Every era gets the catch phrase it deserves. Just think about “Where’s the beef?” Remember that cranky old lady on the Wendy’s commercials? Of course you do. That it happened during the 80’s, when actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were beef-caking up the movie theaters?
Not a coincidence.
By now, you know my own catchphrase like you know the pixel count on your new iPhone. I always talk about the 21st Century Hustle. Hustle this, hustle that. I might as well be Huggy Bear strutting down the street in Starsky and Hutch, for all I talk about hustling.
What does it look like in real life though? I could tell you about how many different jobs I do in a given day, or a given week. But that would sound like complaining. Which I don’t want to do.
It just so happens that I bumped into the perfect embodiment of the 21st Century Hustle a couple of weeks ago, in Santa Fe. I was standing there, minding my own business, when WHAM, a hustler’s moment cracked me in the head like a steroidal cop’s blackjack.
I was at an after-party for a friend’s art opening. I’d already done 5 errands in 2 hours, including a futile search for a hoodie at Target. So I was pretty burnt, by evenings end.
There I was, loading up my plate full of vegetarian goodies, getting ready to drink up a half a margarita. (I had a 2 hour drive home afterwards, so no Tequila buzz for me.) I looked up, and who did I see but Jamey Stillings, the unofficial mayor of the Santa Fe photo scene, and Brad Wilson, whose excellent photo book I’d just reviewed the week before.
Not such huge coincidence, as it’s a small town, but still. I was there, they were there, so we started talking. I’d met Brad briefly at Review Santa Fe in 2009, but not seen him since. I’ve bumped into Jamey 50 times since then, but we rarely chat at length.
Here was our moment.
Brad began telling us what it was like to go viral, and have his work everywhere, as it is now. Jamey and I had each had similar experiences, so we offered up our own coping strategies.
We kept talking. That’s what you do at parties.
But then, ten minutes or so into the chat, the guys both started talking about how they got their most recent book deals. And neither of them had to put up any money for the production. They were giving me serious details. Inside information.
My brain switched into journalist mode quicker than Obama would punch Vlad Putin flush in the face, if given the opportunity. It happened so quickly, I wasn’t even aware of it at first. But it wasn’t on the record…we were just chatting. The 21st Century Hustle says you don’t care. You go for the story. Period. (Everyone’s got to get paid.)
So I asked a bunch of more specific questions, and at the end, right before I had to head to my car, I asked the guys if we could consider the chat on the record. Could I write it up, so that you, the audience, could get the benefit of their accrued wisdom?
Classy guys, they both said yes.
Here we go.
Jamey had his first book published by Nazraeli Press a few years ago. They did a great job, and Jamey didn’t have to put in any of his own funds. How did it come about?
Turns out, Jamey first met Chris Pichler, the publisher, at Photo LA a while back. He was encouraged to go hand him a MagCloud booklet of his popular project, “The Bridge at Hoover Dam,” in which he had documented the creation of a major American infrastructure project.
Jamey didn’t want to hand it off like that, as it seemed too forward, but he was strongly encouraged to do it. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Pichler told Jamey he had never, ever published a book from someone who approached him randomly like that. Jamey, who is typically very diplomatic, made a rare faux pas and said something rude in return.
Bridge burned, he assumed. (Pun intended.)
Fast forward a couple of years, and he had a portfolio review with Mr. Pichler in Palm Springs early in the morning of the last review day. Luckily, the first meeting, brief as it was, had been forgotten. Jamey put Mr. Pichler at ease by saying that he knew he chose his books based upon a personalized set of criteria, so he was not looking to be published. Just wanted some feedback.
If you don’t know, letting people know you don’t want something from them is a great way to chill them out. It worked here, and Mr. Pichler offered to publish the project in short order. They also worked out an agreement where the funding Jamey sought and received from the Bridge’s chief engineering firm was used to create a special edition of the book for the company. They got to give out the “special edition” books as gifts. (The win-win is such a feature of the 21st C, I’ve found.)
When it came time for his second book, a series about the massive Ivanpah solar field in California, Jamey first approached Nazraeli Press about its interest. Though now good friends, Chris Pichler took a pass on the new project. Jamey also pitched another publisher he respected, but they also passed. (Which was fortunate, as they’re known for requiring photographers to spend a very large sum to get a book published.)
He did receive interest from another relatively new publisher, but the deal would also have necessitated significant funding. This seemed counter-intuitive to Jamey, based on his initial book publishing experience, and his belief in the new body of work.
Jamey felt he could do better.
He decided to give it a shot with Steidl, the gold standard of the photo book publishing world. As it transpired at the party, Brad knew the ending of this story, but I didn’t. So I got to express my surprise in real time.
Jamey hired a very reputable book designer to help him make a BLAD, an industry term for a mockup. Once done, they made a digital version as well. Jamey then set up a series of digital download incarnations, including Dropbox and WeTransfer. He was meticulous, he told me, and made sure it was absolutely perfect.
Then, having invested time and money into the potential book, he emailed it directly to Gerhard Steidl. How did he get the email address, I asked? It’s right on the website, apparently.
Jamey got an automated response the next day saying that they don’t accept digital submissions, so could he please submit a traditional paper version. But the next day, he got notification that the digital submission had been downloaded by Mr. Steidl. (Thank god for notifications, I suppose, which are normally annoying as hell.)
An hour later, he got an email saying that they wanted to publish the book. WTF? I bet he hollered louder than a drunk Texan skiing fresh powder, when he read that note.
Now, before I paint a picture that the book is free, so he’s the big winner of 2014, hold tight. Jamey told me he books helicopter time in massive amounts to get the aerial photos he seeks. He is a successful commercial photographer, but still, that shit costs money. So he invested in the work itself, and then in the preparations for a book, in order to get the end result he wanted.
“It takes money to make money” is a tenet of business for a reason.
Brad’s story is similar. He spent a bunch of his own resources hiring animal trainers, and traveling the country, as I speculated in the book review a few weeks ago. It was money he earned in his day job as a commercial photographer, but he chose to reinvest it in his art. This was a project he had to make, and it took three years.
At some point, a gallery in London had heard of his work, and bookmarked his website. They were negotiating with another fine-art animal photographer for gallery representation, but the deal fell through. They happened to go back to Brad’s website, saw that he had the new “Affinity” project up, and they offered him a contract and subsequent exhibition forthwith.
Brad decided to go all in, and made the prints 40×60, framed in museum glass, for the London exhibition. The cost was steep. But the show was a big hit, and the gallery hired a PR firm to get the word out. Brad specifically asked them to target book publishers, as he was hoping to make a book out of the project. And he knew he was putting his best foot forward.
Sure enough, a representative from Prestel came to the show, was smitten, and offered Brad a book deal. Like Steidl, they don’t ask the artist for any contributions. And they even gave Brad an advance. Very unlike the stories we’ve been warning you about, where less reputable publishers will take your $30,000-$50,000, as long as you have it.
Each artist stressed to me that they felt like this happened to them because they’d been working towards it for a long time. Separately, they each spoke of talent alone as an over-rated concept. You have to buckle down and be patient, if you’re going to get anything achieved.
They both put themselves in a position for good things to happen, they said, rather than feeling like they got lucky.
Each project was done out of passion and necessity. They invested their resources in themselves, because they believed if they were interested in the stories they were telling, others might be too. They had faith in themselves, but also told me they weren’t worried about outcomes while they were making the work.
Both guys were making photographic projects based upon major changes being wrought during the early stages of the 21st C. (Disappearing wildlife, emerging alternative technology.) They both found that things worked out in the end. (What? I’m American. I like happy endings.)
The moral here, though, is that nobody gets off for free. I accept that. When we make art, we invest time, money, psychic energy, and sometimes more than that. There are no guarantees.
Brad and Jamey both echoed each other, with respect to their attention to detail, serious preparation for when the moment was right, and a willingness to bet on themselves. I think we can all learn from that.