Photographer: Monte Isom
Years in the biz: 20+ years
Niche: Portrait-based commercial photography
Notable clients: HBO, Gatorade, Sony, Visa, Sports Illustrated
Buy me lunch
When Monte was in art school, they visited a studio and he decided he wanted to assist the photographer, Sandro. So did lots of other kids, but Monte was persistent and drove a hard bargain. He negotiated with Sandro to basically intern for free if Sandro bought him lunch every day, and he ended up assisting for 8 months before moving to NYC.
Elvis has (secretly) left the building
After 7-8 months of faxing resumes, dropping them off places and basically cold-calling all over the place, Monte and a friend found out about the second assistant leaving Albert Watson’s studio. They also found out that the studio manager had a thing for Elvis. Well, Monte had a friend whose boss had a life-size Elvis cardboard cutout in his office. They snuck Elvis out of the office and delivered him to the studio manager at Watson’s with a note. The stunt got them a call! There was only one full-time job, though, and Monte gave it to his friend. Monte still scored lots of freelance work from this gig, which landed him an even bigger opportunity.
When they tell you to “keep in touch”
Elizabeth Watson, Albert’s wife, had told Monte to call up HBO and Sports Illustrated. When he did, he got good feedback. Sports Illustrated told him to come back with some ideas…so he pitched the idea of shooting a female boxing competition, because Monte had been doing a personal project with photographing the lady boxers. This turned out to be his first real solo gig: 18 images on a double-page spread for Sports Illustrated. No biggie!
Monte was also well received at HBO, who told him to “keep in touch.” Well, what exactly does that mean? Monte has these tips:
- Stay top of mind without being a pest. Send out printed material about twice a year. You have to become familiar enough for people to say, “Oh, I remember throwing away this guy’s information last year!”
- Email every 3-4 months with an invitation (call to action) to check out a new website or similar.
- Connect with specific targets and stroke their egos. See an image you like? Do some investigative work to find out the creative director on the shoot, then send them an email, tweet, or mention and say something as simple as “Thanks for doing great work.” Reference that awesome thing you saw and be sincere.
- Remember it’s a numbers game. The more people you reach out to and are consistent with, the more likely something will come from it.
Why did the mushroom get the bid? Because he’s a fun guy…
Monte says he’s not the most creative photographer on the planet. Or even the most technical. He’s good at what he does, but so are a lot of other photographers. So why would he beat out two other guys? Because he’s a lot of fun.
Back in the day, Monte would go out 6 nights a week to entertain clients. Since then he’s started a family and has become more efficient, gathering groups together and introducing people. It’s always great to be the hub of the wheel and help other awesome people connect, because it boosts your own reputation as well.
Another cool thing Monte does is “behind the scenes” marketing. He likes to show clients exactly what they will get when they hire him. It’s like a pre-promise to deliver what the clients are looking for.
$2 under budget
Monte has one business practice quirk. He always adjusts his numbers to come in $2 under budget. His secret is that nobody questions what you’re spending if you are under the budget, and it leaves a good taste in the clients’ mouths. You never want to be the guy that goes over and makes everyone look bad!
Advice for newbies
You don’t need to go to business school, but you do need some business acumen. You need to know, when you’re starting out, the least you can do a job for and still 1) live indoors and 2) eat food. Free work will only lead to more free work, so make sure you know your numbers.
Also: what is attainable is only what you want to go after and how hard you want to work. Even greats like Albert Watson have to start somewhere, and he picked up a camera at age 29. You can do this and make it work.