A talk with Brad Chaney, Harley-Davidson’s Chief Photographer

This is an excerpt from an interview that will appear in the 2012 Photographer’s Market. Purchase as copy of the 2012 Photographer’s Market (available in late August 2011) or subscribe to ArtistsMarketOnline.com to get the complete interview with Brad Chaney.

You’re all in for a treat this week, as we are going to have a talk with one of best people I know in the business. This is also a rare opportunity as he is a very private guy that has never loved the limelight, and is just as happy coaching his son’s sports teams as he is in the studio shooting. Brad Chaney is the chief photographer for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. He’s also my mentor. He was the guy that gave me my first job after my graduation from Brooks and has become a great friend and the guy I go to when I need advice, both in life and in photography. His guidance was invaluable when I opened my first studio, helping me through the maze of stuff I had no clue how to deal with, and he has always been there to answer questions and share his sense of humor and sage incites. I believe that if we should seek to emulate someone, Brad would be at the top of my list. His agreement to do this interview is evidence of that, as you can imagine shooting for Harley Davidson keeps him very busy and he has taken the time to share his story with us.

Give us a brief history of you and your career path in photography. Have you always been a photographer or involved in photography?
I attended UC Santa Barbara and earned a BA in physical geography. After college I worked several part time and summer jobs, and soon realized that a geography degree wasn’t in big demand in the job market. I evaluated my interests and returned to Santa Barbara, attending Brooks Institute of Photographic Arts and Science.
After photo school I was offered an internship at Walter Swarthout Studios in San Francisco. At the time his was one of the bigger advertising photography studios on the West Coast, and it was my intention to treat the 8-week “no pay” position as one last class before I set out to job hunt for real. However, I stayed at Swarthout Studios for 13 years. I was hired as a photo assistant, which evolved into a staff photographer position. I eventually bought into the business and we became Swarthout and Chaney Photography for several years. We shot still life and people, and worked both in the studio and on location. After that, I broke out on my own and opened a studio in San Francisco and kept that business for 9 years until my wife and I moved our family to Wisconsin. Once we were settled in Milwaukee, I set up my studio. Then, three years later, I was offered and took the position of staff photographer at Harley-Davidson. I’m now in my 10th year at Harley.

What or who inspires you to create?
Early in my career I was primarily influenced by the big names in advertising photography, the New York guys like Avedon, Turner and Penn. I tried to impress myself by emulating their simplicity and graphic styles. I wanted to create clean memorable images. My art director wife also inspired me, as I tried to impress her as well. We would talk for hours about style and trends and work on portfolio shots together. All the work was aimed at commercial advertising buyers, and I ended up trying to do too many styles for too many markets. I wanted to be good at everything, but I only got better when I settled down and worked in the area I was trained for, large format still life. Once I came to this realization, I built a food and product portfolio and have made a living for 30 years following this path.

How did you present your work when you had the studios? Did you use an artist rep?
When I had my own business and photo studios for all those years, it was always color transparency originals mounted in handmade black mats. In my portfolio I showed the medium I delivered to clients: 8×10 and 4×5 chromes. I’ve never had a website.
When I took the job at Harley, I transitioned to digital within two years. If I were a freelance shooter today, of course I would have a website.
When I had my own studio I advertised in the big national promotional books like American Showcase and the Blackbook. I sent out endless printed promotional pieces. I had reps that carried the portfolio to client appointments.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom you would like to share?
For several years I taught a photo class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Those students always asked about how to break into the advertising photography business. I told them there was no formula. For every successful studio there is an individual story. It’s like all freelance careers in that there is always room for good talent. It’s up to each person to recognize and take advantage of contacts, opportunities and responsibilities. Hard work means everything. Longevity and patience is essential.
I would point out that you need to get to a place where taking the picture is the easiest part of your day. That’s the part a pro is trained and ready for. Taking the picture is the bonus we all work so hard to attain. The difficult part is getting the job to come in the door in the first place. That’s where a freelancer earns his money… promoting, networking, hosting clients, estimating well, making sound business decisions, and staying fresh.
Now that I’m in a corporate environment some of those tasks aren’t so vital, but the images are still the fun part and staying fresh is key because everyday brings new people and projects.

I would like to thank Brad for taking the time to sharing his thoughts and insights, and, personally, for all of his help over the years. After he moved from San Francisco, he recommended that I take over his place as an instructor at the Academy of Art, and those were big shoes to fill. It was one of the best experiences I can remember. When you see the excitement of students developing into artists, it makes you relive the feelings you had when you went through the same experience. It also brings out things in you that you didn’t know were there or you forgot over the years.

As always, I welcome you thoughts and comments.



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