PDN Photo of the Day

The Art of Photographing Celebrities

Aaron Richter (IG: @richterfit) refers to himself as a “displaced writer and magazine editor,” though his photographic work has appeared in some pretty big publications (Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, Nylon and Spin). Richter, based in Brooklyn, has a large portfolio of bright and colorful portraits and fashion work. Below he tells us more about his path to photography.

Photo District News: How long have you been a professional photographer?

Aaron Richter: I started taking photos in 2009 with the goal of it one day becoming my career, and within the past two to three years it’s now my primary source of income.

PDN: What were you doing prior to photography?

AR: After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2006 with a degree in journalism and English, I moved to New York to write for and edit magazines. For three years I worked as the Copy Chief at GIANT magazine, where I saw how an art department operates.

I also created an oversize music magazine called MusicMusicMusic (GIANT‘s art director and I made it in the office during downtime between issues), and also freelanced quite a bit as a writer. Eventually I realized writing blog posts wasn’t the type of journalism I’d fantasized about. When I got laid off from GIANT, I spent my severance on a camera and started teaching myself photography.

I learned photography by supporting myself as a freelance copyeditor at various magazines. This was key because I could learn on my own terms.

PDN: How did you start getting photo assignments?

AR: My friends and I began producing an online (now exclusively for iPad) music magazine called self-titled. After several issues, I’d slipped into the role of art director. I also gave myself assignments photographing musicians.

The first print magazines to see my work and give me assignments were Nylon and Spin, and I started shooting for both regularly. I’d moved to New York with the dream of writing for or editing Spin (RIP), and found myself taking photos for its pages instead. Pretty cool.

PDN: How did you figure out your photo style?

AR: It took me probably three years to figure out what type of photos I wanted to make. Because I’m self-taught, it sort of evolved from the basics of what I had directly in front of me, rather than working with strobes in a studio. I started shooting primarily with natural light but struggled for a while to figure out how to create engagement between myself and my subject. Working with on-camera flash changed that, and it allowed me to focus more on interacting with and creating a connection with my subject.

The pop of the flash created an excitement from the subject that I wasn’t getting from shooting with available light. All of the sudden photo shoots were way more fun, and the images I was taking felt more honest because the excitement was actually happening in front of me. Now my work is typically a blend of flash and strobes, but I still like to keep everything fairly simple so that I can keep my focus on engaging the subject.

Also, on an aesthetic level, my eyesight is pretty poor, so being able to create such vivid, sharp images became my way of making up for whatever vision deficiencies I live with.

PDN:  What kinds of clients do you have these days?

AR: My primary workload is editorial clients, but I’m starting to work commercial jobs. I don’t have an agent, and the commercial realm can be a little tough without [one]—the entry points aren’t quite as easy as e-mailing a magazine’s photo editor.

As far as self-titled, that’s always going on, but a bit in the background as far as my responsibilities are concerned. I commission all of the photography in the magazine and lay out all the pages myself. We usually aim for quarterly but end up with three issues a year.

PDN: Can you speak a bit more about self-titled? How do you promote it?

AR: I’ve always wanted to make rad shit. (For jobs where I’m given an art direction credit, I sometimes like to be credited as “Aaron Richter (M.R.S.)”—as in, Make Rad Shit). Self-titled started in the wake of a print magazine that I edited with friends called Devil in the Woods. When the magazine’s publisher yanked the money, we decided to create the same sort of thing in an online format, originally in magazine-reader layout and now as an iPad app.

The idea was to cover indie music via creative angles, stepping away from the regular profiles or Q&As and focusing more on engaging the musicians in unexpected ways. I’m not sure what we do to reach our audience other than continually putting something together that we think is valid and worthy of being read.

PDN: What do you like most about making your own magazine?

Commissioning photography is a great way for me to connect with and foster relationships with other photographers that I admire, and that have potential. Photographers are always pitted against each other since we’re all pushing to win the same jobs. It’s a nice change of pace to eliminate that element of competition and replace it with nurturing and encouragement.

PDN: You’ve photographed a lot of celebrities. Is that a challenge for you?

AR: I’m lucky that I can get along with anyone (my assistants would probably attest to that more than I do; I still worry all the time about if I’m connecting with my subjects). Journalism school taught me to be curious about everyone. Even with people who might appear difficult, I still find myself wanting to figure them out.

My lighting is pretty simple, so I can work fairly mobile and adaptable to whatever a situation might be. If shoots have limitations, I have to figure out how to navigate those limitations— getting the best shots out of the spontaneity of needing to work with very little.

PDN: Would mind sharing one of your tricks of the trade?

AR: One thing I feel like I do often is eliminate any level of pretension between myself and the subject. I don’t want them thinking I think I’m hot shit (that can be alienating) and, within reason, I also kinda don’t want them thinking I think they’re hot shit (that can also be alienating).

Often I’ll find myself sitting on the ground (rather than in a chair) and chatting with the celeb while he or she is getting groomed or dressed. It’s a way of loosening the mood, and taking some of the formal “THIS IS A PHOTO SHOOT” edge off, while also presenting myself as a non-threatening presence.

PDN: What’s an example of a “make it work” situation?

AR: For a magazine shoot, we had to bring a celebrity into a small, but public location that we had not closed for the shoot. We needed to make “the shot” happen naturally, but in a specific spot within the small space. We couldn’t say “go here and do this and it’ll look good.”

My first step was to make sure I’ve mapped out in my head every possible way to capture the scene and be able to move quickly between them. The second step was to make sure the celeb was comfortable (it’s amazing how quickly a situation like this can turn into a horde of autograph seekers).

The third step was to swiftly and sternly shoo away any entourage. We weren’t looking for a shot of the celeb standing next to PR, stylist, personal assistant, and hair and makeup.

Fourth step was to recognize when IT’S HAPPENING (as in, “the shot”) and then shooting the hell out of it, creating variety, so the magazine wasn’t left with two useable frames to fill a feature. In this instance I had maybe 30 seconds, but I got it. —Amy Wolff

Related: From Assistant to Photographer: How Jesse Dittmar Launched His Portrait Photography Career (For PDN Subscribers only; login required)


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