Film Shooter Norman Jean Roy: Once a Dictatorship, Photography Became Democratized, and Then Digital Killed Fashion Photography

Talk about the arrogance of power — or of a genius? You may know Vogue and Vanity Fair fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy (click his name for the most minimalist website you’ve ever seen!). Well lensman Roy, whose also socially conscious work is highly engaging, is none too happy about technology’s influence and effects on fashion photography. He told The Cut that “with the advent of digital photography, the dictatorship aspect of photography became democratized and over time became a group effort, which I think is bullshit.”

Norman Jean Roy
Norman Jean Roy
Jean Roy goes on saying, “I’m sorry, but photography is a dictatorship; it’s not a democracy.”


Because, in fashion, “as a photographer it’s your responsibility to fulfill the needs of your client. You don’t want to be a dick about it; there are plenty of people who do that, which, I think, is equally bullshit.”

Hear, hear.

To avoid the photography-only democracy, Jean Roy says he always shoots on film, believing that the medium keeps a photographer focused and in the moment.

According to Jean Roy, the final shots are just better on film — imperfect in a way that gives it life without the help of digital retouching.

Jean Roy has clearly something to say, especially about shooting film:

When you shoot film, you don’t have the luxury of seeing every single image coming out. And because of that, you stay very focused. Everything (becomes) hyperreal, so when you get it, you get it another time, and another time after that just to make sure you got it. As a result, you have a much better version of, I think, the moment. That’s much more real, honest, and broken, too.


Part of a perfect image is that it is imperfect. With digital photography, it’s very easy to perfect the image. You kill the image when you perfect it. You basically suck the life out of it. An image, to me, lives when you can look at it and it’s just slightly off. Like, when you put a primary red and primary green together, you have that vibrancy between the two. A great photograph, not a great picture, needs to have that vibration. It would be very easy to take any one of my photographs and I can tell you where I could have fixed this and fixed that.

There are many fashion photographers working today who perfect their subjects to an inhuman degree.

Oh, yeah. Any photographer can do that. And the ones that do that are the ones who destroy their image. There are lots of fashion photographers who destroy their image. Again, I’m not dissing it; to me, that is what I think is fundamentally wrong with fashion photography. It really is directly because of digital capture.

So you never shoot digital?

If and when I have to shoot digitally, I always shoot to card and never show anyone. I usually give myself a day or two before I look at the session. It’s the same thing you would do with film, you shoot your film, it goes to the lab the next morning and you get it back that afternoon. That space in time between [taking the photograph] and looking at it after is a really important thing. It’s kind of like counting to ten when someone makes you really mad. If I said something awful to you and you just counted to ten, your reaction would be different than just (snaps fingers.) We’re in such a hurry to make sure we “got it” that in the process I genuinely think the results today are infinitely inferior than where they were ten years ago.

Read the whole interview at The Cut, very interesting read indeed. He also touches on the psychology of photography and more. And enjoy the slideshow¨

(BTW, if you’re into more social and political aspects of photography, get your hands on our The Politics of Photography.)

"What a sexy beast, right? I don't like guys, but I think he's pretty handsome. Guys like him, you just give it a loose concept, you go in there that day and everything just works. The first Polaroid you pull looks great. It was shot an hour before sundown in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles. Everything about this photograph, I love it. The fact that it's just a little too far in the center is what I like about it. It feels broken. There's too many bottles and it's just not perfected." | Johnny Depp by Norman Jean Roy, Esquire, May 2004
“What a sexy beast, right? I don’t like guys, but I think he’s pretty handsome. Guys like him, you just give it a loose concept, you go in there that day and everything just works. The first Polaroid you pull looks great. It was shot an hour before sundown in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles. Everything about this photograph, I love it. The fact that it’s just a little too far in the center is what I like about it. It feels broken. There’s too many bottles and it’s just not perfected.” | Johnny Depp by Norman Jean Roy, Esquire, May 2004

  • PWL

    Why this sound like the old film-vs-digital debate, but with psychobabble added: “Part of a perfect image is that it is imperfect….you kill the image when you perfect it.” Really? The logic here is as twisted up as a Mobius strip. But then, I note that a lot of people in the fashion/entertainment world like to drop these these kind of really deep-sounding statements that mean nothing much at all.

  • Have to agree and at the same time disagree with some things Jean Roy is saying.

    Regarding film’s magic, who doesn’t love DxO FilmPak…

    But why is it that the most memorable photos I have date back to the film era, even though I shot many times more since the arrival of digital?

    Jean Roy’s definitely some food for thought.

  • Ronn Aldaman

    I am not particularly interested in fashion photography which IMO is largely technique-oriented and monopolized by people with connections and connection connected further. Etceteras. Bt is is a self perpetuating world of “we are so good, aren’t we”.

    But some points I agree with. In fact I so much agree with one thing, I totally disagree.

    IMO the current digital empire is imposing itself like a world-wide dictatorship on almost everybody. In a sense it has turned the world upside down.

    As for PWL’s comment I want to say something I repeat and which is usually ignored or circumvented:

    If digital photography is so much better than film, why then do so many digital photographer use post processing software to make it look like film!

    The perfect image does not exist. And certainly one of the first things to do away with is the idea that sharpness is the be all and end all of good photography.

    If you believe that, then go shoot bricks…

  • Ronn Aldaman

    PS I want to add a personal opinion. IMO photographs are after all representations of memories. And our memories are not perfect. They are often blurred, imprecise, feelings and impressions of the past.

    Digital photography tends to create sterile, lifeless images if all one goes by is the “wow look how sharp it is” factor.

    Like a poem, you read it and it either gets in or not. When you start analyzing poetry, you kill it. In the same way IMO photographs convey feeling and messages and so forth that, if put under the microscope of digital “perfection” often lose their inherent visual being.

    Henri Cartier Bresson said: “sharpness is a bourgeois concept”.

    A butterfly is beautiful free and in flight or perched momentarily on a leaf. Pinned down in a scientist’s lab to dissect it loses all life.

  • Can only second that Ronn.

    What a beautiful trap digital photography could be, guess convenience has its price.

    Still, having the choice I’d go digital. No matter how I look at it, however, some of my best, liveliest, most authentic photographs date back to the past, pre-digital millennium… And many of them not properly focused, with highlights, dark shadows… crimes in digital photography!

  • PWL

    Well, judging by what I read here, it IS still the same old film-vs-digital argy-bargy. Look , I shoot both, so I’m not prejudiced. BUT, I think a lot of this “I know what I like” is really more more “I like what I know”. I think a lot of these comments about “digital creates sterile, lifeless images,” and film created the “liveliest images’ is really because we’re simply used to the way film looks, because that what we grew up shooting, so we think digital looks…..strange.

    I think this unwelcoming attitude is something to be expected anytime a new technology comes along, from those who are used to the status quo. I recollect that the French poet Baudelaire, who was there at the dawn of photography, simply couldn’t see how this new gadget, the camera, could ever hope to equal painting as an expressive form of art–he felt it was only good for ‘lifeless recording of objects,” or words to that effect…

  • So dis on others and then say you’re not dissing on them. Next sell the idea that you’re images are “broken” when the capture is erred. Yes thats a style – broken. Let me tell my clients that – Hey its not messed up its the new “broken” style.

    Maybe he’s a bit pissed that digital technology allowed anyone to start shooting? I love the fact that with digital tech someone that might not be so technically skilled yet have a good eye can create something worth while.

    What’s broken about that?