10.18.2013

The new life of professional photographers: Endless, shameless self-promotion.

Self portrait for PhotoPlus intro.

Little known facts about me: I like to wear suits or jacket and ties. I like vintage ties best but I've bought four ties in the last few months and I found a nice source of knitted silk ties that are understated and look great. The tie in the image above is not one of them. It's what Ben calls my "candy cane" tie. 

Another little tidbit about me is that I loathe self promotion on any scale larger than that needed to keep basic projects coming in the door. I always feel weird about it. But I think that for the working professional with the need to generate income from multiple sources the grim reality of self-promotion will be the wave of the future for everyone who has something (however remotely valuable) to sell. 

Five or six years ago most of my time was spent meeting with clients who bought or licensed photography and then doing the pre-production, actual production and post production for those projects. I spent a good deal of my time with my nose in PhotoShop followed by a witless romp through QuickBooks Pro and then on to the next job. When things slowed down I sent out post cards to clients and people that I wished were my clients and then when things slowed down more I would get out the contact list and make those dreaded cold, lukewarm and also comfort calls. Comfort calls are those you make to clients who you already work for, who consider you a friend and are always happy to go out to lunch with you and look at new work for a few minutes followed by a long, enjoyable and mostly social meal.

Now it feels like it's all changed. Part of the new reality of being a photographer trying to make a good living is that we feel the need to diversify. The need to branch out. I was thrilled when I started writing books and I was happy when the royalties would roll in because it helped keep the enterprise afloat and gave me a new reason to buy and experiment with fun toys. It's been two years since I started writing the book on LEDs (my most recent book) and I'm almost ready to get started on the next book. 

But what that really means is that I'm trading time and freedom for the feeling of security and in reality I"m feeling more and more pulled apart and separated from the thing I love about photography which is just the pure act of taking photographs. Or more clearly, making portraits. So far this year I've spent a lot of time outlining photography courses for Craftsy.com and then flying to Denver to do the production for days and days at a time. I've also traveled for Samsung in order to help them get the word out about their new camera. I'll be a paid speaker next week in NYC for them as well. But it's not just the presenting days that stretch me, there's also the time spent getting to know the new cameras and the fourth new menu structure I've memorized so far this year. When you add a book project on top of those things it starts to feel like I'm something other than a working photographer. And that's scary for me since I've spent the years since 1988 doing mostly nothing but photography. I'm not sure I'm good at career multi-tasking and I guess I need to figure out where all my boundaries are as I move forward. 

I put on a coat and tie today and went out to meet with a prospective client. I got there early and walked into the business with my little notebook and my favorite pen in hand. I listened intently, offered suggestions where appropriate and went over the possible financial arrangements. I jotted little facts in my notebook.  It felt so streamlined and elegant. It's only one day of shooting and one day of post production. The project has a clearly defined start and end. The expectations are well laid out. It's a job that's perfect for me and I hope I get it. I know it's right because I felt that old anticipation and nervous energy that I always used to feel when meeting straightforward clients. It's just straightforward  photography business. I didn't even bring up the possibility of video because I wanted to savor the purity of the job in its most direct form.

In a sense I think I've been fooling myself in the execution of my multi-threaded career for a number of years. I'm not good with long term projects. They are like bad shoes that blister your ankles or the back of your heel. They go on and on long after the thrill has dissipated like a vodka martini in your blood stream. But if you do good work on them, if you exercise your Calvinist tendencies and work till you drop  you always get invited back. And that's a blessing and a curse. A blessing because money comes in, but a curse of sorts because you believe that you've traded your freedom and poverty for some security only to find that it's bound with Sisyphean routine. You now have resources but no joyful quarter in which to spend them.

And, if you are an artist the thing you originally chased after the money for was to buy the freedom to do your own work on your own terms. But that always gets short circuited as  your lifestyle grows and mutates to take advantage of whatever level of income you become used to. And you find yourself limited by the time obligations of the projects that incessantly bookend your photography...

How does one handle multiple projects across diverse disciplines? You have to change gears a lot and that's tough on the clutch. I've completed three projects for Craftsy.com. I'll be inviting you all to sign up for the free hour long course I did on photographing family. Next week is the culmination of my Samsung project and I'm looking forward to working with the final permutation of the Galaxy NX camera. But the truth is that I'll welcome the break from doing both projects for a little while. And I may decide to hold off the next book for a little while longer, too. 

I really think I'd like to see if I can re-invent my business as a portrait business for a whole new cultural era. I'd like to see if I can make the nut with only my cameras and lights as my tools. And I've been thinking back to the early 1980's when I was teaching. A student and I were talking and he said to me, "If you were really as good as you think you are you wouldn't be stuck here teaching the same shit over and over again....you'd be out doing it." And it was that conversation more than anything else that led me to abandon teaching and embark on a wild adventure in freelancing. 

I can hear echoes of that same challenge today. Can I step back from all the things I've been embracing to assuage my anxiety about the economy and the changes to the industry and practice the pure craft again? I'm willing to try. My current mantra is "to re-invent the portrait."  And even if it's not entirely possible to do it would make for a great book project on the other side. 

It's easy to sell a product or even a service but selling one's self is difficult. It requires many periods of reflection and recharging. And in the end it's probably inefficient to have a "product" that is self aware.

The image below was added by request. A more traditional rendition.



Studio Portrait Lighting

I'm a Craftsy Instructor