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Planning thoroughly and planning well are key to a large-scale assignment. However, staying flexible and being willing to throw out the plan at a moments notice is equally important. If you are prepared for both, there is a good chance your trip will be successful.
Traveling in rural China is not the best place to have a specific plan. Like most of us, I live in a large city where I am used to trains turning up on time, buses criss-crossing the city at all times of the day, and convenience at my fingertips almost everywhere. As soon as you step out of China’s major cities, a lot of this evaporates.
In my plan, I had penciled in one week for each location. As far as details — timing, when to arrive, when to leave, etc. — my notebook held no more information than, for example, “Week 1 – Inner Mongolia.” I knew exactly I where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve there, but it was impossible for me to predict how and when I would arrive and leave a certain place. In this respect, I had to remain completely flexible and not become frustrated if I could not get to a location on ‘x’ day, as ‘y’ day would probably be ok, too. This was a luxury I had working for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which afforded me much more time than most assignments.
Adapting to change was the only constant on my trip. Mid-way through our journey, my assistant had to unexpectedly return to Beijing, forcing me to work alone for a small portion of the trip. I had anticipated something like this, so I focused on subjects I could cover without an assistant.
The biggest challenge during my Pulitzer assignment was when my “chapter” on abandoned cities appeared to have fallen through. I had researched and planned a trip to a spectacular abandoned city in the Inner Mongolian deserts. The day before embarking, we discovered that the area had just been shut off to outsiders because the route to the city passed through one of China’s space rocket launch centers. I had no other back-up location for abandoned cities, so I was concerned that this important chapter would be missed.
As we called hotels to book rooms for our future stops, we mentioned our predicament to a hotelier. This hotelier happened to be a professional guide to explorers and told us of another abandoned city rarely visited by outsiders. A quick search online revealed that the demise of the city fell inline with desertification, so we decided it was our final (and only) option. The old city of Yinpan turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip, despite coming about completely by chance.
Over the years there’s been more than a few bird photographers who have said, “Look at Artie, he’s getting 15 people on a tour at $999 a person — do the math. And he does three tours a row in New Mexico. I can do that too.” But with the exception of people who really enjoy being around people, they pretty much all failed. It comes back to the principle of hard work. I think the most important thing to make a successful workshop is to put your heart and soul into it and to give a damn.
Ask yourself, “Am I a people person?” “Do I want to work 17 hours a day?” “Do I want to put every ounce of effort I have into finding a good situation for these people?” I’ve seen other instructors who will go to a spot that’s traditionally good, and if it’s terrible, they stay in the same spot and waste the folks’ time. On a typical morning at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, I often move the group up to five times in the first one-and-a-half hours. If you’re lazy, workshops are not for you. Likewise, if you don’t like people, you’re not all of a sudden going to become a people-person because you’re running a workshop.
I don’t know how the template for BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours (IPTs) came to be, but they’re not much different now than when I ran the first workshop with one person. The formula came to me naturally: tell people what they will be doing, get up early and go photograph, help them in the field, and then review the images.
We still do an introduction on the first night. We show the students what we’re going to be photographing and talk about the various techniques that we will be using. The second evening we do critiques, and the third night we take a close look at composition. Each year we put more emphasis on the photography itself. We always find time for some Photoshop lessons. Many good photographers make their images look worse in Photoshop rather than better. That’s why we came up with the Digital Basics File, a PDF that we send by e-mail.
Originally we took as many as 15 people out, but now we’ve reduced the group size to 6-10 and raised the prices. It took me a long time to realize that if I take two groups for three days I have to do all the ground work twice. Now that I’ve started doing these longer trips there’s much less pressure with regards to the weather and the really great photo ops; I feel much more relaxed throughout the trip.
People always comment that I’m one of the few leaders who eats almost every meal with the students. Most of the big-name tour companies have professional leaders whose primary job is to open the door of the van. I have my laptop on and I’m teaching pretty much all the time except when we’re chewing. An IPT is pretty much total immersion.
My mother will ask me, “Are you going to retire?” And I say, “Ma, I love what I do, I love every second of it.” Even when I’m working 16-hours-a-day, I love it. People often ask if I take a vacation without a camera and a big lens, and I just laugh. Why would anyone do that if they’re doing what they love?
I think that most folks who are starting out in photography, whether they come from another career or not, their goal is to not have to go back to their first career. There was one guy who worked for me early on, he was working for IBM and they were offering him a buyout. And I said, “I’d take it in a heartbeat. If you can make it on your own, even for a year, that’s one year you didn’t have to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle. And now, 15 years later, he’s taking people all over the world teaching photography.
You gotta be yourself. You can fool people for a little bit, but not for long. I’m opinionated, and I’m not humble. Some folks are going to be rubbed the wrong way by that. (My people skills have improved dramatically over the past decade and I try never to be arrogant.) I like to say that 80% of the people love me and 20% hate me — nobody is neutral about me. And many of the 20% have never even met me. You gotta love that. It’s commonplace for people to say, “Oh my god, you went on a tour with Artie Morris? He is arrogant and he will push you out of the way to get a picture, he doesn’t care if you learn anything.” When someone asks, “Have you ever been on one of his trips?” the person always responds, “No, but that’s what I heard.” I never take it personally.
Call me nuts: I am one of those rare folks who would rather be out photographing with a group than be out by myself. I just love leading IPTs. (P.S. Most of my seven BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year-honored images were created while teaching.)
Miki Johnson: Tell me about how this project started.
Paul Waldman: After I left my position as managing editor of Zone Magazine, I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done, and that had both global and intimate scope. The Living American Master Photographers Project (LAMPP) grew out of this. At the time, far more emphasis was placed on photographic content as opposed to the individual artist. Nobody was studying the personal content of individual photographers. Portraits of these men and women, whose images were shaping society at a basic level, were not available.
I was appalled that as a society we weren’t in touch with what I considered a living national treasure: our photographic community. I began doing portraits, interviews, and occasionally both, with photographers starting in 1991. Back then, the idea of committing to an ongoing “living study” was somewhat foreign. At times, it is still difficult to convince people of LAMPP’s value as a social tool and document.
Many of the photographers resisted initially. Some had been “hunted” by fans who wanted a shot of them. But after the first ten or so portraits, a body of work began to emerge that was well received. Although my hopes for editorial assignments and assistant jobs from these encounters never materialized, what I ended up with had a greater value: some of the most rewarding personal relationships of my life.
MJ: What does a typical interview and portrait session look like?
PW: An interview is now a prerequisite for participation but in the beginning, it was an either-or proposition. I opted for the portraits, thinking I could always go back for a phone interview. There was never a template I followed; I think this enhanced the experience for both myself and the participant. Whenever possible, I tried to sit down and talk, not as an interview, but as two people sharing a beginning. Participants saw I wasn’t trying to coerce something out of them other than their love, experiences, and accumulated wisdom garnered from an eye within the craft.
I became close with Andreas Feininger and his wife Wysse. I’d often go up to their flat on 22nd and Broadway in Manhattan for tea. Jacques Lowe and I would talk about his time with JFK, his love of jazz, and his experiences photographing its legends. I did a portrait and interview on the road to and from Seligman, Arizona, with Allen Dutton and we remain close to this day.
When I photographed Sally Mann, Patrick Demarchelier was doing a street shoot as we were approaching our portrait location. I asked Sally if she wanted to meet Patrick and introduced them for the first time. There were other strange moments, like finally photographing Duane Michals in his basement laundry room after trying to meet with him for three years.
The first session I scheduled with Gordon Parks, a big Nor-Easter hit Manhattan. I realized there was no way it could happen as planned. When we finally met, there was a blizzard tearing through Manhattan. Snow appeared to fall parallel to the ground, as if it were orbiting the city.
MJ: Do you have a favorite image or story from a portrait session?
PW: That’s a challenge. Working with Bob McNeely at the White House under President Clinton was a privilege. After we’d met and he’d taken me down to the photo office, he needed to go and pick up his daughter from school. I told him not to worry, I’d be happy to hang out. Later, Bob snapped an image of the president and I as we talked about Bob’s daughter, who was quite young at the time. He had President Clinton sign the photo for me. Since then our friendship has blossomed. I recently spent a night out at his farm upstate from Manhattan, re-photographing him with his daughter — she was graduating high school!
Most recently I photographed Barbara Bordnick at home. She was so moved by the experience, she asked if I’d record an extra track at the end of our interview. To my surprise she shared some moving words about my presence as a portraitist and her love for the LAMPP body of work. Barbara’s an amazing editorial portraitist; her unsolicited kindness was especially inspiring.
Jill Enfield was incredibly generous. She and husband Richard Rabinowitz let me stay in their home in Manhattan for an LAMPP trip. I was a stranger, having only spoken with her and Richard by phone. I arrived at 6am! Her two teenage daughters were sleeping as I quietly settled in. That kind of love and appreciation for the project’s mission has been particularly touching.
MJ: What about a good story about recording an interview with a photographer?
PW: A favorite audio recording is of AP legend Marty Lederhandler. His “Pigeon Story” from WWII’s D-Day is well known among many of the AP people, but few know it outside that circle.
Marty Lederhandler – “The Pigeon Story”
One of my favorite moments involved Sylvia Pericon, a student who volunteered to interview Steve McCurry for LAMPP. After the interview, we sat at a cafe in New York’s West Village and did a post-interview about her experience. She was so moved and energized. When Sylvia told her teachers about her LAMPP interview, they were amazed she had such an opportunity.
MJ: Where does all the content live? Where would you ideally like to see it?
PW: I am committed to the idea that this content should “live.” Because the project has been almost entirely my creation, the negatives, prints, audio, media kits, FAQs, quote selections, contributed letters, kudos, and rejections remain with me. One of my highest hopes is that LAMPP escapes my personal gravity, that other people get involved. In retrospect, I feel LAMPP has suffered in part from its perception as “my” project. I’d like to see it expand, for others to experience what I’ve been blessed with.
There’s so much undiscovered country, so many older masters and emerging masters who haven’t been tapped yet. For the past few years I’ve been trying to establish foreign satellites that would explore global perspectives through the LAMPP paradigm, the LMPP: International. As our planet becomes smaller through faster, richer, deeper communication and media distribution, methods of common experience will be instrumental in forging more meaningful international, intercultural relationships.
I’d like to see LAMPP integrated into a higher education institution or museum with robust photographic programs if it does not attain its own self-sustaining presence as a foundation. The project needs space to expand, and the opportunity for participants and luminaries to visit for “micro residencies.” I’d like to see an interactive textbook created that students can collect and have signed by masters featured for that year.
MJ: What is the biggest challenge you face moving forward?
PW: Recently I’ve approached the Annenberg Space for Photography, The Smithsonian, and the Duke Center For Documentary Studies without so much as a commitment to an open dialogue. I find it ironic and disturbing that these institutions will feature an individual artist, but neglect the impact of the photographic community as a whole. It’s like trying to understand an orchestral piece by listening to one or two musicians individually.
The deaths of many 20th century masters was a wake up call to the community. Creating an active interest in LAMPP before participants pass has also been particularly daunting. Getting contact information for possible candidates is fraught with obstacles. With each master’s passing we loose the collected wisdom of a life and the synergy of that information within the context of an individual, gifted and trained in the art of seeing, perceiving, touching. My hope is that this will become an additional source of income for photographers, as well as a boon for our emotional, social, cultural, and political evolution.
MJ: How can photographers help?
PW: The best way to help is to get involved. Become an LAMPP evangelist. I’d love to build a proactive board that embraces fundraising initiatives. It doesn’t have to be just photographers. LAMPP was designed for the American public trust. I’ve been in a photo lab so many times when the people working there didn’t know the seminal living or past master photographers.
We’re changing. The photographic image is omnipresent. I tell people there’s probably a photograph ten feet from them; they’re probably sitting or staring at one as we speak. That’s powerful stuff.
It’s nothing to be intimidated about; not knowing photographers by name or face. There’s so much out there to get excited about, to enjoy, to participate in. But in practical terms we need grant writers, legacy donors, a LAMPP home, services, co-opt friends, associates, business partners, professional organizations, industry support, and interest from the government. That’s a wish list! Let everyone know we’re sharing vision; we’re growing sight through every man and woman’s contributed light.
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In his RESOLVE video, Art Wolfe mentioned that the percentage of his income derived from the big stock agencies is a fraction of what it was a few years ago. Before 9/11, BIRDS AS ART w as making about 50% of our annual income from leasing the rights to photographs for publication; that now generates less than 10%. Lot s of people complain, “I don’t get assignments anymore; no one wants to buy our pictures; there’s a million hobbyists selling their pictures for next-to-nothing; how can we compete?” Realizing that things had changed, we looked elsewhere and came up with several new ways to generate income.
The first was the sale of educational material, usually in digital form. That has been tremendously lucrative for us and very helpful for the people who are just starting in bird photography. In 1985 when I bought my first lens, the first and only class that I ever took ran two hours for each of eight Tuesday nights. I remember begging the instructor to explain exposure to me. He was a studio photographer and he knew how to get the right exposure but he could not explain what it was or how he did it. He was and is a great instructor and became a long time friend, but boy, was I confused back then. One big thing that has helped us contribute to the wealth of information that now exists about all kinds of photography was to get away from traditional publishing. We now self-publishing, often selling stuff online as PDFs or formally manufactured CDs. Doing so has swung the profit margin from the publisher to us.
Another important piece of our income pie is selling equipment and accessories online. George Lepp’s son Tory was marketing a flash projector for telephoto lenses years ago and Walt Anderson, who is from Chicago, came up with something much more compact that was easy to travel with, folded flat, fit in your pocket, and gave you the same three-stop gain in flash output. We sent a sample to a guy in the industry named Brian Geyer. He said, “Hell, that ain’t no Flash X-tender, it’s a Better Beamer.” And thus the Better Beamer became the very first BIRDS AS ART mail-order item. Now 15 years later, we’re doing five-to-six hundred thousand dollars annually with our mail-order business. The secret to our success there has been answering thousands of equipment and accessory questions each year via e-mail and phone, providing honest and accurate answers, and actually teaching folks how to use the stuff that we offer.
Aside from the sale of products, I’ve made a tremendous amount of money teaching others to photograph nature, especially birds. My formula is a simple one: Pick a place where the weather is going to be good most of the time and the birds are going to be both numerous and relatively tame. When I started as a birder and I went out every morning for seven years before school. I changed my prep period to coincide with my lunch so I could go watch birds in Forest Park. Being a birder for seven years and being a good teacher was a great combination. I’ve often said, “If I can teach 4th graders who can’t read how to do long division, teaching photography to adult is is child’s play.” I’ve put a lot of energy into helping other photographers and sometimes it’s a little draining, but the rewards are great.
Then, more than a year ago, a couple friends asked me to get involved with a new educational site, BirdPhotographers.net. There are a bunch of different sites where you post images for folks to comment on – and pretty much it’s all “great shot,” and pats on the back. So I said, I’ll get involved with BirdPhotographers.net on one condition: that everybody agrees to do honest critiques, gently. We’ve got to stay away from “great shot” and really teach these people. It’s been a tremendous success and now gets about five million page views per month.
Antarctica remains the last great wilderness in the world. The continent encompasses a vast array of environments, from the lifeless high plateau surrounding the South Pole, where miles-thick ice presses down the bedrock, to ice shelves extruding into the sea and the dry valleys where snow seldom falls. The Antarctic Convergence, the boundary where cold and warm water meet, rings Antarctica hundreds of miles from land. It extends so far north that it encompasses South Georgia, where tens of thousands of King Penguins nest on beaches beneath glaciated mountains 11,000-feet tall. Elephant seals guard their harems, and albatrosses soar above the waters.
The Antarctic Peninsula is an extension of the Andes. There is no other place on earth, including Alaska and the fjords of Patagonia, where such an impressive sequence of large glaciated peaks continues unbroken for so far. As you cruise south along the peninsula’s west coast, it’s easy to imagine yourself on the Orient Express through the Himalaya.
No animals larger than micro-organisms live at the Pole, but the northern tip of the Peninsula abounds with life. Penguins and blue-eyed shags nest in the rocks where a few hardy plants have taken root. Crab-eater seals loll on flat icebergs where the top predator, the leopard seal, is less likely to attack. Minke whales patrol the bays, surfacing with an explosive exhalation. Gentoo and Adelie penguins porpoise as they approach the shore either to confuse the leopard seals, or for the sheer joy of it.
The scenery here is so grand, and the animals so numerous and spectacular, that photographers often find themselves with a common problem. How do you avoid the image that has already been taken a thousand times? Your eye is naturally pulled toward one postcard view after another. How do you endow an image with a deeper power or a sense of surprise? Here are a few tricks I use:
1. Change your perspective. Get off the ship. Unless you set off on a different route, you are limited to a single point of view (although a battery of lenses can add some flexibility). Once on shore or in a Zodiac boat, you can place an iceberg or a rack of whale ribs in the foreground, wheel around to position an animal against a good background, or crawl behind a curtain of icicles.
2. Get Closer. A close up shot usually has a better chance to be involving. In Antarctica, the rules prohibit approaching wildlife too closely. But they don’t prohibit the wildlife from approaching you. I often find if I set up in the general vicinity of penguins or seals, one of them will come to investigate, nosing right up to my lens. This isn’t for everyone, since it usually means you are sprawled in guano, and more than once a curious elephant seal pup has crawled right up on top of me.
3. Skip Dinner. It is an unfortunate coincidence that dinner is inevitably served when the light is best. You can eat later — you may never have the chance to shoot this place in this light again. Always take advantage of unique opportunities.
For more tips and hands-on instruction, join me on my next two trips to Antarctica, in November 2009 and 2010. For details, check my website, call my office at 206-332-0993, or email email@example.com.
This week my writing career is in the toilet. Literally. I was standing in my hotel room lavatory recently, evacuating a few gin martinis, when I happened to glance at a fabulous picture hanging on the wall. This wasn’t some trashy iStock photo, this was a gorgeous image. (I love boutique hotels — they take the time and money to get the good stuff.)
I had a look around the rest of my room and realized that all the art was of equally high quality. Of course my next thought was, “Is there a money to be made in photography sales to hotels?” So I thought I’d find out.
I started with a call to Jill Crawford, a world famous interior decorator who you would recognize from TV’s Guess Who’s Coming To Decorate. She told me that she sources photography for her interior designs in two different ways: directly from the photographer or from an art consultant like Fresh Paint Art Advisors in Los Angeles.
Ms Crawford advises photographers to pursue both strategies — direct to the designer and via art consultants — if they want to get into this market. Also keep in mind that the people you connect with for hotel projects will also be your conduit to corporations, restaurants, bars, and large mansions with empty walls.
Speaking with Helene Brown, of Fresh Paint, one immediately gets the sense that she has a singular passion for art and photography, as well as a veteran sensibility for brokering it. Ms Brown explained that the usage rights for the photography she negotiates is based on 1) the quantity of the prints, and 2) the quality of the medium that the image is printed on.
Higher quality print processes will fetch a higher premium. But on the other side of the coin, a large run of offset lithographic reproductions can also get a good return. The rights granted are one time to print, with varying levels of exclusivity based on the negotiated deal.
If this all sounds like a good idea to you, you’ll want to do a little research before launching the hotel art section of your website. My suggestion is to do a cocktail crawl through a few five-star hotels and have a look at what is hanging on their walls. You’re not looking to emulate the work so much as you’re trying to understand the artwork’s tone and how it fits into the interior decorating palette.
Finally, remember that the designers and consultants you’ll be contacting are savvy people, so don’t try to pitch them crap. And if on your cocktail crawl you encounter a writer holding a martini glass in the washroom, that’ll be me looking for an idea for next week’s column.
Miki Johnson: Tell me about this award and how it will work.
Daniel Beltrá: For me, the most exciting part of this award is the book. We are working with Stuart Smith, who is one of the best book designers in the world. Amongst others, he does books for Eliot Erwitt and James Nachtwey. The idea is to create a very limited edition book of only 500 copies. Prince Charles is going to offer it to prominent people, and heads of state around the world. There’s a conference in November and he’s going to be giving this book to many presidents as a personal present from him. All this is to gear up the world and get them to commit to stop tropical deforestation as a way to tackle global warming.
Of course every photographer that makes a book hopes that it will have some impact, but I’ve never seen one used at this level before. They have very clear ideas of how they want the book made: They only want it to be 70 or 80 pages; they want big pictures; and they want to reach an equilibrium between the biodiversity, the indigenous populations, the impending destruction and sustainable solutions. This is a worldwide problem so they don’t want to point any fingers or blame anyone — it’s everybody’s responsibility. Tropical deforestation creates 20% of the CO2 released, which is more than the entire transport sector in the world. If you stopped all the trains and the planes and the cars and boats in the world, you still would manage to drop the CO2 level more if you just stopped tropical deforestation, so it’s a no-brainer really. So what Prince Charles and his Rainforests Project want to do is create a huge fund where the world would put money for these countries so they don’t cut further and further.
I haven’t done a book before, so I’m excited but it’s such short notice it feels like a sprint for six months. Luckily there are a lot of very capable and talented people around me and that’s going to help a lot. Sony for example is putting so much effort in because they are launching a new line to the professional market. And they have great technology. We’re going to be doing exhibitions and they have these big weatherproof screens that can be set up outdoors to show the images.
MJ: It sounds like you are on a pretty tight schedule. Is it hard working with NGOs sometimes that don’t have realistic expectations for how long photo projects take?
DB: I basically have three to four weeks per country to go to three places: the Brazilian Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, which is probably going to be Borneo and Sumatra. The shooting list they gave me originally was too wide, so we’re going to use some of my past photography, and that will help a lot. The portfolio I presented for this award was 30 of my best photographs. Those were images I made during nine years working in the Amazon. I’m not going to get the same thing in a few weeks. My personal idea was to have good photography drive the project and not a really specific shooting list, because there’s not really enough time for that. The Amazon is the size of the continental U.S. or Europe. You could spend weeks just trying to reach a particular spot. The distances are enormous and many of the places need to be reached by plane, so it’s a challenge. But I’m confident we’re going to produce a good piece.
MJ: It must have been interesting to find yourself sitting with the Prince of Wales, showing him your photographs.
DB: The commitment Prince Charles has made to this issue is really global. When we met in London and I was showing him my photos, he really knew a lot about the issues. He was saying, oh this is palm oil in Indonesia, I’ve been working with this and I went there last year. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s very passionate about the environment. There are so many people who are so high in the world, who could sit back and have a relaxed life, so it’s very humbling to see how committed he is.
It doesn’t make much sense. My career has been a complete snowball. I started in photography in 1988. And until 2005 I didn’t participate in a single competition. But in 2005, Tom Stoddart saw the story I did on the drought in the Amazon and he said, “You need to send this to the World Press.” And I was saying, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Daniel, please trust me, send this to the World Press.” And then a week before the deadline Tom called and said, “Did you send that to the World Press?” And I said no. He said, “Daniel, send it!” So I did — and I won an award.
That really opened the world for me. I went to Amsterdam and I met all these other photographers and I thought, wow, I don’t feel any more like this crazy guy who works 90% of his time on environmental issues, because at that time conservation wasn’t such a hot topic. In 2007 I got another World Press award then last year I got the inaugural Global Vision Award from Picture of the Year International (POYi) and I’ve gotten 10 big awards in 4 years. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It was such an honor to be part of a group of dedicated photographers I had admired for so long. So it’s been a total rollercoaster for me.
So suddenly, you become a name in photography when a few years ago you were nobody. It doesn’t mean that much ultimately, and I don’t want it to go to my head. I want to have time to go and shoot. There are so many important stories that need to be told. But this publicity is also a great way to expose what’s happening to more people. So I am more and more open to doing exhibitions and giving talks, but it’s difficult to handle sometimes. And at the end of the day, I need to figure out how to make a better business decisions so I can hire help and have more time.
I remember until just a few years ago, when I would turn in a story to Greenpeace, who I work with a lot, I would just try to rest a little. Now it’s like I’m more busy when I come home than when I’m shooting. It’s almost a relaxation to go in the field. It’s like, no more email, no more phone, and whatever happens, I’ll deal with it when I’m back. Nobody is obliging me to do this, I am extremely lucky and can’t complain. But I want to make sure I’m maximizing the impact of my work and I also want to have a life.
My very first gallery presentation was actually in 1976 when I was 18, which resulted in my first solo show in New York City. Times were very different in 2001 when I presented to a co-op gallery, to which my acceptance was already a certainty. With co-op galleries, if your work is of reasonable quality and they need another paying member, well…you’re in. But co-ops deserves consideration, since my show there eventually led to my first gallery presentation that “mattered.”
What brought me to this co-op gallery was simple — my wife. One of the attractions of our cute Hudson River town was the fact there were seven galleries near by. When we’d walk by a gallery, my wife would nudge me about joining one of them or seeking representation. Even though I was spending a fair amount of time shooting landscapes after rekindling my interest in it a year earlier, I’d usually dismiss the idea saying I really didn’t have that much time to spend on it. But to be honest, I was uneasy about being seen as a commercial photographer “playing” at being an artist. But my wife continued to encourage me, and I eventually showed them my work, handed them my check, and was accepted as a member. If only it was so easy at non co-op galleries!
A few months after joining this co-op gallery, it was my turn for my solo show, in April 2001. The day I hung the show was the first time I had been physically surrounded by my new work and the first time I noticed that I was already showing rudimentary signs of having a style. It was illuminating. I highly recommend that every serious photographer literally surround themselves with their work and give it a good look all at once.
The show opened and I have to admit I was extremely curious how the viewers would react. I pretended to be just another viewer while eavesdropping on people in an effort to hear their honest reactions. I was very pleasantly surprised. My fears of being chased out of town by torch-wielding townsfolk turned out to be unfounded. Not only was the work well received, I actually sold prints — quite a few in fact! By the second weekend of the show, I had made a very respectable profit, and it began to appear that I could make a living doing this type of work. I would no longer need an expensive photo studio in Manhattan and the pressure from such a high overhead. I was elated; however, one gallery would not be enough to replace my established commercial photography business. I would need more galleries.
First I did a little research to narrow down my list of galleries to ones that seemed to have an appreciation or interest in my genre of work. Just like showing my work to advertising clients: show your hamburger picture to MacDonald’s ad agency, your lipstick photos to Revlon’s.
Once I had my list of potential galleries in NYC, it was time to make calls. Some galleries were willing to see me for an in-person presentation; others just wanted me to drop off my portfolio. I had two 11×14” portfolios of my landscape prints, matted and mounted — one for drop-offs and one for in-person presentations.
On day, I had arranged to drop off a portfolio at a gallery and also had made an appointment for an in-person presentation at Edward Carter Gallery. Both galleries showed a lot of B&W landscape work, ECG at one point touting itself as the biggest collection of Ansel Adams prints. The morning of the Carter meeting I received a call from the gallery where I had dropped off my portfolio. They thanked me and said I could pick up my portfolio at any time. I was disappointed but arranged to pick up the first portfolio and then went to see Mr. Carter at ECG.
When I walked into ECG I was blown away with how beautiful the gallery was. It was not the typical white walls and emptiness. This gallery had dark gray, nearly black walls and the prints, mostly Ansel, just popped off of them. There was a seating area, double Eames chairs, and Mr. Carter asked me to sit. He removed an Ansel print from the small wall directly in front of the chairs and asked me to present my work in that spot — the same spot where the Adams’ print had just hung!
Now, I had a lot of experience, about 25 years worth, showing my work to people: art directors, creative directors, picture editors, etc. But this was different, it was my personal work. It’s one thing to show an AD who works on a cosmetics account your assignment work with other cosmetics clients, and something else entirely to show someone work that has much deeper meaning for you. And as I held each image in the spotlight for Mr. Carter to see, I couldn’t help but notice that I was facing several Adams prints, and behind me were several more, and I’m starting to think to myself, “Who am I kidding?” Whether you love, hate, or are neutral regarding Ansel Adams’ work, there’s no denying his contribution to photography. He’s not called St. Ansel for nothing. There’s actually a mountain named after him.
So I finish with my presentation, and the whole time Mr. Carter had been stone-faced, poker-faced, so I was not expecting a desirable outcome. I boxed up my prints, sat down next to him, and he turned to me and said, “I’d be honored to represent you.” That was not quite the response I was expecting. So, trying to be cool and acting as though no other outcome could have been possible, I ask him what the terms of representation were (good comeback!). Of course I started dialing my cell phone the second I walked out of the gallery, only to be frustrated by a lack of reception until I stepped outside onto Broadway. “Honey, I got an NYC gallery!!”
Coincidently, later that week I receive a call from the owner of the gallery where the staff had told me to pick up my portfolio. She asked why I had picked up the portfolio when she had been interested in meeting with me and talking about representation. Apparently someone on her staff had made an error. I had to tell her that I had just signed with another gallery — a real bummer since 9/11 ultimately put ECG out of business, and her gallery is still doing really well.
About a week after my meeting at ECG, I went with my wife, my parents, and my uncle (who was an avid photographer and had introduced me to photography) to ECG. There, next to prints by Ansel Adams, hung my own prints. It meant a lot to me then — and whenever I see my work hanging in the company of gifted photographers, it still means a lot to me.