almost an exam question in itself so I’ll try to keep it brief… lol. The internet and Instagram have seen massive changes in the beauty industry, especially as photographers. I fell into shooting hair and beauty via my mum’s hair salon. One of the hardest aspects of photography is shoot production and organizing a team with multiple schedules and needs. Shooting beauty is a fairly quick and easy way to establish yourself as a photographer without the need to find a wardrobe and hair etc. It can literally be yourself a model and a make-up artist (which they love because they really get to play with their own skills). The issue with this is then all your work starts to look the same so you really do need a full team.

I’ve seen a lot of similar styles of beauty photography that I almost can’t tell who is who now. I started shooting beauty almost 8 years ago before Instagram was popular and the emphasis was always luxurious but natural. There are a lot of make-up artists and photographers shooting what I call the Kardashian effect, lots of heavy make-up, big lashes and bright colours. I love some aspects of that look when it’s shot within context (i.e Pose - the show on FX), but on its own everything is starting to look the same which isn’t so fun. The reverse of that is what I call the wellness trend, lots of clean natural looks with fresh dewy skin, a lot of brands are moving this way.

SB: Do you consistently work with a styling/hair/make-up team of your choosing, or is it often client driven? What are the different circumstances that drive your styling, hair and make-up team selection?

NG: If I can get my team on a shoot then I will! A lot of the artists I’ve worked with here in LA are like family, they’ve helped me navigate this huge city and we’ve created some amazing stories together. We have so much fun on set that it doesn’t feel like work, we all know how each other works and I can take comfort knowing they will produce top results. My team selection is largely based on how good they are (obviously) and their personality. We have to get on as normal people for me to want to continue working with each other. Believe it or not I still get overwhelmed on set and sometimes panic sets in (even on test shoots) being able to talk through ideas and collaborate is key. I’m not a make-up artist or hair stylist etc., so I don’t always know what works but I have a good eye for what doesn’t. It’s important to communicate with your team which can make working with new artist tricky, especially if the client has picked them for me. I always make a point to try and talk with new teams individually before any major shoots and I introduce myself as soon as I arrive on set. I try to keep a happy and stress-free vibe.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: How would you describe the varying style differences between NY, LA and London? Is there a different expectation or esthetic when the location changes? Or does the client drive style differences despite location?

NG: NY LA and London are all so different. Especially in terms of styling and I LOVE it. LA has a very commercial glossy look. It feels quite happy, safe, bright and colourful. NY and London are very similar, they both have a certain edge to their commercialness, but there is so much deep rooted culture that you can pull a lot of inspiration from. London I find can be more gritty and there is a lot of style over trends. It feels like London puts more emphasis on creating classic lasting styles and NY is very good at seasonal trends.

The client usually drives the style based on the market they are trying to reach. When a pitch comes in, I do a lot of research on the brand, the client and the target market. It’s hard sometimes because some clients want to move away from what they’ve done in the past so I try to keep up with music fashion beauty tv and film from all over. There is so much inspiration from everywhere. I had one client that I was shooting sunglasses for, and they presented me with a mood board that I really didn’t think went well with their brand and who they were. I pulled out an old mood board I had been dying to shoot and they loved it, it was one of the first clients that fully trusted my vision.

SB: Speaking of location, I noticed you print and ship your fine art prints from London. What is your thinking behind that choice?

NG: I ship my fine art prints from London because I’ve been working with the same printer for a long time, I trust the quality and the cost of prints is so much cheaper than here in the USA. They handle the printing and shipping; everything goes directly to the clients so I don’t need to worry about the logistics. Hahnemühle is a German company (I know they have subsidiaries in the USA)  so I think being closer to mainland Europe helps with pricing. Although we’ve just left the EU so I really don’t know how that will affect my production costs *sad face.

SB: What is your favorite type of client?

NG: My favourite clients are the ones where it’s a joint collaboration and merging of ideas. It’s so nice when a client knows what they want but aren’t always sure how to execute it, but they want me to shoot it in my style without worrying or being nervous about trying new things. I love having a springboard to bounce off. My ideas can spiral out of control so it’s nice to have a brief from the client that’s loose and flexible enough to tame my ideas.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: How much creative do you bring to the shoot (your definitive style, etc.) and how much comes from art directors who hire you because of what you do? Where and when does creative freedom come into play? What is the balance?

NG: This varies job by job but I always come ready full of ideas just in case the client has either a change or heart or the shoot isn’t going as they had planned. When this happens and I find it important to be able to think quickly and it’s super handy to have a Mary Poppins style bag of ideas to pull from. Most of my requests have come from what art directors have seen I can do, which is great! I love to shoot what I already know how to do. Most of the time I try to push my own agenda onto the client, I start with a little test in the morning before anyone is ready from hair and make-up and see if the client likes it. Sometimes it’s easier for art directors to see how it looks in real life rather than on a storyboard. If they like it, we roll with it. If they don’t then I give them options until they are happy and content. I just try to make the client happy so the balance comes into play depending on their needs and pressures etc.

SB: Have you always had a rep? How does working with a rep impact your overall business?

NG: I've only had my rep for just under 18 months. I’ve always just tried to put myself in front of the right people through collaborating and just enjoying photography. However, there was a long period where I was so caught up on trying to make good money/career from photography that it actually did the opposite. Instead of continuing to create work that I thought future clients might want to see I scaled it back and focused on creating good teams and great content, that’s when my rep came along. I was referred to her by another artist. It was something I had always wanted but didn’t know how to get anyone to look at my work, no one was returning calls or emails.

Having a rep is hard work - in a good way. They are constantly fighting your corner which is such a nice feeling but in order for them to do their job, they need new images all the time. Finding the balance of shooting client work and personal work is challenging. It’s a great challenge because I get to shoot the fun projects that, I’ve been storing like a little squirrel lol. I’ve good mood boards that are nearly 4 years old, they are ideas I've not yet had the chance to shoot, but having a rep is helping me power through the list. The more new images they have, the more they can put you in front of the right people. I don’t know how I would find the time to do all of that and manage my edits, admin etc. I still market myself alongside my rep as I’ve also been building relationships with potential clients so I try to keep those connections going.

© Nathalie Gordon

SB: Where do you get your inspiration? What’s next? Special projects? New clients? Travel?

NG: A lot of my influence has come from music and from the likes of Miles Aldridge and David La Chapelle. I was at a talk in London and the studio had a copy of ‘Hotel La Chapelle' (by David) I was flicking through the pages and his images and use of colour was so mesmerizing to me, plus he shot musicians like Britney Spears, Lil Kim, TuPac, Aaliyah and Madonna - all artists I knew well and could relate to. My inspiration still stems from music. I listen to all sorts, I get most of my ideas from deep, chill and soulful house. The songs are so simple repetitive and catchy that they spark all sorts of emotions which leads to random ideas for shoots. I’m also inspired by films and books.

Next, I want to keep building momentum with getting my work in front of the right people. I have a few dream clients that I’m working toward approaching that I would love to shoot for, mainly because I’m using their products and feel like i already know them or because their branding is so visually inspiring. I have my colours project/book to work on with Radim and I’m always traveling. I’m heading to Italy this summer and can’t wait to draw even more inspiration from there. I’m trying to practice my Brazilian Portuguese each day as that’s another market I’d like to be busy in. I’m obsessed with Brazil and everything Brazilian, their culture is so fascinating to me.

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