Photographer Augusts “Gus” Butera remembers a steady growth of his business, punctuated by a few minor hiccups, from the launch of his career in the late 1980s until 2009. By then he was shooting lifestyle campaigns for national clients, including Proctor & Gamble, Best Buy, pharmaceutical companies, and other advertisers. He was also shooting editorial assignments. “I had a solid, middle-class existence,” he says.
Then his business went into a tailspin. “It was personal work, personal work, personal work, travel, more personal work…” Butera says, reading his log book of month-to-month activities, “2010 was kind of slow. A couple of jobs kept me going through the year.” It took another year or two to turn things around, and last year, he had the best year of his career. “My gross receipts were four times [what they were] in 2010,” he says.
Butera’s steps to commercial success started with kids’ editorial and catalogue photography. After a few years, he shifted from kids’ photography to adult lifestyle. That led by the late 1990s to assignments shooting campaigns for national brands.
“There were times of austerity”—the post 9/11 recession, for instance—“but I always stayed afloat” with enough work to pay a studio manager, a bookkeeper and an accountant, he says. “My mantra was ‘Fishes and Loaves.’ When there wasn’t a lot of work going around, you had make do with a little.” He put out promo pieces consistently, every year or 18 months, and business always bounced back.
But the lull that started in 2009, in the depths of the recession, was persistent and worrisome. Butera finally left his former rep in 2011, and a legal dispute between them remains unresolved. But Butera’s business started to recover almost immediately, and he credits his turnaround largely to the crisis intervention of his current rep, Deb Schwartz of DS Reps in Los Angeles. Around 2011, he says, “She called me up and said, ‘I heard you’re not doing well. Can I help? I’ll work for free.’”
Butera felt guarded because he hardly knew Schwartz. He’d met her once briefly at an industry event. But he accepted her offer, and she told him his portfolio was hindering him with its odd mix of “stocky” photographs—doctors treating patients, for instance—and other images that were so dark and moody they bordered on sinister.
“I told him, ‘It doesn’t feel like you,’” Schwartz recalls. “Gus is a very positive, happy person. He’s not a dark personality. I knew him to be gregarious and warm, and the book had this dour [tone] to it, and felt like they were trying to sell him as a dark, artsy type.”
“She told me: Send me all your work,’” Butera recounts. He explains that his portfolio looked the way it did because he’d been chasing commercial trends over the years: cross processing, Polaroids, the “punchy” look of over-saturated and contrasty images. “It was cool, it was hip, I’d gone through every phase and then I was in this blue phase or whatever it was.”
Butera says his studio managers over the years have kept his archives “organized to a T.” So he was able to pull his archives together quickly before his meeting with Schwartz. In three intensive days of editing, they went through everything. “She picked [images] you gloss over when you edit yourself.” Schwartz explained to Butera that she was looking for authentic moments—“a moment you almost don’t notice,” he says, rather than moments he’d pre-visualized and planned.
Schwartz describes the images she selected as “authentic to who Gus is as a person…they were warm, happy, and gregarious, but not cheesy.”
When she was finished, his book was completely different. “So it was a complete paradigm shift,” Butera says.
Meanwhile, Schwartz and Butera talked about how he shoots when he’s on assignment, and he ended up making important adjustments. “It was re-training the way he was shooting to look for more interesting moments, more in-between moments, and shoot in a way that’s documentary,” Schwartz says. She also advised him to pay closer attention to the layers of his photographs: foreground, middle ground, and background.
Butera says he began looking at assignment briefs, and clients’ wish lists of images, as a starting point for a shoot, rather than a list of deliverables. “What they really want is an emotion” that emerges through natural interaction between models, rather than tight direction, he says. To achieve that, Butera gets models acquainted and comfortable with one another before the shoot by sitting them down together. That enables him to direct much more loosely and it brings more spontaneity and authenticity to the narratives he gives the models when he starts shooting.
He’s made other practical changes, too. For instance, he started using continuous cinematic lighting as much as he could, to simulate natural light and make it easier for talent to move around. That also helps him shoot more loosely. (It also saves time and money when the job calls for both stills and video.)
All of the changes Butera has made to turn his career around have not only led him to more work, but bigger assignments for new clients. In the past year, he’s shot campaigns for Bank of Montreal and Pfizer, as well as big image libraries for Microsoft and HSBC. “Those were really fun,” he says.
Meanwhile, Schwartz has been updating Butera’s website more frequently. “She updates it every two or three months. Nothing sits around,” he says. He has also continued to put out promotional pieces every year or so, as he’s always done. But mostly because of his rep’s strategic intervention, Butera’s career is now back on track.