This article contains media that the editors have flagged as NSFW.
Sometimes the only things standing between us and achieving our photography dreams is... ourselves.
They are always so beautiful up on the wall. We live in an age dominated by the disposability of digital images. Where one’s thrift when swiping left or right on a phone is considered a skill set. Where its often said that if an image doesn’t exist online, it doesn’t… exist.
In such a world, it’s easy to discount the sheer incomparable beauty of a physical print. The tactile pleasure we feel when lightly suspending it between our fingertips.The barely containable urge to reach out and touch, immediately countered by better angels preventing our fingerprints from dirtying the glass.
Oh, the hours I’ve spent strolling the hard wood floors of artistic cathedrals gazing with equal parts envy and awe at these beautiful confections looming against the walls.
The awe still persists today. I am constantly amazed at what an artist can achieve when they put their heart and soul into a work.
The envy? Yeah, she’s there too. Artists are competitive. To say otherwise, I’d be lying to you… or myself.
When I was just beginning my career, I would peruse these elegant works and celebrate the artists. But in a fit of ambition, the eternal question would always be raised, why can’t my work be on these walls? Many years and multiple exhibitions later, I can share with you the simple secret that allowed me not only to become one of those people with work on the wall, but to become a far better artist outside the gallery and arguably a better man.
It all started with a portfolio review. Those photography speed-dating events where you get to show work to the photo editors and art buyers you dream to work with, and often (especially early in one’s career) walk away seriously questioning whether you ever want to even pick up a camera again.
A newbie at the time, I was at such a review when my breakthrough began. Of course, I didn’t know it was a breakthrough as it was happening. Instead, it just felt like another crushing rejection.
I’d been shooting for a couple years at that point and had spent the bulk of the most recent twelve months beefing up my studio lighting bonafides. I’d learned all the equipment and terminology. Butterfly. Rembrandt. Narrow. Broad. I’d used them all to produce a body of work that was technically flawless. Looking back on it now, it must have also been a perfect bore.
That feeling is somewhat confirmed by the response I got from the wide array experts gathered and forced to feign pleasantries while flipping through my endless portfolio. While they were all decidedly convinced of my ability to light subjects, their faith in me noticeably wavered around the question of whether or not my photographs had anything interesting to say. As one reviewer succinctly put it, “I don’t see much of YOU in there.”
I should say I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t have the strenuous but valuable experience of a professor forcing me to mine my emotions to get to the core of my work and hone a consistent voice. All I knew at that early stage in my career was that light was pretty. And all the photography books told me that if I used this light, and that exposure, my picture would be pretty too. The books didn’t mention anything about there being any part of ME in an image.
What in the world did she mean?
As the weeks following the review went on, I thought more and more about her words. I looked at my images again and again, failing to see what it was that the reviewers hadn’t seen in my work.
“I don’t see much of YOU in there.” The words continued to rattle around in my head. But rather than take the wounds to my ego as fatal, I decided to address the issue. Specifically, I would conduct an experiment. I would spend the next year ONLY photographing what was interesting to ME.
Sounds simple, right? In fact it sounds like downright lunacy to do otherwise. But the trap I had fallen into, the trap many of us fall into, is that I had been producing work because I thought that’s what people would want to see. I was lighting things exactly by the book, because I thought that’s what people wanted. I was composing and conceiving shots based on the thousands of images I’d seen be successful before. Thinking that replicating their methods would replicate their success.
What I wasn’t doing was asking myself the question, “What do I want to say?” “What do I want to create?” “What am I, and, by extension, my work all about.”
Turns out it’s not such an easy question to answer.
I first started my search for the internal by looking again at the external. Clearly I hadn’t fully solved my outward dependency problem yet, but we’re getting there.
Specifically, I took an honest look at myself and asked “What pictures am I most drawn to as a viewer?” Being as though this was during the height of Flickr, that meant going through my viewing history and seeing what images I have favorited and what groups I had a tendency to visit. Who were the photographers I was drawn to and what were they shooting?
I quickly noticed that many of the images that had caught my eye were fine art nudes.
At this point, I think it important to mention that when I say “fine art nudes,” I am referring to those works you have likely seen hanging on the walls of a progressive art gallery, not the images you have seen when flipping through a gentleman’s magazine clandestinely hidden inside an unread edition of the Washington Post. There is a big difference between art and porn. My interest exist soundly in the former. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Having never actually been so bold as to shoot a nude myself, I decided to give it a try. I found a model. Found a location (in this case the loft of the model’s own apartment while her boyfriend typed away on the computer a few feet away). I headed over, and started shooting.
Even looking back at that first set of nudes some eight years later, I have to admit, they’re not half bad. I still had some way to go, but not too shabby. Curious to see if I could top my initial effort, I quickly set up another session with a second model. Then a third. And a fourth. I had suddenly found a passion. A new form of artistic expression. I had already been producing imagery, but now I felt as though I was producing art.
And since, as established earlier, I had absolutely no interest in adding to the world’s supply of pornography, I found this new genre to be an exhilarating creative challenge. Working with only light and the human form, you are literally stripped of all styling. There’s no amazing dress to save an otherwise bland image. Yes, the subjects themselves may be beautiful, but if you’re aiming for more than softcore pornography, you’d better find something more interesting to do than to simply rely on genetics.
And the work itself cuts to the very core of the art of photography: shadows and light. With elegant curves, muscle definition, and bone structure being the building blocks of the image, your lighting suddenly takes on a renewed importance to make or break the image. You are no longer just making sure it is evenly lit and in focus. You have to bring the art with you to create the emotion and energy that you want in the final result. Like a raw piece of clay, you can mold this bare form into anything you want through nothing more than your own creativity.
For a solid year, I shot nothing but fine art nudes. I wasn’t being paid to shoot them. I didn’t have a specific client in mind that I would market them to in a portfolio. I simply created them because I found them beautiful. I found it a challenge and a way to put MY stamp on things. I felt that I had something to say.
At the end of that year, I put together a collection of the nudes I’d shot in the past year and submitted to a bevy of photography competitions. The same competitions that in years prior had met my submissions with a light yawn and a form letter thanking me for me entry.
But this time around, something strange happened. They loved my work! Suddenly, I wasn’t a mere spectator. When I walked the gallery halls, I was now seeing my own work, my own beautiful and tangible prints, hoisted within a frame for the inquiring eyes of the viewing public. The work of artists I’d spent years viewing, with my awe and envy cocktail, was now literally hanging next to mine in the same gallery. For a young photographer, that milestone of acceptance was crucial. It both validated my efforts and provided the answer to the secret I’d tried so long to uncover.
Producing strong artwork is not about being able to replicate the efforts of others. It’s not about being the next Annie Leibovitz or the next Irving Penn. It’s about being the first edition of you.
As the years have passed and I’ve moved on to more commercial and editorial assignments, I am never far away from that early lesson. So while my subjects now are far more amply attired, the essential question remains with every image. “What do I have to say?” “Where do I exist within this image?” “Aside from just being technically precise, what is it that I am bringing to this work that sets it apart from what anyone else could create?”
Try asking yourself those questions sometime. You’ll thank me for it. And, more importantly, your clients will thank you.