I was always 'the guy with the camera.'

Allen Murabayashi

Allen Murabayashi is the CEO of Photoshelter, an archival storage and commerce system for photographers. He was formerly Senior V.P.- Engineering at Hotjobs. He is a graduate of the Eddie Adams Workshop.

Wayne: You say your interest in photography started when you were in junior high school back in Honolulu. How exactly?

Allen: My father owned an Olympus OM-10, which he lent to me one weekend to do a photography seminar with a neighbor. We shot our first roll of black and white that weekend, which was thrilling for me. I really got hooked on the idea after that, and joined the loosely knit “photo club,” which was three of us plus one of the junior high science teachers.

Wayne: What did the photo club do? How did your photographic interests evolve in high school and college, and did you consider a professional career in photography? How did you end up at Yale? And in engineering?

Allen: There was no real purpose to the club—we just got to be really dorky and occasionally use the darkroom. But we spent a lot of time mulling the back of Popular Photography, looking at the Adorama and 47th Street Photo ads, while dreaming of owning an [Nikon] F3. Maybe a year later, my parents took a trip to Hong Kong and brought back an [Olympus] OM-4, which I still have—great camera—love the optics, and love the multi-spot meter. I used that camera throughout high school and college. I was always 'the guy with the camera,' but I never entertained the notion of doing it professionally, because I was heavily involved with music in high school and college, and thought I would become a professional musician when I first entered college. I was actually a music major, not an engineering major. Yale has a strong tradition of fine arts in addition to its rigorous academics, so that was a compelling factor.

Wayne: How were you involved in music? How did you pursue it at Yale? How did you keep up your photography, and in what ways, if any, did music and photography segue for you?

Allen: I started playing the piano at four, and at 12 took up the cello as well. Cello became my main instrument, and I spent several summers away at music camp (not band camp, mind you), and when I matriculated to Yale, I started on the path to a degree in music while playing in the symphony, numerous chamber groups, singing. The photography was limited to taking pictures of friends, but I had an aethestic in mind about how I wanted my snapshots to look—so I suppose I was cognizant of elements of composition without necessarily understanding it formally.

I find music and photography to be very different in terms of the creative process. Music is much more intuitive to me—I can always hum a tune, or improvise, but I can’t always conceptualize a shot. It is something that makes me very envious of great photographers.

Wayne: How did you end up going from music to engineering to Hotjobs?

Allen: The Hotjobs thing was a lot about being at the right place at the right time. I was a kid right out of college, and the Internet had just gone commercial. The CEO of Hotjobs hired me with no real job description, and a very small group of us started to conceptualize the site with him. I learned nearly everything I know from an engineering perspective on the job. I didn’t sleep a whole lot back then, but it was a truly rewarding experience from virtually every angle.

Wayne: How did you get your photography to a level where you could earn a spot at Eddie Adams?

Allen: When I got out of college, I lost touch with photography due to work, and the realities of post-college life. But in 2001, I got a [Nikon] D1X and took some pictures at a friend’s wedding, which got me rehooked. I found that the pictures had something to them beyond what i had normally thought of photography. There was emotion, and a certain sense of reportage, which I thought was cool, even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time. Then a few months later, 9/11 happened, and I found myself on the street when the North Tower came down. No wallet, no bag, just me and my camera—and the shots I got were significant to me as a resident of Lower Manhattan, and as someone who began to believe that photos do matter.

Although the photos were never published at the time, i ended up seeing a call for photos from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal agency that was responsible for examining why the towers fell on a CNN article. I submitted the photos and got a pretty enthusiastic response from them. Apparently, I was one of few people on the east side of the building, and my photos showed the sagging trusses prior to building collapsing. so they ended up publishing it in numerous reports, and I still get calls from them periodically about inclusion in other reports. The photos ended up making a difference in their own little way.

I was taking classes at the International Center of Photography—one of which was a long-term documentary class taught by Andre Lambertson. He encouraged me to apply to the Eddie Adams workshop, which I knew nothing of at the time, but I went ahead because I really had a passion for photojournalism, and much to my surprise I was accepted a few months later. It ended up being a pretty pivotal moment for me because of the wealth of talent and history in Eddie’s barn. The majority of students were certainly more talented than I, but it was my little brush with a community that I have an enormous respect for.

Wayne: You say that the Eddie Adams workshop piqued your interest in a career as a professional photographer. How seriously did you consider pursuing such a career?

Allen: Ultimately, I wasn’t ready to lug 100 pounds of lighting equipment to do a five-minute portrait, or throw myself into a conflict zone. I like shooting things that interest me, and I take the occasional professional gig, and that is enough for me.

Instead, I think I can make a bigger impact on the industry with Photoshelter. We feel strongly that the diminishing day rates and huge commissions have made it difficult to be a photographer—and yet these concepts are very 20th Century. Technology has given us the ability to create distribution/sales channels, and all it takes is photographers to realize this and empower themselves. I think there will always be a need for the Gettys [Getty Images] of the world, but I also think that work can be successfully distributed independently with services like Photoshelter.

Wayne: Can you talk about how the idea for Photoshelter arose?

Allen: Photoshelter was a culmination of two ideas, [first], a recognition that modern society has more and more digital assets, and [second], the modern professional photographer is getting squeezed. Jason Burfield and Grover Sanschagrin had a real understanding of the photography industry because they both worked as photographers, and run the enormously popular Sportsshooter website. And I had a bunch of guys from Hotjobs that were looking for an interesting project. The timing was fortuitious, and although the concept of an online service for individual archiving / distribution is still nascent, I think people are slowly beginning to realize the power of such a system. Certainly, our “seamless customization” option has really blown the pants off people. We’ve literally had clients tell us that they’ve been trying to do this for years at a much greater cost, and all of a sudden a solution exists.

Wayne: In terms of electronic archival and distribution, so far a lot of the changes have been driven by the large marketshare players (like Getty). The traditional photo agencies have also digitized. Where does the individual photographer fit in this process?

Allen: Prior to the maturation of the Internet, the individual photographer didn’t have a realistic means to distribute his work without an agency. He couldn’t realistically send out a book with 1,000 images from his archive. He couldn’t realistically research nor fulfill image requests. So the agencies provided a “bricks and mortar” distribution channel, along with value-add services like pro-active sales, and shoving images down a client’s throat.

But now, the Internet and services like PhotoShelter allow the independent to make his archive searchable online. Our e-commerce capability means that requests can be fulfilled for both print and electronic orders in an unattended fashion. Electronic files, regardless of size, can be delivered instantaneously. So the landscape is shifting. A photographer can continue to give up 50 to 60 percent of the sale to an agency in return for representation, or they can decide to market themselves and keep a much larger percentage. I don’t think any one option is better than the other, but the point is that there are options now that didn’t exist even five years ago.

Wayne: You and participants like Digital Railroad are effectively creating new electronic marketplaces for buyers and sellers to meet, but how do individual photographers overcome the more active marketing of larger participants?

Allen: The marketing issue will never go away. Getty is the 800-pound gorilla because they have a highly effective marketing and sales organization. They have exclusive deals with various organizations for access to events. So the successful photographer will always need to find innovative ways to market themselves to remain relevant. Services like PhotoShelter do provide a marketplace, similar to eBay, where individual sellers can take advantage of a single destination. And the more photographers that take advantage of PhotoShelter, the more the collective will benefit.

We all spend time and effort to build our brand and our websites, but if we were going to sell old camera equipment, we wouldn’t list it on our website. We put it up on eBay, because we know it’s a marketplace for buyers and seller, and will receive much more traffic. So we feel the same way about PhotoShelter as a marketplace for photography, even though we recognize the need to provide features like our “seamless customization.”

Wayne: Sites like Ebay gained their market position largely by being first movers. In terms of distribution, however, most of the major players, including the photo agencies, have already digitized. How do you get Photoshelter on the list of sites that the photo editor feels he / she has to visit on a regular basis? You mention, for instance, getting a better critical mass of photographers on your site, but how do you do that?

Allen: I don’t dispute the notion of eBay having a first mover advantage. However, many other sites like HotJobs, for example, were not the first movers. In the photo space, even though sites like Shutterfly, Kodak Gallery [...] have existed for years, the Flickr’s of the world still have the ability to thrive as popular, if not cultish, sites.

For PhotoShelter, raising the level of awareness of the product will be a combination of advertising / marketing, and the signing of strategic deals with individuals and organizations. For example, our participation at last year’s PhotoExpo in conjunction with print advertising in magazines like PDN [Photo District News] helped to raise awareness of the product and introduce the brand. Getting top photographers in a variety of fields helps to legitimize the product to the masses. And creating strategic partnerships with organizations like the Eddie Adams Workshop allows us to cross market.

On the buy side, we need to continue to grow the number and quality of photographers using PhotoShelter, while always refining our search technology. The way to get a photo editor’s attention is by creating a one-stop shop. Photo editors like Getty because they can find a stock image of a gorilla for their feature article, photos from Iraq, and pictures of Shaq all in one place. The SportsShooter Virtual Agency on PhotoShelter is an assemblage of close to 100 sports photographers around the world with their combined archives. This is an example of a destination for sports editors because there is a large number of photos and a high quality of photos.

Building PhotoShelter is a slow process of education for both photographer and buyer. Most photographers assume they have to give up 50 percent of the sale to move an image. Most buyers assume they have to deal with the large agencies to get images of high quality on a regular basis. We’re trying to carve out an alternative for both.