Drew Gurian: Master Of Musical Imagery

While still in high school, Drew Gurian was offered the opportunity to photograph a family friend’s band. Of course, this is an exciting proposition for any budding photographer, but particularly so when the band is the American alternative rock group Guster, just as they’re emerging into mainstream Top 40 radio.

At this time, Gurian’s interest in photography was just starting, and Guster gave him the ability to be hands-on in the field, learning about exposure and composition. Not only did this experience provide the groundwork for Gurian’s technical chops, but it also shaped his creative eye and provided him with insight into a stylistic range that meets music industry needs. In fact, Gurian now has a portfolio that includes influential industry clients such as Rolling Stone, Red Bull, VH1, Coachella and The Associated Press.

"I’d say 95% of my work is in the music industry, and that’s not necessarily a lot of concert work. I’ve done a ton of that over the years, but to tell the story of who someone actually is as a person is told in a much more authentic way when they’re out of the spotlight," explains Gurian. "It can be backstage, on the tour bus, in a hotel room. Or it could be in the recording studio as they’re working on a new album, which, to me, is one of the most intimate moments you can get. It’s a very private time, and they’re creating something that they’re about to share with the world."

The "reincarnated" Snoop Lion.

Gurian is acutely aware of the flexibility and versatility needed when moving between these intimate moments and the theatrical lighting of stage performance. "With stage lighting, you don’t have control over it. You obviously have to be quite proficient with your camera system because you’re working on your toes. Traditionally speaking, you get to shoot the first three songs from the photo pit, so you have 6 to 10 minutes to produce everything you need. That’s really difficult," he says.

In order to ensure his images stand out among the competitive field of concert photography, he uses access to his advantage. "If I’m shooting for a band or a publication that has gotten me all-access, I’ll typically shoot on stage with the band for the first three songs. I’m on the side stage. I’m crouched down by the drummer. I’m hiding behind an amp and popping up to take shots of the lead singer with the crowd. Then after those three songs are done, I’ll go down into the photo pit and have the entire thing to use by myself." Off-stage, Gurian tackles a portrait shoot in two different ways. He enjoys developing a previsualized and well-lit portrait, then moving to a more raw and organic approach to embrace personality, nuance and happy accidents. He credits his mentors Joe McNally and Danny Clinch for shaping his work style. Gurian interned with both photographers and later joined McNally’s team as an assistant.

Backstage with Nalle Colt of Vintage Trouble.

"Joe enabled me to see the world, which influences how you live and how you see. You’re informed in a different way the more you experience in life. I think I learned a lot technically just based on the fact that Joe is known for big production work," reflects Gurian. "My first shoot with him when I was assisting with lighting was to shoot the world’s largest land-based telescope for National Geographic. It was a 20-story building. So we lit a 20-story building! I had to learn pretty quickly. I learned how important the business side of it is, as well, because so few photographers, and artists, for that matter, really have a good sense of how to run a business. You can take the best pictures in the world, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you’re most likely not going to succeed."

Gurian says simplicity and working within the moment are the essential takeaways from his experience with Clinch. "The very first shoot I went on with him was with Gov’t Mule," recalls Gurian, referring to The Allman Brothers Band’s Southern rock side project. "I asked, ‘So, how are we going to be lighting these guys?’ He points out the van window. ‘The sun!’ Danny’s style is really loose, and he has been a huge influence for trying to keep things as real as possible."

Lead guitarist of Hall & Oates and former musical director of Saturday Night Live G.E. Smith.

Finding that real moment can be tricky when you’re working on assignment. Big names like Luke Bryan, Girl Talk, Mumford & Sons and Run-DMC often have limited time and restricted access. Gurian’s tip for those situations is to build trust and exude confidence. "It’s a very delicate balance," Gurian says, as he reflects on a recent example of being shown a small bland room for a quick backstage portrait. "You really have to step in and take that power back and say, ‘I really appreciate you picking that room for me. I’m shooting for Rolling Stone, and they’re in need of several options. Why don’t I walk around and scout out a couple locations, and we’ll take it from there?’ They know you’re on their side and you just want them to look great. Once someone trusts you, there’s a much better chance you’re going to get the access you need in order to come back with something that’s really different."

Eugene Hütz of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.

But Gurian admits that those personal qualities take time to develop. "I have a long way to go! It’s all about human relations and building rapport on set, no matter who you’re with. And sometimes it’s just so you keep your shit together. If I’m shooting someone who’s really big, that means I’m going to get less time. So, oftentimes, talking to them and keeping the flow going on set isn’t necessarily to calm them down. It’s to calm myself down, to make sure I’m keeping my cool and being really professional and keeping the energy level up. When you have a drop in energy, you lose them."

Drew Gurian’s Equipment
Leica M Typ 240
1980s Leica 35mm ƒ/2
Leica 21mm ƒ/2.8
Leica 50mm ƒ/1.4
Nikon D800
Nikon D4
Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8
Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VR II
Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.4
Profoto B1 500 AirTTL Location Kit with modifiers
Nikon SB-900 Speedlights

With experience working with diverse clients through a range of styles, Gurian is finding himself increasingly interested in additional lifestyle subject matter, and is actively pursuing commercial and advertising work. A favorite recent shoot was for Red Bull. "I was asked to shoot studio portraits of a band called denitia and sene—an electro-pop duo from Brooklyn. In New York, hand-painted billboards have come back into style, so they’re having
Colossal Media hand-paint the portrait that I shot on a 20×40-foot billboard.

They’re both wearing these really bright, intricately designed ’80s throwback patterned outfits. There’s so much detail," laughs Gurian. "I’m really excited to see what it looks like."

You can see more of Drew Gurian’s work at www.drewgurian.com.

Leave a Reply