At the intersection of preparation and inspiration

He’s become known as the “beard and mustache guy” and not because of his own facial hair. In 2013, when business was sluggish, Las Vegas-based commercial photographer Greg Anderson traveled to New Orleans to photograph contestants at the National Beard and Mustache Championships—without any assignment to do so. 

The resulting images went viral, changing the trajectory of Anderson’s career by widening his exposure to potential clients and influencing both the images he produced and his approach to work.

“I don’t think my career got off the ground until I started intently preparing for things,” Anderson says, pointing to the Beard and Mustache Championships as the genesis of that practice. “The only thing you can control is before the shoot. It was really preparing and being confident about what I was going to do in a shoot that made my career—or at least took it up a notch.”

Greg Anderson: At the intersection of preparation and inspiration, Greg Anderson portrait photography
© Greg Anderson

Taking the wheel

A Las Vegas native, Anderson took up photography in the 1990s, entered the International Center of Photography in New York City in 1998, and immediately went to work as an assistant for one of his teachers, Matthew Septimus, on commercial shoots. “It may have been a credit to the passion he saw in me for photography, or maybe because I was a big, strapping young man who could carry his bags on the subway. I’m not sure which,” Anderson jokes. Nevertheless, it set him on a career in commercial photography that, after stints in Portland, Oregon, and Reno, Nevada, landed him back in Las Vegas, where he opened his current business in 2005. All the ingredients for prosperity seemed to be in place: passion, talent, drive, serendipity. But the Great Recession tanked the local economy, and Anderson describes 2008 to 2013 as lean years. In the dearth of commercial work, he turned to personal projects. “I took it as an opportunity to invest in my portfolio and get my work out there,” he says.

One such opportunity was the Beard and Mustache Championships in New Orleans, “a city I love,” he says. Organizers gave him space to set up a mobile studio, but otherwise he was on his own. He traveled with an assistant, shipped much of his gear, and rented additional equipment on site. He had just a couple of hours to photograph up to 250 men. “I had to connect with people a minute at a time,” he says. “I took seven to eight shots and moved to the next guy.”

Because of the expense and constrictions, he says, “I wanted to make sure I got it right.” Two months prior to the event, Anderson invited friends with beards into his studio and tested various looks and lighting schemes, perfecting a simple yet subtly edgy look. He worked out a system: a key light just above the camera, fill light below the camera aimed directly at the subject, a light on the background, and lights on either side of the background pointing toward the camera for rim light around the face. He used a gray seamless background and medium-format digital camera with wide-open aperture for a shallow depth of field. “All the tonality is what I go for,” he says. That and the eyes. “Most of it to me is about the eyes. If the eyes aren’t in focus, it’s not a shot for me, especially in tight portraiture like this.”

He calls the images “quiet portraits”—the subjects look directly into the camera without much expression, and the camera focuses on the eyes. Meanwhile the subject may have facial hair sculpted into giant bird beaks, Harley-Davidson–scale handlebars, or octopus-like tentacles. It’s left up to the viewer to decide who this person really is, he explains.

Greg Anderson: At the intersection of preparation and inspiration, Greg Anderson portrait photography
© Greg Anderson

Leveraging the personal project

Anderson distributed the images to participants via a Facebook page containing thumbnails of the entire gallery. “All the guys from the competition got on there and ended up sharing the gallery and posting it to their page,” Anderson says. It went viral. “In a week more than 1.2 million people came to the gallery,” he says, and for a month he would wake up each day to dozens of emails broaching interviews or purchases. It didn’t bring much national or international clientele, as he had hoped; however, it put him in front of local and regional advertising agencies. It also rebranded him as a portraitist and studio photographer, which is golden in a town full of entertainment agencies needing images of their stage acts. “I’ve had a fair amount of work the past four years doing that,” he says.

It also led directly to another hair-related assignment. The public utility NV Energy mounted an advertising campaign around the theme of its employees harnessing a new sense of energy, and it hired Anderson to produce images of employees with static-charged hair. “I did a bunch of research, as is my MO, and did some tests,” he said. He bought an electrostatic generator, but it didn’t give hair, even when standing on end, the man-icured look he wanted. He ditched the machine and put assistants with balloons in their hands on ladders on both sides of subjects.

The preparation standard Anderson set with the Beard and Mustache Championships proved just as important as his evolving portrait style in garnering more commercial assignments. “I like to know what’s expected of me going in so that I’m set up to succeed, and the changes we make on the set aren’t huge changes to the concept; it’s a tweak in lighting or position. That’s where I can really shine.

Greg Anderson: At the intersection of preparation and inspiration, Greg Anderson portrait photography
© Greg Anderson

Creative push

Certainly, Anderson is an artist, but he has no issue fulfilling a client’s vision and no need to impose his own. “I’m fortunate to work with creative people who push my boundaries and get me to shoot things and think in different ways. Maybe it’s not exactly what I would do on my own, but sometimes that’s a good thing.”

Besides, he uses his spare time to fuel his creative drive through personal projects. He’s attended three of the past four Beard and Mustache Championships, including the September 2016 edition in Nashville. Many contestants now visit him when they’re in Las Vegas to sit for portraits. “I’m kind of the go-to guy on hair,” Anderson said. “You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself, ‘Oh, you’re the beard and mustache guy,’ but I don’t mind that, and it’s a fun project.”

Another personal project he took up was photographing action portraits of performance artists in his studio. After he posted some of those images to his website, Cirque du Soleil hired him for projects.

When in his early 20s Anderson first moved to New York in 1998, he fell in love with the city’s creative energy and hustling atmosphere and tried to capture that feeling on black-and-white film with his  35mm Contax RTS (a gift from his uncle, who found the camera in his taxi and couldn’t locate the owner). “It was very inspiring, spending a lot of time in the lab developing and printing my own film. It egged me on to go to photography school and learn more,” he says. Today, Anderson’s favorite pastime is shooting black-and-white images on the streets of downtown Las Vegas. “It keeps me inspired and out in the street and engaged with people. I’ll keep doing it whether it catches on or not.”

He knows, though, that it’s as much a career investment as an artistic one. “That’s a long game,” he says. “Put out what you want to be hired for and eventually, after year after year of doing it, people will hire you for it.”

Indeed, he recently took a call from Los Angeles, where “there’s millions of photographers,” Anderson says, from a potential client wanting a look that’s “real and gritty and street feeling”—exactly the style of images Anderson has been pursuing in his free time. When the gigs do come, there’s no dallying: He’s prepared.

RELATED: See a gallery of Anderson's work, and learn how he made tintypes on site.

Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.