Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

A Better Shot

Just south of downtown, through an unassuming gated entrance and up a curious staircase, time stops.

The address, 199 S High St., serves as a nexus of past, present, and future. Having been used for various artistic purposes throughout the decades, it has once again returned to the venue that it’s so suited for: a space for the makers of Columbus.

The space is Commons Studio, a full studio with professional photography equipment that also offers a paid, in-studio apprenticeship. The owner, Matt Reese, has been a full-time photographer for seven years, and has now taken his creative energy, talent, and industry experience to develop a social enterprise business model aimed to help those new to the field establish solid foundations. Having seen how maintaining industry standards is crucial to the livelihood of the artists, Reese chose to use business to solve a problem.

“Sometimes, when new photographers go out and get jobs, they think that if they underprice other photographers, they’re more likely to get the job. So it ends up being a race to the bottom with everyone undercutting each other. That’s something we’re trying to solve by educating and being fully transparent with our business practices.”

Reese openly admitted he has made mistakes in his early career and had “fallen for the carrot” many times. There’s humility and confidence in his answer, knowing that being open about his experiences allows him to encourage and guide others. He attributed his personal development to learning important lessons early and joining a trade association that helped to point him in the right direction with regard to various issues facing emerging artists.

“Rather than thinking of other photographers as competitors, trade associations encourage you to view them as colleagues,” he said. “Some photographers may view themselves as lone wolves, but I definitely feel it helps to have that community and network. At any given time I can call up a colleague and talk to them about issues and they’ll point me to resources.”

Referencing the importance the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) has played in his career, he also explained how helpful trade associations, conferences, and networking have been for numerous issues—especially industry forecasting. Reese is also a member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), and has been attending their meetings regularly, gleaning critical insight for the future of the industry and current trends.

The Columbus Chamber was instrumental in helping Reese develop a way to turn an internship program into a paid apprenticeship. Once it became a reality, they started attending job fairs with local colleges to identify talent and hire them on for a three-month program. Apprentices are immersed in on the job training, providing them with the opportunity to network, build their portfolios, use industry-standard equipment, and gain a more thorough understanding of the business side of the artistic world. Matt explained it best when he said, “I think of them as doctors in their residency, because they’re fully trained photographers, but they need more experience working with people, understanding etiquette, networking, marketing, and business models.” In addition to launching their website this December, they launched a crowdfunding campaign on November 23. They’ll be using it to jumpstart sales, with donors being able to receive merchandise or services; the ultimate goal being to have a production van dedicated to the studio.

Focusing on “shot-for-shot reciprocity,” Commons Studio is in ways comparable to Milk Studios (out of both New York and Los Angeles). However, it’s unique in that it offers the paid apprenticeship program, and it partners with career development non-profits. They’re currently working with various non-profits to donate their services as well. Explaining the importance of the program, Reese said that they’re also seeking to expand into becoming a booking platform, and are looking forward to further developing and implementing the strategy. The goal of the platform will be to showcase talent and ensure it’s streamlined and accessible.

To underscore the success of their business model and work, Commons Studio was recently accepted into SEA Change, an accelerator program for social enterprise. Only 15 businesses were accepted in the region, so this has undoubtedly been a highlight of the studio’s young existence. The studio is also working toward becoming B Corp certified—to explain B certification in a short analogy (one that doesn’t do it justice), it is essentially to business what free trade is to coffee. Commons Studio would join a small but growing list of other B certified companies in Columbus. “A great national example is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. They will only source their ingredients from B certified farms. [It’s] social responsibility, plus environmental stewardship, plus donating a portion of proceeds back to charities.” This is surely a certification of which they are deserving, as despite the studio’s youth, they have, to date, donated more than $75,000 in photography services.

As for who can come to Commons for an apprenticeship, Reese said it’s pretty open-ended. “We’ve done most of our work through the local colleges. It’s highly competitive, so we’re currently looking to identify friends and supporters to help us continue to grow this business model. We take on two apprentices at a time, and sometimes we’ll hire them on as staff, or we’ll ensure they’re added to our network. We’re looking for industrious self-starters—A+ students who are socially aware and passionate about the craft.” 

For anyone interested in learning more about Commons Studio or for booking information, reach out to Help contribute to their IndieGoGo campaign here