From Assistant to Professional: How Brian Guido Transitioned Into Portraiture
October 6, 2016
Brian Guidos's first big assignment was a campaign for Kraft Lunchables that featured the indie rock band The Bots. The job left Guido feeling unsure of himself.
Brian Guido’s portrait of textile and interior designer Gere Kavanaugh, shot for Metropolis magazine. Part of finding his voice was realizing that his strength is portraiture, Guido says.
Another image for Kraft Lunchables that featured professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek.
Brian Guido’s career got off to a false start in 2014. After assisting for five or six years, an opportunity to shoot a national campaign for Kraft Lunchables fell into his lap. “It was a whirlwind,” he says. He shot the job with confidence, but looking at the photographs a week or two afterwards, he had an existential crisis. “I thought, ‘Is this who I am as a photographer? Is this what I want to shoot?’” he says. “I got stuck.”
It took another year of self-doubt and self-examination, and shooting a lot of personal work, to answer the questions. “You have to shoot through whatever your hangups are, to figure out your work,” he says. A year ago, he jumped back into assignment work with renewed confidence and determination. He has since shot advertising jobs for YouTube, AOL and Verizon, and editorial assignment for WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, Metropolis, W Magazine and other publications.
Guido earned a BFA in photography at Columbia College in Chicago in December 2008. The summer before he graduated, he assisted Chicago food and product photographer Tyllie Barbosa. After graduation, he worked as a freelance assistant for several other photographers in Chicago. Soon art producers were referring him for jobs with out-of-town photographers, including Joe Pugliese, Martin Schoeller, and several others.
Guido enjoyed the assisting work and says, “It was an opportunity to travel.” It was also an important learning opportunity: He observed the lighting techniques of the A-list photographers he assisted, then went home and experimented with their techniques. He also learned good bedside manner with subjects, especially from Pugliese, he says. “Joe has humor and personality, and keeps his cool, even when things go so wrong.”
His goal had always been to shoot for his own clients, so he put together a portfolio and showed it to some clients in the fall of 2013. He started getting small editorial assignments, but a few months later, he and his girlfriend, photographer Julia Stotz, decided to move to Los Angeles. “We wanted a change,” he says. “I love Chicago, but I couldn’t live there my entire life.”
He planned to assist in LA, at least until they got settled. While driving out there, he got a call from two art producers at McGarryBowen in Chicago. He had shown them his portfolio a few months earlier, and the meeting had gone well. They asked him to bid on the Kraft Lunchables campaign, which included images for print, digital, and social media, as well as for packaging and internal marketing. In short, it was a big job.
“It totally threw me off guard,” Guido says. But he wrote up a treatment, and got the assignment. After he completed it, his self-doubt took over. Looking at the work, Guido got the feeling that he didn’t have his own distinctive style. He saw himself as a “chameleon” who could do anything art directors might ask of him. And it would be competent work, he says, but not particularly good.
Many photographers make a good living as generalists, but Guido says, “I didn’t want to be that [way]. And instead of figuring out what my esthetic was, I pulled away. I was questioning if moving to LA was right, and if I had started to take assignments too soon.”
Guido decided to travel and shoot personal work for a few months. He and Stotz took a trip to Asia. Last summer, they started traveling around the country in a van. They were in Chicago visiting family and friends when Guido got a call from WIRED and YouTube to shoot a video game conference in LA. He rushed back to do the job.
Back on the road afterwards, Stotz was struggling to arrange conference calls with her rep. The trip “became a conundrum for our careers,” Guido says. “I’m 29, wondering: What am I doing with my life? This van trip was supposed to be the answer, and it just wasn’t. It was another distraction in the process.”
But it had a silver lining: It focused his mind. “It was no longer about whether I want to be a photographer, it’s that I have to make a living, and it’s what I love to do,” he says. “I told myself, Make it happen, or you’re going to be a carpenter or something.”
They abandoned the road trip, and went back to LA. Guido immediately started editing his work, including all the personal work he’d shot while traveling. And through that process, he says, he realized he had an esthetic and a particular strength. “I’m a portrait photographer,” he says. That helped quell the crisis of confidence. Guido put another portfolio together, and flew to New York last September to show his work to photo editors and ad agencies.
“I had a great response to my work,” he says. “It led me back to believing that I needed to work in any capacity that I could—to say yes to everything until I was out of debt, and had some work I was really proud of to show.”
Meanwhile, Guido had reached out to some friends in LA to tell them he was available for assisting work again. He just wanted to stay busy. “For a long time I really thought I needed to make a clear cut from assisting work so I could focus on shooting and my business,” he says. “But when reality struck, I hated…waiting for the phone to ring while my bank account dwindled, and feeling like I was unemployed.”
The phone wasn’t quiet for long. “I started to get calls from [clients] I had met with or been in contact with [in New York]. It got to the point where assisting jobs were interfering with shooting assignments.” He now earns most of his income from his own assignments, but hasn’t quit assisting completely.
That’s mostly for his peace of mind. His worry now is that the phone could stop ringing. He’s been too busy to do much self-promotion, but he’s making that his priority this fall. His push will include an email newsletter, a website update, and his first printed promotional piece.
Guido’s advice to others trying to get their careers off the ground is a simple message of perseverance: “Whatever it is you want to do, try it, and if it doesn’t work, fine, because you’ll figure out the next thing. Just shoot through it.”