The why of an advertising image


I did my first advertising assignment in the year 2000. I still remember how excited I was when I, a few months later, walked out of a bookstore on Chestnut Street in San Francisco with several magazines with my pictures in them.

20 years into my career as an advertising photographer the excitement of seeing my work published in magazines and printed oversized on billboards is just as thrilling. The campaign we captured for Qatar Tourism launched globally last year and have since been used in magazines, on billboards in airports and places like New York’s time square and London’s Piccadilly Circus and “everywhere” online.

 

The thrill of having my work published is absolutely the same 20 years later.

How I approach my commercial work and how I understand the responsibility trusted to me when awarded an assignment however has changed completely during this time.

My approach early on, I now realize, was quite naïve.
Being hired was fun and exciting; I couldn’t fully believe someone would pay me to take pictures.
Eager to please, I dove into each assignment with a massive amount of enthusiasm! I was on a continuing high of creative endorphins and I pushed myself and my image process as hard as I could.
I was doing so however without the larger understanding of WHY.
Had someone asked me during these early years what the images we captured represented and symbolized for the client I would not be able to answer…

I remember vividly the assignment when I became aware of the trust extended to me when hired as a photographer.
I had just been awarded what was the largest assignment of my career at the time, and as we wrapped up the kick off call the Art Director says; “This is the biggest advertising spend this company has ever done; Don’t ***k it up!”

This company is among the 50 largest in the world…

With this I started to realize the responsibility I have as the photographer chosen to execute the images for an advertising campaign and got a larger understanding around the work the agency and client have done on the campaign prior to approaching possible photographers to create the imagery.

I did some of my signature images during this time, so it was not that the work didn’t hold up. It was more about my creative process not being refined enough to include a full understanding of what I was hired to create.
I guess I was so excited about the fact I got hired to do what I love that I didn’t quite see the bigger picture. Or maybe I simply lacked the depth or curiosity at that stage in my life to ask myself the very basic questions;
WHY do the client want to create this kind of image?
WHY this idea?
HOW does it relate to the message of the brand?
What kind of person do we cast and what environment are we in?
What light quality and color palette would help underpin the emotions the Advertising Agency wants the image and brand to be connected to?

These questions are so obvious for me to ask today and the answers serve as the North Star for my approach in every new project I take on.

 

 

One might think one gets jaded as one get older, but for me it has been the opposite.

Having been at my photography journey for 25 years and working with advertising for 20, I now have a very different insight and understanding of the work clients and advertising agencies put into building a brand or launching a product.
An AD agency, or in house creative, can work on a launch for months and years before getting to the stage where they are ready to execute the visuals.
To then be the photographer chosen to turn their ideas and concepts into images and films is a huge privilege and I put more pressure on myself to deliver today than I ever have.

With this privilege also comes the expectations to perform at a high level and to craft images which in an artful way touches on all things WHY of the image and campaign…

The first time I deeply felt the gravity of a campaign and my photographs’ need to be successful was in January 2009.
The economy was crashing, and tourism and travel came to a halt.
Spain, where the tourism industry is as much as 16% of GDP, had tasked the Advertising Agency McCannErickson in Madrid to launch a global campaign to boost tourism. They in turn hired me to be the photographer shooting the images for it…
I had done larger campaigns for a while but was still fairly new at being hired for media buys at this level.

 

I vividly remember the first day of the 3-week shoot. Never have I felt more pressure and sense of relief.

When scouting the location we had decided to have a fence along the cliff removed for the shoot. We show up in the dark, early in the morning on our first shoot day to get ready for sunrise. As my producer is removing the temporary fencing placed for safety, he trips and falls off the cliff…
He catches himself on some trees growing out of the cliffside and with just a few bruises we got him safely back up.
Shortly after 19 people from the agency and the Spanish Ministry of Tourism shows up to watch the first image of the campaign happen…

It is January and the weather had been terrible for days. The forecast for the morning was not great, but we could see breaks in the cloud cover as dawn arrived with its first light.

As the sun rose and broke through the clouds and the images came up on the computer, the relief from the group behind the camera was palpable.

 

It was a strange mixture of emotions that morning. The adrenaline from the fall and rescue of my producer, the pressure surrounding the importance of the campaign, and that relief when it all turned out ok and the sun rose across the peninsula and water.

My producer didn’t say much at all the rest of that day. He sat quiet on a patch of grass till the shoot was over and then headed for the hospital to get his bruises looked at.

I finally came off my adrenaline-fueled state of the accident and focus through the shoot.
I then had my reaction; I got dizzy, threw up and had to find my own patch of grass to catch a break and reflect on the morning.

One could argue that my early ignorance to the gravity of my assignments was bliss and that I was better off just having fun creating, but as I have gotten better at managing pressure and gained some life perspective on marketing and pictures. We are not performing life-threatening surgery…

I have found what’s closer to a balance where I have the utmost respect for the process and gratitude to get to be a part of it.
I have in the decade since been lucky enough to be hired for many both high and lower profile assignments. All with its own sets of pressures and expectations…

So why am I sharing these stories around the understanding of the creative process and the WHY of a brands visual language?

 

 

I get asked all the time where I see the future of advertising photography.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I reflect on the traditional use of images in newspapers and magazines largely being gone, and the profound proliferation of photography through the camera phones and social media.

Gone are the times where one image could make the bold brand statement. The memory of a single image is simply washed away among the next few days or weeks of our social media streams. For companies to thrive in today’s environment they have to use every digital and media avenue available to them. There is tracking, metrics, and profiling, AdWords, social media and influencers…

At the core of these new branding efforts there has to be a brand message and narrative with a deeper substance in which the consumer can connect to. Otherwise we will forget about the company as quick as we forget about the image they used to market themselves…
If you believe this as I do, it is obvious that it will be increasingly important for us as image and filmmakers to understand both the need and the WHY of this core branding.

I believe it to be best way commercial photographers and directors can effectively help shape brands and their story, and a big part in us photographers continuing to thrive.

My favorite assignment

I so often get asked the question: What’s your favorite assignment?

It’s a tricky question to answer as there have been so many “favorite” assignments.

I have dived deep into oceans, I have rappelled into underground caves, I have been to deserts and climbed to mountaintops all in search of the perfect location. I have photographed from helicopters and while skydiving and even photographed a 777-200ER while flying around it in a small Lear jet.

So what’s the parameter for a favorite Assignment?
I have taken some of my favorite images on the street outside my house, yet my favorite experience taking pictures might be helicoptering into a storm in the mountain peaks around Queenstown, New Zealand.

I am more into discovering new places than going back to ones I have already been to, but I do long to go back to the Namibian desert.

Wolvedans, Namibia, changed me profoundly in the way I see and connect to places I go to.  My time there has left a permanent imprint on who I am and how I see landscapes, so for the emotional impact this was my favorite…

So my “favorite assignment” is sometimes because of the image, some times because of the experience around it and other times because of the emotional impact a shoot have had.

Then there’s another type of “favorite” where I get challenged creatively.

Most of the time I get hired to do what I do…

There’s something in my portfolio the agency and client connects to and want me to apply to their concept and campaign.

Rarely do I get hired outside my core capabilities. When I do however it’s exciting and exhilarating and this challenge to create something different becomes a parameter for “favorite”

My recent shoot for Wonderful Co’s new wine brand JNSQ had this creative challenge and the other elements above baked into one, and is for sure one of my favorite assignments.

We traveled to Miami for its Art Deco Color palette and Islamorada for its watercolor with some of my favorite people to work with.

JNSQ had a creative director who saw me as a great fit even though I had not directly done this kind of imagery prior. In this work I got to challenge myself and blend my advertising approach with my cinematic fashion editorial work into a retro-modern esthetic which I am truly excited about.

So when I share I am a photographer and get asked about my favorite assignment, I can for sure say that this was one of them…

As with all assignments we work in both stills and film and the below is the film piece to go along with the stills and cinemagraphs we created.

My three years without an agent

In September 2016 my Photography Agents, Vaughn-Hannigan, abruptly closed their doors after 10 years in business. Since then I have been without an agent, representing myself, and I thought I would look back and ask the question which has been lingering with me through this time:

To Agent or not to Agent?

After the news broke of Vaughn-Hannigan’s closure, there was a flurry of activity.  Art Department, a major Photo Agency in New York, offered to take on all the VH photographers and some of the staff. 

With a roster of 65 or so photographers Art Dept is a big player and I was a bit reluctant to include myself in a group of that size. VH was the opposite of this with a boutique approach with a small roster of very distinct photographers.  We all had different specialties, and as a collective of artists I did feel we elevated each other rather than being competitors.

So I passed on the merger and met with a handful of agencies where I saw myself as a better fit. In the end however I decided not to jump into a new agent relationship right away and to give it all a good think.  Over the past 18 years I have only worked with 2 agents and I wanted to make sure my next partnership was the right one for the remainder of my career. 

I also kept wondering why VH had shut their doors in the first place. Were they a casualty of marketing shifting away from traditional to digital media? 

VH was not the only Photo Rep to close shop, so more importantly; was it a sign that the agent model is not as relevant as it was before digital and social media?

I remember when I first started out in photography. I had moved halfway across the world, from Trondheim, Norway to San Francisco, to study at the Academy of Art University.

4 years in a learning environment flew by faster than one can imagine, and I vividly remember looking at my portfolio after graduation thinking; 

Are these few images all I have to base my future on? Was this it? Was this how I would make a living? 

The idea of approaching magazines and advertising agencies saying “Here are my pictures, will you hire me”? felt daunting and had an almost paralyzing effect on any forward action.

So I got a job as a camera assistant, and I started infusing myself in the photo community. Here, the underlying consensus was that if you wanted to find work as a photographer, you had to have someone else handle this for you.

It meant finding an agent.

This was the late 90’s; there was no social media and websites had yet to become mainstream, and having agent was indeed crucial. While photographers were out taking pictures, the agent would take their portfolios to advertising agencies and magazines, present the work, and essentially sell the photographers on their roster.

This direct sale approach, sending out marketing materials and being published in magazines and Industry competitions, were the ways for a photographer to get noticed and hired. 

This is still happening today but to a very different degree. 

How we absorb media is in massive change and as we spend increasingly more time on our phones the places Art Directors and Art Buyers find photographers is different today than when I started out.  

In the weeks and months after the closing of Vaughn-Hannigan, layouts from Advertising Agencies with requests for estimates now came directly to me. This was a first in my career, but with great encouragement and help from my longtime producer, we dove in, engaging in the negotiations and estimating process that my agents would normally handle. In what was a case of indecisiveness around signing with a new agent and becoming busy with the work coming in, I decided to go it on my own for a year.

 1 year came and went, and suddenly the 2-year mark passed as well. 

It has now been almost 3 years, and with some time to reflect I thought I again would ask the big question:

To agent or not to Agent?

The obvious benchmarks when comparing times with and without representation are revenue and profit. Did I make more or less? When averaging out the gross billings of the past few years I did slightly less revenue in 2017 and then had one of the best years of my career in 2018.

So on average the revenue of the past years without an agent is consistent with the years when I did. 

But should the revenue still be equal now that I did not have an agent getting me jobs? Wouldn’t the assumption be that without an agent there would be a lot less work coming in?

With revenue in line with past years, my profits surged, as I did not pay the commission a photographer’s agent charges.

This have for me equaled a significant salary increase, and if you asked my bookkeeper who looks at numbers, she would not at all suggest getting another agent.

And she’s right; Just looking at the revenue and profit benchmarks, one can loosely conclude that an agent is not needed at this stage in my career.

The full answer, however, is not so simple.

A good agent does a lot of work, and without representation, I am doing this job in addition to the other hats I am wearing while running the business of an advertising photographer. The truth is that I am doing less than an agent. I am doing the estimating and negotiating aspect of an agent’s job, but I am not doing the in-person agency visits or the marketing that a good agent consistently does.

To properly assess the effect of an agent we have to look backward and forwards. Looking back at the marketing and brand building that has been done in the past decade and looking forward at how to best continue this effort. 

The past 15 years, I have consistently been marketing myself, building my brand. The past 3 years have shown that this long-term marketing effort has been well worth it as my business has continued to thrive without relying upon the support of an agent.

I believe this stands as a testament to how important it is for photographers to do their OWN marketing and brand building, and to not rely upon an agent’s reputation and connections to land assignment work.

So with my long-term marketing efforts in place, do I need representation going forward? 

If I continue the consistent marketing I have been doing, will I be able to maintain the momentum, and more importantly, stay relevant? 

My fear is that being my own agent is a long tail scenario where I utilize fewer ways to market myself and that I gradually will lose market presence?

I have thought about this a lot, and I think the answer is less in the question of “do I need an agent or not” and more in the question “How do I best reach my potential clients in the current market?”

It has been fascinating to watch the rise of social media, its influencers and the currency that a large online following carries. Photographers now get hired, not just because of their craft, but also because of their own reach as a media channel to help sell the very product they get hired to photograph. 

If one believe this trend will continue, which I do, Photographers, like myself, who are marketing through the traditional channels, will have to shift most of marketing our focus into creating a solid online presence.

Having been a part of the advertising community for almost 2 decades, I clearly see the shift in how companies market themselves from “here’s our product” to a narrative of what the company is about, what they believe in and “why they do what they do” 

Us photographers very much need to do the same.… 

In reshaping and updating my branding effort I want to share and partake in this expanded narrative of my brand. Rather than just showing my best images, I need to share why I so passionately like to create this work, what parts of me that are reflected in each picture I take and the process I go through to ensure that each commercial assignment I take on has the emotional honesty I seek in every one of my photographs. 

This effort however is a part time job in itself… 

In my efforts of producing great work for my clients, being my own agent and spending time with my young family, something had to give. That something was social media, and it has now been a year since I last posted on Instagram and two years since I shared a post on this blog.  It has been a relief to leave social media alone. Unfortunately it is not sustainable to leave it unused as a marketing channel.

This is where I need help…

This type of brand building however is not in a traditional agents wheel house. It sits with managers and PR agencies.

This narrative shift in how brands market themselves, and the broader spectrum of media we now have, has created a different need for visual imagery.

There are rarely assignments anymore where I just take still images. In the same shoot/production we now create digital assets like cinemagraphs and shoot TV commercials and films.

It has been a ton of fun to expand my understanding of visual narratives through films and TV spots, and I have been thriving in this multidisciplinary production scenario. Creating multiple visual interpretations of a client’s concept across several visual languages is where my forward focus lies. 

To be able to create all these “assets” with the same visual esthetic across different mediums is of great value. I see it as one of the few places in advertising that offers  great opportunities. 

In the past, an agency would hire a photographer and a commercial director separately.  The result was largly two different visual aesthetics and two productions, making it neither cost-effective nor great brand coherency.

Today we are seeing more and more hybrid productions, but there are still not a big pool of photographers and directors who do both really well. 

I have a lot to learn as a director, but use each opportunity I get to expand my experience to get closer to the few who are perfectly embedded in both the world of still and motion.

The motion, or broadcast, side of advertising agencies however are not in the traditional Photographers agent’s wheelhouse and sits largely with the production companies who represent Directors.

To Agent or not to Agent??

An agent can be invaluable in a photographer’s career, and I am grateful for both the agent relationships I have had. Being a photographer is at times a solitary endeavor, and there is tremendous power in having a partner when navigating a professional career based on art. Beyond the sales and marketing component there is also a client services component. Some times I am my best agent. Other times I am not at all and have gotten in my own way when the relationship between the art and the contract negotiations get too close.

My advice to those starting out would be to do everything they can to get in with a great agent. 

The more ways that you can gain exposure in the market place the better, and an established agent can provide opportunities you won’t get on your own early on.

At the same time, you have to start building your brand in as many ways as possible.  This is where the longevity of your career will be rooted.

As I am pondering the answer to my forever lingering question, I am still on the fence about having an agent or not. 

I need marketing and sales help for sure, so it is not that I don’t need an agent. 

What I am unsure about is how the traditional agent fits with the two areas I believe will make a larger difference in my career going forward.

-A continued push for me creatively into motion, working as a hybrid photographer and director crafting both stills and films with the same visual aesthetic.

-A solid narrative based branding on both websites and social media of who I am as a photographer and filmmaker and expanding the message from “here is what I do” to “why I do what I do.”

I initially asked if the closing of VH is a sign that the agent model is not as relevant as it used to be, and the the answer is yes…

Most photography agents don’t support the areas where I want to improve my relevance creatively and on the marketing side. I am sure they are seeing the changes and are contemplating the same as myself, but I have yet to see agents really shifting. I see them making up for their revenue loss by adding more photographers to their rosters, but I don’t see them shifting into the manager and brand building support role and taking on the production houses on the broadcast side of advertising.

With the belief that we only are in the early stages of the market shifting further to digital media, and possibly another case of indecisiveness, I have decided to give it another year without partnering with a new photographers agent.

I’d like to see how the market continue to unfold and if I can keep as busy as I have been going it on my own.

I am also making a push to get representation on the film side. Following my own advice to photographers starting to seek a photo agent, I, as a fairly new director, would benefit greatly by being introduced to the broadcast world with the support of a well-known agent/production company.

I am also exploring the management approach. Bands and actors and other celebrities all have managers who will help shape and build careers. These management companies are now taking on photographers with massive social media followings and I am truly curious if this will shift into the traditional photographers agent model.

So to Agent or not to agent?

Maybe next year…

is the answer!

This is a live experiment and I am committed to exploring it on my own for another year. I will for sure share my thoughts a year from now and let you know how it is going.

If you read this and have any thoughts on the above, or input on having an agent or not, I would love to hear from you…

E.

What if your house burnt down?

What if your house burnt down?

 

Have you still “made it”?

 

3 weeks ago I was sitting, much as I do now, winding down on a Saturday evening, finding some time to write a newsletter and blog. I had just released an image shot for Kohler, a company whose advertising I had wanted to be a part of for a long time, and wanted to write something around this image and the process to create it.

 

Earlier in the day I had listened to Bill Burr being interviewed on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. A good laugh, as always with Bill Burr, balanced by Tim’s prodding for life lessons.

For a minute they talk about accomplishments and the idea of “making it”. Bill Burr had bought a house and said to his wife “I know you are not supposed to say this, but; “I made it! “ he continues “There’s a sickness in this business of -If you think you made it you’re going to relax and then it’s all going to go away!”

He continued:

“No! I tell jokes for a living and I bought a house. I MADE IT!

 

The stigma is that one can’t, as a creative, say or admit that you have made it. The second you do, you relax and loose your drive and creativity…

I can so relate, and Bill Burr’s thoughts lingered with me as I started writing.

Shooting for Kohler was a long time goal of mine creatively and by Bill Burr’s standard of buying a house I have “made it” several times over.

So have I really Made it?

I settled in that evening reflecting on what I had accomplished as a photographer and the blog shifted to words about goals and the acknowledgment of reaching them. Of pausing and being content for a moment rather than going straight into the chase of creating another image or landing the next assignment.

That was my Saturday 4 weeks ago.

That Sunday night we woke up by flashlights shining into our bedroom window and our neighbor shouting the hillsides were on fire.

We packed our essentials and got out.

 

That was October 8th.

 

The weeks since has been indescribable. The fires around Sonoma and Napa, where we live, burned more than 100,000 acres.

Lives were lost and neighborhoods left in ashes.

One of my best friends and 5 of our neighbors lost their homes. It is devastating.

 

There are many emotions around the 17 days we were in mandatory evacuation and I will write another blog to chronicle the experience. My perspective on having “made it” as an artist have shifted during the past weeks and I wanted to finish the blog I started and get back to Bill Burr and his benchmark of having made it.

 

I have learned that a home is absolutely no measure of having “made it” as a creative. The truth is;We never “make it”. We just keep making.

 

I now know this to be the truth.

 

After we left our house that morning I got a chance to go back to grab a few items. I had a shortlist from Andrea; Journals, some jewelry and some additional clothes for our 3-month-old daughter. The main item for me was my server rack containing all my work as a photographer. I ripped it out of the office and by sheer adrenaline got it into the car.

I hosed down the house with water and walked through it one last time. I grabbed a few small items as I passed them and unhinged a few framed prints by Nadav Kander, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mario Testino, Alexi Lubomirski and a few others.

In these moments I was strangely ok with the house being gone. I knew then that this house was no measure and had nothing to do with who I am, my selfworth or how much or little I have accomplished as a photographer.

 

I’m sharing this, as I believe it can help a lot of young photographers starting out. And Bill Burr for that matter.

 

I know there are a lot of talented photographers who have given up on photography. Making a living taking pictures is as competitive as it gets, and a long endeavor if you choose to take it on.

What makes this process even harder is the social demands for immediate success.

 

But what if there was no monetary measure attached to successfully creating?

What if there was no pressure of even being good at it?

What if we would proudly call ourselves photographers without making money doing it?

I believe this paradigm would keep photographers in the game long enough to break through to the side of success!

 

As I was starting out I was embarrassed to call myself a photographer. In my hart I was one, but my job was to be another photographers assistant, carrying his gear. It took a long time for me to proclaim that I was a photographer.

Why is it so darn hard for us artists/comedians/photographers to early on confidently identify with what we do?

Why can’t we just claim our photographer, or comedian, title right out of the gate and then just slowly go about creating? Why do we have to “make it” before we can proudly claim our title?

 

I believe any young photographer would increase his success rate 10X if there were a disattachment between creating and success. If the bar of “making it” was set so that one would never fail there would be nothing to “give up on”.

It would only be the process of continually creating and as that continual creating would go on, success would only be a question of time.

 

Experiencing the certainty of loosing my home and how that realization affected me created a shift in my perspective on success and what having “made it” is.

In no particular order, and without being right for everyone, here’s a work in progress short list of what now resonates with me and the idea of “making it“

 

If you keep your focus on creating, you have made it.

If doing what you do expands you and fills you up, you have made it.

If you crave creating every day, you have made it.

If you are excited about what you just created and even more excited to improve upon it, you have made it.

If you are proud to show your work, you have made it.

If you found an expression that consistently expresses who you are, you have made it.

If you have done the above so consistently your expression starts to recognize itself, you have made it.

If you question why and how and who and explore this through your work, you have made it.

 

So my shift and lesson is this:

 

You can Celebrate your successes like Bill Burr, but don’t attached them to an event, a monetary item or any other social measure of success.

This will yield nothing but downward pressure and distractions to the significance of creating something which deeply resonates with your being.

It will leave you feeling like you are coming up short every time.

Which in turn will make you want to give up…

 

3.5 of our 5 acres of land burnt and the firefighters stopped the fire just a few feet away from our home.

I’m glad our house is standing. I’m also glad I had this experience and deeply realize the house is without significance when it comes to who I am as a creative. My “I have made it” has nothing to do with a fancy car or a home, but to every day do what expands me and fills me up.

I will remind myself of this going forward. I will worry less and create more because of it.

And if there’s any up and coming photographers or other creatives reading this; please worry less about achieving success and focus on the items on my “having made it” list above. You will then achieve your success…

Like Steve jobs said; Stay foolish, stay Hungry!

 

I want to end this blog with a few side notes

  1. It is an archetypal event to build or buy a home. I’m by no means diminishing this fact. In short I’m saying to not attach anything to your self-worth as a creator. Instead focus on creating and consistency, and measure yourself against your own progress.
  2. The word hero gets thrown around a lot. I have not fully understood, or felt, what a true hero was till now. The fire firefighters and individuals who fought the fires in Napa and Sonoma are my heroes. These men and women will all be my heros forever.
  3. The Kohler assignment was an extraordinary one. We started with the design of the dress. The fabric, color, pattern and form was designed for the shoot and sown to fit the model. This design informed all the other elements and creative choices of the image.
  4. I absorbed the fact that the house would burn with a strange disattachment. The news that it had survived however brought big tears of relief and gratitude. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to those less fortunate.