Though he started his career in high school covering the New York Knicks, Randy Brooke began shooting runway shows as a photographer’s assistant for Vogue in 1980. Since then he has shot up to 50 shows per season on his way to becoming an elite runway photographer, with photos published in Vanity Fair, New York magazine, Paper magazine, and USA Today. He talks to TIME about life in the scrum of photographers at the end of the runway. As Brooke explains, “There’s a reason why it’s called the pit.”
What’s it like to be in the pit itself?
We have people from all over the world covering New York and Milan and Paris and London. There can be jostling, but most of us know each other and we know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we’ll say, you’re blocking me from getting a picture, can we switch? A lot of times the difference is just six inches. We’re pretty civilized, but there certainly can be bickering. We’re a lot of photographers working long hours, carrying heavy equipment during really long days, so you’re not always going to see us at our best.
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Is there a hierarchy to the spot you’re assigned in the pit?
There’s somewhat of a pecking order, that if you’ve done this for a while makes sense. And if you haven’t done this for a while, it can be completely bizarre. Paris and New York are probably the two craziest cities in the world for fashion, in terms of the amount of photographers and how packed in we get. If you’re shooting for one of the major publications in the world for fashion, or one of the biggest publications in the world for news, you should have a prime spot. It happens every season that a newbie comes along and thinks, if I get there an hour and a half early, I’m going to be one of the first ones in and I’m just going to take any spot I want. There are all kinds of spots marked with tape, and they’re just ignoring them. I’m one of the only ones that will normally talk to the newbie and say look, be humble and do what everybody is telling you. Literally every photographer in the pit is telling this newbie the same exact thing. The worst-case scenario is PR gets sent over or even the security guards.
Have you had any memorable equipment failures?
There’s always equipment failures, and you don’t want them to be memorable! The most common thing is that you’re almost done with a show and all of a sudden you’re out of film card. If you don’t have a second one ready or if your camera doesn’t take two film cards, panic sets in. And you start fudging and looking in your shirt pocket, looking in your jacket pocket, looking in your pants pocket. And then looking for the people to your left and your right; does anybody have a film card?
You started out in sports photography. Would you say that’s harder than fashion photography?
Actually I think most sports photography is easier than runway specifically. Sometimes on a short runway, the model takes ten steps and is gone. Your timing has to be impeccable. I think in some ways fashion is harder because in a sports game, you might miss that perfect moment, but you’re not always going to get the perfect moment anyway because you’re either shooting from one side or the other or somewhere in the middle. But you get lots of opportunities to take lots of interesting photos: people on the sidelines, people on the bench, people interacting between plays. In a fashion show everything is formulated in a very specific way. To get that perfect leg position head-to-toe and have everything looking good is not as easy as it seems.
After doing this for over 30 years, do you still get the same sense of enjoyment from it?
If you feel blasé about it, you really have been doing it too long. I’ve had a Zen philosophy that I’m going to shoot whatever show or presentation that I’m at like it’s the last one I’ve ever doing. It keeps me on my toes. There are some shows that are just outright boring. But if the styling is impeccable and material of the clothes is impeccable and the models are the top models of the era, with the best hair and the best makeup and the best lighting, there’s a lot to look at from a trained eye. Even if the clothes didn’t excite you, you wouldn’t be bored to tears.