One of the world’s most courted fashion photographers, Pamela Hanson came to international renown in the 1990s for her irreverent portraits of the era’s leading models. Whether it was Bridget Hall playfully seated next to a poodle in an Italian restaurant or a laughing Naomi Campbell under the retro hairdryer of an old-school salon, her photos brought a sense of fun and spontaneity to the pages of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and beyond.
Meeting Pamela in person, one realizes that the vitality of her images is reflected in her own approach to life. A relentless creative, the New York-based photographer has worked throughout the world and published three books—Girls in 2001, its companion collection Boys, and more recently Private Room—each filled with her personal and professional work.
Her creative impulse stems from a childhood in Geneva and Lugano, Switzerland, as the daughter of an art collector. Naturally, she wanted to become a curator, but when she studied fine arts at the University of Colorado, she soon realized that her heart was beating for photography.
She eventually moved to Paris as the assistant of celebrated Vogue lensman Arthur Elgort. It was there photographing her model roommates that she first learned to capture the beauty and sensuality of women with the personal touch that informs her output to this day.
Tell me about your early career in Paris in the 1980s. I moved in with my best friend who modeled at the time and we lived in an apartment with other models. I took pictures of them getting dressed and hanging out. I just documented their life. And then I went to magazines to show them my pictures. I went to see them every day until they gave me a job. By the way: it was super helpful that I spoke French. In the beginning I did a lot of beauty because I didn’t understand fashion that well. I started slowly. I feel so lucky that I started working in Paris. It is such a photogenic city, with these beautiful buildings and the special light that reflects off the buildings. Every city has a different light. For me it’s about the light. New York has this harsher light, Los Angeles this warm, golden light.
What are your earliest memories of taking photos? I started taking pictures when I was twelve years old and always had a camera on me. I shot the yearbook in high school. I loved the connection when I was photographing people. I didn’t think about fashion or being a fashion photographer. I didn’t even know that the profession of a fashion photographer existed.
You grew up in Switzerland… I had an idyllic childhood. We travelled a lot and I was very comfortable in Europe. My father was an art collector and collected old masters. I was exposed to a lot of art, film and literature. I was always hoping to go into art—I was not into fashion. I was a hippie and wore overalls and sneakers. I learned about fashion in Paris.
How do you approach a fashion shoot? I love movies and am really inspired by them, so I always start by creating some kind of story. I shoot people in an environment that they are comfortable with. That way, I can get some kind of emotion from them. Everybody has a story and everybody is really interesting. I like vulnerabilities. I like a photograph where I see that it is a unique moment. I appreciate images that are more abstract, but what interests me and what I am good at is getting something personal. Where you look at the picture and feel like, “Oh, I know that person!”
Where was your last vacation? Amalfi, Italy, in a house with a boat. Perfection.
Where will your next vacation be? Harbor Island, Bahamas.
The thing you can’t travel without? My cameras.
Plane, train, or automobile? All of the above.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Someone who is quiet and doesn’t want to talk.
What is your in-flight ritual? Lots of water, moisturizer and movies on my iPad.
The language you wish you spoke? Spanish.
When were you happiest on the road? On a road trip through Morocco. I discovered so many new and beautiful places, and I love the country, people and climate there. And on a farm in the rainforest in Brazil, riding every day on amazing horses.
Desert island or downtown? A desert island for the solitude and quiet.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Claridge’s in London or the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes.
What is your room service indulgence? Breakfast in bed, and dinner in bed!
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? In a yurt in Mongolia.
What is your favorite market? Any French farmers market.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? The Middle East on a camel or the Wild West on a horse.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Central Park, all the museums , and Shuko for sushi.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? Weekend: Utah National Park. Week: Mexico City. Month: Japan. Year: Tanzania or Kenya.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Staying in hotels with good sheets.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. A homemade meal cooked over an open fire on a farm in Brazil that we got to on horseback.
Travel hell is? Delays.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? New Orleans.
Three favorite stores on earth? The spice market, Marrakesh, Céline anywhere in the world, and any local markets.
Most treasured travel memento? My press pass from the Naadam Festival, the national sporting games of Mongolia.
Why do you travel? I love the anonymity, the cultures, the people, the light. I can’t imagine not traveling.