Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Next Step American Photo Magazine's Interview with Michael Murphree

The Next Step

These days more and more assistants never pursue their own careers, and that's bad news for the future of the art.

Based on nothing more than an inside tip that Annie Leibovitz was looking for a new assistant, Michael Murphree uprooted his life completely. He heard about the job prospect while working for Los Angeles-based celebrity photographer Firooz Zahedi on a shoot in 1999, when he met Ricky Floyd, Leibovitz’s longtime art director. Over dinner one night, Floyd offhandedly mentioned that if Murphree were interested, he could help him get the job. Selling most of his worldly possessions, Murphree -- who had worked as an assistant for various photographers since 1997 relocated from his home in San Francisco to New York City in 2000 and was part of Leibovitz’s staff for three years. And even in that enviable position, he never forgot a piece of advice that one of his old bosses, photographer David Powers, once gave him. "He told me to not get too comfortable assisting," recalls Murphree, "because it’s a trap."

The Golden Handcuffs

There isn't much about the typical assistant's hand-to-mouth existence that could be called comfortable -- certainly not at first. But as assistants gain expertise, they can command dramatically higher rates, particularly when working with upper echelon photographers. "When that happens," says Murphree, "you think, 'I've been struggling for years and I finally have some money.' And instead of putting that money back into your career, you look at your friends who have nice new cars or bikes, and because you're getting older, you want nicer things as well."

Therein lies the trap. Assisting can be a satisfying and rewarding line of work or golden handcuffs for those who dream of moving on. Murphree, who left Leibovitz's staff in 2003 to open his studio in New York City (visit, says he's seen talented photographers who, having assisted big names for years, leave their jobs with neither portfolio nor business plan to show for it. "I've lived the kind of life where I've taken every penny I've made and put it back into my business," says Murphree, "and I'm still struggling to finish making the transition, but at the same time, I'm in my studio right now, and I have my portfolio, and I'm just trying to push it."

Murphree's peers often ask him how he did it -- and the answer is that he began planning to become a photographer almost as soon as he started assisting. "It wasn't like I hit the end of my commitment with Annie and it occurred to me to jump. It was years of saying, the ultimate goal is to be a photographer -- and what are the steps to get to that point?"