South Florida Native Michael Schwartz on Shooting Hollywood’s Hottest Stars
From Samuel L. Jackson to Millie Bobby Brown, Michael Schwartz captures the industry's heavy hitters at their best.
Michael Schwartz moved to New York City two decades ago like most aspiring creatives: still looking for the inspiration that would propel him toward his life’s work. What he found, after multiple professional pivots, is a career as one of the most sought-after celebrity and fashion photographers in the business. The Dade County native began his creative exploits as an agent for some of New York’s top fashion models and then started photographing them. Nowadays, his images grace the covers of glossy magazines like GQ, Men’s Journal, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, in addition to his work for corporate clients like Netflix and ViacomCBS. The who’s who of stars that have posed for his camera is more like a who hasn’t? Whether they’re legends like Willem Dafoe and Richard Gere or showbiz kids like Millie Bobby Brown and Julia Garner, Schwartz gives his subjects room to be the naturals they are, while framing them with a precise touch of class.
We caught up with Schwartz over Zoom amid one of his frequent work excursions to the Left Coast. He talked about his inspirations, his favorite photographic subjects and why he still calls Florida home.
What was it like growing up in South Florida during the “cocaine cowboy” era?
MS: When we had parties in high school in Miami, no cops would come and break it up, because they were so busy with other stuff. So we could really have good house parties and hangout. It was weird. My father was a criminal defense attorney during that time, so he was representing a couple of those big-name criminals at the time in Miami. I was peripherally aware of the fact that there was some crazy shit going on down there, but not really understanding it so much. It’s funny looking back now. Seeing Billy Corben’s [Miami drug documentary] Cocaine Cowboys, it’s shocking to see that the mall I grew up going to as a kid was where a big shootout was.
Which photographers’ work inspired you the most?
MS: When I was starting out as a model agent and really absorbing photography, the guys I loved were David Sims, Vanessa Vinoodh, Steven Meisel—those were the big fashion people—but I also really was drawn more to the classic portrait-type photographers like Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Man Ray, that shaped the whole thing. I don’t really even pay much attention to what’s going on out there currently, because there’s just so much of it.
You’re in a very competitive field. The ubiquity of social media must make it even worse. How does that impact your work?
MS: Instagram has changed a lot of the ways that clients even want photography done. They want stuff that’s easily digestible … that almost seems like your friend could have taken the picture, so when it shows up in your feed, it doesn’t feel manufactured; it feels very authentic. You see a move toward these lower-production-value shoots right now, which are also great and beautiful, but it’s not really what I do.
Who are some stars you’ve really connected with?
MS: One of my favorites to work with is Daniel Radcliffe. I actually shot with him yesterday out here in L.A. We were doing key art for his new movie, so he was in character, which was a lot of fun. He’s just the most down-to-earth, nice guy. You would never know that he’s been famous his whole life. Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorites. I’ve shot him a handful of times. I was super intimidated coming into that because Pulp Fiction was the movie that shaped me, because I was in high school when it came out. He’s a big imposing guy with a big presence. But once he gave me that big handshake and a hug, it was like, “Oh man, this guy, he’s great.”
How would you describe your approach to a shoot?
MS: I’m known to shoot very fast. I go into it not really trying to micromanage peoples’ movements. I see my job as documenting a moment, albeit a slightly manufactured moment. I’m putting them in a scenario, and then I’m trying to capture what they give me.
Anything in popular culture that’s sparking your imagination right now?
MS: I hate to be cliche, but I just finished Euphoria, and it was breathtaking. Every shot in that show felt like it could be a perfect photo. I love movies like that, that feel like a photo that happens to be moving. I also loved The Florida Project, and I just saw Red Rocket by the same director. People think of Florida as this beautiful, heavenly place to go visit, and they don’t realize there’s a lot of terrible shit going on. There’s a lot of under-the-ground stuff that people don’t see. That movie really encapsulated it well.
Speaking of Florida, what do you enjoy most about your downtime in Fort Lauderdale?
MS: My wife and I just bought a house, so we’ve been doing a lot of work on the house. We’re homebodies. My wife is an artist, so she works from home painting all the time. I like just hanging out with my dog. I see Florida as a place to go and relax and take a deep breath before my next trip. My job is so social. When I’m on set … everyone’s friendly, and you’re listening to loud music all day and talking and hanging out. So when you leave, it’s not like you want to go out to a bar.