How to be undeniably good. How to be like Brad.

The actor Steve Martin knows something about success. During one of his numerous appearances on Charlie Rose, here is advice Steve gave to someone who’s trying to make it in any field: “Be undeniably good.

“When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them—and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script, here’s how you do this—but I always say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If somebody’s thinking, “How can I be really good?”, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.”
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Undeniably good. That’s what I thought about Brad Trent when I first crossed paths with him. He is not only the world-renowned photographer, but also the kind of person you could swap stories with all day. I recently had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with Brad Trent and he graciously agreed to conduct a quick interview for (By the way, I am a big fan of Charlie Rose’s show and I love Brad’s photos of Charlie—see Brad’s portfolio for details.)

Jenan: As a professional photographer, what significant changes have you seen take place in your profession through the years?

Brad: I’ve been in New York since 1982…initially I worked for other photographers as an assistant, then in 1986 I started shooting on my own. Even though I do a lot of advertising and corporate work, I have always thought of myself as primarily an editorial photographer, but in the past 5 years or so my business and the business of most guys I know, has shrunk because of the remarkable number of magazines that have shut down. The internet has killed their readership…especially in the news and business titles…and the publishers have nobody to blame but themselves. Early on, they all figured that giving away their content online for nothing was the way to go, because everybody bought into the ridiculous idea that online ads would somehow pay their bills, but we all saw how that business model failed. Unfortunately, their audience got used to free content and it’s kind of hard to get the World that had gotten used to getting everything for nothing to suddenly start to pay! Just about every magazine I work for has a website that usually has everything the print edition does…for free! And none of the publishers seem to have a clue how to make online subscriptions work. And if you’re hoping for the iPad to save the publishing industries bacon, don’t hold your breath. After a bit of initial success…mostly due to curiosity more than anything else…iPad magazine sales are taking a dive. Back in June, when WIRED rolled out its first iPad edition, Conde Nast racked up more than 100,000 sales, but subsequent editions have fallen to 22,000 and 23,000 for October and November, respectively. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the insane pricing structure where it costs $3.99 for every iPad issue, but you get a subscription to the print version for only $12.00 a year! Why the electronic version isn’t significantly cheaper than paper is a mystery…there is no use of paper products, no printing costs, no trucking and mailing charges…and yet every electronic version of a print magazine costs more! Apple is certainly partly to blame, because so far they aren’t willing to allow annual subscriptions to iPad magazine apps. The thought is that they make lots of money on high single issue rates and much less with a lower annual subscription rate. This isn’t an issue for printed magazines, since the ad revenue was always the major profit center, but if Apple and the various publishing companies can’t come to some kind of agreement soon, subscriptions on the iPad will continue to decline and the magazine business…already in seriously bad shape…might not recover.

That was certainly the most significant change I’ve been witness to, but there are a couple of others as well…

In terms of photography, the entire publishing and advertising business is now completely digital. Oh sure, there are a few luddites who cling to film like a life preserver, or wrap themselves in an artistic blanket as though what they’re doing somehow means more if they do it in an analog medium, but the fact is, for years now every client I have expects a digital file. As a professional, I wouldn’t even know how to shoot film any more, especially since Polaroid is out of business and 80% of the color labs in New York closed years ago! Unfortunately, a lot of photographers made the switch from film to digital so poorly that they actually affected how their clients now pay for digital photography. Early on, nobody really had a clue how to charge for a job shot digitally. If you asked ten different photographers what they based their pricing structure on, you would get ten wildly different answers and the result was that their clients…fed up with having no clear basis for digital fees…took the matter into their own hands. In many cases, publishers tried to institute blanket fees for digital capture and processing. These fees were uniformly low and barely covered any kind of overhead the photographers were now expected to provide. As time went on, newspapers even took it a step further by eliminating any kind of digital capture or transmission fees altogether, stating digital was now an ‘industry standard’, as though the photographers could somehow absorb the tens of thousands of dollars they now routinely must spend to remain current with new technology. In the first two-thirds of my career I worked with the same cameras and lenses…in the past decade I’ve been forced to buy totally new digital capture technology and computers every two or three years in order to stay competitive! But aside from all that drama, I love the new digital age of photography. I have much more control over my final images an ways I never could have with film. I can visualize shots that without digital capture would never be possible without massive retouching. Also, my switch to digital actually had a major affect on my personal style. I ‘see’ photographs in a way that film never really captured. With a digital back and a bit of time on Photoshop, my images now have the look I see in my head.

The final thing I wanna mention is a change that has been creeping up on creatives recently…the growing trend by publishers to try to push horrible, rights-grabbing rights contracts on photographers, illustrators and writers. For my entire career, the industry standard had always been you were hired and paid for one-time publishing rights in the medium you were working for. Now, with publishing companies merging into multi-national behemoths and new technology changing how publishers deliver their product every day, the lawyers have been convincing their clients to either float work-for-hire contracts (the WORST!) or to demand all publishing rights…as well as the right to sub-license, re-sell, publish, reproduce and translate in whole or in part, in all and any media without restriction, whether now known or developed in the future, throughout the Universe…!!! It’s that ‘Universe’ thing that always gets me, like the lawyers know something about space exploration that the rest of use aren’t privy to. The bottom line is, magazines pay crap and have no right to ask for anything more than what they’ve been getting, but there are always young photographers out there who are willing to sign away their lives in order to get a bloody job and it’s these guys who the publishers are looking to hook…at the detriment of guys like me who wouldn’t sign a contract like that ever!

Jenan: What do you see as the coming trends in your profession?

One thing in it’s infancy is the idea that photographers are now being asked to shoot video on their shoots as content for the magazines website. There is usually no extra cash thrown in, or if there is it’s so pitifully small that I can’t imagine why a photographer would consider doubling the amount of work he has to do for the privilege, but more and more people I talk to say their photo editors are requesting a ‘short’ video story to accompany the stills! Now if I wanted to be Spielberg, I would have gone to film school instead of buying a Nikon! Just because there is a new crop of DSLR’s that have the ability to capture HD video, doesn’t mean photographers should now be videographers in between setups!

On the technology side, hopefully, the ‘Megapixel War’ that has been going on will subside. Besides my 22mp Canon, I shoot with a 33mp digital back on a Hasselblad that only three years ago cost $30 grand…now comes the news that there is an 80mp back for only $32,000…but most photographers I know could care less! We’ve already got backs that are BETTER that film ever was that allow us to blow up an image to the size of a bus, so what will an 80mp back do for us besides mean we’ll need to buy even more redundant hard drive storage than we already do?!!

Finally, Photoshop is getting to the point where your Grandmother is probably already using it! The latest CS-5 upgrade makes cloning and healing so damned easy it’s gonna put retouchers out of business! I envision a day not too far in the future where I’ll be able to run Photoshop actions on my smartphone! Not that I wanna be retouching on a 4″ screen, but still……

Jenan: Thank you Brad—all the best in 2011!

Jan 9 2011