Photo Assisting: Getting Schooled at the Ground Level
An Interview with Mary Beth Koeth
How did you get started as a photo assistant?
When I started the photography program at Miami Ad School, I remember telling myself, “You need to start assisting as soon as possible.” But how do you assist without knowing the equipment? I was eager to learn but intimidated by the whole process. Everything was so new to me. I would ask the second year students if I could go to their shoots to sit in and observe. I’m pretty sure this is how I learned to use a reflector.
Eventually, I started interning for a local photographer. I’d help him with his website, blogging, and social media, and even wax the floors in the studio on occasion. A few months in, he began hiring me on as a second assistant. Two years later, I still feel like an amateur.
Why do you enjoy being an assistant?
I enjoy assisting on jobs that don’t require octabank assembly and/or disassembly. One day I’ll hire someone to give me private lessons. Until then, I’ll leave it to the strong, man-handed folk.
In all seriousness, even if you’re working with a photographer who shoots something completely different than what you shoot, there’s always something valuable to take away from the experience. The key is to be observant: watch, listen, and learn. See how the photographer interacts with the clients and how he or she communicates with the subjects. Pay attention to the light setup, the equipment being used, etc. If you’re open and observant, you’ll come out learning way more than any school or course can teach you.
Is there an upside to working as an assistant or is it all drudgery?
There’s an upside to everything. If you go into something thinking it’s going to suck, it’s going to suck. I love that I’m able to be on set with photographers that I admire, observe how they do what they do, and apply all of those lessons learned to my own work, in whatever capacity that might be.
Do you have any horror stories you can share with us as cautionary tales?
For some reason, I’m highly susceptible to accidents. I think it’s a tall girl thing. Put a cord in front of me, I’m going to trip over it. A near accident occurred a few months back that was totally unrelated to my tallness. I was lowering a light on a boom and it almost fell on a major film studio exec’s head. All eyes went straight to me. I don’t even know what happened after that -- I’ve been trying hard to forget that moment. Fortunately, I was in a room full of men and passed off any future lifting/lowering to them. That was a low point in my interning career.
Have you worked with any noteworthy photographers who really impressed you?
Ginny Dixon, my photo teacher at the Ad School, would always bring up names of different photographers during class. I’d jot them down in my notebook, go home straight away and look at their work. Joe Pugliese was one of the names that she threw out there. When I looked at his website, the first thing I thought was, wow, I need to learn from this man. I was fortunate to get to spend three months interning for him in LA. I think it’s important to work with people who are producing the quality of work that you aspire to. It’s both humbling and inspiring at the same time.
Can you share any dirt with us on working with celebrity clients?
It is very interesting being in the same room, observing everything that’s taking place. Every celebrity has his or her own groomer, hair & makeup artist, publicist, agent, BlackBerry-it’s a strange world. My Nokia and I just got a little glimpse of it from the sidelines. It's also pretty amazing how fast these photographers have to work. A lot of time is spent pre-lighting the set, but when the talent actually arrives, they might have a half an hour to shoot, if that.
If you have one piece of advice you can give photographers on how to best work with their assistants, what would it be?
Everyone has a different way of communicating. I’ve always worked well with photographers, and people in general, who are relatively calm and easygoing. When a photographer displays high standards as far as work ethic goes, the people who work alongside them will most likely be inspired to live up to that.
Is there anything specific you have learned by assisting that you otherwise would not have?
One of the things they don’t teach you in art school is the business side of photography. The majority of creatives I know are not business minded. We just want to create and not have to deal with self-promotion, invoicing, marketing, bidding, etc. At one point or another, this is something that you have to face if you want to pay the rent and eat. The people that I’ve worked with would always tell me, “It’s something you just pick up. You learn it because you have to learn it.” Between interning, assisting, and reading the ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, you really do just figure things out as you go along.
Have you ever saved the day?
Back in high school, I went on a few jobs with an editorial photographer in Dallas. I knew absolutely nothing about strobes/equipment, but I’d meet him at his studio and help him pack up and get ready for whatever he was shooting on a given day. He’d point to things and tell me whether to pack it or leave it. On one occasion, he told me to leave something, but I packed it anyway thinking, he’s going to want this. Sure enough, we got to the location, started setting up and he panicked and was thinking we left the soft box, or whatever it was. It was nice to be able to say, “No worries, we got it.” Never question your instincts. They’re usually right.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start assisting?
Well, first off, start lifting weights. Seriously. Second, always be aware of everything that’s going on around you. A lot of times, I’ll watch the photographer and try to think ahead of them. Pay attention to what he/she is doing and try to anticipate what they're going to need. Then when they make eye contact, you’ll already have whatever is needed in your hands ready to go. Thirdly, drink a lot of coffee and always be on.
What resources are available to new assistants?
There isn’t really any formal process to follow to become a photo assistant but there are a few resources out there to get you pointed in the right direction. The ASMP/American Society for Media Photographers has a Photo Assistant roster that they maintain for ASMP members. You can also check out A Photo Assistant, which is an informational blog on how to find assistant work and become registered with organizations in your area. No matter which course you take, good luck!
Mary Beth Koeth is a portrait photographer and video artist living and working in Miami, Florida. As a top photo assistant she has interned for some of the best shooters in the industry. Her dedication and hard work make her stand out in the industry as a person you can count on. Check out her impressive online portfolio and video works on her website.
Keywords: ASMP, American Society for Media Photographers, Celebrity Photography, Joe Pugliese, MaryBeth Koeth, Photo assistant, Portraits, assisting
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