Sarah McColgan Q&A: Can’t Knock The Hustle

Sarah McColgan

Being in this business has allowed me to meet my fair share of asshats (you know who you are… I know you read). But it has also allowed me to meet a gang of great artists, execs, writers/bloggers (they’re not the same) and photographers. So, when I decided to start this blog one of the things I wanted to do was highlight some of those people.

For my first crack. I chose photographer Sarah McColgan. My fellow Jersey native (yes, we’re everywhere) has been doing her thing for six years shooting Keyshia Cole, Kelly Ripa Young Jeezy and Heidi Klum for the likes of Metro.Pop, KING and Rocawear. I recently caught uo with Sarah to talk about the demise of magazines, temperamental divas, her blog and her road trip to L.A.

Rashaun Hall: How did you get your start?

Sarah McColgan: My first job was with The Asbury Park Press. They hired me to freelance for them and gave me a digital camera. At the time, this camera was like $25,000 and it was like 2 megapixels, so a camera phone right now is probably better. But it was digital, so I was getting familiar with digital. But then in my schooling, I was shooting film and being told, “Don’t sell out, don’t go digital.” So, I was able to kind of get on the digital bandwagon, but now everything changed, so it’s just ridiculous. Every time they drop a new camera, you need to get a new computer and then you need to get a new version of Photoshop and then it’s just like the cost never ends. So I’m glad that I learned along the way, but I wish that I was able to have more schooling like retouching, preparing your files, just different things I had to learn on my own after school.

So are you from New York or New Jersey?

SM: Jersey. And everybody gives me shit for being from Jersey. I grew up in Jackson, which is by Great Adventure, and it’s very suburban. I go home and I’m like Diddy out there because it’s just a small kind of town. But it’s cool because I get really inspired when I go home because it’s just so different from New York. I’m actually working on a project right now where I’m shooting blue-collar workers (see photo below), like the complete opposite of my day job with the models and celebrities. It’s just really raw, stripped down, rough-around-the-edges kind of guys that have their workshop and I’m shooting them in their environment, no hair and makeup, no nothing. And it’s a project that I’m working on for a gallery in L.A. I’m sure you’ve been on set for celebrity and fashion shoots. You walk in and it’s two hours for hair and makeup and then clothes… It’s just this fake, polished, stylized world, which I love too, but I needed to do something real.

Sarah McColgan

Is there ever any apprehension on their part?

SM: The first guy thought that I was coming just to photograph his cars. And he was like, “Oh, I have to be in it?” But then once they see what the shot looks like and then they get into it. I try to build a rapport with anyone that I shoot. I try to crack a couple of jokes and loosen them up a little bit and I can usually get people to give me what I need. I guess because I’m not necessarily the most intimidating photographer so that works for me. I can be friendly, funny, put everyone at ease and then they kind of give me what I want. And with these guys it’s no different. What I like is that you might look at this guy and think that he’s going to shank you in a bar fight but he’s like the sweetest guy you ever met, so that’s cool for me. Those contradictions are always cool and I like to have that in my work. These guys are real rough around the edges, but then the lighting is real slick and sleek and that’s just opposites for me.

So how did you get from Asbury Park Press to shooting glossy magazine covers?

SM: I went to the School of Visual Arts. Asbury Park Press was cool. It was a great start, it gave me confidence that I needed to know that I can make it regardless. At the very least, I could always do that, which was still pretty cool. And at SVA, all of the professors are working in the industry, so even at my admissions interview — I was actually going for graphic design — but I had this whole portfolio full of photography so they said, “Well, why don’t you go for photography? You have a whole portfolio.” And I said, “Who makes money? What do you do with photography? I’m not going to shoot weddings or whatever.” And they said, “Our graduates are shooting spreads for Details magazine and campaigns for Armani.” And that blew my mind because I never even thought I could do it on that level, like that’s trying be a rock star to me. Fashion photographer? You only see those in movies, you know? And believe it or not, my first little break came, unfortunately, right after 9/11. I lived right on the river so I watched the whole thing happen. I was working for all these newspapers at the time so they’re calling me to get shots of everything that’s happening. I shot the towers and the collapse, and my roommate was interning at The Source. They called me and wanted to do some pick-up on the images. And so they ran some of my images from 9/11 and then that lead into another assignment. Actually my first [official] assignment for The Source was shooting Nas, Russell Simmons, and Run-D.M.C. That was like all I ever needed, I could retire right now. That led to some more work from The Source, which actually they probably still owe me money from.

I’m in that class too.

SM: Yeah, they owe everyone money. I always knew I wanted to be doing magazine photography. After they put it in my head at the admissions interview, it was like, “OK, this is what I want to do.” After The Source. then I did some smaller magazines like Urban Latino and a couple of others. Then I just started really working on my fashion book, testing and just shooting for my portfolio. Eventually Metro.Pop hired me, they’re actually still one of my clients. They don’t have the most money or the biggest budget, but they’re like my family now because they gave me my first real fashion spread and from there, it’s just been like a slow, hard grind. Not even that slow actually because I started in 2003 and now I’ve had two agents, billboards, celebrity bookings shaping up, so it’s coming along, but it’s a slow progress.

Do you feel like starting urban has slowed that process or do you think that it’s helped?

SM: No, although my first couple of assignments were for The Source, I went very quickly into indie fashion. I started shooting for the European magazines as well. It’s street, but “white” street. And for me, I love the urban culture, I consume the urban culture. I’m probably a Source reader, so that was never bad for me, but then once I realized in this industry you can get pigeonholed into one thing, especially in urban entertainment. You want to cross over and do those George Clooney interviews too, so when you’re shooting DMX, how does that translate? But for me, I was doing a lot of indie fashion. After Metro.Pop, I started shooting for a lot of these unknown fashion magazines that look great on your coffee table but nobody’s ever heard of them expect for the fashion world. And that was great but it was super creative work, no budget. I was making really great images, but I wasn’t making any money. And then I got an agent and I started doing some commercial work. My first big big campaign was for Rocawear. That’s when I got back into doing a lot more urban stuff and started making more money with it. I did Rocawear Big and Tall with Larry Johnson and the Kansas City Chiefs. I did Rocawear underwear, the jeans – the juniors denim campaign – and then I did the Young Jeezy clothing line campaign, 8732, and the Pepsi Rookie of the Year. So that just snowballed into a lot of that sort of work, which was great because it went from indie fashion to now urban fashion and then athletes which kind of translates to my celebrity book. I’ve been somewhat fortunate to be able to shoot people like Young Jeezy, who I love, and then Kelly Ripa who is great for my book because everybody knows her. So that’s great and then KING started calling. I started shooting a lot of KING covers and stuff for them. And I don’t really put my nose up to them because I love the urban culture. So, right now I’m going to figure out how to make it all work for me by balancing. I’m not going to let them pigeonhole me into one thing. Because even in my fashion fashion work, even if the girl is wearing the Chanel gown, I might cornrow her hair or something, just to put a little inspiration from the hip-hop world into my high-fashion work too.

Which subjects are easier to work with?

SM: It’s funny. Anybody can be difficult. I mean obviously models are the easiest, because if they don’t cooperate, you send them home and get another one. They have to. They’re there to work for you. You can dictate what their hair and makeup styling looks like, what they’re going to do for you. I’ve never had a problem with a model. Even these girls who are doing the biggest campaigns, they’re just cool. That’s what they’re there to do, they’re there to be your blank canvas. Celebrities, on the other hand, can go either way and I can never predict. You always ask before you shoot a celebrity. We all have friends in the industry, so you call around and you say, “Who knows this person? And who knows that person? And how are they?” You just really never know. It just depends on the situation. Somebody could be the coolest person in the world, but then they walk into a situation and then they turn. It wasn’t really a problem, but Keyshia Cole was very apprehensive on the last KING cover. I know they wrote about it in KING, they said she wasn’t super-cooperative. She was cool with me. I could tell that it wasn’t about me or my work or my interaction with her, it was just that it was KING and they have their stigma and she thought maybe she didn’t want to be exploited. But that’s the situation where if I was shooting for a different type of client then they might be easy, like her manager called me and said they were shooting for another magazine the next day and it was all about artistic freedom and everybody was cool and it was all great.

Sarah McColgan

You never know what’s going on in their personal life.

SM: Yeah and you never know how they’re going to react. I’m somewhat new to the celebrity game; that’s what I’m moving more into now. And it’s just in my experience that the people that I think are going to be the most difficult are usually cool and the people you think are going to be so cool happen to be difficult and you don’t know why. I don’t know what their insecurities are or if they had a bad day. I don’t know if they just don’t take a liking to me or one of the editors, or the concept or you never know. I mean I can only then rely on my work, on my talent, on my technical skills and just get what I need to get done. Luckily, I shoot really quick so I usually don’t fumble around with the lights and all this stuff. I pretty much go in there, know what I want, get it, get people done quick. And then they usually love if I’ve ended the shoot because it’s like, “Oh, that’s it? We’re done? And it only took like 20 minutes?” I’ve shot Kelly Ripa now three times and it’s always after she comes off set for Regis & Kelly and they only give me a half hour. And this past year, they timed me and I did it in 18 minutes. And they’re like, “You just broke your record” and I’m like, “Don’t get used to it” because then people are going to think that I’m going to be able to do that all the time.

Sarah McColgan

For someone who’s not a model, how do you get them to give you the look or the emotion or whatever you need?

SM: You always hope that you’re going to be able to pull some emotion out of them and that’s ultimately my goal, to get the meaningful shot. A lot of times, all these other factors come into play. They just might not give it to you. So, you have to rely on all these other things that don’t matter just because you need to get a printable image — something that looks good and something that works for everyone. That’s when you rely on maybe putting them in an interesting environment and lighting it interestingly. And really they can just stand there and give you a blank stare so it can mean something because you’re telling a story with the lighting and the mood; and not the rest of the shot. I don’t like to have to rely on that, but that’s when my photography instincts as an artist have to come in. I have to make it about other things in a shot versus if they were giving me tons of emotion. I could put them on a white background with the worst lighting, but if they’re crying in front of me or something [and] it’s a powerful shot then the lighting and none of that stuff matters. But if they’re stiff as a board then that’s when I have to flex my artistic skills and make it something else because I know I can always make a beautiful shot, no matter what. Like these [blue-collar] guys, they’re not giving me much here but you see with the color and the composition and the shot, it kind of tells a story because it’s got the form and all this other stuff. It is. It’s hard. You never know what you’re walking into. Publicists have told me that it’s refreshing when they meet me because maybe they see my work and then they think I’m going to be one way, this eccentric photographer or something. And then I walk in and I’m from Jersey, I’m not going to escape that. I can’t be this pretentious person, this is where I grew up. I just try to stay real and I try to stay friendly. And I think also that goes back to me having to shoot the police chief at 18, working for newspapers. I had to walk into the police chief’s office and I have to do a portrait and he’s like no personality. From an early age, I got thrown into these situations where I had to shoot some guy who wasn’t giving me anything and I only had five minutes to do it. And then, you grow with every experience I think. I’m sure same for you, when you’re talking to people and they don’t want to open up.

Sarah McColgan

A lot of times, they think that the interviewer is out to get them. Not necessarily like “I hate you” but they think you’re trying to get something from them.

SM: It’s the same with me. They think I’m trying to make them look bad, I’m like, “My name goes on this too!” It’s a little different for you because if you get that scoop, that’s great for you, but for me, I’m not trying to get a shot of you picking your nose. That’s not what I’m trying do. Good example of somebody being really stiff, or just being themselves, and what I did to loosen them up. I was shooting Jeezy, and Jeezy is Jeezy. He was mad cool, he was great –ust professional. But he wasn’t stepping out of being “Young Jeezy” the rapper, like “I have an image to uphold” and that’s it. And I just feel like that’s probably who he is, really chill and it was cool. But I was like, “No, I need something… I want him to laugh or get animated for me.” So, I start rapping. I start singing one of Jeezy’s songs to him. We’re in a vocal booth, because he doesn’t expect that I know any of his songs and it was a couple years ago so he wasn’t as big as he is right now. And so I start singing, “Jeezy likes to drink, Jeezy likes to smoke, Jeezy likes to Arm & Hammer with his coke,” and he just lost it. All my assistants lost it. So, that was an appropriate time to break the ice. You have to know when it’s ok to do something like that and when to just fall back and just be quiet and get your job done. There were no jokes to be cracked with Keyshia Cole, it was very “let me just get my work done” and that’s it. But with Jeezy, I could kind of loosen him up. I just shot Sean Paul’s album packaging this week and we were dancing. I was trying to arm wrestle his bodyguard. Sometimes you have those really fun days where it’s great everybody’s cool, and then some days there’s just tension on the set everywhere.

Magazines are folding left and right. How doees that impact you?

SM: Yeah, it’s scary. I didn’t really feel it for awhile. People were saying, “recession, recession, recession,” and I was like, “Well, I’m still going to the Marc Jacobs store, so I’m good.” And then all of the sudden, a couple of magazines folded, a couple of calls stopped coming in and bills started piling up. Now, I’m like, “Wait, this recession is legit.” So, I’m definitely feeling it now. I’m still working. I’m still busy, but what I find is that the budgets are less. They’re having me cut corners. They’re having me maybe get one assistant and an intern, versus two assistants and a video tech. Cutting the assistant rates, cutting the equipment rates. I’m using a lot of my own equipment when I can just to save on those budgets. It’s really just budgeting and people are shooting less often. So, they might book you for a day and then want to shoot the story that they hired you for, but then, “Oh, can you just shoot this other like table of contents image for us real quick, too?” So they’re adding other things into it. And you can’t say no because they could just call somebody else. So that’s the thing, I’m doing more for less now, but I don’t mind it because I just feel like we’re going to ride it out. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in general with the industry, just with the way everything’s going digital anyway. That’s aside from the recession, the print form…what’s really going to happen? That’s what scares me.

Speaking of digital, tell me a little about the blog, you me him and her.

SM: I’m starting it with my best friend, Miriam Sternoff, who’s a stylist. It’s really just a snapshot into our lives, what we do, who we work with, a way to promote our jobs and some behind-the-scenes stuff. A lot of people that I know want to see behind-the-scenes, what happens behind the big show. We also have a lot of super-stylish interesting friends that we want to kind of exploit and put on there. You know, I have one friend who might, on any given day, be at the Laundromat in a gold suit. There’s all this eye-candy around us. We’re fortunate to go to a lot of cool events and do a lot of cool things, so you start to take it for granted because it’s just what we all do within the industry. You might be sitting next to John legend at a party and you don’t realize that that’s really cool. It’s not until I go home and I’m talking to my friends from growing up that they’re like, “Wait, that’s great. You got into a Jay-Z concert for free, how does that happen?” So, it’s a combination of what we do, the parties, the fashion, and all the interesting little things that we have access to and be able to show people that, and then also just promoting what we do as photographer and stylist. I’d like it to grow into somewhat of an artist collective where it can have maybe one of my illustrator friends also blog on the site about that world, the art world and gallery shows and things like that. Another one of my friends is an aspiring filmmaker so maybe he can contribute. And then it just turns into this collective of a place to go to see great information about art, music, fashion and culture. I’m going to be taking a road trip across the country so I wanted to document that as well and that was kind of what prompted me to do it now because I’m leaving in a month to drive to L.A. So, I thought my contributions will probably be more just  like photography and images.

I think that’s what I really like about your Facebook page, the behind-the-scenes stuff.

SM: I just feel like I’m really fortunate to do what I love, but I always feel like there’s so much more to do. I mean sometimes I get gassed on something, but really I beat myself up a lot about my work because I think as an artist, you’re constantly critiquing yourself, you’re constantly trying to improve and get better. And sometimes I sit back and I’m like “Ok, I’m sitting at a table right now with this person and that person, and this one has a Grammy and this one has an Oscar, and I’m like, “Wait, who am I?” I’m just some chick from Jersey and this is my little world now. And why not appreciate that? One of my friends is best friends with Kelis, so we were out in L.A. for his birthday and the next day, she cooked us dinner and I’m like, “Ok, so Nas’ wife is cooking me dinner today.” I have to remind myself that that’s cool. You’re around a lot of people who have to act unimpressed with it, like, “Oh, big deal,” because nobody wants to get gassed on the fact that Jay-Z’s sitting right there but, you know what, it’s ok to be a kid sometimes and be like, “I’m a fan, too.” Obviously not all the time. When I’m working, it’s very much work-mode. I would never be in fan-mode when I’m working because I just can’t even think like that, but if I’m at a party and I’m dancing with somebody that I’m a huge fan of, that’s cool. And like I said, it’s cool that people like the whole behind-the-scenes thing because I try to have fun on my shoots and we’re all doing what we love and enjoy it. We could be sitting in an office somewhere hating our life. I have so many friends who hate their job, so many. So I’m like, “Thank God, I can do this and have fun with it.”

Is the road trip is to go out for the gallery show?

SM: I’ve been going out to L.A. a lot. I’ve been trying to establish more work out there, more relationships out there. L.A. has shown me a lot of love for some reason. I linked into this great group of people that… I don’t know, I just started to feel drawn to LA and I put it out there. I said, “You know what, why don’t I just spend the summer in L.A.?” Before I knew it, I had a place, I had work set up. I was like, “Oh ok, so everything’s falling into place.” I have two friends now who want to go. Also, I need a change of scenery. The past two years have been a really interesting transition time in my life personally, so it’s kind of cool for me to be able to go out there.  I’ve always only lived in Jersey – I lived in Hawaii for a year, but I’ve only lived really in New York and New Jersey. So, why not go for the summer? So three months is good and then I can come home, back to normal life. And then obviously, I was like, “I need a car,” so my friends were like, “Fuck it, road trip.” We might be fist-fighting by the end of the trip. I figured it’d be a cool experience and as a photographer, everything visually inspires me, so I could be in Nebraska and see something that’s just super-inspiring to me. So I’m never opposed to going anywhere. If somebody tells me they want me to go to Iowa with them, I’m down because I can find inspiration in the mountains or wherever. Any chance for that is great for me. And then obviously, the gallery show is just another thing to be doing. I decided to do the  gallery show because it’s going to give me something to promote, something to do, something to get people to come out to, and it’s going to be like the thing that’s going to introduce me to L.A.

Why was it important to do a personal project for the show?

SM: It’s been important to me to do a personal project for awhile, just something just for me that nobody’s commissioned. A lot of these guys are my dad’s friends. And anybody who knows me as an artist knows that I’ve been talking about doing this blue-collar portrait project of my dad’s friends for years, since college even. And it just never manifested, it was never the right time and it never actually happened. And then when this L.A. trip came up and I kept searching for a project and something personal to do. I am also just trying to re-find my inspiration because I do so much commercial work. I have 12 art directors telling me what I need to do versus me being able to be creative. So, yeah, I just decided that I wanted to shoot these guys. I thought that if I wanted to show my work in a space, it needed to be personal because at least if I think it has some depth to it then hopefully other people will see that versus me just showing my work that I’ve already done commercially because I can show that work to anyone. You can go to my website and see that. This I feel has a little bit more meaning. There’s not necessarily a story out there to be said about it, but you can look at the picture and come to your own conclusion and try to develop your own story about who is this guy, what does he do, what kind of life has he lived? That sort of thing. I don’t have a title for it. I don’t really know what my point of view is or if I need a point of view right now. I think the good thing about art is you can look at it and, like I said, come to your own conclusion versus me telling you what you need to think of it, like, “This guy does this and you should respect him” or “You should think he’s a loser.” I don’t think it should really go either way, I think everyone can come up with their own story.

Who are some of your inspirations?

I get inspired by film a lot — cinematography. I get inspired by music. I’m a huge Jay-Z fan. Anybody who knows me knows that a Jay-Z lyric could dictate my day, my theory or my mood. That’s why the blog is titled “You, Me, Him,and Her.” I thought about it for weeks and weeks and weeks. And I’m doing it with my friend, and she’s like Upper West Side Jewish and I’m like hip-hop Jersey, but we’re both very into fashion. We’re very much the same, but we’re opposites too. She didn’t know it was a Jay-Z song. She just thought it was something I came up with. So trying to come up with something that worked for both of us, but was still abstract. So I find inspiration in hip-hop, I find inspiration in movies. My friends inspire me. Like I said, I have amazing fashionable friends who make clothes and just wear crazy shit. I’ll see them out one night and decide I want to do a shoot based on somebody had gold chains in their sneakers as laces — they’re just creative. I have a lot of creative people around me. I look at a lot of designs, a lot of typography and graphic design and illustration and stuff like that. It’s hard when you go through stuff in your personal life and then you try to create. Sometimes it lends itself to creating and then sometimes it deadens your creative mood.  So I had been through some personal things and lost my inspiration and just dove into my commercial work, like, “Whatever the client wants me to do, I’ll do it.” And now, getting back into doing some personal work and traveling and doing all these different things, I’m just feeling really great about being an artist again.

Any current photographers you respect or admire?

Tons… Richard Avedon is like my idol. He’s legendary. He passed away a couple years ago, but right now he’s having a show at the International Center of Photography and his work is incredible. He’s one of my favorite photographers. He’s a portrait photographer and a fashion photographer, but his portraits are very raw, real, white background, just about the emotion. He’s just somebody that I always look to for inspiration. I love Steven Klein, he’s like one my favorites.  And in my celebrity hip-hop world, obviously Anthony Mandler is great. Jonathan Mannion… they’re younger more contemporary photographers. But I try to look at peoples work, but not look too deep into contemporary work, like people that I’m sort of up against, because then you can kind of pull from that without knowing that you’re pulling from that. Everything that I do has probably been done before in a different way, so you’re lucky if you come up with something that’s never been done. But I think that’s the thing – you pull inspiration from everywhere. I could look at you and be inspired. And I’m looking through magazines and I’m seeing other peoples work and I’m mentally registering that whether I like it or not. And then I’m probably pulling from that on a shoot because I’ve seen it somewhere but I don’t remember where I’ve seen it from. You look at these…everything, film, movies, music, everything and I think that’s what forms your inspiration and you as a person, you have your unique touch or you unique artistic ability and that’s what makes it yours.

Is there a dream project or assignment?

There are several. GQ covers, that’s a big one. W magazine, definitely love Italian Vogue, but I feel like my career is more in a GQ-Vanity Fair direction hopefully. The fashion world is just a fashion world and I’m not necessarily the one to play that game anymore I don’t think. I don’t know what the right word is, but it’s a lot of like posturing; it’s like, “Ok, everything is so fabulous.” It’s just not very real. It’s not like the celebrity world or the urban world is very real either, but I fit in there a little bit better and I can be myself a little bit more versus pretending to think that everything is so fabulous and this and that. So GQ, Vanity Fair obviously would be amazing.I have to shoot Jay. Jay, Nas and Kanye are people that I’m fans of that I need to shoot. The gallery show is going to be great because it’s something I always wanted to do. Coffee table book is something that I’ve always wanted to do but in terms of big accomplishments, I definitely think that the GQ cover is probably “the one.”

What advice would you give aspiring photographers who want to follow in that fashion/celebrity lane?

Everybody’s like, “How’d you do it?” And for me, I didn’t have any connections or any trust funds. My parents don’t eat dinner with Anna Wintour or at Cipriani. So, for me, everybody told me how hard it was and “You can’t do it” and “Only such a percentage of people go on to make it in this career” and that was really like pounded into our heads at art school, that only a couple of people are going to make it. And I don’t necessarily…I think it’s about talent, but I also just think it’s about drive and ambition and hustling and pounding down doors. And for me, my best advice would just be to shoot, shoot, and keep shooting. Shoot some more and send your work out and when people reject it, shoot again and send the new work. And then when people reject it again, keep sending because that’s really the best thing that you can do, is just to keep working on your craft and improving and showing your work to people. And eventually people are going to respond. I mean, unless you just suck. But really there’s no master plan, just work hard and don’t quit.


One response to “Sarah McColgan Q&A: Can’t Knock The Hustle

  1. smellybecauseitrhymes


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