Piper Ferguson: Portrait of a Portrait-Taker in 24 Shots

Piper Ferguson is a California native to her core, but not one who can be pinned to any stereotyped norm. Born in the Sonoma County town of Petaluma, educated in San Francisco, living and working out of Los Angeles, Ferguson’s photography and film directing owe as much by her years running a Brit pop club in Hollywood (the loved and lamented Café Bleu) as to her communications studies at San Francisco State.

Lively and mindful, spontaneous and formal, stylized and deep, Ferguson’s eye is a go-to perspective for art directors at Rolling StoneMojoFilter, Levis. Subjects ranging from Beck to Gloria Allred, Merle Haggard and Chris Martin have refreshed their images through the prism of her lens.

The Skeeve: Is there anything different about shooting musicians as opposed to other famous people?

Piper Ferguson: As opposed to models or actors, musicians are musicians first and foremost (usually) who, based on having a career in the music business, are then required to become a model and an actor.

Musicians learn early on that they really have to turn it on in front of the camera. I always appreciate photographing musicians who know what to do. They know their angles. They know how to work it for you to get something special. They understand making art, and they are still interested in that process.

I also really love photographing people who haven’t done a lot of shoots. Pretty much every time, the first thing they say is, “I don’t like doing photo shoots. I’m not good at it. I really just want to play music, but I have to do this part too.” They start out nervous and afraid, but they end up getting into it. Thankfully for me, my shoots usually end with, “Hey, that was really fun, thanks!” 

The Skeeve: What are the essential elements of charisma, and how do you capture those?

Piper Ferguson: I don’t really know it’s going happen when I meet someone for a shoot. It’s really funny. Certain people you think are going to shine on camera, and it shifts into not being easy to get that quality out. The photo can still be amazing.

Other people might seem like they won’t have that spark and totally surprise me. The lens just eats them up. They are so good and fun to shoot.

Charisma to me, comes from confidence, from someone’s soul, from someone who knows themselves, and isn’t afraid to be just that. A very mellow person who doesn’t do anything can have a lot of charisma, by just being true to who they are and knowing it. Then the photo says what it’s supposed to by looking at their face, at who this person is.

The Skeeve: Why photography?

Piper Ferguson: I carried a little point and shoot wherever I went growing up, but I always wanted to be in a band, make movies, or run my clubs. I moved here, to Los Angeles, and was working on features in the art department. I went dancing one night at a club and met a woman who wanted to hire me to be her “rep” for music video directors. I started doing that, then started my own company representing music video directors. I would bring in tracks for them to write treatments for that were budgeted for only about $5,000. Sometimes the directors weren’t interested. I met a band out one night who wanted to do a video for like $3,000. I offered to do it, and they said, “Cool.” 

On that job, I realized I didn’t understand anything about lighting, camera settings, film stocks, any of that. I thought, I should buy a still camera in order to learn that stuff. So I did.

I was running a mod/Brit pop/’60s club at the time with my best friend, and I booked all the bands. I brought my camera to the club every week and shot photos of the bands and the kids dancing. Everywhere I went, I brought the camera.

Eventually, some of the bands at the club asked me to do their band photos. I said, “Sure.”

From there, people started offering me money to do photos! My first professional job was for KROQ. 

It paid really well. I didn’t even know what a strobe was, or a Hasselblad. Everyone was very supportive. Photography let me be able to always do what I loved most, music and film. 

The Skeeve: When you travel, what do you miss about home?

Piper Ferguson: It’s funny, I’m on a plane right now writing this on my way to Chicago to shoot. I usually don’t miss much about home when I’m gone. I really love to work and travel. But I would say mostly the food. I often get put into situations where it’s hard to eat healthy. I went to China, and I feel embarrassed saying this, but I ate at Starbucks all the time. I also miss the weather. I hear it’s going to be -2 in Chicago in a couple of days. Shooting in the cold is not fun. I have a boyfriend now; so of course I miss him, and my two chihuahuas, Twig and Mr. Pippy.

The Skeeve: A lot of your photos have no tattoos in them. How is this possible?

Piper Ferguson: Haha! I love the tattoo question! Maybe because I don’t have any tattoos myself? I’ve never really understood the whole tattoo phenomenon. It could be my generation or something. I’ve seen some cool ones, of course. They can be so beautiful, but I don’t find them all that interesting for some reason. I feel like I’m going to regret saying that. I used to photograph a lot of punk rock for Epitaph and other labels. Not as much anymore. Now I think I should probably get one.

All photos copyright Piper Ferguson.

Allan MacDonell Administrator
Director of Skeeve Allan MacDonell is the author of ‘Prisoner of X’, ‘Punk Elegies’ and ‘Now That I Am Gone.’
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