Being able to translate ideas into actuality is one thing, but talent coupled with extensive knowledge, ambition, and drive (like you’ve never seen before) is another story. In her work, she portrays women the way that she sees herself: strong, powerful, and in control; with lust and desire also at the forefront. Speaking with her, you know this is only a glimpse of what’s to come, and thank goodness because Talia Collis is what this industry needs.
This interview took place between Talia and Tate, at her apartment in New York
Editor: Sydney Edwards
TVPS: Starting off, can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
TC: Overview. Well, it's actually a story that I like to tell. I came to New York, went to Parsons, and I had this idea in my head of how things were going to happen. I was dipping my toes with different photographers; no one, necessarily, that was big or on any sort of level. Then one day, a friend of mine said, "You know, my mom has a studio in Paris and if you want to intern there as a studio assistant whilst you're visiting me, you can get some experience."
So I interned there for about two weeks as a studio assistant and I realized that things were happening every single day; from an e-commerce shoot to a fashion story, to a campaign. People were working, and the industry kept producing something new.
I ran back to New York, sophomore year, and thought, "You've seen how quick it is in Paris. You've got to start working in New York.”
Parsons has their career experience people that are supposed to help you get internships. So I sat down with this woman, and I was keen to get something but she didn't really help me. There was nothing that she could offer that was good, or even something that made me excited.
I kept looking for things, and one day one of my professors sent out an email saying Red Hook Labs was looking for interns. So I looked up Red Hook Labs on Google Maps, and was just seeing this industrial-looking spot that had the appearance of some sort of garage. I'm thinking, "What could possibly be here?" But turns out they work with some of the most sought out photographers in the industry.
I interviewed with Helena Martel Seward, who is now one of my close friends, and is an amazing producer. And it just took off from there, I was at Red Hook for about nine months. Then she left to do her own thing; she started her own company Lolly Would, and I worked there for a bit as well.
From there I went to Steven Klein as an intern. He ended up offering me a job as an in-house producer and in-house casting director. I was still in school at the time, so I said, "Let me come back to you after I graduate. Let’s see where I'm at."
I also interned for Charlotte Wales. It was the day of my graduation that Vogue offered me a job - Helena had put me in contact with some producers there two years prior. I guess that's how it all came together, when people kept recommending me based on the hard work that I was doing as an intern.
Would you recommend other young photographers invest in art school?
I benefited from the photo department at Parsons because I learned about community and what it takes to make a picture. It also allowed my craft to get better and to develop. So, I think yes, for photography and film, go to school for the resources, for the equipment. I had access to this SONY FS5 video camera which shoots 4K and that let me work for the right people. We also had these amazing flextight scanners which allowed me to really be with my film, play around with the curves, the exposure, and figure out the color.
In that respect, yeah, go to school, go to a good school that has those resources. But don't expect them to teach you everything. You have to be keen to learn. You have to go out there and teach yourself, assist, find tutorials, and advocate for yourself.
But if you're aiming to be a producer, honestly, no, I don't think you need to go to school. You need to find a production company, tell them you're keen to learn, and then go from there.
Now you’re an associate producer at Vogue. What's your day-to-day? I know there’s no such thing as a typical day but...
As an associate producer, or should I just say producer in general... what do I do? I am a part of the Vogue video team.
The main thing is coming up with ideas to pitch. We'll be in a meeting and think, "It's now June or July. What can we create that is relevant, and put out into the world?" So we'll come up with concepts for example, "24 Hours with," or "A Day in the Life with," or "Getting Ready with.”
What do you think are the key traits that make a good producer?
So being a producer means being organized, and understanding that sometimes things go wrong. You have to think on the spot and fix it, without showing the client, or the talent, or anyone, that you're panicking. There have been situations where we've been delayed by two hours, we missed two shots, or a PA has crashed a car. You have to keep a good face, a good spirit, and you have to carry on and lead the way. I always say that producer's are playmakers. Without a good producer, you don't have a good shoot.
Also, as a producer, you have your hands in everything. I think a lot of people think that producers lack a creative role, but you guys definitely do have creative aspects to your role.
We really do, because we bring everybody together; we hand pick the team based on who we think would work well. We're also coming up with ideas, creating mood boards and concepts, and then pitching them to the client. But still, production in the fashion industry is based in logistics and organization.
Going off of that, I do think that knowing how to produce will make me better at anything that I do. My main focus is being a director and a photographer. Production makes me a better artist, because if I have a certain budget, I know I can't cross that, but I’ve learned how to share things and make it work. Then, as a director you also need to know how to talk to people about your ideas. So production really teaches you skills that I think are vital in every aspect.
Whenever I’m interviewing someone, and they’ve been on the other side of what they’re doing, I know that they’re good at their job. They’re not coming from a place with a single perspective.
It also makes you more realistic. You have this crazy concept, which, usually I do. So it’s knowing, "Well actually, renting a car for 15 people is going to cost you $200 for the day, maybe spare a $100 for gas, then as the photographer you've got to feed people so that’s another $200.” Things start adding up in your head, and you're like, "Well Talia, maybe you don't have enough money to do this now. Wait 'til two months, gather enough money, and then go for it."
Right, and it’s better to hold off and then do it really well.
I want to work in the same caliber as artists that I admire, Steven Klein, Guy Bourdin, Chris von Wangenheim, Helmut Newton. All of those photographers create these tableaus, these scenes that seem so surreal. They take you out of reality, and that's what I want to do with my work; show that you can take a break and indulge in the image that’s in front of you.
A lot of people look at my work and say it's cinematic. They see it as a film still, and I think that ties in with me being a director, and that desire for storytelling. That’s where my big budgets come into play. As a producer I know that creating these big stories and these big sets, it takes time, it takes effort, it takes building a team, it takes going to prop houses, and investing money in the location. Making those fantasies come to life requires money and time and effort.
Stylist Noor Alali, Makeup Courtney Kamenski, Hair Rebekah Calo, Set Calli Sara Goldstein, Prop Stylist Karen Nicole, Models Makenna Cart, Ian Weglarzand, and Jake Olip
So shifting gears and going back into your role at Vogue. Can you walk us through the initial stage of when you’re pitching ideas, all the way through post-production?
Sure. At the beginning of the month we’ll all sit down, the whole video team, and we’ll talk about the ideas that we have or targets that we would like to achieve. We create video content that we think can attract our viewers to reach our targets.
But it's also content that has to be visually beautiful, visually interesting, and there has to be a story behind it. We’ll look at what's current, who’s being talked about, if somebody's coming out with a new film or a new album. From there, we would see if they'd be interested in working with us.
For instance, June is pride month, so we just did a video with Kylie Minogue, who was headlining at Pride. We filmed her getting ready at the Crosby Street Hotel, heading out, and a few shots of her singing as well. So it's things that connect, that are current, and then we’ll bring those ideas to the table. Once we decide, we go back within our teams and start producing it.
What does that entail?
First, we'll think about who could direct it. For example, Kylie Minogue, we knew that she was someone exciting and colorful, and we needed a director who was energetic and ready to have some fun. We booked Charlie Engman; he has a great vibe about him.
We then find a videographer. We’ll find someone that is young, ready on the move, aware that we're doing something quick, and can work fast.
Then we find stylists, usually it's a fashion editor that already works at Vogue, so Alexandra Gurvitch was the fashion editor for that. We also had a tailor to make sure that the clothes fit Kylie.
It's all a collaboration. It's taking those ideas that we come up with in the boardrooms and then going back to our desks and finding the teams that can create those concepts and make these videos.
After we shoot, we’ll bring it back into our offices and we get our editors to compile it into a video. Sometimes we get directors who really want to be involved in the post-production process, so they'll come into the offices and edit with the editors. Then it goes up within four or five days.
I feel like post-production can be so underrated, when it’s actually a huge part of the creative process.
For sure. Editing is so powerful because you're piecing everything together. You're building clips that go one after the other and it all has to tie in and make sense. So finding a good editor is really difficult but Vogue has some amazing ones.
It sounds like for your job you have to really be in tune with popular culture.
Definitely. You have to be up to date with everything that's going on. You need to know who's popular at the moment and who people find interesting. You have to also be aware, for instance, this person is performing in a month so let's start thinking about them.
Is staying current and up to date on popular culture something that you were interested in before you started this job?
Yes, to a certain extent. I was always interested in knowing what was out there and who was relevant. It was definitely more of a hobby, but now it’s my job to be interested.
What would you say is your biggest learning experience?
Working for Steven Klein taught me that you have to really, really want it. You have to go through things that seem tough, but you have to show that you're valuable and willing to work hard. Even if that means lifting frames that weigh more than you, or are double your size. Working for Steven Klein was one of the hardest experiences because you're working for a legend and they expect people to be committed. You've gotta love what you do.
Enough to propel your career.
Yeah. And it's hard. There were days where I would be really upset, but I realized that everyone went through that. Gradually, I showed that I was valuable enough for him to want to hire me and to offer me that job.
They had to do those things as well, so they want to see that you can do it too. I always say it is survival of the fittest. They want people on their team that don't take no for an answer and that are talented. I think working for Steven made me a tougher person.
Working for Helena at Red Hook Labs, now at Lolly Would, she taught me that you can't expect for people to give you anything. You have to go in with the attitude that you have to advocate for yourself. And I think that's really important.
You have to find your way and you have to push for something if you think it's right because no one else is going to do it for you. You are your number one fan and you have to keep going. You have to see past it even though you’re thinking, “Fuck, oh shit, yeah this is really bad.” but it's all going to be worth it if you show your worth.
No matter how tedious or unnecessary tasks may seem, they were actually all really beneficial. They taught me what it is to be a photo assistant, what it means to be part of a team, what it means to be a producer, and what it means to be a director.
Stylist Noor Alali, Makeup Courtney Kamenski, Hair Koji Ichikawa, Producers Meghan Heidenberg and Alana Siefman, Models Ema Mckie, Alexander Hunt, and Oscar Scott
How do you balance your time between Vogue and shooting your own projects?
That is a hard one… I think it comes down to learning how to schedule.
Put all of your efforts into your job, then set aside a couple days to focus on your own projects, but stick with it (even if something important at work comes up). It is self-discipline and I haven’t conquered it just yet, but I’m definitely working on it.
You're coming up through this traditional way, that is more of a rarity these days. You start taking photos, studying the books, you know all about these amazing photographers, and then you train under a few of them.
I feel like coming up in the industry that way gives your career longevity, because you have that knowledge.
Yes, definitely. Something that I’ve learned from Steven Klein and Charlotte Wales is the amount of referencing that they do. They come up with their ideas and they will look through books and books. They'll get their inspiration from other artists and make it their own. Seeing that process was so interesting because it showed me that it's okay to be inspired by other people, because even the greats are inspired by others. Ideas are generated from other great ideas and other great stories. With Charlotte, in my opinion you could say that her work is very much inspired by Richard Avedon and Steven Meisel, but she makes it Charlotte Wales. She has that feminine touch to it. I love it.
Cultural appropriation is a huge point of discussion, especially now. I’m wondering from an artists perspective, where do you draw that line?
If you're taking something that is personal to somebody and is part of their culture, and you're making it into fashion, then bring these people into the industry and give them a voice. Allow them to have their opinion on what you're doing, because otherwise you're not being sensitive to their culture, their ideas, and their traditions. I think that's maybe the problem; people aren't sensitive enough or aren't respectful enough to ask people.
See, for example, my mom comes from a Yemenite background, and when they get married they wear these huge headpieces that are covered in jewelry. It’s gold, it’s red, it’s green… and so visually beautiful.
I can imagine that one day a designer will look at that and they will take huge inspiration from it. I'll be flattered and I think my family will be flattered as well, because they found beauty in something that is my tradition and they’re making it into something that is going to be wearable for somebody else. I never ever want to feel that we’re putting too much pressure on these designers to not make what they want to make because it might upset somebody. But it's how they go about it, it's how they ask the questions.
Get more people to come and see if it's okay what you're referencing and if you’re referencing it correctly. By all means, take my traditions, take my cultures, make it into your line, but ask me what I think about it first, and bring my voice into it too. That's what I would say, but I don't think we should quiet our designers. We should give them that freedom to make what they want to make. Otherwise, we're doing a disservice to fashion. So I think that's really important and I like that question a lot.
I wanted to get your thoughts on what it’s like for you to be making your own way and going after a specific style that you truly believe in, even if it’s not the style that’s being featured at the moment.
Somebody once said to me, “You have to make the work that you love, you have to make art that you connect to and feel passionate and strongly about.” I'm not the sort of photographer or director that can go out on the street, take my camera, and just shoot. It doesn't work like that for me. I don't see beauty in the mundane. I see beauty in something that's highly stylized, conceptualized, and detailed.
I'm a fastidious director and photographer. That's how I work, that's how my brain functions, and in some respects I'm almost a dreamer. I’ll remind myself that, sure I want my work to be recognized and for it to live in a space, live in magazines, and live in campaigns. But also, it's about integrity, staying true to myself, and knowing that sure I can do commercial work, I actually just directed a video for DKNY.
And Nike, which I love.
And Nike. So I can do those things and that's fine. I'm all for it and I'm pumped and ready to go. See I have the commercial side of Talia, but I also have the art side of Talia, and I think a lot of photographers have that.
The ones that make it do.
For the art side of me, it does get frustrating and it can be disheartening to see work that you don't think is of any standard being praised and shared all over the internet, magazines, and getting pitched for huge campaigns. You start wondering, what are you doing wrong? What are people not seeing in your work?
But if what you're doing is art, then it shouldn't be for others. You should be happy with yourself, and you should be content with the fact that it's okay not to be successful in the way that you imagined it to be. As long as you love what you do, then that's all you can hope for. It is so hard for me to say that because of course, I want to see the work that I love and the work that I want to do in huge campaigns and magazines.
My dream is to shoot a Chanel commercial or a Dior commercial, like a perfume ad. But to do that you obviously have to reach a certain status, and I can only hope that I would be hired for the work that I really want to make. I can't do myself a disservice of making my personal work for somebody else, or to be popular, or to be current. I think that's a mistake that a lot of young photographers make. They try to be too current and they lose themselves, their vision, their voice, their work.
Although, I hope that the industry does flip in terms of what’s current, because I think that I have a lot to offer. As a female photographer and as a female director, my whole concept is that women are the centerpieces of my work, and the stories are about them. Sure, they include men but the men act as a role that adds to the power of the women. I want to create stories that revolve around women, and I hope that the industry will want to make room for me and allow me to make these stories. I also hope that they'll be able to reach people and connect with people.
How do you define success?
Being happy with what you make yourself, and being content with where your work ends up living. Knowing that there's only so much that you can do. If you did your best and you're happy with it, that's all you can ask for.
Stylist Noor Alali, Makeup Courtney Kamenski, Hair Koji Ichikawa, Producer Alana Siefman, Models Ema Mckie, Alexander Hunt, and Oscar Scott
Is there anyone in particular that you look up to?
From the past? For sure. Guy Bourdin forever and always, Guy Bourdin is the master of photography for me.
Then two people now, actually. They're both women. Helena Martel Seward my first ever boss, she became my friend. I really look up to her. Unbelievably hard working and so smart.
I would also say Charlotte Wales. I love that she knows what she wants and she will get it done. She walks onto set and you know you're there to work, but it's a nice environment and it's because she makes it a nice environment. She's talented and has great ideas. She references the past. I feel really lucky to have worked for her.
I admire women who are powerful and who don't need to fall on anyone else to make them feel powerful. That's what I like about Charlotte and Helena; they go get it.
What do you think of our generation? Where do you think we're headed?
We're definitely becoming more and more digital. Everything is very open, very accessible, and there are no limits anymore. Everything is everywhere and anywhere at any time; our generation expects a lot of content and demands a lot of conversation.
I think it means that we're a generation that wants to learn and we only keep pushing to be better. Sometimes I wish we could just slow down a bit. Take things in, digest them, think about where we’re getting our information from, and then talk. But I like that there's this fast pace.
How would you like to see this industry evolve?
I'd like to see all sorts of models being represented. I'd like to see creativity being more open and allowing for different styles to come into play. I'd like to think that ideas are going to be more conceptual and more creative. I want to feel like we're making things that are almost supernatural, unrealistic, and surreal. I miss details. I miss seeing something so meticulous, structured, and so well, perfect. I'd like to see more effort being put into creating better stories, better concepts, and allowing creators to have time with what they're doing.
Any advice for someone who looks up to you?
Do it. Go for it. Don't take no for answer. Always have a smile on your face, because when you smile the world smiles back. If you know you're in a situation where nobody really wants to be there, but you've got good energy and you're positive, people will feel that, and they’ll want to bring you onto their team. People want to work with people that are complementary, and know how to collaborate. Half the work that I make wouldn't be possible without my team. Once you build those relationships, those friendships, that's when you start to see your work taking off, really flying, and making things that you love.
If you like a photographer, an artist, or a director, anyone. Reach out. Tell them that you are keen to learn and want to make a meaningful contribution to their work. Opportunities happen by you pushing them forward and making them happen for yourself.
Anything that you’d like to add?
I'm trying to think.
Be open-minded to new artists and always, if someone comes knocking on your door looking for an opportunity, don't shut them down. Hear them out. Make room for new people. Don't just go with the same people all of the time. You know, advocate for others and don't see it as a competition. See if you help someone else, you're a part of that success. You've been a part of making something good for somebody else. If you have that power to help someone, do it.
Photos courtesy of Talia Collis
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