I was always
with the camera.'
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
Wayne: You say your interest in photography started when you
were in junior high school back in Honolulu. How exactly?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
Wayne: How did you get your
photography to a level where you could earn a spot at Eddie Adams?
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
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.
was taking classes at the International
Photography—one of which was a long-term documentary
class taught by Andre
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.
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?
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.
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?
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,
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?
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.
services like PhotoShelter
allow the independent to make his
archive searchable online. Our e-commerce
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.
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
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,
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,
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.
the buy side, we need to continue to grow the number and quality of
photographers using PhotoShelter,
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.
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.