Do we choose to sacrifice everything to make a dollar?

I don't know what the answers are.  I'm not sure how photographers should market this year or in the next few years.  The markets are changing.  Things are not the same as they were four years ago.  Nothing ever returns to a previous stasis, where markets are concerned.  But even though I'm not the sharpest blade in the knife drawer I do know instinctively that some stuff doesn't work for everyone.

There's a wedding photographer in California named Jasmine Starr.  I've never met her.  I've seen her work all over the place.  It's no better or worse than tens of thousands of current wedding photographers who shoot "day of the wedding" stuff with Canons and Nikons and very little controlled flash.  When I see her work on the web it's a style that mixes very narrow depth of field, lots of emotion and movement (which can be cool and is probably what people are happy to pay for) and very little technical wizardry.  All the brides are beautiful and all the venues tasteful in a "lobby-of-the-Hyatt-Westin-JWMarriott-Ritz Carlton" way.

Consensus says that it's not Jasmine Starr's photographic work that led Photo District News to proclaim her as one of the "top ten wedding photographers" in the United States but her prowess as a marketer and her emphatic approach to reaching prospective clients.  In other words, the "magic bullet" of marketing.  The one every photographer in the business seems to be looking for.

Her secret?  According to many articles about her and her messaging it's all about her blog.  She combines false modesty with faux intimacy.  Brings together pop consumer culture with a "behind the scenes" tableau of her own personal life, writ large.  She is gabby and takes prospective clients into her "confidence."  She is not afraid to talk about crying.

Her blogs have discussed shoe shopping (she says mentioning top brands is important = Manolo Blahnik),  house hunting with hubby, what she had for dinner and which designer dresses rock.  She describes every wedding she blogs about in gushing prose that makes every couple's story sound like a love epic that rivals Dr. Zhivago  or Gone With the Wind.  And she implies that, once swirled together by the fortunate commerce of wedding photography, she and the couple have become, and will remain fast friends for life.  As in, "put on your cutest sandals and let's head to Nordstroms for some lunch and casual shopping."

Lately, web bloggers and pundits have distilled the "gold" from her marketing and are selling it to photographers at large in massive doses that include frantically twittered "top ten" lists of things to do and not do.....

And photographers, who have nothing to do with the wedding business, are on the forums (fora?  forae?  Chat bars?  Comment sections of image sharing sites?) talking about trying to showhorn the Starr message into their businesses of shooting kids sports or shooting advertising or other commercial work.

Here's the general advice:

1.  Be happy and bubbly all the time.

2.  Blog a lot (I've got that covered) and only talk about successful success stories.  (Crap, I missed that part....)

3.  Blog about yourself in a self-deprecating and accessible fashion.

4.  Breezily discuss popular status brands in cars, clothing, phones and zip codes.  (What if you live in Des Moines or Waco?)

5.  Gush about how great work is and how "super" you feel to be able to do it.

6.  Tell stories that people can related to.  Personalize your marketing.  Talk to your sorority sisters.

It goes on and on.  It's relentlessly positive and glossy.  And, if you are a young and passably good looking person booking weddings in the environs of L.A./Santa Monica I'm going to guess that this is a superb marketing strategy.  It's just important to never get old, never gain weight and never look over your shoulder......

But how does all this relate to us?  To the photographers who want to do advertising work? To the photojournalists?  To the editorial shooters?  To commercial photographers?  To the people who were born with lots and lots of visual talent but average bone structure? (No problem here, of course.)  People whose primary customers are not retail?  Not once in a lifetime sales?  Not 18-26 year old women?

Well, there is one primary disconnection.  Most clients (other than those in the market for "retail photography" which consists of weddings, portraits and weddings) don't spend time looking at photographer's blogs.  But more importantly the above advice may require you to change your personality, change who you are and change what you sell.

If you do wonderfully complex still life work your clients probably value your mix of creative vision with your focused technical abilities.  Trying to appear all bubbly and excited might cause them to question your technical skills or your thoughtful approach to your work.  If you are a corporate photographer you are likely not selling the "fun/sizzle" of your projects as much as you are selling your ability to work under time pressure and to be as reserved and attuned to hierarchy as possible.  To fit into the corp. gestalt.

If you are an advertising photographer you are likely to be prized for your ability to do big and complicated productions with many people.  Another attribute might be your ability to lead.  More so than your ability to share and cry.  In fact, crying might be a deal killer.

But the bottom line is that the bottom line isn't the end all and be all of existence.  We might prosper by changing each of our personalities but at the point when "gush" becomes a selling tool at what point do you lose your lunch and surrender the last vestiges of what made your choice of profession a good idea?

Maybe I'll succumb.  I can hardly wait to go on a highway construction job site and gush about the supervisor's really cool Red Wing boots.  Or his Dickies work trousers.  I wonder how that would go over?  Next time I'm photographing Michael Dell I might cry tears of joy at our "special moment" and see how that goes over.  Fun times ahead thanks to groupthink marketing.........

But I'm not here to pillory Jasmine.  That would be nuts.  She's mastered her market and it's as tough a market as anyone else's.  I think her basic messages are the ones I also talked about in my book, The Commercial Photography Handbook:  1.  Develop good personal relationships with clients and potential clients.  2.  Be like your clients as much as you can be without abandoning your own personality or values.  3.  Stay in touch with your clients.  And need I say it?  Ask for the sale.

Rock on Jasmine.


Adriana said...

Just wanted to pop by to say kudos on the great posts!! Your blog is just one amoung a handful of blogs that I follow and I always look forward to the next one.... cheers!!

Tom Devlin said...

Well put, I like it.

Dave Jenkins said...

Shucks! Maybe that's why my wedding business dried up. I'm 74 years old, 30 pounds over-weight (according to my wife), and have forgotten how to gush, if I ever knew. And I don't blog. I can still do the wedding PJ thing, a la Jeff Ascough, though of course not as well, but the market in these parts seems to have moved past that.

kirk tuck said...

Think how tough it is for me: An old (55), "bitter", cynical guy with a blog about gear and philosophy. Missing that vital 18-25 year old female segment. Dammit.

Bernie Greene Photography said...

Glad to see you've gone over the edge recently. I've been thinking of doing the same for a couple of months.

I read your blog because you're honest. I don't always agree with you, sometimes with a passion, but I always respect you.

It's good to see a "name" photographer who isn't towing the line as to never being critical of other names.

I like Jasmine a lot. I don't do weddings myself but I have seen her speak and I like her energy and emotion. She does speak good sense too when she is speaking from her viewpoint on her own business. She isn't trying to be a great photographer. Her brand is her as you have described her. She may only have a few years at the top of the game she is in and may then have to reinvent herself as something else. She is probably quite capable of that.

bill said...

That settles it. Old photographers unite! From now on when we say senior portraits we'll mean REAL senior portraits...portraits of people age 50 and over!

There's gotta be a market for us old codgers. Heck, maybe we can even shoot them on......film! And give them.......quality! Because, you know, we old farts actually know how to...get ready for it...use light!

Working on a new promo to promote it right now. You know, before my ticker gives out.

Mindless said...

:D Thanks Kirk! I really needed a good laugh! :)
The young ones try to be similar to each other, it's scary.
If all the photographers would be happy&bubbly all the time, gush about our fantastic work and blog a lot... Ouch! I would move to an other planet, I guess.
You are good as you are! Don't change only in some sort... as you've written: "without abandoning your own personality"

William Souligny said...

I was a card-carring member of a prestigious wedding and portrait photography organization (just ask them about the prestigious part) for several years until it occurred to me I needed to "get into character" every time I shot a wedding or special event following their guidelines. Ms. Starr's style and marketing are right out of that organization's play book. I never felt comfortable trying to become intimate or temporarily close with my clients - knowledgeable about needs, honest, direct, accommodating, and available yes; superficially nice, no. She has identified a market, applies sellable skills to the job, and is a success by some standard. Her standard is not my standard however, and I am glad that I have been able to resist the "play to the crowd" mantra. Good luck to her and her peers. For me, thank God for the artist, the untried, and the individual.

Anonymous said...

What if this "bitter" old geezer is absolutely right?

Low Budget Dave said...

Good comments. To be a professional photographer, you have to be a salesman, an accountant, a blogger, and a therapist. If it turns out that you also take good pictures, then take a picture of yourself, cause you are a rare animal.

I met a guy once who took amazing posed pictures. He had an ability to set up a pose, and make it look natural, relaxed, and balanced. He gave most of his pictures away for what worked out to less than $12 an hour.

It was just a hobby, but it could have been a career if he would just demand what the pictures were worth. That was not one of his talents.

Mel said...

But is it art? Wonder what Stieglitz would think...

Guess that's been the back-and-forth since cave drawings were the rage around France. Right about the time the first critic was brained with a stone axe.

Kirk, you deliver what your customers want but I'll bet that's not the reason they hire you. Really, they are looking for that "Tuck-look" for their images - the professionalism, the polish, the casual elegance - that only you can create. What they want is what you have learned to deliver, something that is uniquely "you." Essentially, your "look" is your brand. Isn't that what you've been teaching us on this blog? Be consistent to yourself?

Art for me is what stirs emotions. For some people it's wonderfully executed wedding photos, for others it's decisive moment street photography. Your clients must believe your "look" elicits the emotions they want to convey with their message, right? Apparently Jasmine has as well.

Gregg said...

God! I love a good curmudgeon in the morning!
I'm not cynical, I'm an Industrial Pragmatist.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Lol! Sort of reminds of the musical "The Music Man". If you can sing the song social media song right people will follow. Kirk don't change, critical insights are sorely lacking today and part of why I value your blog/books so much.

lechphoto said...

I think you missed the point Kirk. You seem to have some misplaced misgivings about the charisma that Ms. Starr radiates. Let's be honest - she attracts a certain type of client and there's a synergy she can create with those clients easily. I think that's a win-win.

Would you want that client? Couldn't it be a recipe for disaster? By reading your site (somewhat regularly), I believe you're a fairly serious, kind of curmudgeonly guy who is an extremely strong study of the technical aspects of photography. You shoot really great photos and darn it, they'll be technically bullet proof. You'd be a top choice for certain professional marketing/business jobs, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend you for a wedding (not that I'm in the business of recommending). Look at what you preach and your work - it's not exactly Von Zippered or Manolo-centric.

You probably wouldn't jive with that young wedding client. And you know what, that's okay. You don't want every job, and you especially want to avoid a potential real lose-lose.

This really has nothing to do with her "technical" skills, it has to do with another of your personal realizations. Look, Jasmine is loving taking pictures and producing great results. Her pictures are smart and fun. That sells and it makes people happy. She has a passion for her work and a joie de vivre that should be embraced, not chastised.

kirk tuck said...

LechPhoto, I don't really get your point. I think Ms. Starr is very, very good at marketing her wedding photography services. I said so in the blog. My point was that what works for Ms. Starr doesn't necessarily translate for other photographers.

I also make the point that her technical skills don't matter because her marketing does the heavy lifting.

Whether Jasmine "Loves" taking pictures is subject to all kinds of interpretation. I think she does what she does because she makes good money at it. I'm more than willing to bet that, if she didn't get well paid she wouldn't spend her time doing weddings. And that's part of the hype that makes it important for entering photographers to understand that the joyous enthusiasm might not be for the actual process of photographing yet another woman in a white dress but that it's part of the marketing.

Whether I do weddings is pretty meaningless. I'm not a Jasmine "hater" the whole point of the blog was, if you are not Jasmine Starr, and you are not selling wedding photography in a large, chic metro market, her marketing may not work for you. You have to find your own path.

But let's never mistake public joie de vivre for real, personal self fulfillment, let's recognize that it could be just good old fashioned cynical marketing at its best.

Henrique Pereira said...

Great post, as always. You are one of the greatest chronicler of the current state of the photographic business.

Paula said...

That's one of the reasons I'm not a portrait/wedding photographer. I don't have the personality for it. I don't have to talk to food but when I do, it never talks back. :)