Category "Working"

Magazines Behaving Badly

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Awhile back I worked at a magazine that paid people really, really late. It wasn’t always that way but after the dot com crash cash flow became a problem (along with the bigger problem of advertising declines) and the genius CFO decided that rather than take out the usual line of credit to cover the times when the printing bill and payroll drained the account to the point where there was nothing left to pay contributors he decided to wait until late paying advertising accounts finally delivered a check. This of course saves the company whatever percentage of interest the line of credit would have charged for a cash withdraw and turned contributors into an interest free bank.

The reason this all happened in the first place is because advertising clients decided to stop paying their bills on time. Now that advertisers were in charge, they could set the terms of the deal and magazines had to just let it slide rather than penalize them like they had done in the past. So, really it’s the advertisers who are screwing everyone in this deal not just magazines screwing contributors.

So, every couple of months Getty and Corbis would turn off our account which we’d usually discover as we were trying to put the issue to bed causing much pandemonium in the production department and begging by photo editors to which they’d say “nope, you can’t have any images until we receive a check” and we’d have to FedEx a check to their accounting department. And, sometimes photographers would hold final prints hostage because we hadn’t paid them for the last job we did together, so we’d have to FedEx a check out before we could get the prints. I ended up spending more time then I should have listing to photographers yell and scream about payment and carrying our expenses on credit card and I tried to not take it personally.

One day I got a call from Mary Ellen Mark who’d recently shot a feature story for us. I was so proud that I’d landed her to shoot for the magazine and was so intimidated when I had spoken with her about the assignment and then when she’d called me from location to discuss the images she was getting and in general giving me an update on what was happening. Well, M.E.M. was not calling to tell me what a fabulous Photo Editor I was. No, she was calling to rip me a new one from head to toe because it had been over 90 days since she’d turned in a bill and had yet to receive payment and Christmas had passed and all those expenses we’d owed her would have come in handy. So, I sat there on the other end of the phone for a good 15 minutes possibly half an hour as Mary Ellen Mark shredded me into tiny little pieces and then stomped up and down on the pile of pieces and then loaded them into a cannon with a couple pounds of gunpowder and shot them out so they fell from the sky like confetti.

Some things are just out of your control but if you’re a part of a system that behaves badly you’ve got to take your lumps and go back to work and try to make it better. Just because you can get away with behaving badly doesn’t mean you should. Karma can be a bitch. Ask the record industry execs.

Ass in Seat Mentality

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I find the corporate workaholic mentality of, the longer you spend at your desk the better the product will become, utterly ridiculous and literally, ass-in-seat. The best ideas I ever came up with occurred on a morning run in the park in Connecticut not sitting in my office on 6th avenue or any office anywhere for that matter.

Jason Calacanis CEO of Mahalo started a raging debate over in the tech world with a line in a post about how to save money running a startup (here) that said “fire people who are not workaholics…” since revised to “don’t love their work.” He proceeded to get a good shredding from tech bloggers and my favorite response came frrom Signal vs. Noise (here) entitled “Fire the people who are workaholics!”

If your start-up can only succeed by being a sweatshop, your idea is simply not good enough. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something better that can be implemented by whole people, not cogs.

The business world is changing and it’s becoming harder and harder to find talented cogs. Corporations need a business plan that attracts whole people if they want to be around in 10 years. Well, that is unless you’re making cogs… cogs are still good for that.

Lost in a Sea of Glass

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I’ve run quite a few sporting event photos over the years but I’ve never really contemplated what goes into making one so I decided to join a friend shooting a week long sports event. My initial reaction after the first couple days is… ARE YOU FNG KIDDING ME. Where the hell did all these people with cameras come from? I shit you not, I saw soccer moms with 600mm Canon lenses. What the hell are you going to do with those photos? Put them in your scrapbook? There were literally thousands of people shooting pictures of every single person, place or thing you could imagine. I guess I’ve spent all my time sending people to events and buying stock photos but never attending to see what goes down. You photographers can certainly put up with a lot.

After my initial shock with the camera toting public I realized half these people are actually sporting press credentials representing all kinds of magazines, newspapers and even blogs. I’m all for shooting original pictures but if everyone is standing in the exact same spot shooting the exact same thing I’m not so sure I see the point.

The bottom line is, access is everything, which is not really news to anyone but reinforces the idea that bringing your personal vision to photography is the key to making it.

Low Budget Photographers

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I usually place photographers into one of three groupings according to how expensive I think they might be to work with. I’m not talking about the creative fee because that usually stays relatively the same for everyone. The expenses are where the total cost for a shoot can vary wildly.

Low budget photographers have little or no rental and digital fees, no assistant, will drive 500 miles to save a couple bucks on airfare or even make 3 connections and endure several hour layovers, eat cheap fast food, rent compact cars and sleep in dive hotels or sometimes a ditch.

The medium budget photographers have rental and digital fees but are usually flexible and just looking to not get stiffed. They fly coach but it needs to be on specific airlines where they can upgrade to first class or collect miles. They always have an assistant but might be willing to use a local, eat sushi, rent SUV’s and stay in a nice hotel.

The high budget photographers hire a grip truck, have a preferred retoucher on speed dial, they fly first class and always travel with their 1st/digi-tech and need a second from LA or NY and a third could possibly be a local if they absolutely have to. They always have catering on set and then eat room service, rent 2 SUV’s (one for the assistants and gear) and only stay in hotels from a list they approve and sometimes with a specific room request.

How do I know what category you’re in? By looking at your photography.

Many times I won’t even call photographers because I know they’re going to be high budget and the shoot just isn’t worth that kind of money (vagueness by the editor about the number of pages available or even if it will ever run is usually a good clue). Sometimes, I get myself in trouble and the low budget photographer is actually high budget. That can cause a lot of tension as I try and hack away at the expenses.

Some of the high or medium budget photographers will say “hey, why don’t you call me for shoots like that that one you did with *low budget* photographer I’ll be flexible” but once we get down to an estimate the expenses always seem end back up where I didn’t want them to be.

I’m not sure what the cost of a photographers plane ticket has to do with their level of photography but I assume it’s their willingness to say no.

The Opener

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Sometimes, I’ll get a shoot in and be disappointed with it but then I’ll show it around to the editors, the creative director and the other photo editors and everyone will like it and so I think “Ok, just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not a good shoot.” And, I chuck it in the file cabinet and forget about it.

Then the damnedest thing happens. The story is slated and we pull the film out and scan it in and they start to lay it out and then there’s, a problem. It’s not working in the layout for some reason. The reason is usually one of two things. Either the photos are all very similar and when put into a layout they all look like the same photo taken over and over. Or, there’s something important missing, the key part of the story or someone’s portrait or a photo to match the headline they wrote. The worst possible problem–this happens more than you may think–is there’s no opener. At least nothing that fits the traditional definition of an opener: an image that fits a spread, one and two thirds or single page that either has the power to stop readers in their tracks or represents the scope of the story in that single image. There are other ways to skin this cat but if the designer is unwilling to explore them I need to go find an opener and your photo credit went from display to the gutter.

Always shoot the opener first. You’re always better off if you only come back with the opener and nothing else.

How to Manage People

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I consider myself a pretty good people manager but it took me a long time to become one. I’ve always been good at working with photographers but it took quite a bit of work to become good at managing the people under me and I only really figured it out in the last year or so.

The greatest piece of advice I ever read (out of 20 or so business books) goes something like this: Taking someone else’s idea and increasing the quality by 5% occurs at the price of a 50% decrease in their commitment to execution (here’s a recent explaination on the Harvard Business blog).

This is a huge problem in the publishing industry. Everyone tries to “add value” to everything: stories, photos, ideas, line-ups, headlines, cutlines, pull-quotes, captions, typefaces, colors and hairlines. If you’ve ever worked with an editor who makes slight modifications to every single effing thing that comes through the door then you know what I’m talking about. Your desire to execute is deflated because you no longer own anything thanks to the misguided idea that the readers will somehow notice a slight improvement in quality. They don’t. Half the readers were bought by the newsstand director anyways.

Photo editors know all too well of this phenomena that I call “shuffling the deck” where someone will come along and rearrange the photos and change singles into half’s and half’s into spreads all in the name of somehow improving the story. It’s not better, It’s different.

Some of my greatest accomplishments as a photo editor are a direct result of me doing nothing. See if you’ve got the sack to admit that.

If you want to make the magazine better do your job as well as you can and keep your mitts off mine.

Inside The Great Magazines

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I’ll be checking out this series entitled Inside The Great Magazines, Produced by DLI Productions (here). I love it when people talk about how great a magazine is by referencing the photography.

National Geographic

Vanity Fair

Via, Mr. Magazine (here).

Picture Jobs Network

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Any freelance photo editors or people looking to find freelancers here’s your resource. I’ve used them many times and you’d be astonished at the high level of talent they have on their mailing list. Over 400 freelancers.

Note: This service is for Photo Editors to find Freelance Photo Editors and researchers. Sorry if there’s any confusion Photographers.

Picture Jobs Network

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Dealing with the Famous Writer

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Pairing a photographer with a famous writer can be difficult, but in the end, an extremely rewarding experience. The “famous writers” are usually handled with kid gloves by the editors–“Sebastian’s not interested in going to Iraq for us but he pitched me something even better, about his grandmothers toenail clipping collection, she ferments it into whiskey,” “Ohhhhh, can he write it for this issue?” “I think thats our cover story,” “Goddam he’s good, this could win us an ASME.”–so, you have to be very careful negotiating this potential minefield. A report from the field or even after the assignment is over about the shit-head photographer you sent along will cause you much distress and it’s virtually impossible to defend against. What are you going to say, “Sebastian’s an asshole” because that gets you nowhere or even worse a reaction like “yeah but he’s very valuable to us so we can’t afford to have your photographer screw-up our relationship with him.”

This is where getting to know photographers on a personal level, comes in handy. Knowing a few photographers who are talented and easy going is exactly what you need in a situation like this. Whoa, hold on buddy… I know everyone aims to please so nobody is going to cop to being a difficult photographer but the problem, when it comes to writers is, in many cases, they’re working against you. They always interview the subject for longer than they should, leaving little time for the portraits, or they head off on some effing “wild goose chase” sucking up valuable photography time looking for additional material that may or may not materialize. It’s not as easy as you may think to be a nice guy and demand equal time with the subject or, egads more time than the writer.

Some of the more famous writers will have certain photographers they only work with and when you’re famous you pretty much get to dictate the terms of the assignment so why not demand who the photographer will be. Side-note: Many times the not-so-famous writers email over a list of photographers that is passed along from the editor with some sort of preamble about how they know this isn’t any of their business but here’s a list of photographers I like… just in case you we’re named Director of Photography by mistake.

In the end, when you make a great pairing and the photography that comes back from the assignment is amazing and then eventually you see the two of them shooting assignments for other magazines, for a moment, it feels like something you did lasts more than a month and that, is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Editors

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Seth Godin the online guru of marketing has a post that’s perfect for our industry:

 

Turns out that for the last seventeen twenty-seven years, every single movie that managed to win the Oscar for best picture was also nominated for best editing.

Great products, amazing services and stories worth talking about get edited along the way. Most of the time, the editing makes them pallid, mediocre and boring. Sometimes, a great editor will push the remarkable stuff. That’s his job.

The easy thing for an editor to do is make things safe. You avoid trouble that way. Alas, it also means you avoid success.

Who’s doing your editing?

Link

Photo editors, word editors, photographers listen up, avoid making safe choices all the time. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done something I thought would get me in trouble or even fired-*cough* I don’t do this anymore future employers-and just closed my eyes and let it happen because I knew if it worked it would be spectacular. Of course, it’s never that simple when you’ve got CEO’s, CFO’s and nervous editors to answer to but adopting a bit of an eff-it stance is always good for creating something memorable.

In the end, even though editorial photography is a collaborative process, you’ve got to live (and build your career) with what’s in your book. If you don’t like it, fire your editor.

Contributor Photo

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Why do photographers have such bad photographs of themselves? I mean, it seems like, as a photographer at some point in your career you should have a great picture taken by your assistant or another photographer you know and respect but I’m here to tell you, universally, photographers don’t have good contributor photos. I’m not immune from this phenomena either as I struggled to find photos of myself without a hat and sunglasses when my time came to appear on the contributor page so I’m offering this criticism more as a public service announcement.

“Photographers get decent portraits taken of yourselves.” I’ve had to remove dozens of photographers from the contributor page of the magazine over the years because the photos sucked. The two biggest violations are obscured face and a camera unnaturally placed in the frame somewhere.

I suggest that you have two options ready. Something from the field of you working and more of a formal portrait shot so the magazine has options. Also, some of you who are attempting to stop the aging process by submitting the same image from 20 years ago should update your picture.

Details magazine gave up several years ago and they now unnaturally crop and convert to B&W all their contributor images. Vanity Fair on the other hand treats all their contributors like mini profiles in the magazine and assigns appropriate photography (and styling) to each.

Do yourself a favor and make it easy for magazines to put you on the contributor page. You may think people land there all the time because of their status in the industry and that’s part of it but they also land there because they have a great contributor photo.

Bonus Time

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The end of the year is when corporate people start to think about bonuses and so far I’ve been lucky to work at companies that give them out. The problem has always been that the formula to determine who gets them and how much they get is a closely guarded secret. I have uncovered evidence that it’s loosely based on this top-secret formula: The bare minimum we can get away with where employees only grumble and don’t actually quit. I think back when media companies were setting new highs the bonuses were probably pretty good but now that the new highs are old lows it’s perfunctory at best.

This also reminds me that many photo directors and editors get a bonus for hitting the budget at the end of the year that can be $5,000 or more which is pretty significant for your bank account but when you’re dealing with multi million dollar photography budgets it’s a total joke. I can spend 5k in half a second so I don’t know why the CFO thinks that paltry bribe will get me to try and make photographers eat expenses on shoots or use stock instead of shooting something original, so I can meet some number they pulled out of their ass. I even argued once I should still get my bonus, even though I completely blew the budget, because it could have been worse. Hah.

Talking About Photography

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As the Director of Photography at a national magazine one of the most difficult things I have to do is discuss photography with people who know next to nothing about it. Most editors are very literal minded when it comes to photography, they want a picture of the person, place or thing that the writer talks about. To convince them that other images will better serve the story is a difficult but important task in making a magazine’s photography great. Learning how to describe what you intuitively know makes one photograph superior to another is the greatest skill you can have in this battle.

There are many ways to use photography at a magazine. The worst is to use photos as decoration or as a literal translation of the story into pictures. Low end catalogs, real estate brochures, those car rags next to the gum ball machine at the grocery story all use photography this way. So, goddam boring *snore*. This does not serve the reader, it only serves the editors unconscious plan (my theory) that the photography only support the story not equal or trump it. High level photography and photo editing brings additional information about a subject to the story and when it’s really cracking the reader reacts emotionally. In my book “that photo makes me want to throw-up” is way better than “it’s fine by me.”

I have a sweet technique I use for finding the great images from a shoot that really tends to piss-off the editors: I edit the film without reading the story. This helps me tune into which images have the most impact on me and which ones transcend subject matter and become forces in their own right. When you read the story first you react differently to images that match important plot points and wrongly ascribe more weight to them.

Once you’ve found the images you want to use how do you defend them? There’s always the time honored technique of the scowling Director of Photography telling everyone that will listen that these are the best images from the shoot and to publish anything else would be the greatest tragedy in the history of all magazine making, to be used as an example for future generations of the perilous pitfalls associated with not listening to the DOP when it comes to the goddam photography.

If you can’t use intimidation you need to find language to describe the photography beyond the obvious lighting, focus, exposure and subject matter. Editors will use those terms to determine if a photograph is good or bad and it’s an easy trap to fall into but as photo editors we know the power of photography lies in its ability to affect us emotionally and there is no literal translation to the emotions it projects (or some shit). The first place to look is the fine art world, because they have shattered any preconception that focus, exposure and subject matter have anything to do with what makes a photograph great. And, they’ve plumbed the depths of an emotional connection in photography for such a long time they’ve developed a whole language and way of speaking about it that makes it somewhat easier to understand and explain to laymen.

The best place to start and develop your language for photography is anything written by John Szarkowski, who recently passed away, but was the Director of Photography at the MOMA from 1962 to 1991. I started with these two books:

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art  

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art

and

Ansel Adams at 100  

Ansel Adams at 100

John gives you language to defend photography, an important skill to have.

Are Photographers Unhappy?

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Just in time for the holidays a Time Magazine story (here) submitted on Photo Rank (here) ranks jobs according to happiness and photography comes out on the bottom between bartender and welder with 20.8 % saying they’re “very happy.”

Are you effing kidding me?

Not only does this study claim photographers are not happy it also reveals that most of the other unhappy occupations are all unskilled laborers. I find this very hard to believe and my only explaination is that the survey was somehow flawed and included people who don’t make a living as a photographer. I certainly can believe that you’re unhappy if you don’t make a living doing your job.

My only other thought on this is that photographers lie about their occupation. A waitress trying to become an actor would probably claim to be a waitress if a surveyor asked but a bartender trying to become a photographer would probably claim to be a photographer. Maybe that’s why they’re so close to each other.

Director Logjam

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I had a fashion shoot implode the other day after we finished casting and scouting locations, so we quickly scrambled to put another one together and I had 3 days to get a photographer on board. To shoot fashion at our rag a photographer has to be approved by myself, the Fashion Director and the Creative Director. If one of us doesn’t agree they’re rejected. This, as you might imagine, can be difficult especially when you have 3 days so the process usually amounts to me pitching photographers I know will be available and the CD pitching photographers that are most likely booked till Easter and the FD spiking a few here and there for various reasons. When we finally settle on a couple we all agree on I quickly call the agent to check availability and depending on who the agency is you either get a quick answer or you get “I’ll see what can be moved around” and no answer for like a day.

While, I like all the photography that’s come out of this process when you’re in the middle of the logjam it SUCKS.

Finding New Photographers

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There is nothing better in this business than finding and hiring new talent and getting back an amazing shoot. Nothing. Conversely there’s nothing worse than a failed shoot from someone you just hired for the first time. Ahhhhhh the highs and the lows. I probably hire 2-8 new people every issue… whaaaaaaaaaa, 2-8 N.E.W.? That’s right people, a regular shooter gets 2-4 assignments a year, that’s just how I roll.

The process for finding someone new can get a little “CSI.”

The method that requires the least amount of effort is to poach someone from a magazine I respect. That’s too easy, so if I really want to earn my paycheck I put together a case based on available evidence that tells me if a photographer is able to deliver the results I’m looking for.

It all starts the first time I see a photograph I like taken by someone I’ve never heard of (this is actually somewhat rare). I write the name down on my list and begin collecting evidence. A name can go on the list and it could be years before I’ve built enough evidence or found the right project that triggers an assignment so there’s a lot of names in various stages of case building.

The evidence: Your book, website, tears, clients, awards (American Photography, PDN photo annual, SPD), personal work, promo card, story in PDN, blog, photo I saw published somewhere, a story I heard, our meeting, someone dropped your name, the Creative Director likes your work, the editor knows your name (possibly a negative), one of my jr. photo editors likes your work, the changes in your book since the last time I saw it, you have photos in my coffee shop, the phone message you left, the email you sent that was interesting and personal, another DOP told me you rock, your handshake is solid, the email with a new tear I think is cool, you care about my magazine (not just the cover and fashion), a gallery exhibit, and a photographer who is your peer recommended you.

That’s a ton of evidence to consider but in truth since I don’t write any of this down it really just adds up to an overall feeling about someone. There’s a trigger in there somewhere but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what it was.

For someone like Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine who keeps lists of fine art photographers (among other endless lists) the trigger is likely a combination of a solid subject-photographer match, growing acceptance in the fine art community and being relatively unknown in the editorial market. If any of those are way off the assignment doesn’t happen.

I will leave you with this as it pertains to how I see blogs fitting nicely into this picture here on out. It is so exceedingly rare that a photographer I respect and work with would recommend to me another lesser-known photographer that every time it’s happened I’ve gone and hired the recommended person and the results have been nothing but positive.

9th On The List

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I had a big shoot a little while back that was so last minute and on the weekend that I went through 8 photographers who said no. When I brought the editor the film he said “what happened to your first choice?” Well, lets see, you dump a huge assignment on me Thursday night for Saturday morning and everyone told me to go to hell except this guy.

Truth is I keep pretty tight lists of photographers and it’s not like this guy was my 8th worse choice it just wasn’t my first choice of styles for the shot. I usually have 3-4 photographers I love for a certain style picked out for a shoot when I start making calls. A couple I’ve worked with before, one who’s emerging and one who’s yet to accept an assignment. If that grouping doesn’t work out I’ll move on to other styles. I have to keep in mind all the different photography going in the issue so I don’t get repetitive with the styles.

Here’s the kicker, when I think I’ve nailed the approach on a subject but then have to switch it because the people I like aren’t available it sometimes turns out better than expected. So, I always wonder if I couldn’t just pull names out of a goddam hat.

Don’t answer that.

Crapshoot

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I seem to be getting a lot of these last minute shoots lately and I have to say it really puts a kink in my style. I’m more of a “sleep on it overnight and let it marinate a little” than, “see how fast I can make an assignment” type of photo editor.

The biggest problem (besides the fact we’re a magazine not a goddam newspaper) is 75% of the photographers I want to use are already unavailable. If that’s not enough the editor can’t seem to decide if it’s going to be a small or big feature so I’m left in the lurch on what kind of money to spend on this. The kicker is that the subject will be a moving target, traveling between two locations, none of which happens to be LA or NYC.

After reading the writers pitch I decide I want a photographer who can make a strong emotional portrait who is also a photojournalist for some of the fast paced stuff I foresee.

Now, the budget needs to get worked out and normally, I would go all out to get the right photographer for the job because this story has legs and I don’t want to look like an ass if the writer lands the story of the year and my photos totally blow.

I’m gonna play it safe though because the CFO is watching me. It’s the beginning of the year and we’re still negotiating the page rates. If I can find someone I like who’s available in NYC that doesn’t need an assistant and massive equipment budget then I’ll fly them otherwise I’ll check my lists and see who I like at the starting or ending points.

Hope I don’t roll snake eyes.