Getting Down to Business

I’ve been thinking a lot about the business end of photography these days. I’m in the midst of reading John Harrington’s Best Business Practices for Photographers, a book intended for professional photographers with well-established businesses, but still a good read for those just getting started. It goes into almost painful detail about licensing and rights for all different types of photography, and what and why you should charge. It’s filled with all kinds of real-world scenarios from Harrington’s own business and I’ve gotten so engrossed with it that I’ve found myself still reading it at 2am. But, perhaps I’m just weird that way.

by Thomas Barwick
Photo by Thomas Barwick

As luck would have it, I also got to spend a bit of time this morning with one of the local Seattle photographers whose work I’ve been drooling over for the last six months or so. Thomas Barwick’s work really struck me in the November issue of Seattle Magazine. All of his photos in the issue (as well as subsequent issues…) have been beautiful, but the one that really grabbed me was a photo of well worn hands all covered in dark soil holding out a selection of cranberry and string beans… brilliant pinky purple speckled pods hiding a few dappled beans. Simply gorgeous. So, being the goof that I am, I googled to see if he had a portfolio, and popped off a piece of mail asking if he’d indulge me in a little chat over coffee. It took a few months for him to find some time in what sounds like a very nutty schedule, but everything finally fell into place this week, and we chatted for a bit at El Diablo Coffee, in the Queen Anne area of Seattle.

Now, before I continue, I should preface that:

a) I’m not a good interviewer. I ask questions in random order, as I think of them (even though I had done a bit of work to pull together a printed list of questions) and I don’t take notes (even though I bought a little digital recorder, I just feel weird using it).
b) Tom warned me in our first email exchange that he is a bit curmudegeonly and doesn’t interview well. He also said that when he talks about photography, he might not sound like other photographers, who talk about passion and creativity. Those are all fine and good, but he’s a bit more focused on the business end.

Given my focus for the past few weeks, that sounded perfect to me. Plus, I in the spirit of a negative times a negative equals a positive, the fact that I don’t interview people well and he doesn’t interview well, turned to out be a comfortable conversation that had no problems covering the full hour we had. I found Tom to be thoughtful and honest about his work and photography as a business, and despite his protestations, not particularly all that cynical.

A little background on Tom. He’s been in the business for 17 years, after leaving university and finding that he could start to make a living at it. After assisting in several locations for about five or six years, he started working on his own, with the notion that he’d see where it took him. If the business kept improving, he’d keep at it. And every year, that’s what’s happened. “So far,” he adds with a little grin. Tom’s work is about 20% food, some in the studio and some on location, and he clearly has a knack for it. But unlike a lot of other food photographers, he isn’t obsessed with food (and rarely cooks)… he’s more passionate about the image… how it’s composed, how it’s lit, whether it strikes him with a “Wow” factor. He can’t rattle off a list of photographer inspirations, but instead talks about images that inspire him, or make him think “Damn, I should have done that!” Much of his business is stock photography, which has been quite successful for him, namely because when he shoots, he makes a point to find a new angle or something different… whether its making spears of asparagus appear to dance or creating a cocktail image that feels that it’s been ripped from a Hopper painting.

Tom shoots with a Phase One back on a Hassleblad P30 (drool…) and while admits to not being a tech-guy, rattles off numbers of terrabytes he fills up in a year and RAID arrays with ease. His shop is completely digital at this point, and he shared some very interesting insights on digital photography, which were quite a bit different than you might hear from other photographers… that digital now produces higher quality images than he can get with film, and it’s faster in someways… but that film production was quite a bit cheaper than digital. Between post-production time and archival, costs and time add up quickly.

by Thomas Barwick
Photo by Thomas Barwick

Tom has been thinking a lot about what is going on with the business, particularly to photographers who are in the middle. Like many businesses these days, on the high end, there are some (although few) really amazing opportunities and photographers who produce some truly fantastic work. On the low end, the growing sector, there are more and more people taking shots and selling them either as one-offs or as stock for less-than-profitable fees. The middle is rapidly disappearing… and in the past, that’s where a bulk of the professional photographers made their keep. Each year, the business changes a little bit more, and it’s hard to predict where it will go from here.

As I’m entering the field, certainly in a very different place then Tom– I’m one of those people that John Harrington would likely dub a “trust-fund” photographer, which is to say, while I don’t have a trust fund, I don’t need a full-time job to pay the bills– and I’ve set what, at the time, I thought were particularly reasonable rates. I don’t think my rates are so low that they hurt other photographers, but I also don’t think they are so high that I price myself out of beginner level jobs. But, I start to wonder if I’m right. Or, really, if there even is a right.

When you are just starting out as a photographer, it’s nearly impossible not to lose money on jobs, but at some point, that creates problems for everyone involved… clients get the wrong expectation about what the real price of photography is, the photographer can’t keep it up and has to raise rates at somepoint as skills improve or at least as equipment needs upgrading. It’s a fascinating issue… one I’m sure has been around for a long time, but seems to be more in focus these days with digital cameras and a sense of crowd-journalism… that is, people are taking photos of everything, everywhere. In someways, it isn’t a lot different than the debate over food criticism being done on blogs versus traditional media by professional reviewers. I love that Tom doesn’t spout out an answer or even imply that there is one… he’s unsure of what the industry is going to do next, but still hanging on and curious to find out. With images like his, I’d put my money on him sticking around for a while…

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  • http://nikas-culinaria.com nika

    L – great interview. re: the ending paragraph – about low end, high end and disappearing “middle-class” photogs.. its a subject that frustrates me, exhausts me, makes me feel unwelcome and also can at times make me feel a driving desire to find the “answer.”

    All that swirls for me on that topic but I tend to come back to one seeming “truth,” if one is able to develop a style that is consistent and true to one’s self (so that it is honestly one’s own and thus naturally manifested) then success can come.

    I also feel that one has got to get away from the net (and the pervasive negative hype) sometimes and realize that we beginner photogs ARE legitimate artists (if that is the way we take ourselves) and no one else can tell us we are not. If we think we are, then we are. Thats the secret to being an artist – it is wholly self-defined and its our responsibility to nurture it.

    Photography is not a get rich scheme :-) Just like science, the context I am coming from, you do it for the love of it, not to be the superstar. But that should not translate into doing shoots for free, it should actually be the opposite.

  • http://clamorforglamour.com Elizabeth Lynch

    is that photo actual food?!

  • http://clamorforglamour.com Elizabeth Lynch

    sorry – the photos seem to rotate. i was responding to the one with the octopus. it’s wild!!

  • http://stilllifewith.com L

    Nika – I agree, photography isn’t something you want to try to make a business from unless you really love it!

    Elizabeth – hmm. no rotating photos, but yes, that is real food!

    -L

  • http://soniatasteshawaii.com Sonia

    I am completely blown away with your blog. Wonderful photography! I was a cooking school teacher for many years and a late arrival to the blog scene….In this ‘new phase’ of my life I’m trying to learn to take pics of the food I prepare. Love your photos!

  • http://thevillagevegetable.blogspot.com Linda, The Village Vegetable

    very interesting. and you have made me a huge fan of his work as well. not that your expertise isn’t comparable.

    blog v. media is an interesting debate. i dont know that i even have an opinion on it either. i suppose the only thing that pops into my mind is that fact that in the blogosphere, the fact that your photos can so easily be stolen, is frightening.