How easy is it to make a living as a fashion photographer in Anchorage -- the city chosen as worst-dressed by readers of Travel and Leisure Magazine last year?
"It's impossible!" said Thuy Vo. "There just aren't that many people here who need me."
Yet Vo, who specializes in beauty, fashion and portrait photography achieved the near-impossible this spring when one of her images was picked up by Vogue Italia (vogue.it), one of several international editions of the ultra-chic fashion mag.
Some 200,000 photos are submitted online each year. "It's the only way to submit," Vo said. Making the cut is a major coup in her line of work.
She's had outside success before, with spreads in Ellements ("e") and Meuse magazines. All shot in Anchorage, featuring Alaska models showcasing clothing, hair and makeup by other Alaskans.
Vo's Vogue image is unusual, even in a forum known for exotic and radical imagery. It features Macy Lee of Anchorage in traditional Hmong attire. "You don't see a lot of traditional things as fashion in the magazines," Vo said.
Vo said she thinks it's the first time that either an Alaska photographer or model has been featured in a Vogue outlet.
A lifelong Alaskan, Vo's family is a combination of Vietnamese and "American mix." (Her first name is pronounced like "Twee.") She's lived in Dutch Harbor, where her father was a fisherman, and the Yup'ik Eskimo village of St. Mary's, where she has relatives.
She graduated from East High School in 2002, nursing a love for the camera she inherited from her parents. "They met in a photo class," she said. "I've been drug into the darkroom since I was 5 years old."
As Vo Photography, she does a range of portraits and commercial work, including a series for an Anchorage hair salon whose owner wanted to hang photos of local women showing her styles rather than using the typical posters supplied by cosmetic companies.
But her passion lies in the realm of glamor. She had two features in the annual fashion issue of Anchorage's F magazine, including an image of a topless woman wearing sunglasses that earned the judges' choice award.
She sees fashion photography as closely connected to portraiture.
"I really like finding what makes people feel good about themselves, what it is that they see when they look in the mirror, what it is about a person that really makes them beautiful," she said. "Likewise, with models and designers, I want to find out what they're seeing, what their idea and vision is, and show it."
Word is starting to get out. Vo said she's had inquiries from designers and models outside Alaska. "One company sent me boxes of their jewelry in hopes that I'll use them in my next shoot -- and I will," she said.
She said that upwards of 10 girls approach her each week asking her to do "test" photos, the kind of shots that can show their modeling chops. Agencies "aren't looking for your high school head shot," she said.
It keeps her busy, but she particularly likes a handful of local models that she's previously worked with and "had a lot of good experiences with." She mentioned Jasmine Alleva and Magdalena Martynowicz. "They're going to be famous someday," she said.
Martynowicz was the model in one of the Ellements spreads, titled "Asymmetry," a photo essay -- which the "e" folks call a "beauty editorial" -- that flew in the face of the common concept that beauty results from perfect balance. In this case, the makeup was deliberately made to contrast and produce an unbalanced effect, one eye lined in teal, another in mauve, for instance.
"Keeping in mind that it's hard to make money in fashion photography, I treat it like art rather than a business," Vo said.
Beauty is not the most important attribute in a good model, she said. "There has to be a natural talent and creativity. I don't want someone who gives me the same thing over and over. She has to have imagination; I shouldn't need to tell her what to do. There has to be chemistry, which is something you don't have with everybody, no matter how cool they are.
"Most important, a model needs great personality. You spend hours with these girls. People are pulling at their hair, rubbing makeup on and off, putting them in different clothes, poking and adjusting all the time. They have to stay pleasant."
When not on the backside of a camera, Vo likes to fish, everything from fly fishing to halibut. She sings jazz. She's working on a degree in accounting at University of Alaska Anchorage as a safety net for when the photo biz gets slow. And she relishes absorbing the multicultural scene of her diverse, if (according to Travel and Leisure) fashion-challenged home town.
"I got to know Macy (Lee) when I did her senior portrait at East," Vo said. "Later she came to my studio. I asked if she had traditional Hmong clothing -- and she did."
The makeup was done to suit the colors and layers of the costume. Everyone -- including Vogue Italia -- was happy with the results. Vo thinks it may have inspired her to try something similar with traditional Alaska Native garments.
"I want to see traditional dress through the eyes of a fashion photographer," she said. "Sometime this summer I want to try a project where I do Alaska culture what I did with Hmong culture and Macy."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.