Sunday, November 8, 2009

Interview With Charlie Holland, Former Director Of Photography, Getty Images Los Angeles

Photo ©Seth Joel/Charlie Holland
"An unplanned little picture about conservation taken one day when we had a hand model in the studio"  Charlie Holland.

Can you fill us in on your career path and how you came to be Director of Photography For Getty Images, Los Angeles?
Well, I have a degree in Social Anthropology and African History so my path to Tony Stone was not a straight one. I started as a photo researcher in New York in the late 1970’s – although I should probably start lying about the dates….I worked in magazines and books until Premiere magazine came along and I did five years there then moved on to Universal Studios as a marketing director. After another stint in magazines, I took the job as the DOP of the Los Angeles creative office of Tony Stone, replacing Sarah Stone which of course made me a persona non grata right off the bat with the staff and with the key photographers. I remember being kicked under the table by the creative director, Stephen Mays, when I started to explain my background to a group of leading photographers because he felt that my editorial background would be considered less than appropriate training for a gatekeeper in the stock industry. I thought the stock industry was just getting ready for a big shake up and that Tony Stone, already owned by Getty but not using the name, was going to be a great place to see it from. Well, I was not disappointed.

As Director of Photography for Getty LA, what were your responsibilities?

From the start, the job was to coordinate, direct the creative staff to edit, acquire, design and produce contemporary photography relevant to clients needs, present and future. I went in there with the notion that you should ‘assign’ the photography for the catalog, then the primary sales tool, just like you assigned a magazine. The company had already analyzed their catalog needs but not been systematic about how to get that material. I focused on making every editor an art director, someone who was capable of analyzing every photographers skills and resources, conceptualizing shoots, costing out productions, and recruiting talent to shoot the right material for each catalog or marketing product. It took about three years to get a crack team of 7 art directors in place. Then the company started to give us shoot money to commission work from a bigger pool of photographers - that is photographers who were new to the business and thus unable to burden the cost of production. So I supervised the conceptualization of all the shoots, allocated the resources, and coordinated very large productions to maximize our own production investment and worked closely with our key photographers on their self financed shoots. I pretty much stayed behind the curtain on set. Or in the trailer if we could afford one. The art directors preferred it that way! In fact, once on a huge shoot with three photographers and100 extras, the art director purposely gave me the wrong wavelength for my walkie talkie so I would stay out of his face on set! And no, I didn’t fire him, in fact he ended up getting my job.

You have probably looked at as many images as anyone. For you, what makes for a great stock photo?

Well, it has to be a good picture. But a really good stock photo makes you want to open your mouth and come up with a tag line…it invites copy. Good stock is sort of like good comedy (and good advertising) – there is a moment of truth that you recognize but it is revealed in a moment you might not have conceptualized yourself. It is both obvious and original at the same time.

What qualities make for a great stock photographer?

Now that most creative departments have disappeared it is largely the ability to self assign and self art direct. I think you need to be able to plan a shoot, shoot the predictable shots within that shoot and then have the energy and creativity to see the unexpected as it happens. Also, more than ever, you need to be able to edit for a client and not just for oneself.

The number of images that are available for licensing is mind-boggling. There has been a natural downward pressure on prices. When I look at how I can increase, or even maintain, my stock photography income, the first thing that comes to mind is to make more images…but that is part of the problem. Can you address that apparent conundrum?
Well it is a good idea to up your production but not that simple. Sheer numbers aren’t going to help. Adding variety to your subject matter over the course of your shooting year is important. Making pictures that radically differ from each other during your shoot day. Do your research before you shoot. Expand into different business models to make sure you are reaching as big a market as possible.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing stock shooters right now?

Like you just pointed out - falling prices and a huge oversupply of predictable images. So while the customer base may still be growing the “giant pool of pictures” grows faster.

Where are the biggest opportunities in stock photography?

I think there is still some life in the RM model and new work going into RM must be the right subject matter – i.e. express the right concepts but those ideas must be expressed in an original way both intellectually and photographically. The ‘super shooter’ studios have produced so much ‘stock’ material that the visual vocabulary has become incredibly stale. In the mid 90’s the same thing happened: darts on dart boards meant successful business, Doric columns meant banking, chain links meant strong corporate teamwork etc etc. You as a photographer have to keep your eyes open for the changing symbols of our changing society and in particular the vocabulary of corporate culture.

Do you think direct sales by photographers will become a more important piece of the puzzle?

Yes, I do. But it is still difficult and very costly to have a website, and to provide all the services a professional buyer expects. You must have someone available to help clients search and negotiate for as many hours a day as possible. That’s a significant overhead. But on the other hand, I have already heard about stock requests being sent out by twitter to an art buyers photographer base. It seems art buyers might be getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, exhausted by the samey-ness and are going back to directly contacting photographers. I think there will be other ways of making the material available direct to the client through improved google search engines for instance, but I am not sure exactly how yet! I think you are being very smart building traffic onto your site.

It is said that motion is the fastest growing segment of stock imagery. Would you recommend that still shooters look into motion?

Everyone should look into motion. My nephew went straight from stills to flipbook stills i.e. stop motion action movies made on his point and shoot camera to the video function of his mother’s camera. He is 10. But beware there is a big learning curve and don’t be fooled into thinking that affecting a ’funky style’ will hide all the mistakes on your learning curve. And don’t think that you are going to be able to earn much money with just your canon 5d. There is a lot more equipment you are going to need to make that camera stable and functional. You can’t even do a talking head without conquering the audio skills as well.

Rights Ready was Getty’s attempt to make licensing of RM imagery simpler and easier. What went wrong?

Frankly, you make Right Managed licensing easier by making rights managed licensing easier not by creating another licensing model to confuse and confound.

Do you think RM licensing needs to be made simpler to expand the market for it?

My answer, yes and no. For heaven’s sakes, how hard is it to know what you are going to use a picture for? If you as a client can answer that, then you can use any pricing model to find out how much that will cost you. If clients say they want it to be simpler it is probably a way of saying that they want it cheaper!

How do you decide whether an image belongs in RF or RM?
I used to be able to expound on this one ad nauseam, Now I just used a basic rule of thumb – an image I could see carrying an advertisement: RM. An image that is good for editorial or is purely a point picture, a substitute for a graphic, meaningless but decorative, is RF. I know some agencies are telling their photographers that they need RF pictures with higher production value, more models, more unusual treatments but it boils down to predictable, easy to keyword, subject matter. Or as I used to call it, visual Esperanto.

What roles will RM, RF and Micro have?
I think micro will kill RF before it kills RM. Two years ago everyone at Getty was saying you should get into Micro and my feeling was why bother when I am already getting .14c sales in RF? I don’t think many people can pull off a business on the scale of Yuri Arcurs because the ROI through microstock is so low that the scale of production and sales volume has to be vast to generate significant returns.

Do you have any suggestions for how to research where and what the “holes” in an agency’s collection are?

It just takes patience. I search by keyword, then delve into the details of the keywording and try combinations. Use keyword that you find in the latest business/management books. Be up to date on the jargon of corporate culture. If I have a location and am planning a shoot I list the keywords I would like to attach to a shot and then search by those and then alter aspects of my shoot brief to maximize my exposure in a clients search result. I also have an unfair advantage in searching through the Getty imagery in as much as I can assess the age of an image by its number and I am familiar with their search order results weighting. So I can search –as if I was a professional – and ‘see’ quite quickly when that category of imagery was last refreshed.

Do you think stock photography is still a viable career for photographers?

No, and I never did even when I entered the business in 1997. At the time there were a hand full of very astute professional stock photographers who had trusted the guidance of their stock agents and invested huge amounts of money into their shoots for the business. I believe their investments paid off handsomely. They had a lot of skin in the game by the late 1990s. But when I recruited photographers I always advised them to consider this a secondary source of income and not to give up their day jobs, to consider $500 or $10,000 a month a gift and not a pay check or entitlement.

You work with your husband, Photographer Seth Joel. Can you share with us the approach you two have to the stock photography industry?
Cut down production expenses. Keep a consistent stream of imagery flowing. Change it up, shoot safe for half the day and then take a risk – try something new. Make sure your images are available over as many platforms as you can. Travel. Have fun doing it.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of stock photography?
I practice doing my own bagging every time I go to Trader Joes...secretly hoping the manager notices how good I am at it just in case....

What advice would you give a young shooter just starting out?
I teach a course in contemporary stock photography at Art Center in Pasadena so I deal with this one all the time. Essentially I say if you have a web site you are in the stock industry – you could get a call today from an art buyer wanting to license one of your images so make sure they are model released, copyrighted and you know how to price and license an image. Or you could see an image of yours being used on a website and you need to know how to get paid appropriately for that use. Then why don’t you increase the odds of that call coming in by adding more copyrighted, model released images to your web site so that all your expenses and efforts in marketing and self promotion could be paid off by one of those calls/sales. I try to teach the young photographers how to make those pictures, within the context of their own taste and style, and to make those pictures commercially relevant for contemporary advertising. There is no point just shooting random material and uploading it into a public access stock site like Shutterstock. Don’t bother for the $50 a month. Be smart, show good stuff on your website, do some good test shoots with resale value and commercial content then get a contract with one of the good third party provider companies and let them distribute your material through other aggregators over multiple platform.

How about advice for some of us veterans?

Be smart, direct your efforts. Spread your submissions out over collections, over time and over business models. Do not overspend on your productions.

Do you have a favorite stock image that you and Seth have created that you can share with us?
Hand and polar bear-See picture above.

Are there any other thoughts you would like to leave us with?

Yes, like you, it struck me it might be time for a new Tony Stone collection. A tightly edited collection of imagery for high-end advertising. But that depends on the health of the print advertising market. It is not cost effective to develop and edit a collection for web use – firstly the fees aren’t there and secondly – well lets just ask everyone - have you ever seen a good ad on the web?
Or maybe art buyers will be looking for individual freelance photo editors to sift good material out of the massive volume of images available on the www. Sounds like the 1980’s to me. And they will probably pay the same $ per hour rate as they did then too!

Charlie Holland and Seth Joel's work can be seen here:


Anonymous said...

Honest commentary. Good interview - thanks!

John Lund said...

Thanks Sean. Charlie was never one to pull her punches!