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From Assistant to Photographer: Michael Clinard's Professional Transition

By David Walker


Michael Clinard for Seattle Met Magazine.
© Michael Clinard
Early on, Clinard met with Benjamen Purvis, then design director of Seattle Met Magazine (now creative director at Men's Journal). That meeting lead to him shooting a story on people incorporating yoga into their everyday lives. 

 PDN: Did you plan a transition to shooting on your own as soon as you started assisting?

Michael Clinard: No, but it built to that. At some point I thought I could start doing this. I'm big on technique and the handicraft of [photography]. I wanted to learn it all from the ground up so I worked for other photographers.

PDN: Who were some the people you assisted?

MC: I started out with local guys—Jeff Corwin and Alex Hayden—who have been great mentors. I had a good reputation in town [Seattle] as an assistant, so I started getting calls from tons of people from out of town [when they came to do shoots in Seattle]: Misha Gravenor, Joao Canziani, Nigel Parry, Jeff Riedel, Amanda Marsalis, Chris Mueller, Corey Arnold.

PDN: Who did you learn most from about the business of photography?

MC: Jeff Corwin is a corporate shooter. When we got to a location, he was so business. He's not there to waste anyone's time. He asked pointed questions, so in five minutes, he determined where he would be, how much time he had, what the subject was like, what options he had. As I shoot more edit stuff, I find myself doing that, too.
    
Alex Hayden would chat with me about what to spend money on. I would be like, "I want this piece of gear, that piece of gear." He said, "Don't spend money on gear, spend it on self-promotion." He kept saying it, I didn't hear it, so I would buy gear and he kept asking, "When are you going to start self-promoting?" [Self-promotion] doesn't get results overnight. Alex showed me how important it was to start sooner rather than later, so when I got a couple of jobs under my belt, people would connect my work to my name and branding, and things would start coming together.

PDN: When and how did you start planning your transition?

MC: In late 2008, I saw [creative consultants] Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease give a talk about getting your work out there. I was inspired. I was already shooting a unique conceptual style that I developed and nurtured while assisting. I wanted to give myself a brand. In 2009, I started working with a designer to come up with a brand. I was still shooting stuff on side, and all the money I made assisting, I put right back into developing my own business—travel, production, and promotion.

PDN: What did your plan look like? What steps did you have to take?

MC: In the first part of 2010, I started working with Amanda Sosa Stone. We did a business plan for year one, year three, year five. I'm big on [leveraging] relationships, so we worked that into the plan.

PDN: So what specific steps did you take?

MC: I was already shooting in the direction I wanted to go in. Style-wise, my elevator pitch is that I shoot well-lit, quirky portraits and reportage. I had a lot of work I was proud of. The first thing I did with Amanda was go through all my photographs to see if there was anything I was overlooking. We re-edited my work. I hired a designer to create a new Web site. And I started thinking about getting a portfolio printed. My plan was to start showing the portfolio in early 2011, but I applied to the NYC Fotoworks portfolio reviews in 2010, and got in. I was going to New York for the first time in November 2010 so I needed to print my book really quick. Amanda said, "You can shop talk it to death but you just need to get it in front of people. It'll never be perfect." So I printed it and started showing it. People told me what they liked and didn't like, and that helped me understand what worked for me.

PDN: How did you get meetings with people?

MC: I'm big on my relationships. It's the people you know who give you work. My [prospective] client base was every single creative I'd worked with. I called them up said I'd love to shoot for you. I was usually the go-to [assistant for out-of-town shooters] in Seattle, so photo editors or creatives got to know me from production calls. I wasn't handing out business cards on the shoot [as an assistant]. I showed up, did my job, showed people I was the guy who could get things done. That's when my conversation with clients began, and when I called them up later [about work], they remembered who I was.

People I've worked with, I contact once a month by phone or e-mail. People I want to work with, I contact once every other month. I started a conversation with Zana Woods at Wired over a year ago. I was recently in San Francisco shooting job for Fortune, so the day before I went down I called her, and got my meeting with Wired. Getting in front of people is huge. It's about personality: They want to be sure you're not crazed, and if they send you on a job, you can handle it.

PDN: Did you quit assisting cold turkey when you started promoting yourself?

MC: I was still assisting in 2010 and Amanda told me I needed to take time off from being an assisting to work on this [transition.] I put off some meetings with her and she said, "You can't do this if we don't talk, and we can't do that if you're assisting."

2010 was really stressful. I had to work a lot to make the money I needed to do all [the self-promotion] things. When I went to New York in late, late 2010, I was still on hook for a couple assisting jobs. I used to assist Julian Dufort who used to assist Annie Leibovitz. He said, "You know Mike, you really need to cut the ties. You've got to call everyone in Seattle tomorrow and tell them you're done [with assisting.]" He also said I had to be willing to take on $30,000 in credit card debt. But I don't know. That's not how I work. I knew I couldn't make all those calls. I wanted to wean myself off assisting. So I started a systematic undoing.

PDN: How did you manage it financially between the time you stopped assisting and started getting your own jobs?

MC: That's still hard, and on my mind. When I was assisting, I was making $5,000- $8,000 per month. My idea was that as long as I could make that shooting, I'd be fine... By late 2010, I had accumulated a nut that allowed me to go to NY. I had saved all this money—for getting my book printed, for getting a new Web site. Everything extra [after meeting my living expenses] went into that savings account.

PDN: When and how did the jobs start coming?

MC: As soon as I got back from New York, I started shooting for a local magazine. The photo editor was Benjamin Purvis. I shot two projects for him, and then he went to Men's Journal. From there, I got ad work for Brooks Running Shoes. In the beginning of 2011 I shot this pretty big Mitsubishi job down in Portland, and pretty much earned back all the savings that I had spent.

I've been getting more national edit assignment work. There are ways I can make my nut. If I don't feel something's percolating, I send an e-mail to tell past clients what's going on. I fill gaps with local catalog work, and look books.

PDN: Do you think you could have made the transition without the help of a consultant?

MC: I think so, but I got there a lot quicker with someone to bounce things off of. I would have been beating my head against the wall. Amanda kind of gave me a road map, and I was able to implement the transition a lot quicker. She provided a structure that I wouldn't have thought up on my own.
 
PDN: Did you observe the transition of others, and if so, what did you learn?

MC: In 2009, when I started doing branding, I saw so many photographers trying to do that stuff [on their own], and fail miserably. You hire pros to do that. I'm not a Web designer, or a designer of promo cards. If you put your image on something that's poorly designed—I don't want that to be my first introduction to clients.

PDN: What advice do you have for photographers who are trying to transition?

MC: Learn how to talk to people as an assistant. Develop an e-mail conversation style. Start by making calls to photographers and studios you want to work for, and develop that conversational style. Develop it now because you’re going to need it when you start shooting, because you'll need to tell people about yourself. As an assistant, I learned phone etiquette. When I talk to someone on the phone I have a certain style. The more I did it, the better I got at it, and it got me jobs. I'm not calling them with a hard sell—"Got any work for me?"—I'm telling them who I am. When I leave a message, it's two quick sentences, in and out. Same with e-mail.

The other thing is, get yourself out there, and don't be upset if people tear your first book to shreds. Get your work in front of professionals, listen to what they have to say, and build on it.

Related Articles:

From Assistant to Photographer: Magdalena Wosinska’s Professional Transition
From Assistant to Photographer: Shaun Fenn's Professional Transition

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