Listening to L.A.-based photographer/filmmaker Noah Abrams talk about his career over iced coffee at a Venice beach cafe, the word that immediately comes to mind is “industrious.” Abrams has a marked tendency to downplay his accomplishments, dismissing them several times as “dumb luck.” But it's that very humility, in addition to his work ethic, that makes his photos as powerful as they are human.
Abrams' work has appeared in publications including GQ, The New York Times and Rolling Stone, on album covers (Butch Walker's Afraid of Ghosts) and in international print campaigns (Izod, Timberland). He's shot portraits of actresses Zoe Saldana and Kate Mara, skateboarder Tony Hawk and surfer Kelly Slater. His concert photography includes Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Beck and Kings of Leon, and he spent a year and a half, intermittently, on the road with The Black Keys, shooting both stills and film footage for a documentary. Whether he's shooting skateboarders in Afghanistan or crowd reaction shots at music festivals, he effectively stays out of his work while honing in on his subjects' essences.
Despite his extensive portfolio, Abrams still considers himself to be cultivating his craft. “I feel considerably more ready than I ever have,” he says. “But you never feel ready. I've always chased the stuff that scares me because that's what's going to push you. If there's an element of fear, there's hyper-awareness and you're super focused.”
Most important for Abrams is to go with his gut reaction. “In my experience that is when we get the best stuff.” For example, while Abrams was shooting live footage of Butch Walker recording his most recent record at producer Ryan Adams' Pax-Am recording studio, Johnny Depp, a friend of Adams, suddenly showed up at the door.
“I didn't go in with any agenda. I go in and shoot and see what I get. What's funny is that no one knew Johnny Depp was coming by. If you look, you can see my physical reaction with the camera. I was in the room recording Butch and the door opens and it's fucking Johnny Depp. It took me a split second where the way that I racked the camera, you can see my mind working, because I realized it was Johnny and I racked the focus back to make sure I got him in the shot. What you are seeing is actually how it happened. It may be shitty camera work but it's real.”
The oldest of five children, Abrams grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where his parents moved from Wisconsin when he was a child. A lifelong skateboarder, Abrams attributes his passion for photography to having grown up heavily influenced by skateboard magazines.
Abrams began his own photography journey while he was in high school, writing letters to his favorite photographers, some of whom wrote back with advice and guidance. “I still have a stack of them. It was never a proper background. It was just me asking questions and writing to people and it all grew out of that.”
After moving to Los Angeles when he was 25, Abrams landed a job as an agent trainee at the William Morris Agency. It was there, from 2006 to 2008, that he began to amass what ultimately became the foundation for his professional photographic collection.
“There was an email that went out once a week. It was the show list of artists playing in L.A. What I figured out was that if you were to call from William Morris, people will always take your calls. I would call and say, 'I'm calling from William Morris and we need to send a photographer. Is that cool?' When you think about it, that is the most idiotic way to pitch it. But most of the time people were so busy they didn't even stop to fact check.”
As soon as Abrams finished one work day, he'd begin another. “I'd change out of my suit in the parking lot, grab my camera bag, go to wherever a band was playing and shoot the first three songs. The next day, at lunch, I'd race from Beverly Hills to Hollywood, driving like 90 miles an hour, drop off my film and race back to William Morris.”
In 2006, Abrams, armed with a backstage pass to KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, made his way to the Foo Fighters' dressing room, knocked on the door and introduced himself to Dave Grohl. Soon he was shooting candid photos not only of Grohl, but also of CeeLo, to whom Abrams was introduced by Grohl. “It's such a testament to how awesome Dave Grohl is. He is an incredible human being. I ended up shooting a ton of photos that night. I put them in my portfolio and that was my ticket out of shooting the first three songs at concerts.”
Encouraged to fully commit himself to photography by a William Morris agent who admired Abrams' photos, he cold-called his favorite photographers in search of an assisting job. In 2008, he found himself on the sets of legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz's Shaun White Vogue and Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair photo shoots. “I use the term 'assistant' loosely, because all I really did was move sandbags and gear from one spot to another. But it gave me the opportunity to really pay attention and soak everything up. I was able to understand how it all worked and to see how Annie worked with everybody … the art directors and assistants … and that, for me, was the last piece of the puzzle.”
In 2009, after having shot Lollapalooza the year before, Abrams was granted permission to erect his own portrait booth backstage at the music festival. At the end of his first day, Abrams was overcome with emotion. “I remember pulling out of Grant Park to go back to the hotel and crying and saying, 'This is real and this happened.'”
The 36-year-old Abrams is now preparing to stage his first photography show in seven years, “36 Frames,” which will have an opening reception this Thursday with live music by his good friend Walker. Named for the number of frames in a 35mm roll of film, “36 Frames” is also Abrams' affectionate nod to Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers. “They've been my favorites for forever. Often when I'm editing or sitting in my studio, it's Wu-Tang going in the background.”
His outlook shifted considerably last December, when a doctor discovered a spot on Abrams' lung. “I have to get checked every six months for the next two years to really find out whether it's OK or not OK. As cliche as it is, it really does bring a lot of clarity, because you realize the only thing you have is time and it's fleeting and you don't know how quickly that hourglass is going to run out.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” he adds, “because I took the possibility of 'tomorrow might not come' and I got hyper-focused — not in a panicked sort of way, just in the way that I'm not going to worry about bullshit. Obviously I hope people enjoy the stuff I make, but I'm not married to the outcome as much as I'm focused on enjoying the process.”
36 Frames: A Noah Abrams Pop Up Gallery runs Friday, Aug. 21 through Sunday, Aug. 23, with an opening reception on Thursday, Aug. 20, from 8 to 10 p.m, featuring a live performance by Butch Walker. For location, hours and more info, visit www.noahabrams.com.