Marrying a love for photography together with another passion has put many a photographer on the path to greatness. New York-based music photographer Drew Gurian has successfully parlayed his twin passions into a career that straddles two fast-moving industries. He talked with us about how he went from playing in bands to photographing them, what he learned about being a pro from his years as Joe McNally’s first assistant, and the kinds of music industry clients he works with today.Photographs courtesy of Drew Gurian.
Aimee Baldridge: How did you become a photographer?
Drew Gurian: I started photographing musicians when I was thirteen, around the same time I started playing in bands. I grew into a love for photography simply based on the thought that it was cool to take photos of a band I enjoyed. I ended up going to school at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, where I majored in communication design, and specialized in advertising design and photography.
AB: I’m sure an internship with Joe McNally is very coveted. How did you get it?
In the midst of all of that, I got two summer internships. The first was with Joe McNally during the summer of 2003, and the next summer I interned with Danny Clinch- both of which were great experiences. I finished school in 2005 and freelanced for a couple years. Then in the fall of 2008, Joe asked me if I wanted to be his first assistant. I ended up doing this for almost five years before I went out on my own.
Throughout college, I was told to get a subscription to Communication Arts
, which I did. When I was looking for an internship, I went through their photo annual and picked out photographers in New York whose work I liked. I called them in November for an internship the following summer, so I probably beat the rest of the crew. I had interviews with Joe and Danny’s studio manager, and they both offered me positions.
I also interviewed with Mary Ellen Mark, David LaChapelle, Eugene Richards, and a few others. They all offered me positions, because interns are free labor for them. I put myself in an advantageous position, in that I didn’t let them pick me: I interviewed with a handful of people, and then picked the one that I thought would give me the most hands-on experience, and suit me the best.
AB: What did you learn from working with Joe McNally?
I learned a lot about multitasking, lighting, dealing with clients and subjects, and the fact that a lot of this business is based on long-term relationships. Learning to produce a job was also a huge thing. Joe’s studio manager, Lynn DelMastro, has a really solid background with contracts, and oftentimes I would sit with her while she was going over a contract or making an estimate for a job, and she would explain to me what went into it. I know how to produce and light a shoot now, and my technical skills are far beyond where I could have imagined they’d be by now.
AB: What does it mean to be a music photographer these days, and can you make a living doing it?
I am making a living doing music and entertainment photography, and 90 percent of what I do is in music. For me, being a music photographer is being more well rounded than simply taking concert photos. I’m always striving to tell a story: if you’re only shooting the stage, you’re probably telling 5 or 10 percent of the story. I’m much more interested in the things that happen off-stage, whether that’s backstage, on tour, in a restaurant, a hotel, or in a recording studio.
AB: How does your work break down between editorial and commercial?
About half and half. I’m doing a lot of work for Red Bull right now—they’re making some huge strides in the music industry, and are a fascinating company to be involved with. Last week I shot for AMC and VH1 Save the Music Foundation. I also work for Rolling Stone, The New York Times
, and Associated Press, and am in the midst of a marketing campaign targeting more advertising and commercial clients.
AB: Do you ever shoot for bands or venues directly?
I do shoot for bands directly, but I haven’t done much work for venues. When it’s happened, it’s generally been freebies or close to it. If there’s someone I find really interesting artistically or visually, I tend to approach them.
AB: Where do you think music photographers need to be based?
I’d say New York, Nashville, Austin, or L.A.
AB: What gear do you travel with?
My two systems are Leica and Nikon, and I try to stay as light as possible. If I’m on a bigger job, I’ll have three cameras with me—a Leica M (Type 240), Nikon D4, and a Nikon D800—and probably six or seven lenses, between the two camera systems.
AB: What kind of lighting do you use for concert shoots?
I’ll often put one flash on either side of the stage or behind the band, pointing toward the crowd, and I’ll put another one in the back of the venue. I put them in different groups, or on different channels, so I can power each them on and off independently. The reasoning behind this is that If I’m on stage shooting out toward the crowd, without flash, there’s likely to be a black hole in my frame. If I can use flash to create an interesting highlight and build some contrast in the scene, the possibility for a strong photo grows exponentially.
AB: Is there anything you dislike about your job?
I don’t particularly enjoy the business side of it, but I can’t stress the importance of that enough, and so many photographers are not well versed in it. We need to educate ourselves, and a good starting point is joining an organization like ASMP, PPA, or APA. If you can’t figure out a contract or don’t know how to properly estimate for a job, it’s going to be a struggle to stay in business and it brings down the rest of the industry.
AB: What advice would you give people who want to do what you do?
I tell everybody to strive to achieve something other than the stage photo. It’s potentially going to be a lot more personal and meaningful to you, and you’re telling a story that most people don’t typically get to see. In my perspective, if a band chooses to use your behind-the-scenes photos on their website or their packaging, that’s a lot cooler than a stage photo, because it’s a captured moment that shows who they are, out of the spotlight.
The fact that I have the privilege to spend time with these people—whom most of the time I have a huge amount of respect for—simply because I have a camera in my hand is a pretty special thing. I don’t take that for granted at all.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery. Resource Magazine is sold at newsstands across the U.S. and Canada, and is available for free in all major photo studios, labs, and equipment rental houses in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago.