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Photo by Karen Lenz

My New York adventure started over four years ago while I was working as Studio Manager for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. I was with the workshops for three seasons, and during that time I was fortunate enough to work closely with an incredibly diverse group of photographers, from Norman Jean Roy to Joe McNally to Platon. My first winter season in Santa Fe was also the first workshop for Platon, and I ended up hitting it off with both him and his first assistant (Andreas Konrath). Immediately after that season’s end I traveled to New York, checked into the Vanderbilt YMCA (which is a MUST if you want the true New York experience) and began my first of three internships at his studio.

Internships are an integral part of the hiring process in the New York photo industry. It is not the only way to get your foot in the door, but it is the most common. Out of the six full-time staffers who have been through Platon’s studio since he moved to the states, four of us started out as interns. Interning is not a glamorous life by any means. In my case I started scanning contact sheets, walking the dog (and picking up poop), filing, organizing, cleaning and doing general errands. But if you are eager to learn, have a good work ethic, are easy to get along with, don’t have a sense of entitlement and don’t mind doing ANY job that’s asked, then this is a good way to get to know the people in the studio, and for them to get to know you. After two shorter internships, I was asked to come out and do one three-month trial period, which ended up turning into a full-time position.

I worked as Studio Manager and 1st Assistant for the better part of two years, and during this time I worked harder than I ever had in my life. The weekly average came out to somewhere between 60 and 80 hours at the studio, and the pay was barely enough to survive (especially in New York), but the life and work experiences that I had were utterly priceless.

Out of all my experiences with Platon, I would have to say that a few of the most memorable would be: being in Chicago for the Obama election and D.C. for the inauguration, photographing Michelle Obama in the White House, photographing Annie Leibovitz for the London Sunday Times, and the Portraits of Power series of world leaders taken in the hallway behind the General Assembly at the United Nations.

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Platon photographing Tony Blair at the UN During the World Leaders portfolio 9/09.
Published in The New Yorker Online 10/09
© Nick Rapaz

As many of you may already know, Platon is not into complicated lighting techniques. Instead, he has chosen one primary setup that works well for him. When he walks on set, everything from lights to cameras are always in the exact same place. This allows him to focus on the interaction with the subject and making a good picture, instead of spending all his time figuring out the best lighting setup for the situation. As an assistant, the challenge comes in figuring out how to give him the exact same setup regardless of whether you are shooting at Milk studios in Manhattan, the belly of a Navel war ship, or in a 9’x3’ corner of the UN hallway surrounded with secret service agents and SWAT. The key to doing this is staying calm and focused, being resourceful and able to jerry-rig almost anything out of gaffers tape and a Swiss Army Knife.

Although the lighting was not particularly difficult, the stakes were always unbelievably high, and the time given for a shoot was often measured in seconds rather than minutes. If you had any technical difficulties, you had to be prepared to recover instantly. The time it took to change a modeling lamp would easily be enough to lose the subject and the shoot. This meant that you had to carefully choreograph a solution to almost every possible problem on set, and carry enough equipment to have multiple backups readily available.

Our actions on set were rehearsed and executed like a dance. Working with two to three assistants max, we all knew what to do and (when in sync) moved with the fluidity of an octopus. At no time was this more memorable than the evening of the last presidential election. We were put up in the same hotel as Obama and were there waiting for the first official picture of him as president. We were told that we would have approximately 45 seconds to 1.5 minutes to get the shot, from the time we entered the room. That meant setting up a white background, lights, cameras, and computer all of which had to be brought in on a single rolling cart that could pass through an X-ray machine. We spent a couple of hours in the hallway of the hotel practicing and somehow got the entire setup down to under 15 seconds. We then spent the next fifteen hours in the hotel room, dressed in our best suits, waiting for the call. Every time the phone rang we leaped to the cart with a rush of adrenaline and started out to door, only to find that it was our local contact or photo editor with more updates. At 2am they officially decided that the photo was not going to happen and we were allowed to leave the hotel and walk through downtown Chicago as thousands of people filled the streets in celebration. Although we were never granted that first official photo of President Obama, our accomplishments on that shoot were no less impressive, and the experience and emotions of that day and night will be with me for the rest of my life.

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Various test Polaroids on set from 07-09.

I have personally never been very star-stuck. I think that is a big part of what makes a good assistant. As I look back over some of the people that I’ve met in the last few years, it is pretty damned exciting and a bit surreal. But when you are on set and face to face, they are ordinary human beings. Instead of getting caught up with the fame, I’ve always been more interested in seeing what someone is really like. The way a subject treats the assistants on set provides huge insight to how they are as a person. The best example of this is the photo shoot of Michelle Obama in the White House.

It was a nerve-racking process to get there, assemble the gear, and transport it to the White House. Everything had to fit onto two rolling carts in order to make it down the mall (which does not allow vehicle traffic of any kind), and through security. Once at the gate we had to lay out and open all cases, then wait on the other side of the guard house before proceeding into the waiting room. We were given a briefing on etiquette and procedure around the first lady. The buildup was immense, but when Michelle walked in the room, all that formality and tension melted away. She was the warmest and most down to earth woman that I have ever met. She greeted Platon with a kiss on the cheek and then proceeded to walk over to me and the other assistant for introductions. The shoot was amazing, Platon was on his A game as always, and by the end we had 30 or so people packed into the room waiting to get her off to the next appointment. I remember seeing her on the other side of the room being rushed out, and when she made eye contact with me, cut through the crowd of advisers, walked straight up, extended her hand in the most electric handshake I’ve ever experienced, and said, “Nick, it was so nice to meet you, thank you for all of your help today!” She then did the same with the other assistant before leaving the room. Now this is the first lady of the United States. Out of all the things that she had on her mind at that moment, remembering the two of us in the corner and taking the time to thank us by name was beyond anything that I could have expected. She is a woman of true sincerity and class.

A similar situation occurred when we photographed Annie Leibovitz. The idea of one great photographer taking pictures of another is fascinating in and of itself, but this was Annie. After all the horror stories that have been passed down through the assistant grapevine, none of us knew what to expect. She walked on to the set, immediately went up to each assistant, extended her hand and warmly said “Hi, I’m Annie.” My response was a formal, “It’s an honor to meet you.” But inside it was a sheepish, “I know that.” For the next hour the two icons bantered back and forth about life, love, family and career. At the end of the day, she was an amazing and beautiful woman, and showed each one of us tremendous respect. She thanked us all and left each of us with a profound sense of admiration.

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Platon photographing Annie Leibovitz and Annie shooting back.  05/08
Published in The London Sunday Times Magazine 5/08
©Nick Rapaz Photography

I could spin tales all day of the adventures that I had with Platon, but realistically, these are not my stories to tell…they are his. And if any of you have ever heard him speak, you know that he tells the tales better than anyone ever could. My perspective is merely as an assistant.

Last year the economic crisis, combined with the decline of print media, came to a head in the New York photo industry and most studios began to frantically restructure in order to stay alive. This was especially essential for the editorial studios. At this time I, like so many full-time 1st assistants in the industry, suddenly found myself making the transition from full-time to freelance. The nine months since have brought new and monumental challenges (especially in a city with living costs like New York), but they have also broadened my views of assisting, and the photographic industry as a whole.

I have shared some of the highlights of my time as a full-time assistant, but I think it is also important to contrast this with freelance assisting and lay out some simple observations that I think could be beneficial when considering taking this step in the industry.

The first major consideration when looking at assisting is whether you want to pursue a full-time or freelance position. Both have significant benefits and drawbacks. If you choose to work full-time for one person, you are going to be exposed to only one view, and no two photographers do things the same way. The benefit of full-time is that once you learn how a specific photographer works, you are better able to efficiently serve them and be a much better assistant overall. If you work for multiple photographers you can be exposed to a rich variety of lighting and shooting techniques. I have personally found that I have learned more technically in my subsequent time as a freelance assistant, and my personal style has benefited greatly from being around a multitude of styles. One day you are putting up dozens of flags to make sure that no extraneous light reaches the subject, and the next you are on set with Bert Stern letting the background light wrap around your subject and flare out the lens. I personally enjoy the diversity.

One negative side to freelance is that every time you walk on set you have to constantly be tuned in with the other assistants, trying to absorb the etiquette and techniques expected by this photographer. There is a major humility factor knowing that you are always “the new guy” when you walk on a set for the first time.

Another drawback to freelance is that you are seldom a part of the business or production end of a shoot. You get a call-time, show up for the shoot, and walk away when it’s over. I personally don’t enjoy the “business” side of photography. I would rather focus on making the pictures. But there is more to this industry than making art. You need to know how to run a solid business…especially today. As a full-time assistant you are better able to learn the inner workings of a studio.

The last and greatest drawback to freelance is stability, especially today. When I first came to New York it was generally accepted that a freelancer was going to make significantly more than a full-time. Every day that you work you would be earning between $200-$450 a day, plus overtime. Most of the established freelancers were working 60-75% of the time. As a full-time assistant you are generally looking at $100 or less a day. In the last year this has all changed. The people who are busy are still making good money, but the rates are starting around $150-$250, with very few opportunities for overtime. In addition, few photographer are working with the regularity that they were in the past. Most of the freelancers I know are working around 10 days a month, and that is considered pretty good today. There are of course exceptions to this, but overall many assistants have had to supplement their income with work in rental houses, tutoring, retouching etc.

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Regardless of whether you are a freelance or full-time assistant, it is still a great way to live in a city like New York, learn the industry from the inside and start your career. You just have to be proactive, resourceful, and most importantly you need to keep your ultimate goal in mind. If you wan to be a shooter, then make sure that you establish a realistic time line for your own work. Spend all of your free time building your own portfolio, and continue to develop as a photographer, as an artist, and as a person.

In closing, I am not sure what the next step will be for me. I am sincerely grateful for the experiences that I have had so far, and hope that they will be equaled by experiences in my own shooting career. I am currently freelancing as much as possible and would consider taking another full-time position if given the opportunity. I am currently focusing as much of my energies as possible on building my own portfolio, and figuring out how to stand on my own two feet as a photographer in this ever changing industry. After all…that’s why I came out here. Either give it everything you’ve got or go home.

Thanks so much to Scott Kelby and Brad Moore for inviting me to participate in this highly informative and influential blog. I hope my contribution offers a slightly different perspective on the life of another photo assistant in New York.

You can view Nick’s work at Rapaz.com, and see him helping Joe McNally out alongside Brad in this Kelby Training Online class!