To Be a Photographer

I have been thinking a lot about all of the hoopla that went on last week at APE. There is definitely something about the blog format that invites that kind of craziness. But there did seem to be a little bit of ‘shoot the messenger’ going on. Let’s be honest, Rob has given us all a lot of advice. Advice can be a funny thing, photographers are often seeking it, but at the same time it can be really annoying. Especially if it is unsolicited. But annoying or not, you still need to sort through what is useful and what is not. For instance in the case of the ‘stalker’ photographer, I really understood Rob’s point. It seems to me that it is common sense not to behave that way. I find that at this moment in my career, it is important to narrow down what is worthwhile and what is worth leaving. So below is my own list of things, that I have either done, had suggested to me, or have seen other people do with success. I am not an expert and I am still trying to make my own way in this art photo world, but perhaps some of it could be useful to others.

Edit, then edit some more, then get someone to help you edit!

The number one secret to photography is editing. If I had a dollar for the all the times I have heard, “Once you have a better edit.” It is the most frustrating thing in the world. I often wonder why those who have the ability to edit, tell you to do it. My thinking is that when you hear the edit comment, the person probably sees potential in your work, but does not feel it is quite 100%. So you must edit and edit and edit some more, until you get a yes. One thing I have noticed with many of the Women in Photography submissions, is how poorly people edit their work. Often I will think the work is a definite no, only to go to the person’s website and find tons of stronger more cohesive images. One thing this separates your work from the crowd is a great sequence of images.

Keep shooting

While it’s tempting to think you have finished a project, most likely you have only scratched the surface. All of the greatest bodies of work, were shot over several years. Nan Goldin did not take 6 months worth of shooting to make The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, so its unlikely that you have a fully realized body of work. I am currently planning a trip to Miami, for this very reason. And I have been shooting my project for over 3 years.

Look at art other than photography

There is a fine balance between knowing what’s out there and getting completely demoralized. I stay away from photo shows when I am making work. But that does not mean you should avoid all art. There are many ways to get inspired. Go to the Film Forum, look at illustration, painting and sculpture. Take up knitting. Start a blog on another subject. Anything that sparks your creative self. Sometimes it is best to take a ‘photo vacation.’ But you should also know what is happening around you.

Only show your best work

If you only have 5 great images, that can stand alone and make a cohesive & developed statement, only show 5. If you have 20, then show 20. If you mix in ‘filler’ images you only dilute the quality of the overall message. So even if you love them, or worked so hard to make them, ditch the images that are not your best. But keep in mind, everyone has different taste. Some images will appeal to some people, there is no way that you can please everyone. So if you have to tailor you edit a bit for different people, so be it.

Don’t give up when you get silence

Curators, gallery owners, editors, are constantly bombarded with work. And a lot of good work. So if you contact someone and don’t hear back, wait a reasonable time and email again. Then wait and send something in the mail. Then wait and call. Then wait and email again. There is a big difference between a short, polite request and the stalker who harassed APE. While I am certainly guilty of doing it, you should not take silence as a personal rejection. Until you get a message saying they have reviewed your work and are passing, it is fine to keep asking. Even if they say no, you can still send them it again when the work progresses. I have heard many stories about how today’s no, became tomorrow’s yes. But always keep in mind, you are asking someone to do something for you. Following basic manners is expected and necessary.

Show your work everywhere that makes sense

A great piece of advice I have received about having success with contacting potential clients is doing your homework. If you shoot great still-lifes, don’t send your work to an editor who specializes in celebrity portraits. The same goes for galleries. If your work is super-conceptual, don’t pick a gallery that show straight photo journalism. I don’t know how many times I have received offers in the mail to get a gas card. I live in New York, have no car and rarely drive. It makes me nuts that they waste so much paper soliciting me. So think about who you are contacting. Does Newsweek’s world editor really need to see your lifestyle photography? Look at galleries artist’s lists, and check out their work. Go to Barnes & Noble and look at all of the magazines. Look at Communication Arts annual, pick Art Directors doing ads they fit your style. If your work makes sense for them, call them up and tell them why.  Oh and it may sound obvious, but make sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s.  I once stopped a photog at my old job from sending his work out addressed to “Cathy Ryan.” Nuff said.

Find a job that lets you do what you need

Let’s be honest, getting started in photography is incredibly time consuming, expensive and tough. If you don’t have income you can’t try to get a job. If you can’t get a photo job, you can’t make money. So this means you need another source of funding while you work towards a photo career. This is perhaps the most difficult part of being an artist. There are few well paying jobs that allow you to take off long stretches, leave to go meet an editor or gallery owner, or who want an employee who is actively trying to have another career. New York is a tough place, most jobs demand a lot from their employees. There are way more photo MFA’s than there are teaching jobs. So you are left with a low-paying job or a job which makes you choose between it and your photography. Then there are those who get jobs printing or working for other artists. While right out of school assisting or working for another artist can be a great way to learn, eventually you are in danger of becoming a “printer,” ‘retoucher,” or ‘assistant” for good. This is my current quandary. The only thing I want to do is make images. I recently left my part-time job to take some time to try to get my photo career on track. However, I will not make it long without income. I often have sleepless nights on this subject. Someone recently told me I should be more open to “whoring” myself out, I.E. go the commercial photo route. But that is just as challenging as getting into the fine-art world. There is nothing wrong with getting paying jobs, I’m all for it. You are not a “whore” for shooting for a magazine. This is an out of date notion I think. But no matter genre of photography I pursue, I still have to pay for it – let’s look at the costs.

Website: Anywhere from $150-3000+ depending on if you get a designer, site capacity etc.

Travel: Most projects require some travel. Whether it is renting car (or taking a cab or car service) to drive to and from a location or airline tickets and hotel costs, it adds up. There is a reason we are all dreaming of a Guggenheim. Which to be honest, still would have us camping out, driving or eating trailmix, depending on the length and scope of your project. Check out Timothy Briner’s Boonville blog for an idea of what a project takes.

Photo Supplies: I shoot 4×5, so right away its close to $5 per sheet of film. Then we have printing costs. Leather portfolios run about $350- 500. 11×14 portfolio images can end up being $30 – $70 per, times 40 to 70 images in a book. Oh then there are gallery portfolios, 16×20 prints, presentation boxes, shipping. Oh yes, equipment rental. While I own my own 4×5 camera, which so far I have sunk almost 3 grand into, I can’t begin to afford lens and lights. My average 1 day rental is about $150.

Contests: Where do I begin. I am still appalled by the cost of everything Santa Fe. Most of these contests are used to pay for the organization costs of the people sponsoring them. Wow, I am so glad the artists, who are often desperate, and not making ANY money are paying to support all of these non-profits. The Critical Mass Award I heard, as you moved up in the contest, you had to pay more money. Shouldn’t these places be getting grant money and contributions from collectors, and companies, which they could then use to subsidise art making and help artists in their careers. There has been a lot of chatter on the blogs recently about this subject, and although we all feel the same, I still keep sending $35, spend hours filling out forms and get nothing back. I am going to my first portfolio review next week, I am interested to see what comes of my investment.

Last but not least, Living: Let’s see I live in Metro NYC. Do you really need to hear the numbers. Let’s be honest. Forever 21, Old Navy, and Urban Outfitters are sometimes too pricey for me.

Be a part of the community

To me the #1 best thing about blogging is the amazing relationships I have formed as a result of GG. I get really encouraged every time someone drops a line to say how much they like the blog or my work. And considering how much negativity I have to deal with in my pursuits, it is great to have the support. There are a lot of really talented people blogging. I have really enjoyed going to an opening and seeing a friendly face. Because of GG, I have been lucky enough to meet some great people or be helped out with my career. Andrew Hetherington, Joerg Colberg, Brian Ulrich, Andy Adams, Shane Lavalette, Mrs. Deane, Ofer Wolberger, I heart photograph, Dawn Roscoe, Elizabeth Fleming, Amy Elkins, Jen Bekman, Page 291, Susana Raab, Martin Fuchs, Rachel Hulin, Liz Kuball, Richard Wright, Rob Haggart and many others.

Make great work!

I don’t know how much work I have seen, which was visually stunning or well crafted which had no substance. Or how many statements I have read with a great concept, but then the work is either not quite good enough, or does not communicate the ideas expressed in the statement. Or work that is so derivative it is totally boring. Sometimes it is poorly edited, or sometimes I just feel nothing about it. There are a few basic ingredients in great photography. You must make great images, you must have a reason for making them, and that reason must be communicated to the viewer. And an individual eye is imperative. If your work looks like everyone else’s what reason does anyone have for looking at it.

So these are my 2 cents. I write this as much to remind and push myself as to provide advice. Of course we all struggle to take our own advice, to make it in the extraordinarily competitive world of photography you must be willing to give up a lot.

12 thoughts on “To Be a Photographer”

  1. Great post, Cara. I’ve so enjoyed getting to know you a bit through all this blog stuff.

    What you’re doing here, and with Women in Photography, makes a difference.

  2. Cara, you hit it out of the park again. I especially like look at art other than photography. I myself avoid searching for other photographers work because I really do not want to be influenced. That doesn’t mean I don’t support them by going to shows, occasionally buying books and prints, but I don’t make a huge effort at this point. I also find, and maybe you touched on this, that reading, vociferously, is a great source of ideas and inspirations – read artists biographies too. Once you read de Kooning, you’ll never feel sorry for yourself again. Also, satisfy yourself first, don’t go looking for approval, but center yourself, know what you want to accomplish and say and go for it!
    cheers, susana

  3. Another great post, and thanks for the mention! I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this piece more than once for inspiration and encouragement. I often have all of these disparate thoughts jostling around in my head, and I find that your blog organizes and articulates much of what I think but can’t quite seem to get onto the page. And then I always enjoy those gems that never occurred to me. Kudos!

  4. ..I saw that pay-as-you-advance requirement @ critical mass and thought “wtf is this, scientology??”

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