I remember first seeing Arthur Meyerson’s images back in 1999 in Nikon World Magazine. The images stopped me in my tracks. The colors, the textures and the composition of the images forced you to stop and stare. Ever since then, Arthur has been a huge source of inspiration—both as a photographer and as an instructor. I haven’t taken any of his workshops, but I have taught a few times during the same week that he was teaching at the Santa Fe Workshops and we had a moment here and there to meet up and chat. Seeing someone such as himself, a true legend in the field of photography, teach photography workshops, showed me that not only is teaching a way to diversify your income but also a way to pass on your knowledge and experience.
One of those weeks we were both teaching at the Santa Fe Workshops, we were giving presentations of our work and it turned out that I was going on just before Arthur. Typically the instructors that are presenting sit together on the side of the auditorium. I don’t really remember much of my presentation but I do remember Arthur leaning over after I finished and sat down. He whispered into my ear, “Those are some damn fine images!” Well, that made my day, if not my week. It is one thing to get positive feedback and a whole other thing to get such positive feedback from a true master of the craft.
But, this blog post isn’t about me—it is about one of those rare photographers that is not only a master of his craft, but also someone who is a phenomenal teacher and mentor—and also a down-to-earth, kind-hearted soul. Arthur’s images have a painterly quality to them that underlies their honesty, and the moment. Many of his images in his latest book, The Journey, require closer inspection to derive the complex story behind the image and also to really see what Arthur was seeing.
The book is incredibly beautiful, both in terms of it’s layout and design, and also in the sequencing of the images. At the beginning of the book is a long in-depth interview that Arthur did with Anne Wilkes Tucker, a world-renown curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. That interview is a fascinating read—and it also sets the stage for the book, which is laid out in the same order as the topics of the interview. Arthur self-published the book so that he could craft it just as he wanted and that shows. If you are interested in purchasing the book you can do so via Arthur’s website.
What I love about Arthur’s work is that there is very little difference between his personal work and his commercial work. He was the lead photographer for Coca-Cola for twenty years, and worked with a who’s who of international corporations for decades. His has been an enviable career filled with so many highlights it is hard to even quantify the immensity of his success. Any photographer worth their salt and pursuing this craft professionally would give anything to have the career he has had. Without further ado, let’s dive into the conversation I had with Arthur about his career and the book…
Michael Clark (MC): I saw your work twenty-something years ago in Nikon World Magazine and was blown away then. Some of the images that really connected with me and really showed me a bit of your style are the images created for Coca-Cola. The logos were somewhat small and that forced the viewer to find the Coca-Cola logo, because it wasn’t obvious what the point of the image was exactly. I think that was brilliant. It’s something we could do with more in marketing these days. Can you tell us more about those assignments? Did you feel a lot of pressure when you were shooting these big ad jobs?
Arthur Meyerson (AM): Yeah, I’m sure I did [feel the pressure]. I never took anything casually. Being a freelance photographer there was always excitement because you never knew if the phone would ring, who it would be, what it would be, or where you’d be going. It was like every day was potentially magic. And I had a lot of those days. I had a lot of days where the phone didn’t ring either. But that is the business of freelance photography. And I really liked being a freelance photographer. I liked not knowing whether the phone would ring and when a client would call saying we want to send you to Asia or Europe–or here or there. We want to send you to the desert Southwest. It was always a great surprise.
With Coca-Cola, they came to me at a time when things were really peaking. I was very busy and I was in Chicago shooting an annual report for a company when my studio manager called and said, “Guess what? We got a call from Coca-Cola and they want to talk to you about doing some work.” They wanted to meet with me immediately. And my schedule was packed, this was in the fall, which was when we shot annual reports—pretty much the busiest time of year. I had one half-day where I was going to be in Houston and that was it. I had no time to go anywhere else. And so I talked to the folks at Coca-Cola and said, “I’d be very interested in talking to you, but I’ve only got this one slot and I can’t fly to Atlanta. Would you guys be willing to come to Houston?” Their response was, “Yeah, we’ll come meet you.” And I thought, Oh great. At least this hadn’t gone away yet.
We met and we talked and they showed me what they’d been doing. And they asked me what I would do different. They were showing me these situations that all look like they were done with central casting. They said, “Well, we would go to like LA or Hollywood and we would get models and we would put them in costumes and we would use these backgrounds. So what do you think of these?” And I said, “To be honest, that looks like what you did.” Then they asked “What would you do?” And I said, “For the money you’re spending to do that, we should go to the Philippines. We should go to Hungary. We should, we should go to all these places and let’s use real people and real situations and we’ll integrate product into the shot and make it more slice of life rather than there’s the can of Coke and I’m happy cause I’m drinking it.” It took a little persuading, but they said, “Well, okay, all right, well, we can try that. Um, we need to start immediately.” And I said, “Well guys, I can’t start until January 2nd.”
I thought this is going to go away. And so they went back to Atlanta and I thought it was gone but they called back and said, “Okay, we want to hire you January 2nd. And we want you for six weeks straight and we’re going to go around the world on your suggestion and go to these places.” And so yeah, there was pressure there because here the big shot [photographer] had thrown this idea out and it was accepted. Now you’re going to have to come through with it. But, it worked out great. It was the longest running client relationship I had for like 20 years, maybe longer. And you know, different agencies and design firms would come and go. I became a constant for a long time, I wasn’t the only photographer that shot for them, but I was the primary I think. And it was great to have that opportunity and then to be able to come up with ideas and they would say, okay, let’s try that. I remember after a couple of years of doing that idea, they wanted something different. I said, well, let’s try this. And I had recently gotten a Fuji GX617 panorama camera, and had been doing some other assignments with that. I ended up doing a series of portraits. They were environmental portraits of people and product around the world, and it was with the Fuji GX617. We used a battery-operated strobe to light the people.
They always liked me coming up with something different. At some point, you did feel put upon, but you also felt like, well, that’s why you’re here. That’s why they keep coming back to you. But I think my favorites without a doubt were the ones that you’re referring to which were very editorial in feel. I wanted them to have a, for lack of a better term, a National Geographic quality to them with real people in a real situation and they just happened to have the product within them. They [the art directors] at times would overdo it by saying we need to put more Coke out there so we can see more of that. I said, “You can do it, but you run the risk of going from real to unreal. Uh, you’re paying for it. We’ll do that, but I’m going to shoot it both ways.” I always would do it their way, but I also did it my way.
I think lastly with Coke, I remember we were in China and it was right when China had opened up in the early 80s and we were down in a fishing village and it was an incredible sunrise. And we found these fishermen and this guy was doing a thing with these backlit nets and it was killer. It was a beautiful silhouette of this guy. The net was glowing and he was pulling on it and I gave him a bottle of Coke and he’s got a Coke in his hand and he still pulling on the net. And you know, what else could it be—that silhouette of the bottle that, that shape that everybody knows. I loved that shot. I remember when I was shooting it, the client said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, look at the light, look at it. This is great.” The art director said, “Yeah, but nobody’s going to know that’s a Coke.” And I said, “What else could it be, man? You know, look at that shape.” We argued about it. Eventually. He said, “Well, go ahead and shoot it if you want.” And I said, “I’m going to.” And it got used.
I think so much of the type of photography that we do [commercial photography], it’s important to be able to have the confidence in what you’re doing and also to be able to kind of lead the client. That’s part of what they’re paying for. If they’re just paying for a hired gun, then in my opinion, they weren’t getting their money’s worth. And I really wasn’t interested if it was heavily art directed. I didn’t like it. I like collaboration. So if they allowed me to do what I did best, I think they got their money’s worth.
MC: Hopefully they got better stuff, which they liked more than they could have ever dreamed up, when you were allowed to use your imagination and your creativity.
AM: Well, I don’t know if they liked it more, but they got more stuff. And generally I think most of my things probably were accepted. And even those that were rejected at one time [came back around]. There’s a picture that you may remember of mine. It’s was shot in Norway. It’s the side of a hillside and it looks like a tapestry. It’s all these little houses, really colorful houses, in a snow scene and within that is a red and white Coca-Cola truck small in the frame. (See image below)
MC: That’s the image I have in my mind actually. I love that image.
AM: They didn’t like that shot at first. And I said, “You’re kidding!” because I choreographed that shot. I was trying to do something else that wasn’t working over a bridge. And then I looked across the Fjord and it was like, Oh my God, look at that scene. Let’s put a truck over there. When they saw it the art director said, “Oh no, the truck’s too small.” I said, “Nobody’s going to think that’s a Pepsi truck. I mean, come on, man.” We argued about it. He had final say and it never got used. About 20 years later, when they built the World of Coke exhibit in Atlanta, they called me to buy additional usage to my images for a huge gallery show display. It was all my work. And that was one of the images they wanted to use. So in the end I felt good. You know, sometimes it comes back in different ways to us. So Coca-Cola, that was a good one.
MC: Your career spans a wide range of assignments in the commercial space. Can you relay a few highlights of your career?
AM: I’d gotten what I thought was the dream assignment, Michael. It was to go down route 66 and shoot whatever you want, any way you want. This was an assignment for Russell Athletic, the sports clothing brand, but I didn’t have to shoot any product. It was go and shoot anything. It was a road trip. It was the ultimate road trip and I plotted it out.
The route starts in Chicago and goes to Santa Monica or vice versa. And I thought we’ll fly to Chicago, we’ll start there and we’ll go through the entire highway in as much as it exists and road trip all the way to the pier in Santa Monica. We had it all figured out, put a budget to it, figured doing it over 10 days or so—I can’t remember exactly. That ended up being a few hundred miles a day, probably 200 to 300 miles a day. What ended up happening is we’d be going down the road and it’d be like, “Do we stop and shoot this? Do we wait for the light? Would it be better?” So a lot of decisions had to be made as we were going, but that was sort of the joy and agony of doing a trip like that and sticking to the budget and sticking to the timeframe.
Backing up, the one thing that I thought about beforehand was, there’s been a million road trips. How am I going to shoot this? You can do Robert Frank’s The Americans through America, that from the hip kind of shooting. And I thought, but that’s been done. Then again, I could shoot anything I wanted. So I got familiar with the FUJI GX617 panoramic camera, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with. It was an awesome camera. Fucking fantastic camera. I shot it like a view camera. I got a eight by 10 piece of glass back plate and I cut it down and used clothespins to fit it on the inside so that I could get super precise. The viewfinder on top [of that camera], wasn’t exact, and I wanted things to be precise. So using that and a black cloth and a loop, I would see exactly what I was getting. I was shooting everything from architecture to landscape, the crazy things you would see, including funky motels and crazy signage. The whole premise was based on this “panoramic” idea because I kept thinking about a road trip, and how you’re in a car. Your point of view was that long horizontal windshield. And I thought, okay, that makes sense. I’m going to utilize that as my reason. And I’m going to shoot the entire project with the Fuji GX617 panoramic camera, which was what I did. I backed myself up with a 35mm camera, just for myself, but the main part was going to be shot with that panoramic camera.
I explained [my concept] to the client and they, they were kind of like, “So it’s going to be this long, horizontal, and we’re going to have to make that work in the catalog or directory?” They said, “Well, go for it.” And it was awesome. It was great. And it was frustrating. There were times when you had a vertical [oriented shot], but I wanted to keep it all horizontal.
So I really had to figure it out. The camera really only had one point of view. Luckily, they built a version of the Fuji GX617 with interchangeable lenses. So you kind of had a wide, a normal and a short telephoto. So I had had one with interchangeable lenses [that we rented] and then I had my own, older version with a fixed lens as a backup. That was it.
It was fun, so much fun to have made that trip. And my only regret when I think about that trip was even if it would’ve cost me—I did it within budget—is that I didn’t do it both ways because I know there were things that I missed and that I would have gotten going back that I didn’t only going the one way, but yeah, that’s afterthought.
MC: The Journey is one of the most amazing photography fine art books that I have—and I own quite a few. The image on the cover “Water Wall” blew me away (as do many of the images in the book). Can you tell me about that cover image and how you created it? That image is like a painting.
AM: It is. And I thought the same thing. I was leading a trip to Japan with George Nobechi. It was one of our first trips and we were checking into a hotel halfway through our trip. I let the others go ahead of me. I was just standing in line there at the reception killing time. I looked behind me and there was this glass wall with water running down. It was just beautiful. I thought, well shit, it’s going to be 20 minutes before I get my chance to check in so I went over and was looking at it, then I could see people through it since you can walk on either side of it. The wall was this black piece of glass with a beautiful illusion with the water running through it and I began to shoot it.
I began to play with the perspective and I began to see the light and the color. Then I thought, you know, this would be really fun to kind of play with exposure a little bit. So I tried dragging the shutter a little bit [i.e. using slow shutter speeds] and shooting at 1/15th second or an 1/8th second to get that kind of runny liquidy mercurial feel. And it started to get even more interesting. But what was happening was that people were passing by [on the other side of the glass]. I did want figures in there. I thought it was important not to just be totally abstract but at such slow shutter speeds the people would be blurs–they were the walking too fast, too close or too far away from it. And so I just began just shooting a series and shooting and shooting and then this one person, I’m pretty sure that was a woman that walked by at a nice, slow pace and click. That was the image. I framed her right in the center there. I looked at the camera and went, wow, that’s okay. I can go check in now.
I didn’t think anything more of it. I thought I had a nice picture. When I looked at that image on the laptop later on I could see the beauty and the light and the color. The only thing that’s really sharp in that image is her hand, which is down almost to the bottom of the frame. I was shooting that with a Leica Q and I was really testing it. That was shot at ISO 12,800. And again, when I think about these astronomical ISOs that we can shoot at now as opposed to ISO 200 or 400, it’s like a whole other world. I couldn’t have made this image without [the new digital technology]. I have a 30X40-inch print of that image here in the studio and it holds up pretty damn well, which is a real credit to what can be done nowadays with our digital equipment. So that’s how that came about. It became the cover.
MC: Your latest book “The Journey” was self-published. Can you tell us about the decision to self-publish and the process?
AM: I shopped around my first book, The Color of Light, for maybe 10 years. [Below is a classic image from the Color of Light.] It was all personal work. It was work that I’d done on the side when I was on an assignment. I shot for myself on my off time. I wanted to give that work a life. Other than slideshows, I wanted to put bookends around that work. So I put [that first book] together and I shopped it and I’ve got a stack of the nicest rejections. They just said, no, this just doesn’t fit our format and what we do. I thought, well, maybe it won’t happen.
I was having lunch one day with an old college buddy of mine. He has several of my prints. And he said, “Hey, when are you going to do your fucking book?” And I said, “Well, you know, I don’t know if it’s going to happen.” He said, “Well, what does it cost?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been told that it might be this much.” And he said, “Well, what if I gave you a third?” And I went, “You’d do that?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, what do you want?” And he said, “A book.” I said, “Well, if you do that, I’ll give you more than a book. I’ll give you a few books. I’ll give you a deluxe edition.” I mentioned it to somebody else. Not much later after that, somebody in one of my classes, a participant who was well fixed said, “Well, I’ll give you a third.” And I thought, okay, I’ve got two thirds. I’ll do the other third myself and believe in myself. That’s how that first one came around. The beauty of self publishing is this: when you self publish, you get exactly what you want. You just have to pay for it. I think secondly, you’re also the distributor.
I remember when the book came out and I handed it to Sam Abell, who was very instrumental in helping me. We’ve been talking books for years—always have. And when I handed him the book, even before he opened it, he asked “I have one question for you. How do you feel about your book?” I said, “If I die tomorrow, this is the book I wanted to do.” And he said, “Good on you. Most photographers don’t feel that way. In fact, they feel the exact opposite.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Oh yeah.” I felt very strongly about that. And I still do. So I was very pleased with the self-publishing route when it came time to do the second one. This time I wanted to open it up more. I wanted to do more.
One day I was having lunch with Anne Wilkes Tucker (a well-known American museum curator of photography). I’ve known Anne for years, but I’ve never, nor would I ever, beg on her to do this or that for me. It was always just a friendship, respect, kind of thing. She was a colleague. And she said, “Well, what are you working on now?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got this idea for another book.” And she said, “You’re going to do another book?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to.” And she said, “Oh, we should do an interview.” And I went, “Okay, can I get that in writing?” And she said, “No, I’m serious.” And I said, “I’d be more than honored.” She said, “Send me, everything that’s been written about you, interviews, audio recordings, videos, everything.” Within a few days, I’d put it all together and gave it to her and then I didn’t hear anything for a month or two months. It was about three months later when I thought she had changed her mind, gotten busy or forgotten when she called me one day and says, “Okay, you ready? Let’s do the interview.” I asked, “You really went through all that shit.” And she said, “Oh yeah. I wanted to get a complete idea of you, your work and I wanted to ask the questions that have never been asked. I wanted to go deeper.” We spent three sessions doing the interviews. From that interview is where the ideas for the book evolved.
MC: So it was before you had fully put the book [The Journey] together that you did the interview?
AM: Yeah. I had it transcribed and I gave it all to the designer who said, “Just give me everything.” He said, “Okay, I’ll get back to you. I’ve got to go through this and organize it.” He broke it down into what became the organization of the interview kind of early beginnings, influences, process, teaching, blah, blah, blah. That was the roadmap right there—it all evolved from the talk with Anne.
I love interviews much more than reading somebody’s essays or thesis. Some things get a little too academic and I think lose people and somebody just going on and on about a photographer in his work or her work. I don’t know. I love the fly on the wall aspect of being there and hearing the back and forth between two people whom I respect.
It became really obvious that I was going to have to write for this book. The first book was (his words, not mine) an appreciation by Sam Abell followed by an introduction by Jay Maisel and then my page. At the back of that book was an interview between myself and John Paul Caponigro. It was all photographers, talking photography about another photographer because I figured in the end, that’s going to be my audience. It’ll be my participants, colleagues, and family and friends that buy the book. It’s not going to be something flying off the bookshelf at Barnes and Noble, which as we both know, these days went from being a big section of the book store to a shelf. The realization of how many books you do and who’s going to buy them is a big thing. So anyway, that led to me doing a lot of writing for each section, breaking it down and what, putting backstories in. When I talked to people about the first book, the only thing I heard that people wished for is that there’s no writing in between the images. Many people said I would have loved to known more about this picture or that picture. And so it became obvious I need to talk. That whole writing process was going to be difficult because I don’t really consider myself a writer. And my designer said, “Write and write fast. It will all come to you. Just get it down on paper. We can fix it later,” which we did. I think your voice is so key to what you do, just like your photos. I mean, that’s what, you know, people react to.
I’m very, very pleased with how The Journey turned out and now am considering the third book. I’d like it to be in trilogy. I’m still hard pressed to decide how and what it’s going to be. But yeah, there’ll be a third book at some point. I’d like it to come out probably in the next three to four years. That gives me time to kind of think more about what I wanna do. I’m not interested in doing 20 or 30 books like a lot of other photographers. I want to self publish, which I’ve actually grown to enjoy doing (besides the distribution), which is the toughest part. You know, you’re the guy with the tin cup and the pencil saying buy a book, as opposed to having, you know, a publisher who is out there doing it for you.
MC: How many copies did you make of The Journey?
AM: 2,500. What I don’t think a lot of people realize is you’re probably looking at selling anywhere from a thousand to 1500 books, maybe 2000 total. If you are Annie Leibovitz, maybe 10,000 to 15,000. But, for the average Joe, photo books are expensive to produce. It’s a losing proposition for most publishers. By self publishing I’ve made money. I’ve made good money doing both books.
I only did a thousand on the first one cause I was going to be modest and I had a budget. I wanted to stay within my budget. Only time in my life I’ve stayed on budget, but I just figured I had to. So this one here, at 2,500, the books still continue to sell. I wanted it to sell over time. I have the facility to store them, so I’m good with that. In any case, there’s are certain pluses and minuses to everything as you know, and I guess for me, I’m more happy with the pluses, which is I’m getting the product I want.
MC: Not only are you a master photographer but you are also a phenomenal instructor and mentor. Do you enjoy teaching? How have you found that transition into teaching?
AM: I want to answer it honestly. I’ve only really taken one workshop and it was with Ernst Haas back in the eighties, and it was a trip to Japan. It was life changing in many aspects, but the biggest one being him and how he affected me. I can’t speak for everybody in that group, but I’m sure they felt the same. A connection was created. I never met him before that. He was on the Mount Rushmore of great photographers, certainly as the great color photographer. I just thought what an opportunity. In that two weeks of traveling around Japan, I was lucky enough to get some opportunities of just him and me time. That grew into a friendship that blossomed and continued afterwards—one of those things [that grew out of that workshop] was a desire to teach. When I finished that trip, which was put together by the Maine Photographic Workshops, I contacted one of the guys on the trip who was one of the principals at the workshops. I said, “You know, I would really love to teach.” And he said, “Well, I’ll talk to our guy there who handles that? His name is Reid Callanan [now the founder and director of the Santa Fe Workshops for the past 30 years].” I spoke with Reid and he was very nice. And he said, “Come up with a synopsis of what you want to do.” And I did, and they put it out there and I had one person sign up. Reid wrote me back a very sweet note. And it was like, “It didn’t happen this time, but if this is something you really want to do, stick with it, continue to keep putting your name out there and it’ll happen.” A couple of years later, I got a call from Reid about the Santa Fe Workshops. I knew Santa Fe had just been around for a year or two, but he asked me if I wanted to teach.
From then forward, when I started teaching, and I’m being honest, I really and truly liked the idea of it. But more importantly, I felt like it was an opportunity to give back to a profession that had been good to me. At that point, I’d been in the business 15 years or so, maybe more, but I really felt that gratitude. Initially, most of my participants, maybe half of them, were professionals. That totally shifted over time for whatever reason. And it’s this thing [teaching] that’s always stayed with me. Every summer I’d dedicate a week or so to teaching.
I remember having a conversation with Jay Maisel early on about teaching. And he said to me, “Now if you do this, you do it and do it 100%.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “I mean that if a job comes along, you put the job on the back burner and you do the workshop. You make the commitment, or you don’t. If you say you want to do it, and then you back off because you got a job, or something better came along, that’s not fair to the workshop. That’s not fair to the people that signed up. At some point, you know, you’ll get a reputation and nobody’s going to be asking you to come teach.” So I thought, “Wow, okay, I’m going to keep that in mind.” And I try to abide by that because, you know, a commercial assignment comes along and it pays a lot of money, a lot more money than a workshop.
I will say that I never turned a workshop down ever. I had one time when I had an illness and I had to bow out. I got Jay [Maisel] to fill in for me for that workshop. I’ve had times where I’ve had to talk to the client and it’s like, “Can we even do it the week before? Or the week after I’ve got this other commitment?” I think I lost one job. But I kept the workshop. And it’s that sense of dedication to the workshops as well as to the people. I think you have to look at it as they’re putting down as serious chunk of change to come spend a week with you. They want to come be with you and hear what you have to say and watch you and listen and hear you talk about their work, et cetera.
I think the more I did it, I felt like I was doing a better job over time. I think I’m a better teacher now than I was. I’m sure it’s experience. It’s a real sense of joy to watch people succeed. Not everybody is going to be a great photographer. The great majority of people I get in my classes are, we’ll say serious amateurs. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the word amateur. In fact, I think it should be held up on a pedestal because it comes from “Amore,” which means to love. I’m as serious an amateur as anybody.
I may have had a professional career, but it’s the amateur that is the thing that I think speaks to our passions, speaks to what we love doing. I feel that privilege of teaching. Over the years, there’s been a number of great locations. There’s been this comradery. These people that you meet, a lot of them keep coming back for more, which either suggest they’re crazy, gluttons for punishment, or that they really like it and want more of being with you. That’s an honor. I think it needs to be held like that. I’ve never taken a workshop for granted. I’ve always considered it a privilege.
When I walked away from the commercial world, I wanted to dedicate myself to teaching, to taking and leading people on these photo trips and also to my own work. I’d always done my own work. But it was more important now than ever to continue to. I think it’s so important for a photographer to continue to show what they’ve done lately? I think it was Woody Allen or somebody who said, “You know, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” You have to continue to keep pushing the boundaries and doing new things and I get great joy out of it. I feel privileged, and have a love for teaching.
MC: In your podcast interview with Ibarionex Perello way back in 2016 you talked about how the commercial world has changed from how it was back when you were shooting a lot of your commercial work—can you elaborate on that?
AM: I stopped doing commercial work, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago because the handwriting was on the wall. I could start to see changes that were bothering me about the business—and I loved the business. I really did. Digital was part of it, but digital wasn’t the reason. It was just a technological thing that was inevitable and the genie was out of the bottle. I taught myself enough [about digital] to where I could go to a client and say, it’s as good as film. It’s better than film. Here’s why, and this is how we do it. But until I got to that point, I couldn’t do it. And quite frankly, most of my clients didn’t want digital, they wanted film. They didn’t trust digital yet.
I also began to notice that collaboration seemed to be kind of out the window too. I like going on a shoot with a really good art director or even a good client or both. I always felt two sets of eyes were better than one because you were always trying to do better work. Nine times out of 10, it was up to you to get the images. But I was open. When I’m out there shooting, I try to be open to anything and everything [including the art directors input]. So I saw the collaboration thing disappearing. I found that with the younger art directors that I was dealing with toward the end I’d ask, “You’re coming on the shoot?” And, they replied “Uh, no, no, no. I’m gonna, um, I don’t, I don’t need to go.” I said, “It’s not a matter of need to, you ought to want to, you know, you’ve gotta go see what’s going on and see your idea come to life.” And nine times out of 10, I would hear this, “No, no, no. Just go out and make the shots. I’ll fix them in Photoshop.” Every time I heard that, I said, “Look if I do my job, right you’re not going to have to fix it in Photoshop.” I like getting it in camera, whether it was film or even digital. It’s not like I have anything against Photoshop. It’s a great tool. But it was just that thinking because so much of what I shot did require manipulation.
There was something else I was thinking of Michael. What was it? Oh, usage rights. Usage rights were something my generation and the generation before fought so hard to maintain. I started to see that going away too. I mean, first thing you started to hear in a discussion about a job was the client saying, “We’ll own all rights, or we want all rights for this and that,” which amounted to they’ll own the copyright or this will be “work for hire.” I never sold my copyright. I own all my work. I lost a lot of work [because I never sold my copyright]. I maybe made my reputation, as Ernst Hass once told me, by saying no. Well, I said “no” a lot and I lost [a lot of work]. But when I got what I got, I got it on terms I was happy with.
And I wanted them [the client] to be happy too. It was real important that you have that connection with you and your client. They were getting what I felt they needed and wanted and were willing to pay for it. And I was going to give them that, but certain things I wasn’t going to give up. I felt if we go into a job like that, you’re going to be happy as the client, because you’re getting what you want, you know, what you’re paying for and you know what you’re getting, and I’m going in happy because I know what I’m getting paid. I know these will be my images. It was clean. I saw more and more where it was the demand of this, that, and the other [usage rights]. And, you know, I would say I’m sorry, I don’t work that way.
It’s important to me to own the work. I care that much about it. And if you want additional rights or usage, absolutely. We can negotiate that. But the more you want, the more the price goes up. It won’t be the same price. I wasn’t a great businessman, but I was better than most photographers because most photographers were terrible. There are the guys that are great photographers and terrible business people. There are the guys that are mediocre photographers, but pretty good at business. The successful guy or gal is the one that can do both. If they can’t [do both] then for God’s sake, you need to get a rep [or an] agent. I never, well, I take it back, for about a year toward the end [of my commercial career] I had a rep. He was a dear, dear friend of mine who was a very good rep, and I’d known him since we where kids. He kept bugging me to do something. And I said, “All right, let’s try a few and see, I’m not keen on it.” We did some stuff, but it was the idea of giving somebody 25 to 30% of the fee. And again, you had to be happy with the deal.
I remember once going to New York, I had been getting hit on by a lot of reps. And I finally thought I’m going to go to New York and I’m going to get in the hotel room, park myself there for a week, and I’m gonna schedule meetings [with reps] and they’re going to come to me and we’re gonna sit down and talk. And I went and did that for about three or four days. And I met with many of the top reps. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea [to get a rep], but the one thing that was always explained, it’s like getting married and quite frankly, I didn’t fall in love.
I knew some people had really big reputations. What would happen [in those meetings] is I would ask, “Okay, so let’s say this job comes along from X? How are you going to sell me when I know you have a stable of photographers like Jay Maisel, Stephen Wilkes, and Greg Heisler.” And they said, “Well, at that point, then your portfolio would sell you.” I said, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s not what I wanted to hear. I mean, if that’s the case, I can do that.” Yeah, that was it. There is no other business I know of where the agent gets that huge a fucking percentage. I just thought it was crazy.
So, once again doing things my way, maybe the wrong way, but my way, I didn’t really go for that idea. So that didn’t happen. And like I said, I missed a lot of stuff. You know, I can pick someone like Stephen Wilkes, who is a very good friend. I’ve known Stephen for years. He’s had an extremely successful career. Still does. I assume he still has representation, but he did for a long time–and it equated to some big things that I didn’t get.
I remember situations where I bid against other people–and in fact, that was another thing that was different [back in my day]. You would get called to bid on an assignment, which I didn’t mind. I would always ask, “So who else are you talking to?” And if they were honest, they would tell me X, Y, and Z. And if X, Y, and Z were notable people, then I thought, okay, this is for real. And if I lose it to Jay, or if I lose it to Greg, I’m good with it. Because while I felt like I was as good, if not better for the job than them, if they went with them, I knew they were serious. And I knew that they were going for the look and the feel, the style where it really made a difference. It wasn’t the bottom line.
You know, there was that aspect of it that I liked, and I was able to keep up with my competition. You mentioned the other day that you had gotten something into the Communication Arts Photo Annual. CA was like the wall street journal of our business. I mean, you know if you made it into CA that was big. I remember when I had a feature article [in CA] that was a big thing, but in every annual you wanted to get a picture or two or three or more in there, because people really paid attention and work came from that. Not only that, I was always looking to see who else had stuff in the CA Photo Annual? What did they do? Wow, that’s amazing. And you kind of knew who your competition was and what they did. And it was, that was it. That was a special time that I think has gone.
MC: Any last words?
AM: I think I’ve had the best of all worlds, Michael. I really do. When I walk into a room, I feel like the luckiest guy in the room having done what I did and making a living at it. A lot of people would give a body part to do that. So, yeah, it’s been good.
This interview was conducted on May 13, 2020 via Skype and has been edited down for this blog post. The conversation lasted well over an hour, closer to two hours and we covered a wide variety of topics. What is included here is the meat of that interview—as publishing the entire interview would be a huge, ungainly blog post. My sincere thanks to Arthur for taking the time to do this interview. If you would like to order Arthur’s book The Journey you can find it on his website. Buy it! You won’t regret it!
All images used with permission ©Arthur Meyerson.