This GLAM nominee became a a drag-favorite photographer largely by accident. Thriving outside the realm of NYC nightlife, the Dallas-born Preston Burford has a successful daytime job that fulfills him, and always thinks of himself as an editor above all else. Nonetheless, he’s presented us with some of the most fun and stunning visuals of drag fabulousness in recent memory, whether his subjects are Drag Race All-Stars or young queens on the rise.
Thotyssey: Preston, thanks so much for talking with us today! So I loved that mock-up magazine cover featuring your photo of Monét X Change in the runway look from the latest episode of Drag Race All-Stars. Paper Magazine, whose Kim Kardashian cover from years back informed Monét’s tribute, reposted it! That must’ve been a fun shoot.
Preston Burford: It was a very fun shoot! Monét is always a blast to work with, and she makes the long days of shooting feel so short. The most recent look for the “Curves and Swerves” runway involved a lot of fine-tuning her pose to make sure everything was visible, while still trying to match the original photo the look was based off. In the end, it all came together so well. We had quite a few people on set with us while shooting her All-Star looks so it was a team effort. And I’m happy with the response the photos are getting!
[Monet X Change by Preston]
Did you basically shoot all those runway looks from her in one day?
We spread out the shoots into three days, because she’s changing her makeup for each look to match how it was on TV. We knew it would be daunting to try and do all the looks in one day. She’s also very busy with gigs, so finding time was the main hurdle.
I bet! By the way, did you understand at all how Monét wound up in the bottom two on this last episode? It wasn’t even consistent with what the judges were telling her.
My theory is that they wanted a Sophie’s Choice for whoever won the lip sync. Making Monique choose between her closest friend and a legend who fans would freak over leaving… and vice versa, Manila having to choose a close friend or someone who obviously did better overall so far. It was for drama’s sake, which I find disappointing from a competition standpoint.
Also, the producers seem to have some obsession with Valentina… so they didn’t want her in the bottom.
Absolutely, on both counts! Valentina seems like she’s probably a lot to deal with in life… but she certainly photographs well. Maybe you’ll shoot her one day!
I mean, she’s photogenic, so I wouldn’t turn her away. But I’m not good at hiding my emotions, so I don’t know how long I could handle that eye-rolling alternate reality she’s living in.
There are certainly a lot of divas in the biz! How did you find yourself in the position you are in today, shooting famous and local people in the drag and nightlife scenes?
It started out, and still is, a hobby. My day job isn’t photography, so it started out as just me owning a camera for a hobby. About six years ago, my friend Roxy Brooks came to me needing some shots for promotion, and we came up with the idea of using the green screen that I use for film projects at work. The photos came out so well that other local queens wanted shots with creative backgrounds, and it snowballed from there.
The big turn was when Bob The Drag Queen came to me wanting to shoot some looks right before her season was announced, and we did the shot of her carrying the baby and walking through a burning NYC. That’s when random people started knowing who I was. Now, I feel so jaded just working constantly with these queens that people would die to meet and hang out with. I never predicted I’d be where I am right now, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What is your day job, by the way?
I work at a Broadway-based design and marketing firm called Serino Coyne. I do Motion Graphics for their Broadcast department. I get to work doing commercials for many of the big Broadway shows including Wicked, Frozen, Dear Even Hansen, Torch Song, Aladdin, Phantom of the Opera and so many others. It’s a really fulfilling job.
Wow! Do your associates from that world know about Preston the drag photographer?
They do! Most of them follow me on social media, and enjoy that my hobby crosses over with the TV show they watch each week. They always come to me as if I’m going to know spoilers, which I never ask the queens I work with.
Do you find that most of the queens you shoot have a pretty clear idea of what they want, or are they looking to you for editorial ideas?
Most just want to look pretty and then they trust my judgement after that, but some definitely come in with a very clear and precise idea of what they want the final photo to look like. I personally like when they know exactly what they want. I always think of myself as more of an editor than a photographer, so the post production is what excites me. I like a focused challenge.
Talk about a challenge! Yuhua is a great example of someone with a clear view of what she wants the final product to be. I won’t lie, I has no clue how much I signed up for when I said yes to editing those 15+ videos… but I’m very proud of how they turned out. Eric Miclette and Jono Freedrix did an epic job of directing those, and we shockingly shot them all in a single day. My schooling was in special effects for film, and it was nice to be able to show that off on such a creative platform that drag provides. Although now, every drag queen wants a similar video, and the time involved on projects like that gives me an anxiety attack.
Both David and Michael are genius photographers and editors; I get excited every time I see an update from them. I think we each have our separate style to how we photograph and edit; I know the moment I see a photo which one of them worked on it. I think that’s something many photographers strive to accomplish — a unique style that people know without seeing a name who worked on that photo.
In your photos, you all seem to have an understanding that drag queens are like real-life superheroes in so many ways.
There’s a whole group of photographers — not only in NYC — that really help drag queens put to focus their visions, and really do in a way make them superheroes.
It’s risky to read the comment sections on social media whenever a photo is posted, but there’s really a surreal feeling to see the reactions of people being moved by a drag queen’s unique art. It’s definitely amazing to be a little part of that process.
What should a young queen know right away when she wants to work with you?
Photoshop has its limits, haha! Honestly, my number one piece of advice would be to make sure they know who they are as queen. I see a lot of new queens get lost in trying to be something they aren’t. Photographs last forever online, and that comes back whenever you start getting successful. I always tell the queens to relax, be yourself, and look at the camera like it’s your best friend… or your enemy depending on the theme of the shoot. Although if anyone is coming to me for advice, God help them.
Do you have a favorite shot that you’ve done?
I have a few, but it changes quite often. I loved the way the shot of Miz Cracker turned out from her Glitter runway look this last year…
From an editing standpoint, I’ve always loved the shot of Ms. Cheng with the red dress on a balcony in Paris…
Fan favorites always seem to be Bob with the baby on her chest, as well as Bob with Monet as a baby in her arms.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a series of photographs which are parodies of Broadway shows with the geniuses Sutton Lee Seymour and Cacophony Daniels. Those have been a blast to help create, and I just feel so proud that I’m involved with that series.
Congratulations on your GLAM nomination for Best Photographer! Although, I recall that you discouraged people from voting for you.
I did, but not because I’m not ecstatic to get the nomination. It’s a nightlife award… and while I do work with nightlife personalities, I don’t really feel like I’m a nightlife worker. I’m in bed by 10pm every night, and going to the gym when nightlife people are heading home. I just had a moment when I realized that winning wouldn’t change my path in my art, but for some of the others nominated it totally could propel them forward. I’d rather see someone who could benefit from the award win it, as well as someone who’s truly interacting nightly with nightlife.
I also lied, I don’t go to the gym.
Ha! Okay, any other projects or shoots coming up that we should be looking out for?
I’m working with another Drag Race queen on her weekly runway looks, but the announcement hasn’t happened yet… so I’m staying hush hush about that. Also the rest of Monet’s All-Star looks… how many more? Guess you’ll have to wait and see.
I just this last week shot with 10 brand new queens and Heidi Haux for the second season of the Iconic Drag Competition at Icon Astoria. And I just shot with Roxy Brooks for her European tour coming up. Yuhua Hamasaki and I have a shoot coming up with some fun ideas planned. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to… I honestly don’t know where I’m finding the time for this.
You’re amazing! Okay, last question: who’s a queen, Drag Race-famous or otherwise, that you’d really like to shoot but haven’t yet?
I’ve actually never shot with Bianca, even thought I’ve known her since before she was on the show, and she lived across the hallway from my best friend. I would love to do a shoot with her and Lady Bunny, since they love / hate each other so much. I think something wonderful would come from that shoot. There’s so many other queens I’d enjoy working with too, too many to be named.
Go get ‘em! Thank you, Preston!