As the digital world encroaches bit by bit, these studio photographers see reality as the next big thing
At the end of a long, dark hallway, he opens the doorway of L.A.'s most famous feather prop house. Through a haze of feather dust, Morgan sees workers breathing through dust masks as they fashion angel wings of every shape and size. He picks out a few sets of small wings, then heads back to his studio, where his staff is fashioning tiny harnesses to hang hired pigs from his ceiling. It's a long way to go to make something as mundane as an ad client's product—a door—look interesting. And the end result will look only subtly different had someone spent an afternoon fiddling with Photoshop. But the image Morgan creates in the camera, and the story behind it, will last a lifetime.
The world of studio photography has evolved rapidly since the advent of the digital age. From the digital stock CDs of the 1980s to the portfolio websites and digital editing tools of the 1990s to the photography megaportals of 2000 and beyond, the creative and collaborative opportunities offered by computing seem to have expanded without bounds.
Despite its promise, a handful of eminent studio photographers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are finding that the digital world is more often a distraction. While dabbling in digital, they are choosing instead to stay focused on the basics of the business: creativity, cameras and clients.
Creative career choices
Morgan's comical craftsmanship took flight long before the suspended pigs began to squeal. A film buff and graduate of Pasadena Arts Center, he'd experimented with set design in college and decided that setting up shots was as fun as clicking the shutter. Building cartoonish sets and littering them with humorous subjects in physically impossible predicaments would be a great job, he thought, if only he could break out of shooting mufflers and roll bars for auto parts catalogs. It took him a year of working that day job, while creating set shots on his own, before he had a portfolio strong enough to pull in a steady stream of clients.
His early determination shows the light that shines within photographers. Morgan's work evokes the illuminated innocence of a Norman Rockwell painting as filtered through the subversive slapstick of a Warner Brothers cartoon. His style sets his images apart, far more than the techniques or tools that he's mastered over the years.
Nowhere is style more vital than in studio work. On this canvas, talent may move from fashion to food, from editorial work to annual reports, or from still lifes to cinematography over the extent of a career. And the only constant is the photographer's vision of the art itself.
Seattle photographer Diane Padys spent a decade doing high-fashion photography in Milan, New York and San Francisco before a Seven Seas salad dressing ad got her true creative juices flowing. Now known worldwide for the elegance of her food photography in such magazines as Bon Appetit, she was at the top of her fashion photography career when she found plates of food a more creative palate. She's flown even higher with the new work, she says, because unlike fashion photography, it allows her to express her own sense of style, color and design.
Pete McArthur graduated from Pasadena Arts Center in 1981 with a plan to stay in Los Angeles and shoot department store catalogs. When most of that business moved to Texas in the mid-1980s, he built a market for his own stylized lighting in hues of blue with magazines, corporate brochures and annual reports. Upon that foundation, he has assembled a playful portfolio of images that animate everyday objects.
L.A. photographer Mel Lindstrom, also an Arts Center grad, followed the catalog work to Texas in the late 1980s, mastered his technique, then moved on to Silicon Valley just as the technology boom hit. Along the way he found high-tech markets for his photography while exploring painting, drawing, sculpting and even poetry. Each offered a chance to explore his inner self, he says, and each found its public expression in his art.Jim Linna was a full-time graphic artist in Denver with a love of large-format work when he signed up to assist a fashion photographer part-time. Linna's talent for composition lent itself naturally to creating lavish layouts for high-end clothing stores. Within four years he had opened a studio in Seattle and has since become a high-end studio photographer in his own right.
Perhaps no West Coast photographer balances the talents of graphic design and studio work more than Pierre-Yves Goavec. An accomplished designer and sculptor in San Francisco, his photographs will long outlive their assignments. They stand on their own as pieces of conceptual art, with the interplay of subject and lighting seeming to inspire an ongoing dialogue within the image.
Each of these photographers started out seeking a style to market. Their success, they all agree, came when they learned how to market their own style.
It's a delicate creative balance, building a body of work that inspires the client without crushing the soul, and their success is often the greatest threat to that balance. As photographers' work becomes well known, it also becomes widely imitated, driving them on to new styles or subjects to keep themselves marketable. Unfortunately, say several studio shooters, this impetus often comes just when clients begin seeking them out for a style that has started to filter into the national or global consciousness.
Shrugging off the silicon
Though the darling of the mass media, the ubiquitous Internet is in its heart a fiery revolutionary. That makes it an uneasy ally for those few photographers at the top of their craft. Pierre-Yves Goavec has posted more than 200 of his photos on the stock website The Image Bank, and has grown sick of all of them.
"Publicity forces the good photographers to keep moving," Goavec says. "The cycles are getting shorter and shorter. Maybe 30 years ago a photographer could keep a style for a long, long time. Now people are quickly aware of the work you do, and the more exposure you have, the more imitators. A good article might be good for making my work known, but it might be bad too. It will increase the imitators; it is not cutting edge anymore. You have to keep moving. Finding new ideas is difficult.
"Sometimes you are forced to move in a new direction when you feel like you haven't fully explored the old direction. But too, you just get bored and say, "To hell with it, I don't want to do it anymore."
The Goavec photos posted on The Image Bank date to more than four years ago, from a period he concluded with a traveling exhibit of his work. The day after the exhibit closed, he says, "I emptied my portfolio and started from scratch." Burning the bridge was the only way to move on.
"When you show a certain kind of work, that's the work you get.
"It is really difficult to move in another direction. It took me almost two or three years to turn the boats. At one point I almost felt like changing my name. People would say, Oh, Pierre, yeah, saturated color with texture.' Now they say, ‘Oh, Pierre, black background with shadows.' But I just did an exhibit of that style with 60 large prints, and I have now packed them in crates. Now I have been doing the opposite of that. I got rid of the bright colors, the dark backgrounds, and started shooting on white.
"I am doing well because I am perceived by my clients as on the cutting edge. But if other people are doing my solutions, I am out of business, so I have to come up with something new very quickly."
He has no choice, he says, only half-joking. "I am not old enough to have a retrospective."
Pete McArthur had a five-year relationship with the Tony Stone stock agency, from 1992 to 1997, before it was purchased by Getty and later renamed Stone Stock. Under the new management, McArthur says, he was required to put all his images into stock, and his percentage on sales was cut to 40 percent.
"It seems to me the larger stock agencies are trying to make designers into shoppers," says McArthur. "It's like interior decorating. The carpet already exists, the furniture exists, and you just buy it and arrange it. You look for existing imagery, and when you find what fits your particular need, you rent it, or you rent pieces, and you put it back together again—instead of inventing in a traditional way, which was a writer and an art director working together and building something.
"They love to foster that, because it makes creators dependent upon their stock libraries to create. They can also monitor that; they can track who is using it, what is selling." When Getty started encouraging him to shoot images that could more easily be sold as stock, he decided to pull out entirely.
"I started finding my assignment work was competing with stock. That's been growing around us at this rapid pace," says McArthur. Since going independent again three years ago, McArthur says, he's purchased an Imacon scanner for $14,000 and expanded his assignment work by offering what he calls "customized stock."
"There are tons of publications that don't have a budget, and they would love to have stock that looks customized to them. They might have every shot in stock, except one shot. If you are with a big stock agency, the talent never can talk to the customer. But I can talk to the customer and give them stock plus assignment photography. It's a new way for an assignment photographer to approach the business.
"When you operate through the big stock agencies, you are not branding yourself; you are anonymous. But dabbling in the stock marketplace increases the number of people and companies I work with."
Jim Linna once shot entire stock disks for his day rate, thinking it would be good to promote his work. This was early in his career, when he was working 60-hour weeks, at a time when he had begun to question whether he had chosen the right career at all. The turning point came when he began to ask people what percentage of their jobs they liked.
"I had a couple of people say they really wanted to do what I was doing. And that struck me," says Linna. "I had really wanted to do this since I was in high school, and I decided to stick with it." He regrets to this day the decision to do stock back then, but has recently re-entered the stock world in a different way with a different company, and has gotten much better results.
"Years ago I was doing shots for PhotoDisc, shooting their catalogs," Linna says. "While I was doing it, I did this disk with Glenn Mitsui, and I just charged my day rate. They were simple objects, like a wrench on white. In my own mind, I was laughing about it. Then Glenn says, ‘You should do one of these yourself.' So I did this disk on nature objects, like feathers and leaves, that kind of stuff." After a week and a half it was finished, says Linna, but the rights were signed away and the promotional value never materialized.
"One time I got a call from the Los Angeles Times to shoot some bugs the same way, and they paid my day rate. It was very simple, on white. Since then there have only been two other jobs. One turned out pretty good—I got to fly back to Maine to shoot some images. Another local designer hired me to shoot some paper products that matched the same light and style.
"In the meantime, I've seen my images all over and I know they got them for $70. Sometimes I do a bid, and they even mention my PhotoDiscs and say, "'Why is it so high? I don't understand. I can get these images from PhotoDisc for next to nothing; why is it so expensive to hire a photographer?'"
Linna has seen the stock business eat away at assignment work in the past two years especially. "I get a call from a firm that says they need six shots—they have five of them already from stock and want a sixth the same—where before I would get a call about six shots."
Despite his regrets, Linna recently took a second look at stock and was glad he did. A small stock-disk producer cold-called him seeking contributions from his archive. He placed 40 images on the disk, shortly before FPG bought the small disk company and then Getty bought FPG. Suddenly Linna was in the stock world's big time, and he has recently begun to receive substantial checks from Getty for images he never would have tried to sell to them.
Diane Padys also rode FPG into the Getty fold, although few of her images are for sale there. As a food photographer in a competitive market, she often must relinquish rights to her work. Natural cereal companies, for instance—some of her most regular customers—do not want their images and logos showing up out of context. "In Seattle," she says, "rights are pretty much given away. If you take San Francisco and New York, companies are more adept at working with many, many photographers; they are used to negotiating more restrictive usage."
Mel Lindstrom is often surprised by the naivete of the 20-something website art directors he gets calls from. "I do see more and more people these days who seem to be totally unaware of copyright usage.
"Someone called me recently and wanted me to do a series of portraits of their executives, and a couple of days before the shoot, they asked if we could use a Ferrari car, an airplane, a surfboard on an ocean. As this person goes into it more, I realize that she is thinking of a carnival photographer, where they take a shot of you and put it in a cardboard scene.
Only now it is done digitally.
"I said what she really needs is to go down to the boardwalk and take some shots. Or we can design a shot, and that is going to take a lot more creativity and cost. She really had no idea what commercial photography was about. It's not arrogance, just ignorance.
"I had a client calling recently who was in her early 20s. She had just gotten this position in an Internet company and wanted a product shot. So she said she had a very small, $2,500 budget, and wanted unlimited usage for ad placement on billboards and magazines. I asked her if she realized how much money, like about $200,000, the placement alone was going to cost. She was young. She didn't know anything," says Lindstrom, noting the planned photography budget was only about 1 percent of the expense of the entire ad campaign. "She said, ‘Wow, we are going to be spending a ton of money. We should put some money up front, put the image first, or else all the rest is wasted.'"
From lofts to LA 411
In the city of Los Angeles, more than 36,000 sound stages and rental and service companies support the day-rate model of filmmaking. So says the movie industry resource guide LA 411, a Cahners publication that makes a nice business supporting the support industry.
Like remora, the tiny fish that attach themselves to sharks, these companies draw daily rental revenue from the film industry's creative geniuses. In return, they supply cameras, lenses, cranes and dollies. They set up lighting, studio space, props and set pieces on short-term leases. They send in squads of assistants, gaffers, cooks and gophers by cell phone. They even truck in toilets at a per-hour, and sometimes a per-gallon, rate. When the film is in the can, the producers shake off all these ravenous helpers, then swim swiftly off in search of the next big meal ticket.
So when will studio photographers, hamstrung by high overhead, start swimming with the sharks? The smart ones already have, and not necessarily by choice. Among the greatest of the unavoidable pressures on studio photographers are lease rates. They are skyrocketing thanks to these same movie moguls in Los Angeles and the dot-com billionaires of Silicon Valley and Seattle.
A modest 2,500-square-foot photographer's space in San Francisco, which rented for 50 cents per square foot 10 years ago, can now bring in anywhere from $5 to $250 per square foot. Do the math. What starting photographer can pay out $12,500 a month—more than $150,000 a year—for rental space? What savvy one would even try?
Jay P. Morgan wonders. With a style that depends on intricate set construction, and a two-picture film deal at MGM, he's better situated than many as tremors in the film business shake the foundations of the studio photography industry. In fact, one could say he is gleefully dancing as the earth shifts under his feet.
Though he often goes on location, Morgan leases a 5,000-square- foot space east of downtown Los Angeles that he says "is just far enough out to be reasonable." Rather than keeping a huge staff of interns and assistants, he maintains only a full-time studio manager and a part-time bookkeeper. He rents props and entire sets from Universal Studios. To offset those costs, he and a partner started a set-building and props company themselves, called L.A. Sets. He has more than 60 backdrops that are up to 20x40 feet in size. They include blue skies, cloudy skies, ocean views and street scenes he has painted over the years.
Diane Padys also avoids the overhead of a large staff, in her case by hiring professionally trained cooks as "food stylists" for her gourmet assignments. She brings in prop stylists to help illustrate images, such as those for a recent article about squash soup. Clients are often surprised at being billed for a prop stylist, but from the filmmaking perspective, it's a bargain to get a set designer, costume designer and continuity expert all in one. "Based on your concept and theme, the prop stylist dresses the set—provides all the dishes, the nuances of color hues for napkins, the looks of the tables, even the antique chairs," says Padys. After the shoot, the food is either sent to homeless shelters or divvied up among the members of the crew.
Mel Lindstrom sees roving bands of studio renters in the industry's future. As a member of the board of the American Photographers of America (APA), Lindstrom is actively encouraging photographers to begin following the movie-industry model for budgeting. The first step is convincing photographers to bill rental space to their clients as a production cost.
Lindstrom has a 5,000-square-foot space in San Francisco that he bought a few years back. That decision saved him from having to move out of a building that he later bulldozed, redesigned and rebuilt to fit the needs of his own work. "I designed this studio from the ground up," he says. "The entire building—the furniture, the picture frames, the lighting, right down to where the electrical outlets are—is my design.
"After I moved into this wonderful studio, I started getting more and more location work. I have been flying to all different parts of the world. I have been to Korea a couple of times, various parts of the United States, Italy. Probably most of my work actually comes from outside of San Francisco, but the presence of being here helps a lot too."
His regular departures also allow him to rent his space to photographers who can't afford their own. In support of his APA initiative, he even bills his own studio to his clients at a day rate. The demands of this new source of income have led him to remodel his business. The first step will be hiring a digital artist; the second, ripping out his darkroom. It's a bittersweet decision.
"I have the darkroom that I have always wanted," says Lindstrom. "A beautiful darkroom—two great enlargers, a 20-foot-long sink, a full stainless steel processing line—and I am getting rid of it. I am going to change that darkroom over to a scanning and digital room. San Francisco has a number of really good-quality labs and printers, so I am doing less and less darkroom work. Now people want digital files."
In the runaway real estate market, it's easy for these side businesses to eclipse a studio photographer's traditional income, says Pierre-Yves Goavec.
"In San Francisco, I am amazed to see how many photographers are quitting their work and just renting their space. They make more money renting their space than shooting pictures. If the trend keeps, I think people will have to learn how to work with less space or leave photography."
Though he owns his studio, Goavec says he never rents it out, in part because it is filled with more than 100 of his small sculptures. "I have a lot of space, and although I'm really not using it always, it is very personal. I have my own special equipment, special lighting. I don't want to loan it."
Ultimately, who owns the space and who rents it by the day or the hour is less important than finding the client who will pay for it. Time shifting and electronic communication with clients, much more than digital production, are the places where costs are being saved and deals made.
Clients and collaboration
Pete McArthur has seen his business with East Coast clients pick up dramatically over the past few years. That's in part, he says, because a midday assignment from New York comes in at 9 a.m. in Seattle, offering plenty of time to shoot the images and FedEx or e-mail them to the client by the next day. McArthur says working bicoastal is a big win for both sides.
"We are trying to keep people working at their companies rather than coming to a photo studio and sitting in the dark for 10 hours. When you make an art director and an upper management person sit in the dark all day, the amount of salaries sitting there means the photo is costing them a fortune." The challenge is keeping them involved enough creatively to avoid surprises.
"We can do a preliminary shot in the morning, get it up on the website for review. We might have an art director in Chicago, an executive in New York, and we are all talking on the phone about it. I make a couple of adjustments, and we shoot it. It's a little like shooting Polaroids all day long. You have to tell people everything, because if they see it later it is too late. It's a little different way to work, but it really saves people travel time, so I can compete with someone who is local in New York."
Pierre-Yves Goavec likes long-distance clients as well, but for a less collaborative reason. "If the client gets involved, things get terrible. I think the convenience (of e-mail) is nice, but the way I work, because I want the independence, it is the worst way to work. It is a committee. I want the control, and with (e-mail) the clients really want to get involved in the process. And I don't like it that way. If the client is unhappy, I don't do modification; it pisses me off. I will do the thing totally different. I work for myself. It is a gamble I took. If I work the way I want and nobody likes it, well, tough luck. When I started my career, people thought, ‘Maybe this will take off in Europe, but not in the States.' But it did.
"I made a conscious decision not to use the computers about four or five years ago," Goavec says.
"Photographers were all getting into that Photoshop thing. I thought hard about it. At that time I thought most photographers were going to do this in the next few years—make themselves into digital photographers. I am always trying to do something other than what the crowd is doing, so I decided not to get involved.
"I just thought, what's the point? If everyone is doing it, what's going to come out of it will be all the same. I think I was right. Doesn't mean I won't get into it when people quit it. It's not something I need. I think a lot of photographers got into it out of fear, out of a lack of creativeness. I am not anxious about it. When people went into Photoshop five years ago, I got into sculpture. So I did something new.
"The vision of the digital world is through the advertisers, the ones who want to sell you scanners. You cannot help but think those things are selling like hot bread. For a guy like me, the savings argument is irrelevant. I don't shoot thousands of rolls of film. It is really peanuts, the film cost. The only way I could justify getting into the digital world if it was allowing me to be more creative. But the financial side is a negative. The cameras I use I bought ten years ago, and they are still amazing."
Jay P. Morgan puts computers to work generating direct "snail mail" campaigns, sending out 7,000 to 10,000 pieces every month. "It's a very shotgun approach," he concedes. "I try to get people to see the images, then design their campaigns around that approach. I really try to create the market rather than fit the market."
When he does find a client, it rarely if ever leads to him doing digital production work. "I don't shoot digitally," he says. "I have a small digital camera so we can e-mail shots to our clients." And when digital retouching is required, such as dodging out the wires and harnesses on the flying pigs, he calls in a high-end digital studio called Imagic, which also keeps busy doing movie special effects.
"They did the pigs," says Morgan. "I went through all the pigs, selected a few, then did a sketch and told them what I wanted. I got a proof and made my corrections; then when they sent me the second proof, I went back in with them and polished it myself."
If the process sounds familiar, it is. In fact, it hasn't changed much since the 1930s, when photographers sent their negatives out to high-end print shops for darkroom retouching. Remember when people were amazed that Ansel Adams both shot his photographs and printed them? It can be just as amazing to find someone in the digital age who is master of both arts.
For his part, says Morgan, "I chose to be a photographer, not sit at a computer station all day long. We will bring that in-house one day, but I am not sure how quickly that will happen."
As for collaboration over the web, he'll turn entirely to that when pigs fly. "I do digital shots of sets before they arrive. But they need to come. I like to have them there, on set, to solve the problems, so we can make our decisions and go on.
"When the digital thing came on strong, people thought I had been doing this digital stuff for years. But in reality I had been doing this in a camera. That's a difficult thing to do. But it has made it easy for me to get into the digital world. I still have an approach that makes it look real. I think it is a good approach.
"I am about to shoot a tent ad, and the guy is holding a tent that is blowing away. We will shoot that in the studio, then we will strip in a background of Yosemite."
For Diane Padys, "Technology is communicating. My traditional package hasn't changed. They still want real film; they don't want it digital unless it is for their website. I don't have websites as clients as yet. I'm hoping that's the next step. The photography on a lot of websites is pretty boring. It really lacks talent and style. Now that's the next step."
Jim Linna has tried web collaboration but won't say he prefers it. "It would be awesome if people would look at your website and say you're the guy. That would be awesome. Then I wouldn't have to worry about my portfolio coming back home in one piece. Unfortunately, the downside of the web is that people think they can stay in their office and art-direct a photo shoot. They want you to send them things by e-mail, and that just slows the process down. I'd rather have them there, looking through the camera.
"It seems with all the advancement of all this stuff, it is not really helping. It's nice to talk on the phone. When it comes to the creative process, I'd rather meet somebody and talk about it."