Beautiful Thinker: Lindsay Adler, fashion photographer, on starting a business at 15, redefining femininity, and the symbolism of the color red.
Lindsay has been named one of the top 10 fashion photographers in the world. Her work is visceral yet soft. Each image draws you into a world that is beautiful and powerful. Though she has a graphic signature style, her range is far and wide. Each image is like a thumbprint. She is equally unique with her openness to experimentation, sharing her knowledge and continuously learning, all while having a clear sense of self and purpose.
As I’ve been looking through your work, I’ve noticed that the color red seems to be important. Why do you think that is?
That’s a fun question to start with. I think the color red began as an accident. Really it stems from the first photo I ever took that looked like my style. When I was in college, I was going through the, the artistic crisis of like, who am I as an artist? What do I want to be? What do I want to say? I’d ordered these cyber punk, futuristic, weird-looking glasses. I bought them online and I took a photo where it was this red and white pinstripe on the glasses, almost like a swirled red lips, white out skin. I took the photo, and it was kind of like this universal hug. It was like, Oh, this is me. This is my, my style. It was using clothing, makeup, and the human form to make graphic art. So very clean, bold, graphic, geometric and colorful.
So, red started there, but then as my work evolved, I found that the way that I portray women is with strength and elegance. No matter what image I take of them, they always look strong. They always look elegant. And I think red is a great color to do that. It’s such a powerful color. It’s just something that demands attention.
Tell me about your journey as a photographer.
I’m one of those insanely lucky people that figured out what I wanted to do crazy, crazy early. I had committed a hundred percent to being a professional photographer by the time I was 15. That’s when I started my business. But I pretty much knew around 12 or 13 that photography was where my life was going to lead me. I started my business with my mom as my partner because she was a hobbyist photographer and interested in supporting me. And so, at 15 I was photographing my fellow high school students, maternity sessions and high school portraits and weddings and family, like, you know, what you do in a small town. When I eventually did go to college, I had already been running a business for several years and it was great because I figured out what I did and didn’t like so I went into college with an idea of changes I wanted to make and things I wanted to learn instead of starting from scratch.
That must’ve made you a really interesting student for your teachers.
I was probably super annoying.
You mentioned your mom was a photographer as well. Did her influence push you in that direction?
It was a lot of people in my family. My mom was a hobbyist photographer. My aunt was a hobbyist photographer. My grandmother was a hobbyist photographer, and my grandma remembers her father when she was a kid having a dark room. It was kind of a way to spend time with the family. I grew up in rural upstate New York, and I remember at 12, maybe even younger, we would wander around the family farm and take pictures of mushrooms and whatever was in front of me. I remember this one hike that we took. We went up this old dirt path, and my aunt would be photographing a fern and I’m photographing a mushroom. And then my grandma would be photographing the whole scene. Each one of us is looking and discovering something different around us.
So, it started off as a way to spend time with the women in my family. Photography was close to my heart, and it just instantly felt meant to be.
Tell me about when you decided to pursue fashion photography.
When I went to college, I went out of my way to ask a ton of professional photographers what I should study in college. And pretty much a hundred percent of them said, study business and don’t do photography. Their argument made perfect sense. You can learn the craft of photography, but the reason that most people fail and don’t make it is because they don’t understand the business side. So, I did both things.
And in my third year of college, I took a class that was an elective. It wasn’t exactly studying the history of fashion photography. There was a teacher who loved fashion photography. He loved vintage photography and he basically just wanted to talk about what he loved. As I was looking at the visuals, I remember thinking, Oh, that’s so strange. I never thought I’d be interested in fashion photography because I’m not a fashionista myself. But as I looked at what these photographers created, there was storytelling and elegance and stunning lighting and conceptualization throughout the images. And I’m like, that’s what I meant to be doing. I think my original stumbling block was that I thought to be a fashion photographer, I had to own all these designer clothes and always be dressed up. But it doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to be the art, you can create the art.
It seems like lighting is so critical to your work.
You’re totally right. When I think of beautiful lighting, I feel like I actually glow a little bit. It’s hard to explain. For the first 10 years of my photography, lighting was a means to an end. You throw a light on the photo to illuminate it and capture your subject. And then primarily what I focused on — because I did portrait photography — was just getting good expressions, but it wasn’t about the light telling any sort of story or achieving anything in the images.
At about the 10-year mark is when I moved to New York. And I started to be more aware of what made great photographers great. I took studio lighting classes and I feel like these seasoned photographers made it hard on purpose. So, I kind of avoided exploring it, but I think it’s because it’s almost like these photographers wanted to speak a secret language. If you knew their language, then they would let you into their world. And if you didn’t, you were an outsider. Eventually I spent the time with just me and the lighting so I could get to know it.
How would you describe your style?
So, my little elevator pitch is that my style is clean, bold, and graphic, and I portray women with strength and elegance. I explore slices of light and color. I love elements of the old, with a modern twist. I love trying to see how I can draw on what has been successful in the past but integrate my own style and give it fresh life.
I really like how you’re able to capture femininity, but also power. Sometimes for women those two things are at odds — the idea that you can’t be super feminine and still have power.
Yeah. I think it comes back to how I want to be portrayed and who I want to be. I’m not meek, demure, soft. It’s just not who I am. I think it’s my way of saying I can be my own interpretation of what a woman is. It doesn’t have to like femininity or be one specific thing. I consider myself to be quite feminine, but maybe just not in the traditional ways.
Your work feels very theatrical. Is the theater an influence of yours?
I was a super theater kid. I loved it. I was the lead in the eighth grade play. And then when we got to high school, we did musical theater, and I can’t sing at all. So that sort of dashed my dreams away. The part of it I loved was the set design and dramatic theatrical lighting. I absolutely use that in my work. But I also think the other part of it is with my teaching. I get to do a little bit of that performance and stand up in front of big groups of people. And so between my photography and my teaching, I kind of check all those boxes.
You seem to really enjoy collaboration. Tell me about what that process is like for you.
Collaborating is the best because everybody makes you look better as a photographer. The biggest challenge with collaborating is that you’re all on a ship together, headed in a certain direction. You gotta be the captain, because if that ship sinks, it’s your fault. And you need everybody to be working together to get where you’re going. Collaboration is all about you leading that ship, helping to direct everyone, but everyone still being able to do their own part and not micromanaging them. I think that’s why it’s so important to find a fantastic creative team. For me, a creative team is going to be a hairstylist, a makeup artist, and a wardrobe stylist. It could be other people like a manicurist or a set designer, but it’s that core group of people that when you work with them over and over again, basically you communicate your idea and they already have a sense of your vision. It feels like magic when I create something that’s better than what I expected, because I trust the people I work with.
We do these things called creative play days, where there is no client, and those are kind of the best. I’ll reach out to my core team about a week before and say, “Hey guys, do you want to do a creative play day?” And then everybody brings to the table something they want to do. I’ll pitch two ideas I want to do. And then a hairstylist will say, “Well, this is another thing I wanted to capture at some point.” And then the wardrobe artist will say, “Oh, I have this design.” And so everybody has something they want to accomplish. And then we work together to make a shot that shows whatever skillset or whatever style they were trying to create.
It’s great because if something doesn’t work, it’s fine. And that’s the chance to experiment. I’ve had people hire me subsequently after seeing one of the images from my creative play day
I love how your work is very exotic, and yet you as a person aren’t afraid to demystify it. It seems like there’s a lot of like trade secrets in protective spaces. Do you feel that too?
I started teaching more 10 or 11 years ago. I was new and young and really just wanted to help people learn. I didn’t have any concept of this thing called trade secrets. It was just, I’m an open book. And if you came to learn from me or you’re asking me questions, why wouldn’t I provide you as much information as possible? I think it really was like an avalanche. So many people started sharing and showing behind the scenes. And that was just not something that existed when I started at all. So yeah, I enjoy doing it. And my other like personal mantra is if I share all my secrets, then I have to go find new ones, and that pushes me.
Do you think fashion has changed much since you got into it?
Well, I think fashion photography has changed a lot. When I was first interested in it, everything you saw was aspirational. You would aspire to look like this model, aspire to wear this clothing. But now it’s kind of splintered. There’s the aspirational fantasy side, and then there’s the more reality, authenticity side. You see that in ad campaigns where there’s minimal retouching, very ready-to-wear normal clothing models that have unique features atypical to a model, or they’re a girl next door kind of look. In the past, I feel like a lot of beauty campaigns would be similar and they’d put their own spin on it. Even just in beauty, you have something like Glossier where there’s no retouching, hardly any makeup, natural light, just super, super raw. But then you still have the existence of brands like Pat McGrath, where it is heavy makeup, heavy retouching, heavy lighting. And I don’t think these two strong different categories existed when I started.
I think part of the reason is that influencer culture and things around celebrity have shifted it so that it’s not as prestigious. I haven’t seen too much of the “huge influencer that becomes a cover girl” thing. There was one influencer, James Charles, who was literally the first male CoverGirl. But for the most part, you don’t see it so much.
It also feels like gender fluidity in fashion is becoming a little more mainstream. Do you ever foresee shooting men for fashion portraits?
I used to, and then I didn’t see myself as inspired. And so then I stopped. I did recently photograph my first trans model for a job and it was super fun, and she was fantastic in front of the camera. So I’m also seeing a lot more when it comes to different types gender expression in front of the camera. But I can definitely foresee myself doing some creative beauty things with men. Recently I saw Lady Gaga promoting her makeup on Instagram, and they were advertising her eyeliner with a really chiseled dude as the model. So yeah. It’s fun.
Finally, I ask this question to everyone: How would you define beautiful thinking?
I think beautiful thinking is your ability to perceive beauty in your own way in the world around you. And I think that comes back to style. I am obsessed with the fact that two artists presented with the exact same concept, even the exact same materials and tools, will create completely different results. And I think that is so beautiful and so unique. So I think beautiful thinking is your unique perspective and how you interpret ideas and the world around you. I love it. I think that’s what I love so much about photography.