On Menswear Photography

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Photography, a fun hobby and an essential part of the menswear machine. Let’s talk about it!

(This is basically an excuse for me to share some of my favorite pictures, both that I’ve seen and of ones I’ve taken!)

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One of the things that I appreciate so much about this little niche that I’m in, is the emphasis on photography.  There’s something about how menswear approaches photography that is a bit more artistic than the typical influencer stuff.  Of course, this is entirely my opinion and you aren’t required to share it.

But before we get into that, let me talk about my journey with photography.  And just a reminder, I’m a very amateur photographer, so I really have no thunder behind any opinions in this essay.  I’m just explaining my thoughts on what I’ve noticed while being on “both sides” (influencer and classic menswear) of this whole thing thing, how my taste has evolved thanks to these brands/photographers, and my personal observations on the photography in this niche.

Aka, I’m really just a noob and I have no thunder behind any of the opinions. 🙂

Me and Photography

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Ethan, circa 2011.

I never thought I’d get into photography.  My dad, like most stereotypical Asian dads, was the main photographer of the family.  For as long as I can remember, he had a camera, whether it was the first compact point-and-shoot digital ones of the early 2000s to the Canon DSLR.  I’d see him in action during family gatherings and school events, sometimes looking longingly at the other, more affluent Asian dads with their collection of prime and telephoto lenses, touting that envious red lines.  I don’t think that he thought of himself as a photographer, more so as simply a documenter of our lives.

My need of a DSLR didn’t materialize until I was a sophomore in high school. At the time, I wanted to be a film major (or at least make  films in my free time).  Through watching different BTS videos of Freddie Wong, I saw that they were using Canon DSLR cameras!  I was surprised since it looked like a regular photo-camera but it shot HD video.  Obviously my dad/s old Canon (which was pre-SD card) wasn’t video capable, so I saved up and asked for a T3i, one of the cheap-tier Canons.

I used it mainly for dumb action videos (which I will not share with you guys) and seldom for photography; I knew about stuff like shutter speed/ISO, but relied on the AUTO function for any pictures.  One of my classmates (who eventually went to USC film school) also got a T3I and took to it much better than me.  I noticed that his footage had blur (or bokeh) and asked him how to achieve that.  He showed me his 50mm 1.4, which was his “nifty” go to.  My stupid ass stuck with the 18-55 stock lens.  I eventually got a 50mm myself to have more “cinematic” images.

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Fast forward to my last year of college, where I was finally making more friends.  Because I was busy with my major, I didn’t have a lot of time for videos, so my camera was collecting dust.  Eventually, I met Tim Mah (currently a photographer for Urban Outfitters) who noticed that I was sort of toying with the idea of becoming an Instagram fashion/blogger guy.  He gave me the biggest advice I’d hold onto forever: “No one will like your stuff if you’re doing mirror selfies.  You have a camera; use it!”

I had the pieces: a decent DSLR and a good shallow-focus lens.  I started to pay attention to photography, learning all the components and how they interact with each other to produce an image.  I have a lot to thank to Tim and my friend Jon (who was a portrait/event photographer and now makes commercials).  But even though I started to develop this passion, I was far from being professional (still am).

The Influencer Photography

Menswear as a whole (which include the ugh-worthy influencers/youtubers and our favorite ateliers) is a large community, but what separates the good from the bad (in my opinion) isn’t just the pieces, but the photographic style.   The emergence of social media and the development of technology made it so that anyone could take pictures and share them.  I’m obviously on the side of this democratization, since it allowed me to have an avenue; it’s more so the photographic style that is what I’m concerned with.   And the influencer/youtuber/IG facet of menswear definitely has a distinctive look in their content.

As I was getting into this whole #menswear thing on Instagram and Tumblr, I noticed that a lot of the menswear pictures were pretty…similar.   Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was hot shit at the time, especially since it was so common.  It didn’t help that I had friends who were aiming to be “IG famous” by shooting girls and streetwear (of the most basic variety).  A lot of that “iconic menswear influencer” photography style was adapted right from from women’s fashion bloggers or aspiring models.  It could also be said that the style was inspired by the pioneers of the blog-streetstyle photography, like Scott Schuman or Tommy Ton. And I get the appeal; these influencers wanted to make their life look like it was taken right out of Pitti Uomo.

The big names  in this style (that I can recall) are Mariano Di Vaio or Blake Scott.  Looking one way while buttoning your suit, standing in the street while crossing your legs, fake candids, “artsy walls”, etc. In some cases it was just a static shot of a guy’s chest. It really is a mix of magazine-style photos and the street-snap, the only difference is that it’s definitely planned and posed(then again, almost all pictures are posed, so thats not really an accurate “attack”).

Perhaps it was so intriguing to me at the time not only  because I was new to this whole fashion/social media world (a guy being famous for wearing a slim suit? cool!) but because the photography was “young” and different than say the pictures my dad would take of me.  It was cool and hip and I wanted to do it too.

I get that social media is a business, whether you’re a brand or an influencer. And like women’s fashion bloggers/influencers, many of these guys make a living by always having content or sharing sponsorships.  And that content has to be pretty and easily consumable, so it makes sense that most of the content ended up this way.  It doesn’t bother me, though it is something I’ve noticed, since I have friends on both ends.

Quick shout out: I think that the best one out of this blogging circle, was the guys over at Articles of Style.  Even though it had spades of influencer-esque photography, it was certainly done way better and more interestingly. They even made the studio/backdrop pics look great (something I’m still not keen on for myself).  It could be that I liked AoS’s style the best.  Or maybe it’s because Alex Crawford is a damn good photographer and knew how to create artistic work that would still satisfy their followers.

If you look at the early posts on this blog (and perhaps a few today), you can still see spades of it in my work.

Classic Menswear

There was a comment that I came across recently on one of Drake’s Instagram posts that sums up exactly why I love the content in the classic menswear niche: “Drake’s curates their posts as actual photography, rather than just content.”   It’s paraphrased from memory of course, but you get the idea.

As I moved forward with my interest in menswear, I began to look for different places of inspiration. I was done with the whole Zara/H&M/J. Crew look, as I wanted to actively reference my love of vintage clothing.  I didn’t want to be straight up period authentic, but rather a blend of modern and vintage tailoring.  That was the world of classic menswear, as I later found out.

Suddenly, I was thrust into the Tumblr accounts of tailors and ateliers, or more specifically of the accounts from B&Tailor, Drake’s, and the Armoury Boys.  Obviously, there was a significant difference in the photography styles of these guys when compared to the Blake Scott-esque influencers.  While I’m sure that the content was always a marketing tool (especially now more than ever), it was approached differently.  It was similar to the more niche, artsy type of streetwear portraits I’d see occasionally from seasoned photographers/designers (rather than influencers). It was dark and moody, but thanks to the clothing and environment, it was a different vibe.

And I knew my taste would never be the same.

The Somber Portrait

[I apologize for the lack of deep, actual photography analysis, because I am an amateur after all.]

This photography style is definitely more studied, utilizing the tools and features of a camera.  The artistic approach to OOTD pics is especially apparent in the composition and lighting, each resulting in a somber image that I never saw on the typical IG influencer.  The pictures were sometimes a bit blurry, a bit too dark, or had the subject off kilter a bit, but that adds to the artistry of it. These tailors and boulevardiers weren’t really concerned with making  the bright, lifestyle-focused content that was easily digestible/repeatable in order to clearly show the components of the outfit (complete with an unreleased/silly inspirational/motivational quote).

I’m not saying that is style of photography is more “correct” as all art is subjective, but after coming across this, I just couldn’t go back to the influencer type.  Call me idealistic, but I felt that there was more effort and passion behind these posts.

If you look at an old post on Ethan Newton’s tumblr, he states that his photography inspiration comes from Vermeer.  It’s pretty obvious when you put his stuff and Vermeer’s side by side; you can see the “soft and round colours…solemnity of his subject…the heavily weighted black space…” all present in Newton’s pictures and early posts from The Armoury (Ethan helped launch the original beloved shop in HK).  Generally speaking again, you can draw parallel’s to this and the work by B&Tailor, but each have their own style.

Just amazing.

While the dark, somber look characterized the first images I saw, I grew even more enamored with their candid stuff (though I’m not sure exactly which is candid and which one is lightly posed).  It still has the asymmetry and attention to light but done in a different way.  It’s like something you’d see in Vanity Fair, an art major’s portfolio, a cinematographer’s shot list, or a high-end look book (but without all the cheese). But the kicker is that these were all done by regular shop guys (albiet with great cameras, though Arnold Wong just uses his iPhone) and not models. It’s probably apparent that they all appreciated art and wanted to convey that in their images.

From what I’ve heard, most of these guys would get to their shops early to shine their shoes and take pics in the morning light without the bustle of clients.

A majority of the  following images are still serious, but there’s the charm of non-chalance, done with fisted pockets and unkempt ties rather than the psuedo-aloof look right before a sip of artisanal coffee.  It’s serious and un-seriousness all in one, again something that you couldn’t find on an Instagram influencer or the pages of GQ.  Like I said, it’s the combination beautiful photography  and showing off the clothes.

You can see this photography style here, across a myriad of accounts.

One of my favorites of all time!

This feels like a painting, but then again, many do.

A cool mirror selfie.

Dramatic lighting rustles my jimmies.

Drake’s, F.E Castleberry, and

the “Fun Picture”

Now over time, a lot of people co-opted this photography style, as you can no doubt tell through the variety of people above.   There’s nothing wrong with that, as that’s how art proliferates. I mean it is a nice formula, considering it relies mostly on natural light (rather than fancy editing) and a great backdrop (usually provided by their beautiful shops).

In terms of my journey, this was 2016: Ethan and Jake/Alex had moved on from the Armoury to pursue personal projects, so as a result, their feed changed slightly.  I wouldn’t say it got stale (perhaps I had exhausted going through their entire tumblr archives), but I knew I wanted something different.

Then comes Drake’s.

Now Drake’s definitely had content for a while, nearly around the same time The Armoury and B&Tailor had their tumblrs.  A majority of those pictures were taken their own Jaime Ferguson, who later went on to be a great freelance photographer in his own right.  What was new was the shift in tone when they started their New York location.

They had hired F.E Castleberry, the blogger/photographer behind Unabashedly Prep, and he really developed Drake’s social media aesthetic.  Instead of somber, Rembrandt-esque portraits, Castleberry integrated fun.  Guys were smiling, laughing, and joking around on Crosby St.  Their “eating food” pics in various restaurants and the “class picture” became trademarks of sorts.  Sure, some were still serious, but it was different since they shot outside in order to give it a city feel. This made Drake’s look seamlessly a part of NYC, almost as if it had always existed in the city all this time.

It’s important to note that unlike the other guys in this, Castleberry was a professional photographer specializing in preppy life style stuff.  If you look at his Instagram, it’s clear that  he was first influenced by the A&F photos by Bruce Weber but lately, his stuff has taken a quirkier (read Wes Anderson) turn.  Both of these elements contribute to his unique photography style that is so refreshing to classic menswear.

Back to Drake’s and Castleberry, they helped anchor this NYC store by  shooting everywhere, from the park, the late Great Jones Restaurant, to even phone booths and bookstores. It was a more authentic form of lifestyle photography (at least in my eyes) that still had the air of non-chalance (just expressed differently). It contrasts so much with the typical influencer/youtuber content, perhaps because it was slightly irreverent. And perhaps the most noticable thing carried over from the other brands was that they used the people who work there.  Talking to Chris at the most recent trunk show, he explained that the idea is two fold: firstly, it’s cheaper than hiring models.  Secondly, these staffers are a part of the brand.  Why not feature them on all the branding?

As time went on, Drake’s embraced this aesthetic and brought it with them across their entire brand, expanding on the vibe and incorporating new things.  Lookbooks and London based pics would also have this Castleberry vibe (with hired models this time), although they would use a variety of different photographers like Ferguson or James-Harvey-Kelly who would do it in their own way.  One stand out is the more film-oriented format, done by Harvey-Kelly. Obviously other brands noticed and incorporated this look into their own content, though I feel like Drake’s has truly mastered it, as they have a true mix and variety of artistic photography.

The somber portrait will always have a soft spot in my photography, but I definitely loved the silly pictures way more. It’s probably because I’m a silly guy myself!  I love the snapshot quality, leaning into candids and flash pictures, as it makes it feel more natural and easy. Almost as if they don’t take this too seriously.

(Some of these aren’t Drake’s, but I put them in because I thought it fit the vibe).

This feels so NYC.

These particular kinds of food shots are so cool to me.

Drop shadow!

Ties, presented as still life.

My Photography

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Like I said in the intro, I never considered myself a serious photographer since I didn’t study it nor do I have a fancy camera (though, I love my Canon 6D to death).  Luckily, the democratization of photography  allowed me to develop this hobby and share it with you guys!  I’m not in the art as deep as many of these guys (similar to how I have no training in tailoring and haven’t read Bruce Boyer; you can just call it ignorance tbh) but all my “training” came from studying the photography above.

I’ve learned so much simply by looking at the myriad of photographs from Drake’s, B&Tailor, the Armoury, and others, figuring out how ISO/shutter speed work and how to get the best lighting (natural light is great, who thunk?) to produce the image I want.  I did upgrade my gear since my high school/early college days; I now use a Canon 6D with a 35mm.  It’s perfect from everything to portraits to event photography!

As I straddle the line between influencer (considering my upbringing and how I first got into fashion) and classic menswear, I felt that it was important to take great photographs for a lot of reasons.  The main one is to represent my interests and the tiny LA community as well as possible.   I also wanted to show that regular dudes who loves McDonalds and Star Wars can still have the same vibe as the brands we all know and love.  But ultimately, I developed this hobby because I knew the vibe I wanted and I didn’t want to have to hire/rely on a photographer.  I could do it all myself!

I probably sound dumb thanks to this “post-modernist” (if you can call it that) approach to photography, but I do wish that more brands and people would take more cues from the images in this article.  While it honestly might be more of a meme now in the CM world (since it’s so small), it’s still underrepresented in the fashion world, especially in LA.  I do fall prey to the “content for content’s sake” for OOTD shots, simply because I don’t have a photographer following me around and the only place I can use my tripod is the alley behind my work during my break. If I’m being honest, I actually abhor taking the same shots in the alley everyday! I wish I had an opportunity to do more (out side of events) but I’m limited to just myself during the workweek.

My general mantra is to keep things as natural as possible.  None of my friends are models (save for Garret Gooch), but I general give very little direction when I take a picture.  I definitely prefer shooting candids at events, since I love seeing how garments look in the moment rather than as a portrait.  While my dramatic Newton-esque portraits have gone down in recent time (simply because I’m at events more than studio spaces), I’ve upped my silly candids almost to the point that it has become my trademark.  I always like to say that the whole reason I learned more about photography was to take the best pictures of my well-dressed friends.

Here are some of my favorite snaps that I’ve taken these past few years.  It certainly has a more amateur take when compared to all the other pictures before hand, but I like what I take.   I don’t have much to say in terms of photography advice, but it definitely helps to have a steady stream of inspiration to draw from.  You can tell that I have obvious nods to the inspirations in this article, but I think I’ve been around enough to have developed my own voice in this medium.  I bring my camera with me as much as I can, capturing outfits and events in a way that I feel is missing in Los Angeles and the younger crowd that doesn’t have a chance to partake in the greater classic menswear circle.

And yes, I created my own presets in Lightroom! Makes editing so much easier. Also big ups to all my friends who allow me to take their photo.

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Drake’s anyone?

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Ah, I remember when I liked using this green/yellow tint.

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Poor Kenji kept lighting his match until I got the right snap!

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Conclusion

There’s a podcast episode on this topic!

I hope you enjoyed this long, image heavy post and that my point (of sorts) came across. I do wish this style of photography was more widespread in this niche.  I certainly think it could add a bit of legitimacy to the whole influencer thing, but to each their own. I get that it’s a business and that there is certainly a “vibe” that is popular in that particular subset.  Those guys are probably really happy with the shots they get taken and that’s enough for me! I personally will always like the more artistically inclined pictures, and I’m sure it shows.

I’m pretty grateful that menswear lead me to develop this passion.  Who would’ve thought that these two hobbies are so interconnected? Ultimately, it’s actually lead me to a deeper understanding of the art, as I find myself looking at older photographs/artists and getting the context/appreciation I had lacked (since I simply looked at menswear tumblrs for photography inspiration).  But perhaps that is a subject for another time. For now, let’s focus on the great menswear photographers that grace our IG feeds and brand lookbooks!

Obviously there are a lot of great players in menswear photography and my inspiration isn’t limited to just the ones I’ve featured here. I’ll finish off this article with a list of some of the best photographers I know so perhaps you can get some inspiration, just as I have.  The more I go on this menswear journey, the more my photography style develops. I’m sure that in a few years, I’ll make another essay on how it’s changed further!

The Armoury NYC / The Armoury HK Tumblr Archive

Ethan Newton Tumblr ArchiveKenji Cheung Bryceland’s 

B & Tailor Tumblr ArchiveChad Park

Milad Abedi

Jaime Ferguson

Kyu Ahn / The Finery Company

Drake’s James Harvey-KellyFE Castleberry

The Anthology TWCharles Yang

Oliver Dannefalk

Always a pleasure,

Ethan W.

@ethanmwong

Street x Sprezza 

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