Find A Photographer Find An Assistant Join ASMP Join the Mailing List

Best of ASMP 2008

A trip to the airport to give a lesson in the zone system to an assistant led Atlanta-based John Slemp to the promising niche of fine art print sales of classic aircraft. His striking images met with an enthusiastic response and his subsequent research uncovered a school of painters who make their living from aviation artwork. Slemp now markets fine art prints at aviation trade shows, on his e-commerce Web site and through an expanding network of sources, ranging from the unexpected to the still untapped.

John Slemp — Atlanta, GA

Web site:
Project: Aviation images for fine art photography outlets.

© John Slemp
All images in this article © John Slemp.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

JS: I have been shooting as a professional since 1996. I assisted full time for 5 years prior to that. I’ve been making pictures for 24 years, including my time as an amateur.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JS: Since 1993, so 15 years. Have been a local chapter leader/volunteer, and served 5 years on the National Board. I still enjoy the chapter meetings when time permits.

© John Slemp

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JS: Mostly people on location, although I’m contemplating a move towards aviation as my primary specialty. I don’t have much in the way of “aerial” work, and that is what people think of when an aviation specialty is mentioned.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

JS: One of my greatest desires with this work is to have the most flexibility, and the highest quality possible, so I decided early on that I wanted to shoot all of these images on film. That may be contrary to what one might expect to hear, now that digital capture is all the rage, but there are several reasons for this. I shot some of this work digitally last year, mostly due to time constraints, and I regret having done so now. It has reaffirmed my decision to shoot film for this body of work. By using sheet film (or roll film), I can customize the development, thereby giving me the best negative possible. Once it’s developed, I can scan it in 16-bit mode with an Imacon scanner at very high resolution, usually 400 mb. This will allow for all of the possibilities that a digital workflow brings, and to output the files on large printers. My reasoning is that film is still the best way to store a file, long term, and I still like the way it looks, especially for this type of work. I also still enjoy using my film cameras, and the possible “looks” (tilt/shift, vignetting, selective focus, etc.) they give as well. Yes, I know it can be done on the computer, but I guess I’m just a purist when it comes to that sort of thing. Also, I figure that scanners will continue to improve, so that 10 years from now, I can make even better looking scans and prints. If these images were to be shot utilizing digital capture, I will forever be locked into that file and, for the most part, that resolution.

© John Slemp

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

JS: Not to sound like an egotist, but I think it’s my “aesthetic.” Just about any good pro can make a fine photograph, but of all the photographers whom I have admired, it was their unique way of seeing a subject that was the discerning factor. Face it, we all use pretty much the same gear and variations on the theme. So after a while, it’s not about the stuff we make pictures with. The really great photographers have a vision that they are true to, and it shows in their work. For instance, you can tell a Rodney Smith image just by looking at it. It has his “signature…”

© John Slemp

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JS: Having studied a fair amount of aviation photography, especially now that I’ve decided to concentrate on it, I haven’t really seen anyone pursue it strictly from an “art” point of view. There are many, many well-done aviation photographs that are “record” shots, but they don’t really delve into why an aircraft is beautiful. As man-made objects, their structures, while purposefully functional, can also be quite striking in their design. I think that the blend of the functional and the aesthetic are what really attracts me to the subject matter. As an aside, I really like hearing the stories behind the creation of a particular airplane too. Did you know that the Spirit of St. Louis was built on the second floor of a building in San Diego? The story of how they got it out is quite interesting.

© John Slemp

ASMP: As a companion to your editorial and advertising work, you recently began producing and marketing aviation images as fine art. Describe how you became involved with aviation photography, and your strategy for marketing these images as fine art.

JS: It began almost by accident. I had an intern in the summer of 2001, and we went to an airfield south of Atlanta to work on the Zone System. I had my 4x5 field camera and about 20 film holders loaded with Tri-X. We stumbled upon a beautiful DC-3 parked on the ramp, and after receiving permission, we shot for several hours. The resulting images were striking, and I began showing them around to friends and fellow photographers. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but I wasn’t seriously involved in marketing them as fine art. It was all very casual, but several lucrative print sales occurred. It slowly began to dawn on me that perhaps there might be a market for this type of work, so I began to look at it more seriously. What I discovered is that there are a whole host of artists who make their living in the aviation field, but they are almost exclusively painters. I have seen several examples of work similar to the approach I was taking, but I couldn’t find anyone who had pursued it over an extended period of time, or with any sort of depth. I befriended one of my early patrons here in Atlanta, who has been instrumental in encouraging me to bring these images to the aviation market. Being a long-time pilot, and a terrific entrepreneur, he quickly saw the potential.

This spring and with his help, I exhibited at the second largest aviation show in the country, Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, Florida. It was the first time that I had shown the work specifically to a large aviation audience, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Although we had an outdoor booth and weren’t exactly in a “prime” location (those go to folks who have been exhibiting for years), it was very encouraging to see people stop dead in their tracks, and come over for a closer look. This happened numerous times, and many came back for a second look with their friends. What I didn’t expect was the numerous impromptu offers I had to market the images in FBO’s (the terminals at small airports), as coasters, as images etched on stone, and even an overseas partnership offer! We also received an offer on the spot for a fine art show in Milwaukee by an established gallery owner. Marketing executives from several aircraft manufacturers stopped by the booth (without solicitation), and I have since followed up with them about potential commercial work. Additionally, I had been trying to reach the marketing manager at Goodyear Tire for months before the show, with no luck. On a hunch, I went to their booth, found him, and introduced myself. In five minutes, he willingly offered up the account executive’s name at their ad agency, and the name and contact info of their international marketing executive. For the last several years, Goodyear has produced an aviation calendar, and I’m now in the mix to produce those images for next year. Networking at this event was definitely encouraged. The opportunities to market these images, in many forms, are almost overwhelming.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Please talk about the tools and resources (e-commerce Web site, fine art printer, art consultants etc.) that you have put into place as key elements to marketing your aviation work? What kind of research did you do in order to set up these resources?

JS: We had a fine art gallery show last fall, which was well attended. This seemed to “put us on the map”, at least locally. Thereafter one of the first things accomplished was to put up an e-commerce Web site, with prints and greeting card sets for sale. All of the greeting cards have the Web site address on the back. I’ve become active in the local aviation community by joining the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. I have made presentations to local aviation groups and exhibited at local and national airshows. After having spoken with past exhibitors, we exhibited at Sun ‘n Fun (the second largest airshow in the country) this spring, and have plans to exhibit again next year. We will attend the largest airshow in the country this summer, EAA’s “Airventure” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as a first-time visitor. Lots of networking can be accomplished there, and I’ll have a portfolio of work to show as well. We have also had several thousand postcards printed with the website address on it. These are included in all the greeting card sets, and are handed out at aviation programs, and mailed to companies in aviation related industries. We’ll hand out a bunch at Oshkosh too. In addition, several magazine articles (including this one!) have resulted and a magazine used one of my images in the “gatefold” of its inaugural issue, which was distributed at Oshkosh. They printed 100,000 copies, and in exchange, I received a half page ad, for three months. This should generate some interest as well.

© John Slemp

ASMP: What kind of external distribution network have you put into place to market this work? Please describe the thought process behind this.

JS: I’m trying to be smart about this and balance the needs of a potential retailer, with my desire to market this work as “fine art”. I suppose the model might be the late Ansel Adams, and the many markets that were created for his work. Virtually everything is a possible market, from calendars, coasters, greeting cards, posters to fine art prints. We are currently looking at anything that might bear fruit. This market has a fair amount of imagery associated with it, so it has been a very pleasant surprise that we have been so well received so quickly. I’ve also been asked about a book, which has always been a long-term goal.

© John Slemp

ASMP: What types of commercial licensing opportunities have you had for this work? Has this had any impact on print sales?

JS: Several hotels have licensed the images as artwork for the rooms, including the Miami Airport Wyndham, the Dulles Airport Marriott in Washington, DC, and the Newark Airport Marriott. Initially, I agreed that my name would not appear on the reproductions, but that was a mistake. People are now recognizing the images, and my name needs to be associated with them, even in hotels. I shall insist on that provision in the future.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Do you license any of these images through stock distributors or do you handle all licensing yourself? Do you foresee this changing in the future?

JS: I have not licensed any of these images (yet) as stock, and I have a stock agent who potentially could handle that aspect of things. We have no formal agreement in place regarding these images. If it were to come up now, I’d probably handle it, unless it was too complex of a deal.

ASMP: Have you ever licensed exclusive rights to any of the images? How would you structure this kind of arrangement?

JS: Currently we haven’t licensed exclusive rights for any of these images. Of course, if the money is right, I’d be happy to. It would be structured much like any other stock licensing agreement, with the exclusive condition added.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Where do you find the aircraft you are photographing? What kind of permission or property release do you obtain? Do you pay aircraft owners a fee or trade access for prints?

JS: Since this project began, I’ve done a fair amount of Internet research. From there, one can ask questions of knowledgeable pilots, those who have “been around” a while. It’s a very tight-knit group, and owners love to have their unique aircraft seen (and photographed!). Additionally, just going to small weekend aviation gatherings often brings out several rare or interesting aircraft. Also, aircraft restoration companies deal with many old aircraft as well. Referrals happen routinely, and I’ve actually got a backlog of aircraft that I want to shoot. Standard Property Releases are obtained, and yes, I’ll trade for prints (8x10s). It creates good will, and the owner does not feel taken advantage of. Large prints are made available, if so desired, at cost. It actually serves as advertising for me, as folks will often inquire as to who made the image.

© John Slemp

ASMP: In addition to giclee fine art prints, you also offer lower-priced “regular” photo prints, and photo greeting card sets. Please describe how marketplace demands influence your product offerings and pricing. Which images and product types sell the most?

JS: It’s funny, but so far the expensive “fine art” prints have sold the most, and the greeting card sets have done well. The EAA bought 48 sets of the Tri-Motor cards, which they’ll sell as it travels around the country this summer. I hope to do another set of cards for next year, with all new images. I created the regular print category so that it would be affordable for most anyone, but have yet to sell a print.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Do you sell any work from this project as limited edition prints and, if so, what are the sizes and edition numbers? If not, do you ever get asked about editioning your work and what is your response?

JS: The edition question has come up occasionally, but I have not editioned any of this work. Editions are artificial devices created to drive scarcity, and the only one who makes money from it is the person who sells it to the next collector. The original artist sees nothing of that increased price. It seems contrived to me, and while I may never sell a print to a “serious” collector, that’s fine. To my way of thinking, if a serious collector wants one of the images because it appeals to their aesthetic sensibilities, then they’ll buy it regardless of an edition number. I’d rather sell a large number of moderately priced prints, than a few high priced ones. Besides as time goes on, the prints will become scarcer anyway, through natural means…they just won’t have a number on them.

© John Slemp

ASMP: How do you balance the workload between this fine art project and your editorial and advertising work? Do you find yourself putting in longer days, or has this fine art project replaced any percentage of your assignment work?

JS: I’m actually enjoying the “self-assigned” work as much as the regular assignments. It is a bit of a challenge, but it helps to fill the “down time” when I’m not working on assignment. It also is yet another opportunity to network, while doing some soft selling. You never know where your next job will come from, and it’s become a welcome diversion. I actually think that it keeps me sharper too, as I am now being visually challenged in ways that don’t otherwise normally happen. Any additional hours that have been devoted to the project have been freely given, as it has provided a fresh venue for my creative interests.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Have you received new opportunities as a result of your aviation images, or have previously untapped markets become more available to you as a result of this work?

JS: Yes, we’ve begun to think about markets that were never considered before. Merchandising is one, overseas markets are another. Hotel print sales were a welcome surprise when it first happened, and now we consider it routine. Interior decorators have purchased prints for “model” homes, this is another market we’ve yet to explore fully. And the many aviation museums around the country are also potential outlets for the work. I think that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what the potential might be.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Please describe a new client relationship that has developed based on your fine art work. Do you feel that this work has had any effect on how you are perceived by your existing clients?

JS: Several folks who have purchased prints are now considered friends, and I think that because my aviation work has been positively received, my commercial work has also been perceived in a like manner. Most people understand the difference between “art” and “commerce”, and recognize that just because it might be different than my regular commercial work, it is no less relevant. Two parties who have purchased prints have also hired me to shoot for them commercially, a welcome occurrence. It seems that if you are perceived as an “artist”, then it follows that a commercial shoot should be accomplished with a similar skill level. I also think that clients like to think that their photographer is more than a “one trick pony”.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Have you applied the skills and expertise you’ve developed in fine art photography to other areas of your business? Please elaborate.

JS: I’d have to say that perhaps the greatest benefit so far is that I’m now much better at marketing my commercial work. It is not seen as such a great mystery, and when properly conducted, leads to positive results. I think another benefit that is often overlooked is the increase in self-esteem that occurs. It’s a real boost when people directly respond enthusiastically to your work. “Food for the spirit” was one quote from a visitor at Sun ‘n Fun this spring. It really provides a nice incentive to “get out there,” as you know that the work is good. It’s one thing for an art director or editor to spend the company’s money, but it’s quite another when an individual spends their disposable income on your work. That’s really an altogether different mindset.

© John Slemp

ASMP: Is there any particular airplane that you are most anxious to photograph? Do you plan to expand this fine art series to other subjects?

JS: Although it will probably never happen, I’d love to photograph the Hughes H-1 Racer, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum. It was the first airplane to have “flush rivets” and retractable landing gear, to decrease drag, thereby increasing speed. It set a speed record in 1935. A more realistic chance would be a lovely twin-engined Beech 18, housed at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I’d like to expand the aviation work to include portraits of famous aviators, and of people who have been influential in the aviation field. And although it’s been done before, I have a desire to photograph old airfields as well. I’m told some of them are places where time has truly stood still….