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An Interview with Celebrity Portrait Photographer Michael Schwartz

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Michael Schwartz is a New York-based photographer who shoots fashion, advertising, and celebrity portraiture. He has shot top celebrities for some of the largest brands and publications in the world.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

Michael Schwartz: I just a regular dude from Miami. I really had very little interest in fashion growing up, so its funny to most of my friends that I wound up a fashion photographer. I’m the guy who wears shorts and a flannel most of the time.

Growing up, I was always enamored by films and television, and my goal was to direct or write screenplays. After high school, I went to college at Emory in Atlanta and studied Violence Studies and considered going to work for the FBI as a profiler, so I’m all over the f**king place.

How did you first get into photography?

I was living in LA working at a talent agency, and my best friend’s brother was running Ford Models in NY. I wanted to move back to NYC and he offered me a job at the agency. How could a 22-year-old kid turn down the chance to work with the most beautiful people on earth in a cool brownstone office building in Soho? It’s like a sitcom come to life.

I started out as a consultant working on a lot of behind the scenes projects. Eventually he asked me to work in the women’s division as an assistant. One thing led to another and I was promoted to be an agent. Part of being an agent was taking Polaroids of the models to send out to clients. It became my favorite part of the job.

After a few years I was unfulfilled and wanted to do something more creative, so I wound up buying a camera and some cheap lights and shooting the models for fun. I taught myself how to use the camera and lights and luckily had many photographers to ask for guidance.

What are you shooting these days?

I am shooting a mixture of fashion and celebrity these days. I do a lot of work for international editions of Vogue, GQ, etc. I have also had the amazing opportunity to photograph some of my favorite actors/actresses such as Samuel L Jackson, Amanda Seyfried, Ben Stiller, Salma Hayek, Chris Hemsworth.

How does one start on the path toward photographing celebrities?

I assume everyone takes a unique path. But first and foremost it takes a good portfolio to get you in the door. From there, you need to work quickly on set and keep everything laid back and comfortable. I am a pretty laid back dude, so I think my demeanor on set puts celebrities at ease.

A lot of celebrities hate photo shoots – one actually likened it to going to a dentist. He was one of the biggest rappers out there, and he took me aside and told me he is petrified of photo shoots. The dude can stand on stage in front of a packed arena, but being in front of my camera scared him! That blew my mind. So you have to be able to understand and relate to people and work with all types of personalities.

Another thing to remember is that the publicists are the gatekeepers – they often decide who will photograph their talent.

What advice do you have for building relationships with publicists?

Just be 100% transparent and honest with your concepts and needs and work quickly on set. I never go out of my way to kiss anyone’s ass or treat anyone on set differently. I just work efficiently and keep the set comfortable and everyone seems to appreciate it, including the publicists.

What are some tips and tricks for celebrity photography that you’ve learned over the years?

Oh man, I always blow out there skin in the computer settings so they don’t see any flaws on the screen. One of my first celebrity shoots the subject kept looking at the screen and commenting on the skin. Overexposing in the settings helps avoid this. And I’ve also learned that for the most part, celebrities don’t want to have their photos taken. This is just a part of their job they usually don’t like. So I get them in and out quickly.

Who are some photographers that inspire you?

LOVE Irving Penn first and foremost, but who doesn’t? The image he did of Truman Capote wrapped in the coat is one of the best portraits I have ever seen. Also love Man Rey, Avedon, Vivian Maier, Jeanloup Sieff. But I really get most my inspiration from cinema.

What’s your favorite celebrity portrait so far and the story behind it?

Most likely the image I did of Samuel L. Jackson wrapped in a coat. Kind of reminds me a bit of the Penn image of Capote that I mentioned above. On set, I had accidentally left the chair in place, and Sam came on set and automatically sat down. I looked at him and said, “Sam, actually I was going to have you stand for this shot if that’s okay.” With a completely straight face, he said to me “I am a 67-year-old man and you’re gonna make me stand my ass up!?” Who am I to argue, so we did the shot sitting and he gave me an amazing image.

By the way, he was joking and offered to stand. After the shot, we were looking through the images together on the monitor and I showed him the one I loved and another version and said the other version is safer. He looked at me and said “we aint here to be motherf**king safe! Go with the one you love.” So I went with it and I’m thankful he pushed me to do so.

What changes have you seen in your industry over the past several years?

On the fashion side of my business, I have seen a lot of changes. Fast fashion and social media have been the perfect storm. Designers are putting out more collections than ever to keep up with the demand for faster fashion, and images are being consumed online more than in print. So the life of an image is much shorter than ever – as our attention span has become the duration of time it takes to click.

With that in mind, brands need images done quickly and do not need the same length of use they once did. Therefore, they are willing to sacrifice production value in order to stay within their budgets, which have been spread more thinly. It is really driving down the rates and the creativity. But I have seen video start to really take off, so hopefully that will become a way to re-direct the creativity and budgets.

Where do you see your industry going in the future?

I think it will be moving predominately towards video in the not-too-distant future. There will always be a need for stills, but I think they will become secondary to video. Whereas now, still images are the primary objective and many clients ask to add video as a bonus.

Do you have any horror stories from shooting celebrities? (Without naming names, of course)

Oh man, I have been so lucky. I have had really great luck with the celebrities that I work with. I have honestly only had one celebrity who was terrible to deal with. She was incredibly rude to the entire team, but everyone kept their cool and we got through the day. Luckily the images turned out great and the whole crew went out for lots of drinks afterward — so all’s well that ends well. But she was an a**hole. LOL.

What camera gear do you use and why?

These days, I love my Canon 5dMark4 for most situations. I really dislike images that are too sharp and feel “digital,” so the mark4 lets me take down the sharpening and move away from the overly digital feel while still keeping amazing file quality. It also has large enough files that they look great in any size magazine. My “go-to” lens is the 50mm1.2, but I often use the 85mm and the 35mm as well. I only shoot with prime lenses.

If I am doing an ad job and need larger size printing abilities – I go with the Phase One IQ250. I love those files for their depth and file size.

I always shoot tethered to capture1 so we can see what we are capturing.

How much do you shoot for personal reasons compared to what you shoot for work?

I was just having this conversation last week. I really don’t shoot “personal work” much at all. To be honest, most of my editorials ARE personal work. I come up with the concepts, handle the casting and really make my vision come to fruition. So almost every time I shoot for a magazine it feels like personal work. I am constantly trying to cast actors whose work I admire so that it is personally fulfilling. I have been giving some thought lately to doing a gallery show of images that I do just for me. Something a bit more abstract than fashion or celebrity images. I look at Avedon’s In The American West images with awe. It feels so personal and that is inspiring.

I have not found my “American West” yet. Once I come up with my idea for a personal project I will let ya know. Any suggestions?


You can find more of Schwartz’s work on his website, Twitter, and Instagram.f

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