Clint Clemens is a pioneer in the world of commercial photography. His book is a who’s who of high end automotive and commercial clients containing many memorable campaigns from the 80’s and 90’s. I had the chance to interview him a few weeks back and I think you will find his thoughts on the state of the industry fascinating.
APE: Let’s talk about the current state of photography. What do you think has happened to the industry recently?
Clint: The photography space, as you know, has been flooded with imagery because the barrier to entry for photography has dropped so dramatically. Previously, you had to know how to focus, you had to know how to expose, you had to know how to color correct. All that’s now gone, and it’s largely an automatic function. And, I think that there is an iTunes effect that’s happening in the market place. What iTunes did is they said, “Look, we’re going to sell data for a very small amount of money to a very large number of people.” And what that has done, is dropped the value of data in general. So if you’re selling photographs, which are generally in the form of data, the value is dropping because everybody’s expecting it to be less expensive.
APE: Ok, but in the high end commercial market that you are involved in, do you still see that sort of trend? I understand with stock photography that maybe the value was artificially inflated, because of the technical aspects of photography and I can see that dropping off a cliff. But with the higher end stuff, it seems that there’s so much more involved and there’s the need for some level of originality.
Clint: Well, yes there’s always going to be that but if you look at photography as a spectrum, it’s stock on one end and high end work on the other and there can’t be a complete disconnect between the two. One’s white and one’s black and there has to be shades of grey in the middle. So which is more dominant in forcing the shade? Is it the white area, which would be stock? Or is the black area that would be the high end photography?
My sense is that there’s always going to be a need for high end photography. High end marketing will always have a look and a desire and there will always be a drive to figure out what’s new. But what’s happening is the… how do you say this? The goal line is moving faster.
APE: Is it a trickle up effect?
Clint: Yeah, I would say it’s a bit of a trickle up effect. In the world of print publication, they were very planned and periodic events that took place. But what you’re seeing now is the change in the rapidity at which you need to be able to replace your imagery. When everyone has a camera and everyone is able to rapidly change and create new looks and companies need photography and they need to change more often due to the influence of the web, does that lead to an increase in value or a decrease in value of the imagery? My sense is that probably it leads to decrease in value of the imagery. Because the shelf life is, out of necessity, shorter.
APE: How did that effect your thinking on what you’re doing with your career?
Clint: In 2004, I saw a lot of this stuff coming and so I got involved in High Dynamic Range Imaging. But not so much for the pictorial display of the imaging, but its ability to do image based lighting and rendering. I was trying to figure out what was going to be the next great change in photography or imaging. And, with movement towards the web, people more and more, want their information interactively. So if you’re a photographer you need to understand how your component becomes interactive, because the still image, while it may have impact, has a lot shorter shelf live, if only because there’s more imagery out in the world.
So, I thought, “where is the next threshold of imaging?” And my sense was that it’s a combination of interactivity and CGI.
APE: You were shooting some location car photography weren’t you and CGI has revolutionized that industry hasn’t it?
Clint: Yes, exactly. So, in ’04 we started a company called goodstock.eu. And what that is, is back plates with the accompanying sphere High Dynamic Range Image.
So in other words, I looked at the world and said, “Everybody’s got a lot of back plates, but they can’t use any of it for rendering because you need to be able to use image based lighting with a wire frame.”
APE: So you started Good Stock, how’s that working out for you?
Clint: Oh, it’s great, we got into that and then started another company that’s connected to a real high end post-production house on the CGI end. And so that company then does the post-production of it. We take the High Dynamic Range Image with the client’s wire frame and render it.
Clint: Now, going beyond that I tried to figure out how to create a three-dimensional photograph? If you go to a website called modelsfrommars.com, that’s where we get into a lot of three-dimensional imaging.
APE: Is this scanning the environment?
Clint: Well, it’s scanning but also product visualization of which car photography with CGI is a branch of. So what’s happening is clients are demanding the more rapid pictorial representation of their product. In the case of a car client, for instance, they want to be able to visualize their car during the design phase. And then they also want to be able to have the brochure of images ready when the first car rolls off the production line.
Clint: So how do you speed up the production process and then how do you wring cost out of the production process of photography? The only answer to that is CGI.
APE: So, is this only happening in car photography because of the cost?
Clint: Yes, because of the cost. We also do visualization in the marine industries. A boat is really expensive to build. But the true, accurate visualization of it for a client is really important. You get into textures of interiors, and some of the interiors of these high-end yachts, really, they’re quite elaborate.
But let’s back up to the bigger picture here. So what’s happening is that you have a world in which the supply of photography is much, much greater than it ever was. You’ve got the concept that data, because it’s ones and zeros and it’s not a physical asset, has less value. And that’s driven by what I call the iTunes blow-back effect. How do you sit at home and download music for 99 cents and then go to work and pay $5,000 for a data set?
APE: Yeah. I get it, it’s the same with newspapers, obviously. The written word, it’s all been rendered electronically now, virtually worthless. And the distribution is nearing zero as far as moving this stuff around or making copies.
Clint: Yeah, it is.
APE: So, basically, you looked at the world of photography and you thought, “What’s going to be the highest end?” or “What’s going to be the most technical?” and you went for it. You created these companies that can provide these services for car companies and anybody who can afford it. But it’s very much the tip of the spear, right? This is high-end stuff.
Clint: Here’s the overall concept. When you look at a marketplace and when you look at your business, you have to figure out, “How can I maintain a barrier to entry?” Barriers to entry can be cost, they can be complexity they can be access. I can’t photograph the president of the United States but some people can.
So, how do you build a wall around yourself? It used to be your ability to focus, process, expose, etc. and that whole wall has completely fallen down. So, that’s what everybody’s trying to figure out, and that’s why I went in this direction, because the barrier to entry is so high.
APE: Is this your main focus with the photography now? CGI and creating companies that can service the high end aspect of that.
Clint: Yeah. To the extent that I stay involved with them is lesser or greater depending on what it is. One of them requires hourly maintenance. I’ve done so many things in my life and my career and the fun part of it is to try to figure out, what’s happening next, because you see patterns from perspective. The longer you’re in an industry you begin to recognize that things are going to move in a certain direction.
Here’s the other thing that happens, and anybody in the high-end spectrum will tell you this, that an economy is not a constant, it moves up and down. I’ve probably been through seven or eight recessions now in my career and you always see cycles and you begin to see patterns that emerge from those. So the point of a recession is to wring inefficiency out of the system. OK now, it’s a blunt instrument, no doubt about it, but that’s the point of a recession. In a capitalist economy, it treats it like a wet towel and it wrings it as tight as it possibly can.
So every time you go into a recession, the business that comes out of it is much more efficient than it ever was. And the other thing that you notice is it never goes back to what it was. It never reverts back, it always moves forward.
What we’re seeing now in this recession are two major effects, we’re seeing inefficiency getting wrung out of the system. And we’re also seeing a fundamental transformation of imagery itself, which is the digital image. We’re starting to see the full impact of what’s going to happen here. When digital first came out, it was like, “Oh, this is great. We can make all kinds of stock pictures.” Well, now, guess what happened: stock is now worthless.
The other thing that happens, in an economy like this that all the high-end manufacturers get the rug pulled out from underneath them. They’re the first ones on the chopping block, all the high-end clients. And those are the only people that really had money to pay. So you’ve got to ask yourself, where is the profit in photography? And my sense is that the real profit in photography is coming through people that are essentially teaching.
It’s the blog posts, the people that are blogging constantly, who are able to sell space on their blog and all the rest of the sort of stuff that goes on. And that’s really where it is. Yes, there is occasional work that’s out there, but it’s never going to return to the real, high-end numbers that you saw before.
APE: I’m looking at some of your advertising work here. There’s still a barrier to entry to the work that you were doing. But now, are you telling me that you’re not taking pictures anymore?
Clint: No, no, no. I go out and shoot.
APE: For clients or just for pleasure?
Clint: Well, both. The client work has definitely slowed down. When you’re shooting for Chris Craft, Net Jets, Indian Motorcycle, all these guys got hammered. If that’s your client base, instead of shooting for them two, three times a year, you’re doing it once every 18 months or something.
But that’s fine. I have no problem with that. I’m having a really good time figuring out what’s coming next and working in the 3D space.
APE: I want to talk to you about China, because the email that you sent, one thing that really stood out is how they honor photography culturally, it’s a big deal. And they have the status of a doctor there. Can you go into that a little bit?
Clint: Sure. You saw the photographs, right?
Clint: Yeah. I mean, where in the Western world are you greeted like that as a photographer?
APE: [laughs] It’s pretty awesome, right?
Clint: It’s crazy, it’s a complete cultural 180 from what we see here.
APE: And why is that?
Clint: My sense is that there’s a cultural bias towards imagery, pictograms, murals, translation of heritage and culture through drawings, very detailed drawings, a sense of artistry in the line. There is a very high level honor of the photographic process way up into the cultural ministries.
Now, here’s the flip side of the equation. China, like everyone else, has a million people taking pictures. So, back to that same argument. If everybody has a camera or everybody has a pen and can write, where do you find the value?
APE: That’s interesting because they’re able to maintain this respect for photographers at the same time many of them are able to, you know, take pictures, take probably pretty decent photographs anymore.
Clint: Well, you know, taking a decent photograph is a moving definition. I mean, who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? And what happens is with photographs is that the idea of what is current and communicates is always changing. It’s never really a static goal line. So, if somebody takes a bad picture in our eyes, is it really a bad picture if it communicates?
APE: Oh, boy that’s a whole conversation in itself.
Clint: The Chinese love taking pictures and the way they in which they view photographers is a very high art form. Whether you can sell it is another issue. Because the sale of an image is really a function of all those global forces, everybody’s got a camera, a million photographers in the world, and imagery is distributed electronically around the world in a heartbeat.
APE: So, if you already have the status, in the west, in China you’re somewhat of a superstar.
Clint: Absolutely. And some of that is due to the access to the money to buy the camera. There were probably 50,000 students from this art and design college and so, you know, there’s always a “college town” that’s attached to a school, right. So I’m walking around. First of all, everybody’s staring at me because I’m over six feet tall. And I’ve got light hair. But the other thing is, I said to my interpreter, “Why is everybody staring at me?” and she said, “You have a very expensive camera.” So, the mass of people, still haven’t seen really high end cameras when you get out into the country.
APE: It was like you’re driving a Ferrari around town or something.
Clint: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s like you’re on another planet.
So, China’s interesting, you really palpably feel the desire to get with the Western world in terms of capitalism and commerce. OK. Ten years ago, it was a very different place. And it’s moving dramatically, very quickly. And they want what we have. I mean, it’s plain and simple. And part of that is the gadgetry that they see all over the Internet. The kids see this stuff constantly, anytime they’re on the Internet. They’re rapidly moving into a consumer conscious society. And one of those things is the camera. So, you’re looking at a confluence of wanting to have a really, highly advanced technical object, and at the same time, a very high honor for the art form. So, it’s the second one that distinguishes China.
Every time you lift your camera to shoot something, there are people taking pictures of you.
APE: [laughs] Of you taking a picture?
Clint: Yeah. Go figure. It’s really weird. [laughs]
APE: This has just happened in the last few years, right? You are seeing a lot of your fellow photographers going over on the speaking circuit in China now?
Clint: Not too many, not too many. It all happens through the Culture Ministry.
APE: So they arrange everything, the Culture Ministry?
Clint: Yeah, and they pay for everything.
APE: And what about the language barrier? Do you just have a translator with you?
Clint: Yeah, you have a translator with you at all times. So what happens is I’ll speak for three hours. An hour and a half of that is content, the other half of that is translation. But it happens really well. The other thing is a lot of them speak English. Or they really want to speak English, and they’re learning it. This is a country that is bound and determined to catch up with the Western world. That’s what you really notice when you’re over there.
APE: And they will.
Clint: Yeah. The other thing that’s going to happen is, if we think there are a lot of people competing for photography space now, what’s going to happen when the Chinese enter the market and it’s a free-for-all? So what they’re doing is they’re building photographers, if you will. They’re educating photographers.
APE: Ok, wow that doesn’t sound good.
Clint: Well, it just gets more competitive. It gets more interesting. So we’re seeing a world that is devouring photography.
APE: Can’t get enough, yeah. And like you were saying, the people who are teaching or blogging about photography, they are going to see great success. There’s a lot of money to be made off of people who are just interested in the process, not necessarily buying photographs, right?
Clint: Bingo. So in other words, you will have great photographers out there. For instance, I looked at [redacted]’s site, excellent photography. There is no reason why 15 years ago he couldn’t have made a really good living as a photographer. Maybe he did, I don’t know. But you have to ask yourself, why is it that somebody of that caliber can’t or doesn’t choose to go into a lucrative career in photography.
APE: Yeah. Because it’s a pain in the ass. [laughs]
Clint: It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a hit-and-miss, you’re hanging by a thread all your life. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Now the competition I’m talking… I’m not sure the demand is there to satisfy the competition. So think about it. What’s happening is the world wants a lot of photography, but it doesn’t want to pay a lot of money for it. And you have this endless supply of photographers and as the quality of cameras has gone up, the resolution needed to reproduce photographs has gone down. So virtually every single camera is capable of taking that kind of image.
APE: Right, but you have seen seven different ups and downs in the world of photography and the economy and each one didn’t destroy the industry. It changed it. It changed the role of the photographer, it changed how they could make a living with photography but didn’t destroy it.
Clint: Each one introduced some level of greater efficiency into the system. So it’s the introduction of efficiency. Think of the economy that goes into its inflationary cycle, or into its expansion cycle, and you end up with a lot of bloated processes out there. Inefficiency. If all of a sudden the economy crashes, businesses still have to do business, but they need to get it done really efficiently. So instead of hiring a photographer, for instance, they’ll say, “Oh, this guy Joe Schmoe that works in the marketing department, he has a camera, he can go shoot it for us.” Or they say, “We’ve got this product that we’ve been designing in CAD. Why do we actually have to shoot it. Why don’t we just render it out?”
APE: Obviously there are new opportunities for photographers in teaching and writing about photography, but what about motion. I see that as photographers moving into a space that exists and being able to do it cheaper than other motion crews are able to.
Clint: That’s exactly what’s going to go on. So it’s the democratization of motion. What’s going to happen is exactly what happened to stock photography. But Motion has another layer that I don’t think you’re going to be able to automate. Essentially what we’re seeing is the automation of photography with all these new cameras. So Motion has two other layers. It has editing and it has the sound component. And, you can’t cut perfectly to a sound beat the way a human can.
APE: So there’s that nice barrier to entry you’re talking about that exists in Motion.
APE: So, it’s good for photographers to move into that.
Clint: Ah. Only if you edit and you know sound. You need to have all three, because shooting Motion in itself is going to be just like photography; it gets cheaper and cheaper and everybody’s got one. So it’s the other two components that are very important. Photographers need to look for those barriers to entry, it’s their only hope.