Guest Post by Cybele Sandy, AUGUST
I was having coffee with a colleague the other day and remarked that I felt that in terms of making it in New York as a photographer, talent was only a small part of the battle. My colleague’s answer? “Oh, I actually think talent counts for only 30% of the equation”. This from an executive at one of the top-tier media conglomerates.
Increasingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that hustle is the secret ingredient.
I’ve been in the business for a decade now and I am still amazed that getting to look at art, all the livelong day, is my job. It’s something I truly love: communing with artists, delving into their process and getting them where they need to be professionally is what has made this stage of my career (I’ve at various times been a television producer, in-house marketing executive for a restaurant chain and co-founder of a fashion non-profit) so incredibly fulfilling.
However, the time I’ve logged has taught me a great deal in terms of who makes it and who doesn’t. Leslie Sweeney, one of the founders of the iconic firm Art + Commerce, once remarked to me that “this is such a subjective business”. You go with your gut a lot, what appeals to you viscerally. The first impression I get when I review a portfolio is generally the truest. I have an especially soft spot for new artists, the kids who are only just beginning to dip their toes into these murky waters.
There are so many gifted shooters out there, who seemingly keep missing that big break, while others with less ability seem to move forward effortlessly. What is it, really, that separates the wheat from the chaff? What accounts for the rise and longevity of a Martin Schoeller or an Inez and Vinoodh?
I think the secret ingredient is hustle.
If I may, therefore, I’d like to line up what I believe fuels that flame:
1. Work. It’s not enough to be a good shooter anymore. There’s so much out there visually that standing out truly takes a borderline obnoxious form of persistence. In my own day-to-day, I’ve realized that to get things done, to get through to the people with whom I want to develop partnerships or cultivate as clients, I have to keep knocking at that door constantly. So too must the artist. The good news is that your natural creative bent will allow you to dream up ways to distinguish yourself without becoming a pain. Don’t be discouraged. Keep pushing.
2. Promotion, Including Lo-Fi. A photographer with a defined promotional strategy wins the day. Social media and online promotional activities are huge and important, but their very ubiquity in today’s business transactions makes a printed piece all the more distinctive. In defining your promotional budget (and you should have one) set aside funds for at least 1 printed piece that lands on the desks of the editorial staff or art buyers you’d like to work with. I’m a particular fan of useful promotions, so think of what you’d appreciate. Talk to an editor about his/ her workday and perhaps an ingenious idea may emerge, for example: a beautifully wrapped box with 5 prints in varying sizes, perfect for the office or home gallery wall. You’d be remembered because that sort of thing rarely happens and people love to get an unexpected package in the mail.
3. A Head for Business. Signing with an Agent does not abdicate your responsibility to know what is being done and what has been signed on your behalf. Take the time to read your contracts. In the digital age, they have become increasingly complex, as companies of all stripes recognize the content value and longevity of the images they commission. Often artists are so eager to be on board with a title, they will go straight to the signature page, only to discover later on that they’ve signed away all their rights. Even if you agree to take a hit financially for exposure, sit with the Assigning Editor and see what else they might be able to do in terms of promotion that might be helpful to you. Maybe you do a piece for the magazine on selfies that slides in some of your personal work. Or perhaps you can negotiate for 2-3 advertorials, that both pay and align you with a big brand. And when you do get an Agent, be sure they’re a good fit. Do your due diligence and ensure that they have the relationships they claim to, because we necessarily talk a good game. Insist on a 12 month plan-of-action and check in often to review how things are going and adjust strategy if necessary. As I once told an artist having issues with his Assignment Agent: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
4. Network Cultivation. Be out. Be visible. If you’re not a social animal, unfortunately you’ll have to become “that guy”. When I first started, I realized that a lot of important stuff gets discussed during the inevitable smoke breaks, so I made sure I was out there too. I’ve witnessed photographers get jobs over cocktails. If you’re not a drinker, corral a few editors for a coffee. Go to the openings of established artists- there are sure to be influential people present. And be prepared for opportunity with a quick little flip book on your phone and a sleek business card.
5. Shoot. A Lot. While you’re building your network, hone your art. Stretch yourself. One of the things I admire about the incredible Inez and Vinoodh is that they never settle. They are at the top of their game but they are always reaching, as if they only started yesterday and that’s why their work is consistently surprising and brilliant. I’m also still a big fan of technical prowess- you should know the correct way to light a set, for example, and not rely on the “take-a-ton-of-pictures-and-hope-some-come-out-right” methodology. All of this takes practice.
6. Niceness. We’re all human and people like to work with the people they like. Personality counts heavily toward landing an assignment and if you’re overbearing or throw up a wall in the face of suggestions, no one is going to want to spend hours dealing with that. This is particularly important during celebrity assignments. An A-list cover shoot has made (and broken) many a career. You want publicists to go: “The photographer has to be X” aka you.
That said, you need to be able to be the boss of your set. Be polite but firm, in charge but open.
The moral of the story? Anything worth having requires planning and considerable effort. This is applicable to anything in life, but particularly necessary in making it in the arts in a city teeming with talent.
Guest Post by Cybele Sandy, AUGUST