Fashion photography: fusion of art and theater

His intimates whimsically call him ''Frank Schramm III, famous photographer.'' One has even written an appealing rock ditty, ''he's a photographer . . . a famous fashion photographer.'' Famous? well, not to most of us perhaps, but Frank E. Schramm III is one of a handful of big-time fashion photographers - 50 or so very talented people - who, despite brutal competition, have ''made it'' in a glamorous and hugely profitable business.

Schramm's name may not be familiar to you. But chances are you've seen his work somewhere in the past few years - in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar or in an elaborate color catalog for Macy's, Lord & Taylor, or Bloomingdale's.

Of course, while you may have seen Schramm's work, what you've noticed are tableaux featuring uncommonly comely young women and men often wearing uncommon clothing in sometimes fantastic and sometimes ''real'' settings which, in any case, are never quite believable. Yes, you've seen Frank Schramm's photographic work, but, paradoxically, you probably haven't really looked at his photographs.

And that, says Schramm, is as it should be. A fashion photograph, he explains , must be attention-getting without calling attention to itself. Whatever else it does, a fashion photograph is intended to persuade you to buy something - clothing, cosmetics, diamonds, even fast cars. And almost always, it is intended to persuade you that the fantasy world depicted is somehow connected with your own world. If the photo is of a $4,000 Bill Blass frock, the real objective is to get you to buy the $250 copy that will be forthcoming in a month or two. If the product is cosmetics, the goal is to suggest that you too can be as beautiful, in your own way, as Catherine Deneuve or Isabella Rossellini. And who's to say it's not so?

To be an effective marketing tool, a fashion photogaph must possess aesthetic and artistic excellence, Schramm points out. But in most cases, the art must be subliminal and unnoticed. The photo must be striking and command attention - but again, not to itself.

Schramm's studio, in New York's Greenwich Village, is in the parlor-floor-through of what was once a late 19th-century brownstone residence. The studio, however, is strictly a late 20th-century phenomenon, loaded with costly high-tech goodies - all kinds of lighting and strobe systems, special wiring, backdrops, arches and runways, bright dressing and makeup rooms, enlargers and drying cabinets, file cabinets of all sizes and shapes, hundreds of rolls of refrigerated film, innumerable cameras, from Polaroid to view-models , and innumerable lenses, from fisheye to super telephoto.

Schramm acknowledges, with apology, that for the few who succeed, big-time fashion photography is financially very rewarding. Indeed, it's been so rewarding for Schramm that he is no longer able to say precisely how much he does earn. He is aware, though, that success in his field depends on more than just luck and talent - even great talent.

''It sounds old-fashioned,'' he says, Schramm, ''but in this business hard work is essential. And you've got to be in control of the business as well as the creative and technical aspects of the work. A good manager is also es-senntial: I'm fortunate to have such a competent, dedicated manager in my partner and sister, Emily.''

Typically, Schramm's shooting schedules are brutal.

When this reporter visited his studio, two shoots had been scheduled for the day, one lasting until mid-afternoon, the other beginning early in the evening. The first, part of a series that had already been in progress for two weeks, involved Bloomingdale's annual holiday mail-order fashion catalog: a bright, glossy production of some 70 pages.

On hand for the shoot were people from Bloomingdale's - an art director, a project coordinator, several people to manage the wardrobe and accessories - as well as a makeup artist, a hair stylist, Schramm's two assistants, Emily, and of course Schramm himself.

Also on hand were two of the four models Schramm would shoot that day. During the course of the day, more than 20 ensembles were photographed, with 30 to 90 frames of film expended on each. The cost of the shoot was more than $10, 000, not including the salaries of the Bloomingdale's personnel. Top models receive anywhere from $250 to $1,500 per day, depending on the type of project; top photographers, anywhere from $250 to $4,500 a day.

Among the most critical elements of successful fashion photography is the relationship between the photographer and his models. Schramm gives his models surprisingly little verbal direction. There's a brief conference at the beginning of each new segment of the shoot, and after that, almost no explicit contact between Schramm and the young women. Yet it's usually obvious that photogapher and model are working together in perfect harmony.

''I nearly always choose the models I photograph, and most are people I've worked with before, so they know what I want,'' Schramm explains. ''When I first started out, I gave the girls a steady drumbeat of instructions. But these people are professionals, and I soon discovered that minimal instructions usually serve just as well.''

The day's second shoot, for a trendy magazine, involved notable debutantes (a species whose time has apparently come again) modeling high-fashion garments. This evening's star, an exceedingly pretty blonde, tried on four evening gowns before Schramm was satisfied.

Schramm entered the world of professional photography with the support of a loving, prosperous family (his father is a physician) and a mixture of hard work , serendipity, and unstoppable self-confidence.

At age 16, in a characteristic burst of optimism and determination, Schramm contacted Wally McNamee, a senior Newsweek photographer based in Washington. He spent the entire summer ''tagging along'' with McNamee, covering the White House , among other things.

Rewarding as it was, this experience convinced Schramm that photojournalism simply didn't offer the degree of control over subject matter he wanted to have. Says Schramm: ''I realized then that fashion photography demanded the kind of very sophisticated, exacting control and technical discipline which interested me. I also knew that it paid well.''

Ever the optimist, at the end of his senior year in high school Schramm called the highly successful New York fashion photographer Albert Watson, who just happened to pick up the phone himself. A meeting ensued, and Schramm spent his entire spring break as an unpaid second assistant. Two months later, in June of 1977, he was hired as Watson's paid assistant. In 1980, Schramm established his own studio.

What Schramm most likes about fashion work is the challenge of creating a strong image, ''an image,'' as he puts it, ''which has an instant visual impact and compels you to stop and look at it as you're turning the pages of a magazine or catalog.''

Although not always recognized by the casual viewer, most fashion photographers have a distinctive style. Schramm favors strong, explicit, sharp images.

A large print of the Schramm photo reproduced with this story has been tacked to a bulletin board in his darkroom. Taken originally for a cosmetics campaign, it will be included in Schramm's new promotional brochure. Would a non-fashion Frank Schramm portrait of the young woman - a well-known model - look the same? we ask. Schramm studies the print critically and replies: ''Well, no, it wouldn't: She doesn't look like this.'' He pauses, bemused by the implications of his comment, and then continues. ''This is a fashion shot. Fashion isn't life: It's theater. Fashion isn't illusion, exactly, but it isn't real, either.''

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