Monday, October 25, 2010

Four rules

I've been thinking for a while about James Danziger's four rules essential for any young photographer trying to survive:

1. Have talent. (Talent is not when your friends tell you they love your work, but when people who don't like you have to admit it's good.)

2. Understand how the world works. (Not just globally, but on a macro level. Understand what people need and don't need. Understand when to approach people and when not to. Develop social skills.)

3. Choose good friends. (There's nothing like an effective network.)

4. Be modern. (Don't do anything that looks like it's someone else's work. Stay on top of technology. Engage on multiple platforms.)

I suspect that most photographers would consider these as sound central principiles to guide their work. To me that's a problem. Why? Because these rules don't concern the central task of any photographer, which is the making of meaningful photographs. Instead they're about distribution. In fact Danziger's advice isn't specific to photography at all. The same marketing principles might be useful for car salesmen or young Hollywood actors or hedge fund managers or anyone else trying to get ahead in the world.

Fine, you say. We all want to get our work seen. What's wrong with marketing? Nothing, so as long as the selling of photographs doesn't manipulate their production. But I think people following this list —especially young photographers— may confuse the two. Instead of being seen as a guide to success, these principles may be mistaken for a general approach to photography.

I'm singling out Danziger here but the mentality is widespread in the photography community. Last Spring I saw an ad for a workshop promising to focus on these photography skills: Defining a target audience, creating the optimal marketing piece, writing query letters, entering juried shows, participating in portfolio review events, attending trade shows, designing and creating self-promotion materials such as web sites and general best practices for presenting your work. All of which may be wonderful skills but they have nothing to do with the hard practice of making meaningful work.

The list goes on. Reviews, Submissions, Networking, Social Media, I'm sure you know the game. There is a real danger, if one is not careful, of being consumed with these secondary tasks while actual photography takes a back seat. And yes, I would include blogging on that list.

With that in mind, here's my revised list of four rules essential for any young photographer trying to make meaningful photographs:

1. Find your talent. Everyone has something they were put on the planet to do, but most people wind up ignoring their calling or pursuing the wrong one. Maybe your talent is photography. Maybe it isn't. But before proceeding with photography, make sure that's your thing.

2. Understand how your brain works. Learn how it sees. Learn what it likes and why it likes those things. Learn how it can trick you. Test your brain out by exposing it to a ton of photographs as well as real scenes. Forget about social skills.

3. Choose good friends, not for networking but for honest critique of your work. The best feedback will come from a mix of photographers and nonphotographers.

4. Be postmodern. Borrow from any time period and any predecessor, then build on them to create your own vision. You needn't use modern tools but whatever you use should be so routine you don't have to think about it.

That's a start anyway...


Andrew Stark said...

Yeah I agree Blake. I guess Danziger's talking about scrounging a living.

But I still love those stories of single minded artists working year after year with no real validation from anyone ... Gary Stochl, Vincent Van Gogh, etc ...
Staying true to themselves and letting the market, or trend of the day go hang itself.

I'm a big fan of small 'm' madness.

Stay true to what feels right and floor that ute until you run right out of road.

Nick David Wright said...

I like your list a lot. And it's true what you say. Photography has largely become a game of who can market themselves the best. Marketing has never been my strong suit.

But I got lucky. I quit my last pro photo job in 2008, and I've finally found a dayjob to take care of the bills yet allows me plenty of time to work on my art as well.

The first year or so I tried to play the marketing game. Just didn't work. People simply aren't all that interested in the type of photos I produce.

So I said to heck with it. I've set myself up a fairly inexpensive blog/website and I shoot photos for me. If no one else likes them, oh well.

Some day I plan to self-publish some of my work using a Blurb type company. The advantage to working this way is it costs very little money.

Anyway, that fourth item on the original list is pure baloney anyway ... "there is nothing new under the sun ..."

Anonymous said...

Trying to "break into photography" is no different to trying to break into any other artistic pursuit.

It takes a measure of skill, a good deal of hard work and a shit load of luck.

I've learned the most about that side of photography from a busking friend of mine.

Luke said...

I love your blog.

Your first rule is tough. After all it takes a lot of time and effort to become good at something. I wonder if it's possible to know in advance if someone has the talent? Maybe it's good enough to try...?

The marketing hype has become overwhelming on many blogs. It's distracting. I think one reason is that many photographers are looking for alternative ways to make money and offer workshops for a group of amateurs who are attracted by hype of "becoming a pro".

The value of friends is also very important for photography itself. Interesting friends = interesting photographs...

Karen Desnick said...

Creating the work and selling the work requires two very different skill sets. It is rare to find them in one person. Many artists/photographers should not spend hours on social media because it drains time and creative energy for what they were meant to do - create. This is the reason we have agents, galleries, & dealers. Having said that, I think the ease of setting up blogs makes it very easy for even the socially adverse to show their work. Which enables others who appreciate the skill and effort to help them sell it.

Droid said...

My only rule for photography is to never get a job in photography, because chances are you will stop shoot for yourself.

Free will is an important aspect of meaningful art. You give up your free will as soon as you are hired.

Blake Andrews said...

I'm sure many have seen this but BryanF linked to an interesting article a few days ago about Annie Leibovitz:

It really digs into the potential conflict between photo skills and marketing skills.

Dilbert Fizzelstein said...

Do NOT read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.

Ms. Pearl said...

We don't associate with the creative types. We have a Scrabble club. We associate with people with babies.

Petar Dima said...

... for me,question mark for first rule. B. how did you solved " talent " problem?
"But before proceeding with photography, make sure that's your thing." - how one can know is he on the right track?

BryanF said...

aphotoeditor posted something about the Leibovitz article too.

“Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is, there is no getting around that.”

I wish instead of spending money on portfolio reviews and stupid contests, photographers would buy photography books and zines from fellow photographers.

Anonymous said...


Blake Andrews said...

From my Mom:

I would add a number 5 to your list, although I realize you had to match the four on Danziger's list. Number 5 would be: continually develop your technique. Tom Knight had a 3 part grading system: one grade for form, one for content, and one for technique. If technique is weak, the work will get a pass no matter how great the concept. If technique is strong, even a weak concept can squeak thru into acceptability. I think that in modern and post modern art, (and that includes photography, of course) technique is often left begging by the wayside. Jeff Koons and Maurizio Catalan parade around in their suits and hire craftsmen to execute all their work, they just have ideas. They are like the creative people in the advertising agency. Doesn't technique count for something? Peter Palmquist's photos were ordinary in concept, but his impeccable technique carried him a long way.

Photo Buyer Mike said...

Photographers that promote themselves heavily online are a real turn off for me.
I don't need to know everything they think or say at every moment of the day.
I don't need to be constantly pounded over the head with their mediocre photographs. I prefer that a photographer shows restraint. Heavily edit your photographs and keep your mouth zipped. There is no way I would buy a book from a photographer who's inane, insane quotes that I read online are rattling around in my brain.
What if Helen Levitt or Garry Winogrand used Twitter, bragging about the photos they made, and the equipment they owned? Would you still be interested in them? I would not.
People today have such a huge sense of entitlement and visions of grandeur. They think they've reached a point where they can successfully mimic a well known photographers style and believe they should be rewarded for it. They wonder why they don't get accepted to various internet groups or receive the same praise as HCB, GW, or JM. They think to themselves, "I made a photo of a white woman and a black man carrying a monkey in Central Park, where are the accolades for me?".
Sites like HCSP on flickr and in-public should be avoided like the plaque. They're merely electronic cliche factories that narrowly define the term street photography. Come on, how many photos of dogs on the beach or people walking in front of billboards do we need?

Anonymous said...

Yeah for Photo Buyer Mike!!! I love that someone called it out about online blasting, twitter, promotion and not thinking about photographs that matter.

I found a bunch of very funny xtranormal videos related to his post.

This one calls it out on the money.

Two superhero photographers arguing who is the king of all photo.

Thanks for an interesting and valuable read.

K. Praslowicz said...

I totally agree with Droid. I've made it my policy that if someone ever wants to give me money for photography services, the first thing I tell them is that they get little to no say in what to expect if they want me to do the gig.

I want them to buy my style, otherwise they're just renting my gear and knowledge on how to operate it.

Blake Andrews said...

In response to a few of the comments, I agree #1 is hard. Finding your talent can be a lifelong process. Maybe a better way to think about it is stumbling on your compulsion. If you really feel a need to do something, that might be a clue you were meant to do it. Then again (gambling, drugs, tv) it might not.