An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters

Sometimes we get stuck in the mire of our own making. Thank goodness we can find a pump around to dredge us out of the muck.

Sometimes we get stuck in the mire of our own making. Thank goodness we can find a pump around to dredge us out of the muck.

Last week an open letter dispute erupted on social media. That could be said of just about any week on social media, but this time it was about a photographer and a band who wanted to use a photograph.

I found myself intrigued but after reading both letters I felt more confused and chagrined at the situation than angry. It was a minor tempest in a teapot… one of those very small kids teapots because, let’s face it, not too many people even care about such things as this.

The photographer fired off a note after being contacted by the band for the free use of an image in a book they were doing.

Enter fireworks.

The photographer’s letter was one of outrage, demanding to be paid for the use of his photograph and he makes a very cogent point. Without being paid, we can not continue to make images for bands or anyone for that matter. It is what we do, and as such it should garner more respect.

The band fired back with claims that it is too expensive to create a photobook if they are going to pay royalties to every image. As well, they figured that since they already purchased the photograph, they believed they should be able to use it.

Sigh.

Let’s look at some realities:

The band:

“Any refusal of permission would be respectfully accepted and no further questions asked.”
— Garbage in open letter to Pat Pope.

A photobook with 200 photographs in it; at $350 per license, that comes to $70,000. The band claims that is too expensive for them to spend to do a book. They are most probably right. By the time you figure printing and shipping and distribution and design and copywriting and incidentals, the books are going to be very, very expensive. And then the price has to double at the bookstores so the stores can make money. Could be a run of 7000 books could cost $40 a piece. That comes to $280,000 upfront for the band. The $40 book then has to have a retail price of $80 a piece to allow for it to be sold… breaking even for the band.

I have written books that are sold in major bookstores so I can speak from experience when I say NO photobook for $80 is going to sell out quickly… if at all. If the print run was a thousand books, it could sell out in a year or so. But it would also be around $125 per book… so maybe all bets are off.

End game: The band is right.

It is too expensive to produce if the royalties are to be paid. Perhaps they should figure out a sponsorship or move on. It is a cold fact of life that many things we want to do are simply too expensive to do.

That is NOT a value judgement, it is a simple fact of business.

Or find photographers who will give you pictures for use without a royalty… which is what they were doing.

I think the band learned that because they previously purchased a license, it does not hold over to any future uses.

They also learned that a simple request, made in good faith could unleash a shit-storm that would drag their name through the mud. I guess that is a good lesson for us all. The social media mobs are unforgiving and – really – not very bright. They react the same way the immensely base Piranha do… form a gang and destroy.

The photographer:

“I’m a firm believer that musicians and artists deserve to be paid for their work. I’ll sign any petition that’s out there supporting that concept, and even when I choose to stream rather than buy, I’m one of the fans of your band that will pay for a premium service because I think you should be paid. That’s my point of view. Is it yours? When you think about artists being paid, does that include photographers? Do you think “content providers”, whatever the hell that means, deserve to be paid for their work, or is that a special category for musicians? If I want to release a music album, can I use your music in it if I give you a “proper credit”?”
— Pat Pope in open letter to band Garbage.

Wow. That is quite an angry response to a simple request.

I think it could have been handled another way. Going public without even contacting the band was, in my opinion, a little cheesy. But I am willing to cut some slack because we have all become a bit tense over big names using our shit for free. It isn’t right.

But neither is focusing your anger on the wrong perpetrators.

Being angry at the band, who simply asked, was misguided and off base. Of course they wanted to use it for free. We all want free stuff and we ask for it when we can. No harm. A simple “No, it would need to be licensed first” would have seemed more professional to me.

Nothing wrong with saying no. NO. It is easy… try it. “No.”

See. Easy.

However, the real problem makers in this whole debacle were never singled out for his ire, his rage, his being really perturbed. The perpetrators who caused this entire calamity were even pointed out by the band. They were identified and STILL no words of scathing indignation was turned toward them.

Who were they?

“We were so grateful and delighted to learn that most of the photographers were happy for their images to be seen in conjunction with the telling of our story.”
— Garbage in response to Pat Pope

If you want to be mad at someone, just read the credits in the book when it comes out. Be mad at those who complied, not with those that requested. Being mad at someone who genuinely asked for permission first is – well – it’s offputting to me.

And since so many others said YES, that could signal that the majority indeed support the free use (whether it is right or wrong is not the point here). Be mad at them, if you like.

Or maybe choose not be be mad at all. Perhaps the photographers saw fit to have their images in the book for reasons we may never know. Or should know. Or even have a right to know. It is their property to do with what they want.

My story is not your story… don’t try to write the paragraphs your way.

The real conundrum is where the line gets crossed between supporting one another and exploiting one another. It is not a fine line, it is wide and gray and sometimes hard to see. But it is there.

All in all it was great fun for the mobs… but it held little out for those of us who are wanting to get a little more serious about the dialog that needs to happen regarding usage of IP.

Until that happens… rock on, dudes (and dudettes).

 

Peter Lindbergh: Images of Women II

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PETER LINDBERGH: IMAGES OF WOMEN II

Lindbergh is one of the most popular photographers we study in the 8 Week Portrait Class. His work is simply brilliant and so many of the students have an immediate affinity to his authentic, intimate way of shooting.

His new book, Images of Women II is now available at Amazon. I bit the bullet and ordered one this morning (they are not cheap) and am now anxiously awaiting delivery… Monday they say. WooHoo.

If you are a people, portrait, fashion, or beauty photographer, this book may be the inspiration you need whenever you need it. The work is not over-produced or photoshopped illustrative. Straight up photography of some of the most beautiful women on the planet… some wearing impossibly expensive clothes.

Some not wearing clothes at all.

From Amazon:

“Internationally-revered German fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh revolutionized his metier with iconic images of the 1980s supermodels. From his beginnings, he has sought to capture the personality, character, and identity of fashion models, not just the glitter and glamour. In 1997 he presented his seminal book Images of Women comprising his work of the 1980s and 1990s. As a sequel, Lindbergh now presents Images of Women II featuring the highlights of his work created between 2005 and 2014: fashion photographs, nudes, and portraits of today’s actresses and models such as Milla Jovovich, Isabella Rossellini, Monica Bellucci, Jamie King, Emmanuelle Seigner, Tilda Swinton, Kate Moss, Elisa Sednaoui, Jessica Chastain, Hye Jung Lee–and the occasional man, such as Hollywood grand seigneur Kirk Douglas.”

Images from the book.

The Five Biggest Mistakes I Made as a Professional Photographer

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(Being a freelancer can be quite a challenge. Like this little flower above, you can be battered and surrounded by those who didn’t make it, but you keep on blooming for as long as you can. Survival means making big mistakes and learning as much as you can from them.)

I enjoy sharing the experiences I had in over four decades as a professional photographer. I do this on my weekly workshop, “Project 52 PRO” and whenever someone asks for advice or guidance. From a very rich, and wildly diverse career in the photographic arts, there are some great highlights.

But, there are some things I did – specific things and general things – that were huge mistakes, ones that took time, assets and energy away from moving forward. In this self-employed landscape there are many hidden valleys and dark canyons that one can wander into if we are not paying attention. We will not be discussing the technical screwups that accompany most of us as we start out… ISO problems, no backup, loading film backwards, forgetting an assistant at roadside restaurant (yeah, it happens).

While I usually talk about the good times, great clients, and fun opportunities I had as a photographer, I think I should share these “not so highlight” moments from my personal reel.

Missing the Market

When I first got started in photography, my main interest was photographing girls. I wanted to make my mark as a fashion photographer and began buying every fashion magazine I could lay my hands on. From French Vogue to Italian Bazaar to obscure British mags with names I cannot even remember. I spent a fortune on them.

I wanted to be Arthur, Patrick, Peter, or Albert. I wanted to shoot fashion editorials in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Spain, and the jungles of South America. I wanted to know Polly Mellen and hang out with Christie and Kathy and the high-board girls from Ford.

I lived in Phoenix, Arizona.

Moving to NYC was not an option, and I wasted a decade or more trying to be someone that I simply could not living in the town I lived in. Sure there were boutique shoots, editorials, ‘back pages’ for regional and national magazines.

But no Paris, Africa, Brazil or Spain.

When I finally woke up to the fact that I would either have to move or change, I changed.

Well, I gave it a shot anyway…

Brand Madness

I had created the brand of a “fashion photographer” in a decidedly not fashion oriented town. (No, shooting OTR for department stores is not fashion… it’s catalog. There is a difference.)

So I stopped shooting fashion and began to change my portfolio. Since I was already doing some additional work in other genres (in a town like Phoenix, you better have more than one trick in your bag) I figured I would start to shoot more of that and people would see me in a new light.

I learned that it takes more than a different portfolio to change your brand in the mind of people who have known your brand for many years. I would show my book, full of table top, food and portraits and would hear things like;

“Nice book, you shoot fashion, right?”
“Wow, I didn’t know you shot still life. But we don’t do much fashion here.”
“Where did the girls go?”

I didn’t realize that in order to change my personal brand, it would take a few years and concerted efforts to do so. I expected a new portfolio would be all that was needed.

I was wrong. And since I had stepped away from the fashion work (department stores and boutiques) the void was already filled and I had a real hard couple of years before I got back.

I should have begun changing my brand BEFORE walking away from the work I was doing. Making a more gradual transition instead of the cliff dive method I chose.

Confusing A Job Description with Mystical Talent

Art Directors.
Editors.
Designers.

I thought of them as the most visually literate among us. I mean they were the cream of the visual arts crop. I would hold them up to amazing worship status. They knew about how to make ads great, and they would demand more from me than I had because of their greatness.

I was intimidated and emotionally fearful of those job titles. I let them treat me poorly, demand more than was fair, and in some cases pay less than they should have. I was in such awe of their “talent” that I figured they must always be right and if I got it wrong… well then I must suck, visually.

That held me back for years. This feeling that somehow I wasn’t up to that level of greatness I bestowed upon them. Because of a job title.

That changed one summer. A tough gig for a tough AD, and when that month was over I realized that this locally famous, top-notch AD was actually a wretched fraud who copied most everything he did from Dallas and Minneapolis designers.

Once that wall was down, I began to see how I actually did fit into the scheme of things. I realized that they were simply professionals doing what they do, and I was just as professional in what I do. That silly mysticism vanished and I found some confidence I really needed.

Letting a Competitor “Own” Me

Wow… letting it all out here… heh.

Yeah, I let another photographer ‘own’ my brain for a few years. He set up a second condo in there and everything I saw was through the prism of this other guy – and how I could best his work, and get even for all the transgressions he had committed against me and my work.

You have to understand that we did not know each other. We had a friendly “hey, how are you” relationship when we would meet at the lab, and everyone met at the lab at one time or another.

But HELL – that didn’t matter. When he got a gig, he “stole” it from me. When I got a gig, I “stole” it from him. His accomplishments were giant humiliations to me. My accomplishments were proof of my dominance over him.

Looking back on this time is painful. I cannot even imagine how many missed opportunities there were because of this stupid, nearly obsessive, one sided war. I am actually a bit ashamed of my behavior at that time, and I can say absolutely that it cost me money. Lots of money.

Most of the stupid things we do costs us money… maybe not directly, but indirectly it can be devastating.

I was having lunch downtown one day, when he came in alone. He saw me sitting there and asked if he could sit with me. We talked about the business, and he told me how much he liked my work, and how he was going through a rough patch. I told him if he needed anything, to let me know – and he that he could use my studio anytime if he needed to.

He moved out of my head that day, and later he actually moved away to another town where he did quite well. I was and am glad for him.

Never let someone else be in charge of your life. Lesson learned.

Putting ALL The Eggs In One Flimsy Basket

“I’ve got something for you…”

It started that way. A deal so big it was almost unbelievable. A shoot so enormous in scope that it could be the only client I needed. A deal so magnificent that I would never have to look for a client again, I would have all I wanted to shoot delivered to me and paying fees that were downright awesome each and every week.

Who could pass up a deal like that. Especially when you have $1270 in the bank and $76,000 in receivables. I was so tired of being a bank for my clients – waiting 60, 90, 120 days for payment after paying my vendors in thirty. Peter robbing Paul who had his hands in Peter’s back pocket.

So I embraced the big deal.

And it went great for nearly a year. Just enough time for me to get lazy about the portfolio, stop seeing clients I had nurtured for years, and to sort of be “dark” within the industry. I was making great money and shooting as much as I wanted.

I have not the time or the space here to tell you what happened. I am sure you already have figured out that it went south.

Fast.

I lost a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of contacts. I was able to rebuild – once more. I will never put myself into one of those situations again. I am more astute of the world of business, and I have a well refined bullshit detector that has become a big part of my vetting process.

Yeah – I have a vetting process.

And never ever put all of your income stream into one “amazing” deal unless you have strong contingencies for the inevitable “too good to be true” awakening.

Above are some big mistakes that cost time, money and most importantly energy. Energy that should have been focused on creating more, but instead had to be utilized to ‘dig out’ or change course.

And yeah, it happens to a lot of us. I am grateful that none of them were able to take me down to the mat- although a few came close.

I will probably make other mistakes as I continue on. I hope that I have at least learned the lessons from above and make all brand new, shiny stupid mistakes in the future.

(I did not mention the disaster that taking on a partner cost me… both in business and money. Suffice it to say that I will NEVER have another partner, and in any case we will BOTH have to sign any check that is issued for anything. If you don’t follow that rule with your partner, you may wake up wishing you had.)

In Commercial Photography Some Things Change and Some Things Don’t

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.

Some Things Change, and Some Things Stay the Same

The constant, and rapidly changing landscape of photography continues unabated. Some may think of this as a very scary time to be in this business. They may be right… for them.

For me it is nearly a miraculous time to be in the photography business. From amazing gear to incredible innovation, it surrounds us every day. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it when it is staring us in the face.

Change, baby. Everywhere.

I just read an article about some wedding guy going with Micro 4/3 and giving up his Nikons. Another article on what looks like a very cool 300WS studio flash with TTL for under $300. One photographer is shooting on a massive camera on handmade paper, while another is exploring Iceland with nothing but an iPhone. Both of them are getting images that are amazing.

The business part is changing as well. A recent study by web folk who study this sort of thing found that people respond more to big photographs on web pages than they do small. They also found that the cheap, crappy stock image is worse for the site than if there were no image at all.

What?

Photographs WORK? Photographs help sell stuff? Good photography matters?

Dang… who could have known?

Well, WE PHOTOGRAPHERS SURE AS HELL KNEW. Most competent ad agencies and graphic designers know. (Although there are a lot of graphic designers out there who have obviously bought into the free or dirt cheap RF stock junk. Too bad, losers.)

Now we are being backed up by non-photographers.

Our job now is to let our clients know how valuable a photograph is. Let them know that skimping on photography is a fast way to fewer sales and pointing them in the right direction is one of our purposes.

And we do that by doing the best work. Always the best work. No slacking, no hacking, no short cuts. We do the best work we can, and we do it over and over again.

We have to be able to show the client the difference between hack crap and good imagery. If we can’t, we may find that we are not making much headway.

I recently did a portfolio review with a photographer who was struggling a bit. He was having trouble connecting to his audience, and getting clients to say yes was becoming a very difficult endeavor. He was showing his book diligently, but getting no offers.

Problem was that while his book was that of an emerging photographer, the work ranged from ‘meh’ to good, and a few ‘greats’ thrown in almost as an afterthought.

When I remarked on is truly impressive images, he would say something like “yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.” And he was sure about the mundane boring stuff?

The reality is that he was nearly totally cut off from the world of commercial photography. He took his cue from Model Mayhem, 500PX and G+.

When I asked him about some commercial shooters in his town (Google is your friend), he didn’t know who they were or what they did. He didn’t look at magazines or online publications. He was in a vacuum, and nobody can hear you scream in space.

When you show your work, you will be judged on more than the individual images, you will be judged  by how well you understand the genre you are presenting. Is it within the genre of the client?

Wine bottles lit by umbrellas, ‘fashion models’ who are obviously 5’1”, car shots of last years models, food shots that look cold and stale, bad natural light still life work… all can lead to a single image bringing down the entire book.

The question becomes “why are they showing me this? Do they think this is cool? Can they not see it is horribly presented? How did they get all those other shots I wonder?”

Doubt. And doubt doesn’t close deals.

Free Selina Maitreya video series on becoming more than you ever thought possible.

Some truths about this highly competitive business:

  1. Showing 10 great shots is far better than showing those same ten great shots mixed in with 20 other turkeys.
  2. You cannot edit your own work (mostly). Find someone to help you. A mentor or good friend who you TRUST.
  3. Do not be defensive, but do be strong. If three people you trust say ‘take it out’ then I would consider that some strong indication that while you may love it, it doesn’t ‘fit’ in your portfolio. Perhaps you need more of that kind to give it some context
  4. Make no excuses. Yeah, it was a crazy day and the MUA was late and it rained and three rabid wolves chased off the stylist, but once the hail stopped you were able to get a few shots in before the lightning destroyed the set, they look pretty good, all things considered. Bucky… on one cares about the things considered. Your ‘masterpiece’ under fire is a dud.
  5. Always be shooting. You should be adding new work to your site weekly if you are emerging as a shooter. That’s the time you have to DO the shots you want. Once the ball gets rolling, it may be tougher to find the time to do them. And they are VITAL to the ‘warm fuzzies’ for art directors and designers who may be following along.

The business is changing rapidly, but there are some things that are not changing… and showing top notch work, developing a body of work and keeping your work in front of people who buy is still as important, if not more important, than it has ever been.

So enjoy your new “mirrorless” or MFT, and dig into that Medium Format with gusto. Grab those new strobes and tell us all about them on the various social media… but remember that the words won’t count as much as the images you create with them.

If your client is looking for a technical writer who knows everything about every lens ever made, you may get a shot at it. But if they are looking for a photographer, you better make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, full of new work, and ready to be shown

That much will stay the same for a while longer. I’m sure.
I would love to hear your comments on the ways you are working to keep your portfolio up. Add them in the comments.