RESUME OF FAILURES

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RESUME OF FAILURES

General Principles Edition, Photography

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.”

Johannes Haushofer, CV OF FAILURES.

 

ASSIGNMENTS AND COMMISSIONS I DID NOT GET

2004-Present
Projects where I gave ballpark pricing on the first phone call, despite the warning voice in my head screaming “It’s a losing proposition!” (Number of these incidents has been redacted.)

2004-Present
Projects I priced too low so it looked like I didn’t know what I was doing. (Number of these incidents has been redacted.)

2004-Present
Projects I priced too high because I was afraid of pricing myself too low. (Number of these incidents has been redacted.)

2004-Present
Negotiations where I knew in advance of developing an estimate that I had been silently assigned by the art buyers to play the role of “beard” because they had already decided to hire someone else before contacting me, but were required to prove due diligence to their client by getting three bids. I tell myself these interludes are opportunities to perfect my negotiating techniques and maybe the beloved photographer would get hit by an asteroid and they would need a substitute, and, anyway, there was at least one other person who was never going to get that job, either, so what’s my problem? Or so I tell myself.

 

PROJECTS I CONTRACTED FOR BUT SHOULD NEVER HAVE DONE

2004-Present
Gigs where I knew there was not enough money in the project, but convinced myself they would be really painless, easy-to-accomplish, and go quickly. (Hah!)

2004-Present
Gigs where the clients didn’t know much about how the photo or design process worked, but where I convinced myself they could be made to understand the process, so, thereby, in the end, would be easy to work with anyway. (Hah! Hah!)

2004-Present
Projects that came to me through a graphics / branding / advertising agency where I assumed because they’d done this before they knew what they were doing and so would insulate me from their own client who was mostly clueless, and despite this fairly typical obstacle we would produce great work and make good money. (Oy.)

 

DOCUMENTS THAT WERE REALLY NOT VERY GOOD

2004-Present
Estimates and contracts that contained buckets of paranoid legalistic language that even scared the hell out of me. And where the font on the Terms & Conditions page was so tiny you would squint through an electron microscope to read it.

2004-Present
Emails whose tone was too casual, or, too coldly businesslike. Or some confusing combination of both.  And too long. Much too long. No, really, seriously, they just went on and on and on and on. You know?

 

PERSONAL PROJECTS NOT COMPLETED, SO THEY’RE NOT ON MY WEBSITE TO INSPIRE CLIENTS TO HIRE ME BECAUSE OF MY OH SO VERY SPECIAL TALENTS AND ABILITIES.

2004-Present
Not going there.

 

META-FAILURES

2004-Present
Failing to remember I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes and who cares how much of a cliche that is?  Anyway, I’m only human so I should just chill and give myself a break because I’m reasonably skillful at hiding my disasters, so, really, what’s the problem here?

(Based on Johannes Haushofer’s CV Of FAILURES. He’s an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. See for yourself: https://www.princeton.edu/haushofer/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf

Why Am I Here?

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In Which I Write A Blog Post About Blogging
And The Symbiotic Spokes In The Wheel
That Is Social Media.

For the longest time I could not figure out what social media could do for me. So I did nothing. Or almost nothing: I had a mousy level of participation on Facebook which I joined only so people from my past could find me and everyone else would not think I was a total luddite, including my girlfriend, who was very active, staying in touch with her friends, family, colleagues, and several hundred thousand cat videos. I’m more into dog videos, myself.

It seemed like I should have a blog, everyone said so, but with what content and for what purpose? I have always read lots of blogs, following deep into the links social media sent me to, but was not able to imagine myself as an active, rather than passive, participant.

Then things got slow, business-wise. I knew well how social media could impact one’s business, specifically how a lack of social media participation could be linked to a lack of business. My mind became more focused.

Clients and employers use social media to research people they might hire: What is your personal work like? Who are you? Who are your friends, including professional colleagues? What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have? Are you obsessed with the Kardashians or Satanic practices or some combination of the two? Like that.

Getting a blog up-and-running is not enough in and of itself; a professional online presence has to connect with all the spokes of a social media wheel. I developed a semi-professional presence on Facebook, a thoroughly professional presence on Linkedin, put photos on Tumblr and Houzz, and got registered on Twitter, Instagram, Google +, and Pinterest without any other content than my contact information because…why not? It’s so easy. You never know where people will find you.

Professional blogs need a reason to exist: what’s it for? In addition to my primary gig as a photographer, I also write and teach college classes and workshops on professional practices for photographers. My photography website and Tumblr, along with Facebook, serve as outlets for my photography. The blog is focused on business issues and showing off my writing (and a little photography) in order to encourage people to hire me to teach and write in the same way my photography site is designed to get me hired to make photos. Every bit of my online presence links to every other bit of my online presence, my own little social media universe.

My blog (like my photo site) offers a way to track the comings-and-goings of viewers, and that’s no small thing when you’re trying to figure out why people hire you. Or don’t hire you. The blog and photo site feed and sustain each other in a symbiotic relationship. The spokes of the social media wheel serve as a way for photography clients who visit my website to see that I am a serious professional, someone they can trust to act correctly without adult supervision, and constitute proof I understand their own social media needs.

Since my classes and workshops are about the photography business, linking my blog to my photo website serves as proof I have professional grounds on which to base my teaching. Each post reappears automatically on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Google +, and Tumblr, and I regularly re-post on Medium.

I do have a modest selection of cat and dog images on my photo website, so I’m covered as far as that goes, even though no one has ever hired me to photograph them.  I really like cats and dogs – same as lots of my clients.

VOICE

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For Photographers And Writers A Good Story Is A Virtuous Circle

It might go like this: a photographer makes a photo for themselves, not on assignment, and posts it online.

A photo buyer sees it and shows it to their client. The image suggests a solution for a story they want to tell to the client’s customers.  They hire the photographer to further develop that story.

Here is the circle: the photographer > the art buyer > the art buyer’s client > the client’s customer and back around to the photographer who makes a picture, the art buyer who puts the picture in an ad, and onto the client’s customer: the viewer.

So now when the photographer is making a photo, instead of just doing it for themselves, they are being paid to please a specific audience. This does not preclude pleasing themselves, of course, which is where they started. They got hired because of their voice.

All creative works project a voice, good or bad, practiced or accidental, focused or aimless. Good photographs obey the same mandate as good writing: clarity, nuance, and detail. Clarity makes it easy to to understand. Nuance gives it depth. Detail makes it relatable. Voice.

A photographer’s professional writing may be non-fiction: a bio on a website, a letter of introduction to a potential client, a caption for an editorial photo, a blog post about recent work. It might also be fiction: text applied to a storyboard to explain a concept that illustrates a story they want to sell to an art buyer.

Voice develops from intention: Is the writing simply to please yourself?  Is the writing to sell yourself?  Is it to sell a concept?  Is it to document what happened while a photo was being made to enable an editor to write descriptive text?  Clarity, nuance, and detail: voice supports the story and story supports the voice. It’s a shortcut to meaning. Good writing – like a good photo – is not reductive, it does not have to clarify every little thing. It’s more personal for the reader to make the leap, and they’ll feel more engaged.

Engagement comes in myriad forms. While it’s a poor communications strategy to make a reader to feel stupid, there is nothing wrong with making them look up a definition.  John McPhee is widely considered a writer’s writer, on staff at The New Yorker (arguably the most well-written magazine in the country) for over fifty years, a Pulitzer Prize winner, still going strong in his 80s, and there are words in every article that make me reach for a dictionary. His writing is so irresistible I don’t care, his voice so seductive I had to cure myself of trying to copy it. He doesn’t use those unfamiliar words to impress.  He uses them because they are the best words he can find. He is a craftsman.

People respond to McPhee’s writing like they respond to a good photo. There is a compelling personality projecting his stories. (It does not hurt he sounds like a guy you’d want to have a drink with.) It gets under your skin. Good work is the result of the work that goes into it and McPhee’s writing is specific to him: clarity, nuance, and detail: his voice.

Fieldwork

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In my twenties I wanted to be a field biologist. I loved the idea of engaging with the elements and how naturalists develop broad conclusions based on specifics. Research never ends; there is always more to learn, deeper to look, farther to go.

In particular, I was attracted to a primary feature of the scientific method: that data could validate or deny preconceptions. The best and most successful scientists have open minds because data’s job is disprove preconceptions as much as prove them. That’s how science moves forward.

Chemistry is a requirement for a biology degree, but sadly, a neurotic disinclination towards algebra made passing chemistry an impossibility, so away went that dream. I got to know a few highly accomplished biologists pretty well, however, fascinated at how they studied their subjects up close and in detail while simultaneously casting attention far-and-wide to confirm if their efforts – and their data – were relevant to their research: context was everything. They were on the lookout for failures as well as successes while aiming for the validation – the proof – their preconceptions were correct. It’s a nice feeling to be validated, scientist or not.

I try to do the same as I hunt for my clients. I photograph the built environment and people, so any article that mentions an architect or designer gets my notice: data. Trade and shelter magazines and websites publish newsletters promoting their content: more data. Out in the field, architects conveniently like to put their names on construction sites, along with their contact information. Contractor’s websites, even though they are not my primary clients, sometimes list their design partners. Data is everywhere, and it’s mainly represented in websites.

Designer’s websites quickly reveal two things: if their work is any good and if they care enough to hire professional photographers to document it. Designers who don’t meet these criteria are unlikely to pay my rates, so they get voted off my private island. If the designer is not in my geographic area and all their work is local to them, they are not relevant to me. If their website is old (tiny fonts, small pictures, old-style design), they are not relevant.

If they meet my standards and have pictures of people in their architectural photography, even better, since I also produce portraits and documentary work, and sometimes get hired specifically because I do both, a particularly pleasing form of data validation.

I used to think the more data I developed – large lists of potential clients – the better, telling myself that even people with crummy websites were dying to get their hands on a clever professional like myself to bring their marketing to a higher level. That theory turned out to be a bad use of data for a simple reason: it was not true, thought it turned to be (temporarily) a good use of data because it cured me of believing that larger data samples would lead to more work; an unbelievable waste of time. When you’re self-employed, time really is money. I want to be sure I have enough free time to fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV like a normal person instead of contacting people who will never hire me.

Once I’ve sifted my data and located a possible client I click to their website to discover the person who hires people like me and call to introduce myself.  If that information is not listed, I call the company anyway to suss out who I should be speaking with or sending an email to.  I look for responses validating my preconception they need my services, testing my data.  If they turn out to be my kind of client, great, I enter their information into a database.  If not, off the island they go.

Then I start the process all over again, looking for data and validation. There is no greater validation than getting hired, and no way to get there without good data, which, hopefully, develops into something that allows me, later, to fall asleep on my couch instead of wasting my time.

Coherence and Productivity

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There’s no standing still when you’re an entrepreneur. I’m a one-man band, a typical circumstance for a photographer. My skill-sets include all the mechanics of running a business while at the same time sustaining a holistic view of how it all works in combination. Roughly speaking, my skills fall into three categories, but they are irrevocably connected:

Process-oriented skills are focused on the idea that time = money; in other words, skills that keep me efficient and support high-quality work.

Technical skills involve learning new software and buying new hardware to remain competitive. As a professional gear-head, this brings particular joy, sorrow, and frustration ( just like the rest of life).

Soft skills are the hardest to develop and the easiest to maintain; for instance, simply trying to be a nicer person with better listening skills, which comes in handy outside my professional arena, as well.

The most challenging soft skill is learning to take a step back in order to put my career into context.  I’m not alone in this, it’s a entrepreneurial requirement for plumbers, lawyers, teachers, and creatives of all kinds. Sometimes it comes down to simply being able to recognize when skills I’ve come to rely on no longer serve me well.

I photograph a lot of architecture. After much study and picking the brains of colleagues, I developed a process of blending images in the computer to make up for the limits in my camera (and my poor lighting skills). Lighting spaces artificially takes a lot of time to do well, but my new process enabled me to light less – or not at all.  A great bonus is the software allows me to produce substantially more images during the limited time I am on location.

I got so dependent on that process it took longer than it should have (about a year) to recognize that my latest camera had improved so much over the previous model that I could get away with blending fewer images: I could be more efficient.

Another perk: now, on location, once I’ve gotten the images I’m contracted for, there’s often “extra” time when I can slow down, take a breath, adjust my perceptions of the space, and perhaps, if the creative gods are with me, produce an image that is aesthetically above-and-beyond what my client anticipates. This makes my day. And hopefully encourages my client to hire me again.

It took awhile, but now my skill-set includes a facility in recognizing when I need fewer skills to accomplish the same or better result, a kind of virtuous circle.

Next up, another soft skill: learning when to stop working on Sunday nights in time to watch The Good Wife.

A Feature Not A Bug (What Is Risk?)

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It took some years of being self-employed to understand that accepting insecurity is a career requirement; taking risks equals job security. To people who work for other people, this likely sounds counterintuitive, but the longer you’re self-employed the more intuitive it becomes. Championing risk as a factor in building a successful career is prescribed in books, magazines, conferences, movies, all over the culture at large. To be reliable, which is what the work-world demands, while at the same time being innovative…can make your head spin.

I earn most of my keep in the photography world, which becomes more of a commodity every year because the bar to entry gets lower all the time. Professional photographers need differentiators to separate ourselves from the amateurs we are compared with and from emerging photographers who by default charge less than us because they can’t justify charging the same as an experienced pro.  No less, journeyman photographers have to differentiate ourselves from each other.

One separator is working harder than everybody else, including constantly refining our analytical skills by paying attention to our industry, our customers, and our own particular career. Working harder, in and of itself, does not equal taking risks, of course, but it’s a necessary element.

Chris Kimball is a successful guy. The creator of the tv shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country; a successful publication that predates the shows and is still going strong, Cook’s Illustrated Magazine; a subscription-based website and plenty more, Kimball long ago figured out how to differentiate his business from his voluminous, frothy, and ever-changing competition, departing from his industry’s commoditization in all kinds of ways. In an interview on The Federalist website some years back, he said,

“We recently did an analysis here: We spend $12,000 to develop a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. That’s a lot of money. That’s weeks of work. The reason we do it is because that’s the point of differentiation. If you have something people can get in ten other places, I just don’t know how you make a go of it in the web world, unless you’ve got a lock on some sort of traditional media.”

To be successful in the arena Chris Kimball operates in – food, a well-known commodity – requires something well beyond reproducing the same thing over and over again like a reliable recipe: you have to be useful, entertaining, and dependable in a variety of media and subject matter. A high bar to match. It’s no small thing to fulfill those criteria.

Taylor Swift understands this as much as Chris Kimball, as she reveals in the November 2015 issue of GQ, interviewed by Chuck Klosterman. Swift has had a phenomenal ten-year career in an industry in which most people don’t last ten minutes, so it would be a serious blunder to believe she does not posses top-level skills of self-analysis linked with a clear-headed awareness about how her industry  operates. Her last album, 1989, is a massive hit (as every album has been), and the reason she was interviewed for the article. Despite that track record, as she prepared the album for release everyone at her label tried to dissuade her from doing what she wanted to do, which was to make exactly the record she wanted to make. They assured her taking that path would be a massive mistake.

“But to me, the safest thing I could do was take the biggest risk. I know how to write a song. I’m not confident about a lot of other aspects of my life, but I know how to write a song. I’d read a review of [2012’s] Red that said it wasn’t sonically cohesive. So that was what I wanted on 1989: an umbrella that would go over all of these songs, so that they all belonged on the same album. But then I’d go into the label office, and they were like, ‘Can we talk about putting a fiddle and a steel-guitar solo on ‘Shake It Off’ to service country radio?’ I was trying to make the most honest record I could possibly make, and they were kind of asking me to be a little disingenuous about it: ‘Let’s capitalize on both markets.’ No, let’s not. Let’s choose a lane.”

It might be counterintuitive to consider both Taylor Swift and Chris Kimball as role models, but it helps me remember to choose a lane. The real risk is not choosing one.

Only Words (a story about photography contracts)

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In every class and workshop I’ve taught on business practices for creative-types, contracts are the source of more anxiety than any other topic, except perhaps SEO, and SEO does not count because everyone already understands it is a mystical, ever-morphing process whose secrets are hidden in a vault in an undisclosed location in a bunker in the basement of a Google building guarded by Sauron’s younger brother. Or someone like him. Fortunately, contracts can be decoded and practiced with skill by any acolyte who can read and write without regard to Sauron’s relatives; no magical skills required.

People who are not self-employed assume the scariest thing about contracts is the legal language. Not so. It’s the money. Does the document demand too much money and scare the client? Or does the document ask for too little and scare the entrepreneur? And does the entrepreneur really deserve any money at all? (This is a question better worked out in therapy.)

Next on the anxiety scale is in fact the legal language, which does not deserve the stress it creates. Most contracts don’t contain much technical writing, at least the sort requiring an attorney to decode. There might be a few clauses referencing copyright law or arbitration, but those can be understood after a little studying-up, including what’s contained in the Terms & Conditions (the small print).

People worry that lurking among all those words and phrases are hidden meanings that will enable something bad to happen, or worse, that they will cause their own downfall by not recognizing a misshapen clause or misplaced comma. Sins of omission and sins of commission. You can’t win. As a longtime neurotic, I am proof this feeling can be overcome. The cure is to understand what the words and phrases represent.

All contracts are a late-stage expression of negotiations, meaning that anyone who does not understand the language is putting themselves at a disadvantage. In other words, if an entrepreneur is not able to explain or defend or critique a contract, that entrepreneur is in danger of transforming themselves into an employee in the near future. (No magical skills required for this transformation.) This remains true even when signing other people’s contracts, such as Work For Hire or editorial agreements.

Here’s what I tell my students: contracts are a list. I take a basic, two-page photography contract and walk them through it line-by-line.

On the front page, starting at the top:

YOU   Your name and contact information.
THE DATE   Different date for each version.
KIND OF DOCUMENT   Estimate, contract, invoice.
THEM   The client’s name and contact information.
THE ASSIGNMENT   The gig.
THE DELIVERABLES   What they get.
DESCRIPTION OF USAGE   How the work gets used.
CHARGES FOR SERVICE AND PRODUCT   Money.
TERMS OF PAYMENT   Money. 
SIGNATURE LINES   Do I really have to explain this?

On the back side are the Terms & Conditions (the small print):

AGREEMENT   Saying this is the only agreement; I know, I know.
DEFINITIONS   What various terms – including usage terms – mean.
PAYMENT   Money.
CANCELLATIONS / POSTPONEMENTS   What happens in the event of.
INDEMNIFICATION   Responsibility for each other’s actions.
CLIENT REPRESENTATION   Client or representative is / is not present during location work.
RETOUCHING   Money.
COPYRIGHT   Who owns the work.
EXTRA WORK AND USAGE   Extra money!
WARRANTS AND LIABILITY   We are who we say we are, we take responsibility for our actions, the facts in the agreement are true, and if we disagree about anything we’ll work it out.

That’s the short version, but the essence of a basic contract applies to all kinds of agreements.

In the popular imagination creative-types are not supposed to be any good at the fine points of business; but, hey, look at all those creative folks who are successful despite someone else’s idea about who they are. That perception says more about the failure of the popular imagination than the abilities of creative entrepreneurs to grasp what’s in their contracts – which is one of the things that makes successful ones successful.

So use your words; they are your words, after all.

Sometimes The Best Things In Life Really Are Free: Ten Of Them Right Here

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I love it when the fact something is free reverses the main rule about what “free” is worth: that you get what you pay for.

These resources arrive as email newsletters.  Every one provides valuable and compelling notes regarding things I need to know – and things I never knew I needed to know.

Communications Artshttp://www.commarts.com
A fantastic source about the media world, including in-depth profiles of photographers and creatives of every kind. No less important is coverage about my client-base: how do they think and what do they want?

Plagiarism Todayhttps://www.plagiarismtoday.com
Plagiarism is a copyright issue, and the newsletter often features a story about copyright abuses and triumphs. Every issue contains a segment called “3 Count” about three items in the news right now.

Vantagehttps://medium.com/vantage
Part of the Medium family of online magazines and self-publishing (https://medium.com), Vantage is filled with photography stories of all kinds.

It’s Nice Thathttp://www.itsnicethat.com
Photography, graphic design, illustration, motion, and work that combines it all together. From a European perspective, covering the U.S. as well.

Poynterhttp://www.poynter.org
Highly respected reporting on the news business that has earned the respect it receives. While not directly about photojournalism, photojournalistic standards are journalistic standards, and they apply. The site takes both the long and short view of the media industry.  Real-world stuff.

Elizabeth Avedonhttp://elizabethavedon.blogspot.com
A wonderful book designer, interviewer, appreciator, and connoisseur of all things photography. I always find out something new about a trend or photographer or a book or event I would not have heard about otherwise.

De-Mass’d, by Leora Kornfeldhttp://www.demassed.blogspot.com
Big-picture stuff about media, creators, and business – as up-to-date as can be.

Arts Journalhttp://www.artsjournal.com
I am a better artist when I pay attention to other art-forms. This newsletter covers every kind of art you can imagine and a few you may not have, nicely broken out by category, all hyperlinked.

BagNewshttp://www.bagnewsnotes.com/
Cogent, personal, rigorous, and perceptive takes on photojournalism and journalism. Associated with Salon.

Jane Friedmanhttp://janefriedman.com
While pitched at writers, Friedman presents great, solid information – particularly about marketing – that addresses common concerns – and anxieties – of creators of every kind.

 

A Generalized Specialty

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My first career was in construction and kitchen-and-bath design, so years later when I became a professional photographer it was a pretty natural progression to specialize in architectural photography. The business culture was something I understood very well, I already had industry connections, and I was more than happy to hang around pretty buildings and construction sites.

As a young photographer in my teens and for years after, I considered turning pro but did not feel I had the fire in the belly I believed it would take. Still, I took my little camera (an Olympus OM1) everywhere, including on jobsites. Some of my friends, and not a few colleagues, considered me a bit of a pest; little did I understand at the time how that level of persistence was a positive attribute – a requirement, in fact – for a professional career.

I educated myself about photography purely by instinct: I followed what attracted me. Avedon and Penn, Cartier-Bresson and Sam Abell, Jerry Uelsmann and Wynn Bullock. I taught myself how to develop film and use a darkroom. I never took a single class. In my twenties, I added color, stopped processing and turned all that over to labs. I never learned anything about studio photography or technical cameras and focused on documentary work and the occasional portrait. It was a lot of fun.

The last ten years of my actual career was dominated by building and designing kitchens. To promote myself through pictures, I bought a tripod and some lights and umbrellas and made an awful lot of awful pictures. Gradually, through attrition, I got better – just as my wrist and elbow started to give out from the physical demands of construction; clearly, my blue-collar life was coming to an end. I assumed I would simply turn to designing full-time, but circumstances offered me the chance to photograph other people’s work, and the short version is: I never looked back.

Switching careers concentrates the mind, as the Brits say, and studying became an obsession. I didn’t have to learn about the culture of my design clients, because that had been my own life; my job now was to learn about the techniques and culture of architectural photographers. Among the advice I heard was that design clients expect their photographers to be specialists – as they were – and to never show them any other kind of work on websites or in portfolios because that demonstrated a lack of seriousness of purpose, and design is a serious business. If an architectural photographer did produce another kind of work, the smart move was to keep that quiet by having a separate website.

Being a contentious student, however, I discovered successful photographers who did not follow the path of being a pure specialist, while hearing repeatedly how important it was to have a camera with me all the time, which was exactly the justification I was looking for, and so found myself doing street photography and environmental portraits more than ever. It was still a lot of fun. This was work I wanted to get paid for, and while I understood the concept of niche marketing I believed there was a place for a serious architectural photographer who also made pictures of people. I knew it might be dicey starting out, but kicking off a new profession was already a chancy move, so, why not? Besides, I already had the experience of a diverse career, simultaneously working as a contractor, carpenter, and designer.

Architectural photography remains my primary source of work, and I’m certain I’ve lost opportunities because of my decision to diversify, but other projects have come my way precisely because I produce several kinds of work, all proudly displayed on the same website. Several recent projects each required portraits, architecture, and documentary work, and those clients made it clear my capabilities were why I got hired. Niches may be niches, but fun is fun.

Robert Brunner, a well-known product designer, recently said in a talk for 99U, “You don’t own your brand. A brand isn’t a logo or packaging. It’s a gut feeling. And when two people have the same gut feeling, you have a brand.”

My career path turned out to be the right move – for me. Being a generalist is my brand. That’s what my clients think, exactly what I hoped for. Maybe I just got lucky; I don’t think so.

Anyway, I would make the argument that for someone like me, branding is just another word for nothing left to lose.

The Wild West (and East, North, and South): Photographers and Advertising.

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In the popular imagination, advertising work comes to photographers from a single source: the advertising agency. It is never really that simple. Assignments may emanate from communications departments in companies, from outside agencies, or, really, from anywhere.

The emergence of digital tools and media, simultaneous with economic changes, has democratized and decentralized the world of marketing. What an agency is called – advertising, branding, graphics, public relations, digital – matters less and less because the demarkation between specialties has blurred to the point of disappearing. Wherever an assignment comes from, the purpose is the same: to contribute to the marketing materials of clients.

Post-WWII, photographers defined their monetary relationships with customers by licensing their work, and it is a pretty straightforward way of doing business: images are used in specified ways for specified periods. Period.

No more. Photos can be used in so many different kinds of media that agencies – and their clients – don’t always know in advance how images will be used or even how many they will need. To be sure, pictures are still licensed for specific uses and limited time-frames, but that model is under stress. Agencies and their clients have to respond to changes in how their audience receives information, and photographers, being part of the marketing team, have to do the same.

There are endless variations on this theme; advertising can be made to resemble editorial work, called “advertorials”, or a more recent variation, “branded content”. The conceit is that an ad appears to be something it is not.

It sounds confusing because it is meant to be confusing; designed so the viewer will not easily be able to tell the difference.

For the photographer asked to bid on such work, the creative standards are not actually different than advertising, but the agency may want to contain costs by suggesting to a photographer the end product is similar to editorial, knowing that photographers charge higher rates to produce advertising imagery. Figuring out how to get advertising content in front of potential customers these days is like trying to get people to focus on a cloud in a hurricane, so it seems like the Wild West, but lots of things have not really changed since the days of pure print advertising. Photographers are still brought in to be part of the marketing team and expected to bring something of themselves – their particular voice and vision – to the final product.

True editorial work (the basis in style for advertorials and branded content) has always contained the following trade-off: less money in exchange for creative freedom. Photographers’ “pure” form of expression is eagerly sought by advertising buyers, who scan publications looking for exactly the kind of work that an advertising agency may be loathe to generate on its own because it is so expensive to produce. From the viewpoint of the advertiser, editorial photography is a demonstration – on someone else’s dime – of what a photographer can produce. That makes terrific economic sense.

Many commercial photographers don’t actually shoot much editorial work; however they are expected to prove they can produce “pure” forms of expression. Those images often take the form of personal work, or fine art, which can actually be very expensive to produce. For the photographer, the hope is that the ROI (return-on-investment), similar to producing editorial work, results in a well-paid commercial assignment. In other words, buyers of photography are intensely interested in seeing photography that goes beyond normal assignment work. The fact that a successful advertising campaign might result in fairly mundane imagery is beside the point.

Jack Warner, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. Studios, once called screenwriters “schmucks with typewriters”. Despite such evidence of disdain, even he recognized that without his writers’ ability to produce content reliably, on time, and on command, he had nothing to work with and therefore no movies to make.

Fortunately, such disdain is not a primary characteristic of most photo buyers. One of the attributes professional photographers (indeed, all professional creatives – including writers) bring to their relationships with customers is the ability to produce highly specific and imaginative work reliably, on time, and on command; just with a different set of tools.  It doesn’t matter what it looks like: editorial, advertising, or fine art.  Work is work.