Patrick McMullan: Paparazzi as Star

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- As one of the first photographers for the original Details magazine back in the 1980s, Patrick McMullan became the father of the modern-day genre of celebrity photographs. But McMullan never stopped parenting; his three decades of work have cemented his reputation as having "been to more parties than any other person in New York" (Andy Warhol is said to have quipped, "If you don't know Patrick McMullan, you ought to get out more"), and he still spends much of his time photographing celebrities, running an online magazine and writing books. He leads an agency on West 14th Street and continues to tirelessly chronicle society benefits, red carpet premieres and parties.

He took some time to tell us about how he got his start in photography, overcoming illness and poverty to become the success he is today, including advice for people interested in pursuing a creative, nontraditional career.
After three decades in society photography, Patrick McMullan is as much a star as the people he shoots.

How did your passion for photography lead to such a successful and inspiring career?

McMullan: I started out loving photos as a kid and during college. I worked for a photographer in New York named Terry Stevenson and had a great time. But my first job out of college was in public relations. I loved the job, but then I got really sick with cancer -- really sick. And so I had to leave that job. I went back to work with Terry and decided to become a photographer for real. I had a lucky break in meeting Andy Flanders at a party just as he was starting Details magazine. I started taking photos of people at nightclubs and photos of celebrities for the magazine, and my career took off from there.

How were you able to attract the elite as subjects for your photos?

McMullan: That came in part as I kept meeting people in the New York nightlife scene. It was friends of friends, and eventually I became well known. New York is a great place to meet people in all different walks of life, because no one industry dwarfs all the others. But most people will pose for anyone. People like to be participatory, and participatory pictures lead to the best photos. I believe the subject should be involved, and I always ask if I can take a picture and people appreciate that. Because I talk to them, they trust me to pick the best picture I can of them to show.

Your story is so inspiring, in part because of your overcoming tremendous setbacks. Do you need a setback to be successful?

McMullan: You don't need to suffer a setback to be successful, but you can be successful despite setbacks, and setbacks can even help on the road to success, which people sometimes forget. Whatever your circumstances are, they can help mold you. I was getting $3 a picture when I started out, which was basically nothing even then, but wanted to be a photographer and I needed to get my foot in the door. The fact that my illness almost killed me gave me more backbone and more nerve because I didn't know how much time I had left.

The niche that you have created has become very crowded. How do you separate yourself from the competition?

McMullan: First, I have the personality to draw people out, and that makes for great photographs. I genuinely love people and enjoy interacting with them, and that leads to more relaxed and intimate photographs. Second, I try to give everyone attention when I'm at an event. In a world full of attention seekers, I'm an attention giver. I am genuinely interested in people, and that draws them out and is reflected in the photos. Third and most importantly, I work really hard and I work constantly. I stay the course and I continue to do photography even when things get tough.

How do you manage and inspire the people you work with?

McMullan: I pay attention to them. A kind word goes a long way. And I deeply care about the people I work with. They can sense that I really care about them, and they can also see how hard I work. I think that inspires them to work hard too. The people I work with are basically like family to me.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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