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BFA: Behind the Lens

The four founders of Billy Farrell Agency talk documenting some of the most important moments on the cultural scene

With another New York fashion week officially in full swing, the requisite onslaught of street style moments, swanky parties, celebrity-filled events, and runway shows has begun. (And that’s not to mention the impending flurry of awards shows and red carpet events.) There to capture all the magic is BFA, the New York-based photography agency formed in 2010 by Billy Farrell (whose initials make up part of the company name), Neil Rasmus, Joe Schildhorn, and David X Prutting. With a philosophy of “images matter,” BFA has long been the go-to for photos from the biggest events, like the Met Gala.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an event in New York City—or Paris, or L.A., where the agency recently opened up a branch—at which one of BFA’s lensmen isn’t in attendance to visually chronicle it. It’s not difficult to spot a BFA image;  Milk’s Mazdack Rassi, for instance, has touted the agency for producing “richer” work than anyone else in the game. 

“We have an internal slogan we throw at each other when discussing post-production: ‘Make it pop!’,” Farrell said. “If the images don’t pop on the computer screen, nobody’s going to want to run them in a magazine.”

Farrell added that the general goal among BFA’s sharpshooters is to tell a story first and foremost. “It’s not just about celebrity full-lengths and creating pictures that will sell in the weeklies,” he said. “When you’re neck-deep in a cluster of photographers mobbing a Jenner, it’s easy to forget that there are 162 other photos that need to be created to tell the full story of the event.” 

Of course, “mobbing a Jenner” (or snapping a photo of any other celebrity, model, or industry figure, for that matter) requires more than just shoving a camera in their face—Schildhorn said a big part of what makes BFA different from other agencies is its unique relationships with said individuals. And, obviously, trust. “Being the official photographer at an event provides a level of trust with guests, which enables them to let their guard down, which in turn allows for relationship-building,” he said.

“Trust is everything,” Farrell continued. “If your subject or talent trusts you, you’ll be able to create a better photo where that trust shines through.” But, he said, “these relationships take years to build, but can easily break in an instant.”

Before forming BFA eight years ago, Farrell and his cofounders were protégées of the famous party photographer Patrick McMullan, whose documentation of the New York social scene in the ‘80s played an integral part in the evolution of event photography. “The entirety of my 20s was spent working for him,” Farrell said. “The lessons I learned [under him] reshaped my entire core.” 

“Working for Patrick definitely instilled a ‘client first’ approach to photography,” added Rasmus.

In a climate driven largely by speed and social media, BFA remains steadfast in its approach—that is, producing what Rasmus calls the “best possible product in the least amount of time.” To do so, Farrell said the company has adapted its workflow and invested in new technology. “We wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t adapt to changes like these,” he said. In other words, rather than seeing social media as a hindrance, the company simply acknowledges it as another platform for imagery and ideas. 

Though BFA is still quite young (for some insight, McMullan has been around for more than three decades, while Getty—stock photo agency powerhouse—started in the mid-’90s), the founders believe it’s already-massive archive of images will tell an important tale.

“When reflected upon decades from now, our archive will tell many micro-stories and one overall story,” Farrell said. “History itself is built on stories that are passed down by word of mouth, pen and ink, audio recordings, and those captured on ‘film,’” he said. “The latter allows us to get everything that happened last night because it’s all there on visual record. Images are an important part of recording history and we value that.” In the above slideshow, Farrell has chosen four of his favorite photographs from that archive—one by each partner, himself included—and offers some insight into the star-studded shots. 

“The importance lies in the possibility to influence a larger audience worldwide—to influence people’s dreams, fashion choices, and even career choices,” Schildhorn continued.

In the pipeline this year is an expansion of video and social media services. Additionally, BFA plans to launch a new technology platform that’s been in development for five years. The founders remained tight-lipped about the details, but did reveal one small hint: It’s photography related. 

Click through the slideshow above to see Farrell’s top favorite photos taken by his co-founders over the years.

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