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I arrived at JFK Sunday afternoon, got dropped off at my hotel, and went out to meet with some friends who were in charge of my nightlife while I was in the city. Six in the morning the next day my alarms went off and I looked over my list of things to do.
It wasn’t the best week to get meetings with everyone I wanted — blame it on Fashion Week — but I got some. I was familiar with the first two publications I was to meet with, so I hopped on the train and headed downtown with my portfolio and leave-behinds in hand.
The meetings were short and good. I was able to discuss the publications’ visions and to show where mine could complement it. They both enjoyed my work and, the greatest compliment, said that some of my images “are such (insert magazine title here) shots.”
I was close by some other people I wanted to meet with but could never get on the phone, so I called everyone in the photo department until I got a human voice. I explained what I was doing, “in the city to meet with some reps and other creatives,” and asked if they had time to meet. Most didn’t but wanted a copy of my mini-book. So I dropped them off at different offices this until my feet were angry with me.
5:30 headed back to my room to shower and get ready for a little party. 1 a.m. back at the hotel to review tomorrow’s to-do list and a little sleep. Tuesday got up bright and early again, re-reviewed my list, and hit the street.
Portfolios, mini-books, and camera can get pretty heavy, but luckily the city functions at the same fast pace as I do and it fueled me on. That day I had meetings with a couple reps to get some insight on what more I could do. They looked through my book, gave me some great ideas, and told me some things that are always hard for me to believe: “Your work is strong, you have a good eye,” things like that. I get bored with my images and I’m always super critical of myself but I think that is what keeps you progressing and growing.
Next I got to spend some time with Gray Scott, a great fashion photographer who creates amazing fine-art and conceptual fashion stories. We talked about all sorts of things: photography, what inspires us as artists, the relationship between recent vampire mania and the economic climate. Even though our styles are very different, the driving force behind why we create is similar. It always makes me feel good to meet someone who I see as passionate and inspired, as I hope people see me. Thank you again, Gray, it was truly a pleasure.
Then I wanted to take a little break so I left my book back at the hotel and went out to see what I could see, to shoot a little, and to drop off some minis for more people who simply couldn’t meet up. Life felt good sans the couple extra pounds.
Wednesday I met with another rep that pointed me in the direction of a freelance editor I should meet because she works with a lot of people. All the reps I met and spoke with were great and helped me immensely — one even said she would pick me up in a heartbeat if I was living in NYC.
Hit the phone a little more. Met with another editor and we chatted and had fun. The general consensus from everyone I got face time with was that I have the right attitude, some definite talent, and they could work with me.
Ross Perot once told me that when he was starting his new company, no one would invest in his idea except his wife and mother. “And that’s why I have 3.3 billion dollars!” he said, with his characteristic ear-to-ear grin. “It’s all about equity son, equity.” His risky hard work paid off, but Ross was also lucky that he had some money from his wife and mother to start out with. That’s not realistic for most people starting a new photography business. You’ll need to use other people’s money to do that, the kind you find in a bank.
In my last column I mentioned writing a business plan and getting an SBA (Small Business Association) Loan. The good news is, the Obama administration recently beefed up the SBA, and there is a new push to give out a bunch of $35,000 loans. What are you waiting for? Write the plan! You might qualify for more.
Tell Them Who You Are
One small problem you might run into is that most bankers know little about photography and are skeptical that there is much money to be made with a camera. They understand restaurants or furniture stores, but they usually don’t get many photography businesses applying for loans. (That’s probably because, unlike furniture store owners, photographers expect money to arrive via magic, without the normal agony of sweating up a five-year income projection.)
In order to overcome the banker’s doubt, your business plan has to be solid, satisfying their need to understand what you are selling, who you are selling to, and how much money you expect to make over a set period of time. They need to be able to asses the risk for the return of their loan. It will help to clarify your vision for your future to the point that you can explain it in a mission statement that is 25 words or less. Tips for writing business plans are all over the internet, especially at SBA.gov.
Show Them What You Do
When I first heard about the SBA in 1993, I was technically bankrupt, having spent my life savings on my first book project. I won’t deny that learning to create spreadsheets and to write marketing and sales stuff was a nightmare. Like being stabbed in the eye over and over.
On top of that, I felt completely out of my element as a photographer going in to meet the banker. Although I’d been trying to build a relationship him over the past few months, I was sure when I asked for this big SBA loan, he would laugh me out of the bank. But I was pretty desperate, with a mortgage, a wife and child, and a ton of debt. I had to try.
On my way out the door for my bank meeting, I did something people might laugh at: I grabbed my portfolio to show my banker. I knew my business plan might not get through, but I was pretty sure I could get his attention with my images of news events, sports, and celebrities. Turns out, I was right. A banker’s world is fairly predictable; lots of numbers. It was a welcome break to go through my work, and it gave me the chance to connect on a basic human level with this critical decision maker. I got the loan — $100K — and never looked back.
Get Them On Your Team
An important part of this story is the concept of “relationship banking.” I had gotten to know my banker over time. It’s important to identify a bank in your town that is actually supporting small business through it’s lending policies — even in this economy — and then make friends with the bank manager.
Build a relationship as you would with a picture editor you want to work with. Take out a small loan, even $5,000 and repay it regularly over three months. Take out another loan for $10,000 and repay that quickly. Build trust. Then bring in your plan, along with your portfolio, and make it happen.
After I got the SBA loan for $100K, and knowing I could get my business going with half of that money, I turned around and asked my banker to put half of it in a savings account and freeze it to collateralize a 50K line of credit. That told him how serious I was and how hard I intended to work. It also gave him another incentive to help me grow into a larger customer. And I asked him to agree that if I handled that credit line properly, that line would be unsecured in a year. He agreed and a year later I had both the SBA money and the credit line, giving me ample capital for further growth: new equipment, portfolios, and serious marketing campaigns.
I learned then that it pays off to engage everyone on my team as a partner in my success — insurance agents, lawyers, and all my labs and equipment vendors. By getting them invested in my endeavors, since they were also relying on me for their business, they all had a vested interest in my continuing success.
This seems obvious in retrospect, but so few photographers take the time to really build relationships with the people they most rely on. A few lunches, gift prints, and keeping people abreast of your new projects and successes can go a long way when times get tough. And if you can get an insurance agent excited about the photographs in your portfolio, imagine how easy that next meeting with an art director will be.
Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Gene has some great tips lined up, but we’re always eager to hear what you’d like to know more about. Leave your questions in the comments (with a link to your website, of course) and Gene will be happy to respond.
For a longer interview from Gray, check out this podcast from F-Stop Beyond.
Carmen Suen: You say that you are not a photographer, but an artist. What do you think is the difference?
Gray Scott: Obviously, photography is my medium now, but I didn’t start as a photographer. I actually started as a painter. My background is oil painting. I come from a very trained, technical background. Using the medium of photography has been really interesting for me because it’s faster. It’s immediate gratification.
I’m actually starting to realize now that the concepts that I have in my fine-arts series are very similar to if I were to go back to painting, or do both — that’s always a possibility, for me to do both, they would probably be very similar.
I’m interested in the human form. I’m interested in psychology, mythology, icons, symbology, and all of that. I guess for me, it’s just a difference in medium choice. I’m technically a photographer by trade, but in the scheme of things, the entirety of my work, I feel like I’m an artist.
You can see from my work that I’m not just taking pretty pictures. There is subtext to my pictures. And I’m hoping to push that further with a new series of fine-art photography that I’m working on. I’m hoping to push that to an even more aggressive place. Hopefully in six months to a year, I’ll be able to produce that.
CS: Could you tell us about your fondness for contrasts?
GS: I like polarity. Hot and cold; good and bad. I like switching things around and pushing polarities around. I have a new piece in my latest promotion campaign that is a good example to explain that.
In the picture [above], the woman is the executioner. You seldom see women in that role. And when you look at the man in that picture, he’s naked and vulnerable. But she’s also exposing herself. To me, it seems that in our culture, for a woman to be that aggressive, she has to bare everything. She has to expose her entire self. Whereas men don’t have to do this. Men could just be aggressive without being exposed.
CS: When you want to refocus yourself, you’ve said you like to read art books. What kind?
GS: I read a variety of books, but I go to Caravaggio all the time. I think the reason I like Caravaggio so much is the drama in his paintings. The characters in his work are always in some sort of trouble. They’re either being executed or suffering. It’s not just a pretty picture. They’re actually going through some traumatic or beautiful experience.
Outside of art books, I read a lot of psychology. And I also like to read Aldous Huxley because he has such a dimension to his work. Some people would call him jaded, but I would say he is indifferent to people’s false morality, which I really enjoy. I think for any young photographers, their work is going to be stronger if they have some stories to tell.
Carmen Suen: Why did you decide to open Avalence Studio?
Gray Scott: For me as a photographer, it’s just almost impossible to financially keep up. A lot of times you’re scrambling to find a studio when a magazine contacts you to do a shoot. When I first started, there were several times where I couldn’t find a studio to shoot in, and I had to turn down the magazine shoot. It’s not a good thing for any photographer to turn down work because they work so hard to get their name out there and get work. I wanted to provide an affordable space for photographers to do their shoot.
CS: How is the studio an affordable option for photographers?
GS: One of the most important things about the studio is that for a $750 day rate, from 9am – 5:30pm, you get an Octabank, a stand, a power pack, sandbags, V-flats, and a wardrobe styling station with a steamer, robes, and slippers. So basically a young photographer without a lot of money can come into the studio with their model, their hair and makeup person, and their stylist, and they can produce a shoot without any extra expenses.
For one price, you’re coming in to Avalence Studio and you can produce your whole shoot. Whereas a lot of times, when I have gone to other studios, the base rate is just for you to be in the space. It could start at $1,200 to $1,500, and then every single thing costs more, whether it’s a pitcher of water or an apple box. You think you’re spending $1,000 to be there, but when you walked away, you ended up spending $1,800 for the shoot.
The idea of this space is that it’s sort of an artist workshop where everything is provided. You come, and you shoot, and you pay your day rate. That’s pretty much it. The only extra is if a photographer has specific equipment they want to rent, that is added on top. They have the option for us to rent the equipment for them; or, if they want to do it themselves, they can have the equipment delivered here.
CS: Aside from the price, what makes Avalence different from the average photo studio?
GS: One of the things that I think is very exciting is that we are in a neighborhood where we are surrounded by other artists. You are constantly bumping into artists that you know: stylists, hair and makeup people. There’s an independent record label right beside us. There’s a video production beside us. So it’s a community of creative people in the building, which is really exciting.
The studio itself is a very clean open space. But it’s not concrete and sterile. We have hardwood floors that have been painted white. There’s an industrial feel to it, but it isn’t cold. The place has a warm feeling.
CS: What are the future plans of the studio?
GS: I’d like to eventually have 10 to 15 photographers that we work with on a consistence basis, who fit into the studio space, who have the same goal as the community that we are trying to create, which is sort of a younger editorial feel. That’s how the space is.
The space is very private. We try to find photographers who may be working on books, or private work, or some of their editorial work is very sensitive and they don’t want people to know they’re working on certain things or certain campaigns. Our first client was Spin magazine. They said they loved shooting here and that they look forward to shooting here again. I have a feeling that they will be a repeated client.
Another goal is to have the studio also be a gallery space for young photographers. We have such a great space and so many white walls here that I think eventually I would like to have an addition to the Avalence website where we do private showings of young photographers’ work. In the next few months, I would like to find photographers that are doing fine art photography. We’ll do an opening ceremony for them and have 10 to 15 of their pieces presented in the space. It’s nice to have a space where you can have all your peers together and show your work. I think that’s definitely down the road for us.
During my career I have been accused of being cocky, self assured, and overly confident. To which I respond; yes I am, I’m a photographer.
The only way to infuse yourself with the confidence necessary to navigate the photo world’s rivers of advancement is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Take two photographers, each with equal knowledge and natural skill. The one that has shot the most will always win. They’ve done it. They’ve clicked the shutter a thousand more times and solved a thousand more problems in their head.
These were my thoughts in 1989 when I was showing my fashion portfolio to a group of peers looking for a photojournalist. “Fashion and photojournalism are very similar,” I volunteered. I kept my arms down so no one could see I was sweating waterfalls under my arms. My entire career up to that point had been about sprinting to a location and conjuring a fashion story through my camera on the fly. Photojournalism seemed to be a derivative of that, except easier because you didn’t have to make up the story, you just had to capture it. I was wrong.
My confident (cocky) pitch about the relative similarity between fashion and journalism worked. I got the gig, and was sent to Russia. My first few weeks at Novosti Press International in Moscow were remarkable in that I was consistently producing rubbish. I was mildly panicked that my fashion/journalism theory may have been flawed and all I had really achieved was a successful con job.
Ego annihilated I sought the help of the senior Novosti Press shooters. In a Russian accent: “Louie, you need to shoot, shoot, drink a little, and shoot more. Then drink more for celebrating shooting.” I did. And they guided me with the kind of quality advice and criticism that can only come from decades of experience.
Knowing when to stow your ego is as important as invoking it in the first place. Without the humility from my desperate realization that I was tanking my first big journalism assignment, my career would have taken a much different path, and I would probably be writing about the multiple backdrops offered at the Sears portrait studios. As it turned out, I went on to shoot journalism for another two years. Enough time to augment my ego and gain the confidence to con my way back into the fashion industry.
This is a question I get a lot from readers. Do I need to move to LA or New York or other big fashion market to have a successful fashion photography career?
In the past I have offered a diplomatic answer because I know the question is coming from a place of apprehension, and I hate to be one of those arrogant asses who throw out an answer that will potentially change someone’s life without being sensitive to their context. But the question came up again in reverse form this week via email: Do I need to stay in Los Angeles to start my career, because I’m really over this city. So it’s time to address the question definitively. The short answer is, yes.
If your goal is put out a shingle and make a nice living as a local fashion photographer, then there are alternatives to moving to a big market. But if you’re looking for myriad opportunities to turn your talent and training into a career, you must immerse yourself in an epicenter of the industry. I say this with conviction because, had I moved back home instead of staying in Los Angeles after I graduated from school, my career would be a shadow of what it became.
Big city big opportunities for you and thousands of your peers
Aside from the obvious factors of logistics, knowing no one, and not knowing the terrain, moving to a city where there is an advertising or fashion/celebrity market is intimidating because you’re not the only one trying to make it. In fact there are a lot of you trying to make it, and you’re all probably pretty good at making pictures. These are your comrades and your competition.
Despite what you’re probably thinking, jumping into a pool with so much good talent is one of the healthiest things you can do for your career. Not only will you be exposed to styles and methods that you’ve never imagined, you will lose sleep trying to sort out how to compete. And that is where the magic lies: in the Darwinian epiphanies where you conjure an idea that’s better than the next guy’s. That’s one kind of creative motivation that can only come from the pressure of friendly competition.
More entry-level job opportunities in your field
Big markets, especially L.A. and New York, have a lot of of entry-level job positions in your field. This is valuable for making a buck, staying abreast of the industry gossip, getting exposed to the names of the industry players, and generally understanding the vibe of the career you’ve chosen. These jobs also carry little expectation of a long-term commitment. As soon as anyone who works for me starts exhibiting flawless performance, I know they’re about to depart for the next level of their life. You should go into these jobs with the same attitude: expecting to leave as soon as you’ve learned all you can, or you’ve saved enough money, or you’ve built your portfolio enough to start showing — whatever the reason, have an exit strategy. But, like I say in my book, never forget where you come from either. If you move past the people you work with, never lord your success over them. Remember you would be nothing without them.
More opportunities to shoot for money
I am forever grateful for the vast headshot market in Los Angeles. During lean times when I was seriously questioning how I was going to pay my bills, I was saved by the actor community. Headshots are not the most glamorous of shooting jobs, but it is a market you can break into fairly quickly and cheaply. All you need is a nice location with good natural light and a camera. Do a good job with one actor and they will recommend you to their friends. Clients usually pay in cash on the day of the shoot and the gig is a short term commitment. Best of all, it doesn’t adversely affect your reputation like shooting an ad campaign for an Alpaca porn DVD. (I’m not admitting anything here.)
Masters and heroes live in the big markets
Large markets tend to attract the heavy weights of the industry. Not only will you probably get to meet one of your heroes, you will interact with all kinds of editors, art directors, and writers who are masters of what they do. You can’t beat this type of exposure. Not only for your career, but for your sensibility as well. I can write volumes of what it’s like on the other side of magazine and agency doors, but you’ll never really feel it until you experience it for yourself.
If you can, transition slowly
When I first moved to L.A. from San Francisco, I was visiting model agencies trying to expand my model testing career on the side while going to school. It certainly made it easier to get my ass kicked in the real world when I could always return to the safety of school. I highly recommend this path, it lessens the shock of the transition. If you are out of school or not going to attend school, the transition to a new city can be tough. But once you get through the first year of emotional tumult, you’ll be acclimated and focused. That’s when the fun begins. Be smart, always keep in mind why you moved, and keep your eyes open — golden opportunities rarely present themselves the way you expect them to.