Two weeks ago, I started a group of twenty-nine reviews over eight days in New York City. The first twelve were at the SPD event held at the beautiful Hearst building, the next two were at Photo Plus, held at the Jacob Javits convention center. The last fifteen were at FotoWorks, hosted by Go Studios on west 29th Street. To get to the reviews, I had to drive a minimum of two hours each way on five of eight consecutive days. The total cost was around two thousand dollars. That amount covers the fee for the reviews, gas, tolls, parking, and food for the events.
The SPD reviews were all with editorial clients from various publications, including Men’s Journal, Refinery 29, World Wrestling Entertainment, Allure, New Republic, GQ, Bicycling, Self, Shape, and Runner’s World. I hadn’t shown work to editorial prospects since the eighties when I worked in Manhattan as an illustrator. Since then, a lot has changed. Pitching photos, at least the kind of portraits I take now, is not at all like pitching illustrations, where my rendering style was more important than the subject matter. In the illustration below, notice that the style is consistent but the subjects are quite different. Translated to photography, the four illustrations would be classified as portrait, conceptual, and landscape.
The first thing I learned at SPD is that the genres of photography represented in my portfolio were “all over the place”. This is a bit like the illustrations shown above, except in illustration, it wasn’t an issue. For example, below are some of the most dissimilar images I showed at the SPD reviews. They are all either environmental portraits or close-up portraits but each is handled differently. The reviewers were correct to point this out, and I’m glad they did, because it gave me a chance to edit the portfolio before the reviews at FotoWorks a few days later. The funny thing is that until they pointed it out, I couldn’t see it. Now, I can’t avoid seeing it.
Overall, my work seemed to be well-received but we’ll see if that translates into any assignments later. It’s always tough to interpret another person’s reactions but even harder to combine that interpretation with a guess at the potential an appropriate assignment crosses the desk of that reviewer and their ability to authorize your hire. Because I consider those probabilities too complex to work out, my default position is roughly neutral, though I can’t help but be influenced when they show enthusiasm, as sometimes happens.
There were at least three things that happened at SPD worth noting. The first happened during my interview with Kathryne Hall of Allure Magazine, the second with Stephanie Heimann of the New Republic, and third with photographer Rick Wenner.
I put Kathryne Hall on my list of reviewers despite having no beauty shots in my portfolio. The reason is that I have been curious about beauty as a subject ever since about exactly when I bought my amazing Schneider 120 mm macro lens. I like shooting people, I like portraits, I like the close-up portraits by Martin Schoeller, the slightly longer but still close-up portraits by Jason Bell, and the beauty shots by Raymond Meier. In addition to this, I have shot more than 50 close-up head shots of models in what approximated “beauty”, at least as far as I understood the term. I even hired a make-up artist to do a test beauty shoot a few months ago. I liked the images but wasn’t sure if they qualified as beauty shots. I suspected they didn’t but wasn’t sure. For that reason, I wanted to talk to someone who specialized in beauty.
When I approached Kathryne, I told her, “I can’t picture you hiring me to do anything based on this portfolio, because I don’t have any beauty work in it. However, I’d like to learn more about beauty photography and hoped you could answer a few questions on that subject.” We had a fifteen minute conversation, during which I learned that for the most part my interest in “beauty photography” came from my admiration of close-up portraits and the enjoyment I got out of making them myself. “Beauty is all about the makeup,” Kathryne said. “If you are thinking about the model or her personality when looking at the image, it is a portrait, not a beauty shot,” or words to that effect. Below are some of the images I showed her. Overall, her comments centered on the makeup worn by the models. “It’s fine for a portrait but for beauty photography it has to be different.” She then explained the details, which are a bit too complex to go into here. The end result is that I said, “Thanks for your time and for helping me realize that I should focus on close-up portraits, not beauty.”
I had just walked out of the meeting room for the lunch break when I saw a familiar name on a name tag, Rick Wenner. I liked Rick’s work, after first seeing it in a series published two or three years ago titled “Race of Gentlemen”. The photos were sponsored by Phase One, who sent him to a New Jersey beach with their new 100MP Achromatic digital back. The images, with all their texture, clean compositions, and rich value structure, were beautiful. For some time I harbored a desire to buy the achromatic back because of Rick’s photos. In the end, I got the normal IQ3-100 color digital back, in large part because of Wenner’s work but also Tim Kemple’s series shot with that back, and my own tests with it in Amsterdam.
I introduced myself to Rick, who graciously agreed to have a look at my portfolio later when he had more time. After lunch, we both had several meetings. Mine ended at around three, his at a little after four. I decided to make some sketches on my iPad Pro while I waited. At about four, a woman came out to ask one of the organizers if she had any spare photographers whose work she could look at. She’d finished her last appointment for the day and wanted to make productive use of the remainder. I had asked about that possibility earlier but was told the schedules were too tight to allow such a thing. However, there I was without an appointment, and a reviewer with a hole in her schedule. Her name was Stephanie Heimann, and she worked as the photo editor of the New Republic. I didn’t jump up and offer myself because I don’t see myself as a photojournalist, the kind of photographer I assumed the New Republic was on the lookout for, and my meeting with Rick was rapidly approaching.
Stephanie saw me sitting innocently on a nearby bench, the only person in the otherwise empty hall with a portfolio in his lap. “You there, are you a photographer?” she asked, probably in a less aggressive way but that’s how I remember it. I said I was but that I didn’t do photojournalism, could never picture myself in a war zone, etc, but she said, “never mind. I can still give you feedback, can’t I?” So I went with her back into the meeting room. I’m glad I did because it was one of the more useful interviews of the day. Partly this was because she did have good feedback, so my preconception that being wrong for the magazine would make me a bad match for the review was also wrong. I was there looking for athlete or CEO portrait assignments, not in-depth in the heat of the moment coverage of spontaneous news events. As Stephanie made clear, she could give appropriate and valuable feedback about work in the genre I focused on, but also the New Republic sometimes had reason to commission studio portraits of athletes. She pointed to some of the shots I took in the Netherlands, one of which was an Iranian refugee who also happened to be a wrestler. “I’ll bet he has an interesting story doesn’t he?” Stephanie asked. “Sure he’s an athlete but he’s also a person and many people have stories that are interesting to us.” Last, she gave me a recommendation to see some people she knew at ESPN. From start to finish, a totally unexpected but useful review. I think she was willing to talk more but after twenty-five minutes or so I was worried about missing Rick, so I excused myself.
Rick was waiting for me outside in the hallway and presumably had been for the past ten minutes or so. Grateful that he didn’t leave the building as soon as he realized I wasn’t there, I pulled out my portfolio for him to take a look. He was thoughtful as he went through the pages, and went through the book several times before saying anything. Summed up, he repeated what some of the other reviewers had already said, that I had too many things represented in the portfolio. Then he explained how I could fix it. Take some images from the back and put them together with similar images in the front. If I have two images from the same shoot but one is better than the other, get rid of the other one. Take a look at the post-processing. When different “looks” are the result, pick one and get rid of the rest. With that in mind, as well as comments from other reviewers, I resolved to edit the book on the weekend and print it out fresh for FotoWorks the following week. PhotoPlus would see the same portfolio because there wasn’t time to print a new book before the next day.
As it turns out, I didn’t print a new book for anyone. I was running out of ink and paper earlier in the week, so I had ordered both from B&H Photo and Pina Zangoria. I did not realize that B&H was closed the entire week for religious holidays, so I didn’t get the ink until all three events were over. The paper, likewise, showed up several days after it would have been most useful.
The reviews at PhotoPlus were similar to SPD, so I’ll only mention that I appreciate the fact that the organizers made them available to photographer attendees. Of greater importance is that they had several photographers and editors at the event giving talks. I caught a few of these, including one by someone I’d met the day before at SPD. My impression at SPD was that the editor was looking for something other than what I had in my portfolio. If I wanted to work with her, I would need to do a number of new shoots to bring it in line with what she needed for her magazine. At PhotoPlus, she talked about the importance of researching who you intend to present your work to, so that it is correctly tailored to their interests. She then showed examples from her magazine. Looking at those images, I realized that I had based my interest on a version of her magazine that was current before I left the US to live in Europe for twelve years. In the interim, they had changed their direction significantly. The new version of the magazine was a great deal different from what I remembered. It was no surprise, in that context, that she said what she did. Clearly, my work was not appropriate for them because the aesthetic was too far removed from my own for the two to come together. This was a much-appreciated reminder to research potential clients before going out to meet them.
I had a weekend and a day between PhotoPlus and FotoWorks. I couldn’t print out a completely new portfolio but I had found exactly three sheets of portfolio paper I could print on. My ink hadn’t given out yet, though every time I made a print, warning lights for every ink cartridge flashed a warning. If they could hold out for six images, one on each side of the three pages, then I could maybe fix some of the most glaring problems in the portfolio. I spent the weekend trying to match in print what I’d worked out in the new iPad portfolio. I couldn’t match it exactly with the amount of paper I had but was able to eliminate some images, rearrange the images that remained, and add a couple of new ones. The result was in some ways better, in other ways worse. Regardless, I would show it at FotoWorks in the hope that the changes would prompt reviewers to add to the previous feedback at SPD instead of repeating it.
FotoWorks was a three day event. Not only that but it ended fairly late, slightly after nine each evening. This meant that I had a long drive home on dark country roads, many of which had no streetlights, plenty of deer lurking in the bushes, and loads of people driving with high beams blinking on and off. Appointments at FotoWorks were more spread out than at SPD, leaving long multi-hour gaps between meetings. I decided to sketch some of the other photographers during the gaps while I waited my turn. Below are some of those sketches.
I was scheduled to meet with editorial and advertising prospects at FotoWorks. The feedback was a bit different from SPD, possibly because of the changes I made to the portfolio, partly due to the inclusion of advertising clients and a couple of agents. Several of the editorial prospects suggested I pitch story ideas based on some of my photos, others said I simply had to be patient as they waited for the right assignment to cross their desk.
Overall, my takeaway from all of the reviews taken as a whole, I have two areas of interest to clients: environmental portraits and athlete portraits. Among the athlete/fitness shots, a particular look I am developing stood out as well-received. If I pursue that look, I will have to do around fifteen new shoots and drop a lot of photos from my portfolio to make it completely consistent. I may do that if my resources can be stretched that far. In the meantime, now that I know more about beauty photography, part from my interview at SPD, part from two long conversations I had with established beauty photographers, I am inclined to give it a serious try. It might be a dumb idea but I have seen too many wonderful images in that genre to leave it untried.
Below are the images identified as favorites by six or more reviewers:
About three weeks ago I attended FotoWorks NY, an event designed to allow photographers to meet potential clients. For about two months prior to going, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. My concern was that in my experience, feedback is most trustworthy when it is spontaneous and free. The event was not free. Depending on how many meetings you paid for, the event could cost as little as around five hundred dollars for four meetings, or thousands for the dozens of meetings that were possible. I wondered if the feedback received at this event would be the same as what I might expect if I met the art directors, photo editors, and art buyers at their place of business.
When I was working as an illustrator, it was never difficult to arrange meetings with art directors. Certain people might be tough to get appointments with but others were more than willing to fill the gap in my schedule. Those meetings were free, which had the effect of making me trust the feedback more. With no fee paid to the art directors, they had no vested interest in making me happy. Now, in the post 9/11 world, I have found it is very difficult to get appointments with anyone to show my portfolio. This likely is also related to the advent of the Internet, which makes web-based portfolio viewing more convenient for art directors than arranging an in-person meeting. The problem with Internet portfolio reviews is that I had no idea how people react to my work. Sitting across a desk from an art director, it is very easy to get an impression from their facial expression, posture, how quickly they go through the portfolio, which images they linger on, what they say, and how they answer questions. On the Internet, they can look anonymously, leaving no opportunity for feedback.
Feedback is second only to cash as far as value to creative professionals are concerned. FotoWorks, I was told, was a venue where I could get the feedback I needed to tailor my portfolio to the needs of the kind of clients I wanted. On top of that, I would meet people I might not have met otherwise, some of whom might become clients. In the end, I decided to go. The reason is that the price of a dozen meetings at FotoWorks, as high as it seemed to me, was still less than the cost of travelling to New York City the four or five times it would take to meet the same number of people. With FotoWorks, I could get twenty meetings a day if I was so inclined, a near-impossibility if I tried to make the appointments on my own and had to travel from building to building between each meeting.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the streets of New York City, fair warning: Do not enter “29 West” in your car’s navigation unit in place of “West 29th Street”. I did, and had a very long drive as a result. It took me through Connecticut and left me out near LaGuardia airport on Long Island, with ten minutes to go before my first meeting. Luckily, they gave my spot to someone else and then I got the other guy’s spot when I arrived ten minutes late. This is to FotoWorks’ credit, because they were prepared for things like this. Throughout my time there, I saw this several times. An art buyer or photographer would be late or cancel but they quickly found substitutes and kept things moving.
Although I understood that FotoWorks NY was a portfolio review, I came away with a different impression. To me, a “review” is when someone examines a portfolio and provides constructive feedback. That did happen from time to time during the meetings I had but only as an incidental feature. The meetings more closely resembled the pitch meetings I’ve had with art directors. In those, the goal is to pitch my work to the art director so that they hire me on a future occasion. The difference between a review and a pitch is that the photographer would be expected to be more passive in a review, active in a pitch. Because I thought of the meetings as reviews, I was fairly passive in the first few meetings I had. I handed over the portfolio and waited for the feedback, which was slow in coming. Later, after having a few conversations with other photographers, I realized I should be pitching my work. That meant introducing myself, my work, the kinds of things I shoot, and my background as I narrated details of various shoots while the reviewer looked through my portfolio. My impression was that pitching was more effective than waiting for feedback, if for no other reason but that the reviewers seemed to expect it and were perplexed when they weren’t pitched to.
Meeting other photographers at FotoWorks was almost as useful as the meetings with art buyers. These happened between meetings, in a large room set aside for attendees while waiting for their appointment times. When I originally signed up, I wasn’t that keen on the sometimes long gaps between meetings. One such gap was three and a half hours long. To help pass the time, I brought my iPad and Apple pencil, with the intention of sketching while I waited. As it happened, I only had time to sketch one person, a photographer named Aladdin Ishmael, because the conversations with other photographers kept me too busy to concentrate on drawing.
Aladdin comments on the work of another photographer, displayed on an iPad
Because I made a sketch of Aladdin, he inquired about my other drawings. I showed him some of my dream journal sketches and a few of the comps I’ve made for photo shoots. Normally I do not show these to anyone but he seemed to think I should. There are a couple reasons I don’t show them but now I’m weighing whether my reasons outweigh Aladdin’s advice. For the record, the reasons are these: 1) I don’t want art buyers to get confused whether I am selling photography or illustration, 2) my sketches help me determine the elements I want in front of the camera but I rarely stick with the composition in the comp. That is, I’ll shoot the composition from the comp but almost always find another composition I like better. This happens because it is difficult to visualize all of the details of a location prior to visiting it in person. Once there, opportunities that would have been impossible to visualize before the fact are available to be shot. That said, the sketches are very handy for me because they give me a fair idea what resources I will need to get the shot I want, even if the composition does change on set.
On left, a comp and the finished photograph, on right, a comp based on a scene in my dream journal
FotoWorks was a three day event. Originally, my meetings were scheduled on each of the three days. That raised the possibility that it might be a good idea to get a hotel for two nights. I had wanted all of the meetings on the same day but that was impossible because some of the people I wanted to meet with weren’t scheduled to be present on more than one of the three days. Luckily, my one meeting scheduled for the second day was cancelled and replaced with a meeting on the first day, so I only had to be there for two days instead of three. For that reason, I just drove down twice. At the event, I discovered that I could still buy meetings, and the prices were lower after the event started than they were in advance. For that reason, I added quite a few extra meetings to my schedule. In the end, I saw twelve people for a little less than a thousand dollars.
My first meeting was with an art buyer from Saatchi and Saatchi. She was paging through my book when she stopped at my most recent shoot, featuring a couple of models wearing cycling jerseys. She liked the look, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before.” I was glad to hear it, though I wasn’t sure how many more shoots I was likely to do that were like it. I like to shoot athletes and sports-related themes but the shoot this art buyer responded to was a beauty shoot. I did it at the suggestion of a makeup artist I knew. I agreed but was hesitant because it was outside my specialty. To make myself more comfortable, I put the models in cycling jerseys and golf shirts, so there would be some connection to sports. Listening to the feedback from this one art buyer, I started fantasizing about hiring out a studio in New York to do a fancier version of the same shoot, something that would have been difficult to arrange at my home studio. However, her feedback conflicted with everyone else.
Bora Fona and Kennah Shoemaker from the “Jersey Girls” beauty shoot
Although the beauty shots were well-received, the most consistent feedback was that I should concentrate of shoots with athletes, real athletes, not fit models dressed in sportswear. Secondly, my environmental portraits were worth pitching as well. This meant removing fashion and beauty shots from my portfolio. The rationale was that the athlete and environmental portraits were stronger than the rest. I am happy to do that (and have done it), though with a little regret because there are aspects of beauty and fashion photography that I find very inspiring on a creative level. The reason in both cases is that I like the creative challenge of making something simple, a figure and a background, into something interesting and different. Pablo Picasso is an amazing artist to me, primarily because of how much variety he managed to get out of the simple combination of one model, usually nude, and a relatively plain background. Henri Matisse was almost as prolific with the amount of variety found in his compositions, though in later years he relied on fairly complicated patterns. Both exemplify the challenges of beauty and fashion photography, as well as the satisfying result. In my case, although I like Picasso’s work a great deal, the patterns and textures found in fashion fascinate me much as the patterns in ornate textiles served as Matisse’s inspiration.
Three of the most popular images from the event: Meghan Merlino at Crossfit 845, David Ollivierse at the Floyd Patterson Boxing Club, and Brianna’s Basement founder Rich Engle
During the meetings, I was surprised when some of the reviewers started talking about real assignments they thought I might be appropriate for at their company. Two suggested photo shoots related to some of the images in my portfolio. All of the suggestions were either athlete-related or environmental portraits. We’ll see how it goes but at the time it felt like I may have found a few clients. After the show I’ve heard from four of them but only one was contacting me about a specific project. The rest just asked that I keep in touch.
The main takeaway I got from Fotoworks was that I needed to totally re-edit my portfolio. The portfolio I showed had about 30 in-game basketball shots, 15 athlete portraits, 10 non-athlete portraits, and 10 fashion and beauty shots. The new portfolio would have to be about evenly split between Athlete portraits and environmental portraits. I decided to take out the in-game basketball shots because, although I like them, they don’t represent most of my work. Instead, I added some portraits of basketball players that I did outside of games. It took my almost three weeks to go through all my images, edit them into a new portfolio, and prepare all the images for printing. With that done, I am taking a break to write this. Next, I need to plan some more shoots while summer is still here. It’s easier to set up shoots outside in good weather and I don’t want to waste it!
A couple weeks ago, I did something different and fun. I hopped into a brand-new Alfa Romeo and drove around Albany in it. I could have done the same in a Mazerati but the idea of driving such an expensive car around made me nervous, so I opted for the Alfa instead.
The reason I was driving the car had to do with a photo shoot I was asked to participate in. A few nights earlier, Geoff Arbuckle of Elevation10k (https://www.elevation10k.com/) called me up with the request. They hoped I could help out on a car shoot that needed very high resolution images. This meant having me come up as a digital tech with my 101 megapixel Phase One camera. It sounded like fun, so I agreed.
They were worried about rain ruining the shoot, so they had several rain days planned. As it happened, it rained on all three days. They didn’t have the time to wait though, and their weather radar showed a gap in the clouds that might be big enough to get the shots. With that information they gave me the call to drive up, and I did, through pouring rain. Halfway up to Albany, I pulled over and called Geoff. “Is this rain going to be a problem?” I asked. “It’s not raining here”, he answered. I kept driving for another hour, raining all the way. And then, maybe five minutes before arriving at the shoot location, the rain stopped.
The shoot location was a parking garage with a view of several iconic Albany buildings. I drove up to the roof, remembering as I did that I hadn’t driven in a parking garage more than twice since 2006. Luckily the garage was nearly empty. I was the first to arrive.
A few minutes later, Tanner, an assistant for the shoot showed up, followed by Geoff and the photographer for the shoot, James Pickett (Instagram: @jameshpickett). With the team assembled, Tanner drove us to an Alfa Romea/Mazerati dealership about ten or fifteen minutes away. There, we met the client, and the cars we would photograph: two Mazeratis and two Alfa Romeos. Someone held out the keys to all four cars for me to choose my ride but I just said, “give me the least expensive one.” It would be cool to drive a Mazerati but I hadn’t driven a sports car since Epic Games’ president and founder Tim Sweeney let me drive his Lotus in 1994. I was handed the key (a fob actually) for an Alfa Romeo.
I didn’t know the streets of Albany at all, so I followed Geoff back to the garage. At one point I had to hit the gas to catch up to him. Holy cow did that car have muscle! It felt like I was driving a rocket for the couple of seconds it took to catch up. It was easy to see why people enjoyed driving cars like these.
Back at the garage, we reparked all of the cars so that none of them would be in the shot, sports cars included. This was so that we could get a clean background plate that could be used if needed later. However, James wanted dusk or evening light, so we didn’t do much for about a half hour while we waited for the light to change. I set up the camera and tethered it to Elevation 10k’s laptop, but that didn’t take long and once it was set up, we just chatted about photography until the light was right.
When the sun finally hit the right position, James took about ten background shots in about five minutes and was done. Then, we had to get the cars out and park them correctly for the composition. This took more time than I expected because of all the fine adjustments that had to be made so that each car was in the right place and at the right angle to the camera. The real work came next. James wanted the headlights to be on but he was shooting with a narrow aperture (he started at f/14, but went down to f/8 or f/9). This meant a long exposure. Depending on the f-stop, the exposures were between 10 and 30 seconds each. Because of the way the Phase One records the images, a ten second exposure takes twenty seconds to record, and a thirty second exposure takes a minute. There were two effects from these long exposures. The first is that there were bright glares from the headlights that obliterated details in the image, and the second was that we had to wait a long time before getting feedback on the shot.
James worked out that it was not a good idea to leave the lights on for the entire exposure. Instead, he timed how long it took for them to turn off by themselves after the doors were locked, then created a schedule where the car that took the longest to turn off its lights had its doors locked first, followed by the car with the next longest time, and so on. This took some coordination between Geoff and the client, who controlled the door locks, James, who walked around the cars popping a handheld ProFoto flash unit, and me, who managed the camera. The goal was for the car doors to be locked, then wait until moments before the headlights turned off and I would initiate the exposure, the headlights would turn off, and then James added some light to the scene with three or four strategic pops of his flash. After that we had to wait what seemed like ages for the exposure to be complete and shipped over to the laptop where we could see it.
It took some trial and error but eventually we got the timing right. Next, we had to do it all over again for each car lit independently of the rest, as backup in case retouching was needed.
Geoff said the shoot would last from about 6-10PM, and that is just about exactly what happened. I had to get home, so someone else drove “my” Alfa back to the dealership.
This morning, Geoff sent me a copy of the image and permission to use it in a blog post, so here it is, and my explanation for why I was out of town that Thursday night.