Annabelle Breakey in her San Francisco Studio.
Annabelle Breakey Interview:
I first met Annabelle Breakey when, as
a nineteen year old photography student, she came to my studio looking for
assistant experience. Here we are, some two decades later, and Annabelle
has just completed a campaign for Starbucks in additions to well-known names such
as Sunset Magazine, Beringer, Glade, Silk Pure Almond, Sharpie, and Lindsay
Olives. She has just opened a
brand new San Francisco studio, and is prepping for shoots in India, Africa and
Recently I caught up with Annabelle and
realized that her story would be both interesting and instructive for photographers
everywhere…in these times you just can’t get enough success stories!
Annabelle, how did you wind up in the
photography business anyway?
As a kid, I was always
making things: Pineapple Upside Down Cake, forts, painting, sewing little craft
projects, you name it. In preschool, I was a big fan of painting macaroni
and gluing it to paper plates and applying lots of glitter. My Mom
had the courage to take me on a tour of art schools after high school and that opened the door for me to be an
artist instead of having a more traditional career. Once settled into
college at San Jose State University, and having found myself to have taken all
of the photography classes they offered, I realized I needed to go to a school
that would give me the skills I needed to actually make a living with the
craft. My dad made me write a business plan for my career as a
photographer before he would approve of my career choice. This may have
been the single best experience one can do for a young mind. This simple
exercise oriented me in a direction to succeed in photography.
It was really fun to walk into
Starbucks and see your photos everywhere. Can you share with us how that
assignment came to be?
Oddly, Jodi Morrison, the
Senior Art Buyer for Starbucks, met my agent in LA at a LeBook event, which is
primarily for fashion photographers and stylists. I did not know until I
went up to Seattle and visited my new creative friends at Starbucks HQ and saw
one of my OLD, old, old promos,
tacked to Jodi’s wall that she had been aware of me. Wow. How cool
is that? We send out promos in what seems like a vacuum and sometimes it
works. Imagine that?
©Annabelle Breakey Some of Annabelle's recent work for Starbucks.
You work closely with veteran rep,
Deborah Ayerst. How do you and Deborah work together?
I love Deb. She’s
kind of crazy, really cool, totally out there and works insanely hard… and
knows EVERYONE. We talk almost
every day… way more than I talk to any of my family. She has great ideas
and I produce more and have much bigger dreams with her in my life. I
think I owe a lot to her as I push my self very hard. She’s a tough
critic and doesn’t sugar coat anything so, I have developed as an artist quite
a bit with her influence. We come up with a variety of marketing
strategies and we try to come up with new ways of making connections. Deb
travels a lot to different cities and each month there are new goals and things
to achieve. I have done a lot this year and have met some new and
incredible creatives. Done some really nice work. It’s very exciting.
I know you shoot a lot of food. What
else is in your repertoire?
I love shooting food, of
course. I love the subject matter, the stylists the whole cycle of life
thing. Taking care of the planet and all that goes with food. I
have been shooting for over 20 years, so I have a pretty wide spectrum of
subjects that I’ve shot over that time. I started out doing digital
collages for business to business, high tech and financial institutions.
Pretty much right when I got out of school, I had clients such as Visa, Citibank,
PG&E, Montgomery Securities and Microsoft. It was the Nineties,
Photoshop had recently come out and it seemed everyone wanted it. I had
this really great mentor, John Lund. That handsome guy. You heard
of him? (Aww shucks…).
What do you enjoy shooting
Ahhh… I think this
may make my rep insane, but I love crazy travel photography: Getting out of my
comfort zone and taking my 35’s to distant lands where there is no tourist
infrastructure. I am putting together a ‘personal’ web site of this work
now. I am trying to work that aspect into my regular commercial work some
how. Don’t get me wrong. I love my studio and my business, but out
there, it’s all up to you to make great images. It’s really hard and very
satisfying when I make something more than personally memorable.
It seems like everyone is jumping into
motion. Do you have plans to move in that direction?
I’ve tried it. It’s
a lot of work and doesn’t pay as well. I’ve decided that it’s a whole
other job and requires a whole different skill set. I’ve decided that
I’ve got my hands full with photography alone as I am super prolific and want
to be impactful with what I am doing.
Annabelle, you have been shooting
professionally for a long time. How do you keep motivated…what really inspires
I surround myself with
very inspiring people and get inspired by traveling to other places to learn
about new cultures including my own. I just got back from Kansas City and
came into ‘knowing’ of authentic barbecue. Will head to New York to hit
the gallery scene and some new restaurants at the end of October. Just to
keep fresh. Then I’m off to Central America to shoot “farm to market” and
then India for indigenous culture and a sacred holiday.
What is your “secret” of success?
I work my ass off and I
love what I do. Have you seen my blog?
I have had the privilege of seeing you
work more than once, and it always struck me that on your shoots it seems like
everyone is having fun. Do you do anything in particular to insure that
experience, or does it just happen?
I hire fun people.
It has to be fun. If it’s not fun, I can’t do it. I do get nervous
and that’s not fun. The work usually suffers for it though, so if I feel
the nerves coming on I over prepare. Then, it all works out OK. Afterwords
I really hope they hire me again because it will be oh so much more fun the
second time around!
Tell us about your marketing efforts.
Are you using an array of source book ads, direct mail, email and social
Yes, all of the
above. We come at marketing from all different angles. The best,
best, best marketing tool is me. Becoming personally interested in
working with specific people on specific accounts and seeking them out. I call
it “looking for my people”. I love working with great people and making great
work that is mutually inspiring. I love being a team player and offering
solutions (sounds so cheesy!). I’ve heard that all work comes from a
conversation. I try to create conversations and make new friends that are
of like minds. Communication is everything. I find communicating in
person is the best so I try to do that as much as possible. That and having
rockin’ work that they will enjoy looking at ;).
How do you show your book?
I have several iPads that
get sent around. Mostly, people look at my web site and blog. The
blog is a more complete picture of who I am, the web site is more of a show
place. More and more, I create custom pdfs for people that have certain
projects in mind. I have such a huge archive, it’s pretty easy to pull
together a custom presentation.
You have told us how closely you work
with your rep Deborah on marketing, do you also have a regular team you rely on
when you are shooting?
Yes, I have several
freelancers that I work with often. My newest favorite team member is
helping me with the blog and archive. She’s a wiz with social media and
is very helpful as I don’t have much time for that part of the marketing
effort. I also have an operations manager who helps me with big picture
stuff for running a business. She helps keep me on track to delegate the
stuff that needs to be delegated and so I can stay focused on creating new work
and developing new relationships as well as nurturing existing clients.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you
about your participation in stock photography. How does stock fit into your
I go through phases with
stock. When I am busy with commercial assignments, stock gets pushed to
the back burner. When things are slow, I start planning big shoots.
I have a couple of fun shoots coming up, where some clients have given some
nods of interest. If it doesn’t work out for them, I’ll market them
through a stock agency. My stock earnings over the years certainly have
filled in the gaps. I really do wish I produced more though….
What advice can you give photographers
just embarking on their careers?
Work hard and work smart.
Surround yourself with the best talent and mentors/ contemporaries with
experience as you can.
Can you share a favorite image of yours
and the story behind it?
Many many many
images… So many of them mean so much to me for different reasons.
This is why I started my blog. My motivation is to be completely
truthful, transparent and honest and hopefully interesting. We’re all the
same, kind of? www.annabellebreakey.com/blog
I see you use natural light a lot. Can
you share your approach to using light?
Light needs to be
shaped. Natural light is only different to studio light in color
spectrum. Both need to be shaped and both have different advantages and
create different textures on subjects. I love both for this reason.
Is there one piece of equipment you
couldn’t live without?
So many! Top 5: My
4x5, loupe, level, computers, Canon 5d MarkII’s.
What is the biggest challenge for your
business right now?
Getting more of it.
What is your favorite part of being a
Sounds silly, but I love
working with and providing images for big consumer clients. I love a
challenge and love, love, love contributing to their campaigns and creating
work for them. Hello Starbucks? How fun is it to have my pics in
16,000 stores all over the world. My mom is very proud.
Annabelle, I had the fun experience of
picking up a rather tempting looking cookbook in a bookstore one day, and lo
and behold you were the photographer. Can you share with us your take on
shooting for books?
I love shooting
cookbooks. Especially ones that are written by authors who have something
really new and interesting to share. I love a big project that creates an
opportunity for a crew to work together for a week or three. I am excited
for the publishing world, even though everyone is freaked out that paper is
going out of style. I look at this digital transition as if we are in
another “industrial” revolution. Never has there been a bigger need for
content and opportunity for different mediums to fulfill. We are just in
the infancy and the publishing platforms will sort them selves out.
People still need and want content that is interesting and useful. That
will never go away. Its just getting more interesting and the users are
getting more complex with the new needs. This makes us all better content
providers. I rise to this challenge.
Do you shoot personal projects…and if
so, do you have any projects your working on now? (If you want to run a photo
or two here we can).
Is there anything I forgot to ask
Who has been my most
influential mentor? John Lund. Hands down. Is it ok to talk
about you in the third person? He’s kind of goofy sometimes, but has a
heart of gold. I met John very young in my career and I’m very fortunate
to have had him as an influence at such a young age. He has always been
there for me to lend an ear to listen and share life experiences and has been a
great influence on my photography career. His approach to every situation
has been through kindness, care and humor. Not a bad way to be in
life. He’s seen me through many phases and economic cycles. There
have been a few years where we have not spoken and then many years where we
chatted almost every day. Though we differ with the kind of photography we do,
at the core, John has been quite influential in making me a better
photographer. I’m a huge fan.
Thanks Annabelle, and you have always
been an inspiration to me and what a pleasure it is to be able to share your success story!