Professional & Academic Perspectives of Photography
Bruce Blank was the managing director of the American Society of Media Photographers Foundation until 2001 and a commercial photographer and studio owner for more than 18 years. With AMSP for the last eight years, Mr. Blank now focuses his business skills and industry knowledge as a vocal advocate for professional photographers.
Mr. Blank attended the Rochester Institute of Technology before embarking on his studio career, during which time he didn't have "the luxury of specializing" - although he did considerable work for the computer and medical industries. During his career as a commercial photographer, he has also worked for Johnson & Johnson, Ford, IBM and the Beach Boys.
Although he is himself a formally-educated photographer, Mr. Blank emphasizes the importance of business skills to success in the field of photography.
Bruce Blank and His Career
Tell us about your career. How did you discover you had a talent for photography?
In high School I was considering either architecture or commercial art. After a summer as an intern with an architect, I discovered that architecture wasn't about designing million-dollar houses all day - you had to deal with plumbers, electricians and building inspectors. Then, after spending half of my sophomore year as an 'art major', one day my art teacher sat me down and explained that I had an excellent sense of design, but I couldn't draw my way out of a wet paper bag! The next day, I purchased my first camera.
How did your career unfold? How did you break into the field of photography, and how did you advance to where you are today?
I majored in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, so the career choice was made as soon as the first tuition check was cashed. Upon leaving RIT (never graduated; the tuition checks dried up before the course of study was completed!), I landed a job with a printing company doing graphic arts work. Next was a job as an assistant for a photographer and after spending more than two years in the darkroom and doing only a very few shooting assignments, I decided to strike out on my own. Borrowing what seemed like a gazillion dollars, I opened my studio and began searching for clients. Being located 25 miles west of Philadelphia, I didn't really have the luxury of specializing and, in more than 18 years, there isn't much I have NOT photographed.
What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?
I enjoy the opportunity to creatively solve problems. I wouldn't trade being my own boss for anything and, for some strange reason, I really enjoy the business side of the profession.
What was your greatest success and biggest setback?
I guess my biggest success was just surviving as long as I have.
The biggest setback was loosing a client that became "too important" to my bottom line (as in putting too many eggs in one basket...). Another important lesson I learned is that it is the "PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS" and both words have to be equally important.
You owned your own commercial photography studio for 18 years. What kind of photography did you do? What were some of your favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?
In that time I did assignments for many of the names you read about in the financial news: Johnson & Johnson, Ford, GM, etc. I did a lot of shooting for the medical and computer industries and a fair amount of really nuts and bolts industrial work - steel industry, chemicals, etc. I can't really think about a favorite project, but I suppose a week in the Virgin Islands for IBM and a weekend partying with the Beach Boys could be considered favorites.
You're now Managing Director for the American Society of Media Photographers. How different is this for you? Do you still work in your photography studio?
I really love the opportunity ASMP has given me to help photographers. I've always said that my biggest asset was my problem-solving ability. The business has changed almost completely since 1975 when I opened my studio - and not necessarily for the best. Price seems to have become more important than quality too often, and the business has become 100 times more competitive. I still shoot some, but it's more because I want to, not because I need to to pay the mortgage. Now, I selectively accept the assignments I think are right for me and that can fit into my M-F, 9-5 ASMP schedule.
The Actual Work
Describe a typical day of work for you as a commercial photographer.
Any typical day is spent more on the business side than the shooting side. I'd guess the average photographer only shoots about two days a week - and that might be a generous estimate. Any photographer's day would be defined by the nature of his or her business - advertising is different from fashion, which is very different from architecture, etc.
What are some of the professional organizations for photographers?
American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), Advertising Photographers of America (APA), Professional Photographers of America (PPofA) are the main organizations - all of which have student memberships.
Is it important to collaborate with your photographer colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?
Photographers tend to exist as if they were islands - not having much contact with the other "islands." It is extremely important for photographers to communicate with one another. Membership in professional organizations is a very good way to find others who face the same problems as you do every day and to be able to network. It's very valuable to be able to share experiences, ask for advice and collaborate on solving problems.
What are some common myths about photographers?
The biggest myth is that this is a very glamorous career. The average photographer is NOT surrounded by semi-naked beautiful people most days while shooting on a beach in Tahiti. This happens, but only to one half of one percent of the working photographers in the country. Commercial photographers sometimes charge thousands of dollars for a day of their time which sounds like they would make millions until you calculate that they may only shoot 1-2 days a month at those rates. I'd guess that the average photographer takes home somewhere between $20-40,000 a year. A few make more, considerably more, and a few make less.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about your photography education?
I mentioned my photographic education earlier. I wish I had concentrated more on business courses and liberal arts - instead, I concentrated on photography which didn't prepare me for everything else in life.
If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for photography and why?
Going to school is the 'fast track' to much of the technical side of the business. Also, college courses in business, languages, etc. are more important than most people think. Who wants to be a great photographer who can't hold up their end of an intelligent conversation? A great photographer who I know once said, when asked that question, "Learn photography, then study everything else!"
How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for photography?
Composition, aesthetics, design are the hard parts and maybe something that cannot be taught. Technology will take care of technology.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school for photography?
Students considering a career in photography should download a brochure titled "Choosing a Photography School" from the ASMP Foundation section of the ASMP web site (www.asmp.org)
What types of majors can one graduate with that will lead to a career in photography?
Photographers come from every field. Obviously, majoring in photography is the fast track, but I know very successful photographers who have studied business, finance, architecture, etc.
Job Information & Advice
What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in photography? What are the best ways to get a job in the field?
I'd guess the first step after graduating would be assisting. Freelance assistants have the luxury of working on an architectural shoot one day, a fashion shoot on another, and wrapping the week up assisting a photographer who is shooting an annual report for a corporate client. This option affords tons of experience in many different specialties and the opportunity to meet many different people. Also, it's a great way to learn the business side and DO the photo stuff first hand.
What is the average salary for photographers in the US? What are people at the top of the profession paid?
At the low end, I'd guess $20,000 or less. At the other end, there are a few photographers who easily make mid-six figures (hundreds of thousands!), but this is the exception rather than the rule. I'd estimate the average photographer making $30-60,000 per year.
How is the job market now for the photography industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?
How can anyone accurately predict the future? Now, the industry is competitive to the point that only the strong, talented photographer / business persons will survive.
What are some of the trends that you see in the field of photography which could help students plan for the future?
Computers, digital, PhotoShop, web, etc.....
How is digital photography affecting the industry? Will traditional photography ever become obsolete?
Today, everything that's printed is digitized at some point in the process. Digital capture is growing rapidly, but it will be a long time before film is the exception rather than the rule.