What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I started as a painter, but I discovered it requires a lot of isolation and the discipline of a monk. Frank Auerbach – to pick an example - paints 364 days a year in his studio from sun-up to sun-down. I found I’m not built to do that. I’m too interested in art as it relates to external life experiences, physical exploration of space, and interactions with other people.
I began taking more photographs as I left painting. Its speed and portability were a revolution in terms of integrating my life and artistic practice. I discovered photography can be used to explore any discipline – from urban planning to rural sociology to jungle ecology. It gives me a reason to be part of events and allows me inside other people’s life experience. I can frame specific and direct questions about a subject. All of these things about the medium appeal to me.
I keep photographing because it continues to feed me as a person and artist. There are moments I imagine myself doing other things, but it’s never a consistent line of thought. I don’t think of myself a photographer. I am a person curious to understand and experience and photography continues to be the best way I know to do that. If I come to another conclusion, I’ll sell my cameras.
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?
Taking on the second part of the question first, there have been a lot of good suggestions in other interviews on Two Way Lens. My recommendation is simply on when and how to use those suggestions: work as long as possible outside the gallery-museum-competition world before looking to enter it. Develop your craft, your vision and your relationship to the medium. Make images every day for a long time. Show them to people whose opinions you respect, then go back out and make more.
The reasons for waiting are several. Navigating the art world takes energy and time away from making work. People start to define you as you gain exposure and exposure brings expectations. It can become more difficult to take the exploratory risks necessary to find your way forward as well as confusing to have other voices involved with your work while it’s young.
As for how to know when you’re ready, I think that knowledge is based in developing an honest and reliable community around you. Self-evaluation is hard, especially at the start. Build a trusted circle of friends and look to establish mentors. Show them work, stay humble, listen. Be as objective with yourself about the work and where it’s at as you can. When it’s time, those people and the work itself will let you know its ready to be shown. You won’t have to think much about it.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
I think the easiest way to answer these two questions - and hopefully the most useful response for others – is to list the ideas that I work with or am working towards.
It’s a combination of lucky insights, stolen wisdom and brutal lessons:
Not only are there no divisions between your bodies of work, there is no division between your work and your life – they are all part of one thing.
You can’t do it all, but you can do one thing intensely.
Don’t be afraid of beauty, but don’t make it your main subject or content. The same is true for light.
Making images and thinking about your images need to be respected as separate processes done at separate times.
Photography does not require a good camera, the perfect light, or enough time. If photography is something you should be doing, you’ll make images on the days when you don’t have these things.
Carry your camera everywhere. A good image can be made anywhere.
To paraphrase the commencement speaker at my undergraduate graduation who was paraphrasing someone else: talent in art is about as important as tits on a boar. Success on every level - from personal satisfaction to your first Guggenheim - is work, work, and more work.
Give yourself permission to make photographs without prejudging them. You don’t have to show them to anyone. If you’re not sure if you should take the picture or not, take it.
Put down your camera and spend time just looking - frequently.
Take a few weeks off every year – at least.
At some point on this list I have to provide my thoughts for the pure realists and Machiavellians:
Photography has strong personalities, friendships of benefit, questionable minds with power, and straight-up assholes just like every other business. Many good photographers are not only good, they are also strategic and cutthroat. Exposure depends - to a degree - on developing connections and on what sells. You’ll have to market yourself; no one is out there waiting to discover your work. Sharpen your elbows as well as your vision.
Turn outside of photography for instruction and inspiration – go to movies, operas and the theater. Have music on while you work at home. Read all the time. Digest slowly.
Practical advice: Find a second source of income. Learn basic carpentry, become an EMT or study basic investing.
Travel every opportunity you can, especially during your 20’s.
We have witnessed an explosion of great photographers in this generation, but it’s an explosion of too frequently similar great photography. Understand longer cycles of art and have faith in understanding and developing your own innate drives within the medium.
Decisions by juries and committee are notoriously fickle and are frequently a compromise between several people on someone / something. Learn from rejections and listen to criticism, but don’t pin your sense of worth as a person or photographer on these things. There’s a degree of correlation between quality and success in the photography world, but it is not a meritocracy nor is it rational.
Build a community – photography is a game more fun played with other photographers. Go beyond yourself so that you rejoice in and actively help the success of others.
The best photographs involve you on all three levels simultaneously: head, heart, and sex. [tip of the cap to Nicholas Nixon]
The best photographers are students all of their life; photography can never be completely learned.
Finally and absolutely most importantly, laugh - and don’t be too hard on yourself, either. Photography is less serious than we usually think.