During our interview, Danielle Bouchette, Head Photographer of ModCloth shared details about her career path as a photographer, gave insight and advice into what inspires her photography, and described what she likes about working for ModCloth.
Everyone needs a friend like Danielle. She is always smiling and always makes people laugh. Danielle infuses energy into every environment, and her enjoyment of life is evident.
Danielle and I have been friends for about ten years since the days of waitressing at Fuel and Fuddle in Oakland. At one point, we actually moved to NYC together. She was pursing a photography job, and I went for my first teaching job.
For the interview, Danielle and I met up at the Mod House (aka Mod Hostile) in Friendship where she currently resides. This beautifully restored home is where ModCloth “grew legs” as Danielle described it. In fact, it once housed the company’s warehouse and photography studio. Our conversation went on while Danielle worked on images on her computer; her current roommate Josh made us an amazing dinner; her boyfriend Jarrett stopped over; and the smoke alarm went off—twice.
First, I wanted to know the details of how Danielle discovered her interest in photography. “I always liked photography,” she said. Her dad, who happens to be Ed Bouchette, the sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, had an SLR camera. But because, in Danielle’s words, she was rather “clumsy,” he was hesitant to let her handle it. “I was never that kid that grew up with a camera in my hand,” she said. And when she did get her hands on those disposable cameras, she was more interested in taking pictures of things and scenery rather than people.
In high school Danielle was forced, like all adolescents, to begin thinking about what she wanted to do with her life. She recalled that “I knew I wanted to be successful, [but] I didn’t know what that meant…I couldn’t figure out something that could hold my attention.” However, when she saw a poster on the wall of her high school for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Clown College, she positively decided she wanted to be a clown. She actually pursued this idea, but remembers that “they had to shut down because they couldn’t employ all these clowns going to school there. This is such a true story,” she insisted. It turns out that enrollment opened up at Clown College a few years later, but Danielle and I both agreed that this was a sign that clown school was not the direction her life should go.
During her junior year at Plum High School, a young, personable photographer named Ray Viglione came in to take senior pictures. He also held casual sessions where he used natural light and incorporated props, which was considered innovative at that time in the ‘90s. “He seemed to love his job, and he seemed to make a little bit of money” Danielle recalled, and added, “We’ve established that I’m not an artist. I still say that. I never got the art award. But I always knew I wanted to be able to support myself, and that guy’s life seemed cool to me.” She decided she wanted to go to school for photography, but she didn’t have a portfolio, so she decided to attend Pitt for general studies.
After two years, Danielle knew she wasn’t motivated at Pitt and was certain she wanted to pursue photography. “I wanted to make money at this. I wanted to be the commercial person making money doing what I was doing.” She left Pitt and decided to enroll in the Art Institute’s commercial photography program even though she had no portfolio and had never taken a photography class before. “I did take some nice pictures of my cat,” she quipped.
In school she knew she didn’t want to be a fashion photographer because, according to her, it was so “fad-based.” She said, “In fact, I mocked it. I did not respect fashion photography. My concentration was on technical. I wanted to make a wine glass filled with wine look like a wine glass filled with wine.”
When she graduated, Danielle was working at Fuel and Fuddle, which gave her time to pursue photography. She started working with a local commercial photographer, who had clients like GNC and Giant Eagle, and she learned a lot about photographing products. Then she decided she wanted to attend school for business because she believes, “One thing photographers are missing…when they want to go into business on their own is they don’t have that business training.” But alas, CCAC did not hold Danielle’s attention.
Eventually, she felt she was comfortable photographing objects and decided to interview for an intern assistant photographer position in NYC. She actually drove overnight from Pittsburgh to NYC for a morning interview and didn’t tell the photographer that she lived in Pittsburgh until the end of the interview! Of course, he was so impressed by that (and I’m sure her portfolio) that he hired her. In late summer 2003, Danielle and I moved up to NYC together! Unfortunately, she recalled that her job “didn’t pay me anything beyond a gyro for lunch…Just didn’t work out, so I moved back. I lived in New York City for three weeks!” she laughed.
When she returned to the ‘burgh, she landed a job with Javo Studios as one of their production people, where she gained further understanding of styling and lighting products. But she knew she had to learn more. “One thing I was terrified of was photographing people. I had no idea how to light people,” she admitted.
Danielle knew that if she wanted to be a professional photographer, she needed to get over her fear. So, she contacted the photographer who did her own senior pictures, Viglione Photography in Plum and asked for a job. After a few months of shadowing the photographer and doing photo retouching, he wanted her to start shooting senior pictures. “I was terrified because I know how important that is,” but at the time she remembers thinking, “I’m always going to be afraid of this unless I start doing this.” She admits there were a couple pretty bad sessions where she didn’t know how to position and light people and would simply hide them behind props, such as a plant! But what she ultimately began to learn is that her goofy personality put awkward high school students at ease. She was able to make them comfortable and get them to relax and have some confidence during the shoots.
From there, she started to do weddings. Though she definitely learned a lot photographing weddings, such as how to think on her feet, know her gear, be creative with available scenery and lighting, and how to get that in-the-moment shot, she also knew she didn’t want to be a wedding photographer. It was hard for her to share that experience with every bride at every wedding, and she said she, “got burned out” doing so many weddings, but she also further developed her skill of photographing people.
Then, while doing a random job search on Craigslist, Danielle found an ad for a part-time product photographer for a company she had never heard of called ModCloth. This was 2008, and ModCloth was still in its adolescence. She got a reply and went in for an interview. In the end, Danielle beat out her competition. It turned out that ModCloth wanted her to photograph models too, and they wanted her full-time almost immediately. Because of her commitment to Viglione, she ended up working both jobs for a while.
Now, she works for ModCloth and does occasional freelance work. First, she loves that she can bring her dog, Rad, to work everyday! She also loves that ModCloth uses real girls that they scout, not models from agencies, so her experience and skill of creating a relaxed environment and making high school kids comfortable in front of a camera translates well into her current photo shoots. Danielle asserted that the photography she does at ModCloth isn’t the fashion photography or elitist photography that she was against doing at the Art Institute. Instead, she called ModCloth “more lifestyle than high-fashion.” She said, “Our ultimate goal [at ModCloth] is to make the clothes look good and the girl look comfortable in the clothes and something that you [the customer] can relate to.”
A challenge of her job is also what keeps her interested: “We are always growing. There is always a new project. There is always something new that needs to be photographed.” So from models, to creative campaigns, style books, blog photography, and staying within the brand and ahead of the competition—Danielle said, “It’s never boring.” She explained that “the ModCloth girl is multifaceted, and I like exploring that…Our girl is empowered [where a] boy isn’t a prop. The girl has her own interests. Our brand is our girl, not her in a situation…[she is] very relatable [with] stories that can happen to everyday girls.”
In her down time, Danielle explores various interests (and non-interests), but she doesn’t walk around with a camera around her neck. Holding up her iPhone, she announced, “[This] is my personal camera. I’m not taking pictures when I’m not at work. I’m a photographer by trade. But I have so many different interests.” When she’s not working, she might be fly-fishing with her boyfriend where she pays particular attention to light and water and how it illuminates and reflects. She might also be metal detecting, treasure or fossil hunting, playing tennis, skiing, snowboarding, or flipping lip glosses on eBay. She also scavenges vintage stores, thrift shops, and estate sales for props and items to use in shoots and then put up for sale in her own store called 412 Retro (located on the third floor of the E.N. Miller Antique Mall in Verona).
Another trick she described is “to feed my creative brain with things that aren’t my interests.” For example, she might go to the store and pickup a magazine on quilting, not because she knows about or likes quilting, but really the opposite—“That sounds boring to me, so it might give me an edge. One thing that makes me a confident photographer is I’m doing things and looking at things that are beyond the industry. Super important with being creative is going outside your comfort zone. If it isn’t something that interests me, I will force myself to do it because it might give me an edge.”
When I asked her for advice for photographers, she quickly responded, “It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know any photographer where there is a path.” She clarified that there is no real “ladder” or exact approach that everyone should follow to become a photographer. But she did suggest getting as much experience as possible and to shadow and work with as many photographers as possible “to pick out how they solved problems and then you could put your own thing together,” she explained. In addition, she added, “My advice is to photograph what you love…take risks…do something that scares you…perfect what you are good at because that’s where you can make your money…and try to learn the business side [of photography].”
As for her future, Danielle said that photographers don’t really retire because there is always something new to photograph and a new approach emerging. When I asked what was next for her, she replied, “I could have never pieced together where I am now. And so, I don’t ever want to limit myself. I know that I always want to continue to do things that I like…I am just going to follow whatever interests me…Don’t really want to plan that much because it might close off doors.”
Many doors have opened to Danielle to lead her to her current position. It was fun to sit down with her and follow that trajectory to see how it all fits together to arrive at this moment. It is also exciting to share her enthusiasm and passion for her life and career!
(Pictures were provided with permission by Danielle as examples of some of her favorite, recent photo shoots. Be sure to checkout ModCloth’s “Back to School” campaign that Danielle is particularly excited about!)