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.
When it comes to fashion for Broadway shoots, where do you get the clothing from?
Generally speaking, we will have a stylist that we work with and stylists really have the relationships with designers. Sometimes it’s the PR firm that represents the fashion brand. Developing those relationships I think is a tricky thing. Getting them to trust you and trust your work, that it’s going to represent their client’s product well and then they will let you pull more product as you go. I am always looking to work with new designers and new brands, so we are always growing those relationships.
How did Broadway Style Guide start?
My friend Tony Marion, who is a Broadway producer, approached me. We had a project that we worked on years ago and after that project we decided that we wanted to work together more. That’s when Tony approached me again and said, “hey, I would love to work with you on this and here is my concept,” and I was so in. From there we invited my friend John Vermeer to come on as publicist and very quickly we had a great team of people and started trying to photograph the Broadway community and make them look as good as possible and also show a different side of them.
There are so many websites that are doing really great work, but it’s less coming from the fashion and it’s more covering the inside scoop into this person’s day or their dressing room or what’s their routine. We were trying to take a different angle on things and just highlight their style. Like Sutton Foster, she is beautiful, she is sexy, but most of her stuff is kind of that sweet ingenue. We wanted to do a shoot that’s sexier. Let’s do a shoot that shows her in a different light than what people normally see. That was a really fun thing, that she got to show a different side. She had a lot of fun too. That’s kind of what we try to do, highlight somebody who also shows you a side to who they are and what their thoughts are.
It’s surprising no one has else in the Broadway industry has focused on the fashion until now.
I know, there are other people doing some videos. I know Playbill has done some videos, Broadway.com has done some videos but yet not really –
Not focusing so much on style.
Totally. For us, the red carpet stuff, tonight we have Sunset Boulevard…
The budgets for those red carpets isn’t massive. It’s not the same as when you go to a premier of a movie. We are just trying to raise the bar a little bit and I think people in the community have appreciated that so far. We have gotten good responses from the actors, directors, writers and even from press reps. They really appreciate it, because we are trying to make their clients look as good as possible. Our team, we love Broadway and the actors and their talent and I want the most butts in those seats as possible. I want every show to find its audience if it’s got a worthy story. We are just doing our part to bring more eyeballs to the community.
With the growth of social media, it must have changed the whole scene.
For sure. Our audience is constantly growing. It’s interesting because we are not this massive thing at this point, but we are very quickly gaining followers and people that just enjoy looking at our stuff and they check back every once in a while. We had a great response so far, so I am happy with it.
Are there any particular shoots or people you got to work with that you especially enjoyed?
First of all, I love working with my wife (Laura Osnes). There have absolutely been a few that have really got me excited – one was Sutton Foster. She was wonderful to work with. I also had a really great time on my shoot with Kelli O’Hara. That was a special time because it was a few weeks before the Tony’s, so she was nominated when we took the photos. When she ended up winning, it was just this moment where you are like, “yes.” One of the more special messages that I have gotten was a voicemail from her after the photoshoot saying, “I saw the photos and it brought me to tears. I felt so beautiful and thank you so much.” I was like, “wow, that made it worth it.” I was so glad she had that response.
There are people that I truly admire that I have gotten to work with, like Danny Burstein. I love him and it was cool to work with him and Bart Sher because they have worked together so many times. But honestly, there are about a hundred people that I really enjoyed working with so it’s kind of hard to choose. Tonight I get to work with Glenn Close and Andrew Lloyd Webber and we are doing a backstage photo of all the leads from his shows currently on Broadway.
Is there more pressure when you have to photograph your wife Laura, or is it easier?
Not more pressure. It’s not easier. It’s just approaching it a different way. Because we know each other so well, we have to just be a little more patient with one another because I might say something to her that is just straight and to the point. You have to be careful with your subject and you want to take care of them and make them feel safe and make them feel like you are looking out for them. So if she is turning this way and she is like, “this is my good side,” and I am like, “no, the other side is your good side,” that doesn’t really make the day go better. So now after working with each other so many times, lots of photo shoots, Bonnie and Clyde, also did that. Bandstand.
I am sad that Bonnie & Clyde closed early, but at least I was fortunate see it.
Yes, I was bummed that didn’t have the life that we thought it was going to have.
How does it feel when you put so much time and effort into something and it’s not successful?
I see that a lot on Broadway. You invest so much time, so much money, so much energy, emotion into a show that the end of the day doesn’t click. It’s like, “what did I just do with the last two years of my life?” I know Bonnie and Clyde was that way. It’s tricky with any project. The process is a lot quicker for photography, but when shoots don’t go the way you wanted them to go, you have been really trying to plan and prep for it and it doesn’t happen or the actor doesn’t bring what they need to bring in their emotion or their attitude on set – or if I am not at the top of my game, then it doesn’t quite hit the mark, that’s hard. But I think that’s just life.
Do you ever have an actor come in and you can’t get what you need from them? How do you deal with something like that?
I have had that. Broadway actors especially don’t always know how to feel comfortable in front of a lens. They are much more comfortable onstage acting like a character that they are supposed to portray. With film and TV actors, they are used to being in front of a lens. As soon as you bring a camera up, they know. Like a model.
James (the photographer): It’s a difference between Broadway and TV/film. I actually separate all of them and say there is a fashion world, there is a TV world and there is a Broadway world. If you try to get a Broadway person to do street style, they say, “I am not a fashion person.” They are the most beautiful people in the world but they might not see themselves that way.
We experienced that a lot with the Broadway Style Guide. We are asking a theater actor to be a model – that might be a little extreme, but that’s a different muscle. Their comfort level is not always there. What I try to do is tell them, “drink a cup of confidence the night before. Come rested and just come ready to work.” I try to encourage them on the shoot – I will tell them exactly what I am seeing, that they are doing well. They usually warm up to the camera, but it takes a few shots. Every once in a while, there is somebody that just has a lot of insecurities and that reads. It’s unfortunate when that happens, but hopefully it’s the exception.
Did you ever have people coming back to you afterwards and saying that they either loved or hated the photos?
Oh, yes. Generally speaking, people love it. The ones that haven’t loved – and it’s very rare, but is where they maybe see themselves a little differently. I worked with a woman that is probably 47 now and she sees herself ten years before. So we were taking a photo and it’s one of those things where she doesn’t want to look like she does now. She is a beautiful woman, but unfortunately it’s not ten years ago and I think that that confidence and who she is now, she has to come to terms with that. So I don’t take that on personally.
Every once in a while I have a shoot where the light isn’t good or the elements weren’t right. Where I don’t put forward my best work. When that happens I want to either do something else or shoot again, but generally I won’t stop until I get what I need and that’s less and less and less now. I am more confident.
When you are doing a photo shoot for a Broadway advertisement, are they providing the artwork to you beforehand (logos, etc.) or does that all come together afterwards?
Yes, that’s an interesting process. Generally I don’t actually see what their logo is. They put together some sort of a mock‑up, but to be honest with you, I don’t get to see the whole process. Bandstand is a perfect example. I knew the shots that we were going to try to get, but what you see on the poster right now is not what I had in my hand at the time. They had their idea of what they were going to create, but then they took it to a different place, which I am really happy about because I actually love that poster. AKA, the advertising agency did a good job of adding in the logo and also manipulating the color a little bit to really make it pop.
When you first started getting more into photography, was your intention to work within the Broadway community or that just happened naturally?
Broadway became an industry that I naturally connected with – obviously with my relationship with Laura, we are going to openings and events. I was able to audition and meet a lot of these actors as well nine years ago. I developed an appreciation for what they do and then I started to know a lot of the people in the industry, so it just felt natural – I was doing a lot of headshots at that time. I opened a studio on 56th and Eighth Avenue called Red Door Studio and we shot there for three‑and‑a‑half years. That was a great three‑and‑a‑half years, but when I got this place, it was the end of an era. Because our relationships were in the Broadway community, that’s where we started shooting and now very quickly the lines are being blurred between Broadway and TV and film.
Would you ever consider going back into performing if the right role came along?
I think if the right opportunity came along I would think about it. I have been a part of a few more reality‑based things. One was called Taking New York and then there was another one with Jillian Michaels. Those little things where they are like, “hey, could you be a photographer on this,” I am like great, I am being myself. You won’t find me in the audition room unless Abbie Brady from Telsey calls me and says “hey, I got this role, it’s a drummer or photographer. It’s perfect for you, come on by.” To be honest with you, I would love to do a show with Laura sometime. It would be awesome.
Like a cabaret show at 54 Below?
I get to sing with her every once in a while there. I’ve gotten to sing with her in at least 20 concerts. It’s usually something from Aladdin. I would think about it, but I wouldn’t want to stop what I am doing now. I love what I am doing. I love the people that I work with and so the answer is maybe.
Being that both of you are so well‑known, is it hard to balance your public and personal life?
Yes. You know, I actually think we have managed to do pretty well at that. Social media has added a different element to things and it’s easy to feel like you know somebody from their Instagram posts. It is a little bit interesting when you meet somebody and they follow you [on social media] so they approach you almost like they know your life story. That’s added a little bit of a challenge to things because you might know what I am showing you, but you don’t know me. I am totally fine with that and anything you put out is fair game. I want people to know what we are involved with and it’s been wonderful. I think most of the time people get it. People are just supportive and they are excited. Every once in a while something comes up where I am like, “whoa, I wish we wouldn’t have posted that,” but generally speaking, I think we have done a pretty good job of keeping our personal and public life. You know, I am not posting the Egg McMuffin that I had in the morning and me in my pajamas. We have good enough, strong enough separation and I feel like Laura and I have a strong enough marriage that if something were to come up, that we would just talk about it and work through it.
Aside from Bandstand, what other shows are you excited about in the coming season?
I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London and I think Christian Borle is going to be great in that role. My friend Tony Marion is the producer on Groundhog Day. It’s going to be fun. Andy Karl is a talented guy. I am excited to see Sunset Boulevard tonight.
There are 14 new musicals and I don’t think I have ever heard of that happening. It’s pretty insane, so I am excited for that. I worked on Significant Other and I did all of their key art and all the images. It’s an amazing cast and I am excited to see that one. They were really fun to work with.
Do you have any upcoming projects or photo shoots that you can talk about?
I am shooting Tim and Tea Daly on Saturday. Both are tremendous actors and very well known in this community. There are some fun shoots coming down the pipeline that I can’t really say yet.
Watch Nathan play Date, Duet or Dump at BroadwayCon 2017: