If Jordan Manley‘s career is an accurate measuring stick, it takes about 10 years to reach the pinnacle of ski and mountain bike photography. Of course, it’s never that simple. Manley’s images stand out more for his creative vision than their content.
A (digital) flip through his portfolio doesn’t reveal many recognizable athletes – though they are likely there. Instead, the viewer is treated to an entirely new way of looking at both sports.
Here is what Skiing Magazine had to say about Manley:
“For the second year in a row, photographer Jordan Manley – a frequent contributor to Skiing magazine – has taken the top honors at Whistler’s Deep Winter Photo Challenge. We’re not surprised. Manley is having a career year. He bagged the covers of both Powder and Skiing. He was published in Japan and Europe. And he snared a disproportionate number of pages in our December Best Photos of the Year gallery. You’d be forgiven for thinking this Vancouver, BC, native is a 50-year-old veteran shooter who cut his teeth in a darkroom in the ’70s. Or a turtlenecked and skinny-jeaned ex-New Yorker who assisted Annie Liebovitz. Manley, however, happens to be a 24-year-old kid from the burbs who studies political science at Simon Fraser University.”
During another busy winter, Manley managed to find a few minutes to answer my questions.
12 Questions with Photographer Jordan Manley:
1. I’d like to start out with that “ah” moment when you realized your life would be tied to a camera instead of a more tangible career. How did it happen?
JM: There was never really an “ah” moment. In high school I thought I’d like to be a cinematographer one day, then I found photography and slowly started making a living from it within 5 or 6 years of starting to shoot avidly. It doesn’t happen overnight.
2. What was your last non-photography related job? How long did the transition from amateur to pro shooter take and what lessons did you learn during the process? Did you bring any experience or skills from previous work experience that continue to serve you today?
JM: I was sorting garbage once in a while, doing waste audits for my dad’s company. I did this for extra cash while my photography income was picking up. Before that, I was setting up trade shows, which sucked but I wasn’t making much income from photography at that point (I was about 21).
When I’m having a bad day shooting, or even on a good day, and think back at that job or others before it, it gives me some perspective about what a privilege it is to be able to do the things I’m doing and make a living at it.
3. Where do you live and why? How does your geographic location help or hinder your business model?
JM: I live in both North Vancouver and Whistler, because of family, my girlfriend, and obviously the amount of things there are to do in both locations.
4. Do you travel with pre-determined assignments or do you go to capture images and sell them after the fact? Is there a balance between the two?
JM: It is a balance between the two, although more and more it is turning into assignment-based travel. I’d like to be able to maintain a mix of both, though, so I have freedom to go where it’s good and explore on my own terms.
5. Marketing and sales are not common skills among creative professionals. What different strategies do you use to maintain a solid audience and client list? Social media, blogs, phone calls, mailers, etc. What works for you and what doesn’t?
JM: My number one marketing method is just maintaining a presence in the ski media and doing my best to produce interesting, and hopefully ‘different’ imagery through the different projects I work on. At this point, I’m fortunate not to have to go digging too often for work, it has been flowing my way. I take most of the fairly-paid work that is offered to me, as long as I’m comfortable with the vision and the assignment. I do blog, and I do so keeping in mind that potential clients may be surfing my content, however, I’m not really sure if I can quantify how much it helps me drum up more work.
6. Some details:
A) What’s your market niche and what sets you apart from others in this area?
JM: I’m not sure I occupy a niche – there are a lot of professionals that do what I do, though I try to focus on good story telling, and creative imagery…always trying where I can do make something a bit different. I’m doing more video, though, and I’m feeling more fluent in that medium, so perhaps I’m setting myself apart from the average ski photographer in that respect.
B) Breakdown of income: What percentage comes from editorial clients? From commercial clients? From other sources?
JM: I don’t have it broken down that way in my book keeping, but I would estimate that my editorial is 25-35% of my income, and commercial projects occupy the remainder, save for a few thousand dollars of print sales a year.
C) Time breakdown – What percentage of time is spent shooting? Marketing? Editing?
JM: Again, I don’t keep track exactly of these metrics so I’m not really sure. I would guess that I spend about 0.5 hours of editing to every 1 hour of shooting. And then there is a lot of time just spent emailing. Emails, clerk work (sending photos to clients etc) occupies a lot of time at certain times of the year, especially in the summer and fall.
7. If you could give only one piece of business advice to a young photographer, aside from finding a more lucrative career, what would it be?
JM: Find a way to stand out by following what you are passionate about.
8. What’s the harshest lesson you learned early in your photography career and how can others avoid falling into the same trap?
JM: I think sometimes photographers can get hyper defensive about people trying to lowball them, so much so that they burn bridges over disputes. There is some value in understanding the business you’re in, that not everyone has millions to spend on photography, and being polite and helpful with clients. There is no sense in getting into bitter disputes. Not to say that people should be undercutting, either, of course.
9. Adventure Photography can be pretty scary. As a ski photographer, you’re exposed to avalanche terrain and snowmobile/heli/cat into remote locations, all carrying a heavy pack. What’s the scariest situation you’ve worked through to get a shot?
JM: I’ve had a few close calls in avalanche terrain, though never been caught in anything. I think I’ve learned lessons through all of those experiences though. There isn’t one that sticks out, but I always believe that no shot is ever worth dying or even being injured for. I try to not let expectations of a good shot ruin my decision making when dealing with risky scenarios…though of course it isn’t easy. I think it is also important to always make your own calls, follow what other people think.
10. Many entrepreneurs find it difficult to separate their work from their lives. What do you do to maintain a work-life balance? How does time away from the camera affect your work?
JM: Certainly. Work always creeps in, and my job is inherently wrapped around my passions so it is a tangle that won’t come undone very easily. Most of the time I really enjoy the projects I’m working on, fortunately, but breaks are good too. I think I’m going to have to take a big break this summer, since this winter is a busy one. Lots of time away from the camera can make me technically rusty, though its good to clear your head as well.
11. What three people – be it friends, family, photographers, or anyone else – provide your greatest source of inspiration?
JM: I draw inspiration from all over – and to be honest I don’t know if I can boil it down to 3 people currently. I’ve often cited several people in my development, however. Sterling Lorence, Freeman Patterson, and guys like Paul Morrison and Blake Jorgenson were all inspirations during the start of my photography exploration. These days I mostly draw inspiration from outside the ski photography realm, however.
12. Many photographers say it is important to have constant feedback and critiques of your work to keep growing. When you were starting, did you have a mentor or did you go it alone?
JM: I’ve always thought that self-critique is very important as well. Technically speaking, at least, one should be able to critique their image against strong work in magazines or elsewhere. I didn’t have a mentor, no, though Warwick Patterson helped me out a lot with the business side of things when I was first starting out. He taught me how to write proper emails and requests to people. This was, and remains, a very important side of things.
Most of the time correspondence with clients is done through email, and I think having a good handle on communicating both over email, and on the phone is very important. Especially when starting out, when your portfolio isn’t very developed, one’s ability to craft a convincing email can make all the difference.
There was a while when I was part of the Wheels and Wax forums, and those were very helpful business-wise, though I did not rely on photo critique from the members. I did have a small group of photographers I would send images to, but I have never heavily relied on other people’s critiques(though I think it does serve a valuable purpose).
As always, I need to send a big thanks out to the interviewee. In this case, Jordan took time out of a busy winter shooting schedule to answer my questions. Thank you Jordan!
For my readers, these interviews are a regular series on my blog, so make sure to leave me a comment with the types of questions you want answered by today’s top pros and I’ll do my best to include them. I’m also running short on upcoming interviews, so if you can suggest any photographers who you’d like to hear from, please let me know.