A Man of Many Hats: Michael Stern on pursuing dreams and making a living

I recently had a chat with Michael Stern, winner of the multi-media category for the Copyright Alliance’s first national art show. Find out more about Michael Stern on his websites: www.buildabetterphotograph.com or www.cyberstern.com

The life of a self-employed photographer is one that is driven by passion, creativity, expertise, and of course, patience. At least that’s how Pasadena-based photographer Michael Stern approaches his career.

“I take the slow, steady approach,” Michael told me. “Much like the tortoise that ends up winning the race, I build my skills and client base with a purpose to grow opportunities and to move closer in the direction of my goals.”

“And what are those goals as an artist?” I ask.

“To get a good night’s sleep as a consequence of having moved the stone a bit further away from survival mode towards thrive mode. My goal: to thrive and not just survive. I ain’t no spring chicken anymore.”

And yet, when I talk to Michael, I get the sense that he does thrive, though perhaps it’s not always easy. Michael claims to have about ten jobs – not within the span of his career, but at one time – each of which expand his portfolio, solidify his expertise, and aid in his income stream.

Though photographer may be his official title, he has earned many other titles as well. He is a published author, writing a book, Build A Better Photograph, A Disciplined Approach To Creativity, about how to build a professional photography career creatively. He is an educator who has developed a series of workshops to help people understand photographic theory, Photoshop, business practices, and salesmanship. He is a digital compositing expert and loves restoring historical photos. He also owns income property.

His most recent endeavor in time-lapse photography is what caught the eyes of the judges for the Copyright Alliance’s art show in May. He submitted a two-minute video segment called “Rock and Roll Around.” This particular piece is just one “chapter” in a fifteen-part series that documented the building of the Japanese Garden Tea House and surrounding areas at The Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, CA. With four cameras, over the span of ten months, Michael took 103,937 photographs for this project. This project is a labor of love as each two-minute segment requires about sixty hours of editing, which produces an end product that balances a sensitivity of the viewer’s needs with accurately showing the building and completion of the space.

Rock_On! from Michael E. Stern on Vimeo.

“What inspired you to work on this project?” I ask. “The client had never done anything like this,” says Michael, “and they put 95% of the project responsibility on me and I wasn’t going to disappoint.”

Having significant creative control is an aspect that Michael looks for when developing a relationship with clients, because he has a strong understanding of the client/artist relationship and how that impacts the outcome of the work as well as the ability to continue the working relationship. This is the important distinction that he articulates between a fine artist and a commercial artist, “a fine artist serves no one but him or herself. A commercial artist serves a client-driven need.”

While understanding that need is primarily what has shaped Michael’s career, giving him the success and flexibility he would like to have, an underlying component to his decisions are a life-long illness that plagues him. When he was 15, he had surgery on his neck to remove a bone tumor that was compressing his spinal cord. The tumor returned 13 years later and was removed again. In 1997 it reared its’ ugly head but the decision was made to let it be rather than risk a third surgery. He continues to live with it to this day. A consequence of the disease is that Michael has pain or weakness in his extremities nearly every waking moment. And on some days, the pain is so bad it’s a chore just to get through the day, much less accomplish anything. Subsequently, his career has transitioned from aerial photography to set photography to studio photography. Now he focuses on maximizing his creative expertise in as small of a setting as possible. “My physical world gets smaller and smaller in order for me to manage the lack of strength in my body,” he says. Michael is not bitter however, as he says, “We all have our turn in the barrel. The trick of course is in how you handle it.”

But though his days as a fast-paced studio executive are over, Michael doesn’t ask for pity because of his situation. This “life-long chronic illness affects me daily, but it has not deterred me from working towards being a successful and sought after professional photographer, speaker, and educator,” says Michael.

"And so what is your advice for someone who wants to be a professional photographer?" I ask.

He says to live beneath your means. Put as much money away as you can. Once you do this, your money begins to work for you. The question for self-employed artists shouldn’t be if a slow time comes, but when a slow time comes. “I have had three major dead times in my career when I wasn’t making a lot of money. If I didn’t have a financial cushion, I would have lost everything. And gone crazy!”

So, even though the life of a self-employed photographer requires a diverse set of skills and an ability to pursue a variety of creative income streams, Michael wouldn’t want it any other way. “The real benefit of being a self-employed photographer,” he says, “is that I can move through life on my terms and do what I want in the way I want to do it. That freedom drives me.” But, it’s not for everybody, he warns. “Nobody loves you like your mother, and even sometimes not even her. So ya gotta do it for yourself. If you don’t, you won’t have the drive needed to reach your goals.”