Erik Almas, Author at Erik Almas Photography

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.

 

 

Low tide and High Style

I am a photographer.

That said; Close to all the assignments I now get hired to execute involves creating additional short films and animations.

As marketing continues its drift onto the digital platforms, creating “assets” and “content” are the buzzwords I hear on every creative call with Advertising Agencies.


In short it’s not just about creating a singular image or a campaign. It’s about different visuals that can live on many different platforms, telling the same brand story.

This is an exciting time for a photographer!

I came into photography and advertising assignments when crafting the one perfect, signature image was key. Now we create several signature images and a film and secondary shots and portraits and Behind the Scenes, all in the same time.

I love this!

If one keep on doing the same over and over one can easily become stagnant, which inevitably leads to becoming irrelevant.

And that’s the last thing I want!

I still feel I have a lot to say as a visual artist, and these added aspects of my assignments allow for creating new depth to my work.

The film aspect drives and deepens the narrative and push the emotional expression. The still frame drives the attention to detail and light in every single set up.

When I now shoot it is a hybrid production where I direct to establish the complete narrative within the frame and as the action unfolds we run both still and motion cameras side by side.

A few months back we got hired by Visit Newport Beach and AD Agency GreenHaus. The brief was a tongue and cheek campaign showing the contradictions of “Low tide and High Style” one find in Newport.

So with a great crew and a sense of humor we packed our bags for Newport Beach and had some of their signature Balboa Island Ice Cream while visiting their Beaches, Shops and Restaurants.


For me these additional platforms is an amazing expansion creatively and I could not be more excited about continuing to craft these expanded stories in different mediums.

So maybe I’m not a photographer anymore but a hybrid photographer/director who dabbles in winemaking and architecture and spacial design…

 

In any case I’m thrilled to share more of this work as these ongoing hybrid assignments are released.

 

A big thank you to Rob, Dave, Patrick and Jamie at Greenhaus!

 

And if you are curious:

The Wine: http://www.storiesbytheglass.com

The Houses:

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/13625550?preview_for_ml

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/18601988?preview_for_ml=true

A silver lining to a dreary affair in Vienna

 

As we flew into Vienna we knew it would be a dreary affair. The forecast had low cloud cover, fog and rain during the time we were there.

I tend to stress my producer out. He keep referring to me once saying “you are sending me right into a storm. There must be some place one can shoot where the weather is good…”

 

This time however there was no way around it. The Fog off the Danube River and the cold late winter weather was not going anywhere.

As a location photographer weather is always on my mind. We spend a lot of time planning our productions around weather patterns to make sure we can create the images we want without getting us and the client stuck on location.

A mixture of seasons, vegetation and the other ingredients the shoot needs, like talent and location specifics, leads us to recommend a location to execute our assignments.

We have gotten quite good at it but at times it’s not avoidable to run into some bad weather…

The pressure to create great pictures however does not go away. And it is not just resting on my crew and me, but on the art director, the advertising agency and the marketing department of the client. In situations like this it is great to have clients you have worked with prior, who both understand and trusts the process and can roll with the punches a bit. The client was Crystal Cruises and the reason for Vienna was their new river cruise along the Danube River.

We were here to capture 2 landscapes of the Belvedere Palace.

As a great client the creative team at Crystal were on board for changing the focus and atmosphere of the shots to the very early morning and late evening where the interior and artificial lights would light up the Palace. This would give the landscape shape and make the best of the weather, which was enveloping Vienna in a wet blanket…

 

 

This assignment would be captured in 3 parts. The landscapes in Europe, the people in Los Angeles and the third layer would be created using CGI.

 

So we travelled home with our backgrounds captured, being quite optimistic about the rest of the shoot and how it would all turn out.

 

As with the prior images I have made for Crystal Cruises, these were to describe feeling or establishing an association with a feeling rather than a literal narrative.( http://blog.erikalmas.com/2016/04/12/a-dream-assignment/)

They were to depict how you would FEEL arriving at the Belvedere Palace with one of the riverboats.

Crystal is expanding into air cruises as well and a third image we were to capture was for their airline. It is exciting and refreshing when you start with a feeling to create a narrative within a frame. In this emotional state one start painting pictures and the mind goes: Having a cruise line in the air must feel like…..

Walking in the sky, or maybe Walking on air or lounge among clouds.

 

In a studio in Los Angeles with spaces to shoot both inside and outside we set out to capture the narrative of the extraordinary feelings of traveling with Crystal cruises.

The studio part was in this case a bit of a dance. Big dresses and a lot of movement where I’m observing, letting the talent be a part of the story and narrative rather than over-directing.

They move, I observe and capture.

And few weeks of computer work later, 3 set ups from 2 continents and one studio get blended together to create our final images. Below is a quick video with our layers and the final work…

 

The dreary weather barely shows.

It’s evening and in hindsight I keep thinking the images might be better this way. They are not what we expected when we started the project, but the unexpected makes us reset and work within the present moment. To let go of expectations and be in it without a preconceived notion of what it “should” be.

And to truly create this is where we want to be in the first place…

 

 

A big thanks to the creative team at Crystal Cruises: You are the best!!