It’s not just a journey, it’s a way of life.
If you are on the path to becoming a professional photographer, or are considering that road, here is Part 1 of a 2 Part article on a personal journey towards that goal.
ON BECOMING A WORKING PHOTOGRAPHER
By Lorenzo Bevilaqua
Â© Lorenzo Bevilaqua 2000 All rights reserved
When I made my living as a photo-assistant, the obstacles to becoming a working photographer seemed insurmountable. The transition was a slow one, and seemed, at times, not to be happening at all, but over the course of a few years I managed it. During that time I often felt that I was feeling my way blindly along a path with only the occasional pointers from photographers who had made the journey before me to guide me. Some of the advice was relevant, and some of it was useless because everyone has different goals, and starts out with different resources. What I offer is simply a look at what I can now say with hindsight worked for me (as well as some of what my mistakes were). The process is on-going and I have by no means accomplished all that I want to (my retrospective at the Whitney Museum is not yet scheduled), but what follows may offer some hope and help to those of you out there treading the same path.
The task of transitioning from hard-working, often under-appreciated photo-assistant to working photographer can be the source of great frustration, anxiety, and depression for many people. There are many obstacles to overcome, and many questions to ask. Should I immediately go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment, and a studio in the hopes that the clients will magically appear? Should I go running over, portfolio in hand, to Vogue and Vanity Fair? Sure… as soon as I put a portfolio together. For me, these options were not going to work because I had neither tens of thousands of dollar to spend (not on an assistantâ€™s salary of $150 a day), nor did I have any credit to speak of. Unlike some other photographers that I knew, I did not start out either with a lot of money, nor did I come from another career that would let me transition more easily into shooting full-time such as art directing, magazine publishing, fashion designing, etc.
I did have two things going for me that are somewhat easier to come by; I had been testing (shooting personal work) for some time when finances allowed, and I did compile a modest, but coherent portfolio of those images. I had also been taking low-paying, but interesting photo jobs as they came up just for the chance to make contacts for the future, and get some of my pictures published.
The other thing that I tried to do was to seek out those photographers whose work I liked and who were working in the field that I wanted to break into. After paying some dues as a loyal assistant, I began to gain their trust and friendship. With their advice, and their generosity in handing down their unwanted/discarded jobs and clients, I began, albeit slowly, to get a few â€œrealâ€ jobs under my belt, and to build a small (okay, two) clientele for myself. The thing that was driving me crazy was, while I was always hearing stories about people who made the break from assisting totally and completely on 2:00pm last Thursday at age 22 to become Vogueâ€™s chief photographer and creative director, it wasnâ€™t happening with me. I was still assisting a lot, still schlepping other peopleâ€™s gear for $150./day. But I was shooting, and sometimes it was even stuff that I could put in my book. And it paid. Eventually, after about a year of gradually shooting more and assisting less, I stopped assisting altogether.
For those of you who have not yet reached that glorious point, I offer the following suggestions:
There are a couple of pitfalls to watch out for when doing photo assisting. When I first began, I worked with anyone I could to gain experience, and make money. Thatâ€™s not a bad way to start. However, if you can narrow down the number of people that you assist for to just the ones who are working in a field of photography that interests you, you will have a much more positive experience, and it will keep you from being bored silly. Being bored and uninterested will cause you to make mistakes, which will get you fired. If you have to put in a 10 hour day assisting for not enough money, you should at least have fun, and be learning something. If you donâ€™t know yet what kind of work interests you, then a little trial and error is necessary. Try not to work for assholes if possible. Unless itâ€™s an amazing photographer from whom there is a great deal to learn, itâ€™s usually not worth putting up with the aggravation.
As I mentioned before, I had been shooting my personal work, often with the help of other young, unknown, but nonetheless talented people (make-up artists, stylists, assistants etc.) and putting a â€œbookâ€ (portfolio) together. I began to realize that in New York, as in many other cities, there are potential clients out there in the form of cool, trendy new magazines, young, start-up companies and emerging fashion designers, etc. These companies often pay little or nothing, but are often willing to work with an unknown photographer. The advantage to this is that you work gets published , and you also maintain a good amount of creative control. There is also the potential for an ongoing relationship with the client as their business expands. â€œTearsheetsâ€ (published work with your photo credit on it) are extremely important as a confidence builder to new clients. Having beautiful pictures just isnâ€™t enough. A client also wants to see that you can handle the responsibilities (and stress) of an assignment. So what seems like a catch-22 (how can I get tearsheets and marketable experience with no clients?), can be overcome by seeking out the aforementioned small, budget-less clients, and shooting your best work. The shooting-for-Vogue Magazine-at-age-21-option only works for a few people like Steven Meisel, and then you have to wear that silly fur hat.
Being open to opportunity is a very important thing. The more you are out on the street (meaning assisting, shooting, and promoting) the more likely you are to get hit by a passing opportunity for either a job, or the chance to work with other talented support people who will work with you in exchange for prints for their portfolios, etc. You need to be in harmâ€™s way. You canâ€™t find clients by watching TV. For example, I assisted an editorial photographer for a period of time who referred me for a job as still-photographer on the Kevin Smith film â€œChasing Amyâ€. The photographer didnâ€™t want to take it himself because the independent film company had no budget for a still-photographer. However, if the film did well (which it did), the pictures would be published in magazines like Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, etc. (which they were). I also made innumerable contacts with people that would eventually hire me to shoot on other movies, and for television networks. The film company did, of course, pay for film, processing, lunch, and all the M&Mâ€™s I could eat. Through Chasing Amy, and subsequent similar jobs, I began to build a base of media contacts, and a portfolio of celebrity portraits that eventually led to much better-paying jobs. Sometimes the benefits of taking a job are not readily apparent, and are not necessarily financial.
Okay, so here we are. I have not assisted anyone now for about three years. I have about 12-15 clients, as well as a good number of clients that have been one-shot deals. The latter being independent films, and other short term projects. I make, to use an often-quoted statistic, about 80% of my money from 20% of my clients. In other words, I have a relatively large number of clients, but I have a core group of about four that I can count on for my daily bread & butter. Some of my clients let me do some interesting, fun work, while some of the work that I do is starting to get a little routine, and thatâ€™s beginning to drive me crazy. Throughout this period of being out on my own I have managed to compile a fairly strong portfolio consisting of both my personal work (black & white portraiture), and the celebrity, and media-related images that I discussed earlier. Pretty cool, huh? Problem solved. Made the big leap to big-time New York photographer at last! Not exactly.
Come back tomorrow for PART 2!
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