Portfolio Visit To New York – Tom M Johnson

- - From The Field

I asked Tom M Johnson to write about a recent portfolio trip to NYC. I think you’ll enjoy this informative and candid account of his 7th trip to meet with editors and show his portfolio in person.
— aPE

Initially, I thought I’d write a day-to-day summary of my recent New York trip to meet with Photo Editors. Rather, I’ve opted to write a summary of the experience. I believe the trip went well. Of course, exact success will not be known for some time. If 6 months go by and not one commission results from the trip, I’ll probably feel the trip was unsuccessful. Yet, I will not consider it a failure and waste of money because in my career I’ve come to learn success comes in small rather steps. The ultimate of course would be to receive a couple of calls in next couple of months offering assignments. However, I believe I benefited from the trip by nurturing previous relationships and developing a few more. I was fortunate enough to meet with a couple of editors I’ve been trying to see for a few years and believe those meetings went very well. I feel positive about this trip, because (since 1997 this was my 7th trip to New York) I was never more prepared. Of course my work is much better now, and after all these years one would hope, so I entered these meetings with more confidence and greater conviction. Yet, I believe the biggest reason for my success was the preparation I did in advance, which began a month before stepping on the Amtrak train to New York.

I must give some credit to Selina Maitreya because she helped me to create a strategy. Selina is a consultant I’ve worked with off and on since 2002. She knows me well, and I’m not just her client- we are also friends. I’ve had a few consultants over the years and gotten something from all of them, yet some were definitely better than others. Of them all, I believe Selina invests more of herself, and she truly cares for her clients… With her council, a month before my departure I sent an email blast to the 120 New York photo editors in my database. In the email, I announced that in a month I would be coming to New York to see clients and while there I would be making appointments and contacting them soon. Attached to the email was a cool image from a recent assignment for the New York Times along with links to my website. I liken this approach to an invasion like D-Day where I first hit them with artillery to soften up the beachhead before landing. To my pleasant surprise I had 5 replies from editors who had seen the photograph in the Times, and a few of them offered times for appointments… 2 weeks later I sent a second email with another image attached, this time specifying the dates I would be in New York, and that I would be in touch with them soon. A couple of more editors replied offering appointments… Then 10 days before departure I sent a 3rd email again with another image attached, this time telling them I would be calling them shortly.

The week before departing I called all 120 editors. Photo Editors move from magazine to magazine, so this also gave me an opportunity to update my database. Mostly I heard voicemails, yet I left messages announcing that I’d be in New York and looked forward to seeing them. I followed each call with a 4th email, this time directed to the photo editor I had just called with a specific pitch. Of all the editors I reached out to I made actual contact with, either by phone or email, about 25. I ultimately met with 17. It reminded me of what a salesman once told me, “You call 100 people, maybe 10 will speak with you, and out of that 10 hopefully one will do business with you.”

I am convinced that face time is paramount, yet these days it’s difficult to get appointments with Photo Editors. For one, more than ever, magazines are fighting for their survival. I met with Fiona Gardner, former Photo Editor of Popular Photography, at a coffee shop because Popular Photography and American Photo had recently closed their doors. Staffs at many magazines have been reduced and their workloads increased, and let’s face it: if Photo Editors saw every photographer who wanted to meet with them, all they would do is see photographers. Then there are a few big editors whom my chances of having a one on one with the Pope are greater than meeting with one of them. Yet, even knowing all of this, I forced myself to be vigilant and persistently continued making my calls. Some disagree, but I believe cold calling is an important part of the process because talking with someone establishes a connection and lets them know that I am determined. Even if it’s only for a brief 30 seconds, I feel a Photo Editor will remember my name more so than if I had sent him or her 10 emails. It’s difficult and often scary, especially with New Yorkers who can be terse and immune to charm, yet with practice, cold calling gets less difficult. But it’s still never easy, and because 90 percent of the calls result in voice mails when I finally do get a Photo Editor on the phone- it’s difficult to get into the rhythm of my pitch. And, trying to find that right tone of confidence is not unlike back in the day calling that special girl for a date. What’s really frustrating is after having finally succeeded in getting an editor on the phone, most would terminate the call requesting that I send, even though by this time I had already sent them 5, an email with links to my work. This I find a challenge to work around. For most editors, this is their polite way of getting rid of me. They have no intention of making an appointment, and I’m unsure if they will ever look at the 6th email I send them. While I have them on the phone I’m always tempted to push them to make an appointment, and I suppose this is where hutzpah and confidence are most needed. Because, if I push them to make an appointment and they grudgingly acquiesce, what happens if they don’t like my work?

A month before the trip I got the idea to buy a suit for my interviews. Not wanting to look like a banker, I skipped the tie. I’m older and a bit old school, so I believe this was my way of presenting myself as a serious and dedicated photographer, as well as someone whom the editors could trust to send on an assignment to photograph a CEO. Also, I showed 3 bodies of printed work displayed in custom portfolios, 2 of them made by Mullenburg Designs based near Portland, Maine. It was a royal pain in the ass to schlep this load of work via subways and a ton of walking from appointment to appointment, but I felt it was worth it. At the end of the day, the weight took its toll on my knees and back, yet I don’t see the point of showing work on an iPad when the editor can just as easily view the work on the website… After several years of trying I finally connected with this one photo editor on the phone who works for a business magazine at Time Inc. I told him that I was in New York and dying to see him, so he told me to call him back the next day to set up an appointment. I did and got a voice mail and of course, he never replied. Well, that very next day I was on his floor in the Time Inc. building, and I was so tempted to walk around the floor asking anyone I bumped into if they knew where I could find him. But I didn’t, and I’m still kicking myself for chickening out…

My goal was 15 appointments and I ended up seeing 17 Photo Editors in 4 days. Success! I could have had a few more but one editor of a major journal canceled my appointment an hour before we were to meet, much too late to hustle another meeting during that time slot. As well, by not getting the chance to see her I missed the opportunity of perhaps seeing some of her colleagues… Overall, I felt that my interviews went well; the editors seemed interested in my work, and no one told me I sucked. Once back in Pittsburgh I wrote all the editors I met with thank you letters included with another promo piece. In a couple of months, I’ll send them all another promo, with email blasts in between, all part of my marketing strategy.

Though I still believe making trips to New York is important, I wonder if the day will soon come when magazines will be not unlike darkrooms. I learned from one photo editor of a successful fashion/hipster magazine that although their feature photo spreads of young hot celebrities photographed by young hot photographers with Instagram followings in the hundreds of thousands get millions of likes and shares, yet few click on the articles to read the text and see the advertising that pays for the magazine to stay in business. I met with another editor of one of the most famous celebrity/fashion magazines in the business and she told me that they have to come up with the same quality of productions with ½ the budgets. As well, I heard that 2 of the business magazines at Time Inc. are consolidating, which means there will soon be some more unemployed Photo Editors. When the millennials want to view everything on their smartphones without paying a fee, who will pay for the providers of the content?

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. Tom, a wonderful description of the world we photographers face today in trying to get work. I worked in NYC for 25 years & realized several years ago that it was getting increasingly hard to arrange a face to face with editors & AD’s I wanted to work with. I concluded that today you do not have to be in the Big Apple to do meaningful work nor do you have to live there to get work from there. Meeting editors & AD’s at NYC portfolio reviews is a very good way to overcome this problem & meet face to face & the availability of email, mailing out promotional material, Instagram, personal blogs, website & the ability to transfer large electronic files etc can accomplish the same goals. The people we want to work with are always looking for new people to work with & in most cases will try & hire the best possible person for the job. I do believe a face to face is always the best, but what you have done to promote yourself is what most people who are in the know would recommend. The only other thing that can sometimes increase your chances of landing assignments is to have a good agent, but most established agents will not take anybody that has not been published or has some type of track record, sort of a catch 22. Good luck.

  2. Keep the face to face meetings and the printed workbooks alive!!! As a young professional in the field I know the importance of not just hiding behind an email in hopes of finding work.

    I enjoyed your email/call approach to setting up your meetings and staying on top of the schedule of your arrival.

    Great read. Looking forward to the next 35 years of the same hustle and grind.

  3. Kudos to Tom for laying bare his recent experience showing his portfolio in New York .
    I’ve been telling photographers for years that it’s “false news ” that portfolio visits are dead and no one sees photographers anymore. I work with many successful photographers In different parts of our industry, throughout the United States and Canada, and all of them have portfolio visit programs. I have lots of ongoing relationships with my clients and I’m fielding calls all the time where we are able to directly connect in person visits (After email and direct mail programs are in place) with new assignments

    It’s my sincere wish that Tom’s experience seeing many creative buyers In one visit Inspires other photographers to incorporate in person visits into their marketing program.
    As Tom will tell you, its a great deal of work to organize an in person visit program and it’s well worth the effort. Because the majority of photographers are not going on visits your meetings will be that much more memorable for your new potential clients.

  4. Just read your post Tom, and as a photographer
    Who at 47 has over 20 years experience of the struggle to earn a crust as an editorial photographer in London I can relate to your experiences and well done to you for being persistent. I too believe that a well put together printed portfolio rather than an iPad as the way to go, as why would a commissioning editor want to look at another another screen when they look at them all day?
    I’m just about to see a photo consult here in London next week and although it’s not cheap to see her if I think it will be money well spend and should hopefully help to get me back to track and start finding new clients…
    Good luck Tom and lovely work!
    Kind Regards,
    James

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