When I was young I never thought about money. There was always enough. Never too much. Only rarely did I long for something I couldn't afford. I was happy chasing beautiful women, eating euphorically great Tex Mex food and sleeping on a futon on the floor of my small downtown studio. (Now we would call this a "live/work space"). I stayed in school at UT for nearly ten years if you count the teaching jobs. And I certainly wasn't thinking about the money as I abandoned electrical engineering for English literature and then for photography.
What I was thinking about is how to make photographs. And why to make photographs. And how to enjoy my working life. Even though it seems harder to make money in photography now I know that there is a flip side to that perception. It may be that now I've had the inertia of hundreds or thousands of people in my life who either tell me directly or thru their actions that making money is vitally important, being a "smart" businessman is vitally important, that dying rich is mission critical. And for a moment I started giving in to the inertia. I started to believe the upscale, white bread vision of the American Dream.
Thankfully, this blog, which generates no real money and sucks down hours of time delivered me a left handed gift in the guise of a reader who suggested that I run my business in a way that makes sense. He read about the death of my favorite umbrella on yesterday's blog offering and took me to task for not taking an assistant with me everywhere. No matter what the logistics of a shoot the entourage trumps my comfort and my "working methodology". He went on to say that my belief in focusing on my portrait subject with all my conscious intention, and not being distracted by other people, and not letting my portrait subject be distracted by other people was "BS". And I don't think he meant, "Bachelor of Science". This is not meant to be a spiteful rejoinder to his well intentioned (I assume) post but as a paean to Hunter S. Thompson and the spirit of having fun in your own special way. All fictional, of course.
So, according to the great, homogenized business plan of universal commercial photography a smart businessman would have an assistant at his side in every shoot. Ready to lunge for falling light stands and take one for the team, when necessary. To sweeten the pot I get the unalloyed joy of spending all my waking hours in the presence of said assistant. They are to provide me chauffeur services when I get all noddy-offy. And I'm sure I can look forward to hours of lively conversation about all sorts of things that twenty somethings are interested in during the endless dinners, lunches, breakfasts and coffee breaks we'll be taking together. Sounds worse than dating and I've succeeded in avoiding that particular pleasure for over thirty years now.
But, indeed, this would be a smart business thing to do. I can picture it now: Yukio, all dressed in assistant black with tattoos , and I, are heading down farm to market road 123 in north Texas. Yukio is at the wheel and is a picture of intensity. The lines on the road whip by like the bullets in the Matrix. Scenery? Screw the scenery! We're on fire. I've got an iPhone in one hand and a laptop in the other. I'm manically calling my clients every five minutes to check in. When I'm not calling the clients I'm calling suppliers trying to bargain down their pricing to maximize our profit. I'm on one call when the other phone rings. It's my broker. They need an answer right away. Back to the first phone with my broker on hold and I'm speed dialing my attorney to make sure that the insider information I got from yesterday's client won't land me in hot water if I short a butt load of that client's stock before the closing bell. We resolve that and I look over at Yukio. She's in the zone. We're making good time. She's holding the Element right at 105 (mph). At this rate we'll get paid for a travel day and a shooting day all in the same day. To maximize profit. Yukio hasn't slept in days. I keep putting amphetamines in her coffee. Makes her much more efficient. And a much faster driver.
West coast should be awake now so I start dialing anyone who will listen to me. The prices went up on a bunch of stuff I bought last week, some Canon stuff, and I haven't had it shipped to me yet but I'll probably sell it at a profit to some guy in LA who needs it bad and can't find the cool stuff in stock. Is it wrong for me to screw the whole market and corner needed gear, selling it a week later at a much higher price? Naw. Gotta keep moving relentlessly forward. Like a shark. Or with Yukio, like a whole school of sharks.
We stop at a small gas station in Armpit, Texas to scrounge up Red Bulls and No Doze. I notice Yukio shaking violently and think this can't be a good thing. When she heads to the restroom I start dialing replacement assistants just in case. Yukio comes back looking refreshed and starts crying when I offer to drive for a while. She's out cold on an equipment case in the back, seconds later.
I stop a bit later with the intention of running into a Starbuck's for a quad shot latte and I wonder if I should wake Yukio. Who am I kidding? It's been so long since I've carried my own coffee to the car I wouldn't know how to do it. And I'm not very good with the lids on top either.
We stop in Texarkana where I've agreed to do an evening shoot in return for a slightly higher fee. Yukio and I sleep walk through this one. You gotta hand it to the assisting school the Yuk-ster attended. She can dive for a falling light stand like no one I've seen. I have her set up ten or so lights to impress the client and, at the end of the evening when I get bored I randomly knock them over to see just how many Yukio can handle under pressure. Haven't lost one in months.
My turn to nap in the car while we drive on toward Dallas. I wake up to find that we're somewhere west of El Paso and the engine is on fire. I leave it all to Yukio while I sun bathe next to the interstate to build up my reserves of vitamin D. Don't know how she pulled it off but apparently we've (she's) loaded all of the gear into a minivan that she commandeered at gunpoint and we're racing off to catch up with Dallas. We toss a couple cans of Red Bull to the elderly couple whose minivan we're borrowing so they don't get too dehydrated while walking across the desert.
I'm bored with the music I brought along on my cheap MP3 player (can't buy an iPod. Not a sound biz decision) and I pout for a few minutes till I remember that I have an assistant in tow and I force her at gunpoint to start singing Beatles tunes for me while I cold call on the phone and look over some spread sheets I got from my business coach. Real estate, baby. All counterintuitive.
We make it to our location with minutes to spare and I watch with awe as Yukio loads the equipment cart high. It would be easier on her if I could make up my mind but, because of the perilous nature of my business I require her to bring all four brands of lights I worship, and three brands of cameras into each location so I can decide based on the spiritual vibes of the space. What's six hundred pounds between friends. No, scratch that. Between employer and freelance contractor, uncovered by insurance or tax withholding. Magnanimous photographer that I am I do hold the elevator door so that it doesn't crunch that bag of my favorite lenses.
It's a portrait shot and we've done thousands of these before but for the life of me I just can't make up my mind. Six lights? Ten lights? Double backgrounds? I leave vague instructions for my assistant and wander off to find the client and some coffee. My client is a bit concerned because she's sure we discussed the exact lighting set up on the phone and in e-mails. She even produces drawings of the intended shots which she claims to have sent me weeks ago. I do what any self-respecting photographer might do. I blame Yukio. I dress her down right there in front of client and camera. She doesn't mind, she knows that every once in a while everyone has to take one for the team. As long as it's not me. I gobble down a few Xanax to offset the coffee jitters. Thank God for chemistry.
I'm on the phone with another client and Yukio is skimming Craig's List looking for a new job when the CEO of the company we're working for comes in. He's ready to be photographed and he's like a beige bowling ball with a shiny, sweaty complexion. No problem, Yukio will take care of that in a heartbeat. She's the Swiss Army Knife (TM) of assistants. Ready to powder a "glistener" in a heartbeat.
Thank God I've got an assistant in the room because I haven't got a clue which direction we're shooting in. All looks and feels the same to me. She gets me lined up and ready. Focuses the camera and sets the exposure. We shoot. She stands behind me making faces and twitches, staring at the client to get his attention. We have a strict rule: the client should never directly engage the camera. It's the assistant's duty to distract them into a more natural pose and expression.
Just as we're about to pull off the perfect shot the power in the building goes off. Not a problem, the crafty and enterprising Y pulls a contraption that looks like an exercise bike out of one of our cases and sets it up. On either side of the back wheel is a heavy grey casing that looks a lot like a car generator. She plugs the power packs into the contraption then gets on the bicycle seat and starts peddling like Lance Armstrong running from the French. She's sweating buckets but the packs are back up and recycling. We finish shooting the CEO and as the last frame gets saved to the CF card my assistant falls to the floor, insensate. She's inarticulate for a while. Then we dowse her with a bucket of cold water and she comes to. Just in time, there's packing to be done and a bucket's worth of cold water to sponge up off the client's floor.
Looking back, we've billed three shooting days and two travel days in the space of two 24 hour days. I wonder if I could be more efficient with a second assistant. Seems counter productive but both Madonna and Oprah have larger entourages and they are far wealthier than me. Seems like it's worth a shot. Can I keep up this pace? Will Pfizer and Sandofi keep making interesting chemicals? Will the coffee run out?
Then, I wake up with a start from this bad dream and realize that the assistant thing is an acquired taste. And every photographer has a different comfort zone within which to work. I don't mind coming early to set up. I don't mind having dinner alone. I'm okay handling most stuff. I don't have an iPhone. I cherish my time writing and thinking. I think I'll leave things just the way they are. In the days of digital assistants are for big productions, or complex stuff.
Now, when it comes to post processing, Yukio and I handle it so well we've already post processed the stuff we're going to shoot next year.
To bring the whole blog back around to the beginning I have an observation to make: When I actively think about doing things to make money stuff rarely works out. I do my due diligence. I send contracts. I follow up. But when I focus on money as the reward everything always goes south. When I enjoy the process or the challenge, when I love what I do, the money rolls in. The more I desire the less I get. The less I desire the more I get. So, by that logic, if I desire nothing I'll get it all. Whatever. I just like the feel of a camera in my hand and a project in front of me.
Business note: The IRS is busy redefining contract workers, employer obligations and YOUR tax obligations to contractors whom they may (almost certainly) classify as regular workers. They (assistants) do work under your direction, with your tools and all the stuff that serves as a litmus test for who is an employee. If you think that freelance assistants are vital to your business you owe it to yourself to check with an attorney who is very familiar with payroll issues so that you don't wind up getting a big, unintended consequence in the pursuit of photographic business practices from the film days.......