Thursday, March 18, 2010

Top Motion and Still Shooter Stewart Cohen Interviewed

Stock photo by Stewart Cohen illustrating his interview
Photo © Stewart Cohen"I love this picture that I shot years ago in South Beach because it is raw, real, and voyeuristic. I feel the mix of lust and alcohol flowing through this guy as he eyes this beautiful women. Do you feel it??". Stewart Cohen

Stewart, I have this impression of you as a very laid back, low-key guy…someone who doesn’t take up a whole lot of space. Yet you are one of the elite of the photography world.  Your client list would make anyone enviable, your promotion efforts insure that you are a household name in the advertising world and you shoot both stills and motion in exotic locations around the world. You are also a founding member of Blend Images stock agency.

I understand that early on you assisted Helmet Newton. I would love to hear how that came about and what was the most important thing you learned from him?

I was lucky enough to work with Helmut Newton after Fred Woodward, who was a friend of a professor of mine, recommended me to him. The most important thing I learned from him is that you can be a nice guy and be a success. No attitude, no entourage, no nada, just do you thing and hope people respond to it.

What quality in you, more than any other, has been responsible for your success?

Tough question but I would have to say perseverance and determination are two of the qualities. Also I regard it as a business, I treat people with respect. I expect the same in return.

I first became aware of you through your CA ads. That has to be one of the more expensive ways to get your name out there. Was it a difficult decision for you to commit to that campaign?

The problem with me is once I realize that something might be a good avenue to take, I have to do it regardless. We are responsible for our own careers. I never want to look back and ask “What if ?” So the year I started advertising on the back of CA, I also did the back of Archive. It was pricey. Who knew if it got me work, but it did circulate my name. I am working on a different but similar strategy now.

What are you doing now to get and keep clients?

Online search engines like Lebook, Wonderful Machine, Alt Pic. We were doing banners on for the last two years as well. Keeping clients is easier than getting them so once I get them I try to move mountains for them.

Do you specifically target certain clients and/or art directors that you want to work for and do custom promotions in addition to your broader efforts?

I do when I can focus long enough; I have learned if you pursue someone long enough in a positive fashion you do get somewhere.

What do you think is more important for success in photography, talent, drive or business acumen?

Combo of all of the above. For long-term success one must have talent. Drive and business acumen are necessary to get you until tomorrow. One has got to love it, especially these days because at times it can be thankless.

For you, what is the key to having a successful shoot?

Answer: Making great pictures, having fun and getting paid extremely well. I walk away from every shoot remembering why I love what I do.

How/why did you move into motion?

Answer: I have always loved motion as well. I actually went back to school in 1991 and studied in the film dept at USC.

How much of your work is motion?

65% right now

Do you think that the ability and experience to shoot both stills and motion for the same client/shoot will become an important selling point?

I have been pushing this concept for ten years and you know I am starting to think it might not be as important as I once thought it was. Ironically I feel that today they are actually merging. But the reality is that it is really hard to tell a good story visually in motion while concentrating on a still job. I think the frenzy will die down and filmmakers will stay filmmakers and still guys will be able to make clips for banners or stock.

Do you have any experiences that might indicate that such a duality could be come advantageous for stock photographers?

Integrated campaigns can offer more uses in multiple formats.

What advice can you give still shooters who want to enter the video arena?

It’s not about the gear. It is about telling a story that can give an emotional tug. Its funny that all the still guys talk about the motion gear and what they want to buy and none of the film guys have ever owned their own gear. It is about the tools for the project that will help tell your story. My advice is to read books about directing and cinematography. Subscribe to American Cinematographer, look at commercial reels, watch movies.

How does stock photography fit into your business?

Stock used to cover my overhead 100% so assignments were gravy. This allowed me to experiment and take big chances considering assignments are 95% of my business. I built a business upon that premise, I like the business model but it is faltering currently so I am developing new ways of building the same structure.

You shoot both still and motion stock.  How do you determine which to do when?

It becomes a feeling although neither are relevant all the time. I sometimes find that what I think would be a good still can tell a story when it is moving and visa versa.
Each shoot has a priority either a Still shoot with a motion component or a motion shoot with a still component. Really hard to do both well at the same time even with second shooters.

Can you share any insights or opinions on RM, RF and Micro?

I am in the business of doing really good work. I expect to be paid for it. The chase to the bottom in the stock photo world makes me kind of sick. The thought that anyone can make it up on volume is insane. I am ignoring it. Micro and I will never meet at this price point. I am not a widget manufacturer. I have more self-respect for my craft and art than that. They keep coming up with new models as a way to develop value or erode it. I do not know exactly where the stock photography model is heading. 3D maybe.

How has the recession impacted your business?

This is the first recession that has ever affected my business. It is more than an economic downturn. It is a technological tornado as well. We need to retool our businesses extremely quickly to become efficient in the new landscape.

Can you share with us some of the downsides and upsides of assignment work?

When assignments are great there is no better. When they are not, they can be tough and tedious but my job is to come bring back the goods for the client regardless of the circumstances. I like that challenge.  The upsides are you never know what you will be doing on what continent next month. I love the mystery. I love the collaboration with other creative’s on the agency side. I love the fact that some of my best friends started out as clients who I would never had met if I hadn’t taken that particular project. I love the fact that one road leads to another and assignment work takes you down the first road that you hadn’t planned on traveling. It can be exciting and thrilling. The downside is that you have to answer to a lot of other people. It can be frustrating as well, endless changes, requests, demands. Unreasonable at times and a lot of times totally unrealistic. It is a crazy business that you need thick skin at times. You are sometimes viewed as a commodity and sometimes as a creative king. That can happen in a span of fifteen minutes. Another downside and a big one is that you are not in control of your own calendar. A client gets to shoot when they want to shoot even if it is an inane reason. When assignments are great there is no better. When they are not, they can be tough and tedious…but my job is to come bring back the goods for the client regardless of the circumstances. I like that challenge.

Stewart, you are a founding member of Blend Images, and are on the board as well. Can you share some of your experience around that?

Blend was an amazing concept back in 2005; it intrigued me so I got involved with it. I like and respect the other members and they have become my friends.
I have been a board member for the group for the last couple of years and it is a role I really enjoy. I understand that the other members put their trust in me and the other board members to make sure the company runs like it was concepted to run. Being of a business mind I have enjoyed going though the trials and tribulations of the industry and the economy and I am honored to be a part of this group. We have weathered it so well; Rick (Rick Becker-Leckrone is the CEO of Blend) and the team really, really do their jobs well. The company is in a place that it can sustain and grow if we continue to add great content to the collection. I like how Rick suggested the quarterly calls so anyone who is interested in knowing what is going on in the biz can know. We are transparent and of like minds. It is a thrive or die world and Blend Images is thriving.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about photography as a whole and about stock specifically?

Creating great imagery has always been and will always be fun so I am optimistic. Stock has been very good to me. I do not expect the same type of returns in stock going forward. I believe in visual storytelling and I believe in getting well paid to do it. We need to invent the next business model. Who knows what the next “stock” like business model will be. Stock just happened to be, I did not chase it, it was a business model that felt right in regards to the work I was doing. There are others business models out there that will appear on the horizon as we move forward with our careers.

What advice do you have for those just entering the field of professional photography?

Find a niche in our biz that you love and you feel like you need to do. You need to love waking up in the morning to go do it. You need to want it more than having a comfortable lifestyle or a 911. If you are not totally driven to do it, go back to school and get an MBA and find a killer job that you feel this way about. You will thank me for this advice in twenty years.

How about some advice for some of us jaded veterans?

Whatever we have done before was just a warm-up for tomorrow. Be fiscally responsible in your business and take chances with your work. 

Stewart, as we finish up this interview you have just had a book published, IDENTITY: A PHOTOGRAPHIC MEDITATION FROM THE INSIDE OUT.

Can you share with us a little about your book and how it came in to being?

Identity is a project I started in the summer of 1999 on a deck behind a little house on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember the day perfectly--it was sunny and beautiful, and I was hanging out after lunch while our infant Teal was napping. It was the first time I had ever sat around as a child napped, as she was our first. The idle time to think, read and write was awesome…granted it came in blocks of two-hour windows when we weren’t freaking out about how to be parents. Anybody who has children remembers those first surreal months. You are in a different zone, a little sleep deprived and off your self-centered game. New synapses were firing. I had been thinking about how I needed to do more than assignments to create a lasting body of work--I needed to do a book. The concept for “Identity” popped into my head, as I am a big fan of biographies. Meeting new and different people is one of the key reasons I do what I do. I love hearing why people are who they are, what makes them tick, how they got where they are and what drives them to get up every morning.  I thought it would be more interesting to read a little about the subjects as well as seeing beautiful portraits. Personally, I didn’t want to write anything, I wanted them to write about themselves. In a flash of a second I wrote down, “What makes you unique as an individual?” That would be the question posed. Then who to photograph? How would I do it and where? Having the dream and concept was a start.

A producer friend of mine named Judd Allison had just opened a small talent agency called Outcasts in Miami. He was representing the tattooed, pierced, eccentric types. I thought they would be an interesting place to start.  I called Judd on my return from vacation, pitched the concept to him, and we set a date in October of 1999 to go shoot for a few days. He lined up people and his prop storage warehouse on the edge of town as the location. It was going to be awesome. I arrived in Miami on a Friday afternoon, just as hurricane Irene decided to head toward landfall. We were excited for people to start showing up to be photographed. As the winds began to blow, I started shooting a true cross-section of Miami’s fringe crowd. That first night, as the rain came down in sheets and the trees bent horizontally, I met and photographed eight people. “Lucky” Larry Bailey was one of them who made the final cut in the book.

The thought was that the book would be all about outcasts until a few weeks later while sitting at a sidewalk café in Caracas, Venezuela with another producer friend of mine named Jake Mills. I was telling him about the project and by the time we were on our third or fourth Caipirinha, we had borrowed a pen and started a wish list of people to photograph on the back of a napkin. At that moment, the road extended. I knew it would no longer be a book solely about the outcasts.

More stories about the individual portrait sessions to come starting in April 2010

Stewart, I got my copy via Amazon yesterday, and not only do I love it, but my girl friend’s teenaged daughter loves it too.  She even asked me why I don’t do a book like that. Oh well….

Are there any final words you want to leave us with?

Answer: Perseverance sustains your talent.

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