There are very few overnight successes in photography. The craft is demanding, the business is complex, and editors, art buyers, and curators are always on the prowl for the next hot style. It takes an original vision combined with real-world experience for young photographers to get ahead, and, for many, that means becoming a photographer’s assistant. In this special portfolio we celebrate this tradition and the new talent now emerging from within the profession itself. We have located the 10 best young photographers in the country who are now or have recently been assistants. In addition, we look at how the job of the photo assistant is changing; go on set for a glimpse at a day in the life of an assistant; offer a salary survey; and talk to a number of established pros, who recount the traumas and rewards from their own days as assistants.
Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu Amy Gayeski
Anthony Lindsey Bjorn Iooss
Christopher McLallen Kirk Edwards
Mark Mahaney Raymond Graber
Thomas Holton Timothy Devine

Most photographers will tell you that of every ten things that can happen on a photo shoot, nine will be of the unfortunate variety. Weather will just not cooperate. The critical lens on loan from the local camera store doesn’t show up on time. Batteries fail. The portrait subject arrives late, and grumpy. In fact, a photo set, with its bins of equipment, gaffer-taped flooring, and piles of coiled cables, is an accident waiting to happen. Sometimes the accidents are happy, creative ones; sometimes they aren’t. It’s the job of the photo assistant to make sure the bad accidents don’t happen. And when they do, it’s his or her job to get yelled at by the boss. That’s how new photographers are born.

Photography, like plumbing, is one of those professions filled with apprentices learning the craft. Today more and more art schools and photography schools churn out sophisticated new talents, but often those budding photographers must still serve a training period under an established pro in order to gain the experience they need to launch their own successful careers. It isn’t always the most pleasant experience: It can take years for a rank beginner serving as a fourth or third assistant (picking up the photographer’s laundry and sweeping floors) to work up to the coveted first assistant rank (digital retouching and meeting with clients). But it’s a system that has served the profession well, producing a supply of competent young photographers ready to strike out on their own.

The ten photographers featured in this special portfolio are cases in point. They are the winners of our first annual photo assistant competition, chosen from a group of 42 assistants from around the country. To find these assistants, we went to the people who knew their work the best — the photographers who employ them. We asked them to select assistants working for them now or in the recent past whose own photography deserved to be spotlighted.

All the nominated assistants submitted portfolios that were accomplished. To pick the winners we turned to six distinguished experts: Jen Bekman of New York City’s Jen Bekman Gallery; Vincent Laforet, a freelance photographer whose work appears often in The New York Times; Deborah Mauro, art director of American Photo; Kari Nouhan, executive art producer for the BBDO ad agency in New York; Jody Quon, photography director of New York magazine; and photo rep Bonnie Winston of Winston West Artist Representatives . Congratulations to the nominees and to the ten very exciting photographers you’re about to meet.