It's A Living: The Re-Reinvention of Doug Menuez

Hal Stucker

FAMILY PORTRAIT: Doug Menuez documents his brother Ross, a fashion designer, on Madison Avenue at dawn to shoot a look book for his new collection, with Ross’s daughter India as a model.

If one constant has bound together the many lives of Doug Menuez, it’s his career-long need to tell a story. Beginning as a fine-art photographer, then spending 14 years as a photojournalist before switching to fashion work and, finally, spending the last decade or so in the high-end advertising world, Menuez has always done his utmost to make his photographs convey a compelling narrative. “The core of everything I do is about the human experience, trying to capture moments and to tell stories,” he says.

“Pictures continue to fascinate us because they satisfy a deep human need we have to explain ourselves to others and have others explained to us, in turn. They help us to connect with other people and to feel part of something larger, something greater than ourselves.”

That Menuez has been able to sustain a 30-year career photographing people and situations that interest and inspire him—“stuff I would be shooting even if I weren’t being paid for it”—is not an accident. While he explains that he has only recently been able to fully articulate a solid framework of ideas for building a successful, rewarding career, he says he was lucky enough to make good, instinctive choices early on. Those helped lay the foundation for his success and the opportunities he’s had to explore different creative avenues.

“Many young photographers will try to put together a portfolio or adopt a style they think is going to get them work,” he says. “I mean, that’s normal, especially considering it’s an incredibly competitive business and the economy is really bad right now. And showing stylish, trendy work might get you assignments at first. But you have to design your career for longevity, and that means asking yourself what you want your life to look like in 20 or 30 years. And it also means asking yourself what kind of photographs you want to spend your life shooting. What kinds of images have meaning for you?”

 Not that his own career hasn’t seen serious setbacks. Menuez is quick to admit that any insights he has into the hows and whys of career-building are the product of a long, painful process of trial and error. He began as a photojournalist, working first as an intern at the Washington Post and then as a freelancer for Time and Newsweek. Even in his early years, however, he worked hard to find his own distinct path and shooting style.

“When I would show up to shoot an assignment, if there was a huge crowd of photographers going in one direction, I’d try to go in the opposite,” he says. An early Washington Post assignment, to get pictures of Mother Teresa, provides a good example of the benefits of this strategy. The Catholic nun was visiting Washington, D.C., and speaking at a church in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood. A huge crowd of reporters and photographers had gathered in front of the church where she was due to speak. Rather than wade through the crowd to try to position himself for a shot that would be virtually indistinguishable from the rest, he decided to explore the church instead.

There was a smaller chapel behind the main church, and “I went around to a back door and found myself inside the sacristy,” he says. “And then I looked out into the chapel, and Mother Teresa was kneeling in front of the altar, praying alone.”

He went back outside and positioned himself for a photograph of her leaving the chapel; as she came out, two young girls ran up to greet her. And Menuez ended up with a striking moment and a fresh, very human photograph—unlike any other shot the other press corps members would bring back to their editors that day.

Menuez’s approach to portraiture, like so many facets of his photography, was formed to a great extent during his years as a photojournalist. “I look at a portrait as something that happens almost organically in the course of photographing an assignment,” he says. “In every assignment I take on, I’m telling a story of what some group of people is doing. There are going to be shots that set the time and place, there are going to be shots showing what the activities are and the tools people are using. And there are going to moments when someone stops and makes eye contact and lets down his or her guard, and suddenly you have a portrait.”

His skill in portraiture was recently on display, as a Parade magazine cover featuring the first President George Bush and former First Lady Barbara at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine. He photographed the couple while the Parade journalist writing the story was conducting his interview. The Bushes’ time and attentions were somewhat limited, however, due to the distractions of the interview and because the couple tired easily due to their age. Thus was revealed a key dilemma that a photographer often encounters when covering the famous.

 “Celebrity portraits present their own set of unique problems,” he says. “Ideally, you’d want to hang out with someone for a couple of days and have a portrait grow out of that interaction. But that, of course, isn’t possible. You usually get about 20 minutes, and here’s where you really have to do your homework. The more you’ve researched a person’s background, and the more you know about them, the better chance you have to talk to them on an intelligent level, engage them and get them to drop their guard. I usually consider a celebrity shoot a success when I’ve got him or her interested enough after the 20 minutes is up to let me keep shooting for another hour or more.”

Menuez’s approach to portraiture is a natural outgrowth of his approach to photography in general, of using the camera as a tool for storytelling. While this style of photography may not always be the most sought-after or the easiest style to sell to an art director, he says the importance of staying true to your personal vision outweighs any other concern.

The goal for Menuez has always been to “get hired to shoot the things I love.” And in the workshops and classes he now teaches, he tells his students that “the first step in making that happen is to ask yourself, ‘What is my truest voice? What do I love to shoot? What gets me excited and made me want to become a photographer in the first place? What do I have to say that no one else does?’ And once you’ve thought these things through, then put a business plan together, a design that allows you to make a living shooting exactly what you love to shoot.

“Photography is a marriage of art and commerce, and you may be great at the art part of it,” he points out. “But you also have to master the commerce part because that’s the only way your career is going to survive over the long haul.”

Here, he says, is where the study and development of solid business skills is essential. “If you don’t learn to manage the business end of it, you’ll end up being victimized by it.” He advises young photographers to “sit down, take a deep breath” and learn how to put together a complete business plan. The first benefit is that it requires photographers to thoroughly define their business. To do this, they have to think deeply about their passions, their interests and the types of photographs they want to spend their lives shooting.

A complete business plan also requires solid market research, an understanding of what to expect in terms of competition and the formulation of a budget and financial projections over at least a five-year period.

“The good news,” he says, “is that a good business plan becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy. If the plan is well constructed and based on hard numbers and thoughtful projections, as well as on your passion for what you want to do, you stand a very good chance of getting funding and support. You start gaining momentum from day one because you’ve defined your dreams and you’re clear on your goals.”

 Menuez’s own financial planning epiphany came just after publication of his book Defying Gravity. Even though the book was technically a success, selling 30,000 copies, finishing it had nearly bankrupted him. “I knew nothing about the publishing business and didn’t know that it took a long time to get back the initial outlay of money. I’d put all our savings into the project to get it done, and we almost lost our house. I had a studio in Sausalito that I had to close and employees that I had to lay off. And that’s when I learned that I had to create a business structure if I was going to survive.”

His business plan, which took two years to write, allowed him to obtain a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration, reopen his studio and begin pursuing fashion and advertising work, avenues he’d never previously explored.

In addition to his current advertising projects, and some initial forays into film and multimedia, Menuez now plans to produce a book every two or three years. His most recent book project, Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda, with a foreword by Elizabeth Taylor, documents the lives of a 20-member dance troupe made up of children from Uganda orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The troupe tours to raise awareness of the catastrophe that AIDS has wrought in equatorial Africa and to raise money for the 700 other children in their orphanage. The project is sponsored by Macy’s West, and all proceeds from the book go to the orphanage. So far, the book has raised $100,000.

Though Menuez has seen an exceptional amount of good luck in his career to date, he’s not Pollyannaish about the daunting odds facing young photographers. In an essay he recently posted to his blog “Doug Menuez 2.0”, he wrote, “The sad reality is that if you follow my advice, you’ll probably fail. But an even starker reality is that if you don’t do this, you’ll fail anyway. The truth is that you ignore your own creative needs at your peril.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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