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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  • B4B

    Ugh, I think this photographer’s views on fashion are echoing the viewpoint of many consumers. The mass output, people churning out the same thing, designers collectively deciding to jump on one fad bandwagon, and the extreme commercialisation has just taken the whimsy out of fashion week. Why would anyone voluntarily sift through hundreds of photos that all look the same? I like Amelia, thought that wang’s show was inventive and a breath of fresh air. Too bad the fashion mafia aka editors and disgruntled bloggers lashed out against what they thought was less than VIP treatment at the show.

  • T von Thelen

    I certainly enjoyed this piece about Dan Lecca’s experiences in the world of fashion. In fact, I had the honor of shooting beside him on a number of occasions this season (NYFW SS18). The Prabal show, The Blonds, Oscar, Anna, Naeem, etc. still tell a story with their near broadway productions and while the Hadid sisters may not compare with the models of the past that defined super modeldom, they sell products which is the way designers stay in business. As he mentions, the coverage of the runway world, from photography viewpoint, changes with nearly every season. As the smartphone manufacturers produce higher quality camera features for their devices, it drives an immediacy of image delivery that the DSLR and film shooters find puts them in a tenuous position. Composition and light are still the keys for the professional but we now live in a world where many things are “good enough” and that, coupled with, near real time image delivery to whoever is interested in consuming the content makes it an ongoing challenge. Print will always go with the professional and Dan Lecca is still secure in that world. I doff my hat to one of the real pros on the photo riser; it’s always a pleasure to share the space with such a gent.

  • Lindsey

    Wow, I loved this interview. He seems like a true artist! As someone who can only ever experience the shows through photos (or a live stream), it’s hard to get the mood of a show, and it sounds like for him, that’s the most important component. Which makes sense–seeing a photograph of a Rothko doesn’t prepare you in the least for walking into a museum and being dwarfed by one. It’s a totally different experience. And it sounds like, according to him, the artistry of shows (and photographing them) has really shifted, but it’s certainly not the only thing losing artistry these days.
    Thanks for this interview!

  • Natasha

    This was such an interesting read! Wonderful to get to know more about the craft and artistry that goes into different aspects of the fashion industry, especially as it’s changing so rapidly.

  • This is pretty wild. Nice that he admits the subjectivity at the end. I think one of the most interesting parts of this piece is where he talks about how it started “totally by accident,” and then follows that statement with…

    “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.”

    I understand his point, but I’d argue it didn’t happen totally by accident. It happened because of 11 years of preparation. Isn’t that the struggle of the artist? Sometimes we fail to identify the beginning.

  • I wish he wrote reviews! I love his perspective and how honest he is. I actually might print this out, I love it so much.

    Also, Haley, I like the way you have been doing interviews. It gives the impression that the reader is the interviewer. It’s very personal.

    • Jay

      Totally agree… it really kind of moves me… and it reminded me that I should revisit a book or two which I really really like and which unfortunately partly got lost in all my moving exercises over the last years…

      The allure of Chanel (Paul Morand) – Biggie. Lifechanging. Can never decide between empowering or sad. Probably both in a way. But certainly true (though they say it’s what Coco said, and that might or might not have been true… you know the story…

      Grace A memoir (well… who else…) – love it and will always love it. And will take it out right now and read it over again. And come on, GC is the secret star of September Issue anyways.

      Get A Life (The dame herself) – this is not only fashion, this is your role in the world. Ok… and the glitz. And the totally badassery.

      And I truly like the Audrey Hepburn Cookbook done by her son lately…

      (And Haley, I actually tried some of the recipes… do them in bulk, they are super easy, mostly… – and they spare you the clean eating and bla… shit… no calorie counts on that vodka pasta sauce…)

  • Wow, such a compelling article from a different perspective of the industry!

    I’m sad to hear of the incredible runway shows of the past. I’m not a huge fashion person, but I have felt like whenever I see a runway show, they all feel pretty much the same. He must have seen some incredible and exciting stuff, when things were new and unexpected! I didn’t realize the fashion industry was in decline – am interested to know in what ways people seeing the change?


    • Rocky

      One of the more evident changes is that models aren’t nurtured in the same way as they were in the period Dan is referencing. The original supermodels were chameleons and became celebrities in their own right after years of exquisite work. The next era was focused only on newness, and the idea of longevity was only attainable for the lucky few. Now, our main models are celebrities first – usually the daughters of celebs, and it seems their stars might burn out once they reach the saturation point.

      If you look up runway images from the late 90s and earlier, you’ll see the change in composition he mentions. This style of mechanical photos serves the back end of the industry (sample requests, flat images for trend stories) but it is markedly different from the old days when editors had to rely on their sketches or printed look book libraries and actually phone or fax in sample requests for editorials.

      The internet has been great for fashion in that it created a platform for independent designers to compete with the big guys. On the negative side, it’s forced experienced editors to compete with influencers and celebrities for access to looks for their stories, and trained consumers to expect an immediate turnaround. The see-now-buy-now model is an example of this- it’s disrupted the show cycle and is actually a really big hassle for editors. The look books are shot along the seasonal cycle, but NDAs are required to view them and the collections are embargoed until the show date. If a magazine’s publication date is before the official collection release, the looks can’t be featured. It can be a one day difference and the brand won’t lend, which is frustrating.

      It’s a really scary time right now. Budgets are disappearing, clients are expecting more for less, and assistants like myself are hesitant to go out on their own because everything seems so tenuous. Fashion is unique because it merges art and commerce in a way that fine art doesn’t have to. However, like all art, it’s reflective of the culture with which it’s contemporaneous, and right now as a society we are walking on eggshells. I do find it really interesting that Dan sees pit photography as less competitive, because with styling I’ve experienced the complete opposite.

  • sweetlooweeze

    This was a very thought provoking read. Makes me want to take a time machine back to the shows of old