CD: Let’s start with your long career at Southern Living. Tell us how that job came about and some of the pleasures and trials of being a staff photographer tasked with exploring the South?
Art Meripol: I had been working for about 13 years as a news photographer. It was great but I began to tire of the hard news. As I shot more and more of the paper’s food, features, and fashion I began to develop a portfolio that worked with Southern Living. An editor I worked with on home interior shoots met the Homes Editor of the magazine and told him about me. It took two interviews over nine months before they hired me in 1989. I shot both homes and travel for a year before becoming the senior photographer for the travel department. Best job ever, a dream job for me. The magazine’s extremely loyal readers feel such a sense of ownership and trust. When I called someone, anyone, and said I was with the magazine and wanted to shoot something I was welcomed with palpable excitement.
I traveled somewhere almost every week to photograph the best of the South with a generous expense account and the best gear available. The magazine was extremely successful and money for any need was there.
Over time I came to understand that the best and most gratifying part of the job was the opportunity to meet and photograph people every week who were deeply passionate about what they were doing. There were no bad assignments though some trips were definitely better than others. After 9-11 the travel world lost a lot of luster. Then in 2008 the loss of ad revenue with turmoil in the economy took a toll. Time, Inc. is the parent company and repeated cuts in staff those last few years were a painful challenge. Workloads increased and the only way I could stay off the road a full week was by taking vacation. We went through a handful of Creative Directors in five or six years. With each change those of us left on staff had to adapt our look and style to theirs.
CD: A year ago, your world changed. You shifted from a staff position to freelance. How have you managed this change?
Art Meripol: After some thing over 3,000 hotel nights and multiple millions of miles I was ready to let someone else take it on. Most shooters start out needing to develop visual, marketing, and business skills. I already knew how to work with art directors and and how to visually develop a story and how to shoot for the page. I already had contacts all over the South. But I was well and truly deficient on the business and marketing/self-promotion side. I knew for a few years I’d eventually end up freelancing. As much as time allowed between trips I studied the business and marketing side of freelance but I couldn’t do much more than that until I left the magazine. That happened at the end of January 2013 on a Friday and the following Monday I jumped right into my new life. I set up an office here at home and signed up for insurance and a business license, had an attorney form an LLC for me and then began working on a website.
I know Travel with a capital ‘T’ and assumed I’d still do that. I assumed after a few weeks off the road I’d get a ‘jones’ to GO. Hasn’t happened. I am so much happier finally being home at the end of the day. My wife says she hasn’t seen me smile this much in a long time. Though there is more financial insecurity without that ‘every two weeks’ direct deposit I’m having a ball. I set a goal of averaging one shoot a week by the end of the first year. Happily I surpassed that and so far this year I’ve averaged 3 or 4 shoot days a week. I am finally getting some attention from a few Ad agencies and shooting for various local, state, and national magazines.
CD: What advice do you have for staff shooters who find themselves in similar situations by being downsized or RIF-ed?
Art Meripol: It’s easy to lose confidence in yourself and take it personally. Keep your head up and keep working. Lean on friends for their knowledge. Call contacts and let them know you’re available and ready. Help them by making clear how you can be a solution. Then stay in contact with them regularly. I personally find it hard to push myself out there. But there is no other way. I smile and they smile too. Editors and Art Directors hire freelancers they know and like working with. They don’t want to take a risk on an unknown. They need to feel comfortable with you. That may not happen the first time you talk to them. Eventually they’ll have something last minute and their ‘usual’ person won’t be available. You want to be the first person that comes to mind. If you nail that first shoot you’ll get called back.
As absolutely necessary as a website is I found a printed book is extremely important too. Somehow the printed page is more ‘real’. Working on staff I had no need for a portfolio. Now I have a basic portfolio that hopefully showcases my skills in many areas. Because of the large body of work I had to draw from I needed help organizing a portfolio that showed my skillset and had a good flow. I ended up working with the folks at EYEIST to help edit and order the images for good continuity. I’ve recently developed a second and third book tailored for use bidding for a couple specific jobs. I only had one meeting without a print portfolio and it was a total failure. I learned not to walk in empty handed. When I show the books I always have an unbound signed print in the back as a ‘leave-behind’. That print hopefully ends up on their wall and keeps my name in front of them. Hopefully it also elicits comments from others who wander into their office. I also just put together my first promo cards and will be mailing those shortly.
CD: Now that you are on your own, how do you manage your time and are you working on any long-term personal projects? How freeing does it feel to be out of the yoke of the corporate world and into being responsible for your own career path?
Art Meripol: I have so much to learn still. I’m developing a database of contacts for my promo pieces. I spend a couple hours a week sharpening my technical and lighting skills. I occasionally set up a tabletop shot or portrait here at home just to try lighting ideas. I read a lot of blogs to keep up with the market and trends. I also stay in touch with clients via social media where I’m trying to develop more presence. I don’t expect to get much work that way, but many clients use it and it’s a way to stay in front of them without direct contact.
I loved my career in the ‘corporate’ world and have zero regrets. But at this time in my life I couldn’t be happier to be where I am. Being home more has done my family and me a world of good. I’m getting to know my own community in ways I never had a chance to do before. I’m taking on a wide variety of shoots including some in areas new to me. I love the challenge of jumping into the deep end and not being sure I can pull it off. I’ve regained confidence lost in the last few years. Since I’m not strictly a Travel shooter any more I have to redefine exactly what I am. Fortunately, the skills needed to successfully shoot travel are broad based and translate well into other areas.
CD: You are headed to Charleston, South Carolina to teach a travel photography workshop on Charleston. How did that come about? Do you plan to teach more workshops in the future?
Art Meripol: I’m extremely jazzed to be doing this workshop. Richard Ellis, an amazing photographer now based in Charleston, is developing the workshops along the lines of the workshops by Santa Fe and Maine Media. It’s a great destination and especially perfect for Travel. I’m not sure how Richard discovered my work but I was tickled he asked. I learned so much over the years about creating storytelling images with a strong sense-of-place. I always believed my photos needed to inform and explain but with beauty. Much of that starts long before heading to the airport. I really hope I can share all those hard earned skills. If I feel like I was successful and the workshop will have me back I’d love to teach again.
CD: What advice would you give to a college student or aspiring professional photographer who is considering entering the world of travel photography?
Art Meripol: Nothing beats shooting -working and doing it as much as you possibly can. Look at other travel shooters’ work. Read travel magazines and try to figure out how they shoot food and hotels, lifestyle and nightlife, and how they use those photos on the page. Read the photo credits and Google those shooters. Their websites will showcase their best work. Many have great blogs and share a lot. See what there is to learn.
You’ll need a website. Clean and simple works for me. My contact info shows no matter which page is up. Assemble a very tightly edited portfolio keeping in mind you’ll be remembered by the weakest thing you show.
If you make promises, deliver! Be professional in all your actions and in all areas of your work. Be prompt, neatly dressed, prepared, polite, patient, positive, and drop any ego.
Photographing travel in Singapore, Mumbai, Paris, and Bali would be great but there are travel stories in your own hometown. A good travel story informs, inspires you to go while at the same time lets you ‘experience’ the place through the photos.
Stories need focus. A story is more than a collection of pictures. Some destinations might be too large to handle. Stories focused on one facet of a place are easier to accomplish and sell for publication. Ultimately my best work entices a reader to go and do exactly what I shot.
What’s in Art Meripol’s bag?
The intensity of travel over the years forced me to find the fastest and most efficient workflow possible. I ingest to the desktop and external drive using PhotoMechanic using my own naming convention. I do a quick initial edit and add metadata there before dragging the file into LR5. Then adjustments are made to any images I want to consider. Finally I’ll reopen the edits in PhotoMechanic to choose final selects before opening those in Photoshop for any needed final tweaks. It sounds like a lot of back and forth but it works for me.
I use Canon gear, the 5D Mk III and a Mk II. I keep backups to my backups since things go wrong and on the road you have to keep moving. I use a 70-200 and 16-35 for the majority of shoots. But I couldn’t live without the 24, 45 and 90 Tilt-Shift lenses. I am a stickler for straight lines. The 90 is great for food on location. I also use the 50 1.2 more and more for the ‘natural’ look and feel it brings. Everything goes in ThinkTank bags. I used Elinchrom Rangers for years on the road. Finally my back said no more. Since I have so many light modifiers specific to Elinchrom I bought their lightweight Quadras. I’ve been extremely happy with them.