Rarely situated in the busy streets of Hammersmith is a tall pair of wooden gates. Behind, a quaint country style courtyard where you leave all the noise and chaos to enter complete serenity. Down a cast-iron staircase leads into a secluded patio enclosed by ceiling high glass windows and tall bamboo trees. It’s idyllic. This is the entrance to Simon Maxwell’s abode.
Simon Maxwell is a professional Interiors and Architectural Photographer commissioned by an interesting array of awe inspiring clients. He works regularly for Homes and Property Magazine (in the Evening Standard), Ideal Home and Real Home as well as top Architectural firms as Capita Symonds and Verity and Beverley. He is involved in all aspects of his business from designing websites for clients to lecturing in photography but most inspiring is his passion; he has a genuine enthusiasm for helping other micro-businesses and I was inspired by his interest to immerse himself into The People Stories.
We talk to Simon about turning ideas into profit, what to do in the face of negotiation and the joys of Chai Indian tea.
What goes on in the world of Simon Maxwell?
I’ve decided to specialise in architectural and interiors photography which is something I switched on to about 5 years ago. But I’ve been involved with photography for a long time. So I’d say in my world a huge proportion of what I do is looking for relevant business to my subject. I could just put an advertisement in the paper, join a business networking group, which I did for a long time, but ultimately it wasn’t very creatively stimulating, but a good way to start. I came late to the beauty of architecture and the fascination of interiors and once I made that switch, I really wanted to chase that kind of work. So what I would love to stress, as wonderful as it is to take photographs, on a good week I’m lucky to shoot twice a week. The rest is happily enhancing ones reputation online showing the portfolio to new clients or trying new markets, trying new things. So my world is a mixture of creating a creative product and good old fashion sales and marketing.
What are the current projects you have going on?
I have on going work with an estate agent in Chiswick, which is great for providing a steady drip feed of interesting work. It can be a slick apartment or a traditional home, which is always fun to explore.
I was also shooting for Ideal Home magazine recently, it is very portrait focused with Ideal Home but the types of commission do vary with each magazine. I also photograph for the Evening Standard Homes and Property section and Real Homes magazine who have a very different brief. Someone like Ideal Home will have an owner focused brief that will be based around lifestyle choices, so lots of portraits of owners having a wonderful time in their home with the use of a stylist. The Real Home shoot is slightly different, it’s more focused on the space and the owner portraits tend to be more distant in the background, so it may be the owner sitting and using the space rather than the starring role.
I have also been offered a commission for a very inspirational company up in Gloucestershire. They are a firm of builders (Matt Stevens Building and Renovations) who team up with a firm of architects (Verity and Beverley) where Verity and Beverley have the vision and Matt makes it happen. They just completed a modern extension to a very traditional house which was clad in copper, it was incredibly beautiful.
So a real mixture of editorial and commercial work for interior designers, architects, producing photos destined for their websites and usually making an appearance in a paper. Editorial is not as well paid as commercial work, understandably because your photos will only be displayed for a day, week or a month, but if you shoot for a company your images will be useful to them for the next four or five years.
Whats the process when you get a commission? How does it work?
If we take the example of a new client, they will probably have seen my website already. The difficult thing about working for an architect or a magazine is that my website has to seduce them both in about 45 seconds, whether they are looking for a shabby chic feature or a slick minimal shoot, it has to show my range. None the less, it still has to showcase a backbone personal to my style so they know what they’re getting.
Once I have spoken to them on the telephone and I know what they are about, I will steer my portfolio towards them. My portfolio is loose, laminated sheets so it can be totally customised to their needs. So I will take something like 3 sheets, we’ll talk about the project and we will come up with a game plan of how many shots they want, styling, who they are intended for etc.
I think its important to sit down and really do your sums and figure out your daily rate so you are here in years to come and you can afford new equipment. If you do this, you will come up with a figure of ‘x’ per day which you really need to be earning to cover your costs because when you go into a meeting you need to be 100% confident of what your price is. And you know that your worth that. If you feel you do need to temporarily lower your price for a job you have to ask yourself and your client, what is in this for me and how are you going to make it worth my while? More often than not creatives are too nice and some won’t get paid, but you have to be straight and clear and stand on your own feet.
How important is networking to you? I feel it is hugely important, but sadly there is an element of who you know rather than what you know, so how did you go about building that network of contacts?
A sad truth unfortunately. The area I had very few contacts was the editorial field, I was lucky, I sent out cards to a whole bunch of magazines and newspapers, and something had happened at the Evening Standard and my card was stuck on the wall. Someone pointed a finger and said who’s that? They rang me and told me we have two jobs at the end of the week can you do it? So really that was luck, but I do think it’s important to put yourself out there anyway you can.
I am a firm believer in networking, so I started out by joining a small, local business networking group. From that I met the estate agents I still work for and many other useful contacts who helped me and I helped them to. Whilst I’m a firm believer in the world wide web, this group also demonstrates there is so much going on on your doorstep. With these groups, it can take a while, so you need to work at it, but it is worth it.
My business is not the type of business to be high up in search engines, so for me, its all about word of mouth and getting out there to meet new people, sometimes it may take someone 9 months or a year to get back to me, but they do eventually. You don’t actually need a lot of clients to create a full order book, but I am a believer in if you throw out a pebble you will create some ripples, if you don’t, nothing will happen.
But with every job I do, there will usually be an architect or a designer involved and what a great way to showcase your portfolio to them by sending them your photos. Its a fantastic way of making contacts by being polite and a bit of cheeky self marketing.
In terms of earning a living, have you ever found it a struggle to find work? How did you overcome it?
In the face of low employment and students having to tred the streets and show the portfolio, they are really putting themselves on the line. People will always tell you to not take it personally but of course we do. It is a personal thing if you are told your vision is not what they are looking for, it is tough.
That is one thing that is worrying because the education system doesn’t prepare students for the fails, because they will come more often than not. And unfortunately we just have to keep trying because that perfect job or commission is out there, we just have to find it.
The trials and tribulations of being self employed can be stressful, one week you will be so busy that you haven’t had enough time to plan work for the next week, or you have spent time updating the website and before you know it, you have no work. You can be very organised about your work but if you haven’t done the difficult stuff of going out there, the work will dry up.
I don’t want to paint the picture into something beautiful because it is tough, but I think it makes the winning all the more beautiful when we do succeed.
As a lecturer, would you say education is worth £9,000 a year? Do you think its integral to go?
Well, I left University because I was in the wrong boat. It was incredibly interesting with fantastic lecturers, but English Literature just wasn’t for me. But one thing that really stuck out, was the like-minded people sharing their knowledge which is hugely important in this day and age. But, if a school-leaver approached me and told me to teach them everything I knew, I would find that quite appealing. If someone with a degree, with lots of experience approached me, I would probably pause. But the person with the degree could maybe last the course of some of the fields if they wanted to go into advertising for example.
A common problem in graduates is they are unsure of the avenue they want to take and it’s as if part of your identity disappears. Do you think it’s ok not to know what you want to do?
Totally ok. Totally. I mean I was 41 before I realised what field of photography I really wanted to be in. What’s particularly cruel in society now is when you are in a social situation and someone asks you your profession, to them, you are your career, that is you, its what your all about. Now, on average you have about 3 different career changes, I’ve built websites, even plastered walls, but there is no doubt the more you ramp up your career, which may include hobbies, the more you create that world, the better you feel. The best thing for me was making my website, it was my way of telling the world who I am, encapsulating everything I’m about.
I believe that you shouldn’t be ashamed of any work you have done, it all adds up and teaches new things, even if it was just about your personality or what you don’t want to do. Doing something as simple as making a blog, make your own brand, showing everything you have done is a great way to boost your esteem.