Fashion photography course lights the way for future photographers

By Madison Ridge

Flashing cameras, glowing lights, and an array of clothing and props — walking into the Photo 401 studio is like walking into a full-fledged fashion photoshoot, although for the students, it’s just another day at the office.

Photo 401, Fashion Photography, held in the Borland Building photo studio, focuses on teaching photography students the primary technical, aesthetic, and stylistic photographic techniques required to work in the fashion world, and it’s not your typical classroom experience.

Course instructor Stephanie Thomas created an interactive learning experience that encourages the students to learn by doing, rather than seeing.

With a mission “to harness and channel your creativity in order to get something different, better, or more comprehensive than you’ve ever gotten out of your portfolio before,” there is no lack of creative freedom under Thomas’ instruction.

“The whole syllabus is deliberately vague,” Thomas said. “Each week we have a different focus — shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, et cetera — and while Tuesdays are review day, Thursday is time for studio experimentation. I left it very open-ended on the part of the student, so they have creative freedom.”

Thomas is not exaggerating when she says “creative freedom.” On any given day, you’ll find mannequins, backdrops, lighting cues, and props whose use is entirely up to the student.

On one Thursday, students photographed items from the clothing line created by Sebastian Vargas, Thomas’ former multimedia intern and a recent integrative arts graduate.

“I made my clothing brand, SPAULV, to promote my music mostly, something I got the idea for while going to school at Penn State,” Vargas said. “But watching the artistic process of all these students as they got invested in my project was really cool. Anyone can take a picture of a t-shirt and call it a day, but these kids got invested.”

Although Vargas’ SPAULV clothing shoot was a popular one for the Photo 401 students, it is just one of the many opportunities presented during Thursday studios.

According to Thomas, each Thursday is the center of their creative experience, and on Tuesdays the students get to compile their work and critique, to learn how to improve their craft.

“All my students are very talented at getting the shots they want from a controlled environment, which is why I like bringing in models and making them work during class time,” Thomas said.

It challenges them to go outside their own box and collaborate with each other, and it creates such a great synergy.”
– Stephanie Thomas

Among Thomas’ student photographers are sophomore film major, Abby Tarpey, and junior marketing major, Kayla Freyermuth. During the SPAULV photoshoot, Tarpey and Freyermuth photographed Vargas’ “A Casa” cloud sweatshirt, a bright blue piece with cotton clouds sewn on.

“Creative freedom in this class allows me to expand and build my brand, vision, capabilities, and creative ideas,” Tarpey said. “Because of how much creativity is encouraged, I don’t feel limited by assignment requirements, but rather encouraged to think outside the box, to try to come up with new ways to outdo myself and see where I can take my vision.”

Tarpey, who also interned with Thomas, has been invested in photography as an art form for almost seven years. It was the medium that sparked her love of visual storytelling, and later, what inspired her choice in major.

According to Tarpey and Freyermuth, Photo 401 has been one of their favorite classes at Penn State.

Freyermuth, who has been a photographer for about four years, said the class exceeded her expectations, thanks to Thomas’ instruction.

“My favorite project was working with Sebastian and SPAULV, because we worked with real brand materials in a true photo studio environment,” said Freyermuth.

Stephanie has majorly improved my art of fashion photography by explaining how certain poses are put into place for different clothing materials and how certain brands present their clothing in different ways.”
– Kayla Freyermuth

The class featured many guest speakers to broaden the students’ portfolios and align with the foundational goal of the course – to create a portfolio representative of the College of Arts and Architecture’s strategic plan goal to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. They included creative changemaker Sharifa Ali and jazz singer Vuyo Sotashe, who were part of Michael Mwenso’s Center for the Performing Arts artist residency.

Among the many volunteer models for the class was one of the four-legged variety – Van Spokus, an obedience-trained golden retriever.

“Everyone was completely stunned because he sat there for an hour letting us put hats, clothing, and sunglasses on him all while the strobe lights were going on,” said Thomas. “It was a fun midterm surprise for the students.”

In her time as a staff member and instructor at Penn State, Thomas has been a mentor to many, including Emma Kappel, a junior double-majoring in photography and art history, whose love for photography manifested early on and led her to attend a six-year art magnet school before college.

Kappel said that despite being an avid photographer for years, taking this class and interning with Thomas helped to open her eyes to countless artistic and professional opportunities.

“She took me under her wing and taught me so much about being a professional, everything from social media analytics to directing models,” Kappel said. “She is always a mentor that I can go to whenever I need guidance and has significantly changed the way that I produce my own photographs.”

Photo shoot with Van Spokus, obedience-trained golden retriever.
Stephanie Thomas, by Natasha Kravchenko.
Sharifa Ali and Vuyo Sotashe, by Kayla Freyermuth.
Fashion photo shoot with Theatre faculty member Rebecca Maciejczyk, by Abby Tarpey.