Drew Gurian has an uncanny ability to seek out and capture raw and intimate moments. That is what defines his style. His personal aesthetic has translated seamlessly to brands like Red Bull and Urban Outfitters, and his work has graced the pages of world-class publications including Rolling Stone Magazine and The New York Times. Gurian began his career in earnest by traveling with world-renowned photographer Joe McNally for five years as his first assistant and right-hand man. Logging close to half a million miles in the air, he assisted McNally with client shoots, workshops and conferences around the world, working with tens of thousands of people. One of his specialties is delivering memorable and emotionally charged imagery of music celebrities in and out of the spotlight. He once shot a lit studio portrait of a major rock band in eighteen seconds!
In 2010 Gurian began speaking publicly at conferences, in webinars, and teaching his own workshops in the USA, Asia and the Middle East. Always eager to share knowledge, his professional openness and mentoring style has been recognized by colleagues and the photographic community and has made him a valuable asset in understanding photography from a behind-the-scenes perspective. His prestigious client list also includes: Citibank, VH1, Macy’s, The Ad Council, Coachella, Rolling Stone Middle East, Pocket Wizard, ILFORD and The Associated Press. His work has also been published in PDN, Billboard, Bass Player Magazine, Kerrang!, Brooklyn Vegan, Runner’s World, USA Today, and in numerous other domestic and international publications as a contract photographer for the Associated Press. He shares his fascinating story with us in this interview.
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?
A: The new Leica M is my go-to camera for 80-90% of any shoot I go on. As for lenses, I tend to shoot wide with my Leica M, with a 35 mm f/2 Summicron, or a 21 mm f/2.8 Elmarit. I also have a 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux, for when I can’t be as close as I’d like to be.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I’m a portrait photographer, constantly working with my subjects to capture raw and intimate moments of their daily lives. The vast majority of my work is in the music and entertainment industries, so this can range from backstage candid photos, to documenting the recording of a new album, to promotional photos or tour coverage.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: My love for photography developed when I was a teenager who went to a see a lot of live music. I was family friends with an up-and-coming band called Guster, and I became a huge fan of theirs. I simply liked the idea of creating a visual diary of a band I really loved, and I photographed them probably 30-40 times over the period of a couple of years when I was in high school.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I entered the fine arts program at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and graduated with a BFA in photography and communication design. While in college, I interned with two well-known NYC-based photographers, Joe McNally and Danny Clinch. Each is very different in his approach to photography, and I’ve tried to take what I learned from each of them, and make it my own over the years. After college, I freelanced for a few years, and was then offered the first assistant position by Joe McNally in 2008. I worked with him full-time for almost five years, travelling all over the world, assisting on shoots of all sizes, and assisting in teaching workshops and seminars (as well as teaching some of my own). Within the past year, I’ve transitioned off on my own, and look back at those five years as the best career-building and life choice I could have ever made.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: Aside from my internships in college, I also took a few summer courses at The Maine Media Workshops — one on black-and-white darkroom printing, and another called “The Documentary Project”, with Stella Johnson. Her primary camera was a Leica film body, and I was really intrigued by the intimacy of her work. Danny Clinch has always leaned heavily on his Leica cameras too, and after interning for him, I witnessed firsthand just how well the system works. A lot of Joe’s early photojournalism work for LIFE and National Geographic, which I’ve always been drawn to, was shot on Leica. It was only a matter of time before I got my hands on one (my first body was an M6), and since then I have been using it more than anything else. The Leica M-System allows me to walk into any circumstance and quickly break down barriers. This is due partly to the fact that I don’t have a massive DSLR and lens between my subject and myself. Another strong suit is how incredibly quiet the system is, which not only allows me to be a fly on the wall more than I’ve ever been able to do before, but also gains me access into situations I couldn’t otherwise shoot, like standing next to a band in a studio, while they record an album. The fact that I’m using fixed focal length lenses, and manual focus also pushes me to move and interact with my subjects, which I think makes me a better photographer.
Q: What are some of the specific features of the new Leica M that you find especially valuable in your work and what is your technique for using the ultra-wide 21 mm lens for portraiture, a lens that is not typically used in that application?
A: The Leica M itself is a huge step forward for the brand, and has made it much easier for many photographers to call it their go-to body. The high-ISO capabilities far surpass any previous iteration in the M series, the menu and navigation controls are more user friendly, and the file size and tonal range have all improved.
More than that, what sets the M aside from any other camera I’ve used, is the feel of the images it produces. It gives the pictures a certain look, one that’s based on the combination of the glass and sensor that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. My 35 mm was the first piece of Leica glass I ever purchased, along with my M6. I believe it’s from the mid 1980s, and is coated for black-and-white film. There’s a noticeable shift in color when I shoot it side-by-side with a more modern version of the same lens, and it handles blown out highlights like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s definitely not something some people would value, but it’s the only lens I’ve ever owned that I’ve felt so strongly about. As for the 21 mm 2.8 Elmarit, I sort of stumbled upon this lens through a good friend named David Hobby. I initially thought it would be too wide for my taste, but I find that I’m often working in pretty tight environments backstage or in recording studios. To my surprise, some of my recent favorite portraits have been shot with this lens.
Q: There is something very natural and visceral about your portraits of musicians that give one a sense of being in their presence either backstage or elsewhere. How do you manage to achieve this visual intimacy and authenticity?
A: If that comes across in an image, it’s been a successful shoot. Those few images are hard to come by. The overall feel I’m trying to achieve is generally rooted in a trust between the artist and I. Once I have that trust, there’s still plenty of obstacles to overcome in order to produce a great portrait — whether it’s produced, or simply a found moment.
Q: What is it that draws you to the black-and white medium, and how do you decide whether to output an image in color or black-and-white? With your proclivity for black-and-white output, have you ever considered using or acquiring a Leica Monochrom?
A: My first experiences with photography, and my first classes, were all based on black-and-white film and printing. I’ve also always felt that a monochrome image forces the viewer to dive into the subject matter a bit deeper, as there’s not the distraction of color. Some images are all about color, and wouldn’t work nearly as well, if at all, in monochrome, but it’s all about personal preference. I have used the Leica Monochrom, and love the fact that the decision is already made up for you. It brings you back to the days of film, when we had to make the decision before the shot was taken. There’s definitely value in that, and it forces us to observe the world a bit differently.
Q: What are some of the useful things you learned at Kutztown University that have shaped your present creative approach and photographic techniques?
A: The photo program let me spend a ton of time in the black-and-white darkroom, which has informed my photography over the years. I’m also very happy to have had the experience with a great communication design program. Digital still wasn’t a huge part of our photo program, as it was during that transitional phase in the early 2000s. I applied to the CD program because I witnessed the growth of digital and thought that learning design would give me an edge over other photographers without that background. After a very short stint at a photo studio in Philadelphia, I was offered a graphic design position at an ad agency. I worked there for about a year, got to put my design degree to good use, and quickly found out that I wasn’t ever meant to work in the corporate world. I jumped into the freelance world, and haven’t looked back.
Q: You mentioned that your photographic mentors, Joe McNally and Danny Clinch, both have very different approaches to photography, but that you learned a lot from both. Can you tell us a little more about that, and also how your being Joe McNally’s first assistant for nearly five years has enriched your photographic experience and helped bring your present work to another level?
A: There’s a huge amount to be learned from anyone who’s been at their craft for a long time — especially if they’re at the top of their game. Danny taught me how to work very simply, and to experiment with processes that can help to set your work apart from others. Joe (and Lynn, his studio manager) taught me how to produce big, technical productions, how to light beautifully, and how to see the world.
Q: You note that you are making a conscious decision to evolve toward a “raw documentary style” even though you are still working in the realm of clean portraiture. What do you mean by that?
A: I’m still very much in the midst of defining my style, and suspect I’ll be in that boat for some time. With that said, there’s a certain type of image that I occasionally capture, which feels like I’ve done exactly what I set out to do. The more I shoot, the more I see these, and find out what exactly it is that draws me to it.
Q: Can you give us some further insight into how using fixed-focal-length lenses and manual focus pushes you to interact with your subjects and how you feel that makes you a better photographer?
A: In this day and age, it’s so easy to get lazy with the advancements of digital cameras, zoom lenses, autofocus and automated camera modes. All these things are great in certain scenarios, but as a whole, I’d argue that they take away from the craft, which is a big part of why I got into this in the first place. Having to move with my subjects makes me think about every photo I take, and I think my success-to-failure ratio has improved quite a bit since shooting in this style.
Q: Your gorgeous backlit portrait of a dancer wearing a feathered headdress labeled “Fataniza Dubai” was evidently shot backstage and it looks very spontaneous despite the fact that it’s composed very precisely. Can you tell us the story behind this fascinating image and provide the tech data?
A: I was shooting a singer named Fatiniza in Dubai, for Rolling Stone Middle East when I came across one of her aerial dancers stretching backstage. It was purely a found moment, with only a couple of frames shot before she took the stage, and it was a lucky find. I shot it on a Leica Monochrom, at ISO 1600 at 1/30 sec exposure.
Q: A subtitle to your portrait labeled “Carl Hancock Rux Apollo” could be “expression is everything.” The image is a little soft and you can see a trace of the notorious greenish cast imparted by the fluorescent lighting, but the expressions are priceless and that’s what makes the shot. Do you concur, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Found moments are often some of my favorites, as there’s so little control over the situation. The lighting and focus can be off, but if the gesture draws you in and tells a story — or makes you think, that’s all that matters.
Q: The image of Molly and the Zombies from Red Bull Studio NYC is evidently a double exposure or a reflection that combines two guitarists in the studio, the one in the back and to the left in focus, and the one more forward and in the center of the frame out of focus but still clearly identifiable. It’s a real stopper that makes the viewer do a double take (no pun intended) but what was the concept you had in mind and how did you capture this image?
A: My favorite thing about this photo is that if you look carefully, there’s actually a third person as well. The drummer’s head can be seen in the left side of the bass player’s face that’s in the center. Again, this was another found moment. In a shoot like this, most of my job is to be a fly-on-the-wall, and simply document the scene at hand, and I happened to find this reflection.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years in terms of your artistic approach or techniques and your subject matter? Do you plan to explore any other photographic genres such as street photography, architectural photography, landscapes, etc.?
A: I find people endlessly fascinating, and I’m fairly positive that my work will continue to develop in this realm. It may become more candid or more produced, but that’s really tough to say at this point. My work currently revolves almost completely around the music industry, but I can see that beginning to diversify a bit here or there. As long as there’s a string that ties everything I do together in some way, I’m open to evolving in almost any direction.
Thank you for your time, Drew!
-Leica Internet Team
To connect with Drew, visit his website or blog.