What Makes a Hotshot Photographer?

What Makes a Hotshot Photographer?

By Eugene S. Robinson

Drew + his Bowery crew.
SourceCourtesy of Drew Carolan


Drew Carolan has a new book out and shares the key to his 40-year overnight success.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Drew Carolan, Los Angeles

First of all, “hotshot photog” is an illusion. Perception is nine-tenths of the myth. I busted my ass to do what I want to do and that’s to be true to myself. There’s a price to pay, but it’s very rewarding. Along the way I had great teachers. They nurtured my energy and helped direct it. Growing up in lower Manhattan also taught me how to get a read on people in a New York minute. I was spoiled in the sense that as a young teenager, I had access to so many events. I walked to the Fillmore East as a grammar-school kid and saw shows. When I couldn’t get in to see a show, I’d sit on a car outside and listen to the music. When the Fillmore closed in ’71, I started going to the Academy of Music for shows, then it was the Bottom Line and CBGB, Danceteria, the World and on and on. 


Carolan at work during the Follow the Leader sessions.

Source Photo by Paul T. Chan/Courtesy of Drew Carolan

When I moved to Eastern Long Island in 1974, I was able to take that awareness and recycle it into everyday life. My teachers out there were fresh out of college and related to my energy and excitement and helped encourage me. When I went to college, I was surrounded by an incredibly creative environment. The teachers were working artists from New York who shared their experience with us and that was invaluable. The ’70s in New York were as good as it gets in terms of creative energy and experimentation. That really prepared me for the transition back into urban living. I was no longer just a street-smart white boy with an ear to the ground; now I had a degree and I could talk about objective camera realism and how it related to postwar photography in the United States.

When I got hired by [Richard] Avedon, I’d been freelance assisting a bunch of fashion photographers. I was interested in fashion photography because those photographers were working consistently and it seemed the easiest to break into because the network of assistants was pretty tight in the early ’80s. So, one day in ’82, Avedon needed an extra hand during a big Versace campaign. He called me and asked if I wanted to help out. Booking two weeks of work at 100 bucks a day was a good deal.

Avedon was working on a book of portraits from the American West. I would be one of two assistants accompanying him on the blue highways.

It worked out, and around six months later, a position opened up there and Avedon remembered me and suggested the guys give me a call. When they called and offered me the position, the first thing I asked was what the pay was. It was pretty abysmal, but they told me there would be lots of overtime and that Avedon was working on a book of portraits from the American West. I would be one of two assistants accompanying him on the blue highways of the American West making portraits. My thought was, Damn, the most west I’ve been is Fourth Street, I’m in. That was a life changer for a kid like me. 


When making photographs and films I enjoy being out of my comfort zone. Reacting to a situation with an objective and compassionate eye is also important to me, as is collaborating with like-minded creatives. 

I had an assignment to photograph Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs. They were up and coming and had just finished their first European tour with REM in 1986. Natalie showed up at the studio by herself, and she had this girl-from-the-country vibe going on. Very low-key. The stylist who the magazine had hired had all these wild clothes that were as far from Natalie as they could possibly be. She came to me practically in tears saying that she couldn’t wear any of those clothes. I told her not to worry and we would shoot her just the way she was. She was very happy with that decision and I think we got the most honest picture of her and who she really was.

drew self port 3245

What the eye sees.

Source Courtesy of Drew Carolan

Matinee: All Ages on the Bowery is my first solo book. I was into all kinds of music but had never experienced a full-on hardcore show until I walked into CBGB that very first day of shooting. I loved the sheer energy of the crowd and how there were as many kids on the stage as there were in the audience. A pure communal experience. It was theirs and theirs alone. I grew up listening to the MC5, Alice Cooper and the Stooges, and the primal energy that those bands produced reminded me of the hardcore scene. 

I’m hoping to not get pigeonholed as a punk photographer, so I’m following up Matinee with a monograph titled Beyond W. 4th St. It’s a visual diary of my travels in the American West with Avedon in the early 1980s. 

I also produced the Mexico City portion of Matt Dillon’s film El Gran Fellove, which is coming out in early 2018. It follows the Cuban singer El Gran Fellove and his influence on Afro-Cuban music. Fellove never gained the recognition that he deserved in his lifetime. I’m also working on the Eric B. and Rakim anniversary box set, which is also coming out early next year. It’ll have many of the pictures I made for their Follow the Leader album, plus portraits from sittings I did of them for Interview magazine. 

And, finally, I got some stuff coming up in Contact High: Hip-Hop Photography and Visual Culture. So yeah, busy as shit.