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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

January 11, 2004

Working For Pay

Every now and again, us arty, touchy-feely types provoke the ire and scorn of more hard-headed, practical guys, and I have a feeling I'm about to do it again with today's topic. I want to talk about what money can do to the creative equation.

A few of you noticed that last week I started asking (except from my Polish readers, more for logistical reasons than anything else) for a very modest contribution, or donation, to keep this column alive. Fifty-three cents, to be precise. (I'm going to hit you up at the end of this column, too, so be forewarned.) I don't really know how many people read this column every week, and, even if I did, I have no idea what percentage of you would be willing to contribute to it...voluntarily. But the problem I'm facing is that I just gotta get paid for it or I can't keep doing it.

Before I settled on the voluntary contribution solution (well, I guess it hasn't really proven to be a "solution" yet, but you know what I mean), I asked the various hosts of the column if they'd mind paying me every week. They're all good guys, and they all said yes, they'd pay me. Now, I don't want to get in trouble with any of these folks, and I'm not trying to embarrass anybody. But one of them commented, "I don't mind paying for content, but if I do, you're going to have to write more about [blank]."

A reasonable request, right? A guy pays for something, he gets to have some say in what he's buying. Perfectly straightforward, above-board, and sensible. I'm not criticizing it.

The fact is, though, that one of the reasons I've written seventy of these columns so far (this is the seventy-first, if I count right) is that I like being able to pick my own subjects and write whatever I want to. It's a matter of freedom. It's also a matter of convenience, to some extent — some weeks I just can't get to it, and I have to skip a week; some weeks I really put a lot of effort into the column and others I have to, er, skimp. But mainly it's about freedom. None of the webmasters who publish this column on their sites ever tell me what to write about or what to say, and no manufacturers or industry people have the slightest bit of influence over what I say or how I say it. And that's the way I like it. I also thinik it's valuable, in a minor way, in today's journalistic climate. There just aren't that many purely independent voices around, especially in print.

Mind you, I do a lot of freelance writing — brochures, advertising copy, pretty much anything — and I'm more than happy to write what my clients want. But then they gotta pay. Rather a lot, actually. Photography's different. It's what I love.

I'm hoping that asking for contributions will do the trick. Click the link at the end of this column and go see my spiffy new "SMP column" page on my website, built, as usual, by Stephanie Graffuis-Cain at Imagine96. (And sorry again about the miserable pun.)

The wife said, oh boy, when you're dead, you won't take nothin' with you but your soul

I first encountered the "working for pay" problem when I was doing portraits in the 1980s. (Here's where I start to annoy the hard-boiled pros, so prepare yourself.) I was teaching at a prep school and, more for amusement than anything else, I started asking a few of my students to model for me. Trouble was, the results were popular, and it wasn't long before other students were coming to me and asking if I'd do their portrait, too.

Well, I couldn't turn anybody down (how unkind would that have been?), and eventually it started to get expensive. I decided I'd better charge a little something to cover expenses, so I started asking $95 for a portrait.

Simple, right? Not so fast.

You wouldn't think it would change much of anything. Actually, it changed everything. Suddenly, I was no longer in charge. I had the kids mothers' telling me what to do, and now they got to decide how the kids would dress and where we'd take the pictures. I had to start suppling proofs, because of course they didn't want me to pick the shot to print.

It was a small difference, but I found that it made all the difference. I went from being an artist (for those of you who think that's a snooty term, I don't use it that way — I had just graduated from art school at the time, and I merely mean that I worked the way any artist works — freely) to being a hired professional.

I'm also not making a value judgment about this, either. There's nothing wrong with being a hired professional. It's just a different kettle of fish, is all — a different way of working, a different approach.

It was also curious to see the kids' reactions to the fact that I had started charging. One student gave me an outraged lecture about how I had a "captive market" and that I was "harvesting money" (I wished!) and that nearly $100 was an outrageous amount of money to charge for a measly custom portrait. At the other extreme, one girl — the daughter of a nationally-known television personality who made millions of dollars a year — refused to pay so little for a portrait. Instead, she hired the fanciest portrait photographer in town, for many times what I charged...and then came and asked me for bunch of my prints, so she could take them down to the fancy pro studio and ask them to do a portrait just like one of mine!

One thing you lose when you start charging is the freedom to screw up. When you're taking pictures for yourself, you can try any fool thing you're a mind to. If it doesn't work, well, no big deal — you shrug your shoulders and think, hey, maybe next time I'll find the magic. When you're being paid, screwing up is no longer an option. It makes you...well, I won't speak for others, just for myself...I'll just say it made me more careful, more conservative. I took fewer risks and took better care to cover my arse.

But the biggest loss was the consideration of whom I had to please. When the client directs the shoot and picks the picture, it's their taste you're trying to live up to. If you happen to be interested in something entirely different, well, tough luck, unless you can sneak those shots in on the side.

Let me give you my favorite example of this. I worked for a public school system for a while, as a part-time assistant to the school system photographer. We took pictures for brochures and publications. While it was never stated, what the school system was interested in was essentially propaganda: they weren't interested in straight documentary. They wanted to make the schools look as friendly, as comfortable, as prosperous, and as integrated as possible.

I sometimes fell afoul of this impulse. I'd take a picture of a kid sitting at a desk with her overcoat on (makes it look as if the schools are underheated and cold), or a shot that included venetian blinds (verboten — the PR folks thought they had a seedy, film-noire look to them). Of course, inattentive or troubled expressions were out.

I tried, though. One time I took what I thought was a wonderful picture of a little black boy playing a drumset with a pair of pencils. Although he was really good, he was clearly just fooling around, and he had an almost ecstatic expression on his face. In fact, his whole body radiated joy. I can't find the picture any more, but it was good enough that I imagined it on the cover of some school system publication. I thought the PR people were going to be delighted with it.

I got my rude awakening when the picture was rejected outright by the PR Department. Reason? "Showing a student playing drums with pencils makes it look like the school system can't afford drumsticks." What the—?!? The drumsticks were sitting right there next to the kid, on the seat of a chair, in plain view in the picture! Nope. They were unmoved. I was told I should go back and get "the same picture" with the student playing with proper drumsticks.

Again, not criticizing — if people pay, then they deserve to have a say. That's the way the world goes around. And it's no sin to work to please someone else. It's a challenge, actually — a challenge many pro photographers enjoy.

Gimme money, that's what I want

Eventually, I ended up charging a lot of money for portraits, and I evolved into doing the kind of portraits that most justified the amount of money I was asking clients to spend. So I started out doing very plain, understated 35mm black-and-white environmental portraits of people in casual, everyday clothes, and, five years or so later, ended up doing posed, medium-format color portraits of dressed-up people in a studio.

Seinfeld voice: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" It just wasn't what I wanted to do, is all. (And why the studio? Simple — at a base rate of $675 per portrait, you can't afford to rely on anything so fickle as sunlight.)

Some people do have the strength of character, the willfulness, or the pure cussedness to "do their own thing" no matter what. Elliott Erwitt, who I sincerely think is one of the dozen or so greatest photographers of the 20th century — oh, heck, of all time — has actually done lots of commercial jobs, but his commercial work is indistinguishable from his personal work. As far as I can tell, it makes no difference to him whether he's working for an art director or just snapping pictures of doggies that make him smile.

Most of us just don't have that kind of cojones. If somebody wants to pay us a hunk of dough for something, we turn from confident, self-assured photographers to slobbering, craven sycophants. (Oh, okay, that's me, then. Again, I should just speak for myself.)

I've said this before, but I think that the kind of photography we end up doing has a fair amount to do not only with what kinds of pictures we like, but with how we're comfortable working. Once I sorted this out, I realized that although I like photojournalistic-style, life-on-the-fly stuff, I'm not comfortable shooting it. I work better when I have permission. This was a good realization — I started doing better work after I figured it out. As far as "portraits" are concerned, I'm a lot happier when someone has volunteered to model for free, or when I'm paying them a little something for their time. Turn the flow of money the other direction, even if it's only a very small trickle, and everything changes — in a way that might be good for my pocketbook, but was bad for my art.

Money can't buy me love

So here's the upshot. I'm gonna keep writing "The Sunday Morning Photographer," but only as long as I get to write about what I want to and say whatever I please. I'm being selfish, yes, but also practical. If I have to write on assignment every week, I'm afraid I'd lose interest. I'm not always right, and I'm not always interesting, and I'm not always writing about the things the majority of people want to read about, if we were to take a poll. But I find the freedom and the independence to be priceless. If everybody pays a few cents, then I can get compensated a little and also continue being a free agent. Sounds like it should work, don't you think?

Oh, and about those portraits I used to do? Well, I got my comeuppance in the end. Out of the blue sky one day, I got a call from a museum curator. She had just seen a bunch of my portraits — the early, 35mm, black-and-white ones — and she wanted to see what I'd been doing in that vein recently. And I didn't have a thing to show her.

You know what they say: Oh well. Serves me right, for not sticking to my guns.

— Mike Johnston

Okay, now, pahdner, pony up. (Pretty please?)

NEXT WEEK: Lost in the Gutter (and some other considerations of design)

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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