Charlotte Wales was immersed in creativity from a young age. Since then she’s become one of the most in-demand female fashion photographers working today. Her intentions are clear; she’s here to celebrate women.
Charlotte Wales is still only in her early thirties, but she has already worked with the world’s biggest fashion houses: check major ad campaigns for Hermes, Chloe, Celine, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She is a regular on the pages of Vogue and has also featured in their line-up of female visionaries changing the way we see the world. When she’s not flying between New York and London (she splits her time between both), she’s shooting and directing women with whimsical, nostalgic notes that have become one of the distinguishing features of her work. Fun is another – her recent video for Vogue, 9 to 5, has models cavorting around New York’s streets, atop the office Xerox and in elevators in haute couture, mouthing Dolly Parton’s famous lyrics. She also shot Kendall Jenner brushing her teeth. No matter who or what is in front of her lens, female camaraderie takes precedence over faux aspirations. As Wales confirms during our conversation, she creates with women in mind.
You grew up in Gloucestershire in a creative family; do you think your upbringing shaped you?
I spent a lot of time outside, enjoying the country life and fresh air. My siblings were much older than me and had left home, so I had to amuse myself and be quite independent. I come from quite an artistic family, my Mum’s an artist, and my siblings all worked or still work in the film industry. So I was immersed in a creative world from an early age!
I know you then went on to study at Central St Martins and you’ve said in other interviews that you were “quite political” at that time. How comfortable was it for you to move from the art world into fashion photography?
On my degree course, we were making art for art’s sake, in quite a pure way. Still, the closer I came to graduating the more I realised that to be a successful artist you had to play a game, to be very aware of the climate you were working in, try and be represented by the right gallerist etc.
For me, it seemed contradictory to work in ‘Fine Art’ in that case because it felt like a medium that should be so pure, but it isn’t. It sounds perverse, but in a way, I find the fashion industry more transparent. You still have to ‘play the game’, but everyone is aware of it, and I don’t hate the element of strategy. You can take on jobs where you are working for a client, and you give them your skillset and vision as a craftsman, you work collaboratively together to make something that works for them. But you can also still make personal work just for yourself and not be dependent on it for income, so it’s even freer.
I’d never thought of it like that, but I think you make a valid point – the art world is very disingenuous. And in any case, they do always inform each other.
The art and fashion worlds are all inextricably linked. So it wasn’t a world I had to transition into, they just merged and grew!
So what was your first break?
I worked for Photographer Dan Jackson as his Studio Manager for three years and then started shooting in 2013. I was lucky enough to get a great e-comm client job which paid the bills and enabled me to begin shooting editorials. A lot of my friends were moving on from assisting at the same time, and we all helped each other out. By the time I started shooting for myself I’d spent five years in the industry, from the bottom, painting the studio floors etc. and building contacts that I worked hard to maintain and over the years they all paid off.
Who were some of those?
There were a lot of people who commissioned me and had faith in me, and for that, I’m very grateful. My first big editorial commission was a story for Dazed, then Ashley Heath at Pop gave me my first ‘proper’ cover, Claire Waight Keller trusted me in my first major fashion campaign when she was at Chloe.
Even though they were all very significant to me at the time, I don’t think you can say there was one ‘big break’ — more a series of breaks that build on themselves. When I talk about the strategy of the industry, it’s about really plugging away at it, building on each opportunity and maximising it. Then one day, you look back and realise how big the journey was!
How do you work with brands; I feel that this is something many people with creative vision struggle with… the compromise, keeping people happy…
A brand will usually approach my agency Mini Title about collaborating on a future project. They’ll send over their ideas, concepts and requirements. I’ll spend time researching the brand, their identity, past and present, their specific inspirations, what they are trying to say, and think about what I can bring to it and how I see them in the contemporary climate. I think about casting and concept. An element of production feasibility always comes into it. What’s the best we can produce given what we have to work with, budget, location etc. etc. What’s the smartest way to maximise it. Who are the best collaborators going to be, hair, makeup, styling etc.?
You seem like you’ve always been quite comfortable with the idea of “commercial” work.
Yes definitely. Money makes the world go round. But it can also be incredibly freeing – if a brand has a bigger budget, you can do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But likewise, if a brand is cool and has a fresh perspective that also brings something exciting. Nothing is devoid of compromise, but it’s about maximising what you have to make the best possible thing. Some clients might have creative constraints, but it’s about understanding them and just taking on projects that you feel comfortable with.
You’re also working in a field that has been dominated by male photographers until now. There’s been a huge push for change lately, in terms of female visibility. Do you believe in the concept of the “female gaze?”
I mostly take pictures of women aimed at women. I think I approach the situation with empathy; I like to have fun on set and make sure the model is comfortable. I don’t want to over-egg the female point of view, but I can’t tell you how it would be different if I were a man because I’m not one.
Your portfolio, especially at your age, is the stuff of dreams for most creatives. Do you feel a sense of achievement?
Thank-you! Yes, I do, but I’m always concentrating on pushing it further as both a director and a photographer.
As a director, I’d love to shoot some music videos and work on more narrative video. I want to keep making work, that’s better and try and focus on projects that are important to me.
Photography is a tough field to stand out nowadays; is it only about talent? Any words of wisdom to share?
It is a competitive industry, yes, but I think you have to stay focused on what you want to do and not get too distracted by other people. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. It’s an industry that now, even more, is obsessed by youth and newness, so it’s essential to try and focus on what YOU think is good while still being very aware of what is going on around you.