Natalie Brasington, a New York based photographer specializing in conceptual portraits of comedians, explains how she got started, and shares practical advice for aspiring celebrity photographers. In the video below, she shows how she conceived some of her early portraits of comedian Amy Schumer, and more recent portraits of other comedians.
PDN: What draws you to comedians?
Natalie Brasington: I love comedy. I love the honesty of it. Comedy and hip hop and graffiti are not classical art forms, but they engage people in a very real way [with] commentary about society. I think there’s a lot of depth and soul to comedy and I think humor is so cathartic. And I’m also really interested and passionate about social issues.
PDN: Why don’t you believe in the idea of a “big break” in a celebrity photographer’s career?
NB: Maybe years ago there was such a thing as a big break, but I don’t think that exists anymore. There are photographers older than myself who will reference photographs in a magazine like Rolling Stone as their big break. When I had a full-page picture in Rolling Stone magazine, I knew better than to wait for my phone to start ringing off the hook.
We’re in such a media-saturated time and culture, and celebrities are generating so much of their own media, that I just don’t think it’s enough to have a celebrity in [your portfolio]. It certainly gives you some credibility. But your style and what you’re going to bring to each photo shoot is, I think, far more important than just having a celebrity in your book.
PDN: Tell me about the celebrity shoot that got your career going.
NB: I was really lucky. Amy Schumer was hosting a show on MySpace TV’s online channel called BFF [in 2009, before she was famous] and a photographer who had shot the pilot episode as a favor to the director wasn’t interested in the job [for the whole season]. So I volunteered myself. I had been working on a lot of personal work, I had a portfolio, and an online presence, thank goodness, and I got the job.
[Afterwards] she asked me if I would photograph the theater company she co-founded, called The Collective. So I worked on a few different projects with The Collective. All of [the shoots with Amy Schumer] were launch points to the next thing. But there’s rarely that point where the floodgates are going to open. You really have to be promoting yourself and your work, and hope it catapults you to the next project. That’s continual. That doesn’t let up.
There really needs to be something that you are thought of as: This is the photographer that has this sensibility or has this style. One single celebrity won’t seal that deal for you. You really need to decide what your viewpoint is and build a book and a website around that.
PDN: What’s your advice for doing that?
NB: If you’re interested in shooting celebrities, you have to ask yourself: Why? What story do I want to tell? Is it that I’m interested in really honest, stripped down portraits? Am I interested in creating colorful conceptual portraits? Am I interested in doing documentary work? So asking yourself how and why it is that you want to shoot celebrities, I think is a really good jumping off point.
We live in a city with an incredible amount of talent. There are lesser known comedians. There are actors. There are dancers. There are people who need photography and will collaborate with you gladly. Show people how you would shoot a celebrity. You know, kind of like: Dress for the job you want.
PDN: How long did it take you to find your style?
NB: For me it was a process of doing. Art school is all about analysis, you know, analysis-paralysis, and asking yourself ethereal questions. And then you have to keep a roof over your head. So for me, that was assisting, and that was where I really learned a ton and honed in on practical skills with lighting and gear and building up your muscles so you can actually tote your own gear around, and things like that.
And then you have to take all of those things and combine them. I found that just sitting back and thinking: ‘Well, what do I want to do, and how do I want to take pictures?’ was really non-productive. I had to just be interested in something, and then go do it. So for me it was shooting a demolition derby near my hometown, and shooting comedians and actors and DJs and then just saying: What about these things is similar? Where’s the common thread? What’s the through line here? And sitting down after amassing enough work to go, OK, what is the sensibility that I’m bringing to all these different projects?
PDN: How long did it take you to figure out the answer to that?
Probably three, four years, of really diligent work. Ask me in five years, and I might have a different idea about what it is I’m interested in or what I’m doing. But I think, for me, it was just a matter of trying to shoot a lot, and [seeing] where does that go. I was shooting constantly while I was assisting. I would take some technical skill I learned on set and then try and shoot for it. I would barter with photographers, offering free work in exchange for borrowing their gear. I was scrappy. I would do a lot to try to make things accessible to myself so I could amass a lot of work. Figuring out what it was that makes a Natalie picture a Natalie picture was a process of years.
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