Georges Antoni is one of Australia’s most successful and sought after fashion photographers, with an international reputation for beautifully constructed and stylised photographs that sees him shooting for the likes of Versace, David Jones, Myer, Peter Alexander and Hugo Boss. His work has appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia and Oyster, and he has worked with high-profile models and celebrities including Rihanna, Miranda Kerr, Jennifer Hawkins and Dita Von Teese. He talks with Career FAQs about life as a photographer, important career lessons and being a judge on Australia’s Next Top Model.
Describe your career history and what you did before becoming a fashion photographer?
I have had a lot of different careers. I used to work as a sales assistant to put myself through university, so I worked at Hound Dog, Guess and Country Road. After completing Commerce/Law at university I went and worked for Coca-Cola in customer marketing, and after that I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers as a strategic consultant. After that I started up a chain of health food shops and lectured in universities, and then I became a photographer.
How did you get into photography?
It was a comedy of errors that got me into photography. Basically, I started up that chain of health food shops, and it went bust. I was left with $200 in my bank account and no options. The only thing I had was a camera and a few photos that I thought were ok. So I went to a modelling agency and said, ‘I’m a photographer’, which was absolute rubbish. And from that point ‘til now, I’ve been taking photos.
But if you had never done it before, what made you think of photography?
I had no other options to make money. I was completely broke and owed $3000 on my credit card, and I had no other form of income so I just had to be resourceful. When I took my photos to the modelling agency, they said they liked the work and they started booking me from there. It was really my only option at the time. I was supposed to go back to PricewaterhouseCoopers to start consulting with them again in Asia, but it was around the same time that SARS hit so I wasn’t allowed to travel back. So I had to think of something else and I literally had no other option.
Is there such thing as a typical day on a shoot, or is every day completely different? Can you broadly describe what happens on a shoot?
I think every day is very different and the end results can be very different, but you face a similar kind of challenge every day. First you walk into a studio, a completely white, blank room, and when you leave 10 to 12 hours later the room is exactly the same … but in-between some kind of magic has happened. In a typical day I walk in, meet with hair, makeup, styling and the model, and we discuss what we are going to do. Then everyone goes away and does their own individual thing. I begin to light the set and the first part of the day is usually attributed to getting it just right and doing fine tweaks to make things perfect. Often you don’t get your first shot until lunch time or midday. Then you shoot until the end of the day. At the end of the day we edit, so we choose which photos we like out of maybe 1500 photos we took over the course of the day. We choose our favourite 10 if it’s a 10-page story. Then we pack everything up and go home, and that’s when I do all my emails. I usually have between 100 and 150 emails a day. I then have to do more editing or post-production or retouching. That usually takes me to my 18-hour day and then I go to sleep.
How much of the photo is created in the post-production and retouching?
For me, 95 per cent of it will be done on the shoot, and 5 per cent would be enhanced in post.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
Everywhere. It can be from a conversation like we’re having now, to my parents’ wedding photos, to what the sky is doing outside, to seeing someone walk down the street with an interesting pair of shoes. Inspiration for me comes from everywhere. I don’t look to other magazines for inspiration very much – sometimes, but more often than not, I try to get inspiration from my life.
Do you ever feel creatively stifled?
On occasion, but only when I am forced to have to shoot a certain way. If I was just shooting my own thing all the time, I would never have a problem. I have too many ideas, I just can't get them down on paper.
Are there a lot of limitations imposed on you?
A lot, yes. Commercial limitations and also creative limitations. I may have an idea for a cover that I think will be fantastic, but sometimes the company will say no, we can't use that. We can't use that idea because it's not consistent with our corporate strategy, or what have you.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the fact that 100 per cent of the success of the job depends on my own abilities. If the photos are rubbish it's because I did a bad job. If the photos are good it's because I did a good job. I love that kind of accountability and I love the buck stopping with me.
What do you like the least?
It's a hard job to find things to dislike in. But if I had to say one thing it would be some of the inflated egos I have to deal with.
Most people see the world of fashion as very glamourous. Would you describe it as that?
I think it certainly has got elements of glamour to it, and I think it depends on where in the fashion cycle you sit. I think my job is to create glamour. Like any beautifully presented car, say a Lamborghini, at the end of the day it's still got the components of engine, pistons, oil, petrol, gas – dirty elements that go into making a beautiful thing, and I think we spend a lot of time in the dirty elements section of fashion. My job is to identify imperfection and try to make it perfect.
What is it like working with famous celebrities and beautiful models all the time?
There is a big difference between famous celebrities and beautiful models, and there's big differences within those as well. I love shooting some celebrities and I really dislike shooting others. And I love having to make beautiful people even more beautiful. I think that's quite a challenge, actually. It's quite easy to make someone who is not necessarily conventionally beautiful into someone quite beautiful, but it's hard to make a really beautiful person more beautiful. I love having to elicit people's personalities from them without them realising it and showing it in a picture, in 125th of a second. I think that is a real challenge and it's something that I'm still working on becoming good at. I think it takes years to do that. I think a lot of that has to do with interpersonal skills.
So is it about bringing out their personality or asking them to take on a different persona?
It varies on the nature of the project but that’s a great question. I think an excellent portrait is about bringing out the person’s personality. I think you can also do portraits where you're asking people to assume another personality, and that in itself is interesting because you can do something that is opposed to their own personality.
I think as far as models, I have a select group of models who I like working with. I don't like working with new models all the time. I think you begin to build a rapport or relationship with certain girls or guys that trust you – and that trust can overcome a thousand creative barriers. I think that's when the most powerful pictures are created, and every major photographer globally has had their muses. Everyone from Helmut Newton to Guy Bourdin to Richard Avedon to Man Ray. They all have their muses. I never really understood that before I became a photographer but now I completely understand it. Because a great picture is 90 per cent to do with trust.
So do you have a muse or muses?
I have a few, yes. The one that I would say has been most consistently my muse is a model named Laura Gorun. She’s a Romanian model who's lived in Australia for about five to six years, as long as I have been a photographer here. I use her on probably 80 per cent of my personal work because I trust the results we get.
I enjoy shooting a lot of people for different reasons. The other models I like shooting are Phoebe [Griffiths], my girlfriend, and Amanda Ware, who won Australia's Next Top Model last year. I shoot her quite a lot. Another is Annabella Barber. I think they are probably my favourites.
Which kind of shoots do you like doing the most?
I like doing my personal work the most. Fashion shoots, but they are 100 per cent my idea. That means no limitations!
What was it like being a judge on the second season of Australia's Next Top Model?
When I was actually a judge, I found it very uncomfortable because it's very much against my personality. I look at that show and I see these really young, beautiful girls who are beautiful no matter how you slice it. And you're asked to criticise them in ways that could really impact on them or their career. It never ever sat well with me, which is why I didn't take a permanent judging role after the second season. I couldn't do another – it just goes against my personality. Still, I enjoyed being a part of the show, it was fun. You get to meet some interesting people and I love some of the other judges in the show, like Alex Perry. I really get along well with those guys and it’s a fun environment to be in.
Would you say you have a good work–life balance?
No. I think it's improving but I definitely don't have a good work–life balance. The one problem when you do something you love so much and you are so passionate about, is that the line between work and play gets so blurred that it actually becomes the one thing. In a way that can be very good but for the people around you, it can be very difficult.
You travel a lot for work. Is that something that you like?
It's something I used to like. At the moment, I am onto my 130th flight for this year, so it gets a bit too much. For me, I would say I don't really enjoy the travel. If I had the choice, I wouldn't.
What's been your greatest career high to date?
I have had a few I think. One is when I was invited to shoot the 75th anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for Harper’s Bazaar, probably one of the biggest, most epic shoots in fashion in Australia. It won The Best Photo in Australia Award or something like that. I was also invited to shoot the 50th anniversary of Australian Vogue, which was fantastic.
What about your greatest career lessons?
I think the biggest lesson generally in this career would be to never stop being grateful for what you get. If someone asks you to shoot for somebody, no matter how big or small, it is the biggest privilege you can be given. The second biggest learning for me is humility – probably one of the rarest aspects in my industry, but also I think the most valuable.
How have you managed to retain your humility?
I don't know that I have, but I'd like to think I have. I try to. But I am sure if you asked different people, they wouldn't necessarily say that. I don’t deliberately think of trying to maintain my humility but luckily my parents have always made that an important aspect of the way they brought us up.
Did your previous business failure also act as a big lesson?
It's an amazing motivator. To be at rock bottom gives you an incredible desire to want to succeed and to maintain that success, and I think that at that point you understand that if you kick anyone on the way out, they can very easily kick you on the way down too. So, I think it gives you a built-in sense of humility as well.
What did you want to be when you were kid?
A plastic surgeon. And funnily enough, in a lot of ways I am doing that. I saw the movie Return to Eden and thought the girl was so beautiful, and she was even more beautiful after the guy cut her up, so I wanted to be a part of that. Honestly, that was what my goal was. That was when I was a kid, and as I got older, I wanted to be a lawyer instead (though I never wound up practising).
What are your aspirations now for the future?
I feel very lucky because there's nothing else that I really want to do. I want to be a photographer for the rest of my life. I am dabbling a little bit in directing – TV commercials, scripts, that kind of thing. But I would say the goal for me before I die is to take a photo I like.
You mean you don't like any of them?
No, not yet. I think some of them are ok, but there aren’t any that make me go, ‘I really like that photo’.
If you had to identify the qualities that make a great photographer, what would they be?
I think on face value being a good photographer seems like quite a simple thing, but I actually think the combination of skills required to be a good photographer is almost impossible to have in one person. That's why I think there are very few great photographers in the world. I think you need to have a very fine balance between art and commerce, between solitude and interrelationship, between extravagance and simplicity. If you can bring all those elements together, you can balance photography very well, but you really need to be a mad artist who can deal perfectly with people. I think the greatest skill in that respect is diplomacy and the ability to sell. Great photographers are amazing salespeople.
I think you have to combine those with this concept that I refer to as ‘herding cats’ – because you have to manage a team of 10 creative people, all of them wanting to run their own way on a job. The hair person wants the hair to be purple and frizzy, the makeup artist wants the big eyelashes, and so on and so forth. As a photographer you need to be able to harness all these people who are running in their own direction, into one tunnel that makes the photo look its best. So if you can master the art of ‘herding cats’, then you are 95 per cent there to being a great photographer.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to become a fashion photographer?
Don't ever take your finger off the button. Don't stop shooting. It's got nothing to do with anything else.
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