From Assistant to Photographer: Kyle Johnson's Professional Transition

By David Walker

© Kyle Johnson
Writer Neal Stephenson was the subject of Kyle Johnson's first assignment for Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more of Johnson's work.

Kyle Johnson’s transition from photo assistant to professional photographer over the last several years has been driven by his people skills and connections, and a commitment to focusing on the work that interests him, rather than trying to be a generalist.

While shooting small jobs for local editorial clients, the Seattle-based portrait, lifestyle and travel shooter built an informal support network among emerging photographers around the country who were doing similar kinds of work. He used the network to get assisting work with out-of-town photographers. Then he started working with an up-and-coming rep, which has led to commercial work for national clients.

“It’s a new time for photography. We’re in uncharted waters. You don’t have to go through the classic steps of assisting for one photographer, as long as you learn [technique],” Johnson says.

He graduated from The Art Institute of Seattle in 2007 with a degree in video editing, then got a job with Microsoft as an in-house video editor. It was “mindless, soul-sucking work,” he says, so he quit after a year and went to work in a coffee shop.

Between shifts, he shot pictures of various bands that he was friendly with, which was something he’d enjoyed doing while in high school. He also volunteered to photograph bands that visited KEXP, a public radio station at the University of Washington. Soon he had a reputation as a local music photographer, and realized he could apply his skills photographing musicians to shooting other types of portraits. 

“I loved the challenge of not knowing what a situation will be like lighting-wise or even personality-wise and making something work,” he says.

Johnson was friends with Seattle photographer Charlie Schuck, who introduced him to Seattle magazine photo editor Chris Misdom. “Chris liked the pictures I did of bands,” says Johnson. Misdom started giving him small assignments to shoot portraits, and that led to similar assignments from Seattle Met and The Stranger magazines. Soon all the assignment work was conflicting with his coffee shop job. 

“I really enjoyed the local editorial work and band portraits and I knew I wanted to cut the cord of my part-time coffee shop job, but I needed more of a solid plan,” Johnson says.

He wasn’t interested in taking a job as a steady assistant for a Seattle photographer. Instead, he looked online for photographers beyond Seattle whose style and interests were similar to his. The idea was to figure out how they were marketing themselves and landing jobs.  

One of the first photographers he contacted was Jake Stangel, who is based in San Francisco. Stangel looked at Johnson’s work, and when he was unable to get to Seattle to photograph musician Perfume Genius for Dazed & Confused, he referred the job to Johnson.

Through his connection to Stangel, Johnson also started corresponding with other photographers including Shawn Brackbill, Michael Friberg, Adam Golfer, Alexi Hobbs, Daniel Shea, Geordie Wood and several others. He used that network as a source of inspiration, information and feedback on his own work.

“Jake would do occasional group e-mails sharing new work and sometimes asking for feedback from everyone. I was included on these e-mails,” Johnson says.

Those connections led Johnson to assisting jobs with other photographers coming to Seattle to shoot assignments. They included David Black, Autumn de Wilde and Elizabeth Weinberg as well as Stangel.

One lesson Johnson learned on those jobs is that print advertising productions can be a lot simpler than he’d once thought they were. And that suited his own natural-lighting style just fine, he says. “It’s good to know lighting, but sometimes the biggest shoots are the simplest setups, with natural light.”

Another lesson he learned from assisting was how to relate to clients on set. In particular, he learned the importance of coming to an assignment with a vision, and knowing how to defend the vision diplomatically and when to compromise with a client who has different ideas. 

“It’s a fine balance between keeping your vision and being pleasant to work with,” Johnson says. 

He had enough steady work from editorial clients and bands to quit his coffee shop job by the end of 2010. In 2011, he made his first trip to New York City to visit photo editors. To edit his first portfolio, he turned to his network for help. Then he went into Barnes & Noble to peruse magazine mastheads for names of photo editors, and found their contact information online.

“I tried to pick [magazines] I thought my work would be a good fit [for]—even though [my portfolio] was travel stuff and bands,” he says. “I was surprised by how willing editors were to meet with me.”

And almost immediately he started getting editorial jobs. A week after he was in New York City, Bloomberg Businessweek called with an assignment in Idaho. “It was nine hours away,” Johnson says. “But I pretended it was close.”

The magazine is always in search of unexpected photography, and likes to take chances on new talent for small assignments that run in the front of the magazine, says Photo Editor Jamie Goldenberg. “The thing I look for the most (after technical proficiency) is a willing attitude—something Kyle has in abundance.” 

Wallpaper* also started calling with assignments. “The meeting and [e-mail] promos led me to become a go-to editorial guy in the Northwest. Keeping up those relationships with photo editors and art buyers has been super important.”

He has since made other trips to see editors in New York City, and landed more clients, including Popular Mechanics, Bon Appétit and Sunset.

Meanwhile, Johnson ended up getting a rep through another fortuitous connection: the lead singer of a Seattle band told him that a friend, Maria Bianco, had just moved to town, and was looking to represent photographers for commercial work. “I met her, and we got along great,” Johnson says.

Bianco represented only one other photographer at the time. She now represents eight, and has been successful beyond Johnson’s expectations at bringing him commercial work over the past year. His biggest commercial jobs to date have been for Murphy Oil Soap and L.L.Bean. 

“Maria tailored my travel, food and lifestyle work in a way that would work commercially,” he says. “She can look at my work objectively and see what goes, and what doesn’t, in a way that I don’t see it.”

But it isn’t Johnson’s aspiration to focus on advertising, at least for now.

“I enjoy editorial work so much. But supporting myself on that alone is hard in Seattle. So I’m trying to get commercial work to support it, and really make a name for myself in the editorial world. I love to meet and cover people I wouldn’t normally get a chance to meet.”

Johnson says he’s most interested in covering stories in-depth for national magazines, combining portraiture with documentary work. He is traveling on self-assigned projects. Currently he’s working on a story about fire lookout towers, with a goal of building a portfolio of reportage so he can get those types of assignments.

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