The Model Mayhem interview: Melissa Rodwell

Melissa Rodwell is a successful fashion photographer. “Successful” means that she is not only a great photographer—her past clients include Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy, Mademoiselle, as well as some major record labels, but that she also knows how to market herself. She’s done a great job of doing so through her Fashion Photography Blog, which has become a prime destination for fans of the art form. (Check out this great behind-the-scenes look at a shoot she did for Nike.) She’s recently released a DVD, Fashion Photography Exposed, which offers guidance on business, conceptualization, preparation, lighting, team-building, and more preparation. Rodwell is big on preparation. She’s put in her 10,000 hours to get to where she is. Have you?

– Model Mayhem Edu

MM Edu: Tell us about your DVD. What was its genesis? What does it offer that others can’t find elsewhere?

Melissa Rodwell: Since starting the blog in 2008, and its virtual overnight success, I’ve been swamped with emails from the readers. The emails sort of got to me. I mean to say, they really made me emotional because I realized that so many kids or young up-and-comers were totally in the dark about so many aspects of the fashion photography industry. Even young adults that had just graduated from photography school were still in so much confusion about how to get their foot in the door, or how to even shoot a fashion model. It was really mind-boggling to read how a kid had spent two years in photo school, spent thousands of dollars for his education, and still didn’t understand lighting or basic exposure elements.

I have a big heart but little time— thus came the idea of putting it on film and launching a DVD that answered a lot of the questions that seemed to be recurring in my inbox. Anyone who has followed my blog and seen my BTS (behind the scenes) videos knows I hate being filmed. However, I bit the bullet and just forced myself to tell the viewers as much information as I could fit in a three-hour DVD. Of course, it’s impossible to cram 25 years of experience into three hours, but I did my best!

MM Edu: In your DVD trailer, you say that the photographer is ultimately responsible for the shoot and can’t blame other parties like the makeup artist if the shoot doesn’t turn out as expected. Do you have any tips for young photographers who are learning how to direct shoots?

Melissa Rodwell: Yes, it’s important to learn early on in one’s career that you have to have a direction in mind. And you have to be clear with the talent you’re working with, so you can make sure that your vision is the one that they are working towards. Of course, it’s a collaborative effort, the whole team and the shoot. But if you have a certain direction you want the shoot to take, you have to stay strong and communicate that direction clearly to the rest of the team so they follow your instructions.

So many times, when a young person is showing me their work, they make excuses why their vision wasn’t shown clearly in a shoot. And all I can say is, it’s nobody’s fault but your own if that vision wasn’t conveyed.

MM Edu: The DVD trailer also shows you with a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 lens. What’s involved with shooting fashion with a wide angle lens?

Melissa Rodwell: Shooting with a wide angle lens can be tricky because it distorts the figure, so you have to learn how to use it so you can correct the extreme angles. You have to learn how to position yourself and the model so the angles aren’t goofy-looking—unless you’re going for goofy. Also, because of the wide angle, you’re seeing more of the background, so you have to pay close attention to your surroundings and make sure nothing distracting is in the background. There’s just “more” to consider when shooting wide, so it takes a bit of practice.

MM Edu: As a photographer, what is your greatest strength?

Melissa Rodwell: I think I am pretty good at pulling emotion out of a model. Or maybe it’s more of an ability to see “the moment” and be able to capture it. I also think I have a fairly good eye for casting. Finding the right model for the job is a really important aspect of our work as fashion photographers. I am also totally infatuated with clothing, so I pay close attention to it when I’m shooting. I think that’s what I love most about fashion photography: working with such great pieces of clothing. I see it as art.

MM Edu: As a photographer, what is your greatest weakness?

Melissa Rodwell: I have never been good at business. I wish I had taken business classes when I first started out in my career. I’m also not very “pushy”. I sort of think of pushiness as a negative aspect in one’s personality, but maybe it’s needed when you’re in such a competitive field as fashion photography. You know the old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil”? Well, I think that’s true. But I tend to respect people’s boundaries, and don’t push too hard.

“I hardly have any problems with pulling out sexiness or sensuality in a girl.
I think that might be due to the fact that they know I am not trying to sleep with them,
and I have no hidden agenda in wanting to make them look sexy.”


MM Edu: What are the advantages/disadvantages of being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Melissa Rodwell: To be honest, there aren’t many advantages. I’m not trying to sound bleak or jaded—I’m trying to be realistic. It’s been a much bigger mountain to climb, being a woman shooter; the politics are much harder for women photographers. The advantages are that some editors enjoy working with women over men, although that percentage is few—I have been told a few times that my clients prefer working with women because they understand fashion more than men, and they also don’t sexualize the models as much as men shooters do.

I also get along very nicely with my models. I hardly have any problems with pulling out sexiness or sensuality in a girl. I think that might be due to the fact that they know I am not trying to sleep with them, and I have no hidden agenda in wanting to make them look sexy. Other than these things listed, I can’t think of any other advantage. The disadvantages are vast. But I’m not going to go there. : )

MM Edu: Your “Boys Collection” was explicitly about the female gaze on men. What reactions did it get? What do you look for in a male model?

Melissa Rodwell: My body of work in the “Boys Collection” is something that I’m very proud of, and continue to build. I’d actually like to do another show with the newer work. I believe it was received well. Although it got bashed from some critics, I believe that there’s no such thing as bad press. Some critics were unhappy with the skinny “heroin chic” look that I prefer to photograph. Even some women were put off with the “boyish” looks, preferring more well-built models. That look has never particularly interested me, so that’s just a matter of personal taste. I grew up in Los Angeles and was friends with a lot of famous musicians. I was inspired from my early days in the LA rock ‘n’ roll scene. And I still get fan mail, though, from people all over the world praising me for the work. I continue to sell pieces from the show, and proposals come in to show it in galleries in Brazil and France. So I would call that successful! My next plan for it is to produce a coffee table book. That is a project slated for 2012! I’m very excited for this.

MM Edu: By any measure, your career is successful. Are you a case study for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule?

Melissa Rodwell: LOL. Up until three days ago, I had never heard of Malcolm Gladwell or Outliers or the 10,000 Hour Rule. I was considering a stylist for a shoot, and on her website she mentioned her “likes”, and Outliers was one of them, so I researched it. And I find it uncanny you mention it here in your interview now. But to answer your question: YES! I am a firm believer that the more you shoot, the better you become. Maybe it’s the 10,000 Images Rule! Shooting a lot trains your eye, which is what informs your work as a photographer from another’s work. And anything you want to become successful at takes time and practice. So, I guess I could be a case study for Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule. I don’t mind being lumped in with Bill Gates and Canadian hockey players!

MM Edu: A big part of your career is Internet self-promotion through your site and blog. Is this “just work” to you, or do you actually like it?

Melissa Rodwell: I love writing. It’s my second favorite art form. If I had the time, I’d write novels, so I love writing for my blog. The social networking thing, though, is another story. I just recently “got” Twitter. And Facebook has become a drag for me. It used to be fun, but now I noticed I have stalkers and people that just friend me and then “watch” me. It’s annoying. Although I have gotten work from all three resources, I don’t update anything personal anymore on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve tried separating my Facebook pages, having one “fan” page and one personal page, but it never works. They find both and just keep sending friend requests. I finally threw in the towel and accept most requests. My website,, is my photography website and it’s my portfolio, so I love keeping it updated and also changing the format every few years, refreshing the look of it. I love the concepts behind self-marketing.

MM Edu: Why are you on Model Mayhem? What do you get from it?

Melissa Rodwell: I think Model Mayhem is another great marketing tool, and a perfect place for photographers to interact with each other. There’s very little community for fashion photographers—it can be a lonely and confusing place for us. So for the community aspect, I think it’s amazing. Of course, within every community, there’s always people who “take over”, or have an attitude. There are also people who don’t quite qualify. I do think it’s a great place for young photographers who are starting out to find talent on here so they can begin to test and build their book.

Back to the Malcolm Gladwell example, it’s a matter of testing and shooting and practicing that makes one a better shooter. When you’re starting out, it’s hard to get models, and it’s harder to get into the better agencies to test with their talent. So Model Mayhem is a great place to start.

MM Edu: You are big on conceptualization and preparation. What place does spontaneity have, if any, in your work?

Melissa Rodwell: I have learned, the hard way perhaps, that being “overly” prepared really minimizes the potential “headache” that comes with shooting. I also love the control I get when I shoot on a set. However, there’s a great quote by [Aleister] Crowley: “The way to mastery is to break all the rules— but you have to know them perfectly in order to do this; otherwise you are not in a position to transcend them”.

I think this rings true for any art form. You have to know the craft, the technique, the formula. Then you have to, in a way, forget that side, and just create. You have to free-fall into the moment and let your right brain take over. So, to me, there is spontaneity in that. Staying in the moment is the life of an artist. How much more spontaneous can one get than by doing precisely that?

“So many times, when a young person is showing me their work,
they make excuses why their vision wasn’t shown clearly in a shoot.
And all I can say is, it’s nobody’s fault but your own if that vision wasn’t conveyed.”


MM Edu: “I have an image in my head, but I don’t have the XYZ (models, budget, setting, etc.) to pull it off”. How would you respond to that?

Melissa Rodwell: Make it happen. We all were in the same shoes at one point in our careers. You find a friend who can build the set for free, or next to nothing. You make friends with the local boutique that has the cool clothes, and you develop a relationship with them so you can borrow clothing. You find models through sites like this, or you keep hitting up the local modeling agencies. Or you get the nerve to go up to the girl who is behind the counter at that Starbucks you keep going to, and you ask her to shoot with you. You have to be realistic, though. If you’re living in Hawaii at your parents’ house with no income, and you keep coming up with amazing and fantastic “snow stories”, maybe you should rethink your vision a little bit and find local beauty to shoot.

MM Edu: What are you listening to? Does music influence your photography, if that makes any sense?

Melissa Rodwell: Music is SO important to my photography. It’s hugely inspirational! Like I mentioned, I grew up in the LA music scene, and it had an enormous impact on who I am, how I dress, how I think, and what I find visually interesting. I am constantly looking for new music, or old music that I’ve never heard of. Recently I tweeted that I was looking for a good soul artist. Someone tweeted me back suggesting I listen to The Cinematic Orchestra. He told me, “They’re not soul but they’re really inspiring”. I immediately went on iTunes, listened to a few samples, and I was sold! I bought the whole album. Yesterday I downloaded Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. Can’t stop listening to “Old Man”.  Don’t pigeonhole me into being a softie, though. I know every lyric to Eminem’s songs. That guy is a freakin’ GENIUS. Now there’s a true candidate for Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule. And I’m a Stones FANATIC. I have every song they ever did. Keith Richards is my hero.

MM Edu: Your home is on fire, and you can only rescue two pieces of gear. What are they?

Melissa Rodwell: I’ll probably get bashed for saying this, but gear is the last thing I’d think of if my home was on fire! Okay, but you asked for gear. I’d probably grab my NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8 lens (my baby) and my Mac Pro tower with the four terabytes installed in it. Gear can be replaced. Images, dogs and husbands, not so much.  :)

See more at Melissa Rodwell Photography, follow her FPblog on Twitter, like her Facebook page, and check out her MM profile.

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