Larry Minden is the founder/owner of Minden Pictures, a niche stock agency specializing in wildlife and nature imagery he launched in 1987. Maintaining its independence and reputation for quality, Minden is highly regarded for its curated collection and outstanding contributors. Larry lives on the central coast of California with his wife Linda. He has four fledged children.
- Tell us how you got started in the photography business.
I’ve been interested in animals from my earliest days. As a kid I roamed the hills around my California home collecting butterflies and catching lizards and snakes. When I moved out East, I spent my time bird watching and catching frogs and turtles. This infatuation continued in college where I began carrying a camera during wildlife studies in the Southwest deserts, Galapagos and the Chilean Andes. While working on a master’s thesis I got really bogged down and gladly accepted an offer to join a photographer friend on a shooting trip to Baja California where he was working on a project for Sierra Club Books. When we returned, I began working part time at his home office to keep me fed while dealing with writer’s block. There I learned the nuts and bolts of the stock photo business. Eventually I ran his office. That photographer was Frans Lanting.
- How did that lead to your founding Minden Pictures?
I ran the Lanting office for a few years while also looking for a job as a conservation biologist. As this was during the Reagan years, funding was really lean for anything related to the environment and no jobs were to be had – at least nothing of interest. I got one offer to survey tourists arriving in Galapagos to help understand the trends and impacts of tourism on the islands but that didn’t sound like my cup of tea. So, instead I set about the prospect of expanding my role of agent for a single photographer into a specialized agency representing multiple natural history photographers. At the time we were quite successful syndicating feature stories to top magazines worldwide, so I approached other freelancers publishing in National Geographic magazine. Jim Brandenburg was the second to join, then Michio Hoshino, Mark Moffett, Mitsuaki Iwago and Flip Nicklin. This became the core group at Minden Pictures.
- What have the “choke points” been for you over the years?
I have to laugh about “choke points” as our office has been flooded – not once but twice. One time my dad and I were up all night sand bagging the doors trying to keep out the water rising from a combination of clogged drains during a heavy rain and a big storm swell at high tide. We managed to keep most of the water out, but had to remove the lower drawers from the file cabinets storing the chromes to insure none were ruined by the wet carpet. I remember leaving for Tokyo one of the following days to visit an agent; the carpets were pulled up, huge blowers were roaring away like jet engines and my staff was anxiously packing desiccant into every corner to dry things out. Fortunately, we had no film damage.
There was also the Loma Prieta earthquake. I think it knocked over every cabinet, bookcase and desk in our second story office. We lost one chrome but fortunately no one got hurt other than being knocked silly as we fled to safety down the staircase to the parking lot below.
In all seriousness though, the single biggest choke point for Minden Pictures was managing the transition from analog to digital. We had to bear the cost of servicing clients who wanted chromes and those wanting scanned files with equal speed and expertise all without any bump in revenues. As we all quickly discovered, the notion of the web as a whole new parallel revenue source turned out to be the biggest bust ever.
- Your collection is all rights-managed now. Have you considered offering royalty-free imagery or any other options?
We’ve considered offering RF images but have not yet made the leap. Many of our photographers don’t want their images licensed as RF and most of our clients are editorial, thus finding print-sized RF files a bit costly. Nonetheless, we continue the discussion in-house, looking for the right strategy to use RF imagery to complement our existing RM collection.
In addition to RM licensing, we offer on-demand print products through a number of platforms and do quite well there. We’ve also experimented with an embedded image product for use in science and education, but like others who have preceded us down this path, we have found a successful revenue model to be elusive.
- At a time when so many agencies big and small have been acquired or closed, what’s the key to Minden’s survival and continuing success?
Our success can best be attributed to our commitment to quality. From the outset, we sought to attract only the very best photographers. Moreover, we were very selective, attempting to recruit only shooters who had something new and different to add to the mix. Many have been to the same locations or shot the same species, but in each case we tried to bring on individuals who contributed something we didn’t already have in the archive. By keeping the numbers low and making an attempt to give each photographer some uniqueness and a bigger presence in the agency, the photographers have in turn shown a commitment to us. It became a pretty tight group and I think it’s worked out well for all of us.
We made the same commitment to quality in a technical sense. When it came time to go digital, we didn’t take the easy path like so much of our competition, banging out scans on a Nikon desktop unit. I hired the best scanner operator in town and after a short stint on a Scitex flatbed, we used nothing but drum scanners until digital capture became the norm.
And finally, I’ve got a great staff, most of whom have been with me 20 – 25 years.
- Finally, tell us something about you that might surprise people.
Hmmm…not many people in the industry know much about me so it’s hard to imagine what might surprise them. How about that I was thrown in jail in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Portugal in the mid 1970s? Or that I worked jobs at the first Hard Rock Cafe at Hyde Park corner including bartender and bouncer? Surprised yet? How about that I have six toes?