Sean Hagwell (seanhagwell.com) is a celebrity and entertainment photographer who at a young age has started collecting a strong portfolio in the record and related industries. His work has appeared in Boston Magazine, Huffington Post’s magazine “Olympic Issue,” and for many companies including Sony Records and soon-to-be-released content for Warner Entertainment/Word Records.
THE “LADY GAGA” SHOOT BY SEAN HAGWELL
“One of my biggest influences starting out was a photographer in Seattle named Chase Jarvis. He told me, ‘Go out and shoot what you want to get paid for.’
“Back when I was still trying to figure out the difference between shutter speed and aperture, Gaga was blowing up. Every station you turned to had another one of her songs playing and her pop culture exposure was rising faster than ever. Obviously as a guy still starting out, there’s no way I was getting her in front of my camera. Turns out that a good friend (Jessica Funcannon) had a lot of the same facial features as Lady Gaga and was really interested in having fun with that fact. So my wife (girlfriend at the time), Jessica, and her mother starting designing these insane wardrobe pieces, and they eventually landed on this perfect black dress made entirely of garbage bags. I ordered some trippy sunglasses online to match the dress and we were set. The day of the shoot came, I grabbed a few friends to help with lighting and “security,” and we all drove up to the only place big enough for the shoot: Chicago.
“Little did we know her look was so convincing that by the time we walked a block down Michigan Avenue, we had a massive crowd following us taking pictures and asking for autographs. We even tried to escape back to our cars, but ended up getting trapped on a street corner by about 200+ people until Chicago police arrived to block off the street for us. After taking a breath, we started shooting, and it looked incredible. We were forced to move quickly to avoid large crowds from forming. I had between 15-30 seconds at each location to get my shot. That shoot single-handedly taught me how to think fast and work faster.
“To this day, I’ve had art directors tell me that being able to see the end result of what I would have done with Lady Gaga let them know I was the right one for their job. There was something about initiative and making something out of nothing.
BECOMING AN ENTERTAINMENT PHOTOGRAPHER
“I grew up consuming music and movies. Particularly pop music. Back when I was younger I used to stay up late for the Top 40 radio countdowns and create tapes of my favorite songs using this little yellow boom-box. I was so intrigued at the formula of a song. Why one song was better than another. Constantly breaking down melodies, tones, and timing to see what works and what doesn’t has had a huge influence on my visual work. I break photographs down the same way. From color palettes to angles to the way the light hits a face, it all comes together as one experience for the viewer. I think of my portfolio as a still image version of the Top 40.
“Becoming a celebrity/band photographer was purely coincidental. I didn’t dream of being a photographer. I didn’t go into photography with a particular end game. When my wife and I left Illinois to move to Colorado we had absolutely no connections. We were going in blind and had to hustle in order to survive. I must have slept only a few hours that first few weeks. All day and all night I was searching for local bands on the website PureVolume. I would write them messages to see if they were interested in working together. My offer was that I’d get them new photographs in exchange for their time. Little did I know barely anyone checks their PureVolume accounts since 2007. Fortunately, out of the dozens of people I contacted, two artists got back to me; Aaron Rothe and Everfound.
“I started shooting and things started working. With two shoots knocked out and new images in my portfolio I became ignorantly bold. I started contacting people who were by all considerations way out of my league but I didn’t care. Even if they didn’t hire me they would at least know my name and maybe in six months they’d need someone. Then one day the phone rang and it was Sony Records. They had a on-the-brink-of-massive-success band called Hot Chelle Rae. Their single “Tonight, Tonight’ was starting to get heavy radio play, their new record was months away from being released, and they were looking for someone to shoot the cover. We did, they loved it, and then they quickly proceeded to become one of the biggest bands around today.
“Right place, right time, but I’m self-aware enough to know that it was no doing of my own.
“Once you have a successful shoot like that under your belt, you really begin to understand how the process works. How labels look for new content at the beginning of album and tour cycles as opposed to the end. How a reputation of being accessible 24/7 and being a great communicator is more important than being the “best” photographer around. I’m an average photographer at best but I’m extremely good at simplifying the lives and stresses of my clients. They know that when they bring me on I’ll work fast, hard, and deliver something I am proud of. They look good, their artist/actor/etc had fun and looks good, and they barely had to lift a finger.
“The art of good business is being a good middleman. I’m fortunate enough to be creative for a living but at the end of the day I never forget that I am exactly that; a middleman.
DEVELOPING PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS IN THE INDUSTRY
“As an entertainment/celebrity photographer, most of the people I work with initially see my role as another obligation of the business. Someone their manager or publicist hired. They need photos for album covers, tour posters, magazine features, and the list goes on. Strictly speaking, as a photographer I’m not getting hired to be a fan, tell them I loved their latest project, get an autograph for my friend’s friend, or be able to brag that I just worked with ______ over dinner. My job is to take a great picture and make the client happy.
“When it comes to building personal relationships, it always starts on a professional level by making a great photograph. You need to build trust and mutual respect. They want to know you have their best interests in mind, that you want to make them look good. Working with artists that have been photographed a million times by a million other photographers before you is always a challenge. They have pre-conceived notions about photo shoots and have a tendency to go into auto-pilot. It’s funny to watch a band subconsciously line up in a ‘V’ formation without me saying a word. It’s almost as if photographers never gave them to the opportunity to get invested creatively in their own images. By the time they get to me they’re even bored with the idea of having their picture taken. In 99% of my jobs, when I arrive on set I have to get people back to knowing nothing about creating a photograph, so they can let their guard down.
“If you can blow them away in the first few minutes, there’s this surge of energy and excitement. They start to have fun. They trust you. Creating a memorable experience means you’re the ‘go-to’ guy the next time they need a photo shoot. I love the idea of having a handful of artists that I grow with over the next 40 years and strive to continue building that trust every time I’m on set. All in all, yes there are a few people who simply consider me a photographer and probably couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. You can’t have great chemistry with everyone. But for the most part, I’ve been blessed with some amazing friendships because of this job and look forward to being a small part of each of those journeys.”