THE INSIDE MAN: Q&A with an IN-HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHER

01Sep11

This interview features an anonymous source. An in-house photographer at a magazine and web publishing company. Most of my interviews feature commercial, freelance photographers and the discussions revolve around inspiration, personal vision, the road to success and specific jobs. For a primarily editorial shooter, and even a catalog or commercial photographer, an in-house gig could be a smart move. Our source also sees more companies hiring in-house as they see the cost benefits and value of having a photographer on staff who knows the brand and functions as a key member of the visual branding team.

Before that conversation gets under way though, his answer to the question “How did you get your start?” is a long and harrowing tale of a road punctuated with magazine launches, magazine closings, repeated strokes of good luck, microwave nachos and what he learned from assisting a photographer whose big trick was using the Hose Master to light law book catalog photos.

The story ends happily with our source landing a job as an in-house editorial photographer for one of the leading mid-sized publishers. Remaining anonymous, he shares the good, the bad and the ugly of running an in-house photo studio at a company with multiple internal clients. There are no photos in this one since the source is anonymous, but plenty of great stories, insider info and insights into where editorial photography is headed and the opportunities for both photographers and publishers.

A big thank you to our anonymous contributor for so much time and work on this without any gain for him beyond the sharing of information and the hope that it might inspire or inform others and add to the conversation. The beginning is a long read, but some of it was so funny I couldn’t bring myself to edit it down. Enjoy and please share or comment – although anonymous, he is happy to answer questions.

POP: Where did you get your start and how did you decide to go in-house rather than freelance?

I was going to community college and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Thought I’d do two years and transfer to UC, but also wanted to do something creative. I was always a visual person and a couple friends of mine were doing photography. One as a hobby shooting skateboarders. The other, who would later become my wife, was going to art school.

I decided to pick up a camera and try it myself. I started taking classes and after a year I ran into someone from the skate scene I’d known from high school who worked for the biggest skate magazine in the country at the time. They needed a guy to work in the darkroom and I became the darkroom tech. I also started shooting music for their music section. I was going to local shows and big shows like Lallapooza and also shot product for them – skateboards, trucks, wheels. I did that for four years. But I didn’t feel I would become the kind of photographer I wanted to become if I stayed there.

At the time, I was primarily interested in photojournalism and knew this wasn’t the place to do this. But I was also worried about how to make a living. I didn’t have family money or anything to fall back on and knew I had to pull it off or not and this influenced a lot of my decisions. It was difficult to see journalism as a way to make a living and I wanted to explore all of photography. I knew the first thing to do was to start assisting.

I then had another random run-in with an old high school friend who was assisting a photographer. He talked him up as if he was doing a lot of big work when in the end he was doing a lot of actor’s head shots. He was the best at it at the time, but it was head shots. He also had one commercial client, a publisher that produced law books. We did these really meticulous product shots of textbooks. Sometimes they were environmental—a book on a desk with a blotter and a fancy pen. And sometimes a product shot of books and their spines. It was all shot on 4×5 transparency.

The fanciest he got with it was when he decided to use a Hose Master. The guy who invented it was kind of genius. It’s basically painting with light. It’s a box with a fiber optic hose and a nozzle that takes different attachments that give their own quality of light. You use different filters in front of your lens with extremely long exposures. We would do multiple long exposures on one sheet of film. Sometimes the exposures took 20 minutes. You’d light each part with a different filter or light nozzle. It was really tedious.

But despite the fact that it was head shots and law books, he was extremely meticulous and it taught me a lot. We retouched and spot toned all the head shots. So as mind numbing as it was, it was a good lesson in being extremely patient and getting something right the first time. The complete opposite of the way I shoot now digitally where you can shoot one rough sketch after another very quickly. But even when shooting digital, I bring the same attention to detail I learned early on. It can be a real joy to slave over a tiny highlight on the most mundane subject. It’s kind of meditative, almost a Zen practice.

I was with him for a year after which one of the guys who was an art director at the skate magazine had gone on to found a custom publishing project for a large computer company. The idea was to do a digital lifestyle magazine for young people and package it with their sound cards. It was very vague and ahead of its time. We knew there was this convergence of video games, music and this new thing called the internet and that all those appealed to young people. And we wanted to be there for that lifestyle that wasn’t really defined yet. We were trying to define it because it was their target market.

The offer was that I would be the photo editor/staff photographer. I got to shoot what I wanted and had a lot of fun. I shot every day and worked with editorial to concept the photography. And the stuff that I couldn’t shoot, I found and hired the photographers. The one shoot I couldn’t do which I wish I could have done was Cameron Diaz right after she finished The Mask. She wasn’t huge yet and they were handling her to be in underground publications so she wouldn’t blow up too fast, to make her more serious instead of the bubbly blonde ex model. We only did three issues of that magazine. The owner who was from Singapore got nervous about how edgy it was even though it wasn’t really at all. The publisher kept us on board to do a ‘web portal,’ and pitched it to VC’s who didn’t understand the value of a youth culture site at the time.

This project ended and I found myself unemployed and not quite ready to be a freelance photographer. I decided to find a job and took a job cooking in a comedy club while I looked for assisting work. Their ovens were two toaster ovens and two microwaves. I made nachos every night. I tried to get jobs with Ed Kashi, RJ Muna, and a few others and couldn’t get hired because it was really competitive and I didn’t know many people because I’d been on staff. I hadn’t been out there.

 

POP: Were you working on your portfolio at the time?

I’d always been fairly busy since I started, so my portfolio was all assignment work. I didn’t have time to pursue personal projects when I was working on staff. I was working during the day and shooting shows at night.

I was scrambling for clients and I started to get busy again. I did a lot of mailers and had nice black & white reportage, music, product and location portraits in my book. If anything tied the style together, it was movement. I was becoming aware of my style.

And then I got a call from a model I’d shot for the computer magazine. He was now an editor at the Bay Guardian. He talked to the AD about me and I got a call for the next day and after that point I shot for them for three years. I didn’t make a lot of money, but shot a lot of covers which made it all worth it.

Around the same time, I’d gotten in touch with this guy from a photo class I’d taken to brush up on lighting skills. He was moving out of the country and wanted to give me his client, for a major national department store shooting their window displays for the portfolios of the stylists who designed them. I got paid $125/month per store including expenses. I was shooting color transparencies and each store would take 3 – 5 hours. At the end, I netted about $85/store. At first it was one to two stores and soon was all the stores in the Bay Area, which led to a connection at another department store. So basically I was shooting for Nordstrom’s and this guy left and went to Macy’s and got hired to shoot White Flower Day at Macy’s. The guy from the floral company asked me for my card and hired me to shoot events for him. So I started shooting corporate events for what was to become the biggest event company on the West Coast.

I had the Bay Guardian, Hartman and a mixed bag of editorial which all led to becoming a freelance photographer. We’re in the late 90’s and things are starting to boom. I was taking every job that came my way—corporate, investment bankers, law firms, start ups—it was raining. I was working so much I didn’t have time to shoot personal work or promote myself, but I didn’t need to. I was getting calls from people I didn’t know and it seemed like at the time everyone was so busy that art buyers were having a hard time finding photographers.

I was trying so hard to make a living that I didn’t have the luxury of really developing a personal style or going to photo school. Some people follow a direct line of vision with little or no means at all, but I had a lot of opportunities come to me in really predictable ways. It’s who you know and staying in touch with people and saying ‘yes’ to everything. This was my mantra for a long time and for me, I got to be a photographer and not have to have a night job making nachos.

It was a great time and people were taking chances and having fun. During the boom, everyone was shooting technology as lifestyle. For one magazine we shot the head of AMD as James Bond with a model with a decommissioned 45 Automatic and a fake bomb. We were on location running around in the street and were worried the police would come. I think he was also Pakistani.

Then I got a call from the people I had worked with before at the computer magazine. They had landed at a big publishing company in the Bay Area and I started getting assignments from them.

POP: You then spent a year out of the country at this point right when your career was taking off and the Bay Area boom was in full swing.

It was at this time that my wife really wanted to move back to London where she was from. I’d always wanted to live there, but the timing felt off because there was no boom in the UK compared to what was happening here in the Valley and the West Coast. But it also felt like now or never and so I found myself in a city ten times bigger than SF trying to find my way.

After a lot of hard work, I started to get work shooting music and film publicity. Photographers were paid a fraction of what they were paid here. I also got the occasional freelance job from the US. We stayed for a year and moved back to the US because my wife’s father was ill.

The boom was starting to fizzle, but I hit the ground running and got a lot of freelance work. But the party was starting to die—there were rumors that the pyramid was collapsing. At this point I was hired as the photo editor for a new music magazine. It was the ideal fit, but the publishing company owner didn’t get the memo that the bubble was bursting and spent us all out of our jobs. Within a few months, the title had been closed and I was again out of a job. Then 9-11 happened and my bread and butter work, the corporate and corporate event work, vanished.

It was then that I got a phone call from an AAD at the same publishing company asking me to train the magazine art directors to do their own photography so they wouldn’t have to hire photographers any more. At this point, I realized I was screwed. I thought I could move to LA which has a bigger photo market and survive on credit cards for a few months. He called me back within a few days and said they’d decided it made more sense to just hire me and would I be interested in coming in-house. It had been ages since I’d had a full-time job and the thought of being fully employed felt suffocating to me. And I was afraid of what it would do to my photography.

I weighed the pros and cons, but by this time I had become a solid editorial shooter and needed to work. I took the job and built an in-house photo studio from the ground up. I was shooting for tech and videogame titles and also the photography for the corporate communications and marketing departments. It turned out I had the perfect background for the job.

POP: What are the pros to being in-house?

Top of the list is paid vacation. I could never go on vacation before. As soon as you pull the trigger on buying the plane ticket, you’re hoping and praying that no one important calls you.

For example, as a freelancer, I had been on vacation in Hawaii and got a call from this same company to go to Paris for a job. I left my wife in Hawaii and they flew me to Paris for two days to shoot a feature. Not only was I exhausted, but it couldn’t have been good for my marriage.

In a sense it’s been like a kid working in a candy store. I built the studio to my specs and it’s my place. I have an annual equipment budget, an expendables budget, and I’m my own boss. I’m expected to work full-time, but within that I’m in charge of my own schedule. The company also absorbs all the overhead costs: medical benefits, equipment insurance, etc.

At the same time it includes all the best elements of working with magazines. There is a lot of teamwork, there are deadlines, and I collaborate closely and comfortably with editorial and art—I work with the same art directors over and over again and know exactly what to expect from them and know how to handle them and their personalities. At times there’s a lot of variety. And the proximity to AD and EIC’s can be really good. We can fine-tune details of a shot without them hanging over my shoulder since they’re just down the hall and I can send them FPO’s over the server. On good days, it can really boost the creative process and take some pressure off.

And I also get to express my opinion about editorial direction. I’m in more art meetings than I would be as a freelancer, even compared to my freelance ad clients. The last meeting I was in for an ad job, I couldn’t suggest a direction for the campaign. Of course this depends on who you are and why you are hired. But when I freelanced for this publishing company, I never got called in for art meetings. Now, I’m brought in immediately after article generation and expected to come up with ideas. This is something I’d miss if I went freelance.

I would also miss having a say in the company itself. For my ad clients, I don’t have an investment in the company and can’t make suggestions regarding the brand. Here, my opinions are listened to (for the most part) and sometimes taken to heart and actually implemented.

POP: Cons?

The first day I started this job I had a panic attack in the parking lot because I realized that I would be sitting in this same parking lot at the same time on any given Monday until I finally quit. I couldn’t imagine how I’d cope with that kind of repetition. And even though there’s a certain amount of comfort in having a regular structure, it can be numbing, and it can be difficult to find creative inspiration.

People also take you for granted in a number of ways, particularly in regards to deadlines and preparation. As a freelancer, you get paid extra if the client needs to add a day due to their own lack of readiness, and clients usually come to creative meetings fully prepared. In contrast here, AD’s have the luxury of gatecrashing the studio for “emergency” projects and putting off pre-production until the day of the shoot. Obviously, that doesn’t always lend itself to great photos.

POP: Aside from being adept at shooting product, lifestyle, editorial and corporate and marketing images, it must require a unique skill set to run an in-house vs. a commercial or editorial studio?

Less skill. I don’t have to clean the coffee machine, restock the toilet paper, worry about marketing or rent the place out to other shooters when things get slow!

More seriously, scheduling is probably a little different since I have to try to accommodate everyone, but at the same time, they’re more understanding and flexible when I have conflicts. And because we all work under the same roof, I can be less diplomatic, or let’s say, “coddling.” But I probably have a unique experience in that I’m trusted. Other in-house photogs have to punch a clock and fill a quota. Likewise, as a freelancer you can’t usually delay a shoot an hour before it starts or announce at the end of the day “we don’t have this, I need to revisit it in the morning”. That’s a big luxury. But I also have to be careful that it doesn’t interfere with another project, which can lead to jealousies and resentment, aka politics, something which is par for the course at most or maybe all companies.

POP: Do you do your own retouching or do you give Raw images to the Art Directors?

That really depends on the AD, the project, the deadline, and our respective workloads on that given day. It also comes down to our respective skill sets with regards to the art direction. I’m one of those people who loves to get the shot in-camera, because I enjoy pushing lights around more than I enjoy pushing a mouse. But sometimes it makes more sense to use software.

POP: Did you have more time for personal work?

The forty-hour week is a grind. When you get home and you’re tired and hungry, sometimes the last thing you want to do is another photo shoot. The schedule can drain your energy and inspiration.

But I have done a lot of personal projects that I’ve managed to put out while I’ve been here. You really only have the weekends. And I have been able to take clients on the side that I’m interested in shooting for. It allows me to be selective.

POP: How do you keep it fun and interesting and inspired?

You pay attention to the details and the challenge of light. A grey box can be a new and different challenge on Wednesday than it was on Tuesday. Product photography especially commands your full attention to detail. You have to help it express itself.

There’s a lot of variety and it’s always different. It’s not the same kind of variety that you get with shooting freelance. But you never know when they’re going to call again. There are no guarantees on the horizon. I can relax more or less and just enjoy being a photographer.

POP: In an in-house job, you could easily get creatively complacent. Where do you look for inspiration?

I look at everything. We get a subscription budget and I get a ton of magazines and CA and Archive. With Archive, it’s advertising photographers and there are so many great concepts. I take ideas from unrelated sources. For example, I take inspiration for product shots from fashion.

It also helps having a young assistant. They’re always hungry and get bored really quickly. So I keep things interesting for them. They demand it and I have to either let them create it on their own or facilitate it.

The other day, we got a beautifully made leather bag. The art direction was to shoot it on white and cross the gutter. You can either bang it out or belabor every detail in every lighting situation. Like where the light hits the chrome and choosing your light source based on the material you’re shooting.

So I told him to shoot it however he wanted, that this shot was for him to have fun with. And he came up with some interesting stuff.

POP: Does your company hire outside photographers and are you a part of those decisions?

Some of the magazines do, but it generally depends on logistics. When we do, I’m sometimes asked to help them find a photographer in another city or state. When we shoot celebrities, they get to select the photographer and they hire either a celebrity photographer or a photography who is a celebrity. So those jobs sometimes go to outside photographers.

POP: Would you recommend working in-house to a photographer just starting out?

I think there are always the rare few who come out of school with a market-ready portfolio and clear vision and start shooting right away. The assistants I work with are fresh out of school and see a rapidly changing industry and don’t know what their place will be.

I do see a trend towards in-house photographers who can help build a brand from within. There’s always going to be a place for hiring people with completely original vision. But for the companies that don’t have a brand that requires reinvention each quarter or season, or who built their brand on the talent they hired, like David LaChapelle’s work for Diesel.

To bring their costs down when they can’t afford expensive freelance photographers, they bring in really talented people and offer them security in exchange for helping the company build their identity.

It’s a good stepping stone, but it can also be golden handcuffs.

POP: Are you shooting motion?

Yes, I’ve done two shorts. They happen to be product shoots, but my next project will be action oriented involving people.

I think I’m right there with all the other photographers who want to shoot motion and think it’s the next thing. But there’s easily as much opportunity online for still images as there is motion. Because people have the entire web at their fingertips, there’s even more opportunity and demand for beautiful, striking, page-stopping imagery to keep people on a site and not hyperlink off to another site.

But we also have to be careful not to simply port print to online. It’s a whole new medium and we can combine still with motion and sound. And we can zoom in on texture.

The iPad gets this of course. I’m not talking about GQ, Esquire and Wired on the iPad though. I’m talking about all the other magazines that are either moving to online exclusively or cutting their photo budgets because of the perceived lack of quality necessary for online images. There’s a tendency for people to say ‘it’s just for online.’ But it needs to be at least as good as it is in print because it has more to compete with.

To me, one of the most interesting parts of my job right now is that I have a front row seat to the middle shelf of the print industry and I see it getting crushed. I see it as an opportunity, not only for people who love print, but also photographers. There is immense visual opportunity online. You can zoom in to a photo on the iPad or your computer and see incredible detail.

Just like the middle class is dying, the middle class of magazines is dying. And just like the top photographers will always have work, the ones in the middle might not have a place. The ones coming out of photo schools today are rightly scared they won’t be among the top 50 and have a place. But like I said, I think there are going to be more and more companies hiring in-house photographers who understand branding and can contribute to the visual side of this. And I believe the changes happening in media are going to force photographers like myself to break out of this visual “middle class” and discover their own unique vision. That was always a requirement for big success, and I think now it’s going to be a requirement for mere survival, and I’m looking forward to that. Whether or not I can exercise that vision while being in-house though, remains to be seen.

But I’m excited about the possibility of going freelance again as well at some point. If only for the variety and the excitement of the unknown.



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