What's Expected of You
Here I'd like to discuss just what it takes to become an assistant to a talented photographer such as Avedon. Especially as a learning experience, and as an apprenticeship before heading out on your own.
The first, and most important point, is to choose your mentor carefully. It should be someone whose work you really admire, and from whom you can learn. To assist the wrong photographer will just be time wasted. Preferably someone located in a major city that is home to various media (magazines, ad agencies, etc.) — Americans should think New York or Los Angeles, Europeans London, Paris, Milan, or Berlin. Places that are hotbeds of creative activity.
The first lesson, therefore, is: Determine who you want to work for and pursue them. Relentlessly.
A second consideration is to make a list of ways in which you can make yourself most useful to the photographer. Some obvious choices are:
- Willing to take direction.
- A strong body that can lift stuff.
- A good, safe driver with a clean record.
- Handiness with tools, paintbrushes, etc.
- Ability to do minor repairs.
Some valuable traits are:
- A well-rounded education, especially with some knowledge of the arts and philosophy.
- Ability to anticipate needs and act without having to be told what to do.
- Ability to live within your means, without becoming a burden. Face it, you're not going to make much until you acquire real skills.
- A good appearance. You are representing the boss. Look it.
- Good language skills, especially English. A smattering of foreign tongues wouldn't hurt, either.
- A good conversationalist.
- Computer savvy.
- Curiosity about the world around you.
- Lastly, a burning passion for photography; a real fire in the belly.
Notice that I said nothing about being a talented photographer. You're there to learn and assist the photographer, not to take the pictures. In the past, darkroom experience would have been a valuable asset; today it would most certainly help to at least be familiar with Adobe Photoshop.
And if you get the job, don't blow it!
The worst case of missed opportunity I ever heard of actually happened in Avedon's studio back in 1965. An international service club had a program of finding trainee jobs for talented but impoverished youth. Avedon agreed to take on a young guy from an underprivileged background and train him in studio ways, paying him a modest wage. He showed up the first day full of enthusiasm and really tried hard to please. We were quite happy with him. The next day, however, he never came to work. Concerned that something might have happened to him, we called his mother. She answered that he just didn't feel like working today, so that was the end of his brief employment.
Another one occurred in 1960 when a trainee decided that a weekend social engagement was more important than assisting on a sudden, unexpected weekend photo assignment. He was told not to return. As long as you are a junior assistant you are expected to be available at any time.
Some other things that could nip a career in the bud are:
- Displays of personal drama. Be cool.
- Taking attention away from the boss by showing too much personality, dressing too sharply, or otherwise being too noticeable. Be invisible at times.
- Contradicting the boss in front of clients. They won't have much confidence in him if even his assistants think he's wrong.
- Allowing your cell phone to ring during jobs. Turn it off.
- Asking stars and VIPs for autographs.
- Being a pest.
- Ordering the most expensive food and drink when dining out with the boss and/or clients.
- Taking your own photos while the boss is taking his.
IS THIS ASKING TOO MUCH? If you think so, you may be better off pursuing a different career.
ANOTHER APPROACH, and for some a better one, is to set yourself up as a FREE-LANCE ASSISTANT, working by the day or job. This allows you to learn from different photographers with varying techniques and to get a better oversight of the entire business. The downside is that work only comes when the photographers' own staffs cannot handle the load, and that there will be dry periods of no income during which you can work on developing your own portfolio. It helps to have worked for a well-known photographer who will recommend your services to others.
RIGHT NOW I'm looking to tell my whole story, the whole unvarnished truth about Photography's Golden Age, as the basis for a book, e-book, or documentary. Interested? Leave a comment below and I'll get back to you.