Many photographers have tried to do what Terry Gruber has managed to accomplish. Almost all of them have failed.
For over 25 years, Terry has run Gruber Photographers, an award-winning luxury photography studio in Manhattan, weathering all sorts of literal and figurative storms as he became one of the most prolific wedding photographers on the East Coast. Not something he had ever envisioned becoming. Just ask Martin Scorsese.
Frank, wry and insightful, Terry provided PhotoOp with some excellent perspectives gleaned from a lifetime of working at the fore-front of the photography industry. And you get the feeling that he is only really getting started...
PhotoOp: Your mother, an internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor, once warned you not to become an artist. And since you have enjoyed a pretty stellar career as a photographer I have to ask: would you give that same advice to someone else?
Terry Gruber: I wouldn't say, "Don't be an artist." I'd say, "Don't be a photographer."
TG: It’s very hard to find clients who appreciate the art of photography or want to pay for it. Now everyone can take photographs: the “aspiring photographer”, “iPhone photographer”, “the momtographers”, the “out-of-the box photographers”. The days of doing amazing commissioned work and making a good living at it are over.
PO: Is this a natural outcome of all the technological advances we have seen?
TG: I don't think that helped. When we were shooting 8x10, 4x5, and medium format film there were very few people that could duplicate something that the pros could do. As soon as 35mm became acceptable in advertising and print- I think it started opening doors. But in the early 2000’s, when the first digital cameras started coming into play, it was really clear that the market was coming out from under us because you could get it faster, easier, with no experience necessary. Veteran photographers went out of business in droves.
PO: So you didn’t initially embrace digital?
TG: I resisted doing digital for a long time because our history was all in film. As years went on we started incrementally increasing the amount of digital we did because we could save money for the clients. I mean in the 'late 80s and '90s we were shooting 100 rolls of black and white and color film at a wedding, that's $4,000 of expenses that got passed along to the client.
Today, there is a one time cost for a digital card and we reformat it on every job; but now we’re shooting 10 times as many images as with film. So it takes so much more time to edit and organize. It’s maybe 30-40 hours of looking, and that's just the first pass. Then there's all the lab work on each image. We used to send the film out and get it back in enlarged contact sheets, circle the best pictures with a grease pencil and gave clients a box of these images or in some cases, 3x5 or 4x6 proofs…
Here’s the point: people are well aware that shooting 9,000 images at a wedding costs the photographer nothing, and they assume that they can have it the minute its shot. So why should they pay you for more than your time, it’s just pushing a button? With the same visual talent and time you’re much better off painting a large canvas, and have a gallery sell it for $50,000.
PO: Clients are used to the instantaneousness of taking photos on their iPhones, and feel like it should translate to professional photography?
TG: If they can see it on the back of a camera - there it is! It’s digital and its captured.
But how many times have you heard of the people who have a card in their camera and they've never taken it out of because they just fill it up and one day they come to end of that roll, “card full” which is 3,000 images or something, and they haven't even plugged it into a computer then they hit the wrong button and lose it all? A lot of people are clueless about all the protocols to dealing with digital.
I was talking to an old friend of mine - he knew of a wedding couple who hired a photographer who was a friend-of-a-friend and nothing professional. The photographer did a fine job, everything was looking great and he lost the sd card. That was it. Nothing. There was not a single photographic remnant of the day.
PO: You think how crushing that must be for the bride and groom.
TG: Or for the photographer. No one leaves the party happy.
PO: Is this the state of the industry? Too many amateurs pretending to be professionals?
TG: On the one hand it is the clients who don’t value photography on the other side there are the amateur photographers who are doing work for those clients. One thing I have observed is the sheer volume of so-so photographers who are making more than they ever did as a photographer by selling other aspiring photographers their “secrets to succeed as fill-in-the-blank photographer videos.” Talk about the talent pool being diluted.
I think back to why I would say “it's tough out there as a photographer”. It's because increasingly there are more and more people who hang up a shingle. It's very easy to put up a website. It's very easy to run around town and do street photography. You can do whatever you want. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that. I'm saying that from a professional standpoint, there used to be hallmarks to achievement, steps to that, mentorships to that.
I worked for a great fashion photographer, other people work for great portrait photographers. Other people went to school and spent three years in a darkroom, printing and coming out with a student show to kick their career off. Worked for Annie Leibovitz or Steven Meisel or someone else - it doesn't matter - and learned what the business was like and all that. No one needs that anymore. Or so they think. They just jump in. If you're one of the first people along the road to have your event shot by them and they shoot only the bride and groom and neglect the guests or don’t bring a back up camera or worse lose the card or don't back it up or they put it on a computer and the computer hard drive dies and there's no back up - those are kinds of things that a professional wouldn't have happen to them. Not to say professionals don't have disasters, but you're more likely to have a problem if you're inexperienced or cavalier about it.
PO: So it really comes down to risk management…
TG: The comment I'd make about that - and I have to make this point in client meetings regularly - is that photography is a very intuitive art. It is not only learned and repeated, it’s also your heart and mind and ears. It’s all your senses. Plain and simple: great photograhers take great pictures. When you go to a good restaurant and have great food, it's no accident. The chef went to Italy to learn how to make this pasta. They went to Russia to deal with caviar. They assimilate all this information and it really doesn't go away. It becomes part of them.
The photographers I have on my team have been here for 20 years and in 20 years they've done 600 weddings. They've gone through it, they know it, and they can predict it. They’ve seen conga lines, hora, mazinkas, crowns, henna painting, feet washing, they know the customs of 40 cultures and know their way from the beginning photo in an album to an ending. No video can teach you what you need to experience.
PO: It comes down to experience.
TG: If you ever say to yourself "Oh my God, nothing is happening" - well that's the scariest part of an event. If there's nothing happening then you're not in the right place. A more amateur photographer might go, "Oh this is a great time to take a break, or sit down or talk to that girl over there."
That is not the right reaction. That's when BOOM!, you get killed, because there's something happening in another room or it's about to happen and you're not ahead of it, you're behind it. Once you're behind it you're literally getting people's asses and people's backs of heads.
PO: Tell us a little about the studio you run here, and how you’ve got to this point.
TG: Part of the lore is that I didn't really intend to be a wedding photographer. Of my wildest dreams that was not one of them. I always wanted to be a film director. I went to film school at Columbia and had Martin Scorsese as my thesis advisor and made a short film that was the toast of the festival circuit.
But I soon realized that the film industry was no democracy. It was very much about who you knew. My classmates that had last names of Spielberg were set. I needed to be doing something creative every day and not waiting around for a phone to ring.
During the course of that time I had a lot of friends who got married. And I would bring along with a camera and shoot pictures for fun. Not as a paid photographer, but as a guest. I took the guest’s perspective and shot our friends, while I watched what the “real wedding photographer” was doing. I would open my shutter on 32 ASA film and wait for his giant flash to go off and I'd be all the way down at F16 and boom, the flash would go off and I came out with these wonderfully mysterious, not blurry but double exposed pictures. I never brought a flash, I just shot what I anticipated the pro photographer was aiming at from a different angle, with the slowest speed film loaded in my Leica M4. As a wedding present, I would give the couple a book with my photos in it, all captioned. People really, really, responded to the photographs.
PO: Very imaginative.
Terry: Then I found myself looking at real estate and I was offered a buy-in to the apartment I was renting. That was like, "If I make that step I need to actually have a business." This is where I think the comment, "Don't be an artist," intersected with, "Be a businessman" because I found that I could do both. I could be an artist and run a business.
I made a little reel of weddings with my film buddy. That kickstarted the business. I didn't know how to charge for weddings so i figured out my own approach: I charged by the hour, charged for the assistant and charged for film and processing. And that was it. Back then it was like $5,000 for that first job and people were willing to pay. The fact that so many years later I'm competing against $5,000 photographers is kind of weird, you know?
PO: Somewhat galling, I should imagine. I believe you have a few assistants working here. How does assisting work in your company?
Terry: Well my dad, who was a brilliant guy, said, "Terry, you have to clone yourself. You can't be at every wedding. You could work 52 Saturdays a year and exhaust yourself so you need someone else to go out and do what you do."
So I started training my assistants. I treated them like they were future photographers. I give them very specific things to do - like give them a really long sports lens and say “Go over there and shoot people talking” or “Go get the back of the aisle during the ceremony and get the guests watching the service”.
I don't give a running commentary while I'm shooting, instead I go through the pictures with the assistants after the shoot. “I wanted you to have that light further back, because that person is in shadow”.
I got lucky with a couple of really, really good assistants and they are still working with me today as lead photographers.
PO: How many assistants have you worked with?
TG: Gosh, a hundred at least.
PO: Did you assist?
TG: Yes. I assisted Francesco Scavullo and a guy named Anthony Edgeworth.
PO: What does it take to be a good wedding photographer?
TG: Apart from having a good eye and an intuition to always be in the right place in the right time, it also helps to be a little dictatorial. “Excuse me everybody at the request of the bride and groom we're going to get a table picture, I need every one of you to get up and move to this side right now, please”. You need to push it. For a client there is nothing worse than 30 family members standing around waiting to be told what to do.
PO: Sounds like you need good client skills too.
TG: Diplomacy and customer service are so important. Diplomacy at the wedding and customer service when something doesn’t happen as the client expected and you need to resolve the situation.
PO: Like, you were meant to shoot Granny, but never got to it?
TG: No, more like “There was a label that my mother sewed inside my dress. It was the label she had when she got married. I told you I needed a photograph of it and you forgot to do it”. The answer to that is: Well, do you still have the dress? I can shoot that in our studio.
PO: Free of charge?
TG: Free of charge.
PO: Don’t you ask for a brief beforehand to make sure you’re capturing everything the client wants?
TG: Yeah, the dialogue is this. We only request two things from you down the road. One is a schedule of events, what's going to happen where in what room, with who, and how? Two, a list of who's who in your family, in his family, bridesmaids, groomsmen, etc. Their names, their role, and a list of pictures that you designate as “must have” groups to take in a formal way. Plus any special request photos during the reception?
PO: What’s an example of a special request?
TG: Oh, you know - the Harvard picture, the camp picture, the sorority sisters picture, whatever it is. Or make sure we get a picture of the bride with the aunt from Cincinnati at table 32. “Hey Suze, let’s get that aunt picture now! Done. Move on”. It’s important to get the requests up front. It saves problems.
PO: What percentage of your business is weddings?
TG: I’d say about 65%. The 25-30% bar mitzvahs and the rest are portraits, headshot, publicity shots, holiday cards, etc. We also do banquet or large group photos. We're the only company that has the capacity to light a room with 500 people in it and you see every person in perfect focus.
PO: How do you find your jobs?
TG: Through planners or from referrals.
PO: Is there any other type of photography you'd like to do?
TG: I'm sort of excited to go back to doing fashion. That's where I started. I think I could blend some of the cinema verité. If I could have talented models that also act and sort of shoot them as stills or movies.
PO: Highly editorialized.
TG: Yeah, editorialized fashion which would involve extras. It would be more than just a seamless and a girl against it. Last year I did a whole 8x10 Deardorf black and white homage to Avedon and it turned out great.
PO: Has it got you any work? Is there any exposure?
TG: It’s brought a lot of exposure, especially since the key model used it incessantly on her website.
PO: Have you ever been repped by an agency? I know you kind of rep here.
TG: At one point, I shopped for a rep and that was really a surprisingly tough thing to do. This was when I was starting out on my own, and I went and met with a bunch of people and they were like: yeah whatever, I mean why would I rep you when we’ve got that guy with the thick book of all the fashion tearsheets that they've done already, so no.
PO: In your opinion, what's the difference between a good photographer and a great one?
TG: I think the use of the frame. From a great photographer, there's always something dynamic about it. There's some intangible storyline or there's some wonderful surprise or graphic juxtaposition of contrast.
PO: Do have any insecurities with the industry?
TG: I just think the whole photography industry has become devalued. Corporate clients rarely say “we need a great photographer”, they just want somebody with a camera, and those are the jobs we don't get. In that world, “we need a photographer” is the common ask.
TG - How many people?
Corporate - It’s just a holiday party. In fact, last year we just had one our people to do it. I was just calling because I was thinking maybe we should venture out and get a pro. How much is it going to be?
TG - $1,000.
Corporate - Oh, Ok. Thanks. Goodbye.
PO: You feel the industry has become overly-commoditized?
TG: Commoditized and Gadgetized. It’s become a commodity and not an art form. Want to be a photographer and make money? Sell amateurs gadgets like expensive Dixie Cups that fit on top of your flash. Artistic sensibility and experience doesn’t count for much any more. I have been in the industry for over 30 years shooting with every type of lighting and camera made, there should be some value to that, and there is -- but to fewer and fewer people.
Quick Fire Questions (no more than 10 seconds thinking allowed):
PO: If you weren't a photographer, what would you have liked to have been?
TG: If I had any musical talent, a rock star.
PO: In a word, how would you describe your photography?
PO: Best city in the world?
TG: New York City.
PO: What's your on set pet peeve?
TG: No food.
PO: What's the worst thing you can say on a shoot?
TG: “I can't do that.”
PO: Apart from your camera or equipment, what's the one thing you just can't do without on a shoot?
TG: A pretty assistant.
PO: The best photo is instinctive or planned?