Photo by Andrew Allen Morton
For 5 years, I have worked behind the scenes as a photographer’s assistant. This is (or can be) an illusive job. In short, I get paid to be surrounded by celebrities while they are being photographed for print advertisements, music packaging, world-wide publicity uses, book covers, movie posters and television shows.
I got into this occupation in an unusual way. Although I had done photography as a hobby since I was 15, I had no idea what the business was like. Since moving to Nashville, I had started shooting live music shows as well as live burlesque performances for fun. I received a Nikon point-and-shoot digital camera for my 24th birthday and started taking it everywhere I went. Since I am also a performing singer-songwriter, I knew a lot of peer musicians that were more than happy to let me take photographs of them at their shows. Before getting that first digital P&S camera, I had only used 35mm film, in fully manual SLR cameras, so the new convenience was astounding.
I was introduced to professional commercial photographer Tony Baker around this time. While working on his house, I started asking him questions about his photography and his shoots. I had been a fan of his music photography work for some time but didn’t know much about how he made those photographs, including the team of people that assist him in the process. Since I had a background in construction, he asked me to build a set for a CD packaging job he had coming up. The shoot took place in the beautiful gardens of the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, and my job that day was to build an underwater platform that the artist would stand on to appear to be floating on water. The set also involved large, fake trees, a sod-laid grass surround, and a 20’x40′ scenic background. There were two other guys that showed up with a huge grip truck full of photography equipment. After I finished building the set, I volunteered to help the other guys with their jobs. There was a lot of equipment I didn’t know the names of, and a lot of terminology I had never heard, but that didn’t stop me from asking “what can I do?” and “how can I help?”
The shoot lasted at least 14 hours. Maybe longer. Without a hitch.
Tony Baker appreciated my willingness to help the production, and my ability to “jump right in” and soon I was on almost all of his local jobs. In a few short months, I learned the names of the photography equipment used, how it works, and the right way to operate them. I also built friendships and working relationships with the photographer’s assistants who I worked with, and assured them of my ability to help them do their jobs, all the while learning every lesson I could to be a better photographer. Since the main reason I started assisting was to, in fact, become a photographer.
Through other assistants, I was called by other photographers and producers to help on their productions. I soon learned that EVERYONE is different in their behavior, work ethics, production etiquette, and lighting style. What one photographer ALWAYS does, another photographer NEVER does. What didn’t change was my willingness to work as hard as I could, safely, for as long as it took. I ALWAYS asked questions, and still do, in regards to personal technique and creative lighting. Although at times I CAN offer my professional opinions regarding lighting and possible shot ideas, often times it is my job to create the desired look for the photographer, and HIS/HER client.
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
I became aware of Jeremy Cowart’s work in the spring of 2007. At the time, he was the “new” guy on the scene and quickly gaining popularity in the music industry for his dynamic photography. Nashville buzzed with talk of his talent and everyone took notice. One assistant who I had worked with a lot was working with him, and it wasn’t long before I approached his producer to offer my assistance.
Nashville is a big city with small circles. In any given industry, you’re 3 degrees of separation from just about anyone.
The first shoot I worked on with Jeremy was for a Fox TV show that was to be called “Nashville.” I was given the wrong call time and showed up late. Usually this is a death card. I wasn’t nervous to meet him, but quite embarrassed about my 1 hour tardiness. I showed up at a Nashville studio surrounded by 50+ people I didn’t know, including a full TV film crew. Other than apologizing for being late, I wasn’t able to talk to him much that first day. We had 5 locations to shoot, 5 assistants, two grip trucks, a full blown digital rig, and the sun set at 8pm. That job was 18 hours long, lasting well into the night .
Shortly after, I was called again to work with Jeremy and have been with him since. I’ve traveled with him to remote locations without a GPS unit. We’ve worked in the August heat of Savannah, Georgia, and the snow-covered deserts outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. And many places in between.
As his 1st assistant, a title I don’t take lightly, my primary responsibilities are to show up on time, discuss the shots for the day (if they have been decided yet), plan the lighting for those shots, help organize the production and flow for the day, and generally be available to help make the shoot a success. One thing special on his shoots is that everyone helps everyone else. It takes a team of people, working together. No matter how hectic the day becomes, the atmosphere around him is fun, happy and creative. We almost always have other assistants on Jeremy Cowart shoots. Again, we keep this circle small. Egos have no place in Jeremy’s world and the people hired to create his shoots are friendly, helpful and fun to be around.
I could list the artists we have worked with, but chances are you already know them through Jeremy’s work.
In contrast to MANY other photographers I’ve known and worked with, Jeremy has an amazing ability to keep his cool. In the most stressful situations, Jeremy maintains a professional and easygoing attitude. In situations where most of us would have a complete meltdown, Jeremy does not. One of the many things that has inspired me about him over the years is his never-ending quest to create “different” photographs on a daily basis. And it doesn’t stop at photography. He is ALWAYS creating. When he gets bored with something, he might paint. I hear he also plays guitar. When he is troubled about a social tragedy, he looks for ways that he can HELP people. He doesn’t do this for his ego, Jeremy truly GIVES his talent and heart to those he feels deserves a little help from a friend.
This brings me to something I am most proud of in my life. HELP Portrait Project was something Jeremy HAD to do. He’ll tell you that. The compassion in his heart for those less fortunate was so great that by mid-2009 he came up with an organization that he felt could help people. The basis of HELP Portrait was to make, and give photographs to people that have lived through, and continue to struggle with social and personal downfalls. This includes the homeless, battered and abused women, orphans, ex-gang members, foreign refugees, the disabled, the elderly and alone, as well as anyone that needs a little boost in respect and love. Needless to say, I signed on before he finished his proposal.
The idea was simple. Gather groups of photographers, assistants, hair and makeup professionals, producers, catering companies, camera stores, printing services, video crews, grip houses, studios, civil organizations, church groups and ANYONE that wanted to help people. Assemble all these people together for one day, arrange for those in need to come to this temporary studio, take their photographs, and give the photographs to each person . Okay, it wasn’t that simple. There were blogs involved, and online commercials, and TV stations, and websites, and coffee shop conversations and many sleepless nights making sure he was doing the right thing. Brainstorming phone calls at 11:30pm were not unusual. On top of that, there was no money to play with. The idea was to give. And we did. And he did. And he continues to, at any cost.
As I write this, Jeremy is in Haiti (you can see some of the shots from his project if you look through his tweets from the past few days). He is doing whatever needs to be done to help the people who need it most. The celebrities can wait. The movie posters can wait. The CD packages can wait. His family will wait, knowing that he is doing what he HAS to do, all in the name of love. If that isn’t inspiration for us all, than we have no heart.
You can see more of Joshua’s work at flickr.com/joshuablackwilkins, and hear some of his music on MySpace