Kelsey Hale discovered her love for photography in college, and made a leap of faith in deciding to pursue it as a career - without being entirely sure how to do it. But that has since paid off. While Kelsey was working as a retoucher and photographer for Aritzia, she met acclaimed fashion photographer Charlotte Wales. She soon became her first assistant, living between New York and London. After almost three years with Charlotte, today marks Kelsey's last day as she's off to LA to pursue a career in lifestyle photography.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate in New York and Kelsey in London
Editor: Makena Gera
TVPS: Starting off, can you give an overview of how you got here?
KH: I grew up in Saskatoon, Canada and attended the University of Saskatchewan. While I was there I tried out all of the different classes, although the only ones that stuck were photography related. But, I had no idea how I could ever make a career out of it. It was just so far fetched in that part of the world (central Canada).
I had an assignment to create a series of photographs that told a story. So, I started looking at a bunch of fashion magazines, and I found this Fall issue of W Magazine with a spread of Karlie Kloss shot by Tim Walker. There was this one image of Karlie standing over a broken humpty dumpty thing….
Oh, I know that image. It’s so good.
Yes! Immediately I fell in love with Tim Walker; I was amazed that he could tell this incredible story through images. The props were amazing, the styling was great, and I had no idea who Karlie Kloss was at the time, but I was just amazed by this whole thing.
I decided that I wanted to work in fashion photography, but having zero idea of how to do that, I attended a program at the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts. It’s a 12-month intensive diploma course, and from there it helped me get a job at Aritzia. I worked there as an in-house retoucher for three years. During that time I would ask to assist the photographers that Aritzia would hire, and that's where I initially met Charlotte. Right away, I was captivated with her work; I loved how she always had this clever feminine humor towards it and of course her colors were so good. It was a lot of fun being on set with her and learning what life is like for a fashion photographer based in New York.
In fall of 2015, I left Aritzia and started working as an e-commerce photographer for Kit and Ace. We had a bunch of photographers in-house, and it was a lot of fun creating the content for the campaigns, e-commerce, and social media.
I had kept in contact with Charlotte since meeting her in early 2015, and in June 2016 I made a trip out to New York to assist her for a week. I was so amped up coming to New York and getting to work with Charlotte on set. I remember walking into Pier 59 Studios, and I was engulfed immediately by that world. A week after I returned to Vancouver she sent me an offer letter to become a full-time digital technician / studio manager / retoucher.
So her everything! What does your role consist of?
I've been with Charlotte for a little over two years now. I've had a lot of different roles, but mainly I’m her digital technician whenever we're on set. So that’s making sure the computer and the camera are running correctly, managing the files as they come in, and printing all of the images so we can hang them on the wall to see if everything looks right. I also do some retouching on set as well, so if they want to combine two images together, we can quickly do that so they're able to see it. It's basically just a lot of problem-solving and making sure everything’s going smoothly with the images.
When we're in the studio, I’m retouching lookbooks and editorials; right now I'm working on updating Charlotte’s portfolio book. I also do a bunch of studio manager work, so that’s organizing all of the image archives, scheduling her meetings, updating her calendar, and supervising interns. I also help Charlotte with pre-production, so that’s picking studios, making equipment lists, and helping with castings. Then post-production, which is overseeing all of the retouching schedules and making sure Charlotte has time to look over everything. So it’s a lot of coordinating with her agency, Mini Title.
They’re a great agency.
Yeah, they’re definitely one of the best agencies in the business. They’re all such nice people, and they're all so talented and creative. Coming out of Vancouver to this industry, they've all been so helpful.
Since it’s just me and Charlotte in the office we’ve asked them for favors here and there, just anything we need we ask them and they are happy to support.
Who do you mainly work with for post?
We work with a bunch of different retouching houses. Our main one in London is Studio RM, and we use Gloss a lot in New York. So basically, I work with whoever is the main point of contact at that company, and we go through the scheduling to make sure that it works for them, the client, and Charlotte. She’s heavily involved in post; making sure that her color accurately represents how she foresaw it in her visions.
I feel like post is so underrated, when it’s a huge part of the creative process.
Exactly. When people think of retouching, they think of photoshopping and changing people's arms and all of that. But that's not how I consider post-production, because so much of it is based on the color, which changes the mood of the photograph. If you want to make it sadder you can make it darker or bluer, or if you want it to be happier you can change the levels to make it a little bit warmer. It very much changes the attitude of what you want to convey, and all of that happens in post.
Did you learn how to do everything from a previous first assistant?
Not really. Before I took the job, I knew other freelance assistants, but in Vancouver, no one really has a full-time assistant. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, or what the job involved. When I started working with Charlotte I started asking all of the freelance assistants so many questions. We had a few guys in New York that worked with Charlotte for six or seven years, so they would help me navigate the waters, and teach me different things about the industry.
What were the most surprising elements of being Charlotte’s first assistant?
How I describe it to people who don't know the industry is this: I went from being a starter on a college football team to playing for the Patriots and being a wide receiver assisting Tom Brady score touchdowns.
It's the same idea and concept of the job, but you're going up to the next level where everything is so fast-paced. Sometimes we shoot a campaign and it’s released within a month. It’s insane how fast the timelines are and how high everyone's expectations are. Especially for Charlotte, since she’s often shooting video and stills on the same jobs. There's always so much happening and downtime is rare.
What have you learned from your role?
I've learned so much from just being around Charlotte and in the industry. At the very beginning, I would get overwhelmed by a lot of things, so I always had to sneak away to just calm myself down and then come back to set. I've learned how to navigate those potential situations and get on top of problem-solving faster. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so you always need to have backups for everything. Especially doing digital tech on set, your computer will decide to stop working for no reason at all, but you obviously have to keep shooting.
What would you say are the top traits that make a good assistant?
You have to be a hard worker and extremely organized because you're not just focusing on one job at a time; you're usually doing five to ten jobs, whether it's pre-production, shooting, or post-production. You're the one supporting your photographer, and they need to know everything that's going on. If they don't know, they'll ask you, and if you don't have the answer it can be unnerving. I would also say that you have to be dedicated to the job and the industry. If you don't have a passion for it, then you won’t have the drive to get through the workloads.
What do you look for in hiring interns?
It's mostly about attitude and persistence. If people seem nice and seem like they want to learn, then we always give them a chance. People who are wanting to learn and adapt to new challenges. If people come in with a negative attitude from the get-go then they will get chewed up by the pace, fatigue, and realities of the business.
Yeah, you have to love who you work with, or it's just no fun.
Exactly. And everyone works so hard in this industry, so you want to be around other positive people.
I’ve also interned for so many random people, mostly unpaid, but it's just how you learn set etiquette. It is such an important thing, but you don't know it unless you've been on set.
How would you describe what set etiquette is?
Being professional on set; there are always times when people are relaxing and you chat, but there are also times where it's a very stressful situation. So it’s knowing when to speak up and when not to speak up.
It also all depends on each photographer’s set. Charlotte is more relaxed than some other photographers that I've worked with, but some photographers get annoyed by crew conversations on set. You can usually tell right away what the vibe is on set, and if you don't know, ask the next assistant up from you. It's about respecting everyone else around you. Even if you're the “top” person on set, you should still respect the entire crew.
Some of the best interns we've had, they literally just stood there on their first day on set and waited for one of us to ask, “Hey, can you grab that? Can you move this?” Honestly, just observing and being ready when someone asks you to do something or trying to predict what someone’s going to need, is very helpful. Even if you feel like you're not doing much because you're standing around, you’re there and you're available and you're not sitting there looking at your phone.
As a first assistant, how do you manage your time and prioritize tasks?
When I first started, I felt terrified to ask questions. I was fully qualified for my job, but I still had this feeling inside of me that I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Since then, I've learned to talk to Charlotte and ask, “Okay, what absolutely needs to happen, and what can get pushed until later?”
We keep a list of all the current jobs that we have and I update it every day on the status of where each job is at. I also keep two other lists, one for the things I need to be doing immediately, and the second for all the side tasks that are not as important. Once I get a free minute or two, I can work on those side tasks for a little bit, then go back to the more important things.
I feel like that's almost easier said than done though, no?
Yes, completely. I work on it every day and sometimes I'm better at it than others. But still, some things always slip through the cracks. We also have Charlotte’s agency, Mini Title, helping us. So if I can't do something I'll ask, “Hey guys, can you help me out with this?” We also work closely with the same post-production houses most of the time, so they’ll also email me asking, “Hey, I haven't heard back from you about this email.” And I’m like, “Oh whoops. Still, have to do that.” Being a team player and having good support networks is key -- we all need to work together.
On top of being Charlotte’s assistant, how do you also find time to focus on your own work?
I haven't been as good at that as I should have been over the last two years. Working full-time with a photographer that travels a lot, sometimes we find out if we're traveling only two or three days in advance. It’ll be like “Ok, pack your bags time to go.” So I've had to cancel some shoots due to that, and I’ve also gotten a little scared of planning shoots. So any shoots that I’ve done for myself, have been pretty last minute and just with friends.
So, that’s been quite difficult, but one thing that I always keep doing for myself is image research. On my own time, I'm always looking at content that I like, and saving those images and separating them into certain folders. So I try to keep my mind creative and aspirational about the projects that I want to be doing.
Who are your favorite photographers?
Tim Walker, Arthur Elgort, David Sims, Cindy Sherman, and Charlotte Wales :)
You're going freelance soon, am I correct?
Yes! I am moving to Los Angeles in 2019. I've loved working with Charlotte; it’s been amazing. I’ve learned, even more than what I could’ve imagined. Just working with someone who's a full-time photographer and running her own business, let alone the creative side.
What have you learned on the business end?
I handle all of the receipts and make sure that everything gets charged back to either the client or to the right account for Charlotte. So I've learned a lot about accounting and how much everything costs.
For me, being Canadian and working in New York for a year and in London for a year, I've seen the way three different countries do their business. As a freelancer, you have to keep track of all the jobs you have. Charlotte has this master sheet that lists every single job she’s ever done in her entire life. I’ve implemented these strategies for myself, and use Google Drive to help me organize and store everything related to my business.
What made you chose LA?
I wanted to either move back to New York or LA, to be closer to family. I ended up choosing LA because it was more of a long-term city that matches my personal lifestyle. I love hiking, outdoor activities and the California vibe. Plus - how could I pass up the opportunity to finally live in sunshine after a year in London where it never seems to stop raining? I realized over the last two years that doing this job takes a lot of work, so you need to make sure you're doing things outside of it to make yourself happy. If you're not happy outside of work you can’t be happy inside of work.
I also want to shift my career and do less high fashion imagery and more lifestyle imagery. For example, I would love to work for Nike, Levi’s, and companies like that.
Why are you interested in making that shift?
I've decided that my personal style and who I am, feels more in line with lifestyle concepts than high fashion concepts.
What excites you about doing lifestyle?
I've always been a huge fan of brands like Nike; I just love their attitude. I think it was great how they chose controversial subjects to advertise their products and brand.
I spent my childhood summers in a small town that only recently got cell phone service. It was amazing running around exploring the nature of the remote North. I feel like lifestyle is more who I am as a person and it will help me connect with it more. With high fashion I feel like I was trying to force things a little bit.
How did you come to that realization?
When I worked at Kit and Ace, they were more lifestyle than Aritzia was, so I immediately felt more at home there. If you’re in line with the brand's identity, you'll probably produce a better campaign for them versus one for a brand that doesn't make as much sense for you.
Would you still say that the past 2.5 years with Charlotte have been worth it now that you’re making this shift?
Completely. It’s opened my eyes to what I want to be doing. The industries are also so intertwined, all of the brands that I want to work with know Charlotte’s work. I’ve also learned basic skills from how to run a set and what everyone does because that’s universal, to post-production, and also the business side of things.
So, back to going freelance. What excites you, what scares you, and what are you anticipating?
I'm excited to start shooting for myself again, because I’ve been putting that on the back burner for the last two years.
I'm excited to go out there and show off my new skills, what my style is, and get a portfolio going. I am scared, terrified and truthfully unsure of what’s going to happen because going freelance holds many financial risks. It's going to be the first time I haven't had a steady paycheck coming in.
And where do you want to go?
Looking back retouching is one of the most valuable skills I’ve learnt. It is often quite boring and daunting work, but it helps a lot when paying the bills. Next year of my life is going to be focused on just making sure that I can stay afloat financially while building my business. I'm going to be taking on more e-commerce and retouching jobs, while also shooting personal work for my own portfolio.
After that initial year, I want to be shooting for brands that combine my career goals and my personal goals. I would love to work with brands like Everlane that care about the ethics, transparency, and the cost of their products. I want to work with brands that I align with creatively and consciously.
I also think that video is important and it's only growing in this industry.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Work hard for what you want and don't be afraid to ask people for it. I got this position because I kept in touch with Charlotte by emailing her every few months. It's also really easy to find anyone's email or contact information by spending a few minutes on Google.
Always write out and make a game plan and a goal list each year. Go back to it update, cross off what you’ve done and keep planning for the future. Prior to Charlotte, I was trying to figure out how to get a visa for the States. I broke down all of the steps and figured out how to do each one. So plan things out, follow through on your plans, and hold yourself accountable.
Most importantly, ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. People love talking about themselves and what they’ve done. It's easy to gain so much knowledge by asking what their experiences are and how they've gotten them, and it’ll most likely be somewhere along the same lines as what you want to be doing.