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BEST OF 2012, Clark James Mishler
Anchorage, AK
Project: Personal project to make a Portrait a Day, begun on January 1, 2010.

© Clark James Mishler

© Clark James Mishler


For more than two and a half years, Clark James Mishler has worked with the daily resolve to photograph a willing subject for his Portrait a Day project, the best of which he posts at www.clarkjamesmishler.com.

“When I first started, I was turned down by about 50 percent of those I approached. Today, my success rate is nearly 100 percent,” Mishler notes. “My biggest adjustment to effect such success lies in being more confident. I now approach subjects with the knowledge that I can produce a perfectly exposed portrait in about three minutes. As you might imagine, this confidence has done great things for my assignment work.”


ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Clark James Mishler: I changed professions in 1988, switching from graphic design to photography. I liked being a graphic designer, but I love being a photographer.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

CJM: Since about 1982.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

CJM: I do a great mix of mostly editorial, corporate and some advertising photography. Almost all my work features people.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

CJM: I have developed a number of various pieces of lighting equipment that allow me to light my subjects in various locations, in many environments. I think it’s important to build tools that are specific to the task and to the photographer. My lighting tools, while cobbled together, are very versatile and allow me to make personal images that reflect my vision.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

CJM: I really love my Vivitar 283 and my Chimera Super SX soft box connected to a Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod (with a small Gitzo ball head, Super Clamp, Quantum Turbo Z battery and Pocket Wizard). This lightweight combination is easy to carry and can be set up on the side of a mountain if necessary.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

CJM: I think that I’ve developed a number of approaches to my work. And, depending on the assignment, I approach my work very differently. My portrait project, however, is very straightforward, and my subjects are, generally, at ease and looking into the camera.

ASMP: Your “Portrait a Day” project began because you wanted to answer the question “What’s in a portrait?” After nearly two and a half years of making one portrait a day, what is your best answer to that question? How many portraits did you need to make before you felt you truly understood what’s in a portrait?

CJM: I’m afraid I am still exploring that question and am possibly only slightly closer to an answer. I look back over my body of work these past two and a half years, and I realize that I have only scratched the surface. Photographers much more talented than me have explored this question over the past 150 years, and we are, collectively, all trying to discover the parameters of the “portrait.” With that said, my motivation and my goals are to document who we are, how we dress and the environment in which we live. I love studying images from 100 years ago in order to get a sense of the people and their lives. I am simply trying to record the things that are of interest to me.

ASMP: Since you’re based in Alaska, making your daily portrait means photographing in cold or very cold conditions. As a result, you’ve assembled a reliable and portable lighting system that works in extreme weather and locations. How long did it take you to concoct this valuable gear? Was it the result of a lot of trial and error?

CJM: Yes, it took many months to combine the various pieces of equipment that would hold up in sub-zero weather. I now feel confident that I can head out and come back with images at 40 below zero! It takes a lot of trial and error before you find something that works in that kind of environment.

ASMP: When you began your portrait project, about half of the subjects you approached declined your request for a photo. Today, almost everyone says yes. Please explain the reason behind this dramatic change.

CJM: I think that it’s all in the approach. If you have ever tried to sell something, you quickly learn how to catch someone’s attention and then to make the sale. I use some of the same techniques when approaching a potential subject. Mostly, I try to be professional and self-assured. People respond well to that combination.

ASMP: How long do you spend photographing someone for this project? Do you ever photograph more than one person a day, to have images in reserve in case another portrait doesn’t come out to your liking?

CJM: Most of my Portrait a Day images require less than five minutes. I will often make three or four portraits a day and then pick out the best one to post. It is important, however, that the Portrait a Day is from that day. So even if I make ten portraits in one day, we start anew the following morning.

ASMP: Do you get model releases for each of these portraits? How do you broach this subject, and what, if anything, do you provide as consideration for the release? And, please explain your system of organization. How do you keep track of which model releases go with which portraits?

CJM: No, it is important that I do not approach this project as a “stock” project. It is a documentary project, and I need to keep it clear in my mind. Does that make sense? I carry a 3-by-5-inch Moleskin notebook in my pocket at all times, and I write down the name, date, location, description, and e-mail address of everyone I photograph. Occasionally I will request a model release after I have sent them the image and after some time has lapsed.

ASMP: You mention that, due to this project, you now know how to make a perfectly exposed portrait. Have you also perfected the skill of coaxing an interesting expression out of a subject? In your opinion, is this a matter of timing, of direction, or both? What direction, if any, do you give these subjects?

CJM: Mostly, I do not give much direction at all. I like seeing how people act in front of the camera. I like seeing what they think they should do. If they smile, I take a few images and then ask them if I could now have them be a bit more “normal”… without a smile. I tend to like these images better.

ASMP: How do you usually approach a person you encounter in a public setting to inquire about making a portrait? Have you learned what not to say? What words tend to trigger a poor response from people?

CJM: My approach is very simple…”Excuse me, may I make your photograph?” Most people are taken aback and, perhaps, a bit flattered, immediately followed by a question: “What’s it for?” I explain that I am a professional photographer and that I am doing a portrait project featuring a portrait a day posted on my blog. I explain that I cannot promise that they will be the one I post but that I would love to make their portrait nonetheless. I think that it helps that I am a small, older man with grey hair and look rather nonthreatening. I think, too, that it’s important to be pleasant and not aggressive. Humor is always a plus.

ASMP: Do your subjects often ask to see the resulting portrait? Is your attraction to making a portrait about creating a fast but short-lived connection with a subject, or would you ideally like to establish a connection that lasts beyond the portrait making?

CJM: I send an electronic image to everyone I photograph. Every once in a while I photograph someone who does not have an e-mail address, so I need to send an actual print…a much more time-consuming process. I have established a number of ongoing relationships, but most are short-lived relationships. I have found, however, that many of my subjects will tell me that I have photographed a friend or a member of their family. So the project is beginning to become a small part of the fabric of our community.

ASMP: Please describe the effect of this portrait project on your commercial work. Do you feel clients react differently to your commercial portfolio now from how they did two years ago? If so, what would you say is the biggest difference they sense?

CJM: This is the best part! Yes, absolutely, this project has made me a much better photographer. I work faster, more efficiently and with more confidence. Shooting each and every day is like spring training, that is, you keep up on your basic skills. This has been the main force behind my continuing this project. I think, too, that I have been able to establish quicker relationships with everyone with whom I work. This project has been terrific for my career.

ASMP: Assuming your daily portrait isn’t made in the context of a commercial assignment, about how long do you spend on this project daily? How do you keep motivated to continue day after day? Are you as inspired today as you were when first beginning “Portrait a Day”?

CJM: My time on this project varies. Some days I spend only ten minutes, while other days I may spend an hour or more. I think the project is much like eating a good breakfast, something I never miss. It is on my schedule and something I actually look forward to. I believe the directions of our lives are determined by the quality of our habits.

ASMP: Two and a half years is a long time to work on a personal assignment, but as we all know, some photographers spend four times that, ten times that, even a lifetime photographing one project. Do you have any idea how much time you’ll spend contributing to “Portrait a Day”? What do you think will signify to you that the end of the project is near?

CJM: When I completed my first year, my wife said, “Well, you must be happy that project is over.” And I replied, “Anyone can do a year. How many photographers can do a decade?” I would love to do a decade of portraits…I would be happy to live that long! I doubt this project will ever end.

ASMP: What do you look for in a portrait subject? What prompts you to stop one person over another on any given day?

CJM: I have often asked that myself that question. I think I look for a combination of things. The clothes, the posture, the activity — all these things need to be working for the subject to jump out at me. I am not exactly sure what attracts me to certain people, but it seems to be working.

ASMP: Your “Portrait a Day” photographs are posted on a different site from your primary Web site. Why? Do you direct clients to view both sites?

CJM: Yes, I have tried to keep this project very separate from my commercial work, thus the blog. Occasionally, I will include a few of these images on my Web site, but mostly they are not particularly commercial.

ASMP: Are any of your daily portraits available for commercial image licensing? If so, do you inform the subject when an image gets used or offer them any part of the licensing fee? Have you found there to be any specific images or types of portraits that are most popular or requested?

CJM: Again, I try to keep my portrait project separate from my commercial work. An agency in Germany saw one of my images on my blog and contacted me about licensing the image. It was a fairly large license, so I needed to contact the subject and get permission. I had her sign a release and I sent her 15 percent of the license fee. I think these images could have commercial application, but I feel a need to keep it “documentary” inside my head.

ASMP: Your fine art photography is represented by Artique Gallery in Anchorage, Alaska, and, according to your Web site, you currently offer 12 archival giclĂ©e photographic prints in two sizes, 12-by-17 inches for $150 and 18-by-25½ inches for $300, with 50 prints in each edition. How do you determine edition size and pricing? Is this something you discuss with Artique Gallery, or is it solely your call?

CJM: I worked very closely with Artique to determine which 12 images to select, the sizes and the prices. I am happy that I have a series of images to offer in that market. So far, however, I have not been able to give up the day job.

ASMP: You were first trained as a graphic designer at the Art Center College of Design. What effect does your graphic design foundation have on your photography? What do you see that other photographers, without such training, might not see as keenly?

CJM: I think every photographer comes to the craft with a unique set of tools. I also think that graphic design is as good as any, and my early training has really helped me to see the world a bit differently. Clearly, visual studies of any kind are going to influence your work as a photographer.

ASMP: In the 1970s you worked for a time as a layout editor at National Geographic magazine. What was the most significant thing you learned while working there?

CJM: As a layout editor, I worked with many of the top photographers in the world. I got to know them personally and made a number of good friends during my tenure. I learned that personality and talent are very separate items. Some photographers, while very talented, are not someone you would want to spend a lot of time around. I found that the very best photographers, however, were well rounded and a pleasure to be with. I believe this is a great goal.

ASMP: Did you have much interaction with National Geographic photographers or picture editors? Which ones are most memorable?

CJM: In my position at the magazine, our department had the most interaction with the photographers, the editors and the writers. It was very exciting, and I learned so much! I loved working with all the photographers, but my favorites were Sam Abell, Bill Albert, Jim Brandenburg, Jodi Cobb, Bruce Dale, Steve McCurry, Jim Stanfield and Cary Wolinsky. The most terrific photographer I ever met was Thomas Abercrombie. He was an equally talented photographer and writer, the smartest person I ever met and, quite possibly, the funniest person in the world. A rare combination.

ASMP: What spurred your career change to photography? Did you acquire any photographic training after leaving the graphic arts industry or are you self-taught? What is it about this medium that inspires you most?

CJM: I studied photography in college as an adjunct to my graphic design training. And I did quite a bit of professional photography as a graphic designer. I mostly made the change because the computer was doing away with all the things I loved about graphic design. The pens, brushes, T-square were all going away, and I didn’t much relish the idea of spending eight, ten, 12, 14 hours a day behind the computer. So I made the big leap, and I have never looked back! It was the best decision I have ever made.

ASMP: In addition to photography, have you explored motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output?

CJM: Early in my career, I had an opportunity to be part of a documentary film project. We traveled to rural Alaska, and I got involved in many aspects of film production. I loved the work, and it helped me develop as a person and a professional. There was a time when I thought I might become a filmmaker. I learned, however, that the still image was my real love. I think that knowing who you are and what you love to do is very important. Once I realized my love for the still image, my life became very uncomplicated, and I have continued to run with it. No regrets.

ASMP: You’re based in Anchorage, Alaska. What percentage of your assignment work is based in Alaska versus elsewhere? Also, please talk about the logistics of getting in and out of your home base in the winter and expound on what you might say to convince a skeptical client from New York, Los Angeles, or even farther afield to assign you a project.

CJM: The majority of my work is based in Alaska. Many of my assignments are from clients who have found my work online. They have need of an image or a series of images for a magazine article or a corporate client and thought it might be better to hire someone who actually works in Alaska. This can be a very complicated place to work; the equipment, the geography, the transportation, can be difficult for someone from “outside” to wade through. To be honest, by the time they contact me, they have made up their minds about whom they want to hire, and it just comes down to terms.