Fashion and beauty photographer David Paul Larson launched his career in New York with determination and self-discipline, as we explained in the April issue of PDN. He moved to New York City in 2008 as the economy was collapsing, struggled for two years just to pay rent, and finally rose up the ranks as an assistant to some top photographers including Mark Seliger, Mario Testino, and Norman Jean Roy.
At the time he decided to stop assisting, Larson says he was earning up to $800 a day, including overtime. “It’s very hard to walk away from that,” he says. “You’re traveling first class everywhere, shooting 250 or 300 days a year with the best photographers. Assistants at that level are probably peaking between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. It’s golden handcuffs.”
But Larson forced himself to walk away from it to get his own career going. He took a $14-an-hour job at a rental studio just so he could use the studio free-of-charge for his own test shoots at night and on weekends. “I’m always trying to figure out an angle, especially for the test shoots, because it’s such a big expense,” he says.
Another strategy has been to live well below his means. “That’s probably one of the most important things,” he says. He has pared his monthly expenses to about $2,000–about $66 per day. That includes $1,200 for rent on a shared apartment, his biggest expense. He can now afford to live alone, but his priority it to save whatever he can for his test shoots, he explains.
His other monthly expenses include:
Health insurance: $300
Cell phone: $100
Insurance: $120 (including business insurance, renter’s insurance, and insurance for his Vespa scooter)
Health club membership: $60
Larson says he uses one provider for all his insurance needs, “which I would recommend because you get a better deal by a lot.” He doesn’t ride the subway, relying on his Vespa instead for all of his local transportation. Gasoline runs about $20 per month, he says.
As we explained in our story about his transition, he rarely splurges on any personal expense. “I made the decision when I was 22 not to stop drinking, but I probably drink only 5 times a year. It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says.
Larson says he never considered asking his parents for help, because they didn’t support his decision to move to New York City in the first place. And admitting defeat and going home was unthinkable, he says. His plan B was to sell everything he owned and live on friends’ couches, if he had to. “There’s the story of the general whose soldiers were put on the beach and he burned all the ships so they couldn’t retreat. You know, you just burn all your bridges and you’re like, all right. We’re here.
“People come to New York and think it’s going to be a walk in the park. It’s really competitive. Everyone wants to move here. Well, guess what? It’s not sunshine and rainbows…Life is hard. Anything worth doing is hard.”
Below is an audio excerpt of our interview with Larson. He offers tips for how to push through the burn-out and creative plateau that prevents many assistants from transitioning to their own photo careers. He also shares the most valuable client service lessons he learned as an assistant.