The Luupe speaks with Diane Allford about her inspiring practice – from her early days as a photo editor for BET to photographing for global brands and publications.
Diane Allford bridges photographic genres, from runway photography and commercial work to personal essays on life and culture in New York City. Her vision comes together in its attention to light and the theater of every day – whether it’s capturing that energy organically, or with some level of commercial staging.
A significant piece of Allford’s personal and professional practice is highlighting the humanity and joy of Black and Brown communities. It’s a mission that reflects her early days as a photo editor for BET, Emerge, Heart and Soul, YSB, Newsweek and Businessweek Magazines, and NACCP’s The Crisis Magazine, as well as her experience as a rep for a stock photo agency struggling to diversify its content with positive depictions of people of color.
Allford’s photos have been featured in numerous international publications including Vogue Italia, Bustle, and Simon and Schuster books, and recently appeared in Cadilac’s “Audacity of Blackness” commercial.
In celebration of Allford’s inspiring career (and her participation in our Women’s History Month print sale. Go get her print here), we speak to learn more about her influences and drive to keep creating.
The Luupe: How did you get your start as a commercial photographer?
Diane Allford: I started out taking pictures on “spec” for a stock photo agency where I worked as an Account executive in the late 1980s. Back then, American companies were being pressured by civil rights leaders, and government agencies to be more diverse, and inclusive with people of color in their editorial pages and company advertising & promotions.
Suddenly clients started requesting lifestyle, and documentary photos of African Americans in positive everyday lifestyle situations. These were the kind of images that were missing from the libraries of most photo agencies at the time.
My co sales reps and I got together and worked out a plan that when clients requested this subject matter for their brochures, textbooks, and print ads, they would also share that request with me for the opportunity to produce and shoot the pictures on spec. They would tell me the price for usage, and the deadlines. It’s interesting that the reason why I took the job in photo sales was because I wanted to learn how to price my own images to companies. I was there to educate myself on what I needed to know when dealing with my own clients.
The Luupe: Does your background as a photo editor and content producer overlap with, or inform your own photography?
Allford: Being a photo editor for magazines has taught me so much about how to design my own photographs as I’m shooting in real-time to fit a certain narrative or to best illustrate the narrative developing in front of me. I think about page layouts, like leaving enough room for type placement, and crossover pages and how best to avoid the gutter in double-page spreads. If there’s a small inset in the layout, I think about images that will read well small.
Another thing that has been a big influence in my thought process when taking pictures comes from a longtime photo research client of mine, an executive creative director who designed book covers for international best-selling authors at a major publishing company in New York. She taught me to keep the inside contents of a book a mystery on the cover, but give the reader just enough information in the photo to make them want to learn more about the content in the book.
This is the inspiration in some of the images of people I photographed from behind. So I would say that some of the images I take is photography by design. It has an editorial feel of real-life with commercial appeal. Or that’s at least what I try to accomplish.
The Luupe: If you could, describe your practice in 3 words:
Allford: Approach, observe, light
The Luupe: Yes! Aside from your own experiences, what and who are some of the biggest inspirations in your work historically and right now?
Allford: Peter Lindbergh, I really admire the beautiful behind-the-scenes photographs of his models on and off the set. It feels like I’m viewing it in real-time. He has a style that is rich in mood and capture.
Historically, Gordon Parks has that classic style, beauty, and grace in all of his photographs. I appreciate the documentary approach and whatever thinking goes into his fashion images. I especially love how the clothing comes to life against the surrounding location. I see this in his commercial and editorial work.
Russell Frederick: I love his colorful portraits of Black people and Black culture. The energy, love, and respect he has for his subjects are evident in his photographs. His work is beautiful and it speaks to the relevance of being Black and present in luxury designer fashions.
Kezi Ban: I don’t see any evidence of her work in my pictures, but I do admire her poetic style and rich colors, and how she tells stories through fashion with a strong sense of drama and humor. I think her work is elegant and edgy, simple and sexy, and I admire that. Her motion work is also great!
Jenna Addesso: A great travel, and documentary photographer whose feed I follow on Instagram. I love the intimacy in her photographs of people both close up and far away in color and in black and white. To me, she captures a scene that’s unfolding while truly admiring what’s happening in front of her. I feel that way sometimes when I’m taking street photos.
The Luupe: One of the many interesting things about your work is a sense of theater – from your protest and documentary photographs to your fashion photographs, there’s an attention to light and movement going back to the early days of street photography, but with a new angle and energy.
Allford: Yes, I would agree. It’s all of those things you mentioned. I used to photograph plays in college, and I originally wanted to be a filmmaker but was discouraged early on by the cost, and big productions. With my street photographs of protest demonstrations, Urban Streetwear fashions, and music festivals, I approach it like theatre. Mainly when I’m shooting wide-angle, and capturing the overall flavor or message of the event.
I sometimes approach it as if I’m shooting a scene in a movie and letting it all play out in front of my lens, including irrelevant things happening in the far left and right corners of my frame. However, in the spirit of that, I like capturing the joy and dignity of the people I’m photographing and sharing that joy in the story I portray about them in photos. That’s where the energy comes from, and it’s important to me because I feel responsible as a photographer and social commentator to be protective in the making of that image.
Above: Diane’s images were recently featured in Cadilac’s “Audacity of Blackness” commercial.
The Luupe: What was the most exciting job over the past few years and why?
Allford: There are a few jobs that come to mind, but the most exciting would be the summer jet setters, “Girls Trip” fashion shoot with the use of two airplanes, a LearJet 60, and a Cessna two seated both for the set and backdrop.
The Luupe How about the most challenging job?
Allford: The Airport shoot was also the most challenging because it involved a lot of pre and postproduction work like castings and model fittings. On shoot day there were 5 models with 2 and 3 outfit changes each, not to mention moving the airplanes for the best light. Even the weather played with us with possible rain in the forecast.
The Luupe: The world is constantly shifting for freelance photographers, especially in the time of covid and social distancing. Has your practice shifted in the past year? What keeps you going?
Allford: Yes, I turned down a few photo assignments in the early days of COVID and only went out to shoot what didn’t involve close-up activity with people. This got me back to shooting architectural images of colonial buildings in Tribeca, and the West Village to add to my ongoing photo essay.
Like others, I have revisited past work. I have been using mine to create fine art photo collages for artist print sales. Zoom, the other game-changer for the time has been good also. I appreciate the access to conversation and research it has opened up.
The Luupe: We love asking Luupe photographers this question: Have you had any mentors along the way that have helped you out?
Allford: Yes, I had a few photography mentors when I was in college. One, in particular, is Darrell Sills, a fashion photographer. Darrel was my neighbor, and the first mentor before transferring to art school. He introduced me to studio lighting and fashion photography, and he had a photography studio set up in his apartment with backdrops, electronic strobe equipment, and a darkroom.
Sometimes I assisted him on photo shoots and he would allow me the use of his darkroom to print my own pictures. Many of his photographs were published in black celebrity teen fashion magazines, and he shot for various modeling agencies in New York.
The Luupe: On the flip side, have you worked as a mentor for any up-and-coming photographers?
Allford: I haven’t mentored any young students in particular one on one but I have spoken to many of them over my career, advising them, and sharing my experiences.
The Luupe: Your work hits so many angles and genres…do you consider yourself a fashion photographer/ documentary photographer/ commercial photographer? Do these kinds of classifications matter?
Allford: I am all of the above. You can now include fine art photographers to that list. I’m inspired by artist’s works being used in retail spaces and in editorial pages of newspapers and fashion magazines. There are fewer and fewer boundaries between disciplines and mediums to rule anything out. It feels like the sky’s the limit for artists to do what they want in whatever medium or industry they choose to express themselves in.
The Luupe: Congrats on your image of saxophonist James Brandon Lewis being used in HBO’s Between the World and Me. Can you tell us a bit of the story behind the image?
Allford: Thank you! We were at an apartment in Harlem shooting stills and video for his media kits, and booking agent. In late summer, I received a stock photo request from the HBO filmmakers for images of Black life and a longer clip of James was submitted as part of that stock request. I was so happy to see it used in the opening titles and thought the placement of the image was perfect. In fact, there are two other of my still photographs that were used in the film.
The Luupe: That’s amazing! Thanks so much for your time on this conversation. Wrapping things up, what is most exciting to you about working in photography/ the photo industry right now, and what do you think needs to improve?
Allford: Seeing how the media is changing in big ways to be more inclusive with their workforce throughout all levels of company structures. There seems to be more of a willingness to grant access to positions where diversity of people is an advantage in business. That being said, frustration comes from how long it’s taken for these things to really start to happen.