For fashion photographer Liz Caruana, it's not all about the image. Sure, she's captured models posing in designer duds for the pages of Vogue, but she sees beyond the clothes. Her most recent project has focused on fashion designers themselves, rather than their garments. In a series of portraits of local designers, she hoped to capture the personalities of the people behind the clothes -- and the results may surprise you. Some designers are new moms, some are college kids, and some just don't seem like fashion folks at all.
This weekend, Caruana presents her photographs in her new book, The Bay: Creators of Style, at Carte Blanche Gallery. Accompanying the portraits of the designers are stories of how they got into the fashion industry, their ethical and environmental concerns, and their ties to the San Francisco community.
As part of Art Beat, an ongoing interview series with local artists, SF Weekly spoke with Caruana about her current project, the San Francisco fashion scene, and the art of photography.
How would you define your work? You do a lot of commercial photography, but this particular project seems to come from a more creative perspective.
When I create a photograph, my intention is to tell a story. For each designer, magazine, or person that I work with, I carefully craft this story and weave it into the photo. My work is both glamorous and gritty. It's quiet, cinematic, and delicate but also, vibrant, emotional, and full of life.
After years of being a fashion photographer in the Bay Area, I noticed that there were a lot of companies that have been here for a long, long time and have made it through the hard times. I also noticed that these designers were ones who were catering to Bay Area clients. They were not mass-producing and outsourcing their products. For the most part, they were handcrafting their work, sourcing locally, and paying fair wages to their employees.
I believed that this group of designers was a community of their own and that they deserved to be recognized. I wanted to create a book that documented who these designers were and what they were doing. The project started out initially as a book and the show has a selection of images that accompanies it. The book has some of the designers' voices and thoughts on fashion, the principles of Made-in-America and eco-friendly design, as well as their inspirations.
How did you decide to photograph the designers, rather than their work?
Everyone can find out about designer's work from their websites, but I'm interested in the people behind the work. The designers in the Bay Area are different. They create for a different market. They operate their businesses with different principles than New York or L.A. Their actual work is created for people who have a temperate climate, but also for people who come to the Bay Area because it's different here. All sorts of people and personalities are accepted and encouraged here. These designers create for them.
One thing that I really enjoyed when looking at the portraits was imagining what kind of clothes each person would make. When I looked up their work, I was often surprised by their design aesthetic. Do you often see a contrast between how a designer presents themselves and what they send down a runway?
When I asked the designers to come to my studio I asked them to bring two outfits. They could wear whatever they wanted. It could be fancy, or what they work in every day. I did tell them that I wanted to photograph them as who they were. They were encouraged to bring something personal with them. Some brought the bust that they design with, a tree branch that is always with them, or even their dogs. I needed them to be comfortable in front of the camera. They are rarely seen as often as their work is, because not all of my designers will have runway shows. However, the ones who do won't dress up all the time.
Doing this project allowed me to meet real people. There were designers who were moms with new babies, up-and-comers freshly graduated from college wearing what they could afford, and others who could squeeze in time for a photo shoot amid the array of errands, travel, and work they have to do.
How did you choose the designers you photographed? If we're talking about well-known S.F. designers, there's a few I can think of who didn't make the cut to be in your book.
I chose designers who I believe represent everything from haute couture to ready-to-wear. There are designers who were not included and unfortunately some of the well-knowns declined because they did not wish to have the rights to their photographs used in a book or in print. I totally understand their reasons for doing so, but it's unfortunate. Some designers could not be part of the project because of timing. The majority of the project was shot over the period of two months, with shoots scheduled every day. Once shooting was done, I wrapped up that part of the project and moved on to editing.
What's your impression of the fashion industry in San Francisco?
I truly believe in the fashion industry in San Francisco. Our industry is local. Our designers create for this local market. Let's not kid ourselves here, we have a much smaller population, so there is no need to mass-produce like it is for the millions of people in L.A. or New York. Designers here can take risks and make unique, exquisite creations for a market that loves them for it. I believe that designers here are talented and gifted and the ones that stay in the Bay Area follow the principles of custom work, Made-in-America, and eco-friendliness. They have created a community and they have created the style of the cities that make up the Bay Area.
And going off of that, how does the city play into your work? Is this a good place for you as an artist?
The city is a huge part of my work. I have a catalogue of locations that I love to photograph or hope to photograph. When working with designers, we spend a lot of time deciding where to shoot. Because of my knowledge of the city, I know the perfect spot and the perfect time of day to photograph. There is a lot of creativity here and encouragement to be yourself. I am grateful that the Bay Area provides this.
When and how did you start taking pictures?
I started working on feature film sets in the camera department as I wanted to become a director of photography. I loved images and wanted to be the one who sculpted light and designed the look of films. Upon moving to the Bay Area, I transitioned to photography and brushed up on my skills by enrolling in the photography program at City College. I developed my own style, and continued to create images in that way ever since.
What inspires you? And where do you seek inspiration when you're feeling down?
I'm inspired by life. I love to go out for a long walk and watch people -- what they're wearing, how they're presenting themselves, how they speak, just the emotion of what is going on. I use this information to create images that show the emotions of life, be it happiness or sadness. I also like to go to as many movies as I can. My favorites are foreign films as I feel they have a different way of telling a story. I listen to music and sometimes sing along. When I have the time, I even play my drum kit. I especially like to go to galleries and see other people's work and also see how other people react to the work. I generally don't feel down too often. I run marathons and tend to let a lot of that negative energy disappear on my training runs. I'm out on the streets running at least five times a week. I'll be outside and anything that I've been trying to work on gets worked out on a run.
Why did you decide to make the book?
As I mentioned above, I decided to make the book because I felt that the Bay Area's designers are a community of designers who create locally for their community. This is something that sets them apart from other cities. The book is a small run of boutique soft cover 8.5 x 6 portraits and stories. It was difficult to decide which image to choose for the book because there were a lot of great ones from each session. Each designer had two hours in their session and there were so many great photos. Since my goal with a photograph is to tell a story, I found that at times some of the designers really had such great range that I wanted to include more photos but could only include one.
See Caruana's portraits at Carte Blanche Gallery, Friday, January 25, from 7-9 p.m.