I’ve Been a Runway Pit Photographer for 30 Years

Dan Lecca has been a runway pit photographer for 36 years. With the help of his business partner and wife, Corina, he’s perhaps become the name most synonymous with the field. Name a brand or magazine, he’s shot for it. Name a designer, he’s worked with them. Known for his understanding of light — one of the most challenging aspects of shooting runway — Lecca’s had a front-row seat to the changing fashion industry over the past decades. I got him on the phone between NYFW shows to ask him how he got to where he is and what he’s noticed along the way. — Haley

How it started

It happened by accident. I took an interest into photography in 1976 when I took a trip with my wife Corina and our children to Romania, where I am originally from, to visit family. I bought a camera for the first time. It was a Cannon with a normal lens. I ended up liking a few images  so much that I thought to myself, I might as well get a wider lens and a zoom.

I started taking pictures of windows because I was working for a textile company and I wanted to get ideas of colors for next season. Eventually, I ended up at a fashion show by accident, and I took pictures of somebody filming there, the way I do now. They said, “Do you want to work for me?” And that’s how it happened. Totally by accident.

Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Before that, I studied fine arts for 11 years. I was a painter, a sketcher. I did all sorts of artistic things. And I also was able to sew clothes. When I was very young in Romania, when I was not able to buy a pair of jeans, I made them myself. So all of this was sort of clicking together as I starting shooting fashion shows.

What makes a show special

Now, my favorite designers do not necessarily have to do with the way they cut clothes. It has to do with the way they present them, meaning, in a certain perfect light, with a certain choice of models, with an amazing piece of music and choreography. When all of that fits together beautifully, the fashion show becomes an absolute piece of art. I love being there and shooting it.

Back in the day, I remember a few occasions when the designer came out for a finale bow, and I actually had tears in my eyes. Some shows from Alexander McQueen come to mind; some shows from Claude Montana; some shows from unknown designers who basically didn’t care about the rules of the world. And even sometimes a Calvin Klein show! This was in the old days, of course – not today. A lot of what happens today on the runway is almost a pale joke of what we did in the past.

I would say the fanfare peaked in the late 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and the supermodels became something. I wouldn’t call what we have today “supermodels” – they are just a bunch of good models. I wonder what is the point of using the same girls over and over and over with just a small difference of makeup and clothing? They are really the same girl. And it makes the designer almost lose its identity in my mind. In the past, only certain shows – and there were not that many – used the supermodels. They could not afford them, otherwise.

The shows I dread are in very poor conditions, with too many clothes in the line up. In my mind, less is more. You don’t need to show a hundred pieces of clothing when you can just show 12 or 16 magnificent dresses and call it a day. Actually, one of the most stunning moments in my shooting career, and my life, was one of [John] Galliano’s collection. It was just 16 dresses, and he showed them in a hotel that was like palace with magnificent high ceilings and a lot of rooms. He used the supermodels, as we called them. There were only 16 dresses! And it left you breathless and speechless.

Photo by Thomas Concordia/WireImage

How pit photography has changed

The most important part of getting a good runway shot is the lighting, the makeup, the choice of models, the choice of music. When all of these come together harmoniously, it makes it a real spectacle that you enjoy watching. My eyes go up and down the figure that is approaching and coming into focus. Composition is super important. In the old days, what was more important to me — and nobody complained because in the old days nobody cared whether you were able to shoot all 50 looks head-to-toe without missing one – they were interested in how you saw those clothes as the photographer. So, it was about finer shots of the model rather than full length. Backs, sides. Sometimes the photo was on the diagonal. All of that made it more dynamic, more artistic, more interesting.

I did not like Lincoln Center; I preferred Bryant Park. But I did always prefer to have it in one location. At Bryant Park, even people like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Oscar de la Renta showed there. Everybody, all the big names, showed there. Now, I drive myself to shows or take the subway. Sometimes I walk if it’s easiest and fastest.

The pit used to be competitive. But lately, less so, because there are fewer and fewer photographers. Now, the important photographers, who have been around longer, have taken over the main area and it’s understood that they should be there and all the younger ones have to, you know, move to the side.

In the very old days when we were so many more photographers, we were very happy with almost any position. What we intended to do with the photographs of each fashion show was not to get that head-to-toe, clean, almost medical look that became [the norm]. What was important back then was your point-of-view as the photographer, and being able to take great pictures in any situation, condition, position.

Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

And we were able to be friends and chat and have dinners together. We were easily 200 at that media riser. Around the runway there was a tent. And we were another 200 around that tent on both sides. I remember a long time ago, in London, the media riser collapsed with all 100, 150 photographers on it. It was crazy, but nobody was hurt. Now there are 50 or 60.

Looking ahead

I don’t think there is an opportunity in the future to bring back the artful runway shots. I think the fashion industry is in decline and fashion shows have taken a turn for the worse. There is rarely a show that is memorable, that is worthwhile to talk about. Gucci is the only [label], I think, that puts out a show that is absolutely breathtaking, because Alessandro Michele really wants to tell a story. He doesn’t care about selling the clothes. He cares about telling a compelling story, and he tells it very well. The clothes sell because of it. It’s a different approach.

The fashion industry has changed. It’s probably, in some people’s mind, better. It’s very subjective. I think it’s changed for the worse, but maybe I just think so because of how much I enjoyed the old days.

Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage via Getty Images. 

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