Jacqueline Bovaird from Glasshouse Assignment raises this question in her latest email newsletter. She posed this to Jason Lau at Team One USA, Manuel Oprea at Adweek, her photographers Ryan Schude and Evan Kafka, and also asked me to weigh-in on the matter because Wonderful Machine has photographers in so many different locations. And it turns out to be a more complex issue than I thought.
Jacqueline’s emailer and blog excerpts my response, but she said that she’s interested in posting more of my reply at some point because she liked the depth of the discussion. In the meanwhile, here is my original, full response to her question:
Q: How does a photographer’s location affect their career?
I think a photographer can make almost any location work for their career. There are benefits to living in New York, New York or Austin, Texas, professionally and personally. I’ll let you decide what personally fits your lifestyle, and I’ll focus on the professional.
As for my background: I’ve enjoyed living in larger and smaller cities, having worked in creative fields in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, and now Philadelphia. And working for Wonderful Machine, I’ve seen that art buyers appreciate that we have photographers listed by location, in addition to specialty. Clients contact us to say how refreshing it is to find a solid photographer in smaller markets, because they’re often less familiar with talent in these cities.
We also feature international photographers, so what I talk about below applies to them in many ways. So when I mention “New York,” you can usually substitute it with “London.” The basic tenets of marketing, networking and professionalism should apply, no matter your location. Of course, each country has its challenges, so I’m focusing on the United States for ease of illustration.
And before I go further, I’m going under the assumption that we’re mostly discussing larger and smaller cities, and not with living on a farm in North Dakota, 10 hours from electricity. I would save that for retirement or when you’re so famous that clients will fly you by helicopter to anywhere you desire to do a shoot.
The exception to this are photographers whose location is more integral to their specialty. For example, there are action/adventure photographers like Tyler Stableford, who works out of Aspen partially because of the scenic backdrops required for his specialty.
I’m also assuming that a photographer has done their homework and researched the kind of clients that inhabit their city, or one they’re considering moving to. Agency Access and Adbase are a good start. Also, I know that the Philadelphia Business Journal has a “Book of Lists” which catalogues the top 50 or 100 companies in every industry imaginable in my city. If your town doesn’t offer such a resource, you can find this information for most cities on the internet these days.
In terms of location, I would say that a photographer has a better chance of getting work if they live in or within an hour or two of any city. Additionally, if you are willing to work as a local to the city, and not charge extravagant mileage to your clients, then you will have greater flexibility in how close you need to live to the city’s center.
And honestly, there are people living in Long Island, NY who are a further commute to a Manhattan shoot than some photographers driving there from Philadelphia. And I know some established photographers who will shoot an editorial assignment six hours away for the right project and compensation. You’d be surprised at how close Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC are.
Keep in mind, however, that some assignments can come last-minute. It’s for this reason that we recommend to our photographers that they list only the city that they’re headquartered out of. Every client knows that, for the right project, they can fly a photographer from Kalamazoo to Paris. But they also hire regional photographers who knows the culture of their city and can navigate it well in a tight spot. And who who won’t unexpectedly add a plane flight and car rental as list items on their invoice.
As for where the clients are, there’s no doubt that the bulk of the magazine and publishing world is headquartered in New York, for example. Same with the major ad agencies that have a strong presence, if not headquarters, here. And it’s (almost inarguably) the epicenter of our industry, both in terms of prestigious work and influence. But here’s the thing: New York clients need photographers to shoot all over the world!
On the “smaller” city side of things: most cities have some Fortune 500 corporation headquartered there, not to mention ad agencies, graphic design firms, universities, hospitals, and (at least) a city magazine or two.
In the case of the city/regional magazines, they often provide excellent portfolio opportunities for photographers, which can lead to recognition from the New York players. Texas Monthly is an influential regional mag that comes to mind. Plus, most New York magazines need to shoot a CEO or celebrity from Atlanta at some point.
As I also mentioned, there are plenty of award-winning agencies and boutique design shops in most markets (eg. Wieden + Kennedy’s headquarters are in Portland). And the corporations and institutions can provide steady annual report and other collateral work, too.
Also, working out of a smaller market can make you a big fish in a small pond and perhaps more visible to agencies in larger cities. Another consideration for you may be: if you’re financially and creatively happy living in a smaller city, do you really need to move to a larger city?
By the way, this is not meant to beat up on New York. On the contrary, some of the world’s most accomplished and influential photographers live there and other major cities. And emerging photographers might do well to assist them to learn from “the best.” Plus, it’s easier to run into one of BBDO’s creative directors at your friend’s party in SOHO than in it is in Sheboygan, WI (nothing against the place).
At the end of the day, I recommend trying to live where you wish and seek work with appropriate clients in your own backyard, nationally, and internationally, too. So go show them your portfolio!
12/23/09 Update: Jacqueline posted my entire response on Glasshouse’s blog. Thanks, Jacqueline!