Shooting portraits of famous musicians is always easy, breezy beautiful. Well, maybe not. But if you’re Philadelphia-based photographer Chris Sembrot, and you’re shooting in a swanky hotel in downtown Manhattan, that just may be the case.
Chris was commissioned by British magazine The Guardian (who found him on Wonderful Machine) to capture images of Phoenix—No, not the mythological bird that rises from ashes, or the Arizona city, but the popular French rock band.
Chris was informed that the release of the Phoenix feature would coincide with the beginning of the Coachella Music Festival. Guardian wanted the band’s images to reflect the cool attitude of the mega-fest, but in a city-like atmosphere where buildings and skylines could be worked into the composition.
Now if you’ve heard of this New York City, and I’m sure some of you have, you’re aware of the fact that there’s no shortage of buildings, skylines and street scapes, so there was no issue there. In fact, the band’s rep had already secured a location when Chris called them up: The East Village Standard Hotel. The building’s surroundings and design had Chris smiling from ear to ear. “Once I did a quick scout prior to the band arriving, I knew we were about to get a pretty good set of shots. The space allowed me to shoot with available light and that made me happy.”
The two-hour time slot Chris was given to shoot the band was more than enough. However, he made sure to note that having too much time can cause you to over-think your process. But that was not the case here. This extended window allowed Chris to experiment with each band member. “Since I had so much time, I would basically shoot each member for 5-10 minute “mini sessions” multiple times. I think this helped keep the energy high and the guys engaged the whole time”
To help set the mood and prevent an awkward environment, Chris put together a playlist of some of his favorite tunes. He advises, however, not to incorporate the music of the band you’re currently working with into the mix. “I never put the band I’m shooting into the playlist. Not only is it transparent, but it’s not who I am. These guys are musicians, which means they probably listen to many types of music. I’m basically playing the music for myself or to keep my subjects pumped. If the band likes it, cool. If not, they always have a veto I give them at the beginning.” And only once was this right exercised by Phoenix, when guitarist Christian Mazzalai killed the song “I can make you famous” by Spank Rock.
One challenge Chris did face during the shoot was visual diversity. Remember, this is New York after all, and just because you’re shooting in a penthouse doesn’t mean you have the luxury of too much space. He was presented with two rooms and four band mates. Shooting them together was no problem but transforming the space into different locations for each shot initially had Chris concerned. However, due to the available light and the backdrop of the city, he was able to pull it off. “The guys were great and really down for whatever I asked. They were true professionals.”
Looking back, we probably should have expected that driving in New York shortly after a hurricane would be problematic, but on November 15, Paul and I drove in for portfolio reviews blissfully unaware of the traffic horrors awaiting us. Things were going smoothly until we started seeing signs directing us past the Lincoln Tunnel, then the bridges. Eventually, we had to enter Manhattan through The Holland Tunnel. This took us over an hour and we found ourselves rushing to our first meeting (even though we left quite early in the morning!). But luck was on our side and we were shaking hands with Marie Claire photo editors Ashley and Lizzy right on time.
The Marie Claire review. From left: Lizzy, Ashley and Maria
Having visited Marie Claire two years ago, we knew they prefer seeing reportage and non-LA/NY based shooters. With that in mind, we showed the work of our documentary photographers Beth Rooney, Eli Meir Kaplan and Radhika Chalasani—all of whom got great responses from Ashley and Lizzy. Eli was a particular favorite, especially his adorable pony series.
And just in case, we also brought a few celeb/portrait/fashion shooters from cities large and small. Of these books, Jeremy Deputat‘s iPad was a top pick. They were especially happy to learn that he’s based in Detroit—which is not always the easiest place to find amazing celebrity photographers.
View from Marie Claire’s conference room.
We packed up the car and moved at a crawl to More Magazine. Luckily, we made it into the Meredith building just in time to meet More‘s photography director, Natasha Lunn, and three members of the photo department. Unlike Marie Claire, this group was happy to see lots of fashion and celebrity work, “oohing and awing” over Monica Stevenson, Samantha Wolov, Austin Hargrave and Jodi Jones‘ books.
The More Magazine review. Quite the stylish group!
We had a good visit at More, and they were extremely pleased with the selection of work. And when they found out our next meeting was across the hall at Fitness Magazine they ran and grabbed the FM photo editor Karina. That way, we didn’t have to lug all the books across the building. Thanks, More ladies!
Paul and I sat down with Karina who was looking for (no surprise) sports and fitness work, along with still life and fashion. She said they’re moving away from happy-go-lucky women working out on seamless backdrops, and moving towards more “realistic” photos of athletes excercising on location. With that in mind, we showed the fitness work of Nick Hall and Kevin Winzeler, who were both well received. She also loved David Arky‘s still life and Christopher Shane‘s lifestyle photography.
After thanking Katrina for her time and presenting her with a highly sought-after WM t-shirt, we rushed to the car for our last meeting: NBC. Seeing that we wouldn’t arrive on time if we had to park, I dropped Paul in front of 75 Rockefeller Center (their temporary office) with a giant case of portfolios. He made a mad dash into the building where he was asked by an employee if he was there for the casting. Personally, I might have dropped the case and played along, but Paul declined. Finally, he met up with NBC’s photo coordinator and director of photography.
While Paul was showing books to NBC, I drove around in circles and took some photos of Radio City Music Hall…
Right off the bat they asked Paul for recommendations for photographers in Atlanta, which he was happy to provide. Of the books on hand, they particularly enjoyed Austin Hargrave, Jeremy Deptutat, Stephanie Diani and Winnie Au‘s work. They were also intrigued to hear that we can handle production as well as stock requests.
After looking through the books and learning all about Wonderful Machine, the NBC meeting wrapped and Paul met me outside the building. We breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we’d made it through all four meetings, even with the horrendous traffic. Victorious, we headed to our last stop of the day, a happy hour at The Stag’s Head.
From left: Axel Dupeux, Gil Lavi, Paul, Maria, Stephanie Diani, Tim, Annie Tritt
There, we sipped on a couple well-deserved beers with WM photographers Annie Tritt, Axel Dupeux, Gil Lavi, Stephenie Diani and her husband Tim. It was a fun time, with lots of laughs—especially from Axel and Gil, who could hack it as a comedy duo, if they ever tire of photography. Eventually, we had to call it a night since we needed to drive back to Philly. We said our goodbyes and jumped in the car to spend another hour fighting to get out of the city. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never been so happy to be in New Jersey in my entire life… Until next time, New York!
Seven years ago, photographer Axel Dupeux traded The City of Light for the City That Never Sleeps. Continuing with our expatriate series, I interviewed Axel about his life as a portrait photographer in New York. Enjoy!
- Maria Luci
Where are you from originally?
Paris, France. Born and raised.
How did you become a photographer?
I started, classically messing around with a camera as a teenager. After high school, I took advantage of a sabbatical time at Paris Law University to intern for photographers and magazines photo departments. I eventually realized French justice would do fine, better even, without me and went to a photo school called Speos, in Paris.
I now photograph “real people,” although I hate that expression. My style is very natural and straightforward. I consider portrait a formalized kind of journalism.
How did you end up in New York?
New York was always part of the mythology I associated with photography. All my favorite photographers and magazines were based there, so it was somehow always part of the plan. After doing the assisting thing for a little, and showing my book around, I realized how small Paris was for the portrait market. I thought I was still young and could go try somewhere else. I came to New York on an internship visa working at the Blackbook Magazine photo department—and never went back to Paris.
Were there any challenges to becoming a freelance photographer in New York?
I came here very early in my career when the challenge was to become a freelance photographer in general. But coming from Paris, it actually felt a little easier. New York was very welcoming.
Have you experienced any language issues?
Not really, English may have been the most useful thing I learned in photo school. I do have a pretty heavy accent, but you Americans love it.
How did you start gaining clients?
I pretty much started my career here, so I had to build a presence from the ground up. I did, and still do the regular marketing thing. Plus, New York has such a concentration of talents that you get to meet people socially… and I am notorious for being a big photo industry party animal. Interning at a magazine was also a good idea. I got to see the buyer side and observe how photographers were getting noticed and what kind of marketing was efficient.
What are some of the photos projects you’ve worked on in New York?
I do mostly editorial and corporate portraits. I love magazines, and consider it the essence of this job, and you meet a very wide range of people. I work primarily for business and trade publications such as Adweek, Fast Company, American Lawyer, Bloomberg Markets and Entrepreneur. I also handle some shenanigans for young-people magazines such as Vibe, Thrasher and Death and Taxes. And for a few years, I have worked an on-going street portrait project about my Brooklyn neighborhood, Bushwick.
How is working in the States different than working in France?
The photo industry in New York is much bigger, more codified, and somehow much more passionate and genuinely excited about producing great imagery. Not to mention the pay is multiplied by ten. But you still need to press that button that’s on the upper right corner of the camera to take a picture.
Has working in the U.S. affected your photography style?
It has enriched it. I think the level here is generally higher than France and that emulation was good. I think I’ve progressed a lot technically and aesthetically since I got here.
Do you plan to stay in New York?
YES. The next challenge is to become bi-coastal.
If you were giving advice to a photographer moving to New York, what would you tell them?
Don’t! I found it first.
Portfolio events are one of the best parts of my job, so it was with a smile that I set out for New York City last Thursday with Kayleen Kauffman. Arriving in Manhattan early, we had plenty of time to figure out how to turn left in a city filled with “no turns” signs. Once we finally found our way—breaking a few traffic laws, I’m sure—we parked and unloaded, ready for our first meeting at the home improvement magazine, This Old House.
Kayleen and the portfolios.
Inside Time Inc.’s building, security escorted us to Denise Sfraga’s door. Denise, TOH’s director of photography, apparently disagreed with security’s thoughts on our suspiciousness and cheerfully invited us into her office with associate photo editor Allison Chin. Sitting on Denise’s cozy couch, we discussed This Old House’s photography needs while reviewing portfolios. They both had great things to say about Wonderful Machine, and genuinely enjoyed the books. Favorites included Boston-based Trent Bell and Portland, OR’s Lincoln Barbour.
Denise (right) and Allison review portfolios.
Denise and Allison also shared insight into TOH’s photo department, saying they’re currently inundated with emailers (most are inappropriate for the magazine) and that they use about 50% stock and 50% assignment in each issue. They also rarely look at print portfolios anymore, preferring to review websites—but enjoyed our meeting with “real” portfolios for a change of pace. Actually, Denise added that she was pleasantly surprised to see us bringing so many books, as she was expecting just an iPad. The printed books of Morgan Howarth, Casey Dunn and Mark Weinberg were particularly impressive to them.
After all the portfolios had been reviewed, Kayleen and I said goodbye and headed down a couple floors to Essence— an African American women’s magazine featuring a nice mix of celebrity, lifestyle and fashion photography. Once again escorted by security, we met up with photo editor Tracey Woods. Tracey led us to a conference room where we laid out a dozen portfolios. Soon several Essence creatives were circling the table and flipping pages. Harold Daniels‘ work was instantly recognized since he’s shot for them before. They loved his new work, calling many of his photographs beautiful. One creative added how much she loves printed portfolios, pointing to Robert Gallagher‘s elegantly printed book as an example, saying “You just can’t beat this.” Other favorites included Annie Tritt‘s portraits, Austin Hargrave‘s celebrity shots and Bobby Bruderle‘s overall style. Tracey also said that she uses the Wonderful Machine site often.
After leaving Essence, we headed off to lunch. Luckily, Time Inc. is situated across from a covered pavilion with plenty of benches and a Europa Cafe. At Europa, Kayleen and I ordered chopped salads before grabbing a prime people-watching bench.
Once finished with our salads (delicious!), we prepared for our final review at Time Inc. Content Solutions. We were lucky enough to have all of our meetings in one building, but the desk attendant wouldn’t allow us to use their parking lot elevator (darn hand truck)—meaning we had to push 100 pounds of books up a steep ramp (on the bright side, we got some exercise.) After sweating our way back into the building, we found our contact, Denise Bosco. Denise then introduced us to Photo Assistant Mike Lawrence. Mike was great; he looked through a ton of books and spoke extensively about Time Inc.’s photo needs. He was particularly interested in bold still life photography for Proto Magazine and fresh lifestyle work for their other publications. Mike was “fascinated” by the work of our retoucher, Janko Williams. Denise also looked through books and asked questions about Wonderful Machine. Eventually, we realized our quick review had turned into an almost two hour affair!
Just a small sample of the many stacks of magazines the Time Inc crew had.
Once we’d packed the books and said goodbye, it was just enough time to scurry over to Heartland Brew Pub for drinks with several of our New York photographers. We grabbed a table just as life-of-the-party/photographer Tim Soter showed up. Tim kept the laughs coming as we drank delicious brews and snacked on mozzarella sticks and fried pickles (OK, I’ll admit, I ate all the pickles). Soon after ordering, Jodi Jones and Mark Weinberg arrived, adding even more fun and flavor to the night.
Cheers! From left: Tim Soter, Kayleen, Mark Weinberg, Maria, Jodi Jones
For about three hours we chatted about fried foods, photography, cats, and the pain of New York photo permits. We also learned that Tim once heroically saved an entire bus of people (ask him about it!); that Jodi has a new coffee table book coming out (ask her about it!); and that Mark literally just ran over from an exciting new shoot (can’t talk about it!). Unfortunately though, Kayleen and I had to leave as we had a long drive ahead of us. We hugged it out before heading back to the car, another successful day under our belts.