Thursday, July 28, 2011

Photographer, Stock Agency Owner, Publisher Walter Hodges Interviewed

Portrait of photographer Walter Hodges.
 Walter Hodges: Photojournalist, Stock and Assignment Photographer, Stock Agency Owner and Magazine Publisher.

Walter Hodges Interview:

Walter, you are an incredibly talented, long-time photographer, stock shooter and fellow founder of Blend Images. Other than that, I don’t really know much about your career. Can you catch us up on how you got into photography and how you came to be a stock shooter?

The army and I didn’t exactly get along in 1969 (long story), and during one of the periods when I wasn’t either confined to my barracks or in the stockade, a buddy gave me a Minolta SRT101 and suggested “you’re the kind of guy who should shoot pictures instead of people.”  I took him up on the idea.  I think he got it right.

About 1985, I had grown tired of the relative schizophrenia of assignments, and I ran into a guy named Marty Loken who owned a stock agency called Allstock.  Marty knew Craig Aurness at Westlight and suggested I also talk to Craig (another long story).   I went from Westlight to Tony Stone Images to Stone to Corbis, to Getty Images to Blend and here we are still trying to figure out how to shoot a good stock photo.  Sooner or later we’ll get it figured out.

I recently got the chance to see some issues of your new undertaking Ten AndTwo Magazine. I have to admit that I was blown away by what you have done! Beautiful photography, fun to read, and targeted for a dedicated and passionate audience…I believe you are really on to something.  Can you share how this all came about?

Thanks a lot John.  Ten And Two Magazine  is a project I came up with alongside a terrific graphic designer named Greg Smith from the Portland, Oregon area.  It’s a digital magazine with a basic editorial foundation of fly fishing, which is a passion of both Greg and I.  We both had a lot of experience shooting, or writing, or designing projects for a paper based fly fishing magazine and when that magazine folded, we decided to keep something going online. 

It’s not a typical fishing magazine.  A lot of those publications are based on the principally male dominated concept that “mine is way way way bigger than yours, and I know what to do and where to go, and don’t you wish you were here, and if you want to be like me, then you must do this in this manner at this time of year.  I hate that whole gig.  We proposed that when people go fishing, it’s not fish that they are after.  They are after, travel, culture, art, history, food, drink, friendship and if all the stars align, maybe a fish or two.  It’s a journey, not a destination.  So we started the magazine with that in mind.  We are the only magazine in the world attempting to work this idea into a serious publication.  We’ve got total creative control, so we can do anything we want.  We want to create a classic elegant tasteful presentation that can stand the test of time.  We’ve been at it for about a year, and I think the first steps have been good ones.

What has been your biggest challenge to getting this project out of the blocks?

Several things actually.  Finding the time to do it right while still running a stock photo business is beyond herding cats.  I’m hoping I can take a shower any day now.
Secondly, the whole process of creating the stories and working with other shooters and writers has been incredibly stimulating creatively, but logistically difficult for me.  Being on the other side of the aisle and having to work with artists instead of just being one has been a real education.  I’ve got a whole new outlook on the process of buying images or negotiating what we can do for an artist when we’re a start up with no investors and running on nothing but pure passion.  I now look at the world of commercial photography in a whole different light (yet another long story)

Looking forward, what do you think will be your biggest long-term hurdle?

Sooner or later, we have to make a living at this don’t we?

In the beginning, we neglected the business side of this model and simply created a magazine.  We’ve done that.  Now it has to work and we have to find serious advertisers or sponsors and sooner or later we have to get it printed (print is not dead), and we have to get subscriptions and we need to create partnerships with other businesses.  I have no idea how to do that, and we need help on the business side.  I need to get someone in to run this side-show, and I need to get out of the way and start acting my age instead of acting like a blissed out twenty something who doesn’t know what’s not possible.   Maybe not acting my age, but I gotta get out of the way and let someone else run the business.

How are you getting the word out?  Do you pay attention to where your readers come from (Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Google etc.)?

We had a reasonably good mailing list to start.  We’ve contacted sporting clubs and organizations around the world, then we took out a Facebook ad and we’ve started messing about with Twitter and a blog, and we told our friends (Blend and Stockpros) and our family’s and so on.  Which actually means we have no idea how to do this, but we are trying very hard.

Do you use any traditional media to help get the word out (magazine ads, direct mail, etc.)?

We are using Constant Contact to manage our mailing list, which helps a lot and word is getting around almost organically as opposed to overnight on YouTube.
Greg and I are both pretty classically trained marketing people.  There are a lot of people at Blend and Stockpros who really know the Twitter and Facebook gigs really well.  I’m slowly coming around.  Old guys can be a tough study.

How often do you publish new issues?
We publish quarterly.  Based on the previously mentioned shower metaphor, I think it stays that way till we get people and money to help.

I see you also incorporate a blog. How do you differentiate your blog from the magazine itself?

I wish I could tell you we did that, but I’m just learning at this point.  In our current state we just get to it when we can, and we try to put in very small versions of story content in order to drive people to the magazine.  Jeremy Woodhouse and you John Lund are my hero’s in using blogs to drive people in several directions.  I’m hoping to model our blog after your success.

How many people are involved in putting Ten & Two out?

Currently five.  No one is getting paid.  We’ve got me, the graphic designer, a copy editor, a web designer/sales person, and a social media guy.

Walter, I have to confess, I do not fish (though I enjoy eating fish). Thus this next question might sound naïve to a fisherman, but what doe Ten & Two refer to? Are those the best times to fish for trout or something?

When a person first learns to fly fish, there is a foundation of technical principles.  Just like in photography.  The base line foundation of all fly fishing begins with how you hold the fly rod and what you do with it.  Done correctly, the fly rod should move through the air in a particular pattern corresponding to the hands on a clock.  The fly rod moves rhythmically from 10:00 to 2:00 with your head positioned at 12:00.  I know, I know, it’s way too serious and esoteric for it’s own good, but there you have it.  Ten And Two, the foundation of all fly fishing.

What kind of traffic are you seeing?

As I said, it’s more organic than viral.  The niche is narrow, but since we cover a lot of areas instead of just fishing, the potential demographic is internationally huge.  We just need a bit of help getting a plan going for how to go after this.  We’re looking currently for a couple people who could put in some sweat equity for a piece of a pie.  We found five people so far.  There are business people out there somewhere who are fly-fishing crazed and looking for a business idea to hang a hat on.  Sooner or later I will find them.

How are you monetizing this project?

As I said, we haven’t been able to do that, because we either don’t have the time or don’t know the exact path to follow.  We know the world wide market is huge.  How to get there is another deal entirely.  We are currently talking to the MBA program at the University Of Washington.  There’s a very good chance they will take this idea on as a project.  The help would be fantastic and of course the price would be right.

How has the reaction been?

Fantastic.  We’ve got a good subscriber base started (5,000) people, and now we need to grow it with a sold business plan.  Our readers are a pretty rabid bunch because we’ve struck a nerve with this idea that it’s a journey.  It’s not about the fish.
Most fishermen get it.  They just have never had the opportunity to see a magazine that goes beyond the fishing.  We take them there.

How far ahead do you work?

So far, it’s very tight.  We don’t have the money or the time to work six months out, which is where we need to be.  We are doing this in real time.  As I write this, we are putting out our next issue which includes tarpon fishing in Florida and permit fishing in the Seychelles Islands.

What cool stories can we look forward to?

After this next issue, I’m working on setting up at trip around Atlantic salmon fly fishing on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.  It’s steeped in history and fishing lore.  The story will include pieces on the fishing, a great lodge, a whiskey distillery, a landscape painter, an international festival of Celtic music, and a historic piece related to how Louisiana Cajuns were originally religious refuges from Nova Scotia.

What has been your biggest surprise in this whole undertaking?

The unrequited love I have for taking a blank piece of paper and creating a story in words and images.  I had no idea how deeply it was imbedded in me.  I could die doing this and be perfectly happy.  I wish it had happened when I was thirty, but you go to the party when you get invited and it’s time to party.

Are you open to contributions from other photographers and writers?

I am.  I need to figure out how to pay people because I will not ask anyone to work for free.  I don’t have the stomach to do that.  We’ve actually used a couple images from Jeremy Woodhouse (Blend Images) in our Guatemala story.  Jeremy knows travel better than most.  We’ve actually have had a few artists approach us to do things, and they didn’t care about being paid, because once they saw what we could do with their images, and how we would show them off as opposed to most any other publication, the marketing potential of the resulting PDF’s seemed payment enough.  For some people that sort of trade works, but I can’t ask anyone to work for free.  I just can’t.

As we are all aware, the stock photography business has been, shall we say, challenging these last few years. Many shooters are leaving for greener pastures, or at least what they perceive as greener pastures. Is this publishing venture a pure work of love, or do you see it as a new career direction?

Probably both.  Blend Images is strong and our stock numbers at Getty are actually getting better over the past six months, so I’d love to do both if I can.  It’s a process and my guess is that the final truth of the matter will fall in our laps as we put one foot in front of the other. 

Are you still shooting for stock and are there any synchronicities between Ten And Two and your stock photo business?

I am shooting stock and there are some parallels.  I don’t think the magazine is a  money making stock business, because the images we get are so few, it’s hard to place them in this stock photo economy that is so very much based on the idea of commodity.  A lot of these fishing images and travel photos are good metaphors and no one knows better than you the value of a good visual metaphor.  So yea, I will be putting some of these images into stock.  Rights managed stock.

In the face of the new realities of the stock photo market place, are you taking any different approaches from the way you have historically approached stock photography?

Boy, is that a long story.  Anyone who reads Stockpros threads knows how I feel about this, but the gist of it is this.  I am going to shoot principally rights managed images, because I feel the pendulum is moving back again toward the concept of quality as opposed to commodity.  We’ll still do some RF imagery, but the market place is saturated with commodity.  Shooters whose numbers are dropping have those number dropping because they are part of the commodity that has been devalued over the past ten years.  Garbage in garbage out.  Old Henny Youngman joke – “A guy goes to the doctor and says doctor, my arm hurts when I do this.  The doctor says don’t do that.”  Photographer goes to the doctor and says doctor, my numbers go down when I do this.  Doctor says don’t do that.  God, I loved Henny Youngman.

Do you believe stock photography is still a viable career?

I do.  I believe it’s different than it used to be, and lot of people are going to go out of business, because they can’t adapt and look for new solutions.  That’s the nature of business and forest fires.  It has a tendency to clean out the unhealthy stuff.  That does not guarantee that you or I will succeed at this, but it does guarantee that we will try.

Are you participating in microstock?

I started to get into it, but just ran out of time and energy.  It’s not that I don’t see the business model.  It’s that I don’t have a minute left in the day.

Other than Ten & Two, are you utilizing Social Media?

Another thing I have to learn.  On one hand I’m sick of all the information.  I really don’t need it.  But then when I see how it can work if done correctly, I have to admit I have a long way to go.  How on earth do we do all the things we need to do John?  How on earth indeed.  All you do is the best you can, and you have to be ok with that.

Do you have a formula for success in stock?

Yes, and it comes from Jonathan Ross (Blend Images, Spaces, Old Old Friend).  Jonathan and I were sitting at lunch one day trying figure out what to shoot next, because as we know, we can shoot most anything, but what exactly do you choose to shoot next?  That’s the real question.  Jonathan looked up over his bowl of clam chowder and said “I know exactly what to shoot.  We want to shoot lots.”  Cleave to the metaphors, stay away from the commodity and shoot lots.

When I peruse Ten & Two I picture you immersed in what you love, having a ball, traveling, shooting, writing and having the time of your life. What is the reality?

It is that.  That and very hard work, but that’s the nature of having the time of your life.  You need to live it hard.  I bleed this stuff till I can’t bleed any more. 

You write so well I am wondering if you have a writing background?  Do you like wearing both the photographer hat and the writing hat?

It’s been in me since forever, and little old lady’s used to tell me “Walter, you need to write this stuff down.  I never did.  A guy gave me a chance to write a story for a magazine about five years ago and it just exploded in front of me.  Bottled up from all those years. I can’t imagine not doing it.  If the magazine ultimately does not succeed, I’ll find another way.  It’s just that in this current situation, I have a sand box to play in that I could never have imagined before.  Amazing stuff.

What words of advice do you have for others interested in creating an online magazine?

Get a person who knows business and lives to work with numbers as part of the team right from the get go.  No idea how I let that slip by.  If you know someone, send them to me.  I have an idea for them to consider.

And how about advice for those either just starting out on their stock photo careers, or those, like me, who are jaded veterans?

For those just starting out.  Think concepts and metaphors.  Do not just think about what looks cool.  Start slow and join up with a smaller group like Blend Images or Tetra or Spaces.  There is strength in community.  Do not blame anyone but yourself for the situation you find yourself in.  These are the good old days.  Make the most of it.

For those jaded veterans (like you and me).  After all these years, the most precious thing we own is the potential that at any moment something incredible might happen.  It’s the potential that drives the bus. Thomas Edison said everything he ever found he found while he was looking for something else.  Stay alert.  It’ll be fun.  You’ll see.

Can you share a favorite photo you have shot for Ten And Two, and the story behind it?

I actually should do two, because the magazine is not simply defined by one type of visual.

Photograph of fly fishing in the Catskills, New York.
Photograph ©Walter Hodges Fly Fishing in the Catskills of New York State.

  1. The first shot is of a river in the Catskills of New York State.  The two guys were fishermen friends of mine, and we were out with the intent of shooting images for the story.  It was raining and we headed back to the lodge.  As we got closer to the lodge I noticed a break in the clouds low on the horizon, and I just went berserk in the car knowing the sun would break for a few seconds within the next ten minutes.  We knew where there was a bridge crossing the upper Delaware River.  We busted every rule of the road with me in agony in the back seat until we got to the bridge.  I sprinted to the middle of the bridge yelling at my friends to get into their waders and get into the water.  The sun came out for literally two minutes.  The image is less about the fishing, and more about the experience of being present in another world at exactly the right moment.
Tango dancing in Buenos Aires.
Photograph ©Walter Hodges  Tango dancing in Buenos Aires.

  1. I was in Argentina doing a story on trout fishing, and as part of the story, I wanted to do a side bar piece on tango, so for four days, I hired a passionate young male tango dancer to take me into the back alley’s of Buenos Aires to show me the real dancing instead of the big Las Vegas style tango shows for tourists.  About 3:00 AM in the morning at a small local tango club on a back street, I lay on the dance floor, and shot images of my friend and his partner literally lost in their dancing.  Incredible stuff.  The story was in our first issue and it set the tone for everything else we’ve done.

Thanks! To see Ten And Two Magazine:
We should probably tell folks that in order to see Ten And Two Magazine, they need to register (it's free and no one will call).  Also, it's worth looking at the archived issues tab on the web site.  For instance, the tango piece is in issue 1.  The Catskill photo comes from issue 2.  Best to view the mag at full screen size - there's a tab on the first page up on top.  It will expand the magazine so you can see it better.

To more of Walter's Photography: 
Thank you John.  Thank you very much.     Walter   

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