Shooting a lookbook for a major department store is a big gig for any photographer, let alone a 16-year-old rising star. But Denise Hewitt, who lensed new images for Barneys New York’s FiveSeventyFive label, conquered the project like a seasoned pro. Hewitt was selected through Barneys Perfect Shot program, which provides students with valuable hands-on, real-world experience. This year, working with Red Hook Labs Education and Jobs Initiative, the program selected five young photographers, eventually awarding the opportunity to Hewitt. The Daily chatted with the young photographer all about what the shoot was like, and where she’ll go from here.
What was it like finding out that you’d been the one selected to shoot the lookbook?
I was in the middle of class. I was sitting in AP French and I know I shouldn’t have phones in school, but I took a peek because I was so anxious about it. Then I saw it and I couldn’t hold back my excitement. I remember running into the bathroom and calling my dad, being in tears, like, “Dad I got it!” I told him all about it and we were both just overwhelmed with excitement.
And then you went back to AP French?
And then I went back!
How did your friends and family react? Were you telling kids at lunch?
I kept it on the low just because I don’t know how to tell people about what I’m doing or my accomplishments. I want to remain humble, and I try not to put what I’ve done out there too much. I let it casually come up in conversation, because I don’t want to be that person that’s so full of themselves, and talks about themselves all the time. I’d rather it just be something that if people see, they enjoy genuinely, rather than me pushing it down their throat. So that’s in term of my friend group. But for my family they were hyping me up the whole time. My parents went crazy calling everyone!
Aw that’s so nice of them! I read that you were inspired by your great grandmother, but can you tell me a little bit more about your concept? Why was your grandfather’s brownstone the perfect location for this?
I came up with the concept after looking at the clothes that I was provided. There was something in there that just struck me and reminded me of my great grandmother, and the clothes that she would wear to church. We are a Christian household so it’s always pertinent that we go to church. She would always spend so much time putting together her outfit and the hats she would wear and the jewelry… it just reminded me of that with her and I wanted to take the opportunity to take it to that brownstone to almost retell the story of this hard working black woman and her success: coming from the Caribbean by herself to purchase her own house, working for a family during the civil rights era, and then sending that money back to her son in the Caribbean as well. I wanted to bring that in there.
In what other ways has your family inspired you or do you try to bring your background and your family into your work?
I never forget where I’m from. Being from the Caribbean, there are many values that we have and that we always keep with us. I just keep remembering my great grandmother every single time because knowing the time period she was living in, and the people around her that she would have had to deal with… it’s the perfect success story for being an immigrant to come here and then still have a brownstone…which today is the epitome of success and wealth. But she was just a mere immigrant. It’s such an inspiration to me and she will always and forever be in my heart. Every time I see something that reminds me of her, it’s almost an instinct to make it personal, but also relevant to people who are consuming or looking at my work.
You first became interested in photography through Pinterest. What was it about seeing other people’s images that made you want to start doing it yourself?
It was very much an inspiration. I love coordination, and the colors, and the angels, etc. The aesthetic was very obvious to me that I sort of wanted to replicate, but at the same time I noticed that there was almost a lack in representation of people that look like me. So I wanted to take the opportunity to say that, “Hey, we can also be or have this aesthetic or look a certain way.” I wanted to play with the ideas of having women of color, having males of color, being the same kind of euphoric element that you’d see scrolling through a Pinterest feed.
I also didn’t really see a mix of street photography with fashion and something that’s a little more planned. I wanted to recreate that and really morph it into something a bit new so that you are coordinating different colors, you are coordinating outfits, you’re planning these things, but at the same time, it feels real and the people that are in the frame are real as well.
Do you think that you’ll go forward with more fashion work in ways that reflect your own creative vision?
Definitely! Working with brands…it gives you that opportunity to really create a new look based off of the materials that they have and the clothes that they provide for you. Fashion is a big part of photos for me, so being able to have a variety of different looks and different pieces that you can take to really push forth an image, or really enhance an image, that you wouldn’t have otherwise if you were working by yourself and looking for different pieces in a local mall, per se.
What advice did Jimmy Moffett of Red Hook Labs give you when you were working on this?
I remember the day of, I saw how half the block was reserved for the shoot and there were so many people on set. I had never had a photoshoot like that before, and it was a little overwhelming at first to adjust to the fact that this was a real shoot, this isn’t street photography. I remember not knowing where to start and in terms of angles and what I’m keeping in and out of the frame, it was a little difficult to find where I should be standing to get that right shot and Jimmy was there the whole time to help me kind of figure out where that perfect place is to find that perfect shot.
Do you have any favorite fashion photographers?
I have to call out Tyler Mitchell. He’s a big inspiration for me because he, too, wants to portray people who look like me and black people as something different in his work. He has this whole utopian kind of world that he portrays through his videos and photography that I find to be so inspiring. I really wish that I can, in the future, have metaphors like he does. Also, he’s not a fashion photographer, but Richard Sandler. I found him after I started doing that black and white street photography and I related to the same kind of hustle and bustle of the city, and how close he gets to people. Sometimes it’s far away, the shadows he plays with… so I really like him as well. And also Ronan Mackenzie — I had the pleasure of meeting her, and she is similar in the way that she really comes from a sincere place. I love to see that in all of her work.
Are there any magazines or brands that you want to work with and why?
There are actually a lot! The ones right that I would love to work with are Teen Vogue, for sure. Platform, which is a subset to Teen Vogue. In terms of brands of clothes, Converse, — my go to shoe brand all the time. I have like, five pairs that I’m wearing on a constant cycle and I’d love to story tell with those, because I’ve had them for so long. Also Pyer Moss, which is amazing. Just the metaphors and the images that they had in their show, along with their clothes was amazing to me. And then last one would be Slashed by Tia. She’s in college and doing so well with a brand that really plays a lot with colors, and different textures, and fabrics. She’s really an inspiration to me because she’s a perfect example of a black woman who’s young and really doing her best to do what she’s passionate about. She’s going places and she’s working hard.