Photography Business Interview Series: with Chellise Michael Photography
Chellise & Michael, a wife and husband team, have been documenting weddings in NYC, Brooklyn, Upstate New York, and beyond for the past 9 years. They also have a team of photographers, including Danny and Emily. // instagram
— all photos in this interview are taken by + belong to Chellise Michael Photography —
Hi Chellise and Michael! Tell us a bit about yourselves and your journey to becoming an anti-cliche wedding photo and video collective at Chellise Michael Photography.
In 2008, Mike and I had just started dating - he was and is still a musician.
I was an aesthetician/waitress but photography was something I was obsessively getting into, portraiture specifically. So I started telling everyone that I was a Photographer even though I barely knew how to operate the thing cause that's what you do, right? So I would ask anyone with a face to let me photograph them for free and they all said yes. This was my training and I learned so much about myself as a photographer from it.
During this time, Mike and I had just started dating and just for fun, started taking lots of photos of miniatures together. Think 25 cent machine Lil’ Homies battling dead lizards that we would find in parking lots in Arizona after drinking lots of Jagermeister. We were creating scenes that were gross, hilarious, poetic, and ridiculous.
At this time, unknown to us, this was our first endeavor in photography as a duo. We bounced so many ideas off of one another, got really creative together, and we were falling in love too. (aaaww!) We also noticed how hilarious of a time we had while working together. Mike continued with his focus on music while I pursued photography.
During this time I was (and still am) highly annoyed with photographers portraying people to be someone they are not.
I was not interested in the idea of perfection. I wanted to find the soft spots in people, to get to know them as much as I could, then take their picture. I wanted them to feel that there was a collaboration between both of us and that I captured them for who they were at that time of their lives. And I still feel this way.
After a few portrait sessions, I realized that I had the ability to make a complete stranger feel at ease in front of my camera. Freaking Magic Sauce. Realizing this was huge. I recognized that this was a gift and ran like Hell with it. I never felt so ambitious for something as I did then. I finally found “that thing” that I loved and knew I could make a career at it if I had some patience and tried my best.
Soon after, Mike’s band grew up into a record label and they became a subsidiary of Epic Records. Since Epic was in NYC one of the guys, let's say his name is Ben, moved to spearhead it. Then one morning, he calls Mike while we were just waking up and said: “You need to get your ass outta Phoenix - you belong in New York”. (Ben is also very convincing..) Mike rolls over to me, smiles, and says “Wanna move to New York?” Without hesitation, I said: “Yeah! Let's go!” Apparently, we were both ready and didn't even know it until someone pushed us to go. (Thanks Ben!)
10 months later, we were living in Brooklyn.
Shortly after we moved, I had booked a wedding of some friends of ours and needed help shooting it so I asked Mike. He knew how to take really good pictures of miniatures, so why not, right? Mike jumped in and he shot like a freaking maniac!! He took really great photos, was fun to work with, and he enjoyed it. So thus began our journey as working partners, learning together, and supporting each other as we went along.
Wedding photography is exhilarating, multi-faceted, and exhausting both physically and mentally, yet it gives us full creative and personal freedom. We’re social, we like to engage and be included. We’re social butterflies with cameras. We are constantly put into situations to think creatively and usually with zero warning. Light rules all, so we adapt moment to moment and trust in the process. Through this, we have learned that many of our best images come from acting on spontaneity and having no hesitation when the opportunity is right there in front of us.
Wow, you two have been in business together for the past 9 years! First of all, that’s pretty impressive and inspirational. I’m curious to hear more about it.
Thanks!! I can't believe it sometimes too! 9 years of not working for someone else is a huge accomplishment and we feel very grateful every day for everything we have.
Once we made the decision to really go for it as a real business, we were both working restaurant jobs, which I was really struggling with. My waitressing shifts left me zero time to hustle as a new business.
Fortunately, Mike’s job was paying pretty decent, so we decided that he could financially support us while I hustled the photo thing. I'm wildly independent, so it was hard for me to even process at first because I don't know what that feels like not to work.
So I quit my jobs, worked non-stop and it paid off.
Within 18 months, we were a team of 4 photographers, taking 70-80 weddings per year collectively, and Mike was able to quit his job in 2013. It felt so good for him to quit!! Without him taking care of us, I don't think this would have happened as quickly as it did.
During this time we were also planning our own wedding so there was a lot going on in our heads about what marriage meant to us. It was a really great feeling knowing that I was marrying someone who believed in me enough to carry us through. It taught me that in marriage, you sometimes have to take turns in supporting one another's dreams even if it means putting your dreams on the back burner for a minute without resentment.
Do you have any advice for those who want to work with their partners? What should they keep in mind?
It’s important to be honest with yourselves and each other about what your strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to roles in running a business together, so you should definitely have this talk. Who’s good at emails? Who’s good at numbers? Who’s good at blogging? From there, delegate who does what based on those attributes/weaknesses and make sure the weight of what needs to get done is divided equally so one person doesn't get overwhelmed. You may not learn these things until you're in, and it's ok to admit that you are not great at something, your partner may thrive at it. And if you both despise the task, hire someone to do it.
Share with your partner your peeves and little nuances about how you work best. If you're a morning person and he/she isn't - respect that. There are times when I am really focused on a project (like answering interview questions!) and don't want to be interrupted, so I'll let Mike know what I’m up to and that I don't want to be bothered, and he respects that.
Just because we are married doesn't mean we’re mind-readers.
Always communicate if you need space, are feeling stressed, or just having a bad day. These are the times when it's so great to have each other because sometimes you just need a big hug and for someone to tell you everything will be ok.
Create structure. Have a weekly meeting of goals and take Fridays off together. Nobody responds to emails on Fridays anyway so put your vacation mode on until Monday, get away from your computer, and spend time together as a couple.
What’s the story behind being anti-cliche? How did this come about? (I’m all for it btw!)
When we started out, most wedding photography was pretty cliche and bride-centric. Cliche to us means this: veil placed over the grooms head, bridesmaids lined up in matching robes, and photos of ... shoes.
We have had so many couples tell us that our wedding photos don't look like wedding photos. It’s the weirdest and the best compliment we have ever gotten.
What we are into is simply what is happening around us at weddings. Human interaction, emotion, happiness, nervousness, relationships, love, tears, family, friends, and our personal favorite - rowdy dance parties. So we chose to rebel against the cliche, stopped wasting our time on popular wedding blogs and on photographer’s sites that we admired because we knew it would turn us into copycats.
If we wanted to create our own look, we had to stop looking at others and figure it out on our own. The photographers that we looked up to put in their time and we had to do the same. From this, we naturally cultivated a style of our own.
Do you have a favorite wedding that you’ve intended? If so, what made it so memorable?
Not a fair question!! Every year the favorites just keep piling up!
But I'm going to share a story about Kristen + Nick because, during our meeting, Kristen asked if there was any way to do some sort of Terry Richardson inspired photos. Slightly shocked by such a strange wedding request since his photos are notoriously raunchy - but I do love his work - and her for asking, we were up tp the challenge.
So for months, we thought, “What the hell are we gonna do that's Terry-ish but not going to feel like a direct rip-off?”
For starters, we knew that their inhibitions would need to be squashed (insert booze), use direct flash in a shameless way, and just give them what they want. This is how our ‘End of the Night” photos were born. We loved doing them so much that it became a brand staple. We thank Kristen + Nick (& Terry) for giving us this. They pushed us into thinking creatively, outside of the wedding norm.
Since you’re a team of 4, I’m curious to hear how do you keep your photography style consistent.
By hiring photographer/videographers that have a similar approach, values, and shooting style. Each of our shooters is their own photographer and we would never expect them to shoot just like myself or Mike.
We respect their individuality as artists and chose them because we feel that their style naturally compliments our brand. Having a team of creatives is all about having lots of open discussions about the culture Mike and I have created, how to preserve it, feed it, and to share what we're all feeling as individual photographers in the wedding world. It’s so important to be unified in this area.
How has your business changed and evolved over time? And how has it impacted your marriage?
Over the past 9 years, we went from just us to managing a team of 8, down to 3, now we're at 5 and we intend on growing more. So to answer your questions, heck yeah, we're always evolving and learning a ton from these experiences. There were some really tough calls but it made Mike and I so much stronger at being owners and protecting what we created.
As a couple, we definitely bond a lot during hard talks and have become very efficient at it. We can't grow without some punches along the way, and nothing is ever perfect. So if something isn't working out for us, we address it with honesty and move upward and onward.
A lot of creatives tend to struggle in their first few years of business. Was there ever a time in your business when you two questioned if this was the right path for you? If so, how did you deal with it?
The only questioning we had was how to make it all fit, work and run. It was a puzzle. And we like puzzles...
What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to 1. being your own bosses, 2. working with your significant other, and 3. bringing other people onto the team?
On being your own bosses: Create your dream schedule and stick to it. Schedule days off and treat yourself - you need it and deserve it.
On working with your lover: Communicate, Respect, Honesty, Support, Hugs.
On hiring a team: Hire Slow. Fire Fast. Okay, but really, this is a whole 3-hour class that
we teach a course on called “From You To Crew”
Anything else you’d like to add or talk about?
Yes. More than anything, we want to give thanks to all of the incredible couples out there that have chosen us to document their weddings. We get to meet so many lovely, happy people, that openly let us into this little slice of their lives together. Without them giving us the freedom we get to create how we want, none of this would have happened for us. And even more, so many of them have become dear friends through the process. We have to thank them all for inviting us in and giving us these opportunities to feed them photos and in return, be fed by and through our creativity. It’s something we’ll never fully understand but live with immense gratitude for it all.
With Love, Chellise and Mike