What does it mean to be sustainable as artist or photographer in an uncertain economy? Rare is the artistic occupation in life that leads to becoming the next Richard Avedon or Ansel Adams. Things have not changed much to alter the cliché of the struggling artist. But passion doesn’t write a check to pay the bills. The commercial and stock photography world is highly competitive, and to compete you need more than talent. You need to wear the hat of a savvy business person, the scarf of digital asset management, the gloves of a brand strategist, the boots of an educator and a coat of commitment to one’s core values. Once you’ve put on this oversized built-for-the-Arctic-wardrobe that you can barely breathe in, you can begin to slowly make your way out the door into the overheated, globally warmed world.
In today’s climate, artists and photographers must find new ways to be competitive without compromising their craft and still be able to breathe. The ability to control the course of content, and provide the alternative benefit of image differentiation comes with a small impact on the earth and a bigger impact on individual bottom lines.
Enter the boutique stock agency model. The ability today for independent, pro photographers to customize online portfolio and merchant solutions is just the boost smaller agencies need. Each photographer has a style or niche, and each one can attract a following like a fine clothing line designer. The ability to create an uber-showroom beyond traditional online portfolios, shows a breadth of work and allows customers direct access to photographers for custom work. A great website model not only builds an online legacy of work, it can begin to build that photographer’s retirement legacy as well. It is a two-pronged approach to creating revenue.
The way my husband, Bob Pennington, Photographer and Principal of Rhizome Images, explains it, “We consider ourselves a boutique with a really high standard, and we will never be about competing with giants like Getty or Corbis, because that is just not realistic. You begin by working with clients you know and you spend a lot time educating them about how images can differentiate them from their competitors. You don’t just need to know your business, you need to know something about their business. You need to show them that big box stock photography can short sell an emotion or product that would be better served through a custom shoot or a style that is more akin to their brand. Sometimes they buy stock and sometimes they call you back months later to do a custom shoot. You can even strike a deal with a client who has a limited budget and is not concerned with exclusivity, to shoot something specific and then add it to your collection for possible future use.”
The benefit this model brings to photography as an industry is control of content, artistic value and monetary compensation and puts it in the hands and pockets of the artist. This is also good for the client. It allows direct access to, and flexibility for the artist to negotiate the sale of an image. Because the compensation for the artist is higher, the client can work a deal and the artist can still feel covered. Great imagery no matter where it comes from helps introduce the emotive feel for new brands or campaigns to make lasting impressions. When marketeers look outside the big box stock houses and knock on smaller doors they can find new gems inside. That’s not only good for businesses looking to differentiate themselves, but good for the sustainability of the industry and the artist as well.
The standard big stock photography submission model is getting old for some photographers. You submit images, hope to have some accepted and someone else takes care of the marketing and advertising of your images. You then use their big engine to push your images into the marketplace. But the bigger the engine, the more fuel it consumes. It’s hungry for more pictures and now your images compete against thousands of resources within the same agency. It uses a tremendous amount of energy just to stay visible in the marketplace. The more fuel it consumes, the bigger the dollar cut taken from the artist, and the more the artist complains.
Conversely, the problem now is that people look completely in the other direction towards microstock. Smaller agencies that sell subscriptions or images at greatly reduced rates. The pool of talent is widely varied. This is the place where you find the serious photographers groaning against having to compete indirectly with amateurs who sell their work for so little value. The model is to sell more of the same image, but inevitably all it does is flood the marketplace with the same image and devalue the work of photography as a whole. It creates a mindset of marketeers who will only look for cheap images. This might be more akin to buying cheap, incandescent lightbulbs. It will work as a light, but it won’t last and is considered disposable. A virtual landfill of discarded images.
The misconception is that because we are smaller we must be cheaper. Well guess what, just like organic food, you might pay the same or a little more because what you’re really after is something different, of high quality, and fresh taste.
The boutique model however is not for everyone. It is an ongoing process. It takes both of us to run Rhizome Images. Bob shoots the pictures, does all the post-production, and takes the first stab at entering all the keywords and captions. He then posts all the images for me to review. I add, edit or correct the keywords. As a designer, I view the imagery from a different perspective and look at images with an editorial eye before it is posted live to the website. I then do a lot web surfing and look for unique ways to promote the work online, in print, and in person with clients and associates.
While photographers want to reach a new audience any way they can, they need to be ready to look in places they would never think of looking. Some photographers want to attract the biggest Art Directors and Designers to their site, that’s fine, but they need to look outside the industry as well. If you specialize in photos of decoy ducks, try putting an ad in “Outdoors” or “Field and Stream.” Or use social networking sites like Linked in or Facebook to promote your wares. The goal is to look for an opening, and find yourself in a place where the competition is not as obvious. Marketing is indeed the hardest part for many photographers, but the one thing they have going for them? A picture is always worth a 1000 words.
Jen Pennington is CEO and Creative Director for Rhizome Design and Rhizome Images. The Rhizome Images website utilizes the Photoshelter archive for the company’s photo collection.