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About one year ago Denver-based wedding photographers James Christianson and Otto Schulze made a daring leap. They abandoned their individual practices—each had been a professional wedding photographer for more than a decade—to join forces and create a new business called James + Schulze in which they would be business partners as well as creative partners. This kind of collaboration is somewhat rare in photography, yet in some circumstances it makes perfect sense. For Christianson and Schulze, it has helped them reach new levels of success that would have been much less attainable on their own.
“It was time for each of us individually,” Christianson says. “We were going to go after a more international market—and we were both already dipping into that—but our individual home lives kept each of us from really doing it. So we both knew what we wanted to be going after, and it seemed to be something that was missing in the market. There are husband and wife teams where one is a great photographer and the other does the books or something else, but rarely do you see two principals actually shooting together.
What we really are trying to sell is the two of us coming to your wedding and knocking it out of the park every time. And with that mentality, we’re definitely going after the exceptional weddings. We’re moving from maybe 50% travel to probably 90% of our work being travel. Even though we have Aspen in our back yard, which helps, we’re still pushing away from Colorado to basically all over the country and even the world. We’re trying to push into Dubai, China and Hong Kong.”
Christianson says the business decision actually started as a creative one. Were it just about the nuts and bolts of the business, partnering may not have been worth it.
“We both realized the possibilities in shooting with another principal,” he says. “It’s different when you’re working with a second photographer. You may say to a second photographer ‘go photograph that,’ and then you go photograph it as well because, yes, while they may have covered it and done okay, it’s not the same vision, or the same level of competency. So now we’re out there doing the shoot and I know Otto has it and I can be off doing something else. And the freedom that brings for each of us to explore more and actually just stay focused on the art has been significant.”
“Beyond the collaboration,” Christianson adds, “what I really wasn’t anticipating was the value of having two people working toward the same brand and working toward the same business. It was really more of a creative decision in the beginning. And the business side of it has been more of a ‘wow, this really works!’ I think it really comes down more to we have two people, two different strengths, working toward the same goal—which is building a brand and especially for us we’re trying to build a national and global presence with our brand. Pooling our connections around the world and around the United States has been significantly helpful. But then also pooling our talents in the business. The collaboration in the business side of it has been really fantastic. He brings a different knowledge and sensibility to all the different aspects, and I do the same.”
Formally merging was not an easy decision for either party. Neither had ever intended to work with a partner, but after years of shared history they began to see that when they worked together the results were simply better than when they worked alone. They may have been competitors, but they were also colleagues who trusted one another immensely. That trust formed the foundation of their partnership.
“I would say 90% of the time,” Christianson says, “if they weren’t booking me they were booking him and vice-versa. We were competing for a very similar clientele. But we would help each other out and we were friends. We had a working relationship literally for eight years before we ever started this where I knew he was the guy… My back went out one day two hours before a wedding and I was shooting two hours outside of Denver in Vail and literally my back went out where I could not move. I picked up a phone and said, ‘Otto, I need you.’ And he jumped in his car, threw on a suit, drove two hours and photographed the whole wedding for me. I stumbled around on Valium and Vicodin and pretended to photograph, but he really photographed the wedding. And that was many years ago. Little things like that… This guy is salt of the earth, you know? Making the decision to partner together wasn’t just on a whim; I knew this guy was a great photographer and had been doing it for a while. We built a real relationship and real trust.”
“I think it was a difficult decision for both of us,” he adds, “obviously. Because we were both realizing what we’re giving up: I’m giving up a huge system of connections and wedding planner relationships and just giving them to this person who doesn’t owe me anything. That trust is so important. Like any business partnership, you can get screwed really easily. I can see there being worry behind it.”
Over burgers late one night after a wedding shoot, the two photographers hatched their plan for world domination. In truth, it actually happened in a much more incremental fashion. After a lot of weddings, where they slowly began to realize how much benefit there was to working together, the plan came together.
“It was just a discussion,” Christianson says, “like, oh man, the level of excitement about the creativity was just so much higher when we worked together. And the stress level was lower. The synergy of working together… It just made sense. We looked through files and the work was better! So I said, ‘it’s so much easier to do this with you!’”
Christianson says it was paramount that the partners both naturally conduct business the same way and treat their clients in much the same way. Their shooting styles may be slightly different—one a bit more editorial, the other a bit more fine art—but their business styles are a natural match. There are still friction points, but even those have proved to be beneficial.
“Wedding photography ultimately is a people business,” Christianson says,” as much as it is about photography. And so the way we both treat our clients and work with them is very similar. Of course there’s that growth too, where you know each of us has to let go of a little bit of creative license. There’s a lot of giving in it, too. He and I are both extremely opinionated, as you would expect since we were both business owners for as long as we were. And what we’re finding is we both make quick decisions as well. We each push back just enough that the final decisions are better.”
The pair considered maintaining their original brands at first, but soon saw they needed an all-or-nothing partnership. With two hardworking powerhouses at the helm, how could they fail?
“At first we went into it thinking maybe we should hold onto each individual’s business,” he says, “and then we quickly realized that’s not going to work. We have to go all in on this and move to one brand, one style. And it’s going to have to be a give and take. We thought maybe we could form a third brand, but in the first month we realized that’s just not going to work.”
One year down the road Christianson says he and Schulze are both relishing the partnership. They knew what they were getting in one another as partners, but sill there have been pleasant surprises. “One plus one does not equal two,” he says. “That’s for sure. It equals closer to four. One thing I know is that if you can outwork everybody, you’re going to be successful in this industry. Period. If you’re willing to work hard and you’re a people person, you will succeed. Otto and I are workhorses. With the two of us together to work toward a singular goal, we’re transitioning out of the local market and making big strategic decisions and then absolutely working our tails off. That’s what I always say: jump in way over your head and work your tail off to swim to the top. “
You can follow James + Schulze on Instagram @jamesandschulze
See more of their work at www.jamesandschulze.com