Contributing Author: Sheri Radel Rosenberg
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to review some photography at PhotoPlus Expo. I’m always impressed by the reviewees- coming forward and having loads of people look at your work and make comments in real time must be nerve wracking to say the least. I’d be a (heavily sedated but still) nervous wreck if I had to show my work this way. Applause. I tip my hat to you brave souls.
I saw some wonderful work from some great would be’s and could be’s and should be’s, but one think that really struck a chord with me was the amount of photographers who felt the need to show everything they have ever shot, when the work they really wanted to show and inevitably do was leaps and bounds beyond everything else.
As someone who writes, I can relate. It’s hard to just do one kind of writing- fashion writing, novel writing, memoir writing- there’s so many ways to express myself, plus I hate to feel limited and identified as doing one thing.
But in creative markets like New York, it’s pretty hard to stand out if you don’t offer something very specialized. And further, it’s important to be true to your very own brand when it comes to creation. Otherwise, it’s going to show that you’re trying to satisfy just about everyone but yourself.
Sure we have a million people to satisfy- from clients to our spouses to our children to our pets. But I believe strongly in the “to thine own self be true” school of hard creative knocks- if you make a career of trying to make everybody happy, guess who’s going to be miserable?
I saw an amazing young conceptual fashion photographer who made super cool futuristic fashion imagery that was super cool- but she felt the need to show lifestyle in her book that, although good, felt like a completely different photographer. And then there was the guy that was brilliant at sports documentary- think “in the moment” action- who felt that if he didn’t show quiet portraits of subjects in solitude, he would miss out in more traditional portrait work. Oy vey.
The life of a photographer is not an easy road. And it’s not to say that throughout your career, you may suddenly discover you only want to shoot still life vs. lifestyle. That’s cool. But I can’t stress enough when you show your work the need to have something cohesive. There are some lucky, brilliant people in the world that can somehow do it all- I think of icons like Nadav Kander who has the unique ability to bring his incredible secret sauce to everything he shoots. But for many of us, we’re going to want to think of ways to focus on subject matter we can really refine. This does not make any of us less brilliant, by the way. And sometimes genre shifting is worth the experiment, but really, a strong brand should always be true to itself. Remember New Coke? Yea, me neither.
So what’s my point with all of these analogies and cheesy literary quotes?
Here’s some bullet points that may help even the most seasoned photographers put forth a great brand, and make great work in the process:
Be true. This is at the top of my list because if you are showing work that is meant to satisfy every need, you are going to quickly become the master of none. It’s crucial to find the work that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, because chances are, I’ll feel that warm and fuzziness too when reviewing your presentation. You can’t please everyone, nor should you want to. Rinse. Repeat.
Be focused. To stay true, you need to be hyper focused on what your goal is for the next month, year, or decade. And however you get there is great- whether it’s meditation or self funded trips to the places that inspire you, do it. And don’t let anybody get in your way.
Be a specialist. If you live in Peoria, perhaps don’t pay attention to this point. In small markets, you may very well be a generalist and that’s cool. But if you live in a big metropolis with a Starbucks on every corner, you have to pick something and get great at it. And please sweet Lord, may it be the thing you want to shoot the most.
Be a specialist, but beware of “that guy” syndrome. What I mean by the above- you want to specialize, but you don’t want to be known as “that guy or gal” who shoots cupcakes. Cupcakes are delicious and beautiful, but at some point, you will probably want to be known for more than that. So don’t get pigeonholed into anything faddish or too trend focused- tastes change and I can think of more than one photographer who got stricken with “that guy or gal” disease and never quite recovered. Take heed.
Be brave. What if I told you that I hate doing reviews because I wonder why my opinion has more weight than anyone else’s? I can’t think of a business more subjective than photography- I may love your picture of livestock, while someone else may crap all over it. Maybe I’m in the market for livestock imagery the day you show me your book, and maybe it’s just a moment in time. What I do know is this- everyone is going to tell you something else about your work, and if you listen to all of these voices, you’re going to feel schizophrenic. You have to find a way to listen and evaluate what people tell you, but listen to yourself first and foremost.
I know it’s tempting to show art producers and potential clients everything you’ve got, but I’d be willing to bet that whole canon it’s not going to get you more work, unless of course, it’s all great and infused with your unique point of view. Don’t be afraid to show the work you love the most, even if you fear it’s not what will fill the coffers. So what’s your specialty and how will you fine-tune it in such a crowded world?