Picture this: You’re out on a ship in the middle…
by D.A. Wagner
Being a seasoned professional means being an expert when it comes to lighting, directing, editing and post-processing an assignment because we are experienced with all the requirements of photography production. But where do we stand when it comes to reinventing ourselves, creating a fresh, new body of work, and marketing it effectively to a specific audience we wish to solicit? How do we find our strongest trait objectively and what do we do once we know what that is? And, most importantly, how do we know it’s going to be appropriate for the marketplace now?
Photo by D.A. Wagner
I labored for months thinking about these questions, not getting anywhere. I was sure that I knew what to do; I just had to do it, as they say. Problem was, I didn’t. I’m too close to my work, and marketing, well, marketing isn’t my strongpoint.
In Richard Sennett’s current book, The Craftsmen, he writes, “The good craftsman is a poor salesman, absorbed in doing something well, unable to explain the value of what he or she is doing.” This was written in the context of the London Great Exposition of 1851 as a response to what an economist of the time called, “a first exercise in mass advertising” by large companies machine-producing products. Not much has changed.
It used to be that each individual modality in our industry had its experts, but that model has been changing faster than the transistors on the computer chips of Moore’s Law. Ad agencies have more in-house services than ever before, and gone are the stat houses, the typographers and type setters, the production departments with drafting tables with t-squares, razor blades and rubber cement; even the messenger services have taken a big hit. Assignment photography, too, shrank exponentially, with the ad agencies going to stock photography with a serious vengeance.
It wasn’t until an APA seminar at Calumet on 22nd Street with photo consultant Selina Maitreya called, This Much I Know Is True, that I began to understand clearly the challenges I faced as they apply to the commercial photo industry.
After years of producing elaborate, complicated photography projects, and an absence from the industry, I was aware that my older work, though interesting, was not relevant in today’s ever more competitive marketplace. Next, I read Selina’s book, How to Succeed in Commercial Photography, Insights from a Leading Consultant, in a second effort to do it myself. Once again, I didn’t. Big surprise.
It was then that I took the leap and made the decision to contact Selina. Not a small investment by any stretch of the imagination, but instead of buying a new digital camera, I hired a consultant. This would turn out to be the smartest thing I’ve done in my career next to buying my first computer in 1984. But, like digital, there was a learning curve.
The first assignment Selina gave me was to create a very carefully chosen swipe file of four or five images of work I admired and would “kill for,” to have as my own. It was hard, winnowing down dozens of images to five. For some reason I believed my new direction should look like the old direction and the “to kill for” swipes showed it except for one image: a simple, elegant image by painter William Harnett, a trompe l’oeil painter from the 19th century whose work felt familiar and somewhat spontaneous, and in ways whimsical. He even was busted by the U.S. Government for counterfeiting, which I found wonderfully entertaining.
Looking at my swipe selection over the course of an hour or two with Selina, with me feeling nearly impotent at the thought of creating a body of 25 new images that somehow rivaled my heroes, Harnett stood out. It was Selina who pointed out that in my most recent personal stock work there were images that had fresh, clever humor and simple execution. Although my work had little relationship to the look of Harnett’s paintings, they had a similar spontaneous and whimsical feel and, with that, the seed was planted for a new vision. Now, all I had to do was come up with the concepts, shoot them, organize the structure of the content, make a new web site, make portfolio housings, print the pages and market it. The next 12 months of my life was about to be planned out.
Looking back at this beginning, it is no surprise that my first to attempts at new images were complicated and time consuming. I had enlisted the help of a model maker and art director and produced a couple of dark, brooding images that did nothing to convey the agreed upon vision I should be pursuing. Plus more than a month had gone by and they weren’t finished. My new work looked like my old work. Oops. Selina nixed the shots and asked me the question, “What is it you want to do?” I had to make a choice: fight Selina on this or accept the vision that had been carefully explored and identified as a strong characteristic of my photographic style. I gave in to my vision and started again.
Photo by D.A. Wagner
After a while this new style of working started to have a rather intuitive, natural and technically comfortable feel. I worked alone on the first few shots for the sake of flow. Unconsciously, a natural perspective and a vision evolved out of my years of experience. At first, I didn’t trust it; the process seemed too effortless. Yet after nearly a year of producing fun, new images for this portfolio, I’ve had to acknowledge my talent has become quite innate. I had become a master craftsman, not a charlatan wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes. And still, once and a while, I snuck in a dark brooding image.
Photo by D.A. Wagner
Selina proved herself a brilliant advisor and consultant–reviewing my work in ways I’d never considered, exploring color and content flow and the relationships between image design and the continuity of concepts, always keeping me on track. She abstracted out these elements from the work I was producing and furthered the project at our weekly meetings by shifting my subject matter from cosmetics to housewares to food and then leaving the concepts for me to develop. Her criticism was kind, but firm, never letting me digress from the vision and often challenging me on my choices. Sometimes (often, actually), I’d reshoot a concept multiple times before we both agreed it was the right image or decided it was wrong to begin with and scrapped the idea. It was the first time building a portfolio from the ground up in 20 years, and it felt like a masters program with private instruction.
In the end, I had done about 40 photographs and ended up with 26 final, select images. The book was “done,” but it will never be finished. It’s a work in progress. Remarkably nearly all the images have some stock potential, an added benefit I hadn’t considered.
Photo by D.A. Wagner
But wait, there’s more. This was only the first step in the process, and granted, without having built this new body of work, the rest of the process couldn’t happen. To be competitive, the portfolio had to be printed and bound in a housing that intimated the inner contents. The idea of going to the art store and purchasing a plastic-sleeved, black- covered portfolio case was simply out of the question for work that was to be presented to top notch art buyers, who look at the whole package. Selina steered me to her bookbinder, Scott Mullenberg, a wonderfully talented and creative craftsman, who patiently reviewed my needs for a portfolio housing, discussing color, size, texture and style. In the end, I had run short of cash and could not afford Scott’s amazing work. Refusing to be defeated, and being a do-it-yourself kind of guy, I decided to learn bookbinding at the Center for Book Arts. But that is another story and suffice it to say, they came out beautifully, all my fingers in tact.
Photo by D.A. Wagner
Now, the book is paginated and printed, bound, Tenba Air Case protected, and ready for it’s rounds. Selina has guided me through preparing an aggressive marketing strategy with an email and direct mail campaign and consistent follow up to seek out new clients–yet another part of the process I failed to do consistently before Selina.
Working with a consultant has changed the way I approach my work, the perspective of how others see me and how I see myself. Others may think it extravagant, but to me it is necessary. It’s more than a masters, it’s going for your Ph.D in photography and business with a private tutor: learning the nuance of portfolio development, marketing, follow up, and most importantly, a lesson taken right out of advertising agencies, creating a strong brand and image. Without it I’m just another photographer on the bottom shelf of the supermarket aisle hoping someone will notice me.
Photo by D.A. Wagner
Things to consider before hiring a consultant:
- Can you emotionally and financially commit to paying an expert to criticize your work? This is the biggest consideration, as there are no refunds…
- Conversely, can you afford to continue doing what you’ve always done, especially if that means struggling to make a living?
- Are you ready to accept a dialog of criticism and be challenged with every new contribution you make to your new vision (every photographer’s project of building a portfolio and marketing it will be different)?
- Can you let go of old habits and behaviors in order to get to your vision?
- Will you be able to go outside your comfort zone and address the issues that have kept you from doing this on your own? There are no good excuses when it comes to getting the work you need to do, done.
- Are you willing to be successful in spite of all odds? It is possible, but you must be willing to listen, follow instructions and complete assignments and be consistant. Remember, be careful what you wish for.
- Finally, if a consultant is out of your financial reach, and you are ready to commit to your own success, look into becoming a member the APA and signing on with Success Teams™, which has the following mission statement, “… to help each member of the team identify and clarify his or her own professional goals for success and accomplish them through encouragement, feedback, support and mutual accountability.”
D.A. Wagner has been a photographer, owner of a flash rental company, a photographer, co-owner of Photo District News, a photographer, founder of a Virtual Reality production company, a photographer, a designer and owner of a greeting card company, a photographer, a custom picture framer, and a photographer. No matter where D.A. goes, his dramatic tabletop still life photography follows him.
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