By Leah Shafer
In an industry hammered by the demise of film, the advent of high-quality smartphone cameras, and filters that allow consumers to create myriad looks with their own photos, photographer, director, and ASMP member Stewart Cohen is philosophical about the future.
“Will it be possible to be a still photographer and make a good living in 10 years? I don’t know,” he said. “When I started, I had a camera and I owned the technology that could make the pictures and not everybody had that. Now, everybody has a camera in their pocket that’s as good as what you were carrying 10 years ago — you gotta separate yourself from the ‘everybody can do it’ crowd.”
Canadian-born Cohen joined ASMP as an associate when he moved to Texas in the mid-1980s, fresh out of college and with a sense of loyalty to the group.
“Without ASMP, we never would have owned our own copyrights and they’re the ones that made the ability to make a living as a photographer a reality in the 1940s,” he said.
When he started in Dallas, the photography community was less fragmented.
“When I moved here, there was more of a sense of community [among photographers], partially because everyone got together and went to ASMP meetings—it was a different time and they weren’t as scattered in life in general,” he said. “We saw each other at the lab or photo store, too.”
But the three decades separating his start in Dallas and current work have seen massive industry changes, ones that Cohen says mean he has to differentiate his business, both in terms of what he’s offering, and how he works.
“It’s a hard time for the independent still photographer and I’m not even being a pessimist — the still photography world has really been decimated,” he said. “You really need to be smart and find a niche, figure out how you create your own value in the industry.”
Cohen is creating that value by continually evolving his business into more of a full-service production company — 75 percent of his work is live action now.
“We just got back from a project in Hawaii and shot 20 commercials and 20 still life executions for a resort, some great action-oriented stuff,” he said. “I am taking an online digital marketing class because I feel like it’s a crazy what digital marketing is doing; it’s transforming our world. I’m also learning Spanish because I work in South America lot.”
Cohen also runs a motion stock library that he and his team manage from their office in Dallas, and he strives to get more creative jobs.
“Still jobs just are not rolling in like they used to — my goal would be to make enough money that I could only accept creative jobs, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “But things are good, I’m hiring a new producer and we just got a Canon 1D X Mark II, one of the first ones, and I’m psyched.”
Cohen published his first book, Identity: A Photographic Meditation From The Inside Out, in 2010, and a second is slated for publication in September. Tentatively titled Scientific Rumors, it’s all photos of redheads, published by Dream Editions Press. A third book, Innocent Bystanders, is in the works.
Working as a mentor is also one of Cohen’s goals, primarily with University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University students.
“I hope I can be somebody that helps shape some young up-and-coming creative or photographer,” he said. “I feel like I got some really solid encouragement from mentors and hard lessons and it really helped me become who I’ve become. I’ve been doing it long enough that I think I can offer some good insights into this and to me, that’s fun.”