Being a successful artist can sometimes mean being both determined and flexible at the same time. But how can such a duality exist over the course of a career?
The other day, I was sitting in front of my computer, doing my regular portfolio update for my website. I say “regular.” But, truth be told, this is usually less of planned activity and more a case of me ending up on my website for a completely unrelated reason, seeing an image in my book that has no business still being there, then being unwillingly thrust down a rabbit hole of self-reflection and life planning that I had no intention of engaging in when I sat down three hours earlier to check my email.
Mind you that when I say a shot has no business still being in my portfolio, I don’t necessarily mean that the shot is bad. In true overly confident photographer mode, I tend to rather like my own photographs, especially those few dozen that have made it out of the archives of literal millions of frames I’ve taken over the years and somehow landed amongst those I choose to share with the world. Long ago, I passed the point where I could narrow down my portfolio based simply on technical merit (or at least my own standard of technical merit). It’s easy to shave down your book when you can quickly exile frames for being out of focus or incorrectly exposed. Likewise, it’s been years since I’ve included a shot simply based on technical achievement. As much as we like to discuss these things, details like minute improvements in lens sharpness or how many megapixels an image was originally shot with have inspired a client to hire me exactly zero times in a nearly two-decade career. Instead, what you and your clients are both aiming for in a successful portfolio is something much more intangible. It’s not something that can’t be pre-configured by a formula. You may begin your career by modeling yourself after more established photographers that you admire. But what will ultimately set you apart is when you finally decide to, well, set yourself apart.
And no matter how much technical skill you achieve, ultimately, your career as an artist will come down to finding that intangible and rather non-technical thing that makes you unique. Everybody has something. And that something is different for each of us. That’s kind of why they call it unique.
I’ve written extensively about both how to go about finding your unique voice as a photographer as well as how important it is that you do so from a business perspective to help you survive in an overcrowded marketplace. I’ve also written about how important it is to stay true to your branding and consistent in your marketing in order to succeed.
Navigating a career in photography can be a journey. But that journey will always be more fruitful both financially and personally when you are able to connect the art you are making to the man/woman you are on the inside. I didn’t end up in the genre of photography I am in, sports and activewear, because I saw a market opportunity and tried to force myself into that box. I chose my niche after years of self-reflection, deciding what I wanted from my life with or without photography, then ultimately choosing a niche that allowed me to be me rather than trying to change who I was to fit a market.
As a result, my work is very personal. Whether I am shooting for a client, or just for the love of photography, it all tends to come from the same place. And, at the end of the day, that personal approach, rather than my ability to adhere to the exposure triangle, is what has propelled my career.
But if, in fact, my work is truly personal, then how is it possible that I could so often find myself looking at my own very carefully crafted portfolio and suddenly feel like one of the images doesn’t represent me at all? Well, simply put, things change. If you are successful at linking your work to your greater purpose as a human being, then over time, you will find that both you and your work will change. Life itself is about constant growth. We don’t figure out the world at the age of 16, then live the rest of our lives as the same person. At least, I hope not. Instead, living is about learning. It’s about expanding your horizons. One of my favorite quotes has always been: “the more you learn, the less you know.” In other words, we are constantly discovering all the things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. And, as a result, we become simultaneously less convinced that we know everything, yet even more clear in our convictions.
Photography is much the same way. If I were to look up a snapshot of my portfolio 15 years ago, I would no doubt be horrified by the images I considered to be my best. Not only because I’m guessing they would have relied far too heavily on post-production back then, but because I was a different person then, minus all the life experiences that have occurred since. Likewise, if I flash forward 15 years, there's a good chance that future Christopher would be equally horrified by the images and videos that I now hold up to be my very best.
We all evolve. And that’s okay.
In fact, that evolution is one of the things that makes photography such a wonderful journey on which to embark. Every time you pick up a camera is an opportunity to get better. Sometimes, you get better from a technical perspective. You start the day unsure, but finish it absolutely clear on how to use light to achieve a particular look. Other times, you learn through failure. You will start a project with honorably grand ambitions only to look at the final result and realize you are not yet at the level you wish to be. But that in itself should only spur you to dig deeper into your own betterment, so that at your next turn up to bat, you will hit it out of the park.
There is an inevitable fear of change. For those who have just begun their journey, there is concern that you might find yourself headed down the wrong path. For those who have already achieved a measure of success, there is a fear that change will diminish what you’ve already accomplished or worse, bring everything to a halt.
But being a photographer is like being a shark. A shark has no choice but to keep moving forward or it will die. Whether you wish to change or not, the world will continue to change around you. To stay alive creatively and professionally, your best bet is to embrace that change and figure out how to let that change benefit you rather than simply bemoan its existence.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about chasing market trends or changing your business model every time a new technology emerges, nor am I proposing that you dramatically change your aesthetic or suddenly find yourself a new niche. As I said earlier, the thing that makes you special as a photographer should come from deep inside you. That’s not the kind of thing that suddenly changes because of market forces.
What I am proposing to you is that once you have done the hard work to understand yourself and build a strong foundation, change is no longer something to be afraid of. So, if you are that photographer just starting out and you are worried that a change may send you down the wrong path, I’ve got news for you. It probably will. Like most things in life, sometimes, you have to try on a few pairs of shoes before you know which one will fit. But the process of learning what you don’t like is just as valuable as finding out what you do. And eventually, you will land on a path that quite simply just feels right.
For established photographers worried that your creative evolution will take you away from existing customers, ask yourself a simple question. Is your changing style/aesthetic/approach taking you closer to yourself? How do you feel about how you are progressing? Clients have been coming to you for your artistic vision. And that is not a static thing. As you grow, your clients will grow with you. Or, that growth might mean you suddenly find yourself with an entirely different set of clients altogether. But, either way, there’s a good chance that the burning passion inside of you for your evolving vision will end up being the exact thing that will sustain and grow your career. It may seem scary at first. But, like the shark, it’s the stagnation that will kill you.