What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
From an early age, I was immersed in creative pursuits, whether designing doll clothes or drawing cartoons, and in college I was doing pretty much the same thing on an elevated level--I was focused on painting, and designing clothes on the side. After college, I moved to New York to become the next Diebenkorn, but ended up involved in fashion, while continuing to paint in my free time.
Becoming a photographer was a totally organic evolution—I had been surrounded by photographers all my life (my father and my uncle), we had a darkroom in our basement growing up, and I worked as a fashion editor alongside incredible photographers, but hadn’t considered it as a career until it sort of hit me in the face. Once I committed to photography, it felt like it was natural fit and it brought me back to my roots as an image-maker and artist. I realized I had spent decades looking at images—on album covers, in magazines, in galleries and museums, and I wanted to create my own.
At first, there was a huge learning curve, but my happiest days were those spent in the darkroom, figuring out my craft and sensibility. I only took a few classes, and the rest has been self-taught. I had two small children at home and had to contain my photography to the hours that they were in school. I had no community, except for the friends I made in the darkroom, and spent hours navigating the internet trying to learn from other photographers—seeing how they put together portfolios, what exhibitions they submitted to, what magazine accepted submissions. But I never had any doubt that this was my path. And in retrospect, taking things slowly was a good thing. And even though I wish I could have started earlier and earned an MFA, I think being a self-taught photographer has kept my vision unique.
I made many, many mistakes, got rejected many times, but when I started creating work that kept me awake at night with excitement, things started to happen. I got into Review Santa Fe, was offered exhibitions, and began teaching.
What sustains my vision is that I continually want to interpret the world through my own artistic lens.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
The two biggest problems that beginning photographers face are learning how to edit, and making high quality prints. Beginning photographers forget that it’s not just the image that is for sale, but the print. Many students have never produced prints, even though they have made thousands of photographs, and perhaps the fact that they have thousands of photographs, doesn’t allow them to commit to a single image!
Emerging photographers have to remember that the art world has seen everything, and in order to produce work that gets the attention of those rarefied eyes; it has to be unique, meaningful, and professional. Oh yes, and interesting or important enough not only in concept, but worthy of the energy it takes to promote the work for years to come. It’s important for work to say something, to tell a story, to have a point of view, to have a voice, and to understand why you are making the work and who your audience is.
When a photographer is ready to “emerge”, they should be visually sophisticated, well versed in the photo world—being familiar with galleries, museums, major competitions, and other photographers—and be able to present a cohesive body of work with a smart statement and corresponding materials. The best places for emerging photographers to test the waters are at portfolio reviews, with a wide variety of reviewers giving critical feedback. Portfolio reviews can be very expensive, but there are many smaller ones cropping up that emerging photographers can take advantage of. In the beginning, I started by submitting to group shows, many that included mixed media, and to magazines, online and in print. I realized early on that the most important thing was THE WORK.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
Success is an interesting concept…I do consider myself to be professional, but I am not sure what successful means anymore. As I achieve more personal goals, I find just as many or more that I have yet to achieve, and that keeps me working hard every day. There is no magic to this journey. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other, trying to keep the momentum going especially on those days when the last thing I feel like being is creative. Trust me, there are dry spells, periods of insecurity and defeat, but I have discovered that by celebrating and exploring other photographers during those times (well, all the time) and living a visual life, it keeps me engaged and energized.
In addition, developing a supportive photographic community is vital to success. I have to say that having the encouragement and friendship of photographers, editors, gallerists, etc has been one of the greatest rewards of this journey. One gallerist in particular, Crista Dix from Wallspace Gallery in Seattle, has been my champion and sounding board, and I have learned so much from her guidance and friendship, and one magazine editor in particular, Russell Joslin of SHOTS, helped create my first community of photographer friendships and got my work seen on an international level.
I can’t speak enough about the importance of good will and to giving back to this community. Take time to make connections. Let other photographers know that you appreciate their work, compliment a curator on an exhibition or an editor on a publication, be open to what is going on, and show up. Donate to auctions, support institutions that promote your work. I have been writing the photography blog, Lenscratch, for the past several years, and though it’s a lot of work, I have learned so much and connected with so many terrific human beings. Opportunities have come to me because of that hard work, but better yet, opportunities have come to photographers I have featured on the blog. And I find that incredibly satisfying.
Fur, from the series Daughter
Quincy, from the series Spring Fever
Shirley and Boat, from the series Paradise in Color
The Baths, from the series Dolls at Night
Mother, from the series Dolls at Night
Arrangement 10, from the series Arrangement in Green and Black - Portrait of the photographer's mother
Moving Trough, from the series Shadows and Stains, Notes from a Dark Room
Mother, from the series Inside Out
Rhino, from the series Unreal / Reality
John and Roy, from the series Paradise in Color
Arrangement 1, from the series Arrangement in Green and Black - Portrait of the photographer's mother
Brothel, from the series Dolls at Night
© all images Aline Smithson