Courtesy of River Imaging Studio
At River Imaging Studio in Cincinnati, five photographers and one digital media company operate independent businesses under one roof, while taking advantage of the creative and business perks of a partnership.
“It’s a difficult animal to explain,” says photographer Al Lang, who owns the 12,000-square-foot building. He leases space to photographers Bob Cuti, Randy Hoover, Jon Keeling and Lawrence White, and the 3-D illustration and animation company Alloy FX, which is co-owned by Marc Phelps and Jeff Meyers.
“I’m not a partner kind of guy,” Lang explains. “So I wondered: What kind of business model could I create that allows individuals to have creative freedom, and stand on their own, but still share space?”
The question came up around 2005, after a big client decided to take its photography in-house. “I had too many eggs in one basket,” says Lang, who could no longer maintain the space on his own.
He decided to bring in other photographers, but he “didn’t want it to look like I hired a bunch of kids out of college to shoot. That business model was out there: big guy, supervising other photographers.” Instead he invited in other Cincinnati photographers “with outstanding reputations [to] make the statement that this is something different.”
Lang was offering them better space at lower cost than they already had in their stand-alone studios, without loss of control of their businesses. They had to bring their equipment, do their own marketing and cover their own expenses—except for utilities, parking, Internet access, the alarm service, and a few ancillaries such as coffee and cleaning supplies.
They’ve ended up sharing cameras, lenses and props on an informal basis. And they share the studio’s five shooting bays. “You choose the studio that best fits your needs, and you sign up for it when you get a job, not when you bid on a job,” Lang says, citing a rule that he enforces when he needs to.
An advantage of the shared space, besides the cost savings, is the constant bustle. “As soon as I walked in, I loved it. It was bohemian, cool and it gave you a feeling of energy. It was the first studio in Cincinnati that reminded me of home,” says Bob Cuti, a native New Yorker who joined River Imaging Studio five years ago. “It feels great walking in, and my clients feel the same way.”
Leases are renewable each year, with the option on both sides to terminate with six months’ notice. Currently, there is room for one more photographer. “If anyone approaches me about joining, we decide as a unit whether the person is a good fit for River Imaging,” Lang says.
One challenge for the photographers is keeping professional jealousy in check. There is some direct competition among them, and dry spells can be trying when colleagues are busy. There are also occasional conflicts over the studio reservation schedule, “but no fist fights,” Lang says. “You have to be a big boy or big girl to be in here.”
But the advantages far outweigh the challenges. The atmosphere is always collegial, according to Cuti. Says Lang, “It’s wonderful coming into work. There’s a tremendous amount of positive energy.”
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