How executive portrait photographers master the five-minute photo-op.
Digital technology is accelerating the means of delivering images to eyeballs, but the world’s hunger for news about people, and fresh portraits of them, will never be satisfied. So says Seattle-based photographer David Perry, who specializes in what he calls location people scenarios for annual reports and magazines.
"We have become image junkies as a society, " says Perry. As a result, he sees his market continuing to expand, with stock images offering more of a new market than a threat to the old. "Many people have been afraid that stock was going to kill us, but the fact is we are voracious in our appetite for images. So I don’t see the universe of images shrinking; they’re just becoming more diverse."
Indeed, opportunities are increasing on both ends of the spectrum — from highly professional portraits to down-market digital shovelware — with the proliferation of the Internet and digital clip discs. Super-high-resolution photos appear right alongside gritty snapshots on stock websites and CD-ROMs. And leading-edge advertising clients will often pay just as much to achieve the appearance of a low-end print as they used to spend on high-end shoots.
Perry and other photographers say the threat in photo databases is not that they decrease the demand for photos, but rather that they are diminishing the perceived value of images. Many companies have been able to save money and still get a high-quality image with stock photography. From Perry’s perspective, though, the price-for-value pendulum may be swinging back toward photographers.
Perry says he created original photos for annual reports this year for three companies that used clip art last year. These companies abandoned the stock-art solution when they found that some of their competitors had used the same photos. And they vowed to never use clip art again. "What clip art can do is limited," Perry says. "If the cover photo on your annual report is the same as your competitor’s, you didn’t save any money. You lost money, big time."
Lars Topelman, who specializes in lifestyle photography for advertisements, doesn’t see his work changing much with the advent of digital technology.
Based in Portland, Ore., Topelman says his clients seek him out to create original image concepts for the ideas they are trying to convey. It’s diametrically opposed to the stock image process, where clients find themselves altering their message to conform to a set of canned photos. Topelman’s clients often already have a layout and even an idea of what they want to do.
"It’s pretty nailed down. It’s just a matter of doing it," says Topelman, though that somewhat understates the creativity that is his stock in trade.
The logistical challenges of Topelman’s live shots require the help of a producer, another important function that a computer can’t replace. Topelman’s producer handles everything from setting up meals and accommodation for models to securing access to locations, which has in the past included closing a bridge and reserving a public space for an hour. That leaves Topelman to dream up the images you won’t find in any binary bin of 250,000 royalty-free-photos.
Topelman’s most memorable assignment was for www.deja.com, a search-engine website that encourages users to write their own reviews of products. One shot showed a dwarf testing a baby stroller by allowing himself to be towed behind a car by a ski rope. Another showed a man testing the strength of his favorite tequila by using it as fuel for his fire-breathing act.
Framing the famous in a camera’s viewfinder is another area where portrait photographers have the upper hand over royalty-free stock agencies. Often under intense time pressure, photographers must perform under what Alex Waterhouse Hayward calls the "five-minute probation period." Hayward, of Vancouver, B.C., says that "in that first five minutes, they size you up and determine whether you’re worth more time."
Royalty-free discs can’t fill that fleeting need because the story is always changing. Today’s media darling is forgotten tomorrow. And two clients chasing the same celebrity are loath to use "pickup" shots from a common source.
While high-paying shots of celebs like William F. Buckley, Jr., or Candice Bergen may end up on stock discs after their fame fades, there will always be a premium paid for photographers who can tell a new star’s story or plumb the depths of their soul with a quick head shot. That’s true whether the celebrity hails from Hollywood or Silicon Valley.
Gerry Gropp, a San Francisco photographer, refers to executive portraiture half-jokingly as "guerilla photography," also because of the time pressure.
"You have to run in, take your shots, and then you’re on to the next project," he says. "You sometimes go in blind. Creativity has to happen right there in an often sterile environment."
Like Hayward, Gropp has found that being fully prepared is key. And being able to establish an instant rapport will usually buy you a few more moments of the subject’s most precious resource, time.
Executives tend to see even editorial photos as more free publicity, viewing moments spent with a photographer as a swap for market mind share, often too expensive to purchase outright. Gropp knows that even in the best case, that goodwill can be short-lived for busy executives. When on assignment, he shows up on location 60 to 90 minutes early to tour the site, develop a few ideas and play with variables such as lighting, gels, lenses and backgrounds.
When the exec appears, Gropp then can be ready to place him or her right into the frame of a shot that has already been conceived and camera-tested. Sharing Polaroid proofs on the spot with the executive or the PR person will make them more receptive to ideas and sometimes generates new ones. The challenge is to allow the high-powered executive to participate without taking control of the process. That can be particularly difficult when the famous subject has been in front of the lens more often than the photographer has been behind one.
Gropp recalls doing a portrait of Intel CEO Andy Grove for Business Week. The article was to feature the country’s top 25 managers. The moment they ran past the allotted time, Grove began questioning what the shot was going to be used for, how many other managers would merit a photo and how large his shot would be. "They know what they’re doing," Gropp says.
Wider markets, greater risk
Digital stock agencies and the increasingly interconnected international publishing world offer much greater opportunity for securing photo assignments. But unforeseen complexities abound, says William Mercer McLeod. A founding member of Editorial Photographers, an email and web-based group in San Francisco, McLeod encourages photojournalists to push for better contracts. But even understanding their existing contracts, rife with legalese and extending across multiple jurisdictions, can be a challenge. "It’s like a minefield out there," McLeod says.
While the Internet offers the potential for securing more wide-ranging assignments, and more efficient image distribution afterward, progress is not without hazards. David Perry notes that a photo he shot for an annual report has mysteriously appeared in a guidebook. He didn’t license the photo, and doesn’t even know how the guidebook got the image.
This was an unwelcome event financially, since he has not been paid for the secondary use. It also opens questions of liability. If Perry were in any way responsible for those photos ending up there, he could lose the original corporate account and be subject to a lawsuit. Likewise, he |might even be found to be at fault for losing control of the images.
Though predictions have become increasingly dire about the effects of the digital wave washing over the industry, photographers remain mostly upbeat and optimistic that theirs is not a dying art. Despite manufacturers’ claims, digital technology will not soon eclipse the quality and value of the film-based medium. Even when it does clients likely will continue to find the value in having creativity, much more than a slice of silicon, be sandwiched between subjects and audience.