APE field reporter Jonathan Blaustein brings us his impressions from the PDN 2010 Photo Plus Expo.
Hola. This is the first of several stories I’ll be filing for A Photo Editor about the New York Photo Scene. Rob asked me to fly in to the City to cover the PDN Expo, so that’s where I’ll begin. For those of you who haven’t read my articles in the past, let me provide the barest of backstory. I’m a Taos, NM based artist/photographer/teacher, and write about photography as well. Though I’ve dabbled in some small-time, local, commercial work in the past, I would not consider myself a working professional.
I make conceptual images, most recently a series called “The Value of a Dollar,” that was featured in The New York Times last month, and I show the prints in galleries and museums. So please read this and subsequent pieces with that in mind. I’m no critic, and don’t profess to have a working knowledge of the inner facets of the industry. I’m just a dude from Jersey with opinions who used to live in New York, and now lives in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Let’s call me a Reluctant Rancher.
So with dirt in my boots, I arrived at the Javits Center bright and early last Thursday for the opening of the PDN Expo. Though I must have been there at least once as a kid, I couldn’t believe how big the place was. Before I even made it in the door, I realized that this was going to be a much bigger deal than I had imagined. (And confusing as well. The building’s designers were not fans of intuitive planning. I got lost five times before I felt any sense of direction.)
PDN was kind enough to grant me a press pass so that I could sit in on the professional seminars and share my findings with you, the APE audience. So that’s where I began, at 9: 30 am, before the Expo floor had opened. My first visit was to a grant writing seminar, moderated by David Walker of PDN that featured Yukiko Yamagata from OSI, Justine Reyes, a friend and photographer, Ellen Liberatori from NYU, and photographer Brenda Anne Kenneally. I was pretty shocked to learn that 75% of grant applicants are summarily dismissed for failing to know what they are actually applying for. Apparently, simple professionalism is in short supply. The advice that I gleaned and will now pass on: do your homework. Know what an organization funds, read the paperwork, follow the rules, do what’s asked of you, be concise, sell yourself, and get a personal contact if possible. (92% of grant recipients have had prior contact.) Help them help you. And of course, the more organized you can be, the better.
After chatting briefly with Yukiko, who was gracious enough to meet with all the people who waited for her afterwards, I met up with Justine and we grabbed a quick bite before the next speaker. (They had a tasty pasta bar. Consider me impressed.) Fed and hydrated, we headed to the Keynote Address, which was delivered by a photographer named Chase Jarvis. It was Standing Room Only, and people seemed excited by his presentation. I tried to engage, as his ideas about interactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative process were certainly au courant… but I couldn’t do it. My Gen-X snark sensor was on Orange Alert, and I couldn’t help but see Mr. Jarvis as a Hipster Tony Robbins, bouncing around the stage in his shiny converse sneakers. My apoligies. But other people seemed to like it…
From there, Justine and I headed up to the Expo floor for the first of many turns about the room. What can I say? Have you been there before? If so, you’ve probably got a sense of it. I felt quite the rube, though, and was temporarily awestruck by the bells, whistles, music, Sony BMX halfpipe, and gyrating models. (Yes, Nikon had a modeling stage where a super-hot Brazilian model danced for a throng of middle-aged photographers with big cameras. And she was apparently well-paid, because when I interviewed her, she refused to bite the hand that fed her. “Just a job,” she said.)
The floor must have been two football fields long and one wide, and camera and accessory companies were everywhere. Canon and Nikon were the biggest, not surprisingly, and put on lectures throughout the day that were well attended. Olympus had the next biggest booth, I believe, and smaller companies of every sort were lined up in booths around the outside. I can’t even begin to name their services. Bags, printing companies, personalized USB flash drives, book makers, book sellers, paper trimmers, backdrop makers, popcorn shrimp, fried shrimp, I mean everything. And people were browsing, and people were buying.
It seemed to function pretty well as a marketplace. I interviewed a few photographers and enthusiasts, and they each said more or less the same thing. They love to come to the Expo to take a look at the new products, touch things and play, and then they always buy a few items they need. Photographer Richard Bram needed some paper, so he relished the opportunity to look firsthand, and then buy some. From the constant glint of credit card magnetic strips I saw flashing about, I’d say that many people do the same.
At one point on our circumnavigation, Justine got a tingle in her spider sense, and two minutes later we stood in front of Aperture’s booth. A very nice lady asked us if we had heard of Aperture, and wondered if we were aware of what they did. We let her know straight away that we were artists, and therefore fans. Shockingly, it turned out that the Aperture Representative, who was actively seeking new subscribers, was none other than Michelle Dunn Marsh, the Co-Publisher. And her fellow Co-Publisher, Dana Triwush, was standing beside her engaging with Expo-goers as well. That’s right. Aperture didn’t send interns. They brought out the big guns.
Luckily, in my capacity as APE correspondent, I was able to get an interview with Ms. Marsh, and she, Justine and I had a great conversation for 20 minutes. She was thoughtful and exceedingly smart, and shared the perspective that as artists, if we want to get a book published, which so many of us do, then we need to buy more books. Much as we want people to support our careers by buying prints or hiring us, she pointed out that publishers need support too. Especially non-profit publishers. Community was a buzzword for the day, and the week for that matter, but it was interesting to hear Ms. Marsh suggest that the community needs to support publishers to keep them healthy. I’m always open to a good idea, so I renewed my subscription on the spot. (I signed my name on an IPad with my index finger…it felt a little naughty, like eating cake for breakfast.)
She also made an interesting comparison between photography at the dawn of the super-DSLR, and the graphic design industry when the first Macintosh computers came to market. Technology shook that industry to the core as well, yet 20 years later, design is as important as ever, and professionals are doing just fine. So fear not, everything will sort itself out eventually.
Feeling like a good pretend-journalist for getting the scoop from Aperture, I headed back downstairs to the seminars to hear consultant Mary Virginia Swanson and publisher Darius Himes talk about their new book, Publish Your Photography Book. The presentation tracked the structure of the book, which is due out in February, and was as thorough as you can imagine. The two experts basically put their heads together and spent eight years amassing all the specific knowledge and information a photographer might need to get a book conceived, created, and marketed. (Most important: understand how your audience can be expanded beyond the photo world.) I’m not sure why we’re all so obsessed with having a book of our work. Posterity, I suppose. Something to outlast us, to collect dust when we’ve become dust. But everyone does seem to want one, myself included, and Ms. Swanson and Mr. Himes have created the ultimate resource to Get-R-Done. A Must Buy for 2011.
I bounced upstairs once again to meet photographer Chris Cappoziello, a friend from LOOKbetween, for a quick coffee, and to do one more lap around the insanity. I kept stepping in and out of the Expo to get a sense of the vibe. It was hopping, no doubt. Based upon the consumption I witnessed, we’re probably closer to the end of the economic drama than the beginning. And there were people at every booth, the sole exception I saw all day was a dude representing an upcoming photo festival in China. He had no one to talk to. Go figure.
The last lecture I attended was a fascinating panel talk about the future of magazine publishing moderated by the aforementioned Michelle Dunn Marsh of Aperture. She was joined by Sacha Lecca, photo editor at Rolling Stone, Whitney Johnson, picture editor at the New Yorker, Lisa Kereszi, an artist and editorial photographer who shoots for The New Yorker, and Gregg Hano, the VP Group Publisher of Bonnier Tech Group, which publishes American Photo and Popular Photography, among other magazines. Each presenter gave a 10 minute mini-lecture, and then they did a group discussion.
Tired as I was at the time, though properly caffeinated, I have to say they were a really interesting group. I learned a lot, and was engaged the entire two hours. Hard to believe. What can I share? Once again, I heard “Do your homework” again and again. Can there really be that many photographers out there who don’t get it? The editors stressed… know the content of the magazine you’re approaching, be polite, know people’s names, and get some human contact whenever possible. So there’s that. But I also learned, much as many people darkly suspect, no one gets a job from a bulk email. Pretty much never. So if you want to get your work seen, do the heavy lifting of networking and pavement pounding. And be honest with yourself about where your work will and won’t fit.
I also heard the word IPad at least 300 times in two hours. IPad IPad IPad… IPad. Steve Jobs appears to have come to the rescue of the publication industry, because the panel seemed to belive that the tablet device was perfect for delivering content, and more of it. (ie., 6 photos on the IPad to supplement 1 in paper, complete with a link to video.) It can generate income, and complement a paper edition as well. The also discussed the fact that websites are seen by a certain audience as valid an incarnation of the brand as the paper copy. (ie, younger readers.) There was definitely a sense that wraparound marketing is here to stay, and will help build up the viability of these companies so they can hire more photographers. Workshops, contests, Fashion Photo Fantasy Camps, events, higher subscription fees, IPad apps, and of course, paper copies, all converging into one businessmodel stew. As Mr. Hano said, “Right now I would consider any way to monetize anything.”
When the panel wrapped, after nine hours of listening, learning, talking and zigzagging around the Javits Center, I headed back out into the city proper. I stopped by a couple of exceedingly crowded openings in Chelsea, which was kind of like being packed into a subway car with a bunch of obnoxious rich people, so I couldn’t see the art. From there, I went to a Review Santa Fe Alumni party in the Meat Packing district, which was very cool, and then headed home with sore feet and a tired brain. (Subway drama ensued… I’ll spare you, but there were a lot of rats involved.)
I hit the PDN bash the following night with my friend Cori Chandler-Pepelnjak, after stopping by the Blurb/Hey Hot Shot party at a Pop-up store in Soho. (Picture white leather sofas, white shag carpet, and red wine. Lots of books, 22 year old kids, free beer, and pretty much everyone seemed to agree that Blurb is doing a great job at the moment.) But back to the Bash, which was held on the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River. When Cori and I arrived, we followed the crowd and ended up on the top deck, with airplanes in the foreground and the NYC skyline to the East. Insane Photo Op. But of course then we felt like idiots when we couldn’t find the actual party. (Downstairs, duh.)
Inside, I got to catch up with Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog, who run the LOOK3 photo fesitval, and put on the LOOKbetween event in Virginia that I chronicled for APE back in June. They were fired up for LOOK3 this June, and I was grateful for the opportunity to thank them in person for their hospitality. Since Summer, I’ve really kept up the friendships that I made over the beer and bonfires, and I know that was their intent. The reality is that curating conversation is a skill, or perhaps an art, and Andrew and Jenna did a killer job bringing people together.
I sifted through the crowd of Industry types for a while, and then decided to call it a night. It was the kind of event where everybody seemed to know everybody, and I didn’t. So at that point, far too beat to really work the room, I headed off into the Megalopolis. Really, I can’t imagine a more dense experience, as far as information gathering goes. Between the Expo floor, the seminars, and even the portfolio reviews, PDN really offers photographers a chance to absorb a year’s worth of knowledge in a few days. I’m still sorting things out a week later, and feel rather fortunate that I had the chance to attend.