A talk with Michele Clement, Photographer

This week we are once again honored: Michele Clement, another one of the very inspirational people from my past, agreed to share some of her thoughts on her career and the future of the business of photography. For as long as I have known her, she has been at the top of the game. Michele’s work has been in all of our lives for many years. You have seen it in advertising and on the TV, though you probably weren’t aware of it. She is the creative mentor for much of my work. Early in my career I had the fortunate opportunity to work with her. To this day I ask myself how she would deal with a creative problem and use the lessons she taught me to work through them.  She is one of the rare people in this business who has always blazed her own trail. Early on she faced many challenges, but her perseverance has made her one of the most sought after photographers in the country. She has never been known for her subtlety, so be prepared for very honest replies to these questions.

© Michele Clement 2011

Do you have a formal arts education?
I have my AA from Pasadena City College. I had to work full time to make ends meet, and never got back to finish my BA.

How would you rate an education vs. a mentor program?
Since I had a mentor and basically apprenticed through assisting, my experience is that being in the field makes more sense than taking classes. It worked for me.

Did you assist before you broke out on your own?
I assisted for two years, including being a black-and-white printer for some commercial photographers in San Francisco

Do you have a mentor or someone you look up to?
Jim Chini is a dear friend that was a racecar photographer. He taught me how to print and develop my own film. Jim was an excellent printer and overall teacher of photography because he truly loved it.

What inspires you to create?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Inspiration can come from anywhere at any time.
But mostly comes from a desire to express a feeling or idea that I can’t shake.

© Michele Clement 2011

Talk a bit about your creative process, and how you approach your commercial work.
It depends on the project. Most jobs come from art directors that are familiar with my work and have an image in mind of something that they have seen in my portfolio that fits with their image of a current project. Then we talk about how to apply that look to the campaign they have in mind.

Does this differ when you shoot for your portfolio?
Yes and no. I just finished a project for a pharmaceutical client shooting black-and-white nudes. I shot this in the style of some of my personal nudes. So in this case, there was no difference. I was hired for that style. Most clients see something in my portfolio and ask for that approach.

What are your thoughts on specializing in specific fields of photography and why have you come to these conclusions?
I know that currently the idea seems to be that a style is shooting everything the same way. I like to experiment. So I will try new things and create no fewer than three images in a series that shows a new approach, whether that is lighting or concept. So all of my work doesn’t look exactly alike, but you can tell that I shot it.

© Michele Clement 2011

Talk a bit about the path to the development of your unique style.
I think that shooting all the time will reveal a style. There will be things that you like to do and keep doing them, so that becomes your style.

What are your specialties?
Hard to say. People are a general subject matter for me, but I shoot according to what is required for the client when it comes to a job.

How do you present your work?
I have a several websites, a personal site, a commercial site and a site on Workbook. I have a blog on my commercial site and do e-mailings and printed mailers. My printed portfolio consists of individual printed pieces placed into a folder that looks like a hardbound 8½ x 10 1/12 book.

Talk about your thoughts on marketing you and your work.
There is more competition out there for commercial work than ever before, and less work available. So it is important to promote your work, as outlined above, and to stay in touch with clients in a casual, friendly way. Facebook, email, those kinds of connections keep the conversations going.

© Michele Clement 2011

Talk about your experiences with artist’s representation.
That’s a tough one. I have had the same agent for 16 years, so we have a dysfunctional relationship in that we argue and defend our points of view endlessly. But I know several photographers that change agents regularly. No relationship is perfect, but there has to be good communication and respect between the artist and agent.

Do you belong to a professional association?
Yes, the APA

What are the reasons for this decision?
I want all the info I can get about what is currently happening in the business, and this is a good forum for those needs.

In recent years there has been some talk about developing a set of professional standards to govern the business photography, what are your thoughts on this subject?
I think it would help to have some guidelines. But photographers at the advertising level are such mavericks that I don’t think it will help. Eager, even desperate commercial shooters will go back on their principles when the bank account gets low enough….

© Michele Clement 2011

Several years ago you were involved teaching and speaking at seminars. Are you still involved in this?
No, I have not found the time to get back into this.

Talk a bit about your experiences with competitions and how this affected your career.
I have very mixed feelings about competitions. I’ve entered hundreds over the years.  I won photographer of the year from the B&W Spider awards and never even heard from them, no email, phone call, letter. Just saw it online. I posted the link on my email and never got a call for any job from that award. Also, there are companies that have several competitions under different names all year long. They rake in lots of money from photographers desperate for recognition. Seems like the companies are the ones that win—the entry fees are much too high! No book is published and you get a listing online. Sorry to say that I have judged many competitions and don’t think that the best work always gets chosen. It’s a crapshoot.

© Michele Clement 2011

What are your thoughts on the digital age, and how has it affected you, your business, and the industry as a whole?
I’m a dinosaur. I miss film and the darkroom. But to compete today you have to constantly turn out new work, and also shoot video since the Canon added the HD feature. And with the ridiculously short deadlines, there is no time to send film to a lab, review proofs and print or scan anything. Most clients want the RAW files on a hard drive immediately after the shoot!

Do you shoot film in any of your work, either professional or personal?
No more film at this time. As I said above, there is no time for it. And I used to shoot lots of 4×5 Polaroid, which doesn’t exist anymore. I’m very sad about that.

Talk a bit about where you shoot, the break down of studio vs. location
Mostly location for commercial work these days, though I love the studio and shoot personal work there much of the time.

© Michele Clement 2011

I know for several years now you have been shooting video for some of your clients, talk a bit about how this transition came about.
I used to work with DPs and production companies when doing video for TV commercials, then the clients understood that what worked for print did not translate to video. But now, because of the Canon HD capabilities, I am being asked to shoot print and video on the same project. This has become a major issue, because it will cost more and take more time, but many clients refuse to understand that. You just push a button, right? I’m working on a blog about that now….

© Michele Clement 2011

Do you have any parting words of wisdom you would like to share about the future of the profession of photography?
I’m afraid to say. To be honest, if photography was like this when I started, the digital situation, working on the computer so much of the time, the ridiculous deadlines, print advertising dying, I wouldn’t be a photographer. So much of the magic and the mystery is gone, as well as the craftsmanship that once set professionals apart from the crowd. I think I would become an animator and illustrator if I were starting in a career today. If you want to survive today, you have to know your computer programs that are constantly changing and be on top of the latest technology that seems to change daily. That isn’t why I got into photography in the first place. Sorry if that sounds like sour grapes, but hey, you asked!

I would like to thank Michele for taking the time to share this, and for all her inspiration over the years. I highly recommend that you take a look at her work. You may recognize some of it, and you will definitely see why she is where she is.



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