Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Expensive" is a Four-Letter Word

The other day I received an e-mail where I had been carbon copied. I was being referred to someone but my work had been described as, "Expensive but cool..."

I like that someone thought my work was cool, but thought it important to address the "Expensive" part. "Expensive" is a dangerous word to throw around. Dangerous because it's a relative term. Expensive for one person could be a reasonable price for another. Another problem I see with the word "Expensive" is that it could denote that something is over priced and is a poor value.

My pricing structure is based on my cost of doing business + actual production costs + licensing. Please know that I'm not licensing the picture, but its copyright (as defined by the US Copyright Act of 1976).

My goal is to create photography that is an investment for my client. Because it's an investment, my photography should be valuable, and of value, for everyone involved. My photography should give you a return on your investment and that, if you ask me, is the opposite of "Expensive."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Creative Roundtable

Once a month I meet with a group of creatives and we discuss the business of being creative. Being creative is easy. It's the business of being creative that's intimidating. It's a closed group and is intended to provide security (as we've been together for almost three years, have built great relationships and can safely say anything).

The disciplines of our group range from writer, graphic design, proof reader/prop stylist, interior design/prop stylist, artist rep, photographer and concert pianist. Collectively and individually, the group has made my photographic business better.

This month, we did something different. We met at the Phoenix Art Museum. Imagine what it would be like to go to an art museum with some of the most talented people you know. It's inspirational.

One of my favorite conversations of the night revolved around Dada art and whether an artist was even aware of the Dada Art Movement and Surrealism or just copying something he'd previously seen. My guess is that people often copy. It was just nice to be with people who had an understanding of art and art history. It was nice to be with smart people who could understand why I get pissed off at "artists" who don't know the difference between art and decoration.

We looked at and discussed some thought provoking art. This was a great experience that allowed us to be visually stimulated as well as get to know each other that much more. Oddly, as we strive to be more professional with our art, I've come to know that it's the relationships that we build that truly advance us.

We closed down the art museum, walked down the street, caught the train and went for coffee.

What was nice is the train allowed us time to talk about what we
had just seen,and how GREAT the art was. The train took us from pleasure, to business. We chatted as we rode and then as we got to Lux, the topic turned to business.

Tonight's business topic was our rate. It seems that clients have been asking creatives to cut their rate. I thought it was survival of the fittest as long as you aren't more fit than th client. Tough discussion.

You know it's great night when you can close out two places. Lux either didn't like what we were discussing or wanted to send their server's home. They dimmed their lights, we left and we caught the train back to the museum.

I don't care if you are an art director in Chicago or a graphic artist in Arizona. I encourage you to get involved with the creative community and do things that you normally don't do. It will help you get out of your own head and see things in a way that others do. In short, your horizons will be expanded.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call?

E.T phoned home and the City of New York called the Ghost Busters. But who are you going to call?

When people need a photographer, they often call a newspaper. Why not? They have a whole department full of photographers.

There's trouble in the world of that which is Black and White and Read All Over. Newspapers are sick and dying. The Tribune, where I use to work recently lost 40% of its staff. This means there are fewer photographers at fewer newspapers. And who do you think these newspapers are laying off? Their veterans. The ones who cost them the most. Their best people are out on the street. This means that if you are in the market for a photographer and call a newspaper you will be talking to a photographer who could be inexperienced, overworked and underpaid (so of course she will leap at your offer).

Instead of calling the newspaper, you can go to They have a "Find A Photographer" resource to help you find the photographer whose style is right for you and your project. You don't have to cover your eyes and stab at a list of names. ASMP's photographers are experienced people who have had to have someone vouch for their work as well as their work ethic.

Sadly, because newspapers aren't thriving, few can afford the once great photojournalist. So who are you going to call? You can always call me — I'm an ASMP member.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Something Glamorous

A while ago I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this whole photography business. I did what a lot of people do: photograph attractive women. Like a lot of people, I love fashion and glamour photography, and the world is full of beautiful women.

I stopped doing shooting "hot chicks" though. I just couldn't find a way for it to be valued enough to generate revenue. While I might have loved doing it, the models never wanted to pay for my services, and the one magazine I shot for had a bigger budget for the models than for the photography. So I put that in my past.

I was showing a friend some photographs and the glamour stuff popped up. She seemed to really like the work. I told her that that type of work wasn't what I wanted to be known for.

I was in my studio and I have some images, like the one above, tacked to the wall. They're beautiful. I love what I did with the light and my lens choices and everything I did to bring out the best in the women I photographed. I got to thinking that maybe I was thinking too small. I told a photographer once that you need to see where your talent will take you. Keep pushing the boundaries. I need to take my own advice.

I may never be a Helmut Newton, but I think my work is competitive on a national — or maybe even a world scale. It just needs to get into the hands of the right people. So I sent a letter to Maxim magazine. They spent more than eight minutes on my Web site and then sent me a response. My contact person said, "If you would like to just send your portfolio to us I would be happy to circulate it through our department." What's cool is, I have no glamour work on my site, and they are still interested. So I made a glamour portfolio.

I have one portfolio at Vanity Fair and now I'm walking out the door to send a portfolio to Maxim. I've never been here before (and this blog entry is marking the day that I have two portfolios out for the very first time). I've always felt that the best thing you can do — in a good economy or bad — is keep forward motion. Invest in yourself and think of ways to get noticed so that you can do that thing you love to do so much. And remember to aim for the top.

I may not have originally wanted to be known for glamour photography, but I think I could just amend my statement to: "I don't want to be known for glamour photography under low-ball conditions." But if I can be published in the top magazines, I certainly want to be known for fashion and glamour. I guess it's all about setting your sites high and not embracing mediocrity. If I can't be on top, why am I out a limb?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


First Cheech and Chong sang, "No stems no seeds that you don't need..." Then there was the seedless watermelon and then the almost seedless cucumber. Recently, Burpee, the gardening-seed king, announced a sweet, seedless tomato. Really?

Bet you didn't know I had a green thumb. I don't. It's actually brown. Well, that's not true either. My thumb nail's brown. It's stained from the years of developing film and making prints in the darkrooms of two newspapers. As the years went on, the process became more automated and then we started scanning our negatives. Eventually things went digital. No more discolored fingernails or fixer stains on my clothes, but the memories remain.

The deeds of my past are my seeds. Planted, watered and cultivated my photography has grown. It has flowered more than I ever expected. There's been some fertilizer too. But the flowers' sweet scent overpowers the crap.

Not every seed planted has been allowed to grow. Event (party) photography was one such seed. I'm not a camera boy who wants to walk around taking what my friend, Brad, calls "Happy Snaps." I felt that was a waste of my talent and not what I need to do — which is be creative. The plant was uprooted. No flowers. No seeds.

I did some glamour work for a time, but nobody wanted to pay. Nothing grows with all fertilizer and no water. I still have some of those seeds. I'm just waiting for the right conditions to replant them.

Would you believe I'm eating sunflower seeds as I write this?

For a while I've felt that Spring was coming. I've planted my seeds and I can see they are beginning to germinate (Southwest Graphics magazine, Shutterbug magazine, and Creative Artist's podcast). Today I put 24 pages of seeds on a big white Fed Ex truck and shipped them to New York to be planted on the farm that is Vanity Fair. We've said our prayers for sunshine and plenty of rain. We need a healthy crop.

Like a farmer whose very life depends on his crop coming in, I'm looking for fertile ground. My plants aren't cucumber, watermelon or tomato. The flowers of my plants are photographs, and each one a seed. My seeds can lead to prosperity. Not just for me, but for my clients.

Sorry dude. I need my seeds.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting noticed

I often find myself telling people that when you are a photographer in the newspaper business, the one thing you don't have to worry about is marketing. Since leaving the news biz, I've learned a great deal about how to get noticed (I think).

Without being pushy, I try to get my work in front of as many eyes as possible. To be a successful [fill in the blank] it's important to get noticed. Actually, I often think that being good at getting noticed might actually be better than just being good at what it is that you do. If you're good and nobody knows, will you get work? Have you ever looked at someone's work and wonder, "How did they get THAT job?" It's simple. They got it because they connected with someone. They were noticed.

In the past thirty days people have noticed me. Southwest Graphics Magazine published a profile on me and Peter at Mighty Imaging put the feature on his blog. Go here to read the article. A few days later, Rosh Sillars mentioned me in his Prosperous Artist podcast. And now if you go to your favorite magazine rack, there is a feature my Maria Piscopo on self promotions and I'm quoted extensively.

As I listened to the podcast and read both articles, I was inspired. I am a photographer who is not only good at what I do, but people are noticing. More evidence of that is that Vanity Fair has invited me to send them my portfolio. I'm sending it off tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

How vs. Chance

A long time ago, there was a American Indian Man who, when anyone passed by him, said, "Chance."

He did this for weeks.

One day someone approached him and said, "I always thought American Indians said, 'How.'" To which the man said, "I know how —I just want the chance!"

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Short Blog About Today's Blog

This will be a short blog because I wrote another blog that was quite long and kind of mean spirited (someone called me a name). After composing that entry and getting that issue off of my chest, I felt better. Since I felt better, there was no reason to publish a mean-spirited blog entry.

What's nice is: You get to read a short blog entry today.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Who I am and where I'm going

The beginning of a new year is a great time to reflect on where you've been, where you are — and where you're going. I've spent the past couple of days organizing my thoughts, setting some goals and writing a Vision and Marketing Statement (VMS) for my business. I've never done this before, so hopefully it's on target and not too clunky:

Vision and Marketing Statement for Tony Blei Photography
Tony Blei is a creative person who loves photographing people — and he does it with style. Whether with studio or available light, Tony uses his photographic experience to capture the life’s unguarded moments for national, regional and local clients in the editorial, commercial and corporate arenas. Operating on location and in the studio, his relaxed attitude and sense of humor allows Tony’s subjects to relax and reveal their inner self. His photographs are typically of real people in real-life situations that are created in camera, not the computer. Tony is known for his fun personality as well as his ability to deliver ahead of schedule. Tony’s work has been seen around the world via the Associated Press, AFP and other picture agencies. His work has been published in Time, US News, American Indian magazine and World Report and has shot advertising that has appeared in Money, Inc., Fast Company and Business Week. For Tony, his work is serious, creative fun. Creativity happens. Daily.

A one sentence tagline:
I create images that are a visual investment that offers a significant return for my clients.

Whaddaya think?

Saturday, January 3, 2009


"Dear Mom..." This was my first award-winning photograph.
Today is a day for me to celebrate. Today marks 24 years of living a dream. Today is my anniversary for becoming a professional photographer. It's been an interesting journey.

I was 24-years-old when the Las Vegas Sun newspaper was an afternoon daily. Boy did they have a job for me. My job was to photograph about 40 houses a day. The pictures would be reproduced one column wide and appear in the classified section. I did this job so well that it wasn't long before I was photographing cars too. All this for $100 a week!

When I wasn't shooting cars and houses, I was hanging out in the photo department. The staffers started taking me on assignments with them. I also went to title fights and would reload cameras and develop film for them. After ten months, I was given a staff position (but I still had to photograph houses, cars and other in-house advertising). During that year I won my first award. My wage more than doubled. (Continued after the slide presentation)

Here is an old collection of images from
my newspaper days.

Working for a newspaper can be like a religious calling. The hope and the goal is to make a difference in the lives of other people. (I think there was even a vow of poverty.)

During my time as a photographer, I believe that I've made a difference. I photographed Mikey, a baby who was born with AIDS. I spent weeks with Mikey and Diana, his adoptive mother, during a time when people felt that AIDS was "the gay man's disease." On top of winning an award, I feel that story helped to make people realize that AIDS is an issue that affects everyone.
"The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted,
and afflict the comfortable.”
~Joseph Pulitzer

There were other stories with a social conscience. Mark and Vera lived with Roy and his dog in Roy's car by the side of the road. While photographing them, Mark had a heart attack and wound up in the hospital. That story did well in the awards that year, but most importantly, Mark and Vera were given a place to live — and because of that story — the community donated more than $4000 to the newspaper to give to homeless charities. Oh, I almost forgot. I wrote the accompanying story.

Las Vegas is a great city for news and opportunity. During my ten years there, I got to hang out with people like Jerry Lewis, Chris Isaac, BB King, Lance Burton and I've been to the home of Sigfried and Roy. I'll never forget the day that I made Red Skelton (a long gone comedian) laugh. Or the day that comedian Louis Anderson told me he was going to be really big and said that I should call him because he would need some headshots. I thought he was full of BS and threw his card away. Two months later I sat on the couch with my son and watched "Life With Louie," as Saturday morning TV show starring Louie Anderson. [insert bad words here]

Have you ever seen a hotel blow up? It's cool. I was there when the Dunes Hotel was imploded. I'll never forget the sound — or how much dirt hung in the air.

Along the way we moved to Phoenix and for eleven years worked for another newspaper. I'd like to tell you about day I met "Jesus Christ" but that story is fairly complex and "Jesus" ended up in a mental health institute (where he came from in the first place).

I've been to the SuperBowl, the College World Series and have been on the road to photograph the Phoenix Suns during the NBA playoffs. I've been to Mexico to photograph poverty issues. I won a first-place writing award.

I almost forgot to mention that I've photographed six US Presidents (Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush). One day Al Gore walked up to me at the Sun and said, "Hi, I'm Al Gore. I'm running for President." Soon we had a crowd in the halway and someone mentioned his wife's efforts to sensor rock lyrics. He was a nice guy and as everyone chatted I thought "yeah, you're running for President, uh-huh." Several days later I photographed him at the Landmark Hotel and a couple of weeks after that he dropped from the race. Many years later he became the Vice President.

An assignment that sent me to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas on New Year's Eve was interesting. After the game I wanted to go into Juarez to experience New Years from across the border. That was until someone asked, "How good are you at dodging falling bullets?" I went to Applebee's instead.

Working for a newspaper is a demanding job. You are always on the go, the pay is low, and sometimes your family takes a back seat. It's a great job when you are 24, but as I got older and had done so much (more than I've mentioned here), it was time to move on to greener pastures. So I decided to leave the news business and go back to school.

While in school, I would shoot an occasional assignment for someone. The longer I was in school, the more frequently the phone would ring. I dropped a research class twice along with a couple of others. After my fourth semester I quit school. My clients deserved my best and I didn't want to be distracted by Finals.

I started with just a single digital camera, a couple of lenses and some flashes. I worked out of my house. Business has been good and in order to get all of the lighting equipment out of the living room, we opened a small studio in Tempe. Today I have several cameras, some amazing lenses and, as I mentioned, a truckload of lights. In my office is high-speed internet, computers with six terabites of storage and gobs of RAM. I can, and have, sent images to other states and countries.

I'll never be able to turn my back on my photojournalistic roots. I believe that working for a newspaper is one of the greatest things a photographer can do. Not only has it given me a chance to make a difference, but it has forced me to become very good at doing all kinds of photography in all kinds of (sometimes adverse) circumstances and situations. I can confidently go into any situation and make a great picture.

Today I don't serve just one client as I did in the days of newspaper, I serve many. My work has been published in US News and World Report, Time, Money, Inc., and Fast Company. Over the summer I did some work that ended up in a magazine published by The Smithsonian. I can go anywhere and do anything. I'm only limited by, well, nothing really.

In 24 years, I've seen a lot of change. We use to carry a minimum of two cameras. One with color film and the other with color slide film. From there we moved to print film, scanners and PhotoShop. Today I shoot digital, but still carry two cameras.

This has been a great career, full of rewards and opportunities. I've come a long way since first shooting houses and cars. And I have further to go. I foresee taking pictures for another twenty years. The only difference is that I'm dropping that stupid vow of poverty.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Support Your Local Journalist

A few months ago I ordered "All The President's Men" on Netflix. It arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I watched it this morning.

The Watergate Scandal and the Washington Post's role in bringing down a US President were, sadly, one of journalism's finest moments. It also led to many people to go to college and become journalists to hopefully affect change.

I was a photojournalist for 21 years and my goal was to make a difference with my photography. Some of my colleagues, whether writers or photographers, had similar goals. We did a lot to make the world a better place. I think we were able to shine a light in some dark corners. Because of what we did, people with AIDS were able to get help. Homeless people's lives were made easier, and people in power were made accountable to The Fourth Estate.

As I watched the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, I was reminded of how important a newspaper's role in society is. I also saw that the reporters were biting, kicking and clawing their way into the Watergate story. Ultimately, they were working for The People. The story HAD to be told.

Today is January 1st, 2009. The Tribune newspaper, where I use to work, has just kicked 142 people, or 40%, of it's staff to the curb. The newspaper is only going to publish four days a week. What's sad is that it seems that the community doesn't seem to care.

Who will report the news? TV? I don't think they will. Sure, they will tell you about car wrecks, house fires and other things, but it seems that the goal of TV news, unless something major and obvious happens, is to do not much more than entertain us. TV news happens in 20-second snippets of time.

It's unfortunate that those who have dedicated their lives to getting you the real story, graphics and photographs are being mocked by people who write on the paper's blog, "Great...another 142 employees for Wal-Mart."

Across the nation, as newspapers continue to downsize and close, there are people in power who are secretly doing Fist Pumps because there are fewer reporters to shine a light on their misdeeds.

Today, after you read this, turn off your television and go buy a newspaper. The money you spend will be an investment into what's going on around you — and it will keep food on the table of a journalist who simply wants to report the news.