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Insights from Another World: Patricia Burke

ASMP members talk about how their previous careers led them to a life behind the lens.

ASMP: Please describe your first career path. In what capacity did you work and for how long did you do this?

Patricia Burke: I began my career as a construction engineer for Chevron Oil Company in Denver Colorado, where I subsequently moved up to corrosion engineer in three years. After 7 years I took educational leave to obtain a Masters of Science in Corrosion Engineering (at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in Manchester, England). Upon completion, I went to work for the chemical process industry. I was in charge of the US Operations for Ciba and had a corrosion testing lab in New Jersey. The work I performed involved plant inspections, process review, materials recommendations, failure analysis and corrosion testing. This position required considerable travel, so after the birth of my son I elected to leave the company. A few years later I obtained a half-time position with an organization that facilitated joint research for many of the major chemical corporations. It was a job I could perform from home with limited travel. I was one of the Associate Directors, managing multiple projects for the organization and was also in charge of their publications. The office was headquartered in St. Louis, but all the directors worked remotely. I had been involved in the corrosion industry for over 25 years.

All photographs in this article © Patricia Burke

ASMP: For how long have you had an interest in photography? Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

PAB: I was intrigued by photography in high school and envious of the yearbook photographers and their cameras. I did not purchase my own camera until after I completed college. I took my first photography class at a local camera store 28 years ago. As part of my previous career I photographed equipment that had failed due to corrosion (which allowed me to purchase good cameras for the companies I worked for). I did not study photography formally, but over the last 10 years I have attended various ICP classes and numerous workshops by leading photographers in the field.

ASMP: What made you decide to take the leap, leave your first career and pursue photography as a business? Did you make any specific business arrangements to address the risk of going out on your own?

PAB: While working in the engineering field, I had always intended to be the best I could personally be in my field. But I also had the goal to then move on and do something different. When it came time to change jobs a few years ago, I had a choice to either seek out another job in the corrosion engineering field or pursue photography full time. I chose photography. I had let my engineering career stifle my part-time photography efforts in the past. This time I gave myself the opportunity to really focus on my photography business to see what could really come of it.

ASMP: What would you say was your strongest attribute in your first career path? What is your strongest attribute as a photographer?

PAB: I honestly struggled with this and asked for an outside opinion. These are her comments below. Interestingly I realized that my strongest attributes are the same for both career paths.

  1. Attention to detail all the time — e.g. (1) when shooting, paying attention to detail down to the tiny little spec of dust that could be on a subject; (2) pricing a job.
  2. Willingness to surround yourself with good people and not be threatened by the strengths of others you work with. Also your generosity in giving back to the community by teaching others.
  3. Ability to see the big picture, both from a client relationship perspective (building that relationship over time) and your process of photographing on an interior shoot (prioritize and working on your feet to complete the job in the appropriate time).
  4. Knowing how and when to set boundaries that make good business sense (e.g. knowing when you can budge on your pricing for a client and when not to; thinking creatively in a tough market; knowing that generating business is a major goal for a photographer running a small business).
  5. Investing in your education so that you are ready with the best tools and techniques to work most efficiently.

In a nutshell, I guess you could call it creative problem solving.

ASMP: Are there particular skills or contacts from your first career that have been especially helpful or have set you apart in pursuing your photography business?

PAB: Continuing education was not only a given in my previous career but a requirement in order for me to keep my credentials. I am always open to new ideas, concepts and consider it critical to productivity to keep my equipment, software and associated skills current. Here I consider time is money and, if the updated software saves me time, I do not hesitate to purchase updates, new software, hardware and equipment when I can afford it. I more readily recognize my own skills, and lack thereof, so I outsource the needed skills as I can. I also had the opportunity to travel extensively, which has had both a personal and professional influence.

ASMP: In your current photography business how much do you depend on the contacts cultivated through your first career? What methods have you used to cultivate new clientele?

PAB: Contacts in my first career are from a different world and of no use to me now.

I hired a marketing consultant, since I was new to the industry and did not have any contacts or background. It was a critical decision. It started with a website consult, and then marketing information. I elected to subscribe to Adbase and have found that it is a great way to get your name beyond your local area. From there I have developed marketing pieces both with the aid of a graphic designer and on my own.

ASMP: Did your first career prepare you for negotiating contracts or image licensing? If so, are there particular strategies you learned then that have been helpful in your current business?

PAB: Yes, definitely. I have had considerable experience estimating, bidding and managing projects. For example, I bid out my website creation and have submitted bids for photography projects. Bidding and pricing photography is very different, though, and the ASMP’s SB2 was extremely useful, as was the ASMP’s website, paper share, EP, AIAP, etc.

ASMP: What was the most significant investment you made in setting up your photography business? In hindsight, would you do anything differently in establishing yourself if you had it to do over again?

PAB: I jumped in over my head and purchased a Leaf 22 Aptus for my Mamiya. I was not satisfied with the images at the time with my Nikon D2x. The Leaf put me up a notch and allowed me to submit high quality images for publication. It also boosted my confidence and moved me up on the technical scale.

The one thing I missed out on was interning or assisting. As an engineer I am predisposed to jumping in over my head (not knowing what I am doing) but it would have been very useful to assist or intern. I am used to problem solving on the job, but this experience would have allowed me to be either a better problem solver or a faster one, as well as helped me to establish contacts.

ASMP: Were you aware of any particular support services or specialized training from your first career that you have availed yourself of in establishing your photography business?

PAB: Not really.

ASMP: Have you taken advantage of real world opportunities for education, mentoring or assisting (distinct from opportunities through academic institutions) in jumpstarting your career?

PAB: If you are referring to individual workshops, yes, many — the assisting I missed out on!

ASMP: What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition from your first career?

PAB: Turning something that I love to do and having the luxury of choosing my own shots into being paid to shoot means that, at times, I’m shooting things that I really do not like or enjoy. Trying to keep ahead of that, taking those jobs on as a challenge and knowing at the end of the day I still have my own photography (and still love it). I learned this mostly by listening to other photographers: Joe McNally, Jay Maisel and Seth Resnick. I also found it difficult to maintain a creative focus. I could perform technical tasks even if tired but found it very difficult to be creative when tired (oh yes, and prone to dropping camera lenses — ouch!). This in part, is a function of experience. The more you do something the easier it can become.

ASMP: Is there any one thing you find to be most difficult about running a photography business?

PAB: Pricing, pricing, pricing. Did I say pricing? Fees are all over the planet — hard to bid — am I too expensive?, did I bid too low?, etc. Again I have relied on a marketing consultant and software, although I find the software not necessarily accurate within a reasonable range. Doing it all is overwhelming (estimating, stock research, advertising, promos, ah, then you get to shoot, process, deliver and bill!). It would be nice to be able to afford a full time assistant. Sometimes it is so nice just to have another head, another brain to work with and bounce ideas off of.

ASMP: Can you identify specific lessons learned from your first career that members who have spent their entire careers as independent photographers might not be aware of or lack?

PAB: Continuing education is so critical. The digital learning curve is steep and digital processing and digital asset management has made considerable leaps in the past two years. I think too many are reluctant to take the time to obtain the education and good photographers are falling behind (unless they have the resources to hire those skill sets). Some of the means of pricing are so inconsistent compared to other industries, this one marks up, this one does not, etc. In my first career we had a much easier billing method — essentially services plus expenses — much cleaner and clearer.

ASMP: Looking at the photography marketplace through the filter of your experience from the other side of the table, are there any particular skills or behaviors that you feel are most lacking from other independent photographers?

PAB: Business experience.

ASMP: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a photographer? Where do you see your career in three years time?

PAB: The most important thing that I hope to accomplish as a photographer is to share the world through my eyes. Isn’t that really what we all want?

In the immediate future I would like to make more time to work on my own personal body of work and attain the skills of a master digital printer. For my business I would like to increase my value to my existing client base and gain new clients as my reputation grows.

ASMP: Is there anything about your transition to photography from a past career not addressed in the previous questions that you’d like to point out?

PAB: Although I am not formally trained, the training I have received I believe is paramount to my success today. The following photographers have been integral in my learning and success.

Inspiration and seeing: Joe McNally, Joyce Tenneson, Jay Maisel and Seth Resnick
Digital processing and digital asset management: Seth Resnick
Creativity and printing: John Paul Caponigro and Ardie Caponigro
Marketing consultant: Jennifer Kilberg, Fluid Vision, Inc.