MasterClass’ Max Morse on Working With Photographers

MasterClass’ Max Morse on Working With Photographers

I recently interviewed Drew Gurian who has been working with MasterClass to produce marketing stills to complement their streaming service of celebrity-based learning content. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Drew’s contact at MasterClass, Associate Creative Director Max Morse and I were on the same team (go Orange!) at The Eddie Adams Workshop many moons ago. This presented a rather unique opportunity to discuss Drew’s work from the buyer-side of the equation.

I reached out to him via e-mail.

We attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2003, which implied a future career in photojournalism. Now you’re a creative director at MasterClass. What led to the shift of focus?

My whole life up through college I thought I was going to be a newspaper or magazine photographer, but even in 2003 you could start to see the writing on the wall for editorial publications. It was clear that good photojournalism jobs were going to be tough to come by, but I knew that some of my skills would be applicable to work for agencies and brands. I spent the first decade of my (mostly freelance) career exploring that, but it wasn’t until 2013 when I went full time in-house at Lyft on their brand creative team that things really shifted. That experience really taught me a lot about advertising and in-house vs. agency work, and ultimately led me to this role I really love at MasterClass. I have really enjoyed going deep and telling a singular story about this brand.

Many people are familiar with MasterClass as a streaming platform focused on learning. How is still photography used at the company?

For every class that we launch on the platform, there is a whole suite of assets that go along with it. Some are video, but many are static images that incorporate photography and design. We have to think about images for our core product, lifecycle marketing, advertising, and sometimes even what image to put on our billboard on Sunset Ave in Los Angeles. Thus, for every class we film as a company, we have a photographer there as well to capture portraiture and on-set photos as well.

Drew Gurian’s photography incorporated into an electronic billboard near New York’s Penn Station. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

Photographers are always trying to figure out how to get a gig with a great company. You’ve been working with Drew Gurian for a couple of years. What did you find compelling about his pitch?

Drew has been working with MasterClass for a long time, and I think that’s a testament to his work ethic and collaboration skills. Drew is always open to working on new ideas with us, and he has an affability that makes him really easy to work with. He’s really good, and really nice, both things that are paramount in any potential partner.

I’ve had a number of photo editors, buyers, and creative directors tell me that all things being equal, they’ll pick the photographer who is personable and easy to work with. And although Drew isn’t an employee, he is effectively acting as an extension of the company when he’s interacting with celebrities. Do you think about this dynamic when hiring photographers? 

Absolutely. As a company we strive to work with fundamentally good and kind people, and that extends to all the freelancers and contractors that we work with. The absolute last thing I ever want to hear is that one of our photographers was a problem, especially for our producers. Drew has been working for so long with us, because people genuinely really enjoy working with him and being around him. It helps that he’s a great photographer too!

What does the brief look like for a typical shoot? How closely do you work with him for each assignment?

Every shoot is different, but we have a small list of things that we always try to accomplish. In that way, the briefs can look fairly similar shoot to shoot. However, we always try to come up with one or two extra ideas to try and make interesting pictures. I want our photographers to be excited about the images they’re making, and so we always try and wonder – “if we could do anything with this person, what would it be?” Drew’s beautiful light trail photos of Yo-Yo Ma are a great example of this. For that, Drew and I first talked about some ideas, and then we kicked some references back and forth, ultimately landing on this concept. All that is well and good, but you still have to be able to execute the concept on-set, and I think Drew knocked it out of the park on this one.

Photo courtesy of MasterClass

You’ve been working in the photo industry for 2 decades on both sides of the equation as photographer and now creative director. Do you have any words of wisdom for photographers seeking to sustain their careers in an increasingly competitive and video-centric world?

Taking it back to Eddie Adams Workshop in 2003, I’ll parrot some advice I received from the great John White. He told me that I needed to be more like the duck, “cool and calm above water, but kicking like hell beneath the surface.” If you work your tail off and make great images, people will take notice. But if you do all that, while also being collaborative and fun to be around, great assignments will follow.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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