Skills That Specialization Can’t Stifle

Tue 08th Jul, 2014

By APA Admin in San Diego

Interview by Juliette Wolf-Robin

Dallas, Texas based photographer Michael Mayo, shows us how he mixes it up and gets away with it.

Q. Your work is an interesting mix: conceptual and straightforward; interiors, products, and people; humorous and serious; black & white and color. We hear so often that photographers need to specialize. Why have you not had to do that? 
I actually did. When I began my commercial career in 1978, I was a still life photographer. Most of my work was strictly still life/tabletop catalog photography. In the late ’80s I opened a studio in New York City. At that time, everyone was still VERY specialized. There were few photographers who were doing any “crossover” work. You were labeled according to your specialization—as a still life, fashion, liquids, portrait, location, interiors, etc., photographer. An agent wouldn’t even attempt to promote you as anything other than a specialist in a specific category. But as my career evolved, I acquired a very good, loyal group of clients. Over time, several began asking me if I shot interiors, or portraits, or if I had ever been interested in other specialties. Of course, always loving photography and the creative process, I would answer that I’d “love to try,” and began to experiment.  Although I still consider myself a still life photographer, I’ve become very comfortable with shooting interiors and portraits as well. With the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, I realized that I could bring to life concepts that interested me. I enjoy visualizing ideas and, with the current digital tools, the possibilities are limitless.

With the digital age, everything has changed. It affects how I shoot, what I shoot, and how I market my work. There are so many more tools available now to create and explore ideas.

Q. What is your elevator pitch about your work? 
I’m claustrophobic—want to see some fun stuff when we get off this thing? 

Q: Do you present yourself as a generalist, or do you pick one style to sell nationally and another locally? 
I normally sell my still life and interiors on both the national and local levels. My portraiture and landscapes are a work in progress.

Q: When you promote, do you use any slogans or other ways to describe yourself, or do you just show the images? 
With my conceptual work, I usually try to come up with something funny…a sort of tagline to go with the piece. I recently photographed a mouse looking up at a wedge of cheese on an iPad. When I mailed this out as a promo I used the caption “A Better Mousetrap”. I think it helps, particularly when you are doing emailers, to have some sort of title that will draw clients in to look at your images.  With my interior images, I’m usually showing lighting and design technique, which is straightforward, so I let the work speak for itself. 

Q: With the conceptual work, do you typically collaborate with an art director, or do you find you mainly execute the AD’s vision?  With my conceptual work, I usually collaborate with an art director. Many times the art director will have an idea that needs to be conveyed and I can help elaborate on that idea. Typically, concepts will start out in one direction and then evolve, after trial and error, into a finished piece. It’s really a joint effort between myself, the AD, and my post-production team.  

Q: Do you find that certain colors work better to represent concepts or humor? 
An idea begins with the concept. As the concept progresses, the details, such as color, begin to evolve. Color plays a role, but specific colors do not tend to have a bearing on the finished piece.

Q: Do you notice repeated themes that come up—requests that you receive at certain times from clients? 
Not so much repeated themes as repeated times. Clients have projects that do seem to materialize, repeat, at specific times of the year.

Q: It seems that a lot of stock agencies have inundated the industry with images that represent ready-to-go ideas. Do you find that art directors go that route now, or do you still find creatives presenting you with an original vision to pursue? 
 While ad agencies do seem to rely on stock images, it’s often difficult for art directors to present to clients original ideas using them. Either the image doesn’t quite represent what the art director wants, or the art director wants to make sure that the photo (or concept) conveys the idea for that particular client ONLY. 

Q: How has the market in Texas changed over the years? 
I have been in the Texas market for twelve years. As with any market, there have been quite a few changes.  The ones with the most impact have been the internet and social media. These two mediums have allowed me to reach potential clients not only in Texas, but also around the world. 

Q: Have you seen a change in the style of product or interior photography? 
I think that styles constantly change, but interesting, beautiful images will always be popular. If you look at photographs over the last twenty-five years, you can see incredible changes, but the ones that stand out are those that capture our imagination and transcend styles.

Q: Have changes you’ve seen affect how you shoot or how you market yourself? 
With the digital age, everything has changed. It affects how I shoot, what I shoot, and how I market my work. There are so many more tools available now to create and explore ideas. Photoshop and CGI are helping me solve problems quicker and more efficiently. I can now show clients manipulated compositions while I work, which allows a more seamless job flow. These changes have also allowed me to reach a greater audience when I market my work. I’m very excited about the future of photography.

Q: Any tips for emerging photographers? 
I would first recommend studying the great photographers from past generations. Eugene Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Wynn Bullock, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans…there are too many to list. Look at subject matter and lighting techniques. These incredible artists changed how people viewed the world. Then I would recommend picking up the camera and working. It doesn’t matter how or where you’re shooting—on location or in the studio. Concentrate on lighting, form, and what makes you happy. And shoot.

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