The past twenty years have been good ones for photographer Andy Anderson. After retiring from a career in the US Air Force he was made the first staff photographer at Men’s Journal. He’s been busy ever since, shooting constantly for top magazines and ad agencies, working around the globe like an over-caffeinated jet pilot.
His success stems from an understated approach to image-making. He doesn’t use a lot of equipment. He doesn’t rely on the coolest new Photoshop trick. His images are quietly beautiful, like a pleasant dream. He also has a knack for doing business.
Anderson has become known not just for creating images but also for selling them. He’s created a bespoke stock site allowing him to license images directly to clients and keep one hundred percent of the profits. It’s something many photographers fantasize about doing. Anderson did it, and he did it well.
In our interview Anderson starts off discussing a job he wasn’t favored for and had to fight to get. He later talks all about starting his own stock site, his marketing techniques and his approach to image-making.
Seckler: Let’s start by talking about the series of images you did for the GoRVing campaign.
Anderson: It was an exciting shoot that took me and a crew of ten on a trailblazing excursion of the west. Over two weeks we traveled 3000 miles in and around Yosemite National Park to find the perfect backdrops for each image.
Seckler: Sounds like a dream job, how did you land it?
Anderson: Jimmy Bonner from The Richards Group, I’ve known probably 20 years, wanted me to work on his project, however, it was an internal struggle because the executive creative director didn’t see that I could pull this off in my book. He didn’t want me to have the job.
Anderson: He didn’t see a lot of vehicles [in my portfolio]. Jimmy knew I was mainly a location and people photographer, and these were just landscapes with people in them. He knew I could pull it off, but the executive creative director couldn’t make the leap intellectually. We had to put a presentation together to get it sold. Eventually it was a total success, but it was interesting in the beginning.
Seckler: So the executive creative director was basically forced to go along?
Seckler: Did that create tension between you and the creative director?
Anderson: If the project wasn’t a success, there are a lot of things that could come into play. The art director could lose his job, they could lose the client…so it’s a trust issue.
Seckler: How did you execute the shoot?
Anderson: We had to shoot at various locations. The scouting took about two weeks. Once the scouting was done, we had to permit them. We shot in two or three different states, so it was quite an ordeal. Some of the locations we could not put RVs in. We had to shoot plates of the landscape and then put them in Photoshop. We had to bracket shots. In the Sequoias, those vehicles were shot in and out of set within a hundred yards from where that location was. We had to shoot it simultaneously and in the same direction against the light, so that was the challenge. The shots were all taken on a Linhof Technikardan 45S using various lenses on 4×5 film using natural lighting except some strobes and reflective boards to light the RVs.
Seckler: Have you worked with this client again since then?
Anderson: Absolutely. A lot.
Seckler: Have you worked with the same creative director?
Seckler: So you guys have a good working relationship now.
Anderson: We had a good working relationship before. He didn’t say my work wasn’t great; he just didn’t think I could pull it off because I didn’t have it in my book. Many people in this industry are safe. If they don’t see it, they think you can’t do it.
Seckler: You’ve been in the industry for how long now, about 20 years?
Anderson: When I was a firefighter in the Air Force, I was given a contract to be the first staff photographer at Men’s Journal. It was myself and Mark Seliger. That’s what really got me started. Then I retired from the military at the age of 39 in 1999. That’s really when my career took off.
Seckler: What happened?
Anderson: I got an agent. I had some momentum built from being in Men’s Journal. Then I started getting some accounts, great campaign work. I’ve been shooting for about 20 years, but professionally, I’ve been full-time for about 12.
Seckler: Tell me more about how you got your start.
Anderson: I was a journalism major in college. I thought I wanted to be a writer. I tried that for about a year. It didn’t work out. My dad was a pilot in the Air Force, so I thought, let me go in the military and find out what I want to do. I got a camera, started taking pictures, and immediately was like, ‘Oh, I can tell a story with a camera without having to sit and write it down.’ It was a great transformation for me to be able to do that. I started shooting a lot of pictures on my own, shooting for Outside, Esquire magazine, Esquire Sportsman. I made a great relationship with an editor there, Cary MacDonald, and long story short, he left Esquire Sportsman and went to Men’s Journal. That’s when he brought me on board as a staff photographer.
Seckler: What’s it been like for you to witness the transformation in advertising and editorial photography over the past ten plus years?
Anderson: The biggest challenge was the digital transformation. It’s been a double-edged sword. It’s been good because people can see it quicker, but photo editors have become too reliant on the fact that you can turn this stuff around so quickly. Some of the work suffers because of that. I’ve had the opportunity to work for good photo editors in magazines, and they allowed me to shoot the way I wanted to shoot, knowing that on the back end there’s a process that has to happen, scanning the film, retouching it, and getting it out.
Seckler: Beyond technical elements, how has the business changed for photographers?
Anderson: For a lot of photographers their work becomes very homogenized. The people I really admire are [photographer like] Dan Winters and Kurt Marcus, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts — guys who marched to their own drum a little bit. I don’t think they care about where the industry’s doing. They’ve got their own vision. A lot of photographers who live in the same city, they’ll say, ‘Well I’m going to do what this guy’s doing because this guy’s successful.’ So the work becomes very similar, and there’s no voice. There’s no personal vision.
I think photographers need to start doing is work on their own personal projects. Art directors, creative directors and photo editors, they want to see what you do when you’re not getting paid. I’ve had the luxury of being able to live out west in a small town, not surrounded by any photographers, so my vision comes from my own experiences. The other thing is photography budgets have gotten smaller, so people are working for less money.
Seckler: How would you describe your work?
Anderson: I try to keep the work somewhat honest.
Seckler: What do you mean by that?
Anderson: I like to shoot things that are…not Americana, because that’s a little clichéd, but things that are diminishing in our country. That’s where I started. But I don’t like doing these overly-produced projects. I just go out and shoot.
Seckler: What personal work specifically has been most successful in getting you commissioned work?
Anderson: The Iceland series, the Sideshow series, the Matador series. I worked a project for Texas Tourism, and they had mentioned [the Iceland series] explicitly. And that jockey series, where they’re all covered with mud? I literally shot all those portraits in about 20 minutes, right as the jockeys were coming off the racetrack. That got a lot of attention. I got a portrait series for a pharmaceutical company.
Seckler: Where did that idea come from?
Anderson: It’s something I always wanted to photograph. So I told my assistant, load up and go down to the racetracks and see what’s going on.
Seckler: Is that how it is with a lot of your personal work, responding to what stimulates you visually and just making it happen?
Anderson: To be a photographer, you have to stay curious… not only visually but spiritually.
Seckler: You’re one of a few photographers who has taken your stock archive private and had successful results…tell me how you made this happen.
Anderson: I started seeing that photographers were assuming all the risk but gaining none of the benefit. That doesn’t make any sense to me. And you don’t really have any control where [the images are] put. It was a considerable amount of money to put the stock site up, but it’s paid off. It was a great investment for me. It was my way of taking the control out of these stock agencies and putting it in my own hands
Seckler: When did the stock site go up?
Anderson: About six years ago.
Seckler: I’m sure you had to have a completely customized site. It must have been pretty expensive.
Anderson: I did, [it cost] $30,000.
Seckler: Do you handle the stock sales in-house?
Anderson: We do everything in-house. It’s very simple. Once the images are loaded onto the site, we have a master file where these images are coded next to it. My studio manager loads it into the site, we keyword them, and it’s pretty much plug and play.
Seckler: How did you come up with your fees?
Anderson: So many times you can’t believe it, they’ll come in and say, ‘This is what I can get from Corbis.’ Well, I’m not Corbis. There’s a value in a private photographer when you can go into their private collection, and there should be somewhat of a premium to that. This business is so much about relationships. It’s the 80-20 rule: 80 percent of your business for 20 percent of your clients.
Seckler: Do you think you would have a successful stock site without your 20 years of experience?
Anderson: No. I needed to build my name, my client base, and reputation. I’d been in the business for a while. People knew me as a source, a service, so they came to me, and then I built the site. It evolved from there.
Seckler: Tell me about the profitability of your site, if you can.
Anderson: I’m probably making four times what I was making [at an agency]. There are no permissions given out, so I essentially pocket all the money myself. So much is just building relationships with clients. Sometimes they have a lot of money, but it’s not so much about the money as controlling where your images are going to be. Revenue streams are great, but you know where your images are going and have control of them. There’s a premium to that. I don’t have everything for everybody, and I don’t want to be that.
Seckler: Do you ever shoot stuff for your stock site?
Anderson: Rarely. Sometimes I will, but I don’t want to become stock-y. I want to try and keep it a little loose, and whatever falls out of some of my shoots I just throw on there.
Seckler: A lot of your images have a certain look to them, are you big on Photoshop?
Anderson: I have a full-time retoucher. I think anybody can composite. Some people have gotten carried away about compositing. Some photographers put 30 images in one shot. Come on, are you serious? But I think what really separates these photographers from other photographers is how you treat color. Color treatment is a big part of what I do. I love being able to treat color in different ways.
Seckler: That’s what I see as a theme in your work, these nuanced detailed color palates. Do you want to talk about how you work with color, how you see color?
Anderson: I think the biggest thing photographers need to do is quit looking at photo books. Look at paintings. Get inspired.
Seckler: With your full-time retoucher, do you give a lot of direction?
Anderson: I don’t like giving too much creative direction in the beginning. Letting people be creative on their own is a freedom. I want them to feel like they’re part of the process. So I let them come up with something first, and that’s when we start getting into the meat of it. That’s when we’ll sit down, go through things, and come up with some variances.
Seckler: Tell me about casting and dealing with talent on set. You have a wide range of emotions you get out of your subjects.
Anderson: I try to make friends with them. Their stories are equally as important as how they look. I just love being around people. And hopefully they can feel at ease. It’s kind of an interview with a camera.
Seckler: Do you shoot very loosely? Are you moving around a lot with talent?
Anderson: Sometimes I have a vision in my mind. I’ll stay close to that because I know it’s what I want to do. It’s the mistakes that I like. I’ll sit and talk to them before I even pull out a camera.
Seckler: Tell me about your marketing.
Anderson: I do direct mail. I advertise in the source books. Winning awards in the award books is a pretty big deal. You have to do that. If you’re not in the award shows, it doesn’t mean your work is no good, but in this industry, if you haven’t been in the award shows, then you haven’t been validated by the creative community. But here’s the thing in our industry: there are art directors coming into the business all the time. They don’t know about me, they don’t know about you, and they don’t know about these other people. So if you’re not staying top of mind, in a professional element in a more key way, then you’re going to go by the sideline. McDonald’s advertises all the time, and they’re a household name. Why would they do that? You can’t be in this business and hope to make money from it if you’re not going to advertise on the other end.
Seckler: Do find that the full-page ads you do in Archive ever have a direct impact on your business or is it just keeping the name out there?
Anderson: There’s some credence to where the venue is, which venue it is, and what time of year it is. Being in the photo annual and things like that is fine, but I think the other part of that is it’s a positioning tool. I do believe that you have to position yourself a certain way. You have to let people know you’re out there and show them work all the time. And you have to be consistent with it. You can’t just do it one or two times and assume it’s going to get you work because you put this one ad up. That’s ridiculous to even think that. You need to be in it for the long haul.
Seckler: What about email promotion?
Anderson: Not so much. Sometimes I do it. I just think photo editors and art directors get so inundated with that stuff that it’s a pain in the ass for them.
Seckler: Have you jumped on the bandwagon of shooting video?
Anderson: An assistant that I’m working with – again, it gets back to this whole homogenization of work — he’s a guy who’s a print photographer, trying to get his business started. He sees the other photographers in town doing videos, and he feels like he needs to do video. I said, ‘Dude, figure out print before you go to video. Get a print job. If you haven’t got one print job, why would you put video on there?’
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Sarah Lynn Knowles
This piece was originally published 5/1/11 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.