I’m working on a new series of posts talking to people who’ve recently made or are in the middle of making the transition to full time photographer. Spencer Heyfron was someone I got to know as Jake Chessum‘s first assistant. And, to be honest his name stuck with me primarily because I had to book flights, hotels and rental cars for him and Jake (was never on location with them). He’s very fitting for the first post on this subject, because while working in NY mere days into anonymously starting this blog, I made a post that “Spencer had flown the coop” after I noticed a big feature with his pictures in Esquire that made we want to immediately hire him. That was several years ago, but I thought I’d catch up with him anyway and see how it all went down.
APE: Tell me how it all started for you.
Spencer Heyfron: I was in college in England studying cinematography, and changed in the last year to photography because I just preferred it. I graduated and I had no ties, so I just came over to New York, really straight away. That was 1997.
APE: What made you decide you should come to New York, was it just to quick start your career?
Spencer: I really liked David LaChapelle’s work and when I was at college, his work was everywhere. In my local library in England, I found David’s home address and just came over, on the plane. I had nothing to lose, I just said, “I really like your work can you give me a job, or I am going to go home on the next plane.” And he gave me a job, as an assistant.
APE: You called him up and said I want a job and I like your work?
Spencer: I actually didn’t call him up, I went to his studio. It sounds kind of stalker-ish, but I was quite prepared to turn around and spend a few days here, then go home. But he said, “My second assistant just left, my first assistant has a room if you want to use that”, and yeah, I was away.
APE: So, do you think it was good timing, or was part of it that you showed up at his front door?
Spencer: I think it was good timing and I was just totally honest, like “I really, really, really like your work”. I think I interned for a week at the studio and they realized I wasn’t weird, or crazy and then I was there for, maybe, two years.
APE: So, for two years you were his second assistant. How was that, did you learn a lot from him?
Spencer: Oh my God, I learned more the first day than I had in my whole college years. It was so crazy, the difference between learning it academically and theoretically at college and then being the real world. The first week, just, so crazy. I can remember the first job was Dolly Parton. I learned so much that day, the whole process of a commercial photo shoot really.
APE: And, how was David?
Spencer: He was great; he was actually like his images, kind of exciting and crazy and so into it, completely into it when he is shooting. Playing loud music with so many people working. It was really a good time. I thought that was what all photographers were like [laughter].
APE: You thought they were all crazy and played loud music?
Spencer: Some shoots would go on for 20 hours and that was considered normal. Anything after that was like a holiday. It was really hard work.
APE: And, was he good about sharing information about what was going on or you just kind of soaked it all up?
Spencer: I think I just soaked it all up. I learned more from his first assistant, David was more like the director who would come in and say what he wanted and everybody would make that happen. And then, you know, David would shoot it and be orchestrating it. It always worked out, it always looked great.
APE: After two years, you decided to move on?
Spencer: I was working with a bunch of other people. When anyone from England would come over I would be working for them. And I started working for Jake during that time.
APE: So how do they get to know that you were someone to call as an assistant?
Spencer: I think having David on your resume is pretty good. I went around to a lot of the agents. I had a list, as well, of photographers that I wanted to work for. And Jake was on that list, so I went around to their agents and said I was an assistant that was available.
APE: So, pretty aggressive trying to land with the right people. Do you see other assistants do that kind of thing?
Spencer: I think so. I get a fair amount of assistants emailing me, just saying “I’m available and I want to assist you.” I think that is the only way to do it, right, to really go for it. Actually, there are so many assistants at this point, since I first came over so I’m not sure it still works.
APE: And so, tell me about working for Jake? You worked for him for how long?
Spencer: Nearly five years. He’s great. Compared to David, it was night and day. It was a lot more laid back and there was a lot more communication. I learned so much from Jake, just so much.
APE: And you were his 1st Assistant?
Spencer: Yeah, in the end I was his studio manager as well, which helped me transition to being a photographer.
APE: And how did that come about?
Spencer: He just got busier and busier and he needed somebody permanent. And I became first assistant and in the off days I would be working the studio and it was just like a mix of the two. Even when I left about three years ago, and he was still getting busier and busier. Now he’s with Art and Commerce.
APE: And you saw his career rise and got to see how he handled it but also how he worked with his subjects as a photographer.
Spencer: One of the best things about being an assistant is that you find out what sort of photographer you want to be. You then get to see how different photographers act and how they react on a shoot. So with Jake anything he shot, no matter if it was a celebrity or somebody on the street he was very respectful of them, he treated them like human beings. That’s the key to his work. He’s talking to people and they’re very comfortable with him.
APE: Can you give me some other things that you took away from working with him that influenced you?
Spencer: It’s a business. I think that’s a key component in this industry. When you are in college and you’re thinking about what sort of photographer you want to be, what you want to shoot, how you’re going to shoot it and how you’re going to put your personality into the work, that’s all fine but in the end it’s totally a business. Jake taught me that. And, he always came back with the goods. Do you know what I mean? He always came back with what he would have decided to do and he would shoot extra and have lots of options for himself and for the client.
APE: How are you able to do that when you’re pressed for time? Or the subject doesn’t give you a lot of time?
Spencer: Well, obviously, it’s time-dependent but he also taught me how to shoot very quickly, like, a few different shots in five minutes.
APE: That is quite a contrast from David then.
APE: So, tell me about the transition. When did you know you were ready to make the transition? And how did you do it?
Spencer: I think I was more than ready. I was getting a bit too comfortable and I think that it wasn’t a challenge any more. I realized I’ve got to go off or I never will.
I had been doing personal projects while when I was with Jake. I’d fly out a few days earlier and do some personal work. And then he would come and we’d shoot. And we were on our own as well. We’d go out somewhere traveling because he’d always been shooting personal stuff. And I’d go with him. And he’d let me take my camera and do what I wanted to do.
And he was very good about contacts as well. He’d say, you need to call this person and show your book. He helped me put my book together as well.
APE: Some of the people I’ve talked to say the transition is nearly impossible, because you’re comfortable and making a living, then you have to go to not making a living.
Spencer: Well, I think it was a little bit of denial on my part. I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was, it really is hard.
APE: So, that helps. Not knowing how difficult it might be.
Spencer: Exactly. Yeah and it’s very rare that it’s immediate. I was really fortunate. Because a lot of the contacts I had like “Newsweek,” “ESPN” and “Esquire” gave me work.
APE: And what about landing Look Book, tell me how that happened?
Spencer: Well, I worked with Jake on it. And I didn’t think it was challenging him anymore so he gave it up. And I think there was somebody else before me, as well. I don’t know what happened there. So, they called me up one day and asked if I wanted to shoot it and they weren’t sure if I would even want it. To me, it was the most fun job.
APE: I think it’s really high profile, in the media world too.
Spencer: Exactly, and when you walk up to somebody and say we’re shooting for NY Magazine look book they know exactly who it is. It’s just amazing, it’s a very high profile job. I was floored when I got it. I was really excited.
APE: And, so, that’s probably a great promotional tool for you.
Spencer: It’s so great. Most of last year, I was asked to do white background stuff, which was great because when I first went out with my portfolio it was all environmental.
It’s a fun job, really. It a hard job to do, because of the logistics of having a white background on the street, especially when it’s freezing, and the wind is blowing like we’re in Kansas. But it’s just so rewarding.
APE: Is there somebody there from the magazine to help you find the people?
Spencer: There’s always someone there from the magazine, like the writer, and together we choose everybody. We see something like from 15 to 25 people every time we go out every month. And they choose up to seven or eight people from that.
APE: Tell me more about your transition about how you marketed yourself. Did you go out and just meet with photo editors who I’m sure probably knew your name, right, ’cause you were Jake’s assistant.
Spencer: Some did, yeah, and I just went out and saw people. People were really kind, I’d go and see a contact and she’d say you have to see Lauren Winfield at “Fortune.” And then Lauren would put me on to somebody else, it was just like this ongoing thing.
APE: So how much of that is based on the fact that you’re Jake’s former assistant? Is that the key to getting your foot in the door.
Spencer: I don’t think it’s the key, I think it helps, I think there’s like three or four different things that can help you. I don’t know the ratio of those things but personality is very important. You have to be polite. Luck in is very important, you know, being in the right place at the right time. Also, your contacts obviously are very important. Finally your work. If you believe that your work has either your personality or the personality of the client, and you stick to it and people start responding to it and just keep on. It is really hard, the transition is really difficult.
When I have assistants now and we talk about it. I say, “it really is difficult, it really is and it takes time.”
APE: Tell me how your work has evolved from school until now.
Spencer: Well, at school I was still kind of over-thinking everything. I have an old friend from school and we talk about how in school before you could pick up a camera, you’d have to explain why you were doing it. Now it’s all digital you just get the camera and take as many pictures as you can then you decide how you’re going to get in there and edit them, rather than how you shoot things.
Also, I’m much more into like real people now and that’s kind of interesting to me because when you think you’re going to shoot the next “Vanity Fair” cover and when you actually shoot real people, I think it’s much more challenging because obviously they’re not professional models.
APE: Did you start out thinking you were going to shoot models?
Spencer: I think so, ’cause I think you assume you’re just going to be shooting fashion all the time, but I didn’t really think I’d be shooting portraits of real people, but it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. Like with the Look Book.
My photography has changed from when I was at school, because of how much of a business it is.
APE: How has the business aspect influenced your photography?
Spencer: When someone rings up and it don’t sound like the most exciting project, you need to make the whole exercise a challenge. It’s a challenge to get something good of a politician in two minutes,
So it becomes a challenge and you can always look at that challenge and say, “ugh, I’ve got only two minutes with this guy” or you can actually say, “I might get something great from this guy in two minutes.” And it can become an exhilarating challenge or it can become a nightmare, and I’d rather it become a challenge, you know, it’s exciting for me, you have to adapt your work and still try and have your personality in the work come through.
APE: So, when you’re making the transition how do you fund the shoots? That must be difficult.
Spencer: Yeah, when you’re an assistant, it didn’t matter, you’re up in a nice hotel for five days with a rental car and meals out each day.
Then starting out some shoots you’d spend $6,000 or $7,000 and then not see that money again for three months. I had a few of those shoots that came in all at once and it was very difficult.
APE: That’s got to be tough.
Spencer: I was completely stretched with credit. But you know, they paid me, eventually.
APE: How long have you been with Kristina Snyder and how did you two meet up?
Spencer: About five or six months. It hasn’t been long, at all. I just did a very simple mailer to all the agents I thought were good and got a few responses and Kristina seemed to really be into my work.
APE: And that was it?
Spencer: Yes. Yeah, I mean that was really it.
APE: You make it sound so easy.
Spencer: I mean, it kind of was, I went to meet her and she was so into photography and I met with a couple of others and it was kind of a little bit more wishy-washy. They weren’t nasty in any way, it was just Kristina was so excited about it and I think that’s quite infectious. When you’re excited about work, I think it comes through.
APE: So it must have been a bit of timing there, because many agents are full, right? She was willing to take somebody on at that time?
Spencer: Yeah. Well she said “I’m full now. I’m not really looking for anybody, but I like you and what do you think?” And it kind of went backwards and forwards a little bit with the contract.
APE: So, the minute that you stopped assisting, did you not immediately go and try to find an agent? You waited until you had some clients and your work was beginning to mature a bit more?
Spencer: Yes, I remember I was talking to Andrew Hetherington about it, about how it was good when you first go out, not to be with an agent, then you pick up little jobs here and there. So, that’s what I did, and that’s how I got it started. So the first few years, I didn’t really actually look for an agent.
APE: And so now, is it your obligation now to get some assistants and give them the kind of training that you got and send them on their merry way eventually?
Spencer: I don’t know, I think I’m still learning. There’s not one shoot I’ve been on that hasn’t taught me something else. It’s a really great thing and that’s good for an assistant.
APE: So, now it’s been three years on your own, tell me how’s it going?
Spencer: It’s good. Every year it’s got better. The first year was kind of all right. The second year was really good. The third year was best yet.
I can understand why people are a little bit apprehensive about the industry, because actually it’s going through these crazy changes. But it’s been good to me so far.
APE: And is part of that because you started at the ground floor, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
Spencer: I think so, yes. I’ve noticed really big names doing things that maybe they wouldn’t do five years ago, but what are you going to do? There’s simply so many people, so many people with the equipment now to do it.
I just think if you believe in your work, and your work has personality and you stick to it you’ve got a good chance.
And, I think that it’s very easy, when you see a lot people working around you in a certain kind of aesthetic to think, well, maybe mine’s not like that. Maybe I should do that, because that’s the cool thing to do. But if your work’s constantly good quality, which is what we all strive for, and it has that personality that you try and imbue in it, I think you’ve got a good foundation to go on.