Bestselling author Camilla Morton is thankful for the fashion misfits who kept her high heels on the ground and made getting into the shows an adventure full of punch-ups, car chases and close shaves. Here she salutes the greatest of them.
At the shows, there are the peacocks of seemingly no fixed purpose outside, the editors front row, the designers and, of course, the clothes (though with all the distractions it’s possible to forget them). Out front, all is ruled from behind dark glasses, from the comfort of slick limos and PRs grovelling to make anything possible. Backstage, there is also a hierarchy, but you are in a parallel universe. Backstage is a scramble: long days, hard slogs, heavy equipment to schlep from venue to venue. Only the toughest survive and here, at the centre of the fray, you’ll find its unsung king.
“‘There’s a photographer outside shouting your name, says he’s shooting for Glenda Bailey but he’s not on our list,’ screams a rather agitated head of security,” Modus Publicity’s creative director Julian Vogel reminisces. “Sean never seemed to be on anyone’s list, but backstage wouldn’t be backstage without him. I first met him in 1995, backstage at a Katharine Hamnett show. He had no patience for PRs and their rules, but over the years he taught me so much about first looks and where the photographer needed to be, what images worked and what didn’t. He was one of the first to shoot beauty and the line-up. Sometimes there were casualties: I remember one event where the client upset him, so he threw the film canisters on the floor in front of them and stamped on the rolls – then whispered in my ear that he had the real film in his pocket.”
You may not immediately know the name Sean Cunningham. “I’ve been sacked by every editor since Beatrice Miller at Vogue,” he says, with characteristic bluntness. He shoots for many a power glossy, including American Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire – you can often find his byline dumped in the gutter. “Don’t make this sound like an obituary,” he snaps. When Karl Lagerfeld is in town for an event, he asks Sean to shoot him. When Demarchelier, Lindbergh, McDean or Testino are backstage, they always watch how he is lighting his shots that season: it’s usually some Heath Robinson set-up involving battered card held together, like his glasses, with ripped gaffer tape. Against all odds, he is the best of backstage: the descriptions you’ll most often hear of him are “difficult”, “rude” and “photographic genius”.
Outsiders looking in might not know Sean, but those who matter do. “How can someone so tall take up so little room?” Amanda Harlech says. The make-up artist Val Garland insists that he is “always a pleasure, courteous, a perfect gentleman, a dream backstage.” Justin Cooke, CEO of innovate7, has employed him to shoot both Burberry and Topshop. “Sean is undoubtedly one of the greatest photographers in the industry,” he says, “always able to capture the second before the second... those special moments that only the insider would see.”
If the insiders know who he is, then why don’t you? “I’m that arrogant one who shouts at people,” he says matter-of-factly, as he drives through the night from London to Milan – no cocktail parties for him. “In fact, I’m actually the one who is responsible for everyone backstage, helps set up people’s shots, makes sure the right people get in.” He started out shooting video, but shouted too much and so was moved (fired) to taking (silent!) stills of the runway, before heading backstage. “Sean’s very tough but very gracious,” the fashion journalist Marion Hume says. “I’ve watched him backstage and he’s almost surgical; ruthlessly precise in getting the shot, then all done, he’s outta there.” According to Rosanna Falconer, head of digital at Matthew Williamson, “when he arrives and sets up his mega lighting, you know every shot will count, even if you’re working with a new piece of tech, a confined space or late model arrivals: Sean won’t miss a shot, just don’t you dare get in his way! His GIFs are a little clip of the madness that is pure fashion, captured forever on film.”
Virtually unknown outside the backstage hub, he has been shooting the shows for three decades. He hasn’t technically been invited for years; he doesn’t need invites. The PRs just sigh and know he will be there. The designers know he takes the best pictures and so do security, though they also know they will have to battle to keep him behind the rope. His temper is somewhat legendary, but honest: the scrum of the photographer’s pit, the chaos of backstage, would surely frustrate anyone. “One season I will just say fuck it and stay in my shed brewing beer,” he says of the current circus. Nowadays, while the world is tweeting, Instagramming and air-kissing, Sean and the hardcore backstage gang have perhaps a fifth of a second to get that shot, elbowing out the rival magazine snappers, snatching the girl’s attention away from selfies, hair, make-up, dresser and all the hangers-on who swarm backstage like bees. “We are either stuck behind a rope or have to compete with snotty-nosed kids who get in your way as they shoot crap on their iPhones.”
He once smashed his camera backstage at Versace – enraged by the rope thing – and Donatella herself came over to help him. Galliano always made sure Sean got through security; Jean Paul Gaultier always came out to chat with him, but still said “non”. “I see Sean as a beacon backstage,” says Charlotte Stockdale, one of his favourite stylists. Through the lens, fashions blur into one another, but he has an eye for the next face, noticing jaw-lines and cheekbones. He has seasonal favourites – Daria, Gisele, Doutzen, Carmen – and girls often find that once lit, framed, shot by Sean, their careers explode. He’s seen designers and magazines come and go, captured seminal moments: the first Galliano, the first McQueen, the first Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford’s Gucci days – need I go on? He’s seen shows from angles editors only dream of: he sees the underside of the swan as she prepares to glide onto the runway.
“I don’t want a fucking puff piece,” he warns me. This isn’t. It so happens, though, that Sean is, as the hair stylist Sam McKnight puts it, “a linchpin of the backstage scene”. “Working with Sean was never dull,” says Kerry Diamond, the former vice president of Lancôme, now editorial director of Cherry Bombe. “All the models knew and loved him, but I can’t say the same about the publicists. He’s equal parts rogue, curmudgeon, brother, comedian, all rolled into this very tall package. Maybe his height is why the PR people singled him out?” It’s not. It’s more that Sean, unlike some photographers who try and steal a few extra moments when backstage is cleared for first looks, doesn’t sneak or hide or care about anything other than getting his shot – and woe betide you if you get in his way.
“Sean is a fashion character for sure,” says Ed Filipowski, president of the powerhouse KCD. “Determined, annoying, eyes always searching, humorous, thrilled when he sees something beautiful and new. He made me laugh the other day backstage at Isabel Marant with his camo pants and lace shirt. Maybe his plan is to get the cameras to turn on him?!” Sean’s own dress sense, in fact, is far from that of a fashion victim, ranging from army fatigues to a French fireman’s-uniform knit. We’re dealing, after all, with an eco-warrior who got distracted and slipped into the whirl of fashion. Off-season, he paraglides from Luton to Glastonbury. He doesn’t indulge at the end of a long day and order room service – he’s more likely to be found washing his socks in the hotel sink. He once ignored the inconvenient pain of kidney stones to photograph Versace, then, cursing, defied the A&E doctors to escape in time for the next show. He drives his beat-up car on the Milanese tramlines to avoid traffic, yet he’s always there to rescue waifs and strays like myself, brushing empty crisp packets off the seats to offer a stranded editor a lift.
In an industry that’s charmed by surface over content, Sean’s a rare rock to cling to. He is the man who, mid-nosebleed, walked straight to the front of the queue at New York’s hottest nightclub, not because he thought he was fabulous, but because it was raining and he had new Prada shoes on. He’s the man who then left the VIP area to come and collect me, dad-like, from the Marc Jacobs party, and, rather than call a mobile international, simply unplugged the music and yelled my name over the festive din. The first season I did the shows with him, he tied a lead to my arm: “It’s so bloody annoying when you go off talking to people.” I’d been employed to interview designers, and left Vivienne Westwood open-mouthed as, with a tug on my lead, I flew out of the door mid-sentence. With hindsight, I respect that. Sean is a perfectionist. He studies the schedule as if invading the city, not shooting the shows.
The once sacred kingdom of backstage has become a zoo, and the scene out front starts to look like a parody of all the industry once stood for. “Forget the idiots paid to turn up outside and wear dreadful clothes – now you have all the editors dressing up to be photographed outside the show. I’ve got three people shooting street style pre-show, as this earns more revenue than the backstage or the fashion they have supposedly come to see: it’s all gone arse over face.” “Grumpy Sean” bulldozes his way through these nonsensical crowds. He has a job to do.
If you’re thinking: “This man is a monster”, you’re wrong. “I can scan contact sheet after contact sheet of identical shows from identical points of view and am always able to spot his,” says Masoud Golsorkhi, co-founder of Tank. Despite the travails of the rope and security, the real talent isn’t in the “getting in”, it’s in what you make of it once there. Everyone has a camera on their phone, but very few can get that shot. And though magazines have record advertising sales and are operating on astronomical margins, Sean must capture the luxury on an ever-shrinking shoe-string. “Magazines are using the recession as an excuse to slash budgets,” he says. “Now I have to do my own lighting, my own data, my own retouching, and take my camera in a rucksack and ride a fucking pedal-bike to each show.” Where once it was “the top three only – American Harper’s Bazaar, American Vogue, Italian Vogue doing the beauty”, it’s now “a free-for-all, with every man and his dog taking pictures on their phones, so every image is worthless.” In glory days past, Sean’s images used to run over double spreads and girls would pause in the line-up so that he or Robert Fairer of American Vogue could photograph them. “There was a brief two years,” Sean says, “after film went into digital, when we’d worked out how to use our cameras so that the images were good enough.” The backstage photographer used to be the only one there to document that last, nerve-wracking moment of pure fashion, when it was just the designer and his work, before it stepped out to be judged by the world. Who has erased that role: the digital age, or those who applaud out front?
“Maybe one season I just won’t be there. No swansong. No apology. I’m that man – didn’t bother to go to art college and learn something decent, took the short cut of fashion.” He never really cared about the clothes, just the images, yet he was part of the landscape that defined the industry. With the advent of digital, he describes himself as “Captain of the Titanic”, the sinking ship of backstage. “Now, aged 50, I am going to have to find something new to do. There was a time when you shot girls on film like Natalia Vodianova, you could set up and frame these beautiful images. Now the girls, the pace, the budgets are like those little phones: cheap, soulless crap. I am an old man, reduced to a bicycle and a rucksack – does that make me a king or a clown?”
Ed Filipowski doesn’t see a clown. He says: “Capturing backstage is changing with digital, as it is no longer kept behind the scenes but immediately open to the world. But altruistically there is a place for quality in fashion photography, and that’s where the fierce passion of Sean remains relevant. It takes a seasoned and trained eye to put a backstage shot in an editorial context and take it beyond a trendy, often superfluous moment.” It might seem thankless – no invites, no respect, no recognition – but with his eye and his amazing bank of images, Sean could be holding all the cards as backstage enters a new golden era.
The photographer and digital pioneer Nick Knight famously live-streamed Alexander McQueen’s Atlantis show in 2010 on SHOWstudio: “As well as the guests, Lady Gaga brought two million fans with her and we could open fashion to a far greater audience and to the future.” Far ahead of the game, Knight is excited by the shift in power happening now. “The focus should be on the show and the spectacle; the magazines have less and less of a purpose as the shows’ reach makes them more and more time-sensitive. The front row doesn’t matter when you have an online audience of millions. The peacocks out front are the show, you have models with bigger Instagram followings than the publications they shoot for. You can’t rein it in, you need to embrace the change. Fashion needs to be more forward-thinking. Just as television replaced radio, colour replaced black and white, you must move with the times and not fight against them.”
The shows will go on, but they will change: right now we are mid-evolution. Live streams will advance. Magazines must adapt to stay relevant. Do all those editors need to sit at shows around the world? Surely the eye of the lens matters far more than bums on seats – but is that what the old guard are afraid of? The backstage scene at shows such as Topshop and Burberry (both shot, don’t forget, by Sean) is now much more a part of the spectacle, and the online audience is invited to share and interact with the experience. Rather than publish critiques in print, SHOWstudio hosts live panels to debate what’s happening on the runways. Here it is: the future. Turbulent and unpredictable, yes – but who better to navigate such waters than the indomitable Sean Cunningham?
Text by Camilla Morton
All photography by Sean Cunningham