In a masterclass for students at the University of Sunderland, fashion and portrait photographer Chris Davis tells students about his journey of becoming a fashion photographer, and being published in GQ, Vogue Portugal, Forbes, Marie Claire, Grazia, Homme Style and The Guardian.
Photographer Chris Davis has worked with huge brands and celebrities, but initially stumbled into the world of menswear photography by accident. The creative genius got his big break after being approached by a photographer called Alex Bayer, who’s also a model. Alex had been an art director for Homme Style for about a year and had an idea for a shoot, and wanted Chris’ help. “He had the model already, so I pretty much just had to come up with a mood board. It was basically just a case of ‘if we get strong enough images, we’ll put it on the cover’. Luckily there, they seem to really like the shots and I got some covers from it.”
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Chris accidentally ended up working in menswear photography when his friends, who were personal trainers, offered to be his guinea pig when he was starting his photography business.
“I would try and get some promotional shots for their gym and stuff. I think because I was starting to do more kind of body shots and physique and at the time there weren’t really that many people, especially in the Northeast, doing men’s fashion or fitness. I was lucky in that way that there was a bit of a niche. I kind of kept going with that and I did really enjoy it.”
This was the start of Chris’ work getting published, and this lead to Chris getting the opportunity to work with huge names. After breaking out into the industry, he had the opportunity to work with some well-known stars, including Glee’s Dianna Agron and the dance group Diversity, as well as travelling the world with professional makeup brand Kryolan.
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When working with Kryolan, Chris was given the opportunity to experience photography in a fast-paced environment which took him all over the world, including 14 different countries in 35 days. “We did a test shoot that was in Berlin for a few days, and then we went to Dubai for more test shoots. They usually do a calendar every year which is usually bold and theatrical. There’s usually a theme for the calendar, and one of the stylists came up with the idea of an around the world shoot. I was really lucky to get to go.
“There were six of us in total who went on the trip. After the test shoots, we went around the world to get more shots. We had very rare days off, but it was amazing to see so many different things while still working. We had a couple of days for sightseeing in Bali, San Francisco and South Africa, but most of it was a really fast turn-around.”
Chris’s career has also taken him to London’s prestigious West End where he turned his photography talents to shooting the cast of McQueen, a play about the life of celebrated fashion designer Alexander McQueen, which starred Glee star Dianna Agron. He said: “She was pretty popular at the time. She had just been in a music video for Sam Smith, and been in a film with Robert De Niro. It was amazing to work with her. Stephen Wight was amazing to work with too.
“You’re usually very limited in time when you’re shooting celebrities, compared to working with models. I usually only have about ten minutes to get some good shots, and you have to bounce everything off so many more people.”
He claims that for success in the industry, having good taste is essential. “I think it depends on what you’re trying to make. An amazing commercial fashion image would have an accessible model, that’s kind of classically pretty or handsome, with flattering lighting and everything is really easy to see.
“It’s completely different for an editorial image, where you maybe want a model that’s a bit more quirky or unusual. You want the style in to be a bit edgier and a bit more up-to-date.”
Although Chris has a hugely credible portfolio of work now, it’s hard to believe that he only started working in photography full-time six years ago. His creative career started with him working in 3D imagery after studying at Teesside University. “I was lucky enough to get a job straight out of there for a company that was doing virtual reality medical training.”
The sister company to where he was working were experimenting with graphics, web design and photography, which involved Chris building a virtual human body, including every layer of muscle, fascia and nerves. He explained: “It took probably about six months to build the model, but it was fun and I was lucky because I wanted to do a lot of different creative things there. So I was able to work on the 3D side, but started to do bits of product photography.”
While at university, Chris had dabbled in photography and did portraits for friends, but when his workplace bought a new camera kit, he fell in love with the prospect of doing photography as a career. “Eventually I kind of invested in my own camera. Soon after, I think it must’ve been about 2010, I started doing more portraits and trying to build it or portfolio up,” he says.
When he started to embrace his photography skills, Chris started to do some street scouting in a bid to find people to model for his pictures. “Bizarrely, I didn’t have the confidence to email model agencies because I didn’t really have a portfolio. I wasn’t the most sociable guy in the world back then, but I’d kind of plucked up enough courage to try and scout people for shoots.”
He gave out business cards to people he scouted, which he treated as a mini portfolio as it had pictures he’d shot on the back of it. He felt as though this was the best way of finding people to model, as it was in their hands. “I also had a little simple website and stuff set up if they wanted to see more of my work, but luckily enough, pretty much everyone that I approached was like ‘yeah, no problem’.”
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The more he worked with models, the easier it was for Chris to get more models on-board to shoot with him. He found that the more images he had, and then it was easier to make contact with agencies and get the opportunity to shoot with some of their models.
After years of dreaming, Chris ventured to New York by himself when he started becoming more interested in photography. “I absolutely loved it. I did my first little mini exhibition there. I think I went round about Halloween time. I did loads of street photography of some of the amazing stuff during Halloween in Brooklyn. It was such an amazing city to be in and photograph.
“I used Redbubble before I went, which is a photography site where you could sell kind of prints and network through there. I spoke to a couple on there who are lovely, really friendly, that were just super enthusiastic about photography generally.
“I met them when I was in New York, and they just happened to have this ridiculous apartment in Tribeca, with an amazing view. I was really lucky with some of the locations that I kind of fell on my feet a few times with. I think it’s trying to network through whatever means that you have, whether it’s social media, ringing an agency, it’s just trying to put some feelers out and see seeing what happens.”
Chris still has goals and aspirations for his career and claims they’re important to have when you’re venturing into the industry. He told us: “I’ve only been in the industry full-time for six years, so I’m still learning all of the time. I still have goals of magazines, people, and brands that I would love to work with. It’s always changing, and it’s a really exciting job to have.”