Originally a painter, the established fashion photographer has developed her signature look with her unique application of bold and colorful subject matter, developing alternative methods of image capture in an artistic context.
Emma Summerton established herself as a sought after fashion photographer through her use of strong subject matter and color schemes. Originally from Australia, Emma combines her fine art foundation and modern eye for fash- ion to create beautiful, dynamic spreads seen in publications such as Italian, American, Japanese, and British Vogue, W, i-D Magazine, and advertisements for clients including Yves Saint Laurent, Topshop, and Miu Miu.
Emma successfully bridged the gap between fine art and fashion, building her career on the edgy, striking scenes she captures with her camera. For the past few years, she has been accumulating self-portraits and plans to publish them in a book someday – but for now, her current focus is the fashion industry.
The GROUND had the opportunity to speak with Emma about her past, future, and current projects, as well as her artistic inspirations and drives.
For many Australians, the down-under landscape can serve as quite an inspiration in itself. Was that same landscape a catalyst for you in the formative years of your career? What other factors fit into your identity as a fashion photographer now?
Australia can be kind of kitsch in a lot of ways. Beachside resorts, caravans, great motels – all quite colorful, so I think I do draw from that in my work. I think since leaving Australia and traveling, I’ve discovered the whole Americana thing, and it’s quite similar. I kind of like that desolate ’70s vibe that you get in places like Las Vegas; you get a good bit of that in Australia.
So, can we say that the infusion of colors is deeply inspired by your Australian background?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve always been inspired by my childhood in the suburbs, so I tend to go for more of a stark environment instead of a heightened glamour vibe.
What was your first encounter with photography?
I started taking pictures when I was quite young. They were more like snapshots. My grandfather was really into photography, and he shot a lot of slide film. We’d have popcorn and watch slideshows on the rollout screen with the projector. So, I guess I was always around that visual bug. I actually went to art school and thought I would do painting, and I didn’t really decide until the day that I had to fill out my enrollment paperwork and pick a major. It was between photography and painting, and I just went for photography for some reason.
You finally made your way to London and ended up working with Fiona Banner. I personally would never peg the two of you together, having seen both of your respective repertoires. At first glance it would appear to be a discordant union. How was that experience? Did that influence trickle down into your present work in any way?
When I worked with Fiona – as it started – I moved to London with a thousand pounds and needed to work basically, and I didn’t want to work with photographers anymore because I had assisted photographers for six or seven years in Australia. A friend told me that a friend of hers needed artwork; she was doing a piece for the Tate, and needed someone to help her. So, I was her assistant and helped to stretch canvases and screen print, and out of that I started shooting pictures of me making the artwork or of the art being made in the studio. Some of those portraits of her and her exhibition were used for publicity and invitations. She then asked me about doing pictures for a book she was working on and would send me off to photograph her work back in galleries in New York and Germany. It was a really organic process and the whole time I was working with her, I was working on my own fashion pho- tography and trying to find my way within that branch as well.
Did you know fashion would be your niche? Was a love for fashion already imbedded in you, or was that incidental?
I always loved fashion, and my mom was an amazing seamstress. I would draw first and she would make outfits for me – we’d create these things together. To be honest, when I studied photography in art school, I never thought of photography and fashion photography as having anything to do with one another. I went for an interview to assist a photographer when I was heading towards the end of art school, because I felt I needed to learn more technical aspects. He was a fashion photographer, and he asked me what magazines I looked at –and I didn’t look at magazines at all! Through that experience, I learned that fashion photography could be more than what I thought initially back in the early ’90s. When I shot for Vogue Italia for the first time, it opened up this world for me that allowed me to realize that fashion photography could be a creative expression as well.
What matters to you the most when you’re snapping a photograph, the girl or the clothes?
Everything because I think they’re all part of the sum, and I think everything needs to be considered. With the girl, it’s not just about how she looks, but also how she can express herself and her personality. The stylists are obviously a major part of the picture and how they put the clothes together, as well as their vision and what my vision is; it’s a team effort.
What makes a good model? What can the model do to provide you with the best possible image?
I think to have confidence in herself and to be able to try new things without feeling inhibited. And to be able to have a dialogue about what we’re doing is important. I appreciate a model’s input.
Are there certain components that need to be in place in order for you to feel comfortable in pulling off the best possible shoot?
It depends on the shoot, of course. I think the most important thing is to bring everything that you think you need to it, but also, to be very open to everything changing at the same time. I think besides everything else, it’s im- portant to go in with an open mind and to be able to explore the situation, so that you don’t get stuck trying to make something happen if it’s not working. It’s important to realize that you might have a vision of it, but maybe something great will happen – something greater might yet be revealed, especially when you’re shooting out on location.
What was your first big shoot where the training wheels were off, and Emma Summerton was on her own – your first defining moment where you were an artist whose singular work was out there for the world to see?
My first Vogue Italia shoot was a big moment. It was something that I had always wanted and it was the magazine that I had seen all those years ago that had inspired me to think differently about fashion photography.
What about that shoot? Did you have any fears or reservations?
It was a shoot with Lily Donaldson and the inspiration for it was an English film called The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie.
Ah, with Maggie Smith!
So, Emma, tell me about your book of self-portraits. I know you’ve been working on that for a few years now. Have you completed this project?
No, I kind of stopped working on it for the last three or four years. It was a personal project; I worked on it from around 2000 to 2006. Then I started working, shooting a lot more fashion for magazines and I really left it behind for a while. I do want to go back to it. I just shot a self-por- trait story for Pop Magazine actually, for the first time in five years.
Just to be clear – when you say self-portrait, this is a book that contains images you’ve taken of yourself throughout a five-year course?
Yeah, but it’s a bit abstract, a bit kooky.
What’s your favorite one in the bunch?
Well there’s a whole stack of them that were taken for my boyfriend.
They were like visual love letters to him and were never really intended to be shown. But I did show them to Terry de Havilland, the shoe company, and they asked me to do a look-book for them.
I did two Polaroid self-portrait look books for them, which then turned into a shoot for Dazed & Confused magazine. It was an Yves Saint Laurent special; it was Stefano Pilati’s first collection for YSL. That was the first time I ever published an editorial self-portrait story. Then the other fashion work started to take over, so that’s when I really started to shift gears and stopped doing other work as much.
What would you say is the Emma Summerton stamp? The Summerton leitmotif, the defining highlights behind your aesthetic?
I think I may be a bit too close to it to answer that. I guess I enjoy a certain kind of girl that is kooky and sexy, but strong.
What is it that you’re trying to address with your film about being a woman?
I think I like to put women across as individuals who have a sense of style and strength of their own. I prefer shooting women because the clothes are so much more exciting the love of hair and crazy high shoes. I think I understand that more so it inspires me more.
How do you feel about being a photographer’s subject? Do you feel comfortable when there’s someone else behind the lens?
No, I don’t like having my photo taken. I like being in charge. I don’t like being told what to do. The last time I had my photo taken by a photographer it was by Nick Knight for i-D Magazine and I was so nervous, but I really wanted to do it because I really wanted to meet him and see him work. I love his work, so it was an honor to do it, but I was absolutely shitting myself.
So, what do you have coming up next?
Coming up next I have a shoot for W. And then the usual some shoots for i-D and Italian Vogue. I have enough on my plate. I moved into a space last fall, and it was great to start fresh, in a new place, during a new season.
THE GROUND ISSUE #2