Reinvention: Photographing Democracy

Posted on 7/7/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Joe Sohm started out as a teacher of American history but became a full-time photographer, and for more than 30 years, has produced images of people and lifestyles in every state in the union in his personal quest to illustrate the depth and breath of all that American democracy represents. His Visions of America collection contains 28,000 tightly edited images. Sohm has had a very successful career licensing rights to these stock images—one image at a time, around the world, through multiple distributors. As the stock photo business changes, Sohm, always a man with a grand vision, has moved on to new things.

Using Visions of America images, Sohm created a Photo Symphony, a compelling visual-musical portrait of democracy. The symphony premiered in Philadelphia during five concerts at the Kimmel Center early in 2009 and featured music played by the Philadelphia Pops and conducted by Grammy winner Peter Nero. The original score was composed by Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Roger Kellaway; also featured were original songs by Oscar-winning lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Clint Eastwood provided narration that traced Sohm’s 30-year journey to produce this imagery.

Sohm says: “Throughout our journey, audiences explore the ideas, hopes and dreams that bind us together. In encountering the landscapes, cityscapes, small towns and rituals that define us as a people, our audience realizes that it is this generation of Americans that is the recipient and caretaker of the founders’ Vision of America.”

The images were projected on a 30-foot wide screen hanging over the 66-piece orchestra. While introducing each concert via video, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said: “This extraordinary Photo Symphony has been created for and dedicated to democracy, an ideal that has been America’s most powerful and lasting contribution to the world, a dream made real right here in Philadelphia 232 years ago.”

Sohm has also produced and self-published a coffee table book, Visions of America – Photographing Democracy, which won the Gold Medal IPPY Award for Best Coffee Table book in the Indy Book Publishers Awards in New York. The book will be in stores in October and is already available at the Visions of America Web site.

In the foreword to the book, travel writer Paul Theroux said, “These images of America are wonderful because they are iconic of course, but primarily because they are true; taken together they are a panorama of American dreams. In this sense they seem larger than life and highly colored.”

“It is very hard to portray an icon in words. The writer’s personality keeps intruding; photography is a happier medium. Joseph Sohm has an unblinking eye and a gift for summing up a whole complex mood in a single shot. There is a great deal of love in his photographs and words, but dedication too.”

Sohm is also widely sought after as a public speaker and works with the Jan Du Plane Speaking Bureau in Washington D.C. and Lordly and Dame, Inc. in Boston. A Blu-ray HD DVD product will be created to feature performances and interviews with Mr. Nero, Mr. Kellaway, Mr. Sohm, the Bergmans and others.

For 20 to 25 years, 90% to 100% of Sohm’s income was generated almost exclusively from stock photo sales. In Selling Stock’s 2006 photographer income survey, Sohm was in the top 3%. This year, he expects 50% of his income to come from books, speaking engagements and concerts, with the other 50% from photo sales. Within 5 years, that balance should shift to 75%/25%.

Sohm said, “As photographers, we develop a level of expertise about our subjects, as I have about America. So it might be time to focus more on what we know and have learned from photographing those subjects, than just focusing on creating more images. That is, in essence, what I did. And in that way, Visions of America becomes a completely unique collection with few competitors—unlike stock photos, where every Statue of Liberty shot is competing against an equally important shot.”

Copyright © 2009 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Leslie Hughes Posted Jul 7, 2009
    Congratulations to Joe. I have known him for years. I saw the concert in Philadelphia and it was wonderful. The images and the music came together in spectacular glory. Just as he imagined it for so many years. I wish him continued success! This shows what you can do with a vision and dedication. A lot of people gave him a lot of grief. He was persistent and has created a beautiful and successful legacy as well as a great business to boot.

  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Jul 8, 2009
    So many great photographers are looking at alternate revenue streams. Last week we read about Jack and to-day about Joe. People needed pictures yesterday, they need it to-day and they will continue to need pictures to-morrow. Photographers should try to produce better pictures to fill that need. Cheer up.

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