Photographers: Push Your Art Directors

Hopefully you recall the brilliant Subservient Chicken site from way back. You type in a command and the chicken executes it. Funny shiznit, right? But how bored do you get how fast?

Me? I used to be a sucker. Back in the day, I’d linger at that site for a 3 or 4 minutes. Today? I’d get bored in five seconds.


Unless after every command I issued the chicken, he did what I asked and then added something of his own. Something totally exceptional and unexpected. Like a backflip. Or the worm, or a karate chop to the camera, or better yet, he produced a chocolate cake.

And you know what? In my experience, the art director, creative director, the photo editor people–whoever are that people that hire you to create pictures–are exactly the same. If you continue to deliver the expected and nothing new, they get bored. Sure they’re safe in part – it’s why they have a job – but they’re perhaps a little bored. And they might be bored by you. And in the creative world, boredom equals death.

For the first three quarters of my somewhat short career in the business of professional pictures, I was the worst offender. Client said “that looks great!” I called it a wrap, tossed my camera to my assistant with a point of flair just like you’d find on a button on the suspenders of a waiter at TGI Fridays. Ugh. For years, I thought my job was done when the client was happy. But now…[click the ‘continue reading’ link below…]

…now it’s when the client says she’s happy that I really start to work hard. That’s the starting point.

Look here. You’ve got to realize–and I get sick to my stomach every day when I listen to people who don’t get this–that you are getting hired by people for your creative vision and your ability to execute. You’re a professional. You’re not a monkey with a trigger finger and a D90. If you’re getting hired, you have vision. Period. And you’ve got to trust that vision and better yet, you’ve got to put it to use.

A vast majority of the ADs, CDs, PEs, want nothing more than to be associated with making exceptional work. But like most photographers I know (myself included for years and years in my past) the people who hire you are also driven by fear and the false belief that good commercial or editorial art meets baseline objectives (this color, this composition, this expression). Everyone on set is protecting their mortgages. Well, I’m here to tell you that that’s, in large part, crap. And it is crap that happens to be is in a self-perpetuating cycle, unless you choose to smash it. Good art meets baseline objectives, but then kicks them on their head, walks all over them, lights some of ‘em on fire and finds a new solution that wasn’t even in the creative brief. Call it magic? I don’t care what you want to call it. But once you get the “client happy” picture in the can (and never run amok without getting that “happy” shot in the can…NEVER without it, because remember the mortgages…) that’s when you should push hard. Turn the concept on its head. Ask for permission to go nuts and try things and break rules and create something that means something to you inside, even if the schedule only gives you ten minutes. Keep that AD from boredom. Keep her mortgage, but give her an opportunity to share in that rare thing that got you hired instead of somebody else. Just try it.

These are the times when truly remarkable pictures get made. When you push your AD, they get fired up and throw some ideas right back. Your creative energy will be contagious. And in the end, if you’ve done well, your AD will thank you for it. And you should thank them right back. Because they’ll come back to the shop looking like a hero, which–if you can create something that feels great to you and makes them look good at the same time–is exactly what your job is really about.

Don’t be a chicken. Do a backflip or make a chocolate cake.

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