I know I've shown the "Goatman of South Austin" before but I just stumbled across this and I wanted to show it again. This was part of a very strange project that I did for David Steakley, the artistic director of Zachary Scott Theater. The city of Austin has an unofficial motto that shows up on bumper stickers and t-shirts. The motto is: Keep Austin Weird. The charm of Austin has always been its over-educated and profoundly eccentric core. You know the types, people with doctorates who dropped out of the rat race to make hand made kaleidoscopes. Brilliant musicians who used to be physicists and photographers who started out as electrical engineers. A large contingent of the population doesn't let a week go by without listening to live music or swimming in the sacred waters of Barton Springs. And, while they may own a tuxedo and some business suits the perennial dress code is always shorts and sandals.
I remember when the business crowd first got some traction back in the late 1970's and a horde of rapacious real estate developers descended on the little town from big cities back east. They were astounded that the best restaurant in town was frequented by people in sandals and jeans and nice t-shirts. And the amazing thing is that even with all the development and the inevitable homogenization of many segments of the demographic the weirdness hasn't been churched or profit-motived out of the town. Studies from the chamber of commerce even point to the culture as a terrific draw for business.
So David wrote a play called, Keepin Austin Weird, to celebrate our city's unique nature. And as part of the marketing he wanted to put together a print piece that showcased some of the 200+ people he researched and inteviewed in his own creative process.
I got a list and I headed out around the city to line up some photographs.
The shot above showcases a south austin resident who keeps a full grown goat at his central city house. The city tried to remove it, citing zoning restrictions, but the gentleman was able to successfully argue that his goat was a pet and not agricultural livestock. He won. And that granted him ingress to David's list.
How informal was the shoot? I showed up with my Kodak DCS 760 camera and an old Nikon 50mm 1.2 lens, met the man and his goat and shot a bunch of frames. We were both pretty happy about what I was shooting so I got back in the car and went on to my next person. I've always loved the green of the wall, the American flag in the background and the two old lawn chairs in the background. The goat was ferocious and territorial. Made a great "watch goat."
Would the photo have been better if I spent hours lighting it? Nope. If I used a 40 megapixel camera? Nope. Would you have done it differently? No doubt.
Two quick notes:
1. I finished my big projects for this month and am back to working on a new book. Many thanks to all the people who e-mailed me with good suggestions for video output for presentation. And many thanks to the people who responded nicely to my new unmoderated comment section. It's nice that I don't have to spend time as a gatekeeper. And remarkably, everyone (with tiny exceptions) is being civil.
2. The Texas representative for Zeiss products met me for breakfast yesterday and dropped a 21mm Zeiss lens for Canon ZE in my lap. I'd asked about it because I'm interested in rounding out my selection of prime lenses for my Canon gear. I'll be testing it for the next three weeks. After having used the Canon 20mm for the last year all I can say is that the build quality alone is enough to make your jaw drop........obviously, a report coming soon.
And today is no different. I'm trying to sort out playing HD video/slideshows on a system that's totally composite. The deadline is, of course, tomorrow. We'll just have an audience of 400 we're supposed to impress. I know a little about the production end and if all the TV monitors we're aiming at are interconnected thru a composite hub then we'll be showing programming at 480i. The best we can hope for is the gentle buffer of viewing distance.
With a few thousand dollars and some more time we could re-wire everything to hub to HDMI or CAT-5 but it's not my system, it's embedded in a club/restaurant and reality checking tells me that part isn't going to change. But it doesn't stop me from worrying about it. Not at all. You know, butterflies in the stomach and what not.
I'd love to run the programming off my laptop and that's what usually gets done at bigger corporate shows. I just can't let it go. I know I'll be up at 3 am researching all of this for the second or third time. But the outcome won't change.
In an hour my friend and swim buddy, Rip, is coming by to be photographed. He wrote a cookbook called, The Engine Two Diet, (wildly popular) and we're doing some photography for a related project. He's a vegan and will probably be arriving with an entourage and a couple hundred pounds of great looking fruits and vegetables from Whole Foods. We don't have a comp or a brief or a layout so we're just going to wing it. That also makes me nervous. You see, I like to have everything nailed down before we start. Lighting design in place, prop tables ready. I've cleaned up and set up the lights I think we're going to use. I've charged the camera batteries and tethered the camera to a laptop. Not much more I can do on that one.
I don't know about you guys (speaking to fellow photographers of all stripes) but I get nervous the night before every shoot. It dissipates when we pull up the first image on a screen and the art director goes, "Ahhhh." But the feeling is there right up until that moment. I'll tell you one thing though.....when you are nervous about every shoot you rarely leave stuff to chance. I'll have three options ready to go for the presentation tomorrow and two back up laptops just in case.
I have extra power packs, modifiers and cameras standing by today. Perhaps what makes us better professional photographers is the fear......
That's a sad thought. But one that might be especially true nowadays when the prospect of losing a client or losing a project is fraught with a greater sense of calamity. Perhaps when the economy straightens out it will be different. But it never was before.
All this is a public rumination about why my personal work is so important to me. It's unencumbered by this kind of stress. No expectations. No driving intentions. Just the pleasure of looking and finding and snapping. The anti-job.
I hope your job doesn't come with the same kind of endless deadlines, third party dependence and logistical trepidation. If it does then I hope you are paid well.
It's the ambiguity and uncertainty that will kill you.
It's been an interesting experiment. I took off the moderation for each comment to cut down on the tonnage of e-mail I was getting and I took a chance that everyone would be civil. And for the most part they are. I know that among photography enthusiasts there will be republicans and democrats and they will occupy their positions and defend against any perceived slights. And that's kind of expected. I know there will be a contingent who drank the "everything should be free/you need to radically change the entire way you do business" Kool-Aide and there will be the counterargument of "don't fix what ain't broke" contingent. And I expect a lot of that.
But the last positions really do interest me because they are both flawed. And both true. The stuff that's just opinion is no fun to talk about because, at our ages, our political and religious views are carved into the stone of our cerebellums and are, for all intents and purposes, unchangeable.
I'd like to start with the "explosive new paradigm (fill in the blank) will forever change everything forever." I was around during the dot com boom in the late 1990's and early part of this century. The marketplace was littered with companies that spent tens of millions of dollars trying to prove that shipping dog food all over the world via FedEx was a workable model. I've watched wishful IT directors participate in three "fat server/thin client" revolutions. And then Kodak weighed in with a new APS format film with an automated cartridge. That took the world by storm. I heard that Walmart is experimenting with internet sales and home deliver of groceries, which will be the third wave of grocery stories trying to leverage delivery services as a profitable value add for perishables. The first two were abject failures. (People really do want to pick out their own apples, no matter what they say on surveys...)
The same group confuses "free samples" with endless "free stuff" and the idea that we'll make it up with some other product or offering. Rarely happens well. People love the free stuff and once it's in hand they are on their way to the next promotional handout. And they forget that when Coke gives away a free sample it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of their production. Seems that the real secret of marketing anything is to create demand and deliver something with an enticing value proposition.
The part that confuses the "ain't broke" crowd is that the "value proposition" is a moving target. That's the part that makes marketing so hard. It's nice to be good at selling the rev 1.0 widget but hardly a profitable niche if the world has moved onto widget 3.0. I'm going to use video production as an example since their market is going thru what our photography market has been experiencing.
The David Hobby of DSLR video seems to be Phillip Bloom, who has the obligatory website filled with camera reviews and snippets of his projects. Like David he is also a good artist with his chops well learned. But he is bringing to the attention of everyone with a 5Dmk2 or a Panasonic GH-2 the idea that they hold in their hand the Aladdin's lamp of movie making. I talk about this new mass interest in video to my friends who've been in the business for ten or fifteen years and I hear many of the same arguments that photo pro's use to bolster their hierarchical segmentation (all hope, little fact) of the photo market.
The video pros are dismissive of the new amateur because there's so much of the lexicon of production that the amateur doesn't understand. My fellow photographers who are sticking toes (and sometimes plunging in over their heads) believe that their ability to focus and compose a still image is all that matters to art directors and clients. Video guys are quick to point out all of the complexity required to do "broadcast quality video". But while we were out having coffee the need to even do broadcast quality video dissipated. I'd conjecture that tons more video is destined to go to the web and only a tiny percentage ends up (from newbie projects) running out onto cable and floating into the broadcast ether.
What people are missing is the word, "Broadcast." To cast broadly. To shoot a shotgun of information in the general direction of the audience. So "broadcast quality" is relative to the media used to disperse the programming. The "broad" has changed in their industry from big screens at corporate shows (which does take great production value to look good) and programming sent over the waves to your big screen TV. The ultimate "broadcasting" now is the casting of programming out onto the web. And as much as my friends hate to admit it the technical barriers are minimal. You can go out with a Flip video camera (not for much longer) and capture stuff that will work for some applications on the web.
We're moving media locations (and moving the cheese) and no one on the pro side wants to talk about it. Because it means that we have to move from selling tangible things and metrics of technical performance and revisit the conversation with clients that we're good at the more important things, like writing a good script and telling a good story. Like directing people and helping them perform (in the acting sense of the word). Having a big vision, an ability to writing good and sensible dialog and having the skills and timing to edit well are the critical attributes of success in the video world. Big idea. Big follow thru. And the web is somewhat agnostic about lots of the technical steps. Easy to see when we look across the fence at video how much direction and writing and concepting have to do with the final product. And yet, when we photo pros look at our side of the fence we seem to narrow down that vision and convince ourselves that our value lies in all the technical and craft skills we've honed over the years when in fact, perhaps, it's allowed us to go on cruise control. Perhaps what's been killing our businesses is not remembering to sell the big idea, the direction, the emotional value add.
I drank some of the grape Kool-Aide and started working in video....again. I'd done it in the "film only" days of the 1980's and again with Beta and Hi-8 and Super8 in the 1990's. I knew all of the movie making techniques and lighting techniques I thought I needed to know. And I presumed that the camera would, like a talisman of mystical power, make my video work charming.
I've done eight or ten projects in the last year, the last one being a five minute slide show with interspersed video interviews and I've found that there's so much I need to learn. But it's not about handling the camera (although smooth pans need practice and become elusive in direct relation with the amount of coffee consumed) and it's not about sound and microphones (although it's easy to get sloppy and think that we'll fix stuff in post that just can't be fixed....). No, it's right back where it's always been: What is the story you are trying to tell? How does the story flow? How do you motivate your transitions? How do you make words that sound real come out of actors' mouths?
I can read books or surf the web to find out what microphone to use or how many frames per second I should set the camera to. All the technical stuff is stuff that's commodity. But the value add is the direction and the big idea.
So, how do I bring that around to photography? We'll all agree the barriers are gone. We should also agree that the plunge in the economy is skewing the intensity of the changes. Making things seem far worse than they might really be, long term. But the clients are still there. They still have millions of pages to fill and millions of hours to fill and millions of websites that vacuum up photographs daily. While the commodity portion of the pie has grown Jan Klier reminds me (often :-) ) that the pie has also grown.
In the past I would market by calling on the five big companies in town and the ten or fifteen top advertising agencies in town. And that would be enough. But the market's changed. The process of client acquisition has changed. The story has changed. I could despair that hitting these twenty entities and not getting the work I want is today's reality. But the pragmatist that lurks inside tells me that there are XX,000 businesses within a fifty mile radius of my office and all of them require advertising. All of them.
As I've moved away from my reliance on the "sure thing" clients of my youth I'm finding that medical practices have many needs and uses for images, and budgets as well. So do start up manufacturing companies with new products and retailers of a certain size. And restaurants and law firms and accounting firms and all other kinds of consultancies and professions. Did I mention civil engineering firms? And every newly minted, self employed entrepreneur is a sure thing for at least a head shot.
And in many instances their understanding of professional fee structures is much more advanced than small new agencies and their start up clients.....
So, until I've hit everyone in my market is it really the business that changed or the target for the business that's changed?
And here's what I've come to grips with. In 1999 100% of my income was from assignment photography for five major companies and a handful of ad agencies. In 2010 less than half of my income was from assignment photography. A large minority came from book royalties (something I would not have dreamed of in 1999.....). Another chunk came from ghost writing a book for another professional. Some came from new paradigm (aimed solely at the web) video. A chunk came from the creative direction and writing of presentations. Of the assignment work, more and more is coming from local professional business. Not as high a budget as the national advertising accounts but more loyal and steadier. In fact the whole business feels steadier because of the diversification.
I was at a very large computer company facility recently and got into a conversation with a marketing person about the "terror" of freelancing in this market. He was so glad to have a job. And I think he brought it all up to better negotiate my fees down. My rejoinder was this.....Well, it's true that the freelance lifestyle can be precarious but think of this, you essentially have only one client, your employers. If your company fires you then you're in serious trouble. The job market is tight. I've got 25 or 30 "employers" if one of them fires me I've still got 24 more...." He winced. And we got back to talking about the project at hand.
I guess what I'm really saying is that photography is alive and well. It's just different now. The guys who've really been affected are the big project/high profile guys. Their stuff was aimed at print so exclusively. I'm finding more and more clients who need day long projects, not week long projects. I'm finding local businesses that need smaller rights packages but more frequent shoots. And it's smoothing out.
Anyone who believes that Seth Godin is outselling (and out earning) the top ten fiction authors is delirious. He's a blip. They are the business. Anyone who thinks dollar stock is the path to riches is drinking something very special. In the end both camps of the "Change. Don't change" argument are right. The business has changed but the business has stayed the same. People do seem to want to deal with professionals. We just have to reach out to them in a broader way. People do want quality but they do have to be taught the value proposition that comes with better work. It will cost more. And business do want some exclusivity to the images they use in their marketing and they really will pay for the right to keep it close for a while.
I'm not satisfied with being a photographer. I want to be a high value content provider. If you are smart you are selling the story not the binding. You are selling the smile or the seduction, not the paper it's printed on. Or the screen across which it flashes.
But selling the story is many centuries old. It gets packaged in new ways. From minstrels to books, to radio to television. Back to print in magazines and on to print on tablets. Movies, television. And amazingly enough......traditional live theater. And why? Because we love a good story. We love a good tale. We love a good painting. We love a photograph that conveys an emotion that's useful to us. Useful on a personal level: the resonance of love and memory. Useful on a professional level: The two dimensional representation of the best of a brand. Useful on a selling level: the seduction of the consumer with the image of desire.
What we'll find when the dust settles is that people still love stories and icons and interpretations and interplay. And if it's something they value they'll pay for the privilege of using it.
The markets for the goods shifted. The art doesn't need to change, just the way it's sold.
note: This blog post took about twenty five minutes to write, don't let an argument about the ideas ruin hours of your life. Everyone has opinions. Let's express them nicely and then back away. Hate to go all Zen on you but reading this stuff is intended to be interesting and fun, not a precursor for mortal combat. Disagree with me please. Don't rush to my defense. I'm a big kid. I can delete someone if they don't want to play nicely.
Everyone is wrong except me. And I'm usually wrong too.
Learn the ropes.
When you shoot any of the 85's at 5.6 you're in for a sharpness treat that's unbeatable. Nikon, Canon, Zeiss......at f5.6 it doesn't matter.
In the past the industry of photography seemed like a well trimmed fleet of battle cruisers brimming with the hot weapons of the day and moving forward with a certain amount of cohesion and fortitude. Now the industry (from a photographer's perspective) looks like a bunch of inflatable boats and Sunfish sailboats and air mattresses, along with some rusting tugboats and a few party barges, bunched together precariously on the swells. Moby Dick lurking just under the froth. Menacing. Sharks circling.
The chatter on the APA (Advertising Photographers of America) forum today is all about the article that ran in the Washington Post on Saturday talking about David Hobby's role in hastening the decimation of the commercial markets for photography by teaching the unwashed the carefully guarded (eye roll insertion) secrets of the brotherhood of high day rates. There is much tearing of holy cloth and gnashing of angst riddled teeth.
I think David Hobby is a convenient target but the reality is that there were never secrets that couldn't be found in books over the last 50 years. It's just that most people are too busy/dumb/lazy to read and they finally found a group of savants that were patient enough (or financially desperate enough) to stand up and teach them, step by baby step, to use their cameras and lights. And the little screens on the back of the cameras took away the fear of not knowing while the "free" files took away the economic sting of a learning curve. Nearly every cogent topic covered by Hobby on his Strobist Blog, was in Bob Krist's 1996 book: Secrets of Location Lighting. Really. It was right there for everyone to exploit.
I bought a copy and devoured it. And then there was Jon Falk's book, Adventures in Location Lighting, 1992. This was an incredible book. The book covered triggers, external batteries, DIY modifiers, reflectors, working in mixed light. Sound familiar? That was nearly 20 years ago.....
My first book is just an updated riff on Falk and Krist's classics. We added CLS or TTL flash control and dialed it into the digital market but the salient points came from way back when. Off camera flash cords that maintained auto control of flash? Pretty standard on the Vivitar 283 from the early 1970's.
No, David is a convenient target but the reality is that the smart amateurs of the days past and present knew that the market for paid photography was a tough one and counted themselves lucky to have "real" jobs.
Three things are really responsible for destroying the markets (and don't believe for a second that all the APA photographers are worthless hacks who "just need to up their games"): 1. Accountants took budgeting decisions out of the hands of creative experts and started to treat all imaging as a commodity. Hence the pushdown for the cheapest images possible at all times. 2. In case no one noticed the economy has been free falling since late 2006.....and photography is hardly a life or death substance that bubbles up, by necessity, to the top of every budget. And, 3. Now, with enough hand holding and step by step instruction all the people who were too dumb to master traditional photography could fling themselves into the flattening market with abandon. And since they lacked, for the most part, any good education in business or accounting or aesthetics or art or history they had no idea that they were producing visual crap. Or that they aren't even covering their cost of doing business. The cream might rise to the top but which buyer has time to sort thru hundreds of barrels of crap to find the magic cream? And once they find the cream will the accountants let them buy it? Not when there's a plentiful supply of "good enough" stock at hand.
Will it change? Does the universe care? No.
Eventually markets will recover and most people will realize that they've been subsidizing their clients and they will relent and go back to real jobs. People don't really want freedom because, to quote Janis Joplin, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..." And no one wants to be a loser....
We (old haggard photographers) will stay in the profession as long as we can because we're addicted to the identity of being a photographer and the wonder of making art. But it will all change. And just like American students' math test scores; not for the better.
So the APA members on the forum were talking about the final demise of the industry. Our big battleship studios are long gone. Our decided tactical advantage of "weaponry" has been degraded. All we and they have left to offer is our vision and professionalism. Now we have to find the clients who actually want vision and professionalism. I suspect they are as rare as great white whales. Or the budgets with which to hunt great white whales.....
Please note when you read this that I'm only discussing the markets for paid, professional photography. I'm not trying to run down hobbyists who use David's techniques for their art and enjoyment. I'm not saying learning is bad or that techniques should be protected like IP. I am saying that stupid people ruin markets. We should do a much better job educating our populace. They might then value their time and expertise (however garnered) and not want to give it away for less than free. That would help everyone.
I have a few friends left in academia and they are almost always working toward having a book published. Their books are specialized and are generally printed in runs of 2500. I've had four books on photography published and their runs are more than double that. If the book does well, more are printed. If it does poorly they let it die on the vine.
The bottom line for many traditional writers is that their work might only be viewed by a couple thousand people (who originally purchased the books) initially and several hundreds more by way of "pass along".
I recently checked my total ad page views in our "Adsense Metric" and discovered that this series of 588 blogs has had, in two short years, over one million page views. That's an amazing number to me. If you are an ad manager at a big company that probably doesn't even register. But for one guy and the 21st century version of a type writer and a mimeograph machine.......well, I like it.
Steven Pressfield has a new book out. It's about getting things done. He says that everything hinges on delivery. That means finishing the project and putting it in the box and delivering it to the world.
I agree. All the great ideas in the world are nothing unless you deliver them to the audience. Thanks for being my audience.
And most of it boils down to this. The camera is too small for me to hold comfortably in my hands. It's just to thin, front to back, and try as I might (an evening out and three days of trudging around downtown shooting as much as I could for hours at a time.....) I never warmed up to this little camera. I'm only five foot, eight inches tall and I wish I had bigger hands so I could swim faster but if I did have bigger hands it would only exacerbate the problem at hand.......too little camera to hold on to.
With one of the thicker cameras you could quickly adapt a holding position that would allow you to walk down the street holding the camera in your right hand and pulling it up to your eye for a quick snap before pulling it back down and walking on. It might be training but I feel like the G cameras and even the old, film Canonets had the grip ergonomics just right.
The menus, as usual, take time and mental energy to master and the dials and buttons are too small. I hate the lens cap that pops off when I turn the camera on. I lost it for about half an hour and so finally tethered it like a rank amateur at a Disney park.
I know a lot of people who profess to love their Canon s95's. I'm sure they pull them out once or twice a night and take a quick photo of their friends and then throw the camera back into a pants pocket or purse. If you are going to buy this camera you'll probably do the same thing. Because even with the electronic viewfinder the whole thing is just out of balance with the way serious people shoot (maybe just me).
I know I'm going to get a lot of mail on this one so I'm going to defuse some of it right now. No! I'm not going to go out and shoot hundreds of test frames and tell you what I like and what I don't like about the images. If I don't like handling it I'm not going to take the time to shoot it.
I'm not going to parse micro differences and split hairs in a comparison with competitors. I'm just not going to review the camera. If you like Olympus and you like micro dinky cameras this might be just what you're looking for. I love the feel of the EP-2 and the EPL and I feel like the "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" routine just went way too far on this one.
At the very least, if you buy this camera, you must buy some sort of aftermarket grip in order to use it with any comfort at all.
The nature of writing blogs for me is to have frank discussions about serious issues that face photographers and creative people in a tenuous time. But sometimes even I get overwhelmed with my gloomy mein. So I thought I'd dredge up a delightful memory I have from a different time in my photographic career.
I was on a week long assignment for a tour company that represented a large chain of "all inclusive" resorts in the Caribbean. My favorite resort in their inventory was the property in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The main building of the hotel complex was originally built as an estate for Prince Edward just before the second world war. It was an amazing, solid place with a wonderful open air restaurant and a large swath of white sand beach. I've been back on vacation with Belinda several times and we've always had a wonderful and relaxing time. We even took turns (unintentionally) flipping over a little Sunfish sailboat in the bay.
The photo above was taken on my first working visit to the island. This was one of our four models, hired in Dallas, who flew down to the property with my small crew in a chartered plane. She was standing on the dock, getting ready to hop on a catamaran for a sunset cruise and I snapped this with one of the original EOS-1 cameras sporting a 70-200mm early L lens. All of the film from this particular assignment seems to be Fujichrome 100.
We worked hard on this trip and got images all over the resort. We even took a trip to climb the falls at Ocho Rios. We worked hard, played hard and generally had a good time. No one broke the rules. No one went on a "diva" fit. The client was pleased enough with take to assign us to five more island adventures over the course of the next year.
We worked from a shot list. We kept our film cool and dry. We kept the cameras and lenses out of the air conditioning so they wouldn't be affected by condensation. We wore hats. We used sunscreen. I learned to scuba dive.
The check came in the mail. It was good.
Now that was a boring blog.......
I was photographed recently. I'm not sure what the intention of the photographer was. He wasn't being paid. It seemed almost perfunctory. I didn't look good, or gallant or brilliant. More a deer caught in the headlights for 30 frames or so.
I took the photograph of Belinda, above, because her beauty inspired me. I saw a mix of expression, grace and beauty, along with a light filled, rich and kinetic environment, the sum of which inspired me to grab the camera ever dangling from the side of my chair and softly, slowly and with great care, to enlist Belinda into a collaborative dance of photography.
Like most entanglements in life there was give and take. Expressions lost to the vagaries of timing and bad technique. Nuance gained by trying to overlay my emotional response to the physical reality in front of me. To mix the subjective with the objective. In the end it might only be a portrait that speaks to me. And that's okay because I am its primary audience. But at its outset it was inspired by an overwhelming desire to capture the beauty I saw in front of me....
Note: in keeping with our new philosophy of "Goodness and Light" this post has been edited severely. It was more detailed. Keep that in mind as you read the comments.
As in most things, Will is probably right.
In my capacity as a supportive member of a college photography program's advisory board I watch a lot of very, very famous speakers come thru and speak to the students and the local chapters of the ASMP. I watch them show an endless show of cool images from "the good old days" and then I sit thru the second half of the show where they routinely admonish everyone who will listen to charge stratospheric prices, jet to NY to show your book, dig around in the change jar on your nightstand and finance your own round the world shooting trip or grab a Red video camera, a couple dozen of your best friends and start making your own movie/music video/commercial/magazine or some other such suggestion.
After hearing such from at least a dozen people who HAD stellar careers in the 1980's and 1990's I got to wondering why I don't see their names attached to big, current ad campaigns, in the cut lines in the gutters of magazines, and in all the usual places we used to see their names. Seems that when the phones stopped ringing back in 2006 most of them waited next to the answering machines for a while just dead certain that everything was going to come roaring back. About 2009 the realization finally sunk in that things might take a lot longer (if ever) to come roaring back. Longer than most could wait.
But when they tried all the things they'd done in marketing past campaigns they found that success was now elusive. The mantra of recent years is SEO and that's great if you selling commodity widgets. You can rush to the top of the page and I pretty much guarantee that you'll attract the attention of several kinds of shoppers: brides and bargain shoppers. Great for wedding photographers but not so great for advertising photographers who've made careers out of differentiating their vision and offering a custom made intellectual property instead of a commodity that depends on price and availability. (As I've said before, it's hard to scale up production on creativity....)
The other dodge of just about every photographer has been to rush to "free marketing" which means depending a mix of e-mail blasts, social marketing and a dynamic website. Well, guess what? All those crowded front page websites with articles and blogs and words and links on them are design nightmares. And we're trying to sell to designers, right? A well known photographer and workshop talent who embraced the "crowded page/Word Press/mixed blog=portfolio" websites last year reported yesterday that his page views fell by half since he changed over and drank the Kool-Aide on "dense pack" front page website design.
On the other hand mentor Will has been actually asking art buyers what they really want to see and it seems that the genre that generates the most (all) enthusiasm is not the "blog and portfolio in a blender" approach championed by SEO experts like Blake Discher from the ASMP but the good old fashioned, ultra clean design of a portfolio website. Now that's not to say that other photographers don't flock to each other's site to see who's doing what and what kind of stuff might be best to "pay tribute to" but it does mean that the people who buy our stuff just really want to see the product (our photography) clearly and quickly and without a lot of clutter. Probably the reason LiveBooks can still charge three or four big car payments to get you a site up and make it happy.
But the bottom line is that staying in business and pulling in jobs is harder than ever for guys who have the most tenure in the business. We had old ways of doing things and were slow, both emotionally and logistically, to change course when the icebergs cropped up. Doesn't mean the work isn't sellable but sometimes I feel like we put the marketing on a train to nowhere just as super highways sprang up all around the edges.
So, what are all the "super pro" veterans of our industry doing? Some have their heads down, learning new skills and producing video as fast as they can. Others are finding new markets or brilliantly resurrecting old markets in new way. And I salute these peers. They've got their heads down working and you don't know who they are because they market exclusively to art directors and art buyers and not to their fellow photographers.
But a huge proportion are opting to stop shooting directly for money and to leverage their decades of name branding and affiliations with giant magazines and new organizations into the world of experiential entertainment. And let me say right off the bat that I have no problem with people selling knowledge and cheap thrills to a legion of people who are rightfully curious about what working at that level WAS like. But I also want to say that so, so, so many of the workshops are like astronomy. When you look in the big telescopes you are seeing photons that left distant stars light years ago and have traveled thru time. You are not seeing stars in real time. You are directly experiencing past history. And this is enchanting and fun and, at times, breathtaking. But you shouldn't confuse it for what's happening right now.
Learning the language of the past is fun and satisfying but you should understand that it's probably not the current language nor will it be the language of the future. If you do photography as a hobby, art or for fun then the only thing that matters when you take a workshop is whether or not it was fun, fulfilling or interesting. If you do it for a business make sure you understand the inflections. Make sure you can see clearly what is history, astronomy or nostalgia. As the best coaches in sport say, "Play your own game."
Will is right. Artists need to hew to their own vision. We're not in manufacturing we're making a unique intellectual statement. If one market isn't biting the logical thing not to do is to chase the same "look" as everyone else. The logical thing to do is to find your market.
Michael O'Brien Speaks. Hard Ground. from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Michael's work, here is his website: http://www.obrienphotography.com/ I met Michael in the 1990's when he moved his family to Austin, Texas after having done a six week assignment here for National Geographic. He is an icon in the industry having done the ground breaking, "What's on your Powerbook?" campaign for Apple, Inc. A beautiful and timeless campaign for Bank of America and countless amazing photographs for magazines, from Texas Monthly to Life. And of course, National Geographic.
I decided to interview Michael after the publication of his new book, Hard Ground. It's an amazing book. I hope you enjoy hearing Michael talk about what he does, how he does it and the thought processes behind it.
I'm so honored that he made time to do this interview with me.
The book is called, Hard Ground.