How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photo Assisting

Mr. Negative

1998 Minneapolis.

After a string of random jobs (janitor, deli cook, house painter, darkroom printer) I fell into freelance photo assisting. Up to that point I’d been shooting black & white film with small and medium format cameras. But that’s about it. That’s all I knew.

Photo assisting became my technical education: large format cameras, color transparency film, strobe and continuous lighting, portrait and still life, on location — or in the studio. And best of all: free lunch.

Above is a photo of my assisting van, aka Mr. Negative. I bought it for $600 from the Gear Daddies band and glued outtake film in a pattern along the outside. The sliding door was bolted shut, there was no radio, heat, or AC. The windows were manual, and the ignition was hot-wired. No key required.

Voted ‘Best Black & White’ Art Car in the 1998 Wheels as Art Parade.

The Freelance Hustle, Pandemic-Style

I delivered a talk this weekend on the subject of landing jobs, negotiating contracts, and getting paid to a crowded house at the Northern Exposure photojournalism conference in Minneapolis, hosted by the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism.

The conference was originally meant to be held live on the U of M campus. But like everything else academic, it was moved online for the sake of social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. The audience was packed with photographers from around the world — and, thanks to Zoom — I now have a recording to share with you and my students.

Camera on Fire

Apache Plaza, Minneapolis, 2001

I shot my first advertising job in the summer of 2001. I’d been working as a photo assistant prior to that, mostly freelance. That’s how I met my wife.

I was the 1st assistant on a BMW shoot, running the 8×10 camera. I’d been on the job for weeks, first in Detroit, and then St. Paul, sequestered in remote, cavernous spaces with a bunch of stinky photo dudes. No windows and long, endless winter days in dark studios for double-time pay.

On the final night, Hallie walked in. She’d been hired at the last minute to help load out the gear. She walked in and I was like: I know you… Angie’s roommate, right? We’d met briefly in 1993, about 6 years earlier during a visit to Minneapolis. I’d seen her around since, watched her band play live, always remembering that we’d met.

We both drove full-sized vans. Hers had belonged to the former pitcher of the Minnesota Twins. She came across it in the Autotrader, and drove out to Lakeville to take a look. Apparently he’d purchased the custom van after winning the World Series in 1987. Señor Smoke answered the door. He was going through a divorce and was ready to part with the championship van.

My rig had seen some miles. It had been the Gear Daddies’ touring van, a Minnesota band that played in bars for years. A car thief had broken the ignition, and it didn’t need a key. For $600, it was all mine. I doused it with house paint (better to cover the Service Master logo), glued old film along the outsides, and christened it: MR. NEGATIVE.

Mr. Negative

We got married in the late summer of 2000, and lived in a warehouse downtown St. Paul. Soon after, our first child was on the way, and I began to transition from photo assistant to full-time photographer. I started with little jobs for magazines, a local non-profit, and then some pro-bono work. By summertime, I’d landed my first full-tilt advertising job.

art director’s sketch

I hired a location scout, casting agent, stylist, hair + makeup artist, and assistants. I rented shopping carts. We had meetings. As parking lots go, Apache Plaza looked pretty good. And the agency really liked Lucille, a sweet older lady who had the look of “an elderly woman caught in a moment of youthfulness”. Hallie, pregnant and gorgeous, handled the production. We had catering for a crew of 15 in the middle of the empty parking lot, with an EZ-UP overhead, providing shade from the sun. There was a gas powered generator. I shot film.

At the end of summer, we had a baby. Everything was perfect. And then 9-11 happened. Overnight, there was no more work on the horizon as far as we could see.

Two artists with full-sized vans, no jobs, one brand-new baby, and a big hairy dog with separation anxiety, all living together in one room with concrete floors and a walk-in darkroom.

Sound familiar?

It Ends Here

I’m honored to have been commissioned by the University of Minnesota to photograph students for their campaign to end sexual harassment on campus. The U of M is a powerful, forward-thinking institution, and a leader in public policy. I’m proud to be part of such an important project that could help transform Minnesota into a better place for everyone. #itendshere