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Photographer Jamie McCarthy Explains What It's Like Shooting Models, Celebrities, and Even a President or Two For a Living

Rosario Dawson and Jamie McCarthy in 2007. Photo credit: John Shearer/Wire Image
Rosario Dawson and Jamie McCarthy in 2007. Photo credit: John Shearer/Wire Image

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This week, we were invited into the New York City apartment of Jamie McCarthy, one of the most sought-after party photographers in the fashion and entertainment scene.

We'd heard all about McCarthy before meeting him for the first time—that his popularity is due to the fact that he looks more like a member of the party rather than the photographer shooting it and that he's never been one to treat his subjects (beautiful models, Hollywood actors, fashion designers) as subjects, that he won't show any awe or favoritism to you just because you're famous. Like he tells us, he treats people like people: "If you're cool, you're cool. If you're an asshole, you're an asshole."

Plus, he takes a damn good picture.

When we stopped by McCarthy's apartment at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, he was watching President Obama's UN speech on TV. We half-expected someone whose work primarily begins after 5 p.m. to have his days totally free, but he had a shoot later on at 12:30 at Planet Hollywood. He had a couple of candles lit, and a few records framed on the wall ("I haven't put up my Marilyn Manson one yet," he said.)

His apartment overlooks a particularly busy street in Manhattan, and they're doing construction on the sidewalk outside of his building. He had a Greek sword casually sitting in the corner by his workspace, which a friend tried to convince him to take through customs once after a trip. He didn't. Though he's got a few tattoos, was wearing two skull rings from a no-name shop on St. Marks, and has the mindset and vigor to party (and work) into the wee hours of the morning, trying to get a sword past the TSA was something he wasn't going to do. Instead, he had it shipped.

Solange Knowles at the fall 2010 Charlotte Ronson show. Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

McCarthy didn't grow up wanting to be a photographer per se, but the act of habitually having a camera around seemed to plant the seed.

"I was always the kid who liked to take pictures for memories," he says. "We had parties when we were young and I always had a camera, even a little disposable one, and I would just shoot things and then go back and look at them. I love looking at old pictures. I love looking at myself or friends from twenty years ago and go, 'Wow, we were wearing that back then?'—you know, in the '80s. "That's how we dressed? I would never wear that again."

McCarthy's uncle is legendary society and nightlife photographer Patrick McMullan, and the story of how McCarthy got involved in photography professionally begins with him. Actually, it started at a Metallica concert.

McCarthy grew up in Brooklyn, and on his way into the city one night with friends for the concert, he decided to stop by his uncle's. "I went into his office, which was his apartment at the time," he says. "I saw him there, looking at slide film through a loop, and I said, 'Oh, what do you got there?'" What he had was film from a movie premier he had just shot, and at the time, he wasn't completely sure what his uncle really did.

He asked, "And they pay you to do this?"

McMullan then suggested that they could pay him to do it too. Already a regular on the New York party scene, McCarthy regularly frequented clubs like the Limelight where his uncle often shot. He started out working for McMullan as an intern.

"For six or seven months, I kind of just stayed in his office and went through his archives and alphabetized everything because it was a real mess," he says. "He had a real small team at the time."

But it wasn't all grunt work. Sometimes, McCarthy would head out with the photographers and lend a hand shooting an event—and guess what? "I actually turned out to be good at it," he says.

Backstage at the Donna Karan spring 2012 show. Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

So good, in fact, that McMullan began to pay him.

"I was young, and fun, and trendy and stuff, and I kind of looked like I belonged at the party, instead of some older guy that who didn't fit in," McCarthy says. He explains that a key part to being a party photographer isn't just snapping a shutter. "If I'm going to a black tie event, I'm wearing a tux or a black suit. You don't go looking sloppy, you go fitting the bill."

But his skill doesn't lie solely in just looking the part. It's his ability to talk to people, to make them comfortable, and to get them together—"To get something out of the person," he says—that's largely contributed to his success. So when we bumped into him a few days later at Barneys for Patti Hansen's handbag launch, we should have known we'd see him there, shooting the event. Because who else would be a better fit to shoot her and her husband, Keith Richards, than someone who actually gives a shit about music?

Kasabian performs at the Mulberry 40th Anniversary. Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Jamie also shot the Mulberry 40th anniversary party, where British band Kasabian played.

"You're shooting fashionable models and celebrities and then you've got this dirty rock band coming out, kicking ass on the stage," he says. "It was cool."

He explains that music and concerts are some of his favorite things to shoot (we're sure he doesn't mind the models, either) and that was partially why he decided to leave his job at Patrick McMullan, where he had moved up to president.

McCarthy was approached by friends who were forming WireImage. "They were doing more of the photography I wanted to do, like concerts and Hollywood stuff, and [Patrick] was still doing more fashion," he says. So after a talk with his uncle, he decided to give Wire a shot. "He gave me his blessing, and said, 'Go out on your own and do your thing.'"

Now, doing his own thing involves doing a lot of things. He shoots concerts and fashion shows. He photographed President Obama once, and says he's actually shot the last four or five presidents. And he always shoots fashion week. In fact, Jamie was probably the one person not pissed off about Marc Jacobs switching his show schedule.

"I had another big event the same night that his show would have been, so I would have had to run from one to the other," he says. And just like the rest of us, the weekend after fashion week, he crashed. A friend of his suggested avoiding clubs for a bit and hitting up their local bar instead, to which he responded: "You said it, brother."

Model Jaslene Gonzalez at Bergdorf's 2010 FNO party. Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Inevitably, talking about photography at fashion week leads to talking about omnipresent fashion week bloggers of the personal and street style sort, and we were curious as to how someone who's been doing this for 16 or so years feels about the Internet's inundation of snap-and-go iPhone shots.

"I think it's a good thing that people are actually going out and trying to do work and making blogs, and trying to do something instead of just sitting around and doing nothing," McCarthy told us. But, he adds, "Digital photography switched everything around, that's basically when the change started to occur. Because with a digital camera, you don't have to be a great photographer, and you can Photoshop a lot of things. At fashion week, you get the real photographers trying to set up a shot front row, and a kid runs in with a point and shoot and jumps in front of us and tries to take a picture."

MNDR performs at the Charlotte Ronson fall 2011 show. Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Over the course of our conversation, he doesn't complain about anything else. McCarthy seems to have accepted the fact that on any given night, the most he'll get is five hours of sleep, and he doesn't seem too bothered by it. He also doesn't seem to mind that when his night begins, most of his friends are just getting off work. ("I tell my friends don't call me between 6:00 and 9:00 but they still do," he laughs. "Because they're getting out of work and they're like, 'Wanna go to happy hour?'")

All in all, McCarthy seems genuinely happy with his job. But there is one thing that he's a little less than thrilled about—and yes, it's a result of the digital age. McCarthy doesn't like the new Facebook layout, y'all. But really, who does?
· Photographers [WireImage]