Speaking as someone that dabbles in photography but would bend over backwards to avoid labeling themselves as a "photographer, it's a tough profession. It's equal parts documentation, vision, and, as our interview with Nathan Zucker will reveal, luck. And on top of all of that, it's a profession that serves the photographer best if they're not seen. But how does one get the exact shot they're hoping for? I'm the wrong person to ask, but Nathan Zucker is as good a person as any to ask. He's quickly catapulted himself to the forefront of Nashville's photography scene, covering virtually every event of note, but you'd never know until his pictures are posted. So read on to learn the inner-workings of a photography pro, and marvel at the art of documentation through Zucker's lens.
Now/It's met with Nathan Zucker at Revelator Coffee in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood of Nashville.
N/I - Hey Nathan!
Nathan - How’s it going?
N/I - It’s going well, how are you?
Nathan - I’m good.
N/I - Thanks for meeting up with me.
Nathan - Of course. Thanks for thinking of me.
N/I - Absolutely. I’m trying to integrate more non-musician types…. Obviously, I’ve been leaning into that quite a bit, because that tends to be the most immediately accessible here in town that are willful to be interviewed. But since there’s a lot of music within the site, you are - in my mind - the preeminent photographer in town, at least within our age range. Obviously, there are tons of photographers, but what you’ve done in two years or so is pretty impressive.
Nathan - Sure. It’s hard to say when it started, but thanks.
N/I - Well that was something I wanted to ask you - has it just been the past two years that you’ve been doing photo work full-time?
Nathan - It’s been more like just over a year that things have been full-time.
N/I - Was that a long, arduous path to get to that point?
Nathan - Yeah. It was weird. So I was working for M-Street for a while - I worked for them like eight, nine, ten months - and then I got laid off. That was in April of 2016 that I got laid off, and then I had a few weird months where I was like “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to get a job? Is this free-lance stuff going to happen?” And then in July of 2016 things kind of picked up, and then I realized “Wow. Somehow I managed to keep my head above water.”
N/I - And was that from doing a bunch of random one-off gigs? Or things you didn’t think would have a long runway?
Nathan - Oh yeah. It was just “stuff.” A lot of came through M-Street, from knowing people and getting recommendations through that, but it was mostly things that I would not have expected to get.
N/I - Wow. So how quickly did things change after that weird three-month period? Did it all instantly fall into place, or did it take some manipulating and building?
Nathan - I don’t know how quickly things like that build for other people, but looking back it seems like it went pretty quickly. By November, even October of last year, I decided I was going to go after the photo work for a good while; in a full-time sense. It seemed pretty quick looking back at it.
N/I - Since you had a lot of connections through M-Street, was it still a lot of hospitality type work, like food?
Nathan - Somewhat. I still do quite a bit of food-related events.
N/I - Well I saw you were at Music City Food and Wine Festival.
Nathan - Right. With all that stuff, it helps a ton to have M-Street on my side there. Actually, I was talking to another photographer in town - Kyle Reinford - he shot for Live On the Green. He was telling me that when he got started, he just sent email pitches to people, so I started doing that and then people started saying yes to me, and I was like “Wow”! [laughs]
N/I - Sure. That’s the same thing with reaching out for interviews.
Nathan - That makes sense.
N/I - It’s amazing what a simple cold-email can lead to.
Nathan - And it blows me away that it works! It’s like, I can send emails for an entire day, and then I’m likely to get a few days’ work.
N/I - Sure. If you send one hundred emails, there’s bound to be at least ten that stick! So were you sending a barrage of emails every day, then? How did you determine who you were going to email in the first place?
Nathan - I’d look at event calendars - and I still do that a ton - just because that’s where I focus, events in general. So I look at calendars and see what’s happening, hope that I can find the actual contact email for the event.
N/I - And what was the first event that you connected with?
Nathan - I remember that the first one that actually worked through that was the Dragon Boat Festival. I got to do that again this year, and it’s pretty wild. It’s people racing down the Cumberland in these massive dragon boats. Then after that, it was “Wow, this actually worked.” It was something I had never even considered to be a possibility, and since then I’m always sending emails if I’m not working.
N/I - Is that uncomfortable for you to send those cold-call emails? How does that feel?
Nathan - It started off kind of weird, but I’ve since refined it to the point that I have a template now and I can fill in the blanks for specific things.
N/I - Sure. The event goes here, and whatever else needs to go wherever.
Nathan - Right. And I was actually thinking the other day that I should probably go and look at the template to see if it still makes sense.
N/I - Why is that?
Nathan - Just because I haven’t changed it in a year. I’ve been sending the same email to people for a year now. So I feel like that’s something I probably can improve upon.
N/I - Have you ever had someone - not call you out - but maybe notice that you’re using a template format?
Nathan - [Laughs] There are probably times when I get an email back and it’s just a super short reply saying “No.” or something like that, and it’s more than likely they had a feeling of “He sends these emails to tons of people.”
N/I - That happened to me one time. I was reaching out to someone to shoot portraits with at Bonnaroo, and I had sent an email to someone else, and then copy and pasted that. Because I was effectively copy and pasting the exact same thing, save for changing the artists’ names. And so I accidentally left the name of one artist’s publicist while emailing a different artist’s publicist. It was pretty obvious, like I had emailed “Sarah” and the next person was “Joe,” but I started Joe’s email with ‘Hey Sarah.’ It was the right artist’s name, but the wrong publicist. I don’t know which is worse.
Nathan - [Laughs] I’ve done that plenty of times. I just don’t go back and read my emails. I’m sure there’s tons of mistakes [laughs].
N/I - And then you hope that either they didn’t notice, or that they did and don’t care.
N/I - So has photography always been your main “thing?”
Nathan - Coming into college and going to Belmont, I studied music business like everyone else, and at that point, photography was definitely a hobby. Let’s see… I started shooting shows when I got here, and I was like “this is fun. It would be cool one day to do this.” And then I guess as I went through school, I realized I was way more into the creative side of things within the music industry, as opposed to the business side of it. So in a sense, that’s what led me to working for M-Street. So as long as I’ve always been looking for work, I definitely wanted photography to be a part of it.
N/I - So it’s not necessarily something you stumbled into? When you showed up in town, you went to shows and making photography a part of that experience just made sense?
Nathan - It just made sense. Backing up a little further, my friend - Kathy Wagner - runs a blog, Suburban Roads - who I shoot for a lot - and she actually grew up in the same hometown as me, in California.
N/I - Okay. What town is that?
Nathan - Fremont. It’s the Bay Area. I got talking to [Kathy] before I got to Belmont, just trying to get a feel for what it was like in Nashville, and asked about Suburban Roads. Not too long after, I started writing for the site before I got to Belmont, and taking pictures just kind of became the next step.
N/I - It made more sense to do it hand in hand?
Nathan - Exactly. So I basically thought “I might as well add that to it.”
N/I - Do you do much writing still?
Nathan - Not a ton.
N/I - Is it just not your bag?
Nathan - Not as much. I wrote for Live on the Green the one week that I went that it didn’t get rained out. I enjoy it, but it’s just not as fun to me. And then I’m fortunate that I don’t necessarily have to. I’m staying busy either way.
N/I - So how long have you been in a groove where you can afford to not have to cover live shows?
Nathan - For the first six months or so - so basically the second half of 2016 - I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, but then things started to pick up once 2017 rolled around, and all of a sudden I was comfortable. I no longer felt bad going out for a drink [laughs]. I feel like it happened pretty quickly.
N/I - I’m trying to think…. Were you on Bonnaroo’s photo staff? How did that come about? Another cold email?
Nathan - That one is a good one. I’m glad you asked it, I think that’s a good story. I went to New York for a semester for Belmont East, and I tried to intern with Superfly, but I didn’t get it, because they said I needed to be in New York. I should have emailed them sooner, but I still met the people that would have been my supervisors. So one of the girls there wound up being the one that hires photographers. Basically just networking, I guess.
N/I - Interesting. Is networking something that comes naturally to you? Or is it a little more of a learned skilled?
Nathan - It’s definitely learned. I’m a relatively shy and quiet guy, so it’s kind of a weird thing to get into, but I learned over time that people like talking about themselves, so if you go and ask people about what they do, and keep up with a lot of questions, they’ll like you and eventually end up saying “yes.” Then you have another connection, and all it takes after that is just a little bit of continued interaction here and there.
N/I - That’s very true. So did the woman from Superfly reach out to you, then?
Nathan - I was just emailing her to keep in touch, and then she wrote back and was like “Hey, we’re putting stuff together. Do you want to come out and take pictures?”
N/I - How do you feel about shooting festivals? What is that like for you? I have my own experience, but I’d be interested to see how yours differs.
Nathan - I love it. It’s a ton of work, working for a festival, because most of what - specifically Bonnaroo - they need is mostly stuff to post for the next year. So it’s a lot of atmosphere, the experience, and not so much the artists. I play head games, because it feels like there’s constantly something to be shooting. I try to take breaks, but I don’t really take breaks at all while I’m out there.
N/I - I’d imagine you’re “on” 24/7, or at least for as long as you’re on the festival grounds.
Nathan - Oh yeah, pretty much.
N/I - And even when you’re off, you’re probably dumping photos and trying to get everything set.
Nathan - Exactly. Most every festival that I’ve worked for is a little bit different, but usually they’ll want stuff by the morning.
N/I - So by the end of a festival, is it safe to say you’re pretty much dead?
Nathan - [Laughs] Definitely. I remember trying to go to sleep after Bonnaroo, but my feet just hurt too bad to do it. I was laying in bed, in pain for an hour.
N/I - That doesn’t surprise me. Photo work can be more physical than what most people probably imagine. I can’t begin to fathom running around a festival for the whole day, with places that I need to hit in order to capture X, Y, and Z, only to go off site, dump the photos, and then get up earlier than everyone else to do it all again the next day.
Nathan - That’s right. One time, Bonnaroo had me out at 9am to photograph something they had in the campgrounds. Those walks out there…. You can’t make that walk too many times a day.
N/I - Absolutely. It’s like a mile and a half long walk out there, and it’s not flat ground at all.
Nathan - What’s it like for you during Bonnaroo? Are you doing more interviews and portraits?
N/I - Effectively. The two most recent years that I’ve worked Bonnaroo, it was mostly on the media side for another publication. It was nice, because it allowed me flexibility in terms of understanding who our readership was - so it was more Americana based - not necessarily taking a bunch of photos of Bryson Tiller. But at the same time, I was more than able to if I really wanted to, as long as I got the ones of Margo Price and bluegrass jam. I did think it was interesting, though, trying to juggle both - the way writing and photo go hand in hand - it was writing mainly, and then I walked ass backwards into the photos.
Nathan - Because publications love to send one person to do both.
N/I - Exactly. But on the writing side, because it’s hot and miserable, and festivals run on strict schedules, I was literally interviewing 10 artists a day within a two hour time span, which doesn’t lend itself to the most enthralling of reads.
Nathan - You can’t get much out of a really quick interview. I’m sure it’s basically chaos for an hour and a half.
N/I - Truly. A massive juggling act of being polite during interviews while I’m getting a call from my next band. So this past year, I focused mostly on portraits and set photos. I still enjoy the writing aspect, and I don’t think I’m quite as capable at the photo aspect as you are. And that’s fine by me.
Nathan - And for me, I can do the writing side, but it’s not always that great. It’s not necessarily the most interesting [laughs].
N/I - Well either way, working the media/photo side of a festival is highly stimulating.
Nathan - Absolutely. To say the least.
N/I - So do you have a preference in terms of the types of photo work you like to take part in? Is it festival-based events? Or events in general?
Nathan - Well I love music festivals, but really anything that can be called a festival are the types of things that I love. When there’s something going on, I can just throw myself into it and see what happens. There are specific shots that I try to get, or that I feel like I need to get.
N/I - What are those?
Nathan - Everyone loves photos of people taking selfies. Every time I look through photos from any given festival, there are people on their phones and taking pictures. Music-related, whenever people have their hands up is always great. With food stuff, the glasses that are branded typically are a go.
N/I - Sure. I’d imagine if they spent money on the branding, they’d like some sort of proof.
Nathan - Right. There’s always that stuff that I need to get, but there’s also the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen. There’s always something really cool that organically presents itself to me.
N/I - I’ve never really done much photo-wise outside of music festivals, so I’m just curious about whether or not there are different appeals to someone that’s done both. So when you shoot something like a food and wine festival, do you get directives? And is there flexibility within that?
Nathan - There’s usually some. I like shooting the experience stuff, so fortunately, that’s usually the stuff that people hire me for. So I usually stick to mostly atmosphere, but there’s also some scheduled stuff that demands for me to be at a certain place at a certain time. So using Food & Wine as an example - they do demos and panels and all that - so there are certain times that I have to be there, but otherwise I pretty much go wherever.
N/I - What about shooting panels? How much time would you spend shooting a speaker panel. I can’t imagine much more than fifteen minutes. How do you determine how much time to allocate to something?
Nathan - That stuff… The demos, the panels…. It really depends them. There were certain ones at Music City Food & Wine where the room was packed, and I had to stay for the whole thing, but sometimes you get torn. When it’s a small one with names that aren’t all that big, I usually stay until I get passable shots of each person that’s there. But it’s hard taking pictures of people talking; all those weird mouths.
N/I - That’s where someone learns just how much they scowl when they’re speaking.
Nathan - That stuff is kind of like waiting for them to say something happy or funny, and then I just hold down the shutter for seven clicks.
N/I - Or you hope that someone in the panel is really funny and everyone else laughs.
Nathan - And then hopefully they’re not blinking. It’s a lot of luck.
N/I - So how much time do you spend editing when there’s a decent amount of luck and timing involved? Do ever find yourself in some sort of a rhythm?
Nathan - There’s definitely a rhythm. I’m getting quicker at it, which is something that I’ve always known I need to be quicker at, rather than staring at a photo for thirty minutes. But I do have a rhythm down now, getting quicker as things get busier, it’s kind of a necessity.
N/I - Sure. In a way, it’s kind of like you’ve entered your own 10,000 hour rule. The more photos you take, the more able you are at determining when the “memorable” parts are.
Nathan - True. Especially in music, you know that after a chorus, they’re going to step up with the mic and then there will be some cool stuff to shoot. It really is just practice and over time you get better.