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 Central America.
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?
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 most?
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 you?
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 media?
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 photography business?
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 commercial photographer?
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).
Until my personal site is up and running, you can check out a gallery at www.annabellebreakey.com/travel
Is there anything I forgot to ask you?
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!
Annabelle Breakey Photography
1250 Missouri St No. 205
San Francisco, CA 94107
1250 Missouri St No. 205
San Francisco, CA 94107
Agent: Deborah Ayerst
Agent: Deborah Ayerst
John, Yet another great interview. And her work is a pleasure to peruse. I have already sent the link to a young woman photographer that I am mentoring.
Hi John, so nice to hear about Annabelle and to learn how well she is doing. And, by the way, all those nice things she said about you are true!
Thanks...I am blushing!
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