Small Business Spotlight: The Art And Business Of Celebrity Photography With Myrna Suárez

Joe Connolly
August 27, 2019 - 8:57 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Myrna Suárez is Billy Joel’s tour photographer and has also worked with John Mellencamp, Mariah Carey, Christie Brinkley and numerous other celebrities – and she found her passion while taking photos on the side as she worked in the music business.

In this week’s “Small Business Spotlight,” Suárez told WCBS 880’s Joe Connolly about the “fast and furious” world she inhabits as a photographer.

Suárez’s father was a photographer on the side while working as a bus driver on Fifth Avenue during the day.

“We were first-generation immigrants. Photography was never going to be a job; those weren’t jobs that were available to people like us. So, but when I went to school, I really wanted to be in the concert business, because I thought it was cool to like, go to a show, and have an event, and then if you didn’t do well, you could start all over again tomorrow, and that appealed to me,” she said. “And then I got in the concert business and realized that it just wasn’t for me.”

Suárez worked at record and management for about eight or nine years, doing international marketing with Sony Music and going on tour with Carey, Joel, Lauryn Hill, Harry Connick Jr., and other A-listers.

“When you’re on the road, there’s a lot of downtime. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting, you know, and I thought, you know, I have so much access. I always had my camera with me. I was like, I should start shooting again, and that’s how I started, and I started shooting concerts because I had access,” she said. “And that’s how I had – I wasn’t limited to shooting three songs or three minutes. I could shoot whatever I wanted, and I could shoot backstage, and I could shoot where other people weren’t allowed.”

That was how it all started, Suárez said. She said when she left Sony, one of her clients – who happened to be Wyclef Jean – asked her to come and take pictures of him for fun.

“And when the pictures were finished, it ended up being three out of the four photos that made the album, and just one photo that had been on, you know, these giant photographer shoots that they had used, and that’s when I sort of felt like, ‘Well, maybe I can do this as a job, or you know, something that you get paid to do,’” Suárez said.

Suárez noted that while the paparazzi photographs celebrities furtively, her mission is to make everyone happy and comfortable with her.

“I also like beauty, so I am not a big fan of, you know, really weird or dark or being ugly for ugly’s sake. That’s just not in my nature. I don’t see that, the same way I don’t shoot landscape or still lives. I just, my hands are heavy when it comes to stuff like that and I can’t do it. But I tell, you know, I work with a lot of famous, and I like to say successful, people, and I always say, it’s my photograph, but it’s your face,” she said. “So we always have to come to an agreement. It’s a collaboration.”

Suárez said when she went into business for herself, one of the greatest challenges was pricing her product – especially when “everyone’s first sort of sentence is, ‘I have no budget, but.’”

“Sometimes you don’t really realize that maybe their ‘no budget’ is $20,000… not $4,000. So I actually had a really good mentor when I worked in the record business, and he only did tour budgets, and I sat in the same room with him, and I learned so much about where the money goes; where you can put money; what people will pay for; what they won’t… you know, so you might not get it in your creative fee, but you might get it in some other line item that, you know, is a necessity,” she said.

Suárez added that her own budgets are very clear and concise so people can see where her money is going.

“I tell people, ‘If you like this picture, this is kind of what it takes to do it,’” she said.

Suárez also said it is less intimidating to negotiate prices and fees online than it is by email.

“I am a big believer in saying, ‘What is your budget?’ I’m not going to hold you to it, but is your budget $2,000, or is it $8,000, and then I don’t generally say no, but I say: ‘OK, here’s what I can give you for $2,000, here’s what I can give you for $8,000, here, you fit in what you need and then you tell me if that’s going to work for you,” she said.

Suárez also now brokers out some of her shoots at high-end events, and a freelance staffer from her team can sometimes shoot the event at a lower budget.

Connolly asked for some advice from Suárez on how to pose for the best picture. Suárez noted that the best posture to assume is to sit up as straight as possible, lean over a little, and keep your chin up.

In addition to shooting for Joel and other celebrities, Suárez has a collection of Polaroid photos at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, featuring an assortment of Oscar winners, foreign movie stars, and up-and-comers.