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Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Tom Zimberoff's 'Focus on Profit' intro by Peter Howe


My first job in photography was as a photographer’s assistant in London in 1966. My weekly wage for services rendered was 11.00 Pounds, equivalent at that time to $26.00. Things have changed since then.

Everything has changed since then in photography. In the last twenty years or so there have been significant transformations in almost every aspect of a working professional’s life. The impact of technology alone has revolutionized the way that photography is taken, stored, distributed, retouched, and licensed. This is an obvious and apparent development, but as important, and indeed maybe more important, are the underlying cultural and commercial shifts.

Although the more successful advertising and fashion photographers in 1966 had their own “reps” that would get them assignments, there were few agencies for the representation of the vast majority of photographers. At the time this didn’t seem to matter much. There was an abundance of work, irrespective of whether you shot for the editorial or commercial markets, and while resale was nice, it didn’t significantly alter the level of your income. The French changed this view with the birth of two agencies, Gamma and subsequently Sygma. Both showed photographers that if properly marketed by an aggressive sales staff, secondary use could substantially improve a photographer’s lifestyle. This led to a mushrooming of agencies throughout Europe and the United States that continued throughout the seventies and eighties. Photographers loved it. It meant that they could leave all the messy business stuff and the dealings with nasty corporations, be they advertising agencies or magazine groups, to their agency, and they could lead a creative life freed from the burdens of commercialism. Not only that, the agency became like an extended family. They were “mom and pop” operations that had a personal relationship with each of their photographers. As well as getting you work or licensing that which already existed they could be relied upon to pay your American Express Bill, or wire emergency money to some far distant location. They also calmed down agitated, wives, husbands, lovers and debt collectors. The photographer felt taken care of, and often only paid scant attention to the monthly sales reports.

Unfortunately the nineties changed this, in several ways. Firstly the markets became much tougher. Magazines were failing at an alarming rate, and those that survived were doing so on much smaller profit margins, and therefore much reduced budgets, with many fewer pages. The commercial realm was also under pressure. Print advertising was seeing more and more dollars heading towards television commercials, event sponsorship, and other non-photographic outlets that were deemed more efficient than print. This, coupled with a dramatic improvement in the quality and sophistication of commercial stock photography meant that assignments were qualifying for the endangered species list.

It also turned out that some of the agencies themselves were only slightly better at the business side than the photographers they represented. Sloppy accounting procedures, poor inventory control, and increasing costs, most of which were passed on to the photographers, were becoming apparent. It was also at this time that the industry suddenly realized that there were not one but two elephants in the living room. In 1989 Bill Gates had started a small Seattle based company called Interactive Home Systems. Gates’ initial reason for forming the company was to provide the necessary technology for the digital display of art on the walls of the mansion that he was about to build on Lake Washington. However, in the process of acquiring imagery for these domestic displays he quickly and almost intuitively realized that there was an intrinsic value in a collection of digital imagery. At that time in the company the phrase “Digital Alexandria” was used to sum up the company's ambitions. This was a noble aspiration, but soon ran afoul of irritating little things like copyright, and other speed bumps on the information super highway. Under two name changes, from IHS to Continuum to Corbis, and several management shifts the company was transformed from a Platonic ideal into a strictly “for profit” gigantic picture agency that had gobbled up many of the smaller “mom ‘n’ pop” stores to achieve its impressive girth.

While these developments were taking place in the Pacific Northwest, in 1995 in the financial district of London two investment bankers were also on the same path. One of them, Mark Getty, is an heir to part of the Getty fortune, and with his partner Jonathan Klein, he put together a very similar super store based upon a strategy of acquisition. This was good for the owners of the acquired agencies, many of whom sold their businesses at a premium for more money than they ever thought possible. The effect on the rest of the industry was mixed. On the plus side the presence of these two super agencies transformed the image licensing industry from a relatively minor operation run by talented (and not so talented) amateurs to a much more aggressive global concern. The downsides included the fact that where in it’s previous incarnation there was not an MBA to be seen, now when you study the leaders of these two large companies there’s not a photographer or even anyone with a photographic background to be seen. Gone are the days when the photographer could call up his or her agency “mom” and ask them to deliver flowers to compensate for a forgotten anniversary or broken date. Gone indeed were the days when the photographer could select which of his or her pictures were available for sale. The wardens, having just bought the asylum, were in no mood to give it back to the inmates.

The changes were regretted and resented by many photographers. What used to be a handshake industry is now one where a twenty-page contract is part of the price of entry. Suddenly photographers were spending as much time with their lawyers as with their processing labs. And this was not all bad. The fuzzy days were gone, and along with them the feeling that the only thing that a photographer was responsible for was taking the picture. This excellent book by Tom Zimberoff is a detailed guide to the post-fuzzy era into which we have all been pushed. In it the veteran professional takes the mortgage burdened, family feeding, tax-paying photographer through all the steps necessary to maintain that happy state. There are many, because the world of photography has become very complicated, but for all the numerous layers Zimberoff’s approach is based on simple, one would have assumed obvious, principals. For instance, if your fee is less than the expenses incurred to earn it then you’re unlikely to make much of a living. Here’s another one that I remember ignoring as a photographer, namely that you will never have a positive cash flow if you don’t do your invoices in a timely manner.

This book is about photographers taking responsibility for every aspect of their photographic activities. The more responsibilities that you cede to other people, the less control you maintain not only over your work, but also over your livelihood. A professional photographer cannot turn a blind eye to copyright violations, unfair contracts or low prices. As goes one so go all. Photographers are getting more organized not only in their individual working lives, but as a community as well, and it has been the advent of the Internet and its capacity for global communication that made this possible. Photographers were always the easiest people to divide and conquer. Naturally highly individualistic people in the first place, they also tended to work alone and out of contact with their peers. A lawyer often works with other lawyers, doctors with other doctors, but the advertising photographer, the photojournalist, the portrait photographer nearly always work alone. E-mail and UseNet groups changed all this. Suddenly there was a way that the global community of photographers could instantly share ideas, grievances and unite behind a common front. The reaction to the contract that Getty Images launched in 2001 is an excellent example of this. When faced with a large group of contributors expressing common concerns on common issues, and knowing that all the members of this group were in contact with each other, Getty made substantial changes to the terms of the agreement.

Recently a group of seven very high profile editorial photographers left some pretty powerful agencies to form their own organization called VII. One of their younger members, Ron Haviv, explained his decision to make the move:

“The appeal was this concept of self empowerment. I realized that I was brought along to a certain point in my photography being represented by an agent but that I needed to take responsibility for myself not just as a photographer but also on a business level. I think that photographers over the years have given too much responsibility to their agents and we’ve all wound up in this situation, and we’ve been complicit in it as photographers. Now is the time to fight back and take control back for ourselves. The amount of responsibility that we put into the taking of the images, the amount of concentration, of dedication, devotion and skill, those skills need to be put in all the way through from start to finish. Then we all feel much better about our work.”

This succinctly articulates the situation facing free-lance photographers today, and this is why this book is such an important tool. Does this mean that photographers shouldn’t be represented by agencies? Does the advent of cheap off the shelf photo marketing software and affordable web hosting mean that a photographer can represent him or herself over the Internet? Should photographers sign contracts that give a variety of additional rights to magazine publishers for no additional payment? Is it better to have a rep rather than an agency? Is a small agency better that a large one? All of these questions will be answered differently by different photographers depending on the kind of photography that they do and on the stages of their careers, but none of them can be ignored. Going with a small agency no more relieves that photographer of the responsibility of reading, understanding and if necessary amending their contract than if the decision made was to join one of the mega agencies. Just because it is now relatively inexpensive to create your own website complete with e-commerce doesn’t mean that your business will run itself, in fact it’s quite the reverse. You will need to spend at least as much time paying attention to business as if you had the resources of an agency, probably more.

Today the photographer has to be an entrepreneur, a contract lawyer, a copyright lawyer, a sales person and a marketing executive, a bookkeeper, tax accountant, and have some of the debt retrieval skills of a “repo” man. And you have to have all these skills even if someone else is performing these tasks on your behalf, because the business of photography has become so complicated that you may well know more than they do, or at least enough to check that they’re heading in the right direction.

The photography industry today is in greater chaos and confusion than I have known it in the past thirty-five years. But growth isn’t possible without change, and within the apparent disarray lie huge areas of opportunity for the photographer who is prepared to take charge of his or her business life. As Ron Haviv said, it’s about self-empowerment, and if you’re prepared to take on the challenges I believe that it can make the process of being a photographer much more rewarding and less frustrating for both you and your bank manager. The days of the “I only take the pictures, man” attitude are long gone. Photography is a different world right now, and more than ever you need the instruction manual. Fortunately Tom Zimberoff's 'Focus on Profit' is it.

Peter Howe © 2001