Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Little "Recycling," If That's Okay With You

About a week ago (ah, maybe a week and a half) there was a discussion on the APAnet forum that started with a guy asking for advice on an approach to take for photographing indie rock bands and ended up as a discussion about leaving one’s solid day job for the uncertain world of freelance assisting. Having had that experience myself many years ago I renamed the discussion to accurately reflect my thoughts and put in my two cents in a post entitled, “Once Begun Is Half Done,” a reference to the British adage which basically states that just starting something, just do it, and it automatically gets done.

Needless to say I didn’t write just one paragraph, there’s a story in it somewhere. In fact there’s several stories in there, all the same theme with little twists, and in my own way and through telling of my experience I may have given those who are on the verge of transitioning a little nudge closer to the edge of the pool. Just stick your toe in, it’s not as cold as you think!

Anyway, I got more than a few e-mails from people who thought it was inspirational. Though that wasn’t my goal, I just wanted to tell a relevant story on a slow day, I’m nonetheless flattered that people find it interesting enough to comment. One, Tom Kelly, suggested that he thought I was writing for the blog and so I thought maybe I’d re-post it here.

Transitions aren’t easy, even if you’ve contemplated one for a long, long time. I’ve been kind of distracted by my own upcoming transition and as I prepare to move the office... all my files, computers, photo stuff, etc... packing-up for a move that’s only really about half a mile, I haven’t the time (or so I thought) to write anything new anyway. Actually, I have been busy with the move but as I prepared to put this on the blog I thought it would be cool to illustrate the post with pictures of some of the names I’m dropping.

[SIDEBAR: You'll see some pictures of the photographers who have been instrumental in shaping my career, some of whom were not mentioned in the narrative. And you won't see images of some I've mentioned, and I haven't mentioned others. If you're one of my former mentors and I haven't mentioned your name or shown your picture don't be offended, I'll likely get around to it sooner or later!]

Finding the pictures appearing in this post would be difficult even in normal times as I’d have to search for the images of photographer/mentors of my past, but with the stuff in various boxes all around me I not only have to search the files, I had to unpack the files to search them. One step forward, two steps back.

Anyway, if you don't mind my recycling of material, herewith, "Once Begun Is Half Done....."

Regarding "Starting Out" and all the fears & trepidation & pitfalls, the rent to pay, etc. It can't be a smooth transition and it is certainly risky. That said, you must realize that there's no big reward (however you define "big" or "reward") that comes without first taking some risk.

All of my best moves have resulted from huge leaps of faith...

In 1977 I was working comfortably as first assistant for Hashi, one of New York's top still-life shooters when I met Mike Purcilly, a guy we hired as a freelancer, then took on full-time. He'd earned good money as a freelance assistant but he also wanted some long-term experience in Hashi's studio, to learn what that he knew. Mike felt it would be critical knowledge and he couldn't get it in drips and drabs. He was correct.

In those days we routinely worked from 8:00 AM to midnight, sometimes longer. It was like being in a submarine! In such close quarters your co-workers become your best friends, and we'd even spend time after work and on weekends hanging around together and he introduced me to his roommate, Eliot Crowley, who was a very successful freelance assistant. Listening to those two guys talk about their experiences and the money they earned freelancing made me slightly jealous... if I worked two days a week freelancing I would equal my (then) current salary. Three days a week and I was over the top and have two days to do my own thing. It was attractive but there was no guaranty of success.

As I was weighing my options, Eliot told me of a huge freelance gig starting up that would be at least a month's work with a top studio on a special project at $40/day. He told me that if I would quit my job to freelance he'd introduce me, so I quit my job and Eliot introduced me to these guys. We worked there for damned near four months and by the time we were through we were earning $70/day (that's because we revolted when we found the furniture movers were making more than we were).

Anyway, it was a risk. I took it and I did very well. Then I was out of work... for about two days. As soon as I hit the streets with my new resume I was working again non-stop.

Next risk: I was a bargain at $70/day while most everyone else was still charging $60 or $65 and I started working for Jeff Smith, an exceedingly great photographer and equally great guy. We finished a week-long job and I collected a check from Emily, his wife/rep/producer, and he asked, "How much am I paying you?" Emily had booked me, he really didn't know. I told him $70/day. He called across the loft inquiring how much petty cash was on hand and told her to give me another $25, $5 for each day, and said: "From now on charge me $75 a day, and charge everyone else $75 too!"

Yeah, right. As soon as I raised my rate to $75/day I lost every client I had... except Jeff... but in two weeks I had an entirely new set of clients, better clients, and money wasn't an issue, but I had to endure two weeks of no income until I started working at the higher rate.

Down the road I was working as first assistant in the land of black cowboy boots (Alan Kaplan's studio) just about every day, still as a freelancer, and we were into much bigger money by then (I had about eight pair!!), it was a great job. That gig lasted three years... very sweet. Near the end I had rented a loft in Tribeca with the idea of building a studio and going into the biz myself. I'd work all day at Alan's then go downtown and build with some friends of mine, we'd build on weekends too. By Valentine's Day 1986 I was ready to open but I had no clients. It was time to take yet another risk, a really big risk.

As this was no secret, one day after a slow period where I didn't work for a couple of days I was running around town and stopped by at Alan's. Guess what? There was a shoot going on and Russell Kaye, formerly 2nd assistant, was in there with the first assistant's tape on *his* thumbs. I was ever so slightly stunned.

During a break in the shoot Alan took me aside, told me: "If you're in here doing my thing, you're not out there doing your thing. You need to do it now or you never will." He took a long drag on his pipe, scratched over his eye with his thumb and continued, "I'm expecting you to knock this industry on its ear, now get out of here and do it." Whoa! I wasn't quite ready to take that risk but I didn't have much choice. I went back downtown and hit the phones... this time calling art directors and editors instead of photographers. Hey, I could have called photographers, I'd have been back to work in twenty minutes, but I knew good advice when I heard it so it was time to take another risk.

Big risk, and slow to pay-off! Ate a lot of canned tuna, moved out of my apartment and lived in the studio so I wouldn't have two rents to pay, sold my car and my color television for the cash and took a part-time job working nights for Louis Harris and Assoc. You know, The Harris Poll, where I learned all I needed to know about cold-calling... and keeping people who had no interest in talking to me on the phone... great experience!!!

I worked for Harris every night for seven weeks... until the former art director at Seventeen, who had taken a big risk herself to open her own design firm, called with my first job. I was on a roll!

The British have a great saying: "Once begun is half done." As soon as you get out there you'll feel better.

Starting out is scary but you can't race if you're parked, and it ain't no use to slow down just because you're lost.

At the end, this was my resume... http://pobereskin.com/resassist.html


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey man great story!
Thanks for sharing, it would be great if more info like this was around for assistants.

Best of luck.


2:51 PM  

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