Nancy Brown's photographs have appeared in countless publications around the world over the past four decades. The 73 year old, named a Nikon Legend in 2001, has been a leader in commercial photography, supplying pictures for stock agencies such as Getty Images.
Nikon Legend Nancy Brown.
In Bangkok to host two photo workshops, her first visit to the Kingdom in 15 years, she revealed some of the secrets of the commercial photography trade as well as her latest book, Simply China.
In person, the woman behind many iconic images in the advertising world is loquacious and far more energetic and youthful-looking than her years would suggest.
Brown had a photo studio in Manhattan for 25 years before moving to Boca Raton, Florida, where she does similar work, but in a far less competitive environment. "I do what I like now," she says, smiling.
At the moment that's travel photography. "I have fewer responsibilities with this," she says, since there is no need for models or the cumbersome equipment needed for studio work. That's not to say it's easy; her book on China involved six trips and a year of collating and processing the images, as she insisted on doing much of the layout herself.
She also teaches photography, and finds many students asking her how to succeed in the business. When she began, she says, it was much easier to enter the photo world _ you could simply take a portfolio to an ad agency and get work.
"It's so difficult now," she says. "You need to develop a personal style, a distinctive look. You have to create a body of work, Photoshop, have a website that you update constantly. If you don't love this, don't do it, because it's tough."
Another reason why her start in the business was easier than for today's graduates was because she had been working as a model in front of the camera already for 20 years, giving her inside knowledge of the art of profile photography. "I started modelling in 1959 in Florida. Until 1979 I had been shooting as a hobby, so I had a relationship with people in the business."
The "business" was the commercial and advertising worlds, and with her sense of style developed from years of being the subject, she became a popular photographer for clients like Mabelline, Kodak, Canada Dry and Maidenform, with work appearing in glossy magazines such as Glamour, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. She produced images for ad agencies, design firms, PR firms, pharmaceutical companies and book publishers. Brown has had four photography books published but most of her sales have been made through stock agency Getty Images, where she specialises in beauty and lifestyle. Some of her best-sellers have been pictures of babies, and in recent years there has been increasing demand for non-Caucasian subjects.
"For stock, the photographer creates images," she says. "You have to give them ones in your own style. My specialisation is babies and beauty and travel."
Her style keeps things simple, working often on white and creating an understanding and vision of the shot before it takes place. "Darkness is not my style. I work a lot with a white background and two lights with flats on a boom that I can move around to get the best effect."
Brown emphasises the importance of the relationship between photographer and subject in order to create the best image, but she is not averse to Photoshopping _ swapping a head from a different photo to create a better angle, retouching skin, even changing the eyes with those of someone else.
It is not so easy to predict which stock photos will sell. Some are still popular 30 or 40 years on. "But you have to continuously produce new work," she says, "or you'll get left behind."
Brown's three books on photographing the human image _ Photographing People for Advertising, Photographing People for Stock and Nude and Beauty Photography _ were mainly published in the pre-digital era, when she used Nikon film N90s and F4s. When the industry switched to digital, she was forced to relearn the trade, and how to use a DX1.
"I hated the switch. Film was much softer; with digital every line was exposed. It takes longer to process prints now, but I've become very good at smoothing skin and creating a composition."
Travel photography came later, but also sells well for stock images. There is a surprising demand, she says, and the transition from studio work wasn't problematic.
"When I travel to China I carry three cameras around my neck. A D700 with a 70-300mm lens and two D200s with a 17-28mm lens and a 28-70mm lens. Sometimes I have to wait an hour for the right scene, but I'm prepared for anything." To create a rapport, she talked to people and asked permission to take their photo, showed them the images and then took a few more if they were pleased with the result.
The fruit of six visits became Simply China, published by China Nationality Art Photographic Publishing House and available on Amazon. Divided into seven sections _ The Forbidden City, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, West Sichuan, Zhouzhuang, Tibet and Qinghai Province _ images range from snowfall at the Great Wall and monks at remote monasteries to yurts in the grasslands and wild Mongolian horses.
In last week's photo workshops, part of Le Meridien Bangkok's "A New Perspective on Photography" series, Brown demonstrated techniques for creating images of models for stock agencies, and discussed how to shoot and present travel images and create books such as Simply China.
Using a "lifestyle model" _ someone used to working in front of the camera and who represents ordinary people _ she also showed how to do indoor work, although admitting not being fully comfortable working with the dark background provided, or even using a flash, different indoor conditions to ones she normally works with.
It was her expertise and body of work that led to her being named a Nikon Legend, and which made her one of America's most successful creators of stock photography over nearly four decades.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker