Those Photos Suck

I worked with an editor once who–fairly often when I brought him photos–would tell me the photos sucked. I would then try to tell him that no, you’re using the wrong words, you should be saying “I don’t like those photos” which is fine because you’re an editor and therefore you know nothing about photography. This is why I work here.

In the editorial and advertising world, photos are good when they do their job, but it all depends on where you’re standing.

I’m standing over here with other mainstream consumer magazines. My magazine has a specific agenda that involves overshooting our audience’s taste in photography to attract elitist advertisers, favorable press and awards from the NYC photo mafia.

If you’re standing over in corporate head shot universe there’s no need to get all Terry Richardson on their asses because that will get you fired because it’s bad photography.

So, when I think about who’s the best photographer in Canton, Ohio it has nothing to do with who’s the best at shooting things people in Canton actually need pictures of it’s who’s the best at emulating the NYC editorial style I need to do my job.

Usually, when my editor doesn’t like photos it means I’m doing my job.

Finding an Agent

Our friendly neighborhood agent over at AVS has a post on getting an agent (here). Let’s head on over there and see what’s up.

Photography News Links

LaSalle Bank which recently sold to Bank of America has a 5,000 piece photography collection.

London editor to Anne Geddes “If I can give you some advice, just photographing babies is never going to work for you. You need to broaden your portfolio to include adults and animals.”

Photographer Lynn Blodgett has a demanding day job: He’s president and chief executive officer of Affiliated Computer Services, Inc., a Dallas-based Fortune 500 company… [but he still found time to create a] ..remarkable monograph, Finding Grace: The Face of America’s Homeless (Palace Press, $55), which American Photo included in its January/February portfolio of the Best Photo Books of the Year.

College photographer of the year awards.

In exchange for the right to sell action shots of athletes to a hungry audience of parents, boosters and relatives, IHSA (Illinois High School Association) receives a virtually limitless library of images from the Cedarburg, Wis. company (Visual Image Photography Inc.) for its own promotional material. IHSA, which values the deal at tens of thousands of dollars, in turn prohibits credentialed media from selling their own pictures from championship events.

Corbis, the stock photography company controlled by billionaire Bill Gates, is close to being profitable for the first time ever…

The Agent AKA The Photographers Rep

Agents are of course the best way to find photographers. Sometimes when I’m in a huge hurry to find someone in a city that’s not LA or NY on photoserve, I just look for listings with an agent so I don’t have to click on every single link. I posted my list of photography agents over on the sidebar (here) for anyone who wants to browse them. For a photo editor a really good agent is like having an extra person in your office. You place the same trust in their skills that the editor or creative director places in mine so their ass is on the line too. Ha.

There’s 3 basic types of agent I deal with. Editorial friendly, advertising heavy and fashion flacks.

Editorial friendly agents know their photographers love to shoot editorial and will bend over backwards to accommodate any job. They can juggle the tightest schedule to land a shoot, are quickly back with an answer about availability, let you challenge a first hold and have several other capable photographers available should your first choice fall through. All this for a paltry cut of the $500/day fee. Since these shooters take so many editorial jobs I always try and accommodate when an advertising job suddenly lands on dates I’ve confirmed.

Advertising heavy agents tend to favor shoots with $$$ attached to them. I’ve got no problem with this at all, everyone needs to pay the bills, but some of these agent will stall you for days as they try and get the advertising jobs to land while keeping the editorial option alive. It’s really impossible to challenge a first hold and sometimes it’s impossible to get the agent on the phone to see what the hell is going on. Sometimes I just let it slide because these ad jobs can be a bit finicky but when I get burned I’ve lost 2 or 3 days and still don’t have a photographer.

Fashion flacks primary job is steering their photographers career and that means investigating any potential editorial jobs to see how they will benefit the photographers climb to the top of the fashion food chain. Who can blame them really, the fashion industry feeds heavily on the perception of cool and photographers who want to land the next big campaign or high profile editorial spread need to pay careful attention to their image. Get caught shooting for an uncool magazine or having your brilliant photos hacked to death by an incompetent photography director and you’re off the list.

Jackonary asked a few questions in a post (here):

Hey APE while we are at it and now that I am representation free whats your feeling on agents, are they a help or a hindrance, do you prefer to deal with them or the photographer direct and if you are not so keen on an agency in general does that taint your view of the individual talent. Does it help your cause if you are on an uber roster. Do you feel more safe and secure if the photographer has a safety blanket of support or do you just not care. Oh and do you huck agency promos in the trash too ! I would love to hear about your experiences and I think it may be enlightening. Any advice and insight would be appreciated as I go through my own transition. I don’t think you have really posted heavily on this topic yet.

When picking a photographer for the most part I don’t pay attention to who the agent is or even if they have one. Landing the photographer I’ve picked can sometimes be challenging if the agent doesn’t like the shoot or there’s big ad jobs floating as I indicated above.

I usually always go through the agent especially with photographers I have a long standing relationship with. That way if a photographer is not interested in a job the agent can turn me down and that always seems to work out better for everyone.

I think having a ringer photographer on the agency roster is critical. It gets your agent on everyone’s list and there’s just more of a chance someone will bump into you. There’s also a little bit of unspoken horse trading that goes on where hooking up the other photographers on the roster will give you a crack at the big shot.

I don’t really huck agency promos in the trash because they’re so expensive to create and I really feel bad doing it.

When you’re looking for a new agent I would look closely at the other photographers to get a feel for their taste in photography and then see what kind of jobs their other photographers are getting because that’s a pretty good indicator of the types of clients that have the agent on speed dial. Most of the agents out there have photographers who’s work kinda hangs together in one way or another and I think that has to do with their likes and dislikes and their ability to sell a particular style.

In the end the best agents have a little bit of each trait I described above. They manage the editorial clients well by keeping the process transparent, they keep the advertising clients happy by letting them float around the schedule at will and help photographers make smart decisions to steer their career.

The first time I ran into one of these really great agents I was putting a shoot together and kept trying to cut all these corners to save a little money here and there and the agent refused to allow it in the nicest way by saying “I just don’t think it will turn out the way you want if we do that.” After it was all over and the shoot turned out great I realized she was protecting her photographer because if the shoot failed I’m no longer a client and even worse if the shoot failed and I published the results many future clients will be lost.

Mobile Version

I just activated a mobile version of this blog. It detects when you’re visiting using a mobile device and configures the pages so you can read them and make comments.

I get to spend most of my life in the office but I know many of you are in the field sometimes standing around in airports or waiting for the assistants to set up the lights or waiting for talent to arrive or driving around in circles trying to find the set or sitting in the hotel bar smashing vodka waiting for the client to come down for dinner and you may want to check in and drop a comment.

Also, for the assistants, when the client is too cheap to get a hotel with wi-fi and you’re stuck in the hotel room washing 50 sheets of 665 Polaroid neg you can quickly upload a rant.

In The Public Record

I’ve just discovered that whenever we talk about a photographer here or even over in photo rank the pages show up pretty close to the photographers own website on google. Check out Brigitte Lacombe (here).

I’d like to ask that people commenting on these posts at least consider, that what they say will be permanently attached to the photographer. Imagine if I posted your website what kind of discussion you would like future clients to see when they google your name.



Why do magazines put actors on the cover? Face recognition? Popularity? Because everyone is dying to hear their political views and what kind of toast they eat for breakfast? No, there’s absolutely no correlation between an actors popularity and newsstand sales. It has to do with that elusive trait called charisma. Actors have the unique ability to forge an emotional connection with their audience on film. This is also why hiring a model with a perfect face and body and ignoring other more important qualities can turn into such a disaster for a photographer.

Casting models/talent is more difficult than most people realize and something every photographer needs to work on. It’s quite possible to build an entire career on the ability to cast great talent. If you can take a decent picture and possess that special ability to spot what makes a great subject on film you will go far in this business.

The funniest thing that always happens when people use models is they always pick one that looks like their wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or college roommate. It’s human nature to do that but you really need to train yourself to look beyond your own preferences and think about the client or end user. Look at the attributes the other models had in successful campaigns or stories you like.

If you need a smile, guess what? There are those who do and those who don’t. Genuine facial expressions, holding natural body position and the ability to fake like you’re doing something is an art that has nothing to do with looks and body type.

Anyone ever heard of Jack Black?

James Nachtwey

I used to think the tension in James Nachtwey’s photos came from the subject matter. Everything he shoots is so intense and scary how could there not be tension? I mean holy effing christ, you’re getting shot at or someone is telling you the horrors they experienced or you’re looking at the results of horrors they experienced and there’s got to be serious drama in any image made, right?

I sent Jim out on assignment once where I knew there was only the smallest percentage of a chance that something dramatic would happen. This is a very bad situation to send a photographer into, because the writer will draw on past events to manufacture drama when it doesn’t occur live which forces us into a situation where the editor wants to pull stock to create drama in the photography (I’m always on the lookout for these “traps” that are created when a writer oversells a story). When I heard nothing dramatic happened on the assignment I was prepared to be disappointed with the images not living up to the eventual rewrite of the story. But, hey wasn’t I surprised to see a couple images leading up to the drama that never happened, filled with tension and impending doom. Jim nailed it.

You see, the subject matter he shoots may be intense but Jim knows what he’s feeling or seeing doesn’t always translate directly to film so he uses the framing, timing and relationships between subjects and objects to create the tension.

Can you feel it?







Talent in Photography

Every month I get hundreds of promos and emails from photographers who have this business nailed down tight. It used to be really easy to spot the bad photographers with their lame promos and weak portfolios filled with blah subjects horribly lit in god-awful locations. Now, I get slick vibrant promos, leather bound portfolios brimming with beautiful prints, websites loaded with perfectly lit photographs of interesting looking people (celebrities even) in fascinating locations. On top of that; the pleasant and personal follow-up phone calls, thank-you cards, Christmas cards, prompt returning of emails and phone calls and a smart peppy studio manager on call 24/7 to handle any request.

Problem is, I can’t recall a single one of them, they all look the same to me. Perfectly executed photographs that make me want to take a nap.

In the digital age where taking a picture requires very little effort and all the professional secrets are laid bare any advantage photographers had from marketing and execution is now evaporating before us.

Professionalism will get you far in this business and even quite profitable but talent always trumps everything. You’re either born with it or you work very hard for many years to develop it. There will never be a shortcut.

I still call the photographer who dropped a memory card off a cliff (only half the shoot) and the one who sent me receipts from Russia stuffed in an envelope with no explanation (it’s very difficult to tell a dinner receipt from a midnight massage) and the one who doesn’t have a website (to busy shooting conflict) and the one who doesn’t return my calls for weeks on end (don’t think he likes me or my magazine much) because when I send them out on assignment they bring back images I could never have imagined.

Sometimes photographers take an “I could have done that” attitude when it comes to talent in this industry, but honestly, you can’t.

Colin Pantall

I really love these pictures taken by Colin Pantall who I found over in photo rank (here) and he was also featured on Conscientious (here) back in May. I really don’t have a specific need for this type of photographer because the scope of his work is so limited I’m not sure what I would hire him to shoot but I’ll never forget these images. I’m sure something will come up someday and I’ll have no problem remembering him.

That fact is worth noting.



Thanks for the Comments

I found this recently and while I know it applies directly to the Photo Rank website I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to the valuable post comments.

I appreciate the time and effort that goes into creating worthwhile comments to my posts.

Distributed karma

an idea for fixing recommendation systems

This sketch refers to systems where a group of users votes on material created/submitted by other members of the group (comments, links), such as reddit or digg. Therefore it doesn’t apply to movie/book recommendation systems, etc.

Vote-based commenting systems, forums, news aggregators have become widely popular, and are considered prominent examples of the web 2.0 phenomenon. The main assumption is that by collecting the opinions of a large number of people, one can somehow distill information that is meaningful for the individual. (“crowd wisdom”)

The system works surprisingly well for a small community of people, who share similar interests. It is efficient in removing spam and obnoxious comments/submissions, and promoting valuable material.

When one tries to scale such a recommendation system, several problems arise:

  • As the community grows, the quality of the average opinion declines. This doesn’t necessarily imply that most people are stupid. As users see their opinions having smaller and smaller effect, they spend less effort in making educated decisions and taking part in quality discussion.
  • As there are more and more users, the average user cannot remember a significant portion of the community, and the chance of finding material created by someone familiar becomes very small. There’s a much smaller chance for influential people to emerge. Newcomers don’t respect the established hierarchies, there aren’t any expert voices. (“Eternal September“)
  • As the community becomes more diverse, the standard deviation from the average opinion becomes larger, and one can hardly identify with it anymore.
  • It is a small minority of the whole community who votes, and this minority is not necessarily the most knowledgeable, etc. Even if everyone votes, expert opinions aren’t given any weight, opposing opinions cancel each other out. We end up having the average review of anything on the internet ‘3 stars out of 5’.[1]
  • Users can easily game the system, by creating multiple identities (sockpuppets), voting and commenting their own submissions, etc.

Towards a solution:

1. Karma.

A first idea would be to have a score of how reputable a user is (karma), then let the karma influence the weight each vote of the person carries. If the votes themselves generate karma for others, this…

More at Sunspot Software (here).

Photography News Links

At Stevie Wonder’s concert at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, photographers were told they could shoot only the first 5 to 10 seconds of Mr. Wonder’s entrance and the first 60 seconds of his first song. Then they had to leave.

Portraying love and loss in black and white, a group of photographers gives parents cherished images of their dead or dying newborns

Photographer Ashley Gilbertson Gets Personal in Iraq

Another writers strike video photographers will like

One more writers strike video

I’m a Photographer

Alright people, it’s almost Thanksgiving and I want to make sure you’re prepared to meet your aunt’s sister in law’s son who is also a photographer because you know how it is these days saying you’re a photographer is like saying you breathe air.

But, here’s the deal, you need a shit load of talent to become a “working photographer.” A shiiiiiiiiiit load. There is such a massive gulf between amateur and professional photography it’s really quite improbable how people can make the jump. I guess that’s the good news for pros. The bad? Enduring your new amateur photographer friend’s endless string of questions about camera type and file treatment and technique then the viewing of vacation photos on the ipod or blog or photo sharing site and then in my case the inevitable “if you ever need photos from the
Vesna Festival in Saskatoon Saskatchewan Canada, I was there last year and have a thousand shots.”

I’ve got nothing against amateur photographers and I’m more than happy to engage them in conversation about the business but this website is for working photographers, people who aspire to become working photographers, photo editors and art directors. I don’t give a crap if you hang out on flickr or myspace or zooomr because there’s plenty of good stuff happening there as well. But, if you come here to hang with us it’s to engage in conversation about working as a photographer at the highest level.

See you after the break.

Crushing it in the Local Market

One of my readers who works at PDN thought the recent discussion about doing time in NYC or LA, for 2 or 3 years, then moving where you want and mopping up would make a good magazine story. I agree. Based on the comments I’d say it’s the hottest topic we’ve covered so far.

So, let’s do PDN and ourselves a favor, so we can see a real reported and fact checked story on this. If you’re one of these photographers or happen to know one you can rat out send an email to: dwalker100 (at) comcast (dotz) net.

The Book AKA The Portfolio

The Agent at AVS (here) weighs in on the important issue of portfolios (So did Jackanory (here) but his is more about your style of photography) and I couldn’t agree more with all the points made. He mentions a massive heavy portfolio that was making the rounds awhile back that everyone remembers but no one seems to recall what was on the inside plus it always makes me think when a book is really over the top that someone is compensating for something.

Black, leather bound (possibly the wax), not too big and not too small with 25-35 pages (guessing since I never counted), embossed with your name. Find it here (link).

I seriously doubt having an incredibly original book would ever get you a job but not having a decent one will certainly be a mark against you. In the end all that matters is the photography.

I’m more of a website person–clearly–so I don’t really need to see a book but the oddest thing happened to me a couple weeks ago. Two photographers in a row came in and their books were quite a bit better than their websites. Must be because they tailored the book specifically for me and now I’m suddenly seeing some problems with the website portfolio.

Before sending the book back I always make sure and huck a promo in the trash. Photographers seem to like that better than my previous practice of not grabbing one.

The “Business” of Photography

Don’t know how I missed this comment from the “Crapshoot” post but It’s really good and worth bringing up front.

BRRRRRR wrote:

It’s admirable to think it could all be about the images, and it’s inspiring to think of the art world as a model. But this is about business, and business doesn’t work that way. Look at most of the content that goes into these stories or ads or whatever the assignments are: it’s silly crap to begin with. How can the hullaballoo that surrounds it not contain a degree of silly crap?

It’s pretty easy to sit outside the big markets and complain about how incestuous they are. Then you step into those big markets and you realize they contain whole universes. The competition is fierce. No, talent does not always rise to the top. But professionalism often does. A temperament and a capacity for managing the business environment, the clients and their often wacked out notions, peers, reps and agents, editors, the egos of all concerned, so on and so forth — and then on top of it to get shots: that’s what will get honed in those contexts. You don’t have to like it; hell, many of the people who go through it don’t *like* it. But most of those who manage to negotiate it one way or another will acknowledge they got something out of it, and that it made them “better” in some sense of the word.

Art, or voice, or vision, or whatever you want to call it, happens as an accident in this world. Everybody in the business is interested in it to some degree, but it’s rare that any of them get the chance to foreground it. Someone else’s expectations are always driving the car, and someone else’s credit card is always putting gas in the tank. Getting the job done — whatever the job is perceived to be by the ones who are paying for it — becomes priority one. Time matters; familiarity with the game matters; proximity matters; track record matters. You can’t blame people for minimizing risk when that’s part of what they’ve been explicitly charged with doing by the guys who put bread on their tables.

Also, the fact is that there are so many people working in those big markets that you often don’t *have* to go outside them. I guarantee you there are 20 young photographers in Brooklyn who don’t just know Nebraska (or wherever) but actually grew up there, and are willing to fly there tomorrow and work for a song. They are as hungry as anyone else, and a few of them might prove to be as talented. It may be vicious, but it’s also real.

Someone earlier nailed what may be one of the best strategies: do your time in a big market, endure it, get your game on, then take it to a smaller market and clean house. I have a good friend who did exactly that last year, leaving NYC after several tough but productive years and going to a smaller market, where he’s not just surviving but thriving, in part due to all he picked up.

Hiring New Photographers- In Action

I received an email from a fellow Director of Photography looking for a photographer who shoots like “so and so” but is less commercial and does smaller productions (you know, 1 assistant instead of 3, that kind of stuff). So I send her a list of people I like and we get on the phone to discuss.

We’re both going down the list clicking on websites and she’s telling me why each one won’t work for this. “Last shoot he did didn’t turn out” and “too static” and “too quirky” and “way to static” and “we use him all the time” and finally heeeeeeeey, who’s this guy he’s perfect.

Well, I tell her he’s been on my list for a year now but I’ve never hired him. And, she literally does the following: Clicks the client list, “good clients, lots of people I respect” and clicks the contact link “great agent, love the agent, solid reputation and tons of great photographers on their roster.”

I’m going to hire him, thanks.