Interview with Photographer Tomas Muscionico

by Marc Jay
04.30.2010

Today I’m with Tomas Muscionico, one of the most well-known photographers in Las Vegas. Right now he’s doing a cover shoot for 944 Magazine and here I am on set with him, prepared to find out a little bit more about Tomas and how he ended up in Las Vegas.

Marc Jay: I’m at a beautiful location at Tao Beach; tell us what you’re doing here today.

Tomas Muscionico: We’re in this fortunate situation, Marc, to do a cover shoot for 944 with a beautiful bikini model from Los Angeles, Jasmine Dustin, who just finished shooting Iron Man II with Robert Downey Jr., among a couple of other projects. We have an amazing styling and production team, and we’ve got amazing merchandise, worth about $50,000, from the shops at the Palazzo and the Venetian. So far we’re actually good on time. It’s probably the first time in my career that everything has really worked out so well, which speaks less for the photographer, but more for the model. She’s really an amazing mover, very easy-going, no attitude.

Marc Jay: When I think about Las Vegas, I obviously think about Casinos and Nightclubs and nightlife. To my knowledge there aren’t that many artistic people in Vegas. You think of New York and LA for that sort of stuff and forget about Vegas, but you are basically at the top of your field here. In fact, people will say you’re too good for Las Vegas. How did you end up here and how do you have a portfolio of such amazing clients here?

Tomas Muscionico: I came to Las Vegas in an almost stereotypical kind of way. I found myself in a situation living in NYC, being a war photographer for Time magazine, living a very unhealthy lifestyle. Having lost a couple of really dear friends of mine doing what I was doing, I decided I needed a way out. I felt like my luck was running faint and I didn’t enjoy it anymore – kind of like being part of the dark side of just documenting history in the making. I did this job for about 15 years and then I kind of realized that Vegas, being a place which most people oversee, would be a nice change. I happened to come here on a Maxim assignment and people here in this town embraced my attitude, my approach, my talent and they told me that “there is not really anybody like you here with your talent as a photojournalist.” Without really thinking too long, I packed up my studio in NYC about six years ago and came out here, and it’s just been a whirlwind since then. I mean it has just been a really amazing time. I arrived in Vegas when we had new magazines – 944 started, Vegas Magazine started. I was a contributing editor under Glen Albin, who worked with Andy Warhol (INTERVIEW Magazine). I’ve worked with Albin for five years and had an amazing run. We went to Parumph, photographed prostitutes and brothels, all the shows and backstage and I formed an alliance with Cirque du Soleil and now I’m kind of like their photographer. I shot a lot of their programs and PR campaigns here in Las Vegas. It’s an amazing privilege to work with such an amazing brand. America at large goes through such a hardship. Friends of mine get laid off in New York and LA and we’re just having the greatest time here. I’ve been trained by one of the best art schools in Switzerland and Europe and then having had my formal training as a photographer in NYC has really helped change my perspective. I kind of like look at everything I do here from the outside in, versus from the inside out, which makes me understand the level of expertise, how there’s a lot of people who are in very powerful situations and they shouldn’t be. In Vegas, it’s not so much talent, it’s more of who you know, who your friends are. In the beginning I had a very hard time here, but that sounds so cliché.

Marc Jay: Tell us where you’re from and how you’ve come into the world of photography.

Tomas Muscionico: Most Americans know the fairy tale Heidi. They know the little girl who grew up with her grandfather in a log cabin in the Swiss Alps. That is exactly where I grew up in that small village in the Swiss Alps close to the Principality of Liechtenstein, which is a country of just 15 miles. I went to the Kunstgewerbe Schule in Zurich, Switzerland’s premier art school – for four years, when I was 16 – but what I wanted to do was photojournalism. Unfortunately, at that time, you really couldn’t learn that anywhere in Europe. Germany had a program which was very elitist and very clinical but to learn photojournalism you had to come to the US. My dream was always to photograph for Life Magazine and, at one point, I achieved that dream because a friend of mine became director of photography for Life. I shot a couple of covers for them before the publication folded.

Marc Jay: You shot for Time magazine, too, is that correct? You mentioned briefly you went out and shot different wars. That must have been incredible. How did you get that job? What locations did you visit around the world?

Tomas Muscionico: Well, you don’t really think about these things when it happens. I don’t think there are kids, young kids, who watch war movies and say, “That’s cool. I want to do that.” I came from a very privileged background and with the camera, I wanted to make the world a better place. I was thinking about seeking opportunities to document history or reality because I come from such a privileged world and I know that nobody really grows up the way I grew up anymore. About 60% of the world population, they’ve never heard a ringtone; they’re in civil war circumstances. When I came to America, it was right at the time the Berlin wall came down. My agent asked me if I wanted to go to photograph Berlin. I was like, I just came to America and you want to send me back to Europe?

The Berlin wall brought me into the revolution in Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia turned into Romania where their communist dictator got executed by the people. That was the first time when I was really in a shitty situation. I mean really, I had a solider covering me because we got sniped at, and he more or less died by covering me. I forced myself to stay focused, and not get bogged down by fear and the craziness around me. So without really realizing it, I started to get hooked on all the craziness, I turned into an Adrenaline junkie. It’s like your drug dealer is offering you amazing blow and you just wanna have more and more and more – yeah I definitely was an Adrenaline Junkie for many years, living very hard in a very dark place, on the edge on a daily basis in terms of drugs, alcohol, lovers…

Marc Jay: There must have been a time when you were going to the countries, where you felt like you were more into entertainment. When did that happen for you and what was your first big job which moved you over to more lifestyle/entertainment photographs?

Tomas Muscionico: I worked with, somebody you’d probably know, somebody who made a household name for themselves in the states, a great, great man known as Michael Rand. Michael was the creative director of The London Sunday Times magazine, and he was probably a friend of your father’s I would imagine!?  He assigned me a couple of stories and portraits but honestly at the time, until I came to Las Vegas, I really didn’t care too much about photographing beautiful women; I didn’t care too much about movie stars and Hollywood. All of it was just too far away from me. I was really like the street photographer who wanted to work with people who were nobodies; I wanted to tell the story of the underdog. Coming here to Las Vegas, of course everything changed really quickly. People liked my portfolio full of war and murder mayhem but they told me that there was no application for that. They wanted me to photograph beautiful people, showgirls and strippers and Cirque du Soleil performers. I embraced that. I just felt like I walked from the dark side into beauty. The great thing with fashion and lifestyle is you can do whatever you want to do. There’s no censoring. When you’re with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, you’re there to photograph history in the making – it’s a very rigorous approach. These days, we’re photographing these girls and I spend five minutes photographing her and then my retoucher spends two days making them beautiful in Photoshop. It’s all a total big lie and fantasy, yet it allows you to create and be artistic about what you do in a way photojournalism never did.

Marc Jay: Do you think taking pictures has become somewhat easier since we’ve come into the digital era? As you know, my dad was a photographer for many years. He shot with multiple cameras throughout his life. In his day, he would spend hours and hours getting the right shots. Has it become easier now or is it just completely different?

Tomas Muscionico: Every good thing has a downside. There’s always a positive and a negative. I totally embrace digital photography. If I think of how many times I’ve risked my life in the past to ship my 35mm roll of film from Rwanda back to my agency in NY, it’s just crazy. Today, you don’t do that. Today you connect your mobile phone to the computer, and the pictures are where you want them to be. As much as I enjoy the possibilities of Photoshop and digital photography, I personally don’t think that it offers very much. My approach is still like old school and retro – just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should always do it. What I see today, is that a lot of young people buy themselves a camera, and call themselves photographers – and that’s perfectly legitimate, I love that. But, a lot of photographers today have the attitude that you can take a picture and then you make it okay, you polish it in Photoshop. When I think about my early influence, like Richard Avedon and Ansel Adams, these people spent hours conceptualizing a picture. Then they had the negative developed, they’d make a contact sheet, etc. It was a very time consuming and expensive process, yet you’d look at contact sheets of Robert Frank who did the quintessential book “The Americans” in the late 1950s, every frame is a fucking masterpiece. I’ve probably shoot 2,000 pictures so far today. If I have 10 good ones I’m happy, and if it’s not really all coming together in one frame, I have my post-producer take a hand from this picture, cheeks from that picture and the background from another frame – crazy, really if you think about it. Amazing!

Marc Jay: So on today’s shoot you’re going to shoot 2,000 pictures?

Tomas Muscionico: It’s the cover and a minimum of six page stories, so we’re probably going to do eight looks in total. We’re going to have 3-4 cover possibilities and a couple of verticals and a couple of double pages. I’m going to edit this down to probably twenty, thirty images to introduce to the editor so that they have enough material to design a cool six-page layout.

Marc Jay: How do people find your work? Do you have an agent or are you your own agent?

Tomas Muscionico: I used to have Contact Press Images, a small boutique agency in NY, represent me, but that is not the case anymore because I don’t do journalism anymore. Since I’ve been here in Las Vegas, I’m kind of like pimping and representing myself because there are so many people here. We’re shooting this week with ORIBE, one of the most famous hair stylists, who has created the most amazing looks for Avedon, Testino and Irving Penn. He’s coming to town and we’re producing this whole hair show for him. We just did the annual report for the City Center and we’re working of updating PR images of Believe with Kris Angel for Cirque du Soleil. Then a client of mine in NY just assigned us to do a behind the scene with Entourage in LA. I’m very humbled, blessed that my phone rings, that we’re very busy with work that feels much more like having fun than working !

Marc Jay: It seems like your work is so diverse now. A few years ago it was war stuff, and now it’s kind everything – a cross section from fashion, glamour, entertainment, etc. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’re looking to do?

Tomas Muscionico: I really think the only downfall to being in Vegas is whenever I show my portfolio to Editors of GQ or Entertainment weekly back in New York, these people look at me like “Why are you in Vegas ? Why do you shoot for 944, you should be shooting for GQ.” But you know I am patient. It will happen. As we all know, Vegas does a little number to you. The lifestyle I have here is very incredible. I live a privileged life and everything is so convenient. We don’t have to drive anywhere, compared to LA, the phone rings all the time, we’re working with really fun and talented people, and that’s kind of the allure to Vegas. For a lot of people, Vegas is it; but me and my fiancée, we know that this town is just a pit stop on our way to bigger and better things . I want to finish my career where I started it in NYC. But the problem with NY is that either you’re 20 years old or you have $20 million in the bank – and neither applies to me. I feel that need to work a few more years in Los Angeles. I want to do work on big Hollywood movies.

Marc Jay: Overall, would you say that working in Vegas has been a good experience for you?

Tomas Muscionico: Absolutely ! - Vegas really gave me a second chance. I’m really the absolute cliché. I came here to reinvent myself and to have fun and what I’ve done here in Vegas, believe me, Marc, would have taken a lifetime anywhere else. I had really a great, great run. We’re having fun, this city has been great to us, but it is not the end of the rainbow.

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