This week’s Questions with a Pro features Andy Batt.
Andy is a Portland, Oregon based photographer with his work focused in advertising and marketing. Andy enjoys both large and small scale shoots and is known for his flexibility and adaptability. He has a very interesting philosophy regarding creativity maintenance that stems from John Cleese, which he outlines below. He also discusses how the photography industry has changed throughout his career, as well as his current personal project, Bad Choices.
We asked: How have the subjects of your photography changed over the years? Why did this shift occur?
Andy said: I don’t often shoot the same thing twice. Somebody asked me recently “what are you famous for?” My answer is “doing things differently;” striving to make each project have its own language and merit. I put great value in that change, in that ability to be flexible. There’s consistency and stylistic identities that cut across all my work, and I’m always shooting with people. The shots themselves range from location editorial portraits of a chef, to in-studio portraits of a sitting senator, from action shots of an NFL player, to high-concept tableaux shots of comedians.
I’m known for photographing people, but when I opened my studio in 1997, I was also shooting still life work. Some of it was artistic, but the majority was standard “products on white” work. I’d previously worked for some amazing photographers who taught me the skills needed to light products and make them look great—these were the client’s products after all, and I had a responsibility to them. I stopped doing still life work when the emphasis shifted from quality to quantity; when clients began demanding that I move faster, shoot more shots in a day (for the same price) and cared less and less about if their products looked great. Ultimately, that was a good push that put me on the path of craft and creativity—it helped me understand where I needed to be as an artist, and what skills I needed to develop. I shifted 100% into photographing people, exploring various niches and clients, and found ways to get paid for my vision and craft.
I’m always learning, investigating, and wandering around—as much as I try to do just one thing, to become “famous” for a single idea, I find that I can’t. There are just too many interesting ideas, methods & people that I want to explore, and each one deserves its own interpretations.
We asked: Given your nearly lifelong love for photography, please describe what has kept you excited and engaged for all these years.
Andy said: Play. There’s a fantastic video clip of John Cleese that I refer to all the time, everyone should go watch it. He talks about (and I’m going to paraphrase this, so go watch the original) two states of mind for being a creative person—the ‘open’ or play state, and the ‘closed’ or work state. Both are essential—play allows your mind to grow, ideas to pop into existence, and lets you chase thoughts to illogical conclusions—it’s an excellent tool to quiet the “inner critic” voice every artist knows intimately. The closed state allows you to put those ideas to work—to take that creative impulse and make it into something tangible. In connecting this to business—if all you ever do is take the same shots over and over again, you’re going to get dull. Your craft will suffer. The antidote is fortunately very cheap and accessible (not necessarily easy though): play. I play by connecting with comedians about short films. I play by wandering off into the world to create landscape photographs. I play by trying to have big ideas that I frantically scratch into a notebook. The work comes after that, when I need to put some momentum behind one (or all) of these things, but it’s the play that is the fuel that drives it forward. When I’m feeling stuck, it’s usually because I have not allowed myself to have real time to play.
We asked: How has the industry changed during your career? Have you had to change any of your business strategies to adapt to these changes?
Andy said: There’s no constant to this business. It’s always been changing and evolving. If you take a broad look back at our history, we’ve gone from being literal wizards guarding alchemical secrets that allow someone’s soul to become fixed into a glass plate, to having AI running on desktop computers able to create realistic images of people, places and things.
Right now, we’re in a state of upheaval. My world is based in advertising and marketing—my work has ranged everywhere from magazine editorial, to client direct creating libraries for various fortune 500 companies, to one-off ad campaigns working with some of the largest agencies in NY.
There are sweeping changes happening—it’s a combination of factors that have created a ‘perfect storm’ in the photo business. Social media is where corporations want to put their money, largely because their demographics tell them to—there’s less readership of print magazines and newspapers which results in fewer publications, which results in less advertising, which puts less money into this publications, which puts the remaining ones at great risk. With less ad dollars, there’s less editorial content, and less money available for that content—i.e., paying the photographer a realistic amount of money to do their job.
If the demographics are in social media, then the marketing dollars are going there too. The client base has largely decided to spend its money buying influence, vs. ad campaigns. When they do reach out for an actual campaign, most often they want to simply imitate what’s happening in social media, so they reach for crowd sourced imagery (i.e. free or cheap) or hire professionals to imitate that look with drastically reduced budgets. Since the budgets are lower, many agencies/design firms/marketing houses have created in-house positions and studios—a salaried photographer that is work-for-hire*, without any need for licensing images, and since clients are asking for emulation of crowd sourced work, there’s not a great need for high end image work. Still life work—at least the on-white product work that fuels the online sales world—has become the output of photo-farms: places with multiple tiny studios with fixed lights and taped down cameras. (*to clarify: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an in-house salaried position—good on you if you’ve been hired and negotiated a solid paycheck)
Stock photography has largely become a joke—from the photographer’s perspective. The giants of the industry are more than content to sell large quantities of images for tiny, tiny amounts of money, or to give it away for free. Clients know all about stock photos, and how much they cost, and often force their in-house marketing teams and/or outside agencies to use stock, or to at least use it as a price setting technique for hiring photographers.
How do we combat this slump? What photographers provide is quality and craft. We can offer vision and creativity. If we are to survive, we all have to climb up on the pendulum and help it swing back to the side that appreciates and wants to pay for our skills. We need to develop our niches, create access and relationships to people/places/things that have value, and encourage & mentor other/newer photographers to understand their value and to develop their craft.
We asked: How do you go about preparing for a large scale shoot with a big crew? How does this routine differ from preparing for a smaller shoot?
Andy said: I really love all kinds of photography work—from solo camera work wandering the desert with a camera and a tripod, to creating intimate portraits with just an assistant and a stylist, but what I truly love is PRODUCTION. I love putting my skills to the test, working with our in-house producer, directing a huge crew, assembling a truck full of gear, developing a complicated lighting map. Pre-lights are my jam—having all that gear in motion, with crew running to build & light something beautiful and amazing—it’s an adrenaline high.
What makes it different? Scale and experience.
At the technical heart of a big production, it’s using the same techniques and gear—the difference comes in knowing how to effectively plan and deploy them. If you’ve never lit a large scene before, it’s worlds different in application than a softbox portrait. A 20×20 silk is really just a giant diffusion panel, but if you’ve never set one up, it’s going to take you down (don’t ask me how I know).
It’s knowing that you have to bring all the toys with you that you might need, but at the same time not wasting money by renting a bunch of stuff that will never leave the truck. My hope is to always deploy about 80% of what I bring—that 20% is my backup plan for unexpected changes to the creative, or fixing unforeseen problems.
Even the logistics of a big production shoot are different—like parking. One photographer with an assistant showing up in a SUV, and a couple of cases? That doesn’t usually require any planning. If you add a cube truck full of wardrobe, a grip truck, a caterer that’s going to need space to setup/drop off, all the talent that’s arriving at different times of the day, crew & clients showing up in individual cars—suddenly parking becomes a complicated task that requires planning and having someone on site to direct it all. Parking means renting a driveway from a neighbor, a parking lot down the street, negotiating another spot from the homeowner—you get the idea.
Working with a big crew is different. We run a very friendly set—but there is structure to it. I have key people in each department that I can rely on to coordinate with their team and get things done quickly and safely. If you try to run a big production with too few crew members, you might save a few dollars on the budget, but you’ll be compromising the efficiency, flexibility, speed, and maybe even the safety of the production. As tempting as it is for me to just “run over there and change the light” myself, it’s not efficient, that’s really the subtext of any large production—being efficient. Having the right amount of everything, from parking to lights to crew, that allows me to concentrate on what I’m really there to do; telling a story with the images.
We asked: Please describe a few of your current personal projects. How do you go about finding inspiration for these projects?
Andy said: I’ve been working on a long-term project that’s equal parts play + work, and built to accommodate my internal drive to keep changing. It’s called Bad Choices: it’s a post-apocalyptic narrative that encompasses writing, art direction, character development, graphic novels, TV scripts, and, of course, photography. It’s all self-directed, built out of little ideas that have been bouncing around in my head. It’s hard work—there’s definitely play, like figuring out the backstory of a costume detail with my costume designer, but there’s so much hard work involved in forcing myself to sit down and write. And then to come back to the writing and make it better, and then to take that writing and use it to evolve a character, and figure out what that character looks like, what makes them tick. If you’re interested, please check out my Patreon page.
The hardest part is also the best part: it’s all coming out of my head. These are my stories, my ideas, my concepts—but when I get stuck, so does the project. I’ve been smart enough to surround myself with amazingly talented people that have had pivotal roles in bringing this project to realization—especially my business partner, wife and kick-ass producer Therese (shout out to @theaskaproducer). She’s seen the highs and lows of this project and has been there to support me or give me a shove, whatever is needed most. She’s cool like that.
The inspiration part is tricky business. If I try to actually find inspiration, if I go hunting for it, it’s a snipe never to be caught, always just out of eyeshot. Inspiration, for me, is the cobbling together of little things: observations, quotes, articles, music, art, science. It’s when the right collage of odd things clocks together like a piece of a much bigger puzzle. I get a little ‘aha’ moment out of that, a hunch that I’m on track.
If inspiration comes from anywhere, it’s from the state of play that John Cleese talks about—if I can quiet my inner critic and allow myself the freedom to think openly, inspiration might occasionally sneak up and bonk me on the head. There’s a quote from Chuck Close that has stuck with me for years: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The “get to work” part, for me, is a need to have forward momentum—if I can just get a rough draft, or terrible sketch, or a dumb idea down on the page, I can improve upon that. If I’m staring at a blank page, nothing will ever happen.