Vintage Photograph. Part Two.
My look back on my path to freelance photography continues from last week with a bridge to a very recent exchange with a mid-sized agency owner. I learned that a lot of things from 30 years ago really haven’t changed…
Recently, I sold a concept to a client for a project that required custom photography. No amount of searching online with Veer, GettyOne, or MyCheapStockPhotos4Us could possibly serve this concept.
The client, a global producer of consumer package goods, had just cut the big red ribbon on a massive new production facility. They were proud as punch of it, not just because it was purportedly over 9 football fields in size, but because it was riddled with the latest whizbang techno wizardry that industry could muster to make big businesses feel better about their self-condemning carbon footprints.
This project was a “green energy” adjunct to their annual report, designed to reflect just how responsible they’d been, in the hopes that you’d give them more business as a result. Go capitalism! The reason stock wouldn’t work, was because, rather than talk about everything they were supposedly doing, I suggested that they show real employees doing real energy-smart things in their new energy-efficient home.
Idealism is always the thing I stub my toe against. That’s a little foreshadowing, there.
The client loved it. It was “real,” “human,” and would provide a database of images that had “PR legs.”
::: wince :::
The agency, however, immediately began hedging. It wasn’t the concept they chafed against, but the “prohibitive cost” of a live photo shoot.
I met with the account lead on this particular project, who tossed me a series of articles across his desk, with a spin and a flourish of the wrist. It was as if he was flipping cards into a hat.
“Here’s a story of a 40-year veteran of commercial photography, Sam; a man who’s hocked his beloved equipment and taken on a retail job to make ends meet. Meanwhile,” he spun another warm sheet from his printer like a ninja throwing star, “here’s an article about a mother of two from West Texas who is making four figures a week on Flickr selling shots from her $99 digital camera.”
Alfred Hitchcock, when asked by Tom Snyder, “What angers you?” replied, in his unmistakable voice,
“Stupidity. Stupidity angers me.”
Sitting in that office, holding two rapidly cooling sheets of laser paper, I imagined this man’s face superimposed over Cary Grant’s body, running for his life from a barn-storming plane.
“Times have changed, Sam,” he said, one hand rising and falling with a thump on his desk like a fish out of water. “Costs like this are unreasonable, and are a throwback to different circumstances.” He looked down at my estimate, circling unnecessary elements with his pen with enough force to render the sheet playable on an old-time piano.
“Eight hours plus drive time and an overnight stay for a scouting trip?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a huge plant. I’ll have to ensure that I don’t hinder anyone’s efforts there while they’re working. The objective is to determine the specific shot locations, arrive, shoot, and be prepared for the next.”
“You’d have an escort. This isn’t required. And what’s this, an assistant?”
“Yes, of course. We’d leapfrog; while I’m shooting, he goes ahead to secure any lighting, power sources, etc. Then, when I arrive, he goes backward to breakdown and set up for the next.”
“Well, you need to simply use available light. Point and shoot. It’s just a plant.”
Just a plant???
He reached for his phone. “Hey, Angela. How are ‘ya! Tell me, is Steve around?”
I began stuffing my laptop back in my case. I left the cold articles on his desk.
“Steve! Hey…didn’t one of your employees shoot some shots of the groundbreaking two years back?”
Killer Tools Won’t Sub for Mad Skillz
When desktop publishing first appeared on the advertising, publishing, and graphic arts scene in the mid to late 80’s, its lack of capability in terms of production drove acceptance to two disparate groups. There were the fringe early-adopter designers who immediately embraced the free-form, explorative promise that the technology couldn’t fulfill in terms of output, and those who weren’t designers at all who immediately embraced the pragmatic simplicity that it could produce.
The latter, a combination of secretaries who were handed the newfangled software as a fiat, and entrepreneurs who were delighted to be able to spiff up their letterheads and newsletters on their own, suddenly found themselves coming to grips with disciplines that were easy to mock, but maddening to master.
In other words, how many times have you gone to a museum and heard someone standing next to a DeKooning or a Rothko mutter, “My kid could do that, blindfolded.”
That latter group has never completely gone away, although the pendulum has swung to wide extremes since Aldus Pagemaker first offered the awesome ability to set your own type.
Consider that now, with little or no money, you can design your own website, Facebook page, Twitter persona, and, oh yeah, print materials, with a creative flexibility that designers from that era couldn’t have dreamed of. And then there’s the global reach.
OK, they could have dreamed it. The pioneers like April Greiman certainly did.
But during the early days, photography (and as mentioned before, illustration) remained the purview of a select few.
For a little while.
Then came Photodisc.
Before Photodisc, the only graphic sizzle non-designers could add to their work came courtesy of the moribund clipart packs that were sold in huge, garish boxes at retail outlets like Circuit City, Best Buy, and Staples. Eventually, they would contain some photos, but they weren’t much better than something your crafty Aunt Irene would’ve crafted with her grandfather’s bequeathed Rolleiflex camera and a dash of gin.
Sharp. Colorful. Broad. Cheap.
For less than a tenth of what a traditional photo shoot would cost, you could get a disk with about 150 images, collected according to theme, shot by professionals, in a range of sizes for different kinds of uses.
If you made your living assembling newsletters for a regional construction company, you were in heaven. Just like that, you went from the 24-count Crayola box to the 64-count. Bang! Zoom!
If you made your living as a photographer, it heralded the beginning of a new reality. Ironically, this new reality was one that designers and art directors had already experienced and survived – a direct hit on the essentialness of their skills. Designers and art directors flocked to the new paradigm of “royalty-free stock,” thereby diminishing the photographer’s role.
It’s difficult to fault designers in small and mid-sized shops for essentially abandoning the use of local custom shooters. Desktop publishing was originally heralded as a way to explore more creative solutions in a shorter period of time. But the only thing that really held fast was the shorter period of time: visual creatives watched clients and their agency bosses whittle away at their deadlines, citing “improved technology” as the reason. In that environment, selling a photo shoot often just didn’t make either fiscal or scheduling sense.
Planning for a custom shoot took time: you had to prop it (which required expense and research,) select a model (which usually required a separate agency and its costs,) and scope out locations, travel, hotel stays, and other incidentals. Once the shot was complete, which would usually take up a full day of billable time, there were further time and expense requirements: post-processing and scanning. Remember scanning? This was before the era of digital photography, of course.
With Photodisc, you found the image in the CD index, determined the relative size you needed, dragged it out of the folder onto your desktop, and into either your page layout program, or into Photoshop for slicing and dicing any way you saw fit. You never spoke with a photographer, a stylist, a model, or a retoucher. You reached for a Lego, and snapped it into place. Or carved it with a Dremel, so to speak.
So…what’s the problem?
The Price of Gorging on Convenience
Coming up through the agency ranks as a production artist, designer, art director, and ultimately creative director, I have known the right now! pressure to create “targeted” layouts day in and day out. Using stock proved to be a godsend—as long as I felt I could reserve custom shoots for the “big jobs.”
However, the “something for nothing” mentality led to the kinds of scenarios this blog opened with; big jobs were eventually illustrated with royalty-free stock for the same reasons business owners insisted their secretaries develop sales presentations using PageMaker and Windows clip art: there was no perceived value in the custom shoot.
Oh…and did I say “illustrated” in that previous paragraph? Nearly 30 years into my ad and marketing career, always working in small to mid-sized shops, I can’t remember the last time I worked with a professional illustrator.
The Best of Intentions
In the 1950s, government subsidies were given to farmers to ensure plentiful and affordable food for everyone. One unfortunate side effect of that policy was the proliferation of “empty calorie” fillers such as high-fructose corn syrup and processed meats. Sixty years later, America is fat and getting fatter; dying of diabetes, coronary diseases, and marked increase in various cancers. All the while, foods consisting of those inexpensive and proven-dangerous ingredients have become normal, de rigueur. even preferred.
I must note that there are many very talented photographers making comfortable livings in big-budget fields, such as transportation, entertainment, and fashion; segments where creating a unique and differentiated brand is recognized as crucial to survival. Small to mid-sized agencies generally don’t deal with that level of creative value—or rather, have simply given up on that aspect of their birthright as agencies.
I liken this fact to a parallel situation: there are those who shop exclusively at Whole Foods or frequent organic restaurants stocked with locally grown foods for their primary diets. It’s prohibitively expensive for most, despite the fact that its healthier.
The majority of our country takes in the visual diet that people like me produce. I prefer to be Trader Joe’s rather than Aldi.
Actually, I prefer to make sure everyone who thinks they can only afford Aldi gets a Trader Joe’s experience.
Shooting for People. Not Shooting for Stock
There are a couple of ways in which photographers who aren’t living the life shooting America’s Next Top Model can fill the gap, and continue to shoot excellent work.
The choice, for many, is shooting for stock.
A perusal of the various stock libraries online will show you that there is some phenomenal talent out there. A significant number of stock shooters are also shooting as collaborators, but without stock royalties, contract shooting alone just isn’t lucrative enough.
I’m in a transitional situation, which affords me the luxury of “living by my convictions.” Creative Director by day, freelance collaborative photographer at other times, I choose to shoot exclusively in a collaborative way with clients, or in a fine art capacity for myself. My choice is to not fill the hopper of the various stock houses, which in turn makes the market more difficult for those who would prefer to work with a photographer in a collaborative situation.
Editorial work that gives visual life to storytelling, custom photographic illustration work for advertising that creates what thumbing through stock can’t, and narrative portraiture that, by its definition, demands that the photographer get to know the portrait sitter in order to craft a revealing image. This is what I do.
I’m an undaunted idealist. I realize that. But I’m also happily bent on doing something, just for the sheer love of doing it. I hope that the joy of shooting what I want to shoot will draw those who want to be captured in the way I go about capturing.