Behind the Lens with Jenn Hollmeyer
An Interview with Petra Ford
Fifth Wednesday Journal has been publishing Petra Ford’s photography since the spring of 2008. This winter she took her Nikon D200 to the street to capture everyday life in Chicago. Then she sat down with us to talk about shooting, posing, and irony.
Untitled by Petra Ford
FWJ: You’re both a photographer and a model. Which came first?
Petra Ford: I started modeling when I was nineteen, in 1999. I modeled for a couple years with Elite Model Management in Chicago and then took a temporary retirement. I started modeling again in 2008 with Elite, which is now Factor Women, and its sister agency, Stewart Talent. Being immersed in the world of fashion as a model made trying my hand at fashion photography an obvious choice. I bought my first DSLR in 2006 and enrolled in an intro photo class in January 2007. My first solo gallery show was a little over a year later, in May 2008, and then I got into fashion and beauty photography in 2009.
FWJ: What’s your favorite photo shoot you’ve ever done?
PF: To date, my favorite shoot was one that I did in September 2010. I used three models — Samantha from Factor Women, Heather from Factor Women (and of America’s Next Top Model fame), and Josh from Chosen Management. What I loved about the shoot was that the models interacted with each other in a very natural and spontaneous way. My vision was for the photos to look very real, as if a fourth friend had been there with them, taking photos. It was a fun fusion of street photography and fashion.
FWJ: What are your favorite experiences being on the other side of the camera — as the model?
PF: I’ve had some truly incredible and surreal experiences as a model! I’ve met lots of wonderfully talented people, worn gorgeous couture clothing, had my hair styled in every conceivable manner, and worn every type of makeup from very natural, to very avante garde, to very bloody (including a fake bullet hole in the head!). It’s hard to say what my favorite experience has been because there have been so many great ones. Modeling outside in the nude with seventeen other nude women for a fine art project for celebrated photographer Dennis Manarchy was probably my most memorable experience, however! (Disclaimer: it was extremely tasteful and artistic nudity!)
FWJ: How does your experience as a photographer enhance your modeling skills, and vice versa?
PF: As a photographer, I have a much better understanding of what may be going through the models’ heads during our shoot. I know what questions they may be wondering and explain the way I work so they understand why I ask them to do the things I do. I’m also very aware of the models’ comfort level and try to make sure that no one is ever cold, hungry, or otherwise uncomfortable on my set. As a model, my experience as a photographer is helpful because I understand concepts such as lighting, as well as the importance of letting go and trusting the photographer.
FWJ: What have you learned by watching others photograph you?
PF: I’ve learned that every photographer works in a different way and that there is no one right or wrong way to make a photograph. Everyone’s style is different and it’s very interesting to watch other photographers in action.
FWJ: What do you think about when you shoot street photography versus fashion photography? How does one style help you with the other?
PF: When I’m shooting street photography, I like to turn on my iPod and just get in a zone. The zone is one of both total awareness and total instinct. I’m constantly looking, thinking, aware, and ready, and yet I try not to think too much and rely on my instincts to tell me when to raise my camera and shoot — often very quickly! There’s also a barrier that I have to break through for the first five or ten minutes of shooting street. Every time I get out there, there’s an initial uneasiness where I feel like everyone is aware of me and my camera. But as soon as I start shooting for a few minutes, I break out of it and start to feel completely invisible. I often compare it to how I feel when I’m jogging — the first few minutes are rough and all I want to do is turn around and go home, but once I’ve hit my stride I could keep going forever. When I’m shooting fashion, it’s a much more controlled environment. In street photography I welcome the unexpected, but nothing can be left to chance in fashion photography. Everything is carefully planned, from the lighting to the hair and makeup and the model’s expression and attitude (and of course the clothing!). My fashion photography definitely takes some cues from my street photography in that I’m always striving for my models to be as natural as possible in terms of movement and expression. I want the story to seem real, even if it’s not.
FWJ: You seem acutely aware of the way commercialism influences daily life — which makes sense, given your background. Your subjects seem to be both engaged with and oblivious to the messages around them. How does our society’s relationship with commercialism influence your photography?
PF: When I shoot outside, the world becomes my backdrop, and advertisements and signage happen to take up a huge portion of our society’s backdrop. I’m drawn to the ironies surrounding people, and often these ironic moments stem from an environment filled with ads, signs, and storefronts. Whether we know it or not, we all have a relationship with commercialism, even if it’s not directly through the purchase of a particular product. Sometimes these relationships are humorous or ironic and sometimes they simply make our society’s commercialism that much more obvious.
FWJ: Which photographers and styles of photography inspire you?
PF: My favorite photographer is Helen Levitt. Her photographs have such a quiet humor to them; I never get tired of looking at her art. When it comes to style, street photography really is my true love. Photojournalism in general captivates me like no other form. All photography is based in reality and “real” moments, but photojournalism is the most real and that’s what I love about it. I love that all the poignant, funny, sweet, beautiful, horrifying, and captivating moments captured by photojournalists were all once a moment in time, a moment in a real person’s life. And I love documentary photography.
For the past three years I’ve been participating in the annual Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region Photography Exhibition. Each year several photographers (current students as well as alumni from the College of DuPage photography department) are assigned a special needs child who participates in the Easter Seals program, and our job is to document milestones and special moments in that child’s life. It’s really special for me to get to know someone through my lens and to bring them and their families joy through my photography. I plan to participate in the project again this year and hope to be involved with many other documentary projects in the future.
FWJ: What is the main thing you want people to see in your photographs?
PF: I want people to be as intrigued and curious about their fellow humans as I am. I want the people who look at my work to see more than just a person in a picture — I want them to see the emotion and expression that lies within all of us. I want people to see that the world is full of irony and beauty in the ordinary and that all you have to do to see it is open your eyes.
Petra Ford grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and currently lives in Chicago with her son, photographing everything that passes in front of her camera lens. Days are usually spent shooting lifestyle, fashion, and beauty photography, but her true passion lies in finding and capturing life's unposed, unseen moments. The world is full of expression and irony and beauty in the ordinary, and Ford adores interesting juxtapositions and the relationships between different people and between a person and his environment. This is her fifth time contributing to Fifth Wednesday Journal. Her work has also been published in INK Magazine and Chicago Special Parent, and has been shown at Calmer House Gallery, MaNa Gallery, Gahlberg Gallery, and Wings Gallery. Learn more at www.petraford.com.
This interview appeared in the Spring 2012 Issue 10 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.