The Model Mayhem interview: John Fisher
John Fisher is a fashion photographer based in South Beach with over twenty years experience. He specializes in magazine editorial, advertising, catalog, and swimsuit photography. His early work, in Washington, D.C., included shooting many events such as the State of the Union message and the Presidential Inauguration. He photographed several presidents, including George Bush (Senior) and Bill Clinton, as well as many other major political figures.
John also worked with some of the top fashion agencies in New York and Miami, and has placed models with such agencies as IMG, Elite, Ford, and Wilhelmina. Over the years, his extensive client list has included General Electric, Hyatt and Sheraton Hotels, CBS Sportsline, Playboy, as well as Bisou-Bisou, Red Chic, Yuka/Paris, InGear Sportswear, DJ Resort Wear, Venus Swimwear and many others.
View more of his work at www.johnfisher.com.
— MM Edu
Photographer: John Fisher; Models: Inga Buketova (Premiere, Milan) & Lloyd (World, Miami); Makeup Artist: Neta Hirsch
MM Edu: Tell us how you got started as a photographer, and your early days of shooting for the big Chicago advertising companies and department stores.
John Fisher: Okay, let’s start with how it all began—not in Chicago, but the Washington, DC area. I owned several companies that were doing a lot of advertising: an insurance agency, a cell phone company, and a computer software/hardware company. Since I was in contact with the rep who worked our accounts, I asked to have lunch with her one day, and asked her to bring the writer that was doing our ad copy.
The outcome of that meeting was that I started an ad agency. I had a sales person—the girl who handled our accounts—and a writer who would act as the creative director. I, of course, had no experience in advertising and had no reason to be at the agency.
I enjoyed my visits to the agency—it seemed like an exciting place, but I had no reason to be there. One day, the creative director mentioned that he needed some pictures, so I offered to do them. Harry, the C.D., laughed and said, “Just because you own a camera, doesn’t mean you’re a photographer!” I reminded Harry that I owned the place, so maybe he ought to rethink that. He then wrote down the names of three guys and said, “These guys are good young photographers; hire one of them as an assistant, and maybe he can teach you!”
I took his suggestion, he was proven correct, and eventually I reached the point where I could load film into the camera without assistance (I still can’t load large format film). The first assistant I had was Helmutt (Tom) Humphrey.
…If Helmutt reads this, his laughter will ring in my ears.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jade Perkins (Next Model Management)
Later Bruce Holman joined me, and taught me a lot about studio lighting. I still remember the day Bruce came into the studio and lectured me about moving one of the studio lights. I’d done it the previous evening while I was shooting—Bruce wasn’t there, and he wasn’t impressed! Sigh.
An important point to make is that I was successful because I was a good business man with a strong sales background. I could learn the craft of photography—from good teachers, but I always had enough clients to keep the doors open. The art of photography came later, and I still struggle with that.
After a few years, I had the opportunity to work with a young guy who was between semesters at Rochester Institute—Kodak, Rochester, NY. He was super enthusiastic, and was up to date on all the latest films—Kodak anyway. He taught me how to properly process the new-at-the-time T-grained B/W films. This lead to working with several other Rochester students over the years, and that kept me up to date on all the newest technologies. It was through one of those students that I saw my first computer edited images…whoa! So even in the late 80’s, you had to know something interesting was happening in photography!
So there you go. Most photographers start as assistants, and graduate to working on their own. I started as a photographer who couldn’t even load his own film, shooting for clients like General Electric, the American Pharmaceutical Institute, and even the U.S. Marine Corp.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Annie G. (Elite Model Management)
“An important point to make is that I was successful because I was a good business man with a strong sales background.”
MM Edu: What took you from there to shooting fashion in Miami?
John: I had been in the Washington, DC area for 13 years when I finally decided that I needed to move. A number of personal events created an environment that encouraged that, but I wasn’t sure where to go, or how to get re-established. Then I received an email from a friend in Chicago that suggested that I move there and open a studio with him. This seemed like a promising idea, so I decided to put everything in storage and take a few months off to just drive around the country and mooch off friends I had made over the past year while participating on various model/photographer Internet forums!
It was a great tour, and by driving, rather than flying, I got to see the country as the original settlers saw it—from a ground view!
I got as far northwest as Billings, Montana, as far northeast as Boston and New York, as far southwest as Austin and Houston, and all through the mid-west, including Chicago and Detroit. I spent time in Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans, and visited friends in Atlanta. It was an interesting four months. I had grown up traveling, but all of it was outside the U.S.—primarily in the Far East, so this was my first real introduction at seeing this great country in person, as opposed to flying over it!
While I was in Denver, I received an interesting email from a guy at CBS Sportsline who wanted to use 10 shots of girls in swimsuits for a test he was doing on their website. He didn’t want to pay, but the tag line did say CBS Sports, so I gave him access to ten shots on my website. A few days later, I got a second email asking for 100 pictures. Apparently the test went well, but again no pay. Well…it was CBS Sports, so on a flier I gave him access to the 89 swimsuit images I had on my site at the time and told him if that works, that was all I could do.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jessica Bleier (Front Model Management)
Okay, several days after that, I got a request for 400 images. Enough is enough, if you want 400 images, you have to pay. They agreed, wired a reasonable amount of cash to my bank, and off I went back to Washington to grab a bunch of images out of my storage locker. They wanted me to email them the photographs, but by that time they had piqued my curiosity to the point that I delivered the pictures in person to their offices in Fort Lauderdale.
In those days my view of any Internet based operation was some kid in a basement hacking away. What a shock to see three big buildings full of people and large satellite dishes parked around the property! These were the days of the infamous Internet bubble, 1998/1999, and if you could spell “dot com” people were throwing money at you! It turned out one of the executives had figured out that guys who liked sports also liked to see pictures of girls in swimsuits! Shocked, shocked I tell you!
They gave me money, a house with a pool to live in, and a budget to hire girls—girls in swimsuits—to shoot for the website. Life was crazy, but it was great! Nothing this crazy lasts long, and the bubble burst a few months after I arrived. But hey, it was fabulous for a while! So eventually they took my goodies away, so I planned on going to Chicago. At the last moment one of the models I had worked with introduced me to her “friend”, who had a lot—as in a lot—of bucks, and wanted to open a modeling agency in South Beach. So, what would you do? I took the money and went to work opening a fashion agency.
I rented the office space, supervised the build out, hired the staff, got the license, and scouted the first new faces for the agency. By late December the office was ready to open. But then, surprisingly, I was laid off! Well alright, Chicago here I come!
But… it was late December…
I had money, so I think: “Chicago in December, or Miami in December?”
To me, it seemed obvious, so I rented a studio in the Design District, and I never left. It was December, 1999, and it was a crazy time; CBS came back and they sent me to Australia in May to shoot, surprise-surprise, girls in swimsuits, as part of their promotions for the upcoming summer Olympics in Sydney. That was fantastic.
Then, in 2003, a guy contacted me about opening another modeling agency. Let me just say: guys with money are… interesting. So I wound up in Kiev—Ukraine!—doing scouting. Now, if you ever go to Kiev, and you’re a photographer, you will see, everywhere you look, the most beautiful women in the world. I wound up getting the first two H1B3 model visas ever issued out of the Ukraine. At least that’s what the U.S. General Consul in Kiev told me. The nice gentleman with the money borrowed the first girl who arrived, took her to New York, and I never saw either one of them again.
Ah well, life in the fast lane.
From there I moved to South Beach. I’ve been here for over nine years now, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I mean, it’s January, we are in full season, we have beautiful models running around all over the place, what’s not to like?! Well okay, every July I can imagine living somewhere else, but that’s another story for another day.
And that’s how a guy working in Washington, DC—shooting buildings, political figures, food, car products, and occasionally fashion—winds up in South Beach. It’s been a strange, strange journey, and I’m clearly not in Kansas anymore!
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Ashley Boehm
“If you ever go to Kiev, and you’re a photographer, you will see, everywhere you look, the most beautiful women in the world.”
MM Edu: South Beach is all glitz and glamour now, but that wasn’t always the case. Tell us a little about how the fashion scene emerged in Miami?
John: A long time ago (pre 1984) Miami Beach was a pretty run down place. Because of the Mariel boat lift—Castro allowed many Cubans to leave Cuba, and emptied the prisons and mental health hospitals to join the exodus—the crime rate in Miami soared, as did the cocaine trade though Miami. On top of that, Miami Beach, particularly South Beach, was the oldest community in the US (the average age was well over 80!).
A couple of things happened concurrently that changed all of that. First, a very popular TV program began production in Miami. You guessed it, Miami Vice. That brought production companies and support staff to Miami. Then later, in 1989, two women moved their small—at the time small—agencies to South Beach. Michele Pommier and Irene Marie would argue about who got here first, but they were here. At almost the same time, a 13-year old girl walked into Irene Marie’s office. Even at 13, the sun did not set on Niki Taylor.
Photographers were coming down from New York in the winter to shoot editorial and commercial content, but mostly they stuck to Key Biscayne and Crandon Park. Viscaya in Miami was another popular location. Irene introduced some of the top shooters to Niki, and because of her age early on she worked mostly out of South Beach.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Yana Polyanskaya
Well, the next thing you know, Ford opened an office at the News Cafe (Eighth and Ocean), and Elite moved into the Marlon Hotel (12th and Collins). Eventually Next, Boss, MCsquared, Wilhelmina et al. joined the march to the Beach. Buildings were cheap, hotels reasonable, and Miami (South Beach) became the winter market. Quickly behind the models came the music business and it seemed that exciting new clubs were opening every week on Washington Avenue. Later Lincoln Road was blocked off at both ends and turned into a walking mall. With the agencies came special deals to move to Lincoln. With the models came restaurants and boutiques. The rush was on!
Nothing this good lasts forever. As the South Beach became more “gentrified” the rates went up and South Beach cleaned up, resulting in a loss of some of its bohemian atmosphere. Then there was 9-11, which slowed things to a standstill. Nonetheless, South Beach has the agencies, the production companies, and the infrastructure to help it remain a major winter market—it has the hotels, the clubs, and the atmosphere to make clients look forward to South Beach in the winter. And it’s remarkably safe and easy to reach from anywhere in the world. Other winter markets like South Africa have problems that make South Beach attractive, if not as crazy as it was in the early 90s.
It has always been my opinion that Havana (Cuba) will eventually become the winter market…when is the question!
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jason O’Brien (Front Model Management)
“South Beach has the agencies, the production companies, and the infrastructure to help it remain a major winter market.”
MM Edu: You’re also a scout and have helped develop and place models with virtually every major agency in the business. How did that happen and what does being a scout involve?
John: In 1991, while I was working in the Washington, DC market, I had an assistant, Elsa Daniel, who had a daughter who wanted to be a model. Itatiaia was young—about 15, tall—about 5’10, slender and beautiful. Even I—who had never worked in fashion at that time—could tell that she had a real shot at working as a fashion model. I told Elsa that I would be happy to shoot a test portfolio and arrange for interviews with the major agencies in New York. I really didn’t know anything about the agencies or shooting a fashion portfolio, but with the confidence that can only be born from ignorance I proceeded to shoot some pictures and called the agencies to arrange an interview.
Itatiaia was a beautiful girl and—being so young and tall—she had all the right numbers, so the interviews went quite well. Finally at IMG, which was a brand new agency in those days, the agency manager Lawrine Childers brought out a contract and said she wanted to sign Itatiaia that day! She then said something that I still remember: “You probably have your own scouting agreement; we have one, but we will be happy to work with yours if you would prefer.”
Huh? Scouting agreement? I had no idea what she was talking about! But, for one of the few moments in my life, I—for just a moment—stopped talking. What I said next was a game changer for me.
“Well, of course I have my own scouting agreement!” *Laughs* Gimme a break, right!?
Then I said “But since we have never worked together, let me review yours and see if we can use it.”
So she walked away, brought back some paperwork, and I read as fast as I could. Wait, what the… they were offering to pay ME 5% of what Itatiaia made while she was under contract! Who knew? She then said that they could increase the percentage, but since Itatiaia was the first model I had brought in, that would have to wait until I had placed other models with them. They said the scouting agreement called for semi-annual payments.
So what did I say? I said that my scouting agreement had a quarterly payment arrangement! But, well, since it was our first business together, theirs was fine, this time. I then asked if the scouting agreement impacted Itatiaia’s contract, and they assured me it didn’t, so I signed faster than Itatiaia!
Oh, I forgot to mention the images I had shot for Itatiaia. They were terrible. I know that now, but Itatiaia was so beautiful the agency didn’t bother to mention the pictures. One image was good enough to be included in her initial portfolio, but if you would have asked me to pick the good one out of the ten I brought with me, I would have been clueless. But now I’m a model scout! So I found another girl, went back to New York, and—while a nice girl—she was no Itatiaia. This time the agencies had no problem telling me to my face that the pictures were awful. In fact one manager…Click, I think…said to the girl while reviewing her book, “I hope you didn’t pay for these.” I had shot them all, and I was sitting next to her. It was a looooong drive back to Washington.
Despite that experience, I had caught the fashion bug—I wanted to shoot fashion! I went back, and back, and back. New York has no time for the clueless, and they are quick to tell you your work sucks. I did get lucky: a manager at Next took pity on me and tried to explain why the pictures sucked. “You’re a good photographer, but your work is too commercial, we need editorial.” She might as well have been speaking in Mandarin; I had no idea what she was talking about. She did give me a bunch of comp cards—keep in mind these were the days before the internet—and said “they have to look more like this!”
Eventually I did figure it out, but it took a couple of years. The agencies were treating me a little better, as I had place several other models in the following years. I did learn a valuable lesson: Bring the agency a strong new face, and they will be a little nicer! Well, except for Ford—Rusty, who ran new faces, always treated me like a bad dog, even if they wanted the model!
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Tatiana Lihkina
MM Edu: Can you tell us more about how you went from working as a scout and fashion photographer to opening, staffing and licensing a fashion agency in South Beach? Tell us more about the agency and your role there? How did getting fired from that fashion agency affect you?
John: Well it was 1999, and I had been in Fort Lauderdale shooting girls in swimsuits for the internet site CBSSportsline.com—now CBSSports.com, but that job was starting to wind down, and I was planning on relocating to Chicago. I had a few days before I was going to leave, and one of the models I had shot for Sportsline said she had a friend who would let me stay at his apartment for a few days. It turned out to be quite an apartment. Actually, it was a 25,000 square foot condo occupying the top three floors of the Carriage House North! My room had a four person hot tub—woof! While I was there I learned her friend—her very rich friend—was contemplating opening a modeling agency in South Beach, but was obviously unfamiliar with how they worked.
So, with a few days on my hands, I sat down and wrote a basic business plan for a new fashion agency, and presented it to him. In a previous life I had started several new companies, so I was familiar with the drill in general. A day later he invited me into his private suite. He said he liked the plan, and asked who I thought should run the agency.
It was an out of body experience, but I could hear myself saying, “Well, I could.”
Even though I had spent a lot of time around the agencies in New York and thought I knew something about the basics, I had no experience. Again, it helps to be so clueless that you don’t even know you don’t know!
He offered me a place to stay, and a reasonable income to get started, so I did. Over the course of the next four months I designed the offices, signed the lease, applied for the agency license, hired the initial staff, and even started scouting new faces. I learned a lot about the business in a very short time. I wasn’t uncomfortable in business, after all I had run several businesses before, but this agency thing was “interesting”.
For one, Florida actually has some of the toughest laws for opening a new agency. Bonding is required, you must have an experienced agency person—and a Florida resident—to act as the agency operator, and the principals have to pass an FBI check, including finger prints! I didn’t qualify as the agency operator, so I had to find someone who was, and I had to convince them to leave the agency they were with to go with a startup agency. And I needed a client list to begin marketing. I won’t bore you with the details about how I did those things. Let’s just say money helps.
The day came for the agency grand opening. A big party was scheduled at the “Palace in the Sky”—that condo had its own name!—and I invited several friends from out of town. During the party several people I had hired for the agency were showing their friends their new business cards, and I realized that I didn’t have any. So, I went to the guy who asked me to start the agency, and he asked me to go with him to his private suite.
We sat down, and he said, “I want to thank you for everything you have done, but…. you’re fired.” He gave me a lovely parting gift—money, money, money—and I went back to the party. I even stayed at his place for another week! It was “interesting”, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened for me. I have worked at agencies as a booker—briefly, helping out a friend—and honestly I’m not cut out to be an agency guy.
So, it was late December, and I was supposed to finally go to Chicago to open a studio, but I had money in my pocket and, as I said, “It’s December… hmmm… Chicago or Miami?” Easy answer.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jade Perkins (Next Model Management)
MM Edu: How has the modeling business changed over the years?
John: Over the twenty plus years I have worked in and around the modeling business, some things have changed, and remarkably some things remain the same. Some of the basics are familiar; the new faces in fashion are still very young, very tall, and very thin. No surprise there. But some things in fashion have changed, and not all of it is good in my opinion.
Most of us concede that Eileen Ford started the modern industry as we know it, but John Casablancas is responsible for increasing the value of models by establishing models as a “brand”—although at the time I doubt he would have used that word. He was so successful that there was a revolt by the other major agencies in the late 90s against that idea that we live with today. John understood that if he could make the models famous, they would make him rich—and they did!
The biggest change since the late 90s is the appearance of movie actresses on the covers of the major fashion magazines, which has hurt the business—particularly in building a model’s brand. Vogue has been the most obvious magazine promoting the idea of “celebrities”; which is also a promotion of the opening of the celebrities’ new movie. Other magazines are as much to blame as Vogue is today. I doubt we will again see models impact popular culture to such a degree that Cindy, Naomi, Christy, Linda, Tatyana or Claudia did in the 90’s.
Name a model with six American Vogue covers, name one with four in one year. You can’t do it. Cindy had over sixteen Vogue covers, and several models like Kim Alexis had four in one year! We are lucky if even one model, any model, appears on the cover of Vogue in a given year—there are none if you eliminate Kate Moss, who built her brand in the 90s!
Another big change is the number of Eastern European and Brazilian models in the business. Not all of this is bad—some is just a change in our culture. Fashion models typically start very young. Today it’s hard to argue with the idea that a girl should stay in school and not run off to join the circus at sixteen. In Eastern Europe or Brazil, a girl who has a shot at the brass ring is often encouraged to take the opportunity. Not a good or a bad, just the reality.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Virginia Beck
“One of the fastest growing parts of the modeling business is the freelance model, looking online for local jobs, and using the internet to promote their careers.”
MM Edu: What role has Model Mayhem played in reshaping the industry and how do you use MM?
John: Only a small part of the modeling business is fashion modeling. It’s a highly visible part of the business. Name a model and you are probably talking about a fashion model. But fashion models only make up a small percentage of all working models. One of the fastest growing parts of the modeling business is the independent model, looking online for local jobs, and using the internet to promote their careers. When I got started in the 80s there was no internet. I knew a number of friends, from doctors to lawyers to Indian chiefs, who owned a nice camera and wanted to spend a few hours on the weekend shooting pictures of attractive women, but they had no way to find a potential model. I know about this because, as a photographer, they thought I might be able to refer a good prospect who wanted to make a few bucks on the weekend. My friends didn’t really want to pay agency rates—it was a hobby. The agencies couldn’t make enough money to address this market.
The internet has changed all of this. It provides a working environment for hobbyists and beginning professionals to find prospective models who also don’t have the time or commitment to pursue an agency modeling career. Model Mayhem is the perfect solution for those people. They love what they do, they are passionate about photography and modeling, and they can find each other! What’s not to love about that?! Even I find sites like Model Mayhem to be useful for scouting, and to make contact with the occasional model who can work with me on smaller projects where the budget doesn’t allow for agency models.
Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Nikol; Hair & Makeup: Rochelle Lee
The smart models—and photographers—are the ones who understand that it’s not enough to simply put up a profile and wait for the world to come to you. It’s like a fisherman who drops a line in the water, but doesn’t do anything to attract the fish. You might get the occasional bite, but it makes more sense to aggressively market yourself. The social networking aspects of sites like Model Mayhem allow for this, and the smart person takes advantage of those opportunities.
I may or may not use Model Mayhem for scouting—I won’t go into detail about this because it’s my business, and I protect my business! I have found and used models from Model Mayhem for commercial projects, as have other photographers. It’s just good business.