Every so often I get asked about my path as a commercial photographer, so I thought I’d share the story with you all.
I went to college having the thought in my mind that I wanted to be a trainer for a pro sports team. I had a large number of injuries in High School sports and coming back from all of them through training, I was really into how to sports medicine worked. My best friend was surprised I didn’t want to do something in the arts, as I was always drawing, painting or making pictures, but I was convinced I knew my path. Oddly enough, he predicted I’d change my mind.
I also went to school planning to play soccer for four more years. The first trimester I had an awful advisor who despite my busy soccer schedule put me in an 8am bio class and two other classes that fell right before meals and just barely around soccer practice, combined with volunteering at the training room, I basically missed eating normal meals for 10 weeks. I went from 155lbs to 140lbs when everyone else was putting on the “freshman 15” I was wasting away. As well, my grades suffered. Going into the second trimester, I decided to take a drawing class, figuring that I would make an A, and that began my path of always taking an art class.
Come the spring trimester the next class was intro to photography. I again figured I could ace the class having shot with cameras since I was six years old. I immediately fell back into line with the love of the darkroom, and found myself spending more time in there than in the training room. I changed advisors and was fortunate to have the head of the art department as a leader, he recommended me for a school program in NY where I would work for two photographers in NYC for a trimester and get school credit. That summer I worked for a photography agent, and as good as an experience as it was, I didn’t want to be an agent. I did however, get to learn about the agent’s position in the game, and she had me arranging portfolios for the various clients, something that later was extremely valuable.
I got into the NY Arts Program my junior year, and it changed my life. I got back to school knowing that I wanted to work in the photography field, and to a degree, felt that school was a bit of a waste of time…the real world was where it was at. However, I gained so many additional credits, that finishing school seemed the right thing to do.
That next summer I got an internship at Condenast, working at GQ Magazine. This was an amazing experience, and made me realize how having a good amount of photography knowledge, and a good sense for business, I could do well there. I also believed at the time that I would rather direct photographers then be one full-time. I would always have photography and could shoot my “art” on the side…I’m sure many of you know that desire to be more of an artist than a commercial photographer.
During that tenure, they threw me a bone and I shot a book for a book review for an issue the night before the issue was to ship. I volunteered even tough all I had for lights was a Canon 480 Speedlight. I didn’t even own a stand. I hand-held the light and flashed it closing my eyes just after to get a sense of where the shadow was going to fall. I repeated this till I got the shadow to fall right, and there was my first professional magazine shoot, and the start of a six and a half year still-life photography career. I freelanced at GQ that following winter break and really enjoyed it, and despite my desire to be just be an editor, the still life shoots came in and I continued to shoot for GQ as well as other titles I eventually worked for.
After I graduated, GQ didn’t have a position for me, so I worked at Condenast’s archive separating Irving Penn’s and Elliot Erwitt’s pictures for House & Garden from their earlier days. All the while, GQ worked to open a space for me. By the fall I was full-time freelance at GQ, rising to the Associate Photo Editor within a year and then over to Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Blaze (Vibe spin-off), Men’s Health Teen, Men’s Journal, US Weekly, and Marie Claire. As time progressed I met many of the great magazine photographers out there, some of the legends, and always shot on the side. I directed these photographers and often was on set, where I witnessed their lighting first-hand.
I rose to Director of Photography by 26, and sort of hit the wall. I enjoyed editing, but began to shoot so much combined with realizing much of what I was assigning I could shoot. I had shed much of the still life shoots for portraits and did a bit of self-assigning, which included the shot of Walt shown above. I was getting some decent assignments here and there then I caught a big break when a story with Heather Graham came up at Marie Claire, and the Creative Director and Publicity Director wanted me to go to India to document the actress’s journey for a feature article. After that, I knew I was done at the desk. I just felt more at home on location, and realized that I could handle the stories myself, but I was still afraid of leaving editing all together.
In New York, once you are known for one thing it’s hard to be thought of as anything else. Many of my peers knew me as a photo editor, so getting work, as a photographer was sometimes easy, but often difficult. I decided I needed to leave NY for a while, get people to forget about me as an editor. I was able to take a job as the photo editor of Muscle & Fitness Magazine in LA with a deal where I would shoot for them as well. They got a great deal from me, and I would get my opportunities to shoot as well as leave NY. This was a great move except I just didn’t like life in LA; the traffic drove me away in less than two years. I was offered an editing job for a small publisher but turned it down, as I’d made up in my mind I wanted to shoot more than edit. The Creative Director then came back to me with an offer to be their Chief Photographer for them, assigning other photographers if I needed to, as well as run the department’s budget as I wanted. I took the job.
Upon my return to NY, a friend said he thought I came back too soon, that I should have held out longer. We happened to go to a networking party that evening and let me tell you, I think two weeks out of NY would have been enough. All my peers who I had not stayed in touch with asked what I was up to and I told them I was shooting now. It was the truth, albeit stretched a bit, but I was able to say it since the job I took had a lot of liberties on time, and when I was shooting for them, I was booked…something that came into play fantastically as I positioned myself as a wanted man. Photo editors in general want to work with working photographers. And I should mentioned, I think two weeks would have been enough to be out of NY for people to forget about me!
I stayed as the Chief Photographer for the media company for three years till they went Chapter 7. Two of my assistants joined the department and we were a pretty solid department. Shooting 85% of the then five titles artwork, and I can proudly say, always under budget.
Unfortunately the rest of the company wasn’t as efficient. The company was having problems for a while, and I contemplated leaving to shoot full-time as I was very busy freelancing on the side, but the Chapter 7 announcement came a bit out of nowhere.
I was pretty scared to leave; I had recently bought a house, and now had two young sons. All the reasons I had talked myself out of leaving the security of the full-time job. The very next day I sold two images from a story I shot for Muscle & Fitness to an ad firm for $5000, and I was safe for a few months. Things took off very quickly from there, and I found the freedom of time that I now had, not having to report to an office for someone else, led to so much more time to concentrate on my photography business.
So that was how it began, definitely not the conventional path. I’ve mentioned in many of my lectures and blogs that the experiences I had in college and as an editor certainly helped form how I run my business, so if you are in a full-time position and looking to make the move, take stock in what experiences you have now and think about how they can help you run your photography business. I don’t believe photographers in general realize how much of this career is about business and not about the art of being a photographer. If you haven’t heard my lecture on the Business of Photography yet, please check out the webinar at http://www.lowepro.com/ask-the-pro it’s available to view anytime. If you only take one piece of advice from it, that’s one more piece of knowledge you didn’t have yesterday.