The Model of Professionalism: Print Location Pro Peter McClafferty

I am an only child, born in Manhattan and raised in New Jersey until the age of 5. My mother was a former model and swimmer who went to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as an alternate. She appeared in Billy Rose’s Aquacade—a big deal back in the day.

Young Peter with his parents in India in front of the Taj Mahal.

My father, a retired captain in the United States Merchant Marine, was a Vice President at American President Lines (APL), responsible for container ship operations. In 1968, he was transferred to Yokohama, Japan, to head Far East Operations for APL. For the next eight years, we lived as expats, moving from Hong Kong to Singapore, and eventually, to Tokyo. Shortly after turning 13, we returned to Short Hills, New Jersey. In eight years abroad, I had the enviable luxury of having visited every country in Asia and Europe. I even went on safari in Kenya. My parents firmly believed that travel and the exposure to the world it brought was as important to my education as time in school. I never realized how fortunate I was for their forward-thinking until much later in life.

The summer before I graduated from USC with a double major in Japanese and international relations, I worked as an interpreter for the 1984 Olympics in “media transportation”—ensuring the international press got to each sporting venue in time to cover each event. My first real job out of college was for the Japanese Business Association, studying and reporting on the effect of California’s unitary tax on Japanese investment in the state. Yes, it was as dreary as it sounds.

A lifelong competitive swimmer after college, I took a second job coaching a master’s swim team. A chance exchange with one of the swimmers landed me an interview at Elite Model Management. With NO background in the agency or modeling business, I entered the interview armed with only brash youth and chutzpah. I was offered a job as an agent. Much to my mother’s dismay—I accepted the job—thus shattering her dream of her son becoming the future Ambassador to Japan.

If you told me I would be a location scout/manager 20 years later, I would have laughed. As Vice President of Elite Model Management, my days were consumed with managing the careers of beautiful, young supermodels like Kathy Ireland, Tyra Banks and Cameron Diaz. To quote Sheila E., “I lived the glamorous life.” I spent almost every hour of my day connecting models with the top photographers of the day. When I wasn’t behind my desk with a phone to my ear booking models, I was out partying until dawn.

One of the major reasons fashion clients come to Los Angeles is to shoot on location. When I was an agent, sending a model out on location was never easy. In a “pre-GPS” world where the Thomas Guide was equal parts Bible and Google Maps, a good portion of my day was spent poring over map grids figuring out how to get my clients to their booking. To me, the location was an abstract—a place I had to get my client to so that she could do her job and get paid. In my mind, it was never easy to find, ALWAYS remote and always a challenge to get to. If I had a dollar for every model that got lost going to El Mirage Dry Lake … It never really occurred to me that someone had gone out and actually FOUND “the location.”

Location fashion shoot for Bergdorf Goodman by photographers Sofia Sanchez & Mauro Mongiello

I absolutely loved my time at Elite. Working for the top model agency in the world, I learned how to navigate the many nuanced aspects of the fashion and photography business. I developed contacts and relationships in the industry in the United States and internationally that I still maintain today.

I had a client coming to Los Angeles to shoot a men’s fashion catalog and needed an LA producer. At the time, I knew of only one producer who handled 90 percent of all fashion photography production. Her name was Yasuko Austin. Much of her success was a result of her extensive knowledge of locations in Southern California—she ran a very successful location service. I gave the agent Yasuko’s name and never heard anything further until over a decade later.

After 13 amazing years at Elite, I was burnt out and left the fabulous world of modeling with the intent to develop an online company dedicated to high-end soaps, bath oils and candles. But that is another story. I ended up taking a year off to travel through South America.

Peter McClafferty. All photos courtesy of Peter McClafferty

Upon my return to LA, a friend who I had helped launch an agency representing male models called to ask if I would cover his agency while he went on holiday. I agreed. One of the first calls I answered was from Yasuko Austin, the producer I had referred so many years ago. She was doing a job for the same menswear account I had connected her with. Over the years, her business had expanded considerably and she asked me to come in and interview for a job as a photo agent. After a year of no income, I was ready to work again so when she offered me a job, I accepted.

The job of photo agent was very different from model agent. The pace at the model agency was fast, fast, fast. At Elite, a fashion model’s career could peak and be over by her early 20s, so we were always looking for the next “new face.” A model could become a superstar in a season. In terms of a photographer’s career, it could take years to achieve similar success. As an artist, a photographer is constantly evolving and developing his skill and vision. Once their portfolio was together, it often took months of back-and-forth with agency art buyers in order for a photographer to even get in the door, much less land an account. Once I adjusted to the pace, I gradually began to gain insight into the creative thought process that a photographer goes through to achieve their picture—a most valuable lesson and key to understanding and working with the creative mind.

Yasuko was the first producer who dealt exclusively with fashion photographers and had established herself as the “go-to” producer for fashion shoots. In the realm of fashion photography, the producer is often a one-person operation responsible for coordinating all aspects of a shoot. In Los Angeles, where people come from around the world take advantage of our spectacular landscapes, one of the most important responsibilities of the producer is to scout, secure and permit the location. They often handle all location logistics: parking, motor homes, port-a-potties, neighbors, directional signage, cleanup and wrap. In addition, the producer is often tasked with hiring catering, hair, makeup and sometimes, casting talent and arranging accommodations, as well as getting everyone to location. Given that a print budget is considerably smaller than a commercial or feature, the producer needs to be resourceful and on top of their game. And she was. Yasuko was a great mentor to me and my time working for her laid the foundation for my future.

After a few years, I decided to go out on my own. For my entire young adult life, I had had a job in a company office environment—the prospect of becoming a sole proprietor was daunting. The week after I left, I was contacted by a client who had encouraged me to go off on my own to produce an “easy” shoot. Three days on the west side—in Santa Monica and Venice. What could go wrong? Sparing the boring details: everything—from two company moves a day, to motor homes breaking down and parking snafus (who knew you could post “no parking” signs?—I didn’t), to the police being called after a grip truck driver refused to move and a scuffle broke out with a merchant. Every day when I left the set—I cried. Fresh out the door on my own, I was admittedly over my head. Thankfully, my client was 110 percent supportive and when we wrapped, made a point of thanking me for finding such great locations. Thus encouraged, I was off and running!

That first job was baptism by fire; however, I learned from my mistakes and slowly began to develop a strong, loyal client base. Through word of mouth, my business began to build momentum and take off. When I first started out, I promised myself that on any day I was not booked to work, I would go out and scout something new. Out of that commitment, I discovered many places and met countless amazing people. Professionally, I have had the good fortune to have worked with most of the world’s top photographers, ranging from Patrick Demarchelier and Dennis Hopper to Bryan Adams and Tierney Gearon. My work has taken me to a number of states in the US and overseas to the Bahamas, Poland, Sweden and Germany. In 2008, I was honored to win a COLA Award for my work on a project I scouted and produced for British Harper’s Bazaar. Five years later, I was honored again by COLA for a project that re-created the locations of 10 Hitchcock classics. It gave me great joy to thank the ad agency—the same agency that hired me on my first solo shoot years 12 years earlier!

Over the course of my career in locations, I have had the great fortune to meet many incredible peers. Whether speaking with a commercial scout or a location manager with a résumé of blockbusters to their credit, I am always struck by the fact that ours is a very sharing community. The professional support extended to up-and-coming people in our métier is remarkable and the free exchange of information about locations, histories, bureaucracies and experiences is unique to any business I have encountered. As I go about my day at every turn and corner, I find myself on the lookout for great locations for my clients. Forty years after my parents compelled me to discover the world, I’m sure they would be proud to see their effort was not in vain.