Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009

E-mail: info@visionarywild.com    •    Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 5pm, EST).

Justin Black – Managing Director: 1-202-302-9030 • Email: justin@visionarywild.com

Sara Robb – Operations Assistant: sara@visionarywild.com

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Justin Black Interview with PhotographyTalk.com

In April 2015, Justin Black sat down with PhotographyTalk.com founder Alex Schult. Here’s the full interview.

Alex: Hi Justin, welcome to Photography Talk.

Justin: It’s a pleasure to be here, Alex.

Alex: I understand that 2015 marks your 20th year as a professional photographer. How does that feel?

Justin: Well, it’s been a wild ride, and I’m very fortunate to still be doing what I love.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

The power of the still image. It both communicates information and evokes emotion instantly, and it also invites inspection and interrogation over time. It allows us to look at the world in a way that we don’t directly experience. A photograph renders the fleeting moment eternal.

When I was in junior high school, I took a communications class called Media Arts. Among other things, we learned the basics of developing black & white film and making prints, which was magic to me. There’s still nothing quite like seeing an image emerge on a sheet of paper in the the glow of a darkroom safe light. I wish I had access to a traditional darkroom and the time it takes to use it, but I digress… After that, I became increasingly interested in photography and started devouring books and magazines on the subject and going to photography exhibits at the many art galleries in Washington, DC. At the same time, I was generally interested in art.

Early on, there were a few photographers whose work particularly got me excited about photography as an art form and as a career: Eliot Porter, André Kertész, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, and Jack Dykinga. I’ve since had the privilege of working and teaching with the last four of these.

Tell us about your first sale. 

You mean besides photographing a friend’s Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen? I don’t remember my very first photo sale after I started my career in 1995, but my first memorable photo license around that time was a picture of classic storefronts in downtown Mansfield, Ohio, that was used on Mastercard credit cards. That sale netted me about $7,000.

 Fast forward to today, you run a very successful photography business, tell us how that started.

Well, I guess you could say it was what I call “the upward spiral” – one experience leading to the next, to the next; one supporting the other, until everything comes into alignment. Over the last two decades, my work has included being a landscape, travel, and wildlife photographer, a contributor of photo-text packages to publications, a stock photo licensing specialist, image archive manager, gallery curator, photo workshops director, photo business general manager, book editor, and the executive director of a global conservation photography NGO. Over the years, I’ve developed a following for my editioned prints, done both commercial and editorial photography on assignment, and licensed my work for publication and advertising. One area I’ve found that gives me the tremendous satisfaction, however, is creating exceptional learning and travel experiences for other passionate photographers.

In late 2010, I left my position as executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers to create Visionary Wild, which is in some ways a continuation of the workshops program I rebuilt at Mountain Light Photography from 2002 to 2009, after the deaths of my friends Galen and Barbara Rowell, who perished in the crash of a chartered airplane. Of course, with Visionary Wild we’ve now gone way beyond what we were doing at Mountain Light, both in terms of international scope and quality.

What has been your proudest moment as a photographer?

That’s easy. Helping to save the pristine Flathead River Valley in southeast British Columbia from a massive mountain-top-removal coal mine that threatened to wreck the entire trans-border watershed. I collaborated with a great team of photographers on that project when I was at ILCP, and its very clear that our photos turned the tide in the conservation campaign to save the place.

Tell us about your book.

Both my photography and my writing have been published in several books, though I haven’t produced a monograph yet. I’ve edited and managed several photo book projects for Galen Rowell and the International League of Conservation Photographers. The ones I’m proudest of are Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (Sierra Club Books), and Freshwater: The Essence of Life (ILCP)

Tell us about time in your career where you failed at something and how did you pivot to overcome this? 

Back in 1995, I was trying to get a contract to have my work represented by Pictor, a UK-based stock photo agency that I worked for as a picture researcher. I was a naïve kid, but I guess I had enough passion and raw talent that their creative director, a jolly Italian guy named Alberto Sciama, decided to give me a chance. He gave me a few rolls of film and a simple assignment to go out and make some marketable images.

When I brought him the results, he patiently looked them over with a loupe at a light table, and then said in a lilting Italian accent, “Justin, you are a lovely boy, but this is crap.” I knew it too. I learned three important lessons that day. The first was to set high standards for my work and to always push myself to do better. The second was to shoot what I love, rather than what I think other people want me to shoot. The third is that well-informed, forthright feedback on one’s work is immensely valuable, especially when it isn’t what we want to hear.

Have you had an “I’ve made it moment”?

I’ve had a few, I guess. The first was when Alberto actually gave me a contract to shoot for Pictor. That was a gateway to a steady, livable income from my photography, though it would only be another six years before Pictor went belly up because they couldn’t adapt fast enough to the new digital paradigm in the stock photo industry.  In the bankruptcy chaos that followed, I lost most of the original film I had shot for them, so in the end it was a mixed blessing. Another high point was a few years later when some significant galleries started to exhibit my work. The most recent was when I realized that Visionary Wild was actually going to be a success.

How do you balance a demanding photography career and your family?

My wife, Lena, is the most wonderful, insightful, and supportive woman in the world, that’s how. Two years ago, our young son wasn’t very understanding of my travel schedule, but now, even at age five, he takes it in stride pretty well. I travel at least a third of the year, I miss them, and they miss me. It’s not a simple thing, but as you say, it’s about balance. When I’m home, I try to focus on family as much as I can.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the 21 year old you?

Make pictures for yourself, not for the market. In other words, be true to your own vision, interests, and passions. In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time and resources making images that were designed to be highly salable in the stock photography market. They did sell, but most of that early work is totally irrelevant to me now because it isn’t representative of what I have to say and what I want to do with my photography. Thematically, my work has gone in a very different direction.

I’m a big believer in the notion that artists and communicators ought to aspire to find a market for the work that is true to them, rather than tailoring their work to fit the demands of the market. It’s important to understand the market, but it’s become clear to me over the years that photographs with meaning and longevity arise from the photographer having something to say and a unique vision to share, not from cynically engineering images for maximum payback.

Of course, most young aspiring photographers need some serious advice with regard to the fundamentals of operating a business, valuing their work, copyright management, etc., but I am lucky to have had a pretty good education in those areas very early on.

What is the best photography business advice you have been given.

It’s really just good business advice in general: “Be your brand.” In other words, your professional identity will ultimately become whatever it really is, not what you assert it to be or what you wish it were. For your brand to be what you want it to be, you have to live it and be authentic. Be honest, be reliable, don’t make promises you can’t keep, always put in the hard work to do the best job you can, and value what you do.

Another bit of advice is to make five-year and ten-year business plans, know your cost of doing business, and to price your work in a way that positions you to meet your goals for your business and your personal life. Learn to negotiate in such a way that communicates the value of your work, and don’t compete on price at the expense of the viability of your business or your long-term goals. Be willing to say “no” and walk away from bad deals – you’d be surprised how often I’ve had clients call back to accept a price quote after initially saying that they can’t afford it.

If you want to own a house or put your child through college, you’re not going to do it by simply accepting whatever scraps lowballing clients want to pay you. Don’t believe the notion that you have to work for free to pay your dues. Rather than starting at the bottom and working your way up, figure out how you can effectively target and deliver a great value proposition at the higher end of the market. Build a base of clients who see the value in what you do, and don’t bother with the ones who can’t afford the fees you need to charge to be successful. The obvious flip side of this is that if you can’t pull off charging the fees you need to meet your goals, you’ll have to rethink your career choice. There is no shame in being a talented amateur photographer. For one thing, amateurs are free to make whatever photographs they like with no regard for any market or audience at all.

Oh, and diversify revenue sources so if one part of your market dries up, you can focus more on the others.

We live in a world of carbon copies, what advice can you give to those seeking to be unique and unlike others in a congested industry?

Simple, I’ll quote Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” It’s important for photographers to be honest with themselves about what their own genuine passions are. We all do our best work when we are photographing subjects and themes that are deeply important to us, and doing it in a way that feels right to us as individuals. I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience. You have to understand that I went to work for Galen back in 1999, it was a dream come true. I was 25 and he was one of my photographic idols. I experienced a little anxiety because I hadn’t yet climbed in the Himalaya or undertaken bold rock climbs of new routes in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada as Galen had done. I thought I would never catch up to his achievements. Gradually, I realized that while I admired Galen and his work, I wasn’t personally interested in photographing the adventure sports, mountaineering expeditions, and other types of adventure-oriented work that Galen had done over the course of his career. There was already a Galen Rowell, and I needed to be Justin Black.

Do you believe technology is making better photographers?

It depends on what you mean by that. For instance, I don’t think that technology has made the best photographers today better than André Kertész, Ernst Haas, Minor White, or Eliot Porter. A truly great photographer will always find a way to make the medium say what they want, and having something to say is the important thing. I do think that these days it’s easier to make more pictures at a higher standard of technical image quality, in part because technology has made the process easier and more forgiving, and in part because the internet provides incredible access to information about photographic technique.

When comes to seeing, composition, having a meaningful point of view or voice, however, the benefits of technology seem to be limited to the advances in communication and access to media. Via the internet, photographers can study more pictures and engage in more conversations about photography, art, and other media than they may have been able to in the past, but they ought to be choosy about the way they engage these resources. Arguing online over which camera brand is better or how much digital manipulation is acceptable doesn’t move the art forward. Since photography was invented, a gulf has always existed between those who are merely technicians on the one side, and those who use the medium to communicate in a meaningful and interesting way that contributes something new to human culture and understanding.

Of course, digital cameras and workflow are great tools for learning. The opportunity for quick feedback is wonderful, but one still needs to be able to thoughtfully analyze the work to learn from mistakes. This takes a certain visual vocabulary, to enable the photographer to understand what to look for, what works and what doesn’t. We try to teach this in our workshops.

What do you see photographers doing today, that if done differently tomorrow would improve their success?

If every photographer started demanding fees and contractual terms that enable them to operate a growing, sustainable business, and that support raising a family, buying a house, putting the kids through college, and a reasonable retirement, then you had better believe conditions and opportunities would improve significantly for photographers.  By and large, photographers undervalue their work. Too few…

• Develop and follow a business plan, much less one designed for success and growth.

• Determine a CDB (cost of doing business)

• Learn to negotiate terms and fees in a manner that is beneficial to them over the long term

• Walk away from bad deals.

• Charge appropriately for valuable rights that clients may hope to be given for no additional charge.

While I do occasionally donate my work and time for charitable causes I believe in, this is almost always in the context of a scenario where many other parties (other than photographers and artists) are likewise donating time, labor, materials, content, etc. If the project has a budget for things like advertising space, graphic designers, writers, editors, PR staff, development staff, travel, and the electric bill, I generally expect to be paid fairly also at rates that I set based on the needs of my business. The artist too often is the only party expected to donate or heavily discount their work and in the process diminish its value. In general, photographers ought to feel perfectly justified in charging fairly for value delivered, rights granted, and services rendered, even when working for charities doing important work.

Unfortunately, there are also an increasing number of photographers out there who don’t actually rely on sales of their photography for their livelihood, and who offer work for sale at unsustainable rates, primarily for the sake of tax write offs or the empty ego boost of referring to themselves as “professional photographers.” Most have never had their work vetted by professional editors or curators, and they typically never net a profit on their photographic activities. I don’t have anything at all against new photographers entering the market, but I do have a problem with undervaluing one’s work to make a sale at any cost, as the cumulative effect over time is to diminish opportunity even for the most talented and business-savvy photographers who do rely on photography for their livelihoods.

Many folks are trying to re-invent themselves as photographers.  Assuming you had camera, lens and lighting gear already.  If you had to start over and only have $500 budget to get your business started.  How would you spend that $500 budget?

If the person in question was mostly interested in trying to sell a little photography on the side but wasn’t relying on it as their primary source of income, I’d recommend they spend the money on a website. If they hope to change careers to photography as a full-time profession, I would recommend that they spend the money on a meeting with an expert business consultant who would explain that the proposed business is insufficiently capitalized to be successful. I’m serious about this. To seriously undertake photography as a competitive full-time business takes some financial resources and a well-thought-out business plan.

What are some resources that you use regularly for your photography business? 

These days, my most important resource is communication with my network of professional peers and clients. It’s a big ongoing dialog and we share a lot of information. Besides that, I use Fotoquote, the Editorial Photographers’ forum, and Negotiating Stock Photo Prices a lot.

What are some ‘must have’ items in your camera bag?

My Nikon D810 cameras, the 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm PC-E Nikkor tilt-shift lenses, and 70-200mm f/4 Nikkor zoom.  This combination has not only replaced the 4×5 film outfit I used to use for my landscape work, but – using stitching techniques – it has exceeded it. For wildlife, I use Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 lenses plus 1.4x teleconverter. My macro lens is the wonderful Nikkor 200mm f/4. I also sometimes carry 18-35mm and 24-70mm Nikkor zooms. I’ve recently acquired a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Series lens, which is simply superb and a lot of fun.

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what is the ONE photography book you would want to have with you? 

Diary of Light: 1912-1985, by André Kertész. I could look at his compositions over and over forever and always extract new insights and meaning from them.

Here’s a fun one:  Life has been found on another planet and none-other than Sir Richard Branson is piloting Virgin Galatica and has put together a team of engineers, scientist, and doctors and has asked you to come along to document the journey.  The challenge is you can only bring two lenses and one camera body and two other items.  What would you bring? 

I’d probably bring a Nikon D810, 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor for spacecraft interiors (assuming cramped quarters), 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor for general purpose photography, a powerful microscope, and a Nikon F-mount to microscope adapter. After all, life on Earth consisted entirely of single-celled organisms for 2.6 billion years until multicellular life evolved one billion years ago, so odds are that the aliens would be invisible to the naked eye.

What action steps can you recommend our listeners take immediately that will ultimately help them become a better photographer?

There are a few things I would recommend. First, I like to point out that photography is a practice. We take it for granted that a musical prodigy like Yo-Yo Ma still plays scales and practices on his cello frequently, and that top athletes like LeBron James train obsessively to stay at the top of their game. Photography is no different. Eliot Porter once said, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

I also suggest spending a little time every day looking thoughtfully and critically at two-dimensional art, especially cohesive bodies of work like a particular exhibit, project, or photo essay. Photographs, paintings, drawings, abstracts… anything. Why does it work? Where does it fail? How could it be better? Does it sacrifice longevity and deeper meaning in favor of immediate eye-grabbing impact? Think about point of view and perspective. Think about quality and source of light, line, form, texture, color contrasts, etc. It’s all about building visual vocabulary and familiarity so you can make good creative judgments when it matters.

Then, find other photographers with whom you can share your work and get meaningful feedback from. Make sure that everyone is willing engage in thoughtful and honest constructive critique. I find that doing this in person is far more productive and useful than doing it on an online forum if you can.

Finally, this is a self-serving, but if I am to answer the question honestly based on my observations and experience, I’d say take a Visionary Wild workshop. I’m serious. Our first-time workshop participants are consistently amazed at what an eye-opening experience our programs are. They often tell me that they learned more at our workshop than from any other source. Our workshops and trips generally include 50% to 100% repeat clients – folks keep coming back, time and time again. I have some clients who have taken over a dozen workshops with me, and their work has become very strong indeed over that time.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Justin.

Thank you, Alex! It’s been a pleasure.

Comments

Leave a Reply