Doug Menuez on Managing Risk to Sustain a Career

October 18, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Doug Menuez

An image from Doug Menuez’s self-published book Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda. Learning to turn down assignments that weren’t a good fit allowed him time for projects he cared about but which “don’t have an immediate payback,” he says.

In a 30-year career that’s weathered two recessions and a period of creative burnout, advertising and documentary photographer Doug Menuez has learned that a business plan is essential for surviving economic downturns. His long-term planning also helps him fund personal projects and the periods of creative renewal that he feels are necessary in a long, productive career.

Menuez ran into financial trouble when he was riding one of the biggest accomplishments of his career: The publication in 1992 of his book Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton, about Steve Jobs and the launch of the Newton computer. Menuez had been a successful magazine photographer throughout the 1980s, shooting for Time, Fortune, Businessweek and US News & World Report. But by the early 1990s, magazines were cutting assignments from a week to a few hours. He recalls, “I wanted to go back into what interested me in photojournalism which was long-form, documentary projects.”

He took a year off from assignments and invested $150,000 of his own savings into his book project. It sold well and generated a lot of positive press. But he had turned down assignments for a year, and some former editorial clients thought the book had been a corporate job paid for by Apple, and that he’d crossed into PR work. Reentering the editorial market took time.

“It set me back financially,” he says. With a family to support and a mortgage, Menuez had to borrow money from friends. “That was my first real wake-up call and it was a hard time. On the outside, everyone thought I was doing great. But I hit the wall.”

He went to the library. “I took out a book and taught myself double-ledger bookkeeping,” he says. “It was like sticking a knife in my eye. I hate math.” He learned that he could get a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan if he wrote a business plan. “You write a mission statement, you look at your market and your competition, you write a projection for five years,” he explains.

The business plan forced him to set goals. “I wrote into my plan: ‘Art.’ I said: I’m going to make pictures that try to show the human experience and I’m going to try to align my income with my passion.” He admits he deviated from the plan at times, but it allowed him to take a long view of his aspirations. He used the $100,000 SBA loan he got in 1994 to open a secure line of credit at the bank, and asked for an agreement that if he met his obligations, he could get an unsecured line of credit for $200,000 the following year. He put a third of each check into savings and, with the line of credit, he had funds to invest in equipment, a new portfolio and marketing.

Menuez had done some catalogue assignments, and Defying Gravity sparked interest among graphic designers who needed photography for annual reports. Also, he recalls, “The advertising world was interested in authenticity all of a sudden.” He decided to focus his promotion on landing commercial assignments, “and I gave myself six months to do it.” He made sales trips to meet with art directors, and promoted his work via direct mail, sourcebook ads, and “whatever we could afford,” he says. He targeted a few clients he had researched using Graphis, Communication Arts and photography annuals.

© Doug Menuez

Today, clients like Eventbrite hire Menuez for the documentary
approach he brings to commercial assignments. © Doug Menuez

More importantly, he created a new slipcase portfolio. His previous portfolios had featured a variety of images selected by asking, “Will this get me work?” This time, he wanted to represent his point of view. “The portfolio development was the most profound part of this,” he recalls. He believes that photographers should try to fashion what he calls a “fuck you” portfolio. “It’s so full of what you feel passionately about, it could make you cry. It probably will not get you jobs right away, but if you don’t get that purity of who you are and what you believe in, you won’t break out of the pack.” He credits his former rep, Michael Ash, with convincing him that “I’m not right for everyone.” After making the new book, his business doubled each year for the next five years, and by 2001, he had hired several employees.

But in time, he needed to reassess his goals. “I said yes to everything. That’s not the way to last,” he says. By 2002, Menuez and his wife had moved to New York State and, he says, “I got depressed and burned out.” One day he was offered a global ad campaign; it offered a lot of money, but when he heard the brief, “I just said no, that’s not what I do.” After hanging up the phone, he felt “elated,” he says. The creatives called back to ask him how he would approach the assignment. He said he would like to follow the company’s employees, documenting what they do, and “get real moments.” The client changed the brief to allow him to shoot what he wanted. After that, “I became more of a contrarian and became better at defining what I do and what I could bring to a job.”

Saying no to jobs gave him the time to self-publish a book on the making of tequila in 2007, and a book on AIDS orphans in Uganda, published in 2008. “If you believe in longevity, you’re going to do things that don’t have an immediate payback,” he says. “You have to kick yourself in the ass or you won’t grow.”

After the financial collapse in 2008, commercial work slowed. Then Stanford University, which had acquired Menuez’s archive of images of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the 1980s, contacted him. They wanted to do something with his archive, but didn’t have funding. Menuez wrote a proposal, and, after a university donor agreed to help, Menuez published his book of archival images, Fearless Genius, in 2014.

These days, Menuez, who is repped by Stockland Martel, is shooting image libraries and campaigns for companies such as Eventbrite and Fed Ex, which allow him to shoot in the fly-on-the-wall style he enjoys. He’s revamping his website and portfolio again. He’s also undertaking a new venture: He wants to present images and text from Fearless Genius on an interactive platform. He sees an opportunity to turn the material into a curriculum for teaching entrepreneurship, and he wants to add profiles on today’s entrepreneurs.

Menuez is still working out how he’ll land sponsors and monetize the material, but he says the people he followed in Silicon Valley taught him to take risks. “You might fail but if you don’t try, you’ll never hit it out of the park.” Riding the latest trend is easy, he says; longevity demands risk. He adds, “The times that I pushed myself paid off.”

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