What inspired you to start taking photographs and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I took my first photography class in high school and it changed my life. Suddenly my eyes were opened to a different way of seeing and perceiving and understanding the world around me. It was an epiphany that started me on an exploration that keeps unfolding. I recently came across a snapshot of myself at 16, and sure enough, I had a camera around my neck! Back then my photography teacher, Walter Rabetz, was the first of many mentors, whose insights, encouragement and example have made this journey possible for me.
My education in photography continued at Hampshire College and later at the International Center of Photography, where I am now a member of the faculty. Because of that early obsession with photography, I was drawn to a career in advertising, where I became a creative director, responsible for national brands at top Madison Avenue ad agencies. No doubt, working with professional photographers all those years, art directing and editing images honed my eye.
But it wasn’t until I transitioned out of advertising, that I was able to really dedicate myself to photography. Upon my return from a year in Italy photographing formal gardens in the Veneto, I participated in a group show in New York City. This led to several more shows in and around New York. By that point I was able to attain representation with art dealer Carol Craven, who has been an invaluable artistic guide for me ever since. For almost ten years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be one of the few photographers exhibiting in her gallery on Martha’s Vineyard, alongside such important mid-century modern painters as Thomas Hart Benton, Milton Avery and Max Beckmann. This honor has been particularly meaningful for me because I consider my aesthetic to be more painterly than purely photographic. As a result of showing there, as well as other galleries, most recently Kenise Barnes Fine Art, I’ve established a considerable following of collectors and enthusiasts.
Besides the obvious rewards of exhibiting, I would have to say I continue to make photographs because I can’t not photograph. I’m increasingly addicted to that euphoric state of hyper alertness and simultaneous calm. It ignites my senses and makes me feel more alive in the moment. I find every aspect of the process of photography as gratifying as the end result: conceptualizing, shooting (color film with a medium format camera), printing in the darkroom, editing, sequencing and finally showing— whether in a gallery, an art auction, a juried show, an online magazine or blog like this one.
Still, nothing beats the feeling of walking into someone’s home and seeing one of my photographs hanging on the wall, or hearing a collector tell me how much my work means to them. So, yes exhibiting and selling one’s work is crucial, but I believe those things should come second. Creating the work comes first. The rush of creation is my primary motivator.
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?
Creativity cannot exist in a vacuum. I’m always telling my students “You need to put your work out there. It’s a vital part of the creative cycle, otherwise you’re just talking to yourself.“ It’s important to get feedback from others in the field—anyone whose advise you respect. In addition, you need have an honest, ongoing dialog with your work. It will tell you what it needs, what is working, what is missing, what new directions you should pursue and whether or not you are ready find a broader audience. In order for you to communicate to others, first you must know what it is you want to say.
Once you are ready, there are an infinite number of ways to share your work with the world at large. It used to be that you had to lug your portfolio from door to door to get your work in front of people. Now, you can send your images to gallery owners, editors, art directors and collectors across the world on the Internet at the press of a send button. The exposure you can get from a single posting on an important photography website can be amazing. After some of my images were featured on Flak Photo, there was an entirely new audience looking at and discussing my photographs. For me to be able to read someone’s comments in Italian on my “Italian Light” series, or to be featured on Moloko + (a Russian online art and design magazine), or to see my images posted on a blog in Australia, seemed surreal to me.
So you need to get your work out there any way you can. This could be through the Internet, but if you’re just getting started, it could also be as simple as hanging your photographs in a local coffee shop, an outdoor arts festival, entering a photo contest, applying for a grant—whatever you can do to get a foothold. My first solo show was in a public library. I ended up selling more than I expected. Use your contacts; ask your friends and family and art colleagues for their connections. Once you start getting recognition for your work, one opportunity often leads to another. It makes me feel good knowing that my photographs are out there in the world, living and breathing and speaking for me—inviting people to think or wonder or simply exist in the time and place of my images.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
Successful is a tricky word. I prefer to define a successful artist as one who arranges his life so that he can continue to do the work he wants to do. It can be a long and lonely journey for anyone on a creative path, so it helps to find another definition for success that works for you. When I look at a contact sheet and find an image I’m excited about printing—that’s success for me. Of course, practically speaking, it helps to have other streams of income, which is one of the reasons I teach.
To get to this point in my career has taken blind faith, self-determination and passion for the work. As an artist, you need to embrace uncertainty, not knowing where the road you’re on will ultimately lead to. There are no short cuts here. You just have to trust your instincts and stick with it day in and day out.
You also need to surround yourself with a community of fellow artists and colleagues that will support you and inspire you as you navigate your way. So many of my breaks in the fine art world have been the result of someone putting in a good word for me at the right time. For example, Tema Stauffer, a fellow ICP instructor, introduced me to Daniel Cooney, who sold my work on an online art auction through his Chelsea Gallery. That same auction led to the Flak Photo posting I mentioned earlier. As I said, it’s all about getting your work seen. In fact it’s because my photographs are featured on Culturehall.com, a curated resource for contemporary art, that Michael Werner discovered me and invited me to be interviewed for this blog.
At the end of the day, as a photographer, I feel like I have a story to tell and no one else on the planet can tell that particular story but me. So against all odds and in spite of all reason, I keep on telling it.
all images below are from Palmer Davis' series American Stories
Beer and Cigarettes
© all images Palmer Davis