Learning with Mike Lerner: Pro photographer goes one-on-one with The Duke

By: Aaron Warnick | Photo Editor

Mike Lerner teaches a photography workshop in College Hall 552.
Miranda Costa / DSTV – Mike Lerner teaches a photography workshop in College Hall 552.

Mike Lerner is a professional photographer from Brooklyn, NY. Currently residing in Philadelphia, Lerner is home from two-and-half years working as the official tour photographer for Justin Bieber and is noted as being one of the top contemporary photographers in the music industry. He visited Duquesne last week to give a lecture to students. But before his workshop, The Duke got to talk about his experience as a photographer and what it takes to be successful in the social media age.

Q: One of the big things that schools are teaching nowadays is that you need to build your brand online. You being a successful younger pro photographer, how did you get into managing yourself online?
A: Being a photographer, it’s a self-managed profession. There’s really no food chain in photography. If the photographer works at a newspaper, yeah, there’s the editor, same thing with a magazine, but it’s totally self-managed. I started the social media stuff as soon as I started taking pictures. I started a Flickr account and I was never really on Facebook. I try and stay away from that. But yeah, Twitter, Tumblr, entirely self-managed and that’s just the way it is. I don’t know if it has anything to do with this generation, but it’s the photographer. He tries to showcase his work as much as possible.

Q: You had to promote yourself for sure, but beyond having your online identity and work out there, how did you go about getting jobs?
A: The Bieber thing totally happened without me being involved in it. I had no idea it was happening. A roommate of mine who worked in the music industry shared office space with one of Bieber’s people. He came back to me on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘hey, do you want to submit your portfolio? They are looking for someone and I mentioned your name.’ So I said ‘okay’ and couple of days later it was a done deal. But, before that, I would have to reach out to publicists and band managers on my own on the strength of my portfolio was at the time, which it was pretty bad. But I think people saw it as a way to get free publicity because I had developed a following on Tumblr from the quote-unquote scene kind of bands and the pop-punk kind of bands. From there, when people saw that I had that sort of reach, I guess they thought it was a good idea. If you can reach 30,000 people then you might as well try and do it.

Q: In your early photography days, at least before Bieber, you really had to work at things to make a name for yourself. You managed to catch onto Katy Perry before she was a mainstream success. How did diligence with covering her affect you as a photographer?
A: A tweet I sent out recently said something like: I’m glad I’m not stuck in the same scene with the same people doing the same thing. A lot of the photographer friends that I have, they’re doing the same thing with the same bands for the past four to five years and they stay in that genre of photography. Whereas, I stuck with Katy … and it wasn’t like that I was sticking with her, I wasn’t there all of the time, but as in when she was in New York, I was there covering that. I think once she got bigger and the access kind of dwindled, I started to reach out to other people. That’s why my portfolio is so broad. I didn’t want to be known as one thing, as Katy Perry’s photographer. With the Bieber thing, that’s where I kind of got stuck. Just because, I did two tours with him and when I was home off-tour I kind of really didn’t do much just because I was kind of tired and I didn’t want to pick up a camera and do anything … wait, what was the question again?

Q: You answered the question fairly well. But how do you keep going? How important is it to keep on working?
A: I constantly have ideas. I need to do a little video series or pursue a documentary. This morning, I had an idea about doing a book. As soon as I had that idea, I started reaching out to people. I e-mailed people at Harper-Collins. I e-mailed a bunch of music industry contacts. Because the idea for the book requires as many people as I could get and I have to e-mail Harper-Collins to see if they’re interested. If they are, hopefully I can get an advance and doing it. I’ve never had a problem with reaching out to people. I think a lot of kids especially in this generation are very timid when it comes to networking or even speaking in public. So, when kids now are just like ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,’ it’s actually clear. You need to make moves. Kids don’t want to sacrifice their time for unpaid work, well the dedicated ones do, and it’s easy to spot those. Their success happens a lot earlier than those who don’t.

Q: Well, now that you’ve put your time in and you’ve made a career out of photography, do you still make time to enjoy photography as hobby?
A: I’ve always had the idea that photography was my job. I’m the photographer who doesn’t take a camera with him when he goes out. Which I kind of regret because I’ve been around the world twice. Granted, when I had off days I would go out with my camera and I would take pictures but I wouldn’t devote myself to photography on my off-days. I would take a couple tourist snaps and that was it. I definitely regret that because I don’t really have a good memory and it would have been better preserved that way. But when I’m home, and if I’m not working, I don’t want to take photos. I want to get myself motivated to start a project or go get myself hired and that’s when I want to work, when I want to create. When I’m home, honestly, I read, sit on my computer and play with my dog. In that sense, I’m different than the other photographers that are out there. Especially a lot of my friends. They’re constantly taking pictures. My friend Josh has a little studio set up in his apartment in New York. He’s constantly bringing friends in and experimenting with different types of photography. I’m kind of jealous of that, but I don’t know, I guess that I have work on my own.