joshuasm
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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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25 Comments

  1. Thanks Joshua, I love looking at Jeremy’s work. It is definately different. Sounds like he is one fine fella to work for. What kind of work is he doing in Haiti? If he is doing photography I would like to see it. I’m sure he is probably up to his elbos in helping people down there.

  2. Joshua,

    This is a beautifully written post. Thank you.

  3. It’s nice to get a little background on you!

  4. Its great to see someone who loved photography get such a great position and the experience of working with Jeremy. I will say I am incredibly jealous…I love Jeremy’s work, and after looking at your work, I’d say you definitely benefited from assisting. Cheers!

  5. It was so great to meet you at Jeremy’s workshop and now to read this post and learn more about you. I hope to see you again in the future.

  6. Here are the Twitpics of Jeremy in Haiti. Great pics! Really tells you more than what you see on CNN.

    http://twitpic.com/photos/jeremycowart

  7. I strongly suggest checking out Joshua’s work as well. I have been following his work on flickr before I even knew who Jeremy Cowart was. He does some really beautiful tintypes and has inspired me to try it as well. His portraits also have a lot of character to them.

  8. Jeremy Cowart is my hero and its nice to see a team player extol the virutes of hard work and dedication. Thank you for sharing and being selfless. Great blog.

    Good on ya Scott and Joshua.

  9. Thanks for the post. I follow Cowart’s work online, he really does some amazing things.

    I’ll be graduating college soon, and I am hunting for an assisting gig (mainly in NYC or Baltimore). I’ve contacted photographers I admire and have gotten some responses. Do you have any other tips for finding a photographer to assist? I’m looking for the same reasons you were, to learn from the pros and become a better photog.

    Thanks,

    Tyler
    @fitzy441

    • Your best bet is to introduce yourself to some photographers that shoot what you’d like to eventually shoot. Offer to spot on a couple jobs. There is nothing easy about starting up as an assistant. Often times you have to have other, flexible jobs to pay the bills.
      NYC is a huge city filled with photographers. There is plenty of work to go around but your best bet is to contact the 1st assistants and introduce yourself. I hire most of the 2nd and 3rd assistants, or at least have a say-so in who works those spots, so getting to know other top assistants is very important.

  10. Very motivational stuff about Jeremy, and congrats to Josh for having an awesome job.

  11. Wonderful post, and I’m so sorry for the Casino jerk above me. Hopefully Scott will delete that post. It’s great to know that there are people who care for others so deeply. I am impressed.

    • He had one on earlier this morning and I know he will delete this as soon as he sees it. Karma will take over and there will be hell to pay for these nuts who like to screw with people.

  12. I certainly like mr. Cowart’s work, but my God, this post seems to make him out as the 2nd coming of Christ. “The idea was to give. And we did. And he did. And he continues to, at any cost.” Come on. You took a picture of somebody who could use some cheering up. Now get over yourself!

    • You obviously don’t know Jeremy. Which makes you sound like an ass.

      • Terribly sorry to have offended your sensibilities. Have you ever considered that you are taking yourself and your boss just a tad too serious? You guys mostly take pictures of celebs (as you say so yourself in the 1st paragraph of your blog). That’s hardly performing open heart surgery of inventing peniciline. I’m just saying.

    • please look into the HELP Portrait Project. While you’re at it, go to his twitter site and see what he has been doing in Haiti. I’m not calling anyone a “god” here, But I know A LOT of well known photographers, and most of them don’t volunteer their time and talent the way Jeremy does.

      • Point taken Joshua. I’ve checked the sites and I’ve read his Voices of Haiti post carefully, and sorry to say that I’m probably still in the camp of those who find it is not a “need”. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to take away anything from people such as yourself who are donating their time and money for a good cause. Never. However, and maybe it’s just me, but I feel that charity and promotion off such a charity are often at odds with each other as sometimes it feels like the giver is doing it more for themselves than for the receiver. And actually I think that Haiti is a perfect point in case where aid, as well meant as it is and has been over the last decades, has been doing more harm than good and made the country and its people aid addicts exacerbating the current damage enormously. Again, my apologies if I responded a bit harsh, but I do feel skeptical about the current stream of aid to Haiti and would love nothing better than the people of Haiti being able to pick up their lives and being able to take responsibility for their country and lives.

  13. Great post. I really admire the work Jeremy does, and even more so the heart he has. Simply incredible and inspiring.

  14. Very inspiring stories, both yours and Jeremy’s. So glad to see you guesting on Scott’s blog.

  15. Very well done. Major congratulations to both of you. I really enjoyed reading a bit about your world as photographers and people. Best Regards!

  16. Well Done Joshua! You represent the Nashville creative circle well. It was a pleasure getting to work with you over the last couple of months!

  17. Love the pullback shot from the VOTA shoot. I was wondering if the heli was in the original shot or not!
    Chad

  18. Not sure where to post this but I wanted to ask if anyone has heard of National Clicks?

    Can someone help me find it?

    Overheard some co-workers talking about it all week but didn’t have time to ask so I thought I would post it here to see if someone could help me out.

    Seems to be getting alot of buzz right now.

    Thanks

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