Fly’n Photographers

A reader asks me about sending people all over the world to shoot jobs when many times perfectly capable photographers are already there. This mirrors another comment about Vanity Fair sending someone from NY to Durham, NC to shoot a picture of a house.

I’ll start with VF. I didn’t see the piece but I’d be willing to bet when they first conceived of the photography they were thinking the house could be the lead image and as is the case with many, many, stories that are handed to me where the events have already taken place the image you think will be the lead never ends up there. In fact my whole strategy in a situation like this is to figure out what CAN be photographed and attach a great photographer who can make something dynamic out of it because the competition is going to be some matter-of-fact AP image or mug shot that may be sensationalist but does nothing to further the story and reads more like evidence. Editors are fine with this.

As a side note, it’s beyond my comprehension why anyone would buy a magazine to see matter-of-fact photography. It’s available everywhere all the time.

With regards to flying photographers from NY or LA to another country it comes down to trust. There’s a formula that my gut calculates for me in situations like this where x is the cost of plane ticket and hotel and y is the chance a photographer already living there whos work you like will fail and z is the cost of a reshoot and n squared is the number of failed shoots that have occured in the last 3 months and p is the current level of trust the Editor and Creative Director have in my skills as a DP. Phew. That a nasty algorithm that, as you may have guessed, works about as good as google image search.

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. This, like a lot of your posts, have been reassuring to me, as I’m sure they’ve been to other photographers out there. It’s pretty daunting trying to make a living when there’s the wire service leviathans everywhere all the time. Their pictures are generic and lacking in poetry, sure, but price seems to rule a lot of photo editors’ buying. Now with royalty-free pictures showing up in print every so often, the situation feels even more dire. Good to hear a different perspective from an editor…

  2. Its interesting to get this opinion and surly it varies from periodical to periodical – Trust and faith on the photographer who can produce work in a consistent basis minimizes the worries on the part of the budget to get the work done properly… Not all editors have the option – but its reasuring that budget is not a principal driving force.

  3. “As a side note, it’s beyond my comprehension why anyone would buy a magazine to see matter-of-fact photography. It’s available everywhere all the time.”

    You blog anonymously, but this comment narrows the possible magazines you work for to the few out there with great photography. Keep this up and you’ll give away your secret identity.

    ;)

  4. In the Duke rape case situation the formula wasn’t as precise and the created imagery was all pretty bad (not that they had much to go on and VF’s was one of the better versions). I remember pretty clearly because the house where it all went down was literally my next door neighbors, and my best friend who still lived in our house became the “unreliable witness” (I had already moved down to Miami a few of months before-hand, but it was surreal even from a distance).

  5. Photographer

    I live outside of a major city, not New York and not Los Angeles.

    Vanity Fair has sent me to two locations far away from my home base.

    I was the right person for the shoot. I delivered the goods.

    Right person, right job. If not, they would have hired someone who was a better fit.

  6. John – that’s why I used the Duke photos as the example because it was so extreme: bad photos in a great magazine. I rarely criticize photography I see printed because I never know the circumstances of the job; as we all know, opportunity is easily 1/2 the equation.

    PE’s point about trust is huge. That’s what portfolios are all about; yes, show differentiated work that’s visually exciting but it had better be repeatable and instill trust in the buyer. The disconnect comes when the mundane is encouraged by circumstance, budget, the risk averse, or laziness, then all bets are off – let’s go with brand X.

  7. I don’t really want to the crazy guy who’s always ranting (really, I don’t) but many things in this recent post just don’t make sense to me. Trust, in my opinion, cultivates a certain “safety” quality that ultimately results in every major magazine on the newsstand dominated by a handful of photographers, all of whom work within several degrees of sameness. Hence, every magazine on the market becomes interchangeable with the others on the market. Today, you can pick up any magazine and in it you will find pretty near technically flawless portraits of people all incredibly well light without any sort of shadow or bit of stray light anywhere unless it’s there for dramatic effect. The images ultimately become sterile and soulless. This has happened all the time and comes in waves — late 80s, 90s was the heyday of Annie Liebowitz’s highly stylized propping, almost conceptual work (which is why, in an earlier post, you had an art director come to you and say couldn’t you get a photographer to pose the subject jumping of a diving board with a poodle or something?). Tons of magazines back there had this type of work in it – there’s a direct line between an Annie Liebowitz image and a David La Chappelle image …both different ends of the spectrum but ultimately similar. And in between was all the imitators who assumed that mantle because they filled a need –Liebowitz or La Chappelle were trusted names but unavailable, let’s at least go with a look that’s maybe similar and safe. Maybe that’s the reason everyone these days are enamored with Terry Richardson … first off, a Jefferson Hack or Vice Magazine handed a title of “oh, he’s cool” and, second, his work looks different than what’s on the newsstands today – albeit people are mistaking camera-mounted flash for soul.

  8. I’m gonna make like Helmut Newton and move to Monaco.

    That way, clients will have to fly me in for ALL shoots, and I also get the benefits of living in a tax shelter country the size of a postage stamp.

  9. @ Mike: I really don’t understand your point. This is a business that uses artists (just like making movies or music or books) to make money. The way it behaves is based in economics.

  10. I’m not denying the fact that this is a business based on economics. I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with the conversation we’ve having though? Are you saying that, because of the economics involved, you have little choice but to keep using the same stable of photographers that consumers might be comfortable with? My point was an elaboration of the editor not really utilizing local talent, instead going for the same tired and true product that they trust and are used to – which results in homogeneity. Not sure what that has to do with the economics of the situation? I understand your point of the math formula of failed shoots, re-shoots, etc. but that is so provincial in my opinion and, frankly, goes against my own personal experiences.

  11. “because of the economics involved, you have little choice but to keep using the same stable of photographers that consumers might be comfortable with?”

    Well …. yeah, I think that’s a huge part of it.

    Mike makes great points about art v. imitation v. influences – but … hmmm … maybe it’s because of my background but ya can’t avoid economics when there is money involved.

  12. This post is a little discouraging for me. As a photographer still on the emerging side of things it is difficult when photo editors always go with the same big name guys, fly them into my home town and aren’t willing to take a risk on someone new and already there like me. Do you ever think of using a local person who will work for less and then if it completely flops (which hopefully it doesn’t) send in the big guns? Of course I know that the risk of a failed shoot is not a place that you want to go, but taking risks on new talent can often pay off. Although at the same time I’m sure it’s great for the photographers that you like to have such loyalty from you. I remember doing a biology project on men and women’s evolutionary motives in life. It seemed as though their wants and needs would never meet. Is it the same for photogs and photo editors?

  13. Kate, don’t get discouraged. When I worked in the photo dept. of a well known lifestyle magazine, we took chances on new talent all the time. In fact, most photo editors take chances on new talent all the time, when they can. It’s part of what makes a good photo editor; there’s that chance they’ll discover that ‘next best thing’ in doing so. Several years ago, we took a chance on this little known guy named Jason Fulford, and he’s pretty in demand now.

    “Do you ever think of using a local person who will work for less and then if
    it completely flops (which hopefully it doesn’t) send in the big guns?”

    That’s the problem, the photographers that are hired are already working for a pretty low rate. There’s virtually no money in editorial, so these photographers aren’t making much in the first place. Secondly, sometimes there’s very little turnaround time, which leaves no time for second chances. That’s the pressure of being a photo editor. You hire the right guy to do the job right the first time (hopefully).

    Believe me, photo editors take chances all the time on new talent- especially on smaller front of book stories. Just have a strong book with a strong edit to get your foot through the door.

  14. local yocal

    kate, rest assured. you do get those chances. I am in the same position as you. emerging photog in a major metro area, that’s not ny or la. and I have been getting calls no problem from plenty of ny mags. not always the assignment you imagine but, people are willing to try you out. and you do get good ones from time to time. just make sure they can find you. i think that is the most important thing. You won’t be getting calls to do covers in your town. for that they fly the ny guy in. but, if there’s something they need for the front or back of the book they will probably look in your city for someone first.

    make sure you’re listed on pdn’s photoserve. i think that’s where everyone has found me. there or through a promo piece.

  15. Matthew and local yocal,
    Thank you for your uplifting comments. You have both been very encouraging. I will check out pdn’s photoserve. Have a good weekend all!
    Kate.

  16. Mark Salinger

    Mike Whoever wrote:

    >>>>Today, you can pick up any magazine and in it you will find pretty near technically flawless portraits of people all incredibly well light without any sort of shadow or bit of stray light anywhere unless it’s there for dramatic effect. The images ultimately become sterile and soulless.>>>>

    In these modern times, like it or not, it comes down to da’ money. Always. The advertisers probably love it when their ad is in a “hip cool now” publication, and maybe their ad looks better when it’s nearer editorial that’s hip/cool/now. Plus, whether they’d admit it, the PE’s are, many times, “about the money” too, and it always seems to be “about the promotion” or “moving on to the next cooler magazine (or agency)”, or sadly, in these cost-cutting times, even about “keeping your job”.

    So, if it’s not a celebrity story, then, even the normal-people stories will be slicked up enough to make them look like celebrities, a la Nadav Kander in last Sunday’s Magazine. Again, it’s about the money. Yes, it might be about telling a story, true, but if you can tell a story, and then make it cool also, then I’d say you’d be scoring points with the guys in the Big Office.

    For the most part, the days of Eugene Smith, and Life Magazine, and Look Magazine, and even Arbus’ stories, are long gone. Rolling Stone throws in a Salgado story every now and then, but they just know that no Maxim teenager is really going to read that; they probably do it cleanse the guilt a bit, and try to say that they still have morals and ethics.

  17. Kate,

    Look at it this way. This is an entertainment based industry, it’s all about buzz, what’s in fashion, what’s hot and in vogue. Some us are able to manipulate the industry or are at the right place at the right, geographical , cultural and political place ( I mean the socio-political meaning of “political” here).

    May be you went to art school with the right crowd at the right school, may be you did not, may be you have pap’s money, or your mother is Gloria Vanderbilt. The point I am making here is that at the end of the day, you have to either manipulate the market, if you care to do so or can do so, depending on your personality, and change it to suit your style and sensibilities; or simply do your personal work and not care as to wether you get hired .

    You most likely will be successful if your work is with the parameters of the contemporary zeitgeist. If you are producing a product which is not in sink with the times, are either too late or too early, too off, you probably won’t be.

    Look at me, case in point, I believe that my personal work is rather great, excuse the arrogance here for a minute, I just want to make a point. But my work is so me, so idiosyncratic, that editors have not ideas-what to do with it because it does not allow them to, and I can’t blame them(believe me I have had this private discussion with a number of top tier PEs in this country). In short, if it is not illustrative enough, if it does not work within today’s market, if you can’t show that your work lends itself to producing a product commensurate with the demands placed upon those who hire you; you are in for a schlep.

    It does not mean that my work is not appreciated or admired, it just means that I am off the mark commercially. Now, what can I do about it, after bashing my head on a concrete parapet. Well I get back to work and develop a new book which will take into consideration the vagaries of the market, not my personal creative vision, and develop a new style which to some degree mimics what is a sure fire thing, I hate to say it but we all have to do this, if we want to be working, earning photographers. And don’t think for a minute that the Fine art world thinks any differently.

    It is a difficult realization to have to make but editorial and advertising work for the most part, I would venture to say 95% of it, relies on what falls within an acceptable range of what is “visually” acceptable and contemporary.
    It does not mean that if you won’t get some work or that you work sucks or that you are doomed to dredge the shadows with a pitch fork ( it often does but still that’s besides the point here, I am speaking hypothetically here).

    If you are not one of these trend setters or do not care to be one, or are geographically unable to move to LA or NYC (after all, all politics is local), you have to study the market and to some extend create within its parameters, that is, if you what to make a living.

    It’s a hard lesson to learn and a humbling one but one you must learn. It is not a cop out either. You turn around and take the money you make being “a sell out”, and plow it back into your business and your personal work, the reason why you got into this %&^%# business in the first place.
    They just forgot to mention what I have just told you. You are in the “contemporary taste” business now. What you do with the money you make, doing the work you thought you did not want to do , is entirely up to you. Just don’t forget to not get sucked in and forget why it is you decided to become a photographer in the first place. Try to get to a place where you are not always chasing ambulances, including those of your own making.

  18. I can see your point about not wanting risk using a small market photographer to shoot a high pressure time crunch of a job, but I’m always amazed at the number of NY/LA photogs coming into Chicago to shoot jobs. I know several people here in Chicago who keep NY cell phones and po boxes and pretend to live there they say they get more work in Chicago being from NY then they ever did when they where just Chicago photographers. Is there a certain cache in being a NY/LA photog, should I get a NY phone and po box too, I know plenty of people in both cities who could forward my mail.

  19. Actually, better yet, just get a skypein number.
    I know someone who ran a “Berlin-based” office from a VOIP phone in NYC.

  20. It’s not small vs. big market it’s people I’ve worked with vs. people I don’t know.

    The comments have taken this post in a different direction that explores why NY magazines are so in love with NY photographers.

    Olivier nails it with the visually acceptable comment. Popular photography sells magazines and attracts advertisers. It’s not just the consumers. The art directors, editors, ceo’s, cfo’s, media buyers, publishers all want to see the visually acceptable photography in their magazine. So, that’s where the money is and that’s why we behave the way we do.

    If you live in Chicago but “knock off” the style of a popular NY photographer I guarantee you will be the busiest photographer in Chicago. Guaranteed.

  21. If anyone here wants a Master Class in the best editorial work, just follow the annual books of the SPD (Society of Publication Designers). A friend turned me on to these, and they will inspire you, and also make your outtie turn into an innie, due to the extremely high caliber of work.

    Here’s one:

    http://tinyurl.com/yv93pc

  22. The Photo Editor writes: “The art directors, editors, ceo’s, cfo’s, media buyers, publishers all want to see the visually acceptable photography in their magazine. So, that’s where the money is and that’s why we behave the way we do.”

    For the sake of discussion, is Terry Richardson, whom the photo editor appreciates, (as do I) an example of “visually acceptable photography?” Not a trick question but begs a clarification of hiring a photographer who is visually forward vs. one whose work is immediately “acceptable”. I think Terry is certainly acceptable within certain contexts but far more narrowly in others.

    I loved Olivier’s post, but at the same time see a slippery slope in stating “… I get back to work and develop a new book which will take into consideration the vagaries of the market, not my personal creative vision, and develop a new style which to some degree mimics what is a sure fire thing, I hate to say it but we all have to do this, if we want to be working, earning photographers”

    While I do agree that we have to consider the context of the world at large, I think the most compelling work comes from photographers who seem to point to the future rather than the current context. So in balance to Olivier’s excellent points, while true, I’d just like to point out that it is equally dangerous for photographers to study the existing market too closely trying to get a handle on the current zeitgeist, because by the time they truly ensconce their work with the nuances and not so subtle aspect of what’s out there, that zeitgeist is likely waning. Unless, of course, you can just don someone else’s style quickly like a rain jacket.

    Where would Terry Richardson be if he followed this example?

    I’ve been doing a particular style of imagery for 5 or 6 years and it’s mimiced quite a lot now, basically meaning it is gaining visual acceptability, and I’m actuallly convinced I need to do exactly the opposite of continuing within the range of this particular visual acceptability.

    I’m curious if this discussion isn’t more keenly aimed at the evaluation of risk of bringing home compelling images every time out, rather than risk of failing to provide something deemed “acceptable”.

    I’m not a photo editor and I’m pretty convinced I’d be awful at it, as awful as I am at editing my own work, but I would have thought if I was a photo editor, that editorial ‘risk’ would be failing to find a photographer who could come back with a compelling and uniquely crafted photograph that speaks to the zeitgeist of my publication or my stories every time out, first and foremost.

  23. George,

    If Art is, as Pablo proclaimed, the elimination of the unnecessary, I might like to add, if I may, that if necessity is the mother of invention, then art is also the unnecessary marriage of the ideal and the mundane, or is it the red eye to NYC?

  24. BTW, Terry Richardson is more than visually acceptable. He is the perfect storm of irony, narcissism, self-gratification, relativist voyeurism and the fringes. He reflects and imitates a perfectly detached and adolescent image of that all powerful and elevated demographic age. A perfectly bankable visual masquerade selling ad rates.

    PS: Afore mentioned without bitterness or rancor, it’s just the way it is, all the power to him.

  25. Yeah, Terry is mainstream really. GQ and Nike are his clients. Not exactly cutting edge. He’s one of the few “named” photographers that editors and other non PE types can try and impress me by name dropping.

    I think what’s “hot” changes faster in advertising.

  26. Just to be clear my point wasn’t that Terry Richardson wasn’t visually acceptable, which I stated I felt he “is certainly acceptable”. The question is how many Terry Richardsons would there be if they followed the mantra to be “visually acceptable” first and foremost.