Nathan Johnson is making a splash in the Broadway community by shining a spotlight on style and fashion with Broadway Style Guide. An actor turned photographer, Nathan also owns Drift Studio and has taken photos for many Broadway advertisements, including the upcoming show Bandstand, starring his wife, Laura Osnes.
Serena: You started out as a performer, so how did you transition into photography?
Nathan: My uncle had given me a camera in high school and I got hooked immediately, but I didn’t really see it as a viable career path. In college I started shooting a little bit more. I started shooting weddings with my friend Andrew Vick in Minnesota. But I quickly learned that while I loved photography, I didn’t love shooting weddings necessarily. I love people, I love going to weddings, but I don’t want the pressure.
It’s a whole different type of photography.
Totally. But it took me a little bit to understand that. I had done shows in high school and I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat my senior year of college. I was not a theater major. I was a public relations major and a general business minor. At that point I was like, “this is pretty cool. Let me see what happens after college,” and I did a show – that’s where I met my wife, Laura Osnes.
While doing Aladdin.
That’s right. It was amazing and that’s when I was like, “oh, acting, this is pretty great,” and moved to New York – but then I started feeling maybe that wasn’t quite the right path. I love the theater industry, I love the business, but I didn’t think that was right for me. That’s when I made the switch to full‑time photography.
Did you have any formal training or was it all self‑taught?
I had one class in college and I did a lot of darkroom work developing negatives and photos and then I had one in my apartment in college. It was pretty sweet. It was awesome.
I think my most formal training was following my friend Andrew and seeing the way that he relates to people. Seeing the way that he pulls different things out of his subjects at weddings or portrait shoots and that’s where I learned most of what I know today. The technical stuff came later because I am just a learner in that way where I looked things up. I would look up images and see behind the scenes video of how this photographer was able to achieve this effect – and I am always wanting to learn new methods, so I got more of my technical training online or from magazines.
Going back to your acting days– do you have any memorable performances?
Yes, I do actually. Obviously Aladdin was very memorable. But that aside, I did a show in Brooklyn called Like You Like It. It was a retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and set in the ’80s in a mall. I tried out for that show and I didn’t think I got it because I ran into this girl that had just moved here from Texas. Her name is Alison Luff and she is like, “I got it, I got it, I booked it. Did you?” I was like, “I haven’t heard from anybody so I assumed I didn’t get it” and then turns out I did and she and my friend Hollis and my friend Trey, we had the most amazing experience. Igor Goldin was the director. He was fantastic to work with and the writers on the project, Sammy Buck and Dan Acquisto, they were just awesome and we had the most fun. Now Alison Luff is one of my best friends in the world. So that will always be the top of the list besides Aladdin.
Where did the idea for Drift Studio come from?
As I was making the transition out of acting, I started to ask myself what do I love to do and what are some of my passions. I started toying with the idea of hospitality, maybe I can open up a coffee shop or wine bar or something like that, but I decided not to go that route because I didn’t like the lifestyle of having to be tied there day and night. That’s when I was thinking, I love photography. I would love to create a space for other photographers, for artists to come and have an amazing creative space to work out of and to take their clients. That’s where Drift was born out of and that’s what you see now. We wanted to make it as comfortable as possible. A place where people want to come and chill.
Going into each photo shoot, do you have the concepts planned out beforehand? What’s your process when you start a new project?
For the Broadway Style Guide, which I started with a couple of friends, we generally have an actor that we want to work with. We will approach their publicist with an idea – sometimes it’s my idea, sometimes it’s Tony Marion’s idea or James Brown’s idea or Jenny Anderson – we bounce ideas off each other and then pitch that. We will have a vision board or mood board or even a style board, maybe the clothing of what we are wanting to shoot. That will basically inform how we are going to shoot that subject. I like to always be looking at other images that inspire me from other photographers and I will sometimes see something and go, “oh, that’s an idea.” I want to take that and do something else with it, or I want to try to see if I could achieve that effect with this person and that’s how I come up with ideas for shoots.
When working with one of the advertising agencies for Broadway, it changes a little bit. They are coming to me with the concept and maybe there will be some back and forth and I get some flexibility there. There is definitely a sense of teamwork in that one. However, they are usually the ones who approach me with an idea and I have to really get it in my head and try to visualize it before I shoot it.