RuPaul’s Drag Race is the Emmy-winning global phenomenon taking reality TV by storm. The show is in its 13th season but boasts several spin-offs including All Stars, as well as localized seasons in Canada, UK, Thailand, Holland, Spain, and Australia. Drag race, as it is called by fans, is a reality competition that challenges contestants to find the drag performer who possesses the perfect blend of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.
Eric Magnussen is the creative talent behind some of the most iconic drag imagery. He has had work published in Vogue and The Boston Globe. He brings a uniquely punchy eye to his visual creations, which are a result of a deep collaboration with the performers who sit for him.
Eric began photography in high school as part of a digital editing course. This was enough to pique interest in photography which lead to studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Eric did a semester of photography before realizing that a university setting wasn’t for him. He did finish university in industrial design, but decided to pursue photography separately.
University did help Eric to hone his vision as the course stressed film photography. He worked extensively in large format (which, for a student can be expensive). This helped him to really slow down and take his time, visualize, and plan a shot extensively before even taking a picture.
Using the Gear You Have
Eric now works as part of a studio with other photographers. He finds this has helped him grow incredibly as sharing ideas and techniques and seeing how others work gives a unique insight into what can be an isolated profession. As photographers, we work with other creatives and non-creatives; but it’s much rarer to see how other photographers work.
Learning on a basic level [of gear] really teaches you to pull out all the stops you can. I think it’s helpful to not have the most equipment and the most money going into it. It forces you to learn.
It’s great to have gear, but it’s much more important to invest the time to learn what that piece of gear can do.
Recently (and with a very small bit of input from me, so I take full credit), Eric bought an 85mm lens. He’s really enjoying seeing what this creates but ultimately, he keeps his kit fairly limited. He has a few studio strobes and is a big fan of using v-flats. He does agree that having quality equipment you have invested in is important to an extent though; purchase gear you absolutely need, rather than purchasing gear you just want.
“Ru Girls” and Local Queens
Although Eric is entrenched in a particular subsection of media and entertainment photography, his advice regarding the business of photography can be applied more broadly. From a business perspective, art and commerce are difficult to balance. He confesses that working with creatives who have a large platform is validating (whether that validation means being featured in Vogue or having mega-stars such as Miley Cyrus see his work). For his art, he finds collaborating with people who inspire him to be paramount, regardless of the size of their social following.
As an example, his collaboration with Utica was recently shared on Vogue. This happened through Utica’s team; although Eric’s contribution and vision to creating the images can’t be discredited, the recognition the images received was more based on Utica’s public platform. This public platform, for most queens, is bigger after they have appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race. They are a “Ru Girl.”
With drag queens there’s this extra layer to it. And it’s exciting because there’s a whole other story being told.
Eric takes each shoot as an opportunity to create his best work. He finds that he encounters different creative challenges depending on whether he is working with a Ru Girl or a “local queen.” For example, with Ru Girls, a big challenge is often the logistics that come with working with larger productions or working with talent who may only have a few minutes to execute something substantial. Local queens are as equally passionate and creative as Ru Girls. However, they might not have the budget to pay for a big production: so, the challenge there is to channel that creativity to do it yourself (DIY) to make it look as good on a smaller budget.
To clarify, Eric was strict to say that all “Ru Girls” were once local queens. They always had that creativity and talent within them. Just as those queens who haven’t been on the show are talented and creative and have their unique point of view to offer. It’s not about one type of entertainer or another, but rather building a sense of community through which you can channel something creative and beautiful.
One of my favorite images which Eric has authored is of Utica. Although I didn’t ask him the budget for that, the image looks fairly simple but extremely creative (a golden curtain and some makeup!). What is paramount is having a creative vision and executing that — everything else is secondary to vision.
Eric extensively plans his shoots. Each image is constructed to be that image. He begins with a conversation with the performer and will plan what “looks” (which include wigs, makeup, and garments) the performer might bring to a shoot. Each look and the energy of the performer feed into the final image in an intuitive way.
I used to kind of be like, ‘you know, bring whatever you want.’ And then I had a couple of shoots where, you know, this isn’t working. Like it’s not looking the way I was envisioning. Especially when you know famous drag queens and you know the best of the best stuff that they’ve done.
Now he plans the looks by asking for options and then plans the entire image and lighting around that. When he sees an outfit, that acts as a catalyst for what he wants to create. This intuition is a product of the experience and time that he’s put into photography. It’s a practiced intuition in what is flattering and what is not.
Eric’s work tends to have specific lighting and he himself has a particular vision for his work. He will create images with performers who reach out to him; but for projects he ideates himself, he tends to pitch a concept specific to the performer he wants to collaborate with.
I love makeup and I love when it doesn’t have to be too touched up. Because that’s where you can get lost in editing and it takes away from the quality of the image.
Typically, he finds that performers “paint for the stage” so his own work reflects this. Lighting is the hardest aspect of photography. It really is a giant obstacle. As a photographer, it is your job to create the light you envision. You never get good at lighting, you only ever get better than the last time. He tends to use a single light on the performer placed specifically, with Cinefoil, to mimic a spotlight on the stage.
This is something I haven’t thought about in so long because it has become my style. That stage light. Here’s your one light. Play into it. You can tell when someone is shooting a drag queen and has never shot a drag queen before. They require a very specific kind of lighting.
Drag makeup, Eric highlights, has an artistry to it. Drag queens are painting to create a new face. Lighting which can work with this in a way that highlights the transformation just enough is best. You want to hide just enough and show just enough to further the illusion.
This way of lighting subjects does yield harsh shadows on the background, especially for full-length images. These shadows used to bother him, but he has begun to embrace that as a part of his process and use them as part of the composition. The subject needs to look great, but the shadow needs to look great too. The shadow is not an afterthought, but rather a part of the composition. Alternatively, he will often also style the set in a way that shadows aren’t created; or he’ll use gels and spotlights on the background to fill in shadows.
You have to have vision and you need to practice with each shoot so that you can improve for the next one.
I’m always looking for that, like, perfect shot. I’ll be happy with work I create, but I know, ‘ok the next time I will do this.’ I’m always going to do that forever. It will always be me chasing after the best image I can do.
For Eric, the pursuit of the next perfect shot is what drives him. He enjoys the images he creates and thoroughly appreciates the drag performers he works with, but each photoshoot is simply a learning opportunity to plan the next shoot. There is always room for growth and improvement and to try a new concept or lighting technique or idea. In this way, Eric thoroughly is in constant praxis with his work.
Images used with permission of Eric Magnussen.