How To Become a Professional Photographer Without Assisting: Geordie Wood

April 7, 2017

By David Walker

Geordie Wood graduated with a degree in photojournalism in 2007. He moved to New York, expecting to launch a career as a photographer. “I had to figure out how to pay the rent, and I quickly realized you can’t do it shooting single images for music magazines.”

So he took a job for several years as a printer and studio assistant for Susan Meiselas. In 2012 he heard that John Francis Peters was leaving the photo editor’s job at The FADER. Wood had shown his work previously to Peters and The FADER’s then-creative director, Phil Bicker. He contacted Peters, who urged him to apply for the job.

“I spent three and a half years in that job, and I made it up as I went along,” Wood says. “The sky was the limit. Most of the time, we were trying to make beautiful [portraits], rather than trying for a narrative shoot.”

© Geordie Wood

Natalie Portman for DuJour magazine. “I understand what editors need in an edit to get good stuff on the page,” Wood says. © Geordie Wood

Wood says he worked 80-hour weeks, commissioning “every photo for 20 issues” of the magazine. He was frequently coordinating celebrity portrait shoots with 10 or 15 photographers around the world, all at the same time. He often joined them on set, where he observed their workflow, and learned by watching how to solve problems, project confidence and interact with subjects and crew on set.

Back at the office, Wood learned about budgeting, the mechanics of production, and how they affect the outcome of a shoot.

“The creative decisions you make early [in the production process]—simple things like the location, and whether to shoot inside or outside, whether to shoot in a studio, or drive around and taking fly-on-the-wall photographs, or whether to shoot at the same time the writer is there or not—all that stuff really has impact on the work,” Wood explains.

The job also taught him about the internal politics of editorial production. “It allowed me to understand the perspective and position of photo editors. If a not-so-good photo ends up in print, it may not be the photo editor’s fault,” Wood says. “I learned a lot about what informs what ends up on the pages of magazines, and how to direct things strategically to get the best stuff there.”

By the end of his tenure at The FADER, he says, “people knew who I was. They looked at my work.” His experience as a photo editor has enabled him “to have informed, in-depth conversations with photo editors.” He’s also learned how to interact and negotiate with publicists before a shoot, and how to work with them on set. “I also understand what editors need in an edit to get good stuff on the page,” Wood says.

All those skills came to bear, for instance, when he had to shoot eight actors—ranging from emerging talent to A-list stars—in eight different locations for a spread in DuJour magazine. “I had 10 minutes with one, and an hour and a half with others. It was a blank slate as to where, what, and how to shoot,” Wood says. His challenge was to make it feel cohesive. He had to parse locations, juggle schedules, and “do the publicist dance” with several of them all at once.

For a men’s knitwear feature in The New York Times style section, Wood was assigned to shoot a series of portraits. It was a typical assignment for print. “But I knew from The FADER that the web is the place where anything goes. So I told the Times that online we could make it totally different,” Wood says. He suggested making diptychs juxtaposing images of the knitwear with images of natural objects. “And we did it,” he says.

Wood says that to rise up out of the “primordial image-making sludge” and launch a career “requires a break, or something unique. Some people start magazines themselves. For me, it happened to be this photo editing work. It was huge for me…I say it was my grad school. It added another layer of creative richness and depth and understanding of the medium.”

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