Editor’s Note: Clark James Mishler is a longtime ASMP member out of the Northern California Chapter. He is a professional photographer who has specialized in producing environmental portraits for corporate and editorial clients. Over the past 35 years, Mishler’s work has been published in hundreds of national and international publications. He believes that his experience producing his personal “Portrait-a-Day” project over the past 10 years has uniquely prepared him for making images during this worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
How One Photographer Succeeded During a Collapsing Economy
Essay and Photos by Clark James Mishler
It was 2008, and I was a photographer in Anchorage, Alaska at the peak of my career. Over the previous 20 years, I had become successful specializing in location portraits for corporate and editorial clients. In those years, I had worked to diversify my client base. Alaska’s petroleum-based economy was and continues to be subject to the ups and downs of the price of oil. And, while I had very little direct work with any of the oil companies, the majority of businesses throughout the state were tied indirectly to these wild economic swings. So, after many years of work, I was able to alter my client list to the point where out-of-state sourced income rose to something north of 50% of my total revenue. I felt assured that I had made a wise business decision and that I would be able to survive another local downturn. In October of 2008, however, my self-assurance came to a screeching halt when the world economy went into a historic nosedive. Suddenly, the majority of corporate and editorial picture editors had lost their jobs, and those wonderful personal contacts I had worked so hard to develop disappeared — forever. Corporate and editorial publications were also gone or just ghosts of their former selves. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime market adjustments, and I would need to reinvent myself.
I spent the next year building up my local work, but I missed the creative assignments I had previously received from editors around the country. I also had quite a bit of time on my hands and wanted to do something that would meet my creative needs while furthering my career long-term.
Anchorage Homeless Community
Photographer Clark James Mishler photographed over 350 members of the Anchorage homeless community over a three-month period in 2009. View the series.
Street people rarely have obituary portraits. In fact, they rarely have any portraits at all. It was my wife’s suggestion to assist the homeless community in obtaining the most basic of photographic needs: an obituary portrait. So, with buy-in from a local soup kitchen and the homeless citizens, I began a three-month portrait project. Producing over 350 portraits of our homeless community was so satisfying; I began to think about a much longer portrait project. I wondered if I could make a unique portrait every day for a full year. I imagined — correctly — that this would be the most demanding photographic project I had ever tackled and that it would make me a better photographer. It was, and it did.
Learning to light consistently at 30 below zero was one of the challenges of environmental portrait photography in Alaska. View the series.
I assembled a small lightweight strobe that would be dependable at 30 below! I also purchased a small lightbox, few all-weather pocket notebooks, a pen that would write in various weather conditions and a flashlight, a critical aid to focusing in Alaska’s winter twilight. On January 1, 2010, I began what very well may be the longest-running portrait-a-day project in the world. 10 years later, I continue to produce at least one new portrait each and every day.
Techniques learned from experimenting with light in the studio would be applied to location portraits.
During the first six months of my project, I learned a great deal about what kind of a photographer I wanted to be and what kind of imagery I needed to make. While most of my imagery required getting out of the office, I occasionally photographed in my studio. It was here, photographing the sporadic plumber, electrician or tile layer, that I would explore lighting techniques in the warm confines of my workplace. Later, I would apply what I had learned to my environmental portraits.
For Mishler, learning how to approach complete strangers and walk away with a portrait was an important skill to learn.
I can admit that my progress at first was slow. But as it sunk in, that I was not making portraits for a client with a shopping list of detailed demands, my confidence led to stronger images. Being something less than sure of my creative goals, I often spent upwards of 15 minutes on a portrait. Fortunately, I found that people can be very forgiving. Once I passed the hundred portrait mark, however, I had the whole process down to under five minutes.
In the beginning, my success rate in getting strangers to pose for me was about 60%. Today, 10 years later, my rate of cooperation is 95%. What changed? I mostly attribute this improved rate to developing a two-minute spiel — what I say when approaching complete strangers. Here’s a typical opening conversation:
Photographer: Excuse me, may I make your portrait?
Subject: What’s it for?
Photographer: Well, I’m a professional photographer and I make a portrait every day of someone in my community. I have been doing this every day for the past 10 years and, at the end of the day, I upload the best ones to my blog. I have the longest-running portrait blog in the world and, if you were to appear on my blog, you would be (making an inch gesture with my index finger and thumb) this much famous! (At this point, my subject laughs and, most often, grants me permission on the spot.)
Beyond the gain of confidence and skill, there were some very tangible advantages that were totally unexpected. Over the past 10 years, I have had numerous stock sales directly from my portrait-a-day project. The sales I have made were as a result of my particular editorial approach to my portraits. Those who have inquired and used my images were often looking for real people that did not look like “stock” photographs. I do not collect release forms from my subjects but I do collect email addresses. Once a client selects one of my portraits, I contact the subject and let them know who wishes to use their portrait and how they intend to use it. So far, I have not had one subject who has refused the use of their image!
Photographer Clark James Mishler has recently altered his Portrait-a-Day project to reflect the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on members of his new community in Northern California. Follow the ongoing series.
Lately, I have been documenting the effects of the coronavirus on my community. I volunteer for our local paper, where many of the portraits and captions are published each week. I feel that I am amplifying rather than interpreting what my community is experiencing during these historic times. My personal project continues to get me out of the office and has kept me connected to my community. Perhaps that’s the best benefit of all.
Mishler’s exhibition, Portrait Alaska, opened at the Anchorage Museum in May 2013 and ran through September 2013.
So, while income from my project has been an unexpected windfall, perhaps the single most exciting reward was a major museum exhibition. Portrait Alaska received a Rasmuson Foundation grant and opened to great fanfare at the Anchorage Museum in May of 2014. The accompanying book won a Gold Award from the Independent Publishers Association and continues to serve as a great promotional piece. Approximately 80% of the images in my exhibition and book were lifted directly from my portrait-a-day project.
Mishler’s exhibition, Calistogans, opened for one week at the Sofie Gallery in early March before being shut down by the statewide coronavirus lockdown.
The first week of March this year saw the opening of a 250 portrait exhibition at Sofie Gallery in my new home town, Calistoga, California. Although it opened and closed one week later due to the coronavirus, it has recently reopened. See the exhibit information below.
Sofie Contemporary Arts
1407 Lincoln Ave. Calistoga, CA 94515
(Mailing: PO Box 185, Calistoga, CA 94515)
Phone: 707-942-4231 (gallery) 707-331-4770 (Scott’s cell)
Jan Sofie, Gallery Director firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Sofie, Gallery Manager email@example.com
Hours: Wed. – Sun., 12:00 – 6:00 or by Arrangement