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I founded Benham Gallery in Seattle in 1987. Dedicated to emerging and mid-career fine art photographers, I have been consulting since 1998, and reviewing over 1,000 portfolios annually. I have presented workshops for artists nationally and internationally, helping them further their careers by developing their professional tools for finding and successfully approaching appropriate venues. As an invited reviewer and speaker, I have attended over a dozen photo festivals in the USA, Latin America and Europe.
My hope is that photographers will learn to follow their hearts and not the almighty dollar. There are so many other ways to become wealthy without selling your soul and time to corporate America. Perhaps the photo community can find a way to tell the important stories, instead of the sound bites the media puts out.
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I love that my work hours are flexible. I have a nine year old son I enjoy spending time with so I schedule my work during his school day, and schedule only one photo session a day on the weekends. I miss having newsroom colleagues, but have joined a photographers networking group for creative support. I also regularly get together with clients or potential clients for coffee…
My favorite thing really about having my own business is just that — that I can take the skills I’ve acquired over 20+ years and do something different with them. I can provide storytelling images of children that will be cherished by their families for years to come.
I love when we are done with a project and our clients express how happy they are with the final results. I am an affirmation junky and love when what I am doing makes others happy. It is really gratifying to do work that people respect and appreciate. It is amazing when a client gives you creative freedom to run with your vision.
I had a hard time at first with the identity shift out of newspapers. I considered journalism a calling. I had been a journalist for a long time, and transitioning towards running my own business had many unexpected challenges. I realize now that I will always be a story teller and journalist at heart and that I will continue to create images that speak to our social, economic, and cultural condition. The amazing thing has been how many people have wanted me to do this for their family, company, publication, etc. More »
Miki Johnson: When you were 30, your photographs were included in shows at both the George Eastman House and the MoMA. How did that come about? What impact did that have on your career?
Burk Uzzle: I suppose Magnum showed them pictures, as I was never a buddy of those people. It had zero impact on my career or development as a photographer.
MJ: What was your first solo exhibition and how did it happen? What lessons did you learn from it?
BU: The Riverside Museum in NYC worked with Cornell Capa to do a show of my work, and all that effort was a template for what eventually became his now famous “ICP” show. I learned how really great it feels to walk into a museum and see my prints big on a wall, and to offer a certain amount of trust to talented curators who love my work.
MJ: You must have had extensive contact with curators and gallery owners through your work with Magnum. Do you have advice for photographers who want to form relationships with these people?
BU: I left Magnum in 1983, so my contacts have been formed mostly since I left Magnum. I find it difficult to form relationships with museum people, as most of them seem to be dedicated to following the herd instincts of devotion to the latest fad.
On the other hand, the good ones, who think independently, can really change your life by believing in your work, encouraging you to keep on keeping on, and helping you have the confidence to work with the integrity of individuality that important work requires.
You just have to be very patient, find a way to figure out who the worthwhile people are, somehow meet them, and somehow show them work. All this is very different from pursuing “career” instincts.
MJ: How do you approach an art project differently from how you do a documentary one? What skills and styles apply to both styles?
BU: I consider documentary photography, whatever that term means in the world of Photoshop, to be the most subjective form of work. Art photography, for me, means fine work representing the same values of devotion to quality of feeling, seeing, craft, and artistic presentation as documentary work. I just try to do good work that feels true to myself, and don’t pay much attention to categories.
It’s really all the same — be yourself, be as good as you can be. Be honest to yourself and to your subject, respect your subject matter, and pay as little attention as possible to what other people think, or how they want to apply definitions and categories to what they perceive is important in your work. Or, for that matter, what they think the important agendas are in the world.
Some of the greatest work in any field is about the, at first glance, seemingly trivial subject matter. It’s really all about how deep are your feelings.
Miki Johnson: So tell me what you’re working on now.
Bill Owens: I don’t do photography anymore. I have so many things I’ve done and I can’t get it to come back to me in sales or work or anything. I don’t know what to do but to have another career, to be into distilling. I’m available as a photographer, but the distilling thing is exciting. I make money every day of the week and I have a career. People want to know how to make whiskey, I have a product people want to know about.
MJ: What about your books that you’ve already produced?
BO: You’ve got to remember that your royalties are only like $1.95 on a $30 book. So the books only open up museum and gallery shows. Museum shows don’t sell prints. Galleries can sell prints, but I’m the documentary stuff that’s in a weird category. I’m not William Eggleston, who’s an artist. People buy “art.” They don’t buy somebody who spent their life researching and documenting and trying to make a visual statement about our culture. Maybe that tide will turn and they’ll buy documentary photography because it speaks to them, but it ain’t happening now.
I have hands-on distilling classes now and I have a trade show. I have a life. I have an e-learning class on my website — I’ve made $1,000 on it already. I’ve got a new niche! You’ve got to be making film. It’s film that sells. People can’t take their eyes off of videos. I can put up any kind of film and they’ll stand there and watch it all the way to the end. But if it’s a still photograph they’ll glance at it and walk away. I’m going to take some of my digital films that are up on my website — and thank god I never posted them on YouTube — and I’m going to turn them into DVDs and try to sell them at MoMA and art museums as a DVD collection. I think I can find that little niche because people know my book and who I am, so I can sell them a DVD of my movies.
MJ: I wanted to ask about working for the Livermore Independent, what prompted you to get started there?
BO: I knew to be a good photographer you have to work at the craft every single day and develop the craft every single day, and as a newspaper photographer you’re out there working all the time. So I wanted to come from that discipline of shooting every day. And as soon as you arrive in suburbia there’s a million things to photograph. When I was in college I studied visual anthropology and I knew “the village” was an eternal subject. Like W. Eugene Smith’s Spanish Village or the FSA’s studies of America. So I just knew I wanted to go in that direction, and there I was in Livermore, a typical village in America.
I never started out to do a book. But I began to shoot…I did a study for the chamber of commerce for the town. I got a $500 grant. Then you just keep on grown, but you keep working at the newspaper because you’re exposed to high school football, the JV, the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Fire Department, all that stuff. And you can shoot and shoot and shoot, and then you can go back and do it again. And I knew everybody in town so when it came time to do the book and get releases signed I could go back and get a quote and put together something important. I usually say, “Man, leave the Eskimos alone; leave the American Indians alone — they’ve been photographed enough.” Photograph what’s right in front of your face.
MJ: What made you finally decide to leave the paper?
BO: The paper downsized and I got laid off. So you can freelance it for a while but if you’ve got a wife and kids you’ve got to have money. You’ve got to support your kids to go to college. I was there for 16 years, and then I had Buffalo Bill’s Brewery for 14 years. I found a Nikon under the front seat of my car one day and I sold it. I had to move on.
MJ: Has anything changed for you now that photography is not your “profession” anymore?
BO: I don’t know what to say when people ask what I do. Often I say I string for the New York Times — because I do it once every two years. But I don’t pursue it because I’d rather be on the phone with a glassmaker in Illinois about my upcoming conference. I have three people working for me in that business, and it’s fun to build a small business. Whereas a photographer, you’re alone, it’s just you.
MJ: But you still take photos just for yourself. Do you find that it’s different now that you shoot for yourself instead of a paper?
BO: No, I work the same. I’m looking for the great shot always. But, I made a trip across America, four months, and I have 52 DVDs full of images. You want to go through that? What’s the end gain when I’m done with it? No one’s going to buy it. These agencies don’t want a photo of the Grand Canyon that’s mine with a sense of humor, they want the beautiful sunset one. I’ll just move on. But I’m shooting film, that’s really fun. I shoot with a little Sony, lo-res. It doesn’t matter. People always ask, “What kind of camera?” I say, “Whatever camera fits in your hand.” It’s not about the camera, it’s about having an idea in your head and an eye. If you don’t have an eye, go have lunch.
MJ: So are there any similarities between running this business and being a photographer?
BO: I usually take photographs and turn them into illlustrations for the business. I told you about that trip across America, all those images are in a new book called The Art of Distilling Whiskey and other Spirits. It’s going to be a big table-top book. So now I take my skills as a photojournalist into the distilling world and do great photographs of distilling.
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“Their day job as a journalist does not take away from the fact that they see the world and craft images in a way that creates a response from curators and collectors. It doesn’t matter how you get there—if you have an artist’s eye, they’ll collect you.” - Frank Evers, co-chair and co-founder of the New York Photo Festival 2009, and formerly the Managing Director of the VII Photo Agency
The fine-art marketplace
Writing artist statements
Selling your prints
Ask her about technique, workflow, marketing, or anything else that’s on your mind — I’m sure you’ll be equally impressed. Leave a question in the comments section, along with your website if you have one, and she’ll respond asap, also in the comments, so others can benefit from the good advice.
As a photojournalist, I have pursued projects focusing on rural communities in Latin America and the Southeastern United States. My work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. I earned a degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, where I was named one of the Scripps-Howard Foundation’s Top Ten Young Journalists.
When I stumbled upon wedding photography, I quickly traded my front row seat to world history for a front row seat to family history. Along with Andrew Niesen and Mark Adams, I started a wedding photography company, LaCour, which was named among the “Top Ten Wedding Photographers in the World” by American Photo magazine. I’m also a co-founder of ShootQ, innovative web-based studio management software designed to free photographers from the tedious tasks of managing their business.
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Miki Johnson: How long were you a staff photographer and where? Did you think when you started that you’d be a staffer for life?
David Leeson: My career in newspapers began on Nov 20, 1977 at the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, TX. When the newspaper hired me, I was 19, a full-time college student working a part-time job sweeping floors at a local jewelry store.
I had no portfolio or degree and was unfamiliar with the term “photojournalist.” I was an avid amateur photographer, however, and built my own darkroom in my parents’ home when I was 17. The newspaper photo staff knew me as someone who would occasionally show up with a contact sheet of images from an event. I was never discouraged that they didn’t use my photos — I was happy just to be shooting.
I fell in love with photojournalism when I realized the power a camera could possess in the hands of a compassionate photographer. My life became consumed with perfecting my skills, including my heart, mind, and soul, for the purpose of affecting my community with images that would hopefully make a difference.
That essentially describes my 30 years in news photography. The last few years were dedicated to helping my profession navigate difficult changes, a new era fraught with demands for rich online content, declining readership, shrinking resources, and more work. I didn’t enjoy the work but believed it was important to give back as much as possible to a profession that had given so much to me. Besides, I saw my industry facing extinction and I was ready to do whatever I could to change the tide.
Unfortunately, I feel that I failed. My grief was more than the loss of something I loved — newspaper photojournalism — it was the feeling of having failed to be everything I could possibly be. I have wondered many times what extra part of myself I could have given that might have made the difference. My solace today is in realizing that I can still impact the industry from outside its walls. Perhaps, in fact, it is the ideal place for me to do it.
But the further I get from my life in newspapers, the more I realize that the best I can be is to be who I have always been, a small voice hopefully providing something of value to my world. In many ways, little has changed in my life. The day I knew that my career as a newspaper photojournalist had reached the end, I told my boss (and friend), the director of photography at The Dallas Morning News, that I had never been dedicated to a newspaper. Rather, I had always been dedicated to the ideals of photojournalism: through credible and ethical image making, we can bring needed change to the world.
I did believe I would likely retire as a newspaper photojournalist at The Dallas Morning News. But understanding that I am still in active service to my profession, even though I am no longer on the DMN staff, has softened the blow. The loss of a title did not change who I am.
MJ: What are you working on now? What is the biggest difference between what you’re doing now and what you were doing as a staffer?
DL: There is little difference today from the life I was living the last few years of my career. My position at The Dallas Morning News could best be described as “research and development.” I spent inordinate amounts of time on finding new workflows and methodologies to help speed the process of rich media integration. Oddly, I found that I enjoyed that kind of work, although I knew it failed to “scratch my itch.” More »
Transitioning from full-time staff photographers to business owners is one of the greatest challenges the LaCour team has faced. Mark, Andrew, and I have experience in editorial, where the editorial staff doled out assignments and the road map for our careers was well-defined. But what happens when that road map is ripped out from under you like a rug? Suddenly, you’re faced with an unfamiliar challenge: charting your own course by becoming a business owner.
We viewed this paradigm shift as an opportunity to pursue entrepreneurship.
Since the term “enterprise story” is familiar to photojournalists, it’s a helpful lens through which to see your transition from staff photographer to business owner. Enterprise stories are created by journalists to explain or contextualize issues or events. Enterprise stories require big-picture reporting and the ability to identify and articulate comprehensible patterns. These are also the skills required to build a business.
A successful business owner, like a successful journalist, cannot just be an “order filler” who simply executes someone else’s vision. They must come up with their own ideas. They must be enterprising, big-picture thinkers who have a vision and can strategically implement their own initiatives.
Being an entrepreneur is the ultimate enterprise story, with a twist. The story this time is YOU.
Our personal journey has been filled with epiphanies, many having little to do with the actual process of photography. Most of what we’ve learned involves important business principles. We’d like to share some tips and tools you can use to make a smooth transition into entrepreneurship.
As staff photographers, we had the security blanket of teamwork to keep us motivated. If we had a bad day, or a bad assignment, there were fellow staffers who helped rally for the next, better opportunity. Plus, there was a newsroom team, helping generate story ideas and assignments to keep you busy. As a business owner, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected. There’s no built-in support network. And there’s nobody telling you what to do. That’s why camaraderie is a critical component of business ownership. More »
Personally, I’ve had a few ideas for books, I’ve shot video, looked at starting a stock archive of my sports work, and explored every avenue of where my photography can take me. Currently some of the work I’m doing in my free time may be best suited for an art gallery, but as football season comes around I’ll be implementing my stock archive of sports images. I’ve toyed with starting video projects as part of a 501c(3) venture, which has a classification under which literary, artistic projects can be funded. Looking at grants that also go in hand with non-profit status, there are a lot out there. Bella Pictures is a great resource for people interested in going this route.
I was sponsored by Bella Pictures to speak at the National Press Photographers Association workshop in Las Vegas earlier this month. There are so many people within the media who are going to be in transition this year. It was very nice to help people navigate through some of the land mines. The wedding business will never be the business that our parents bought into. That has already changed. And the changes in future wedding photography could be lead by former photojournalists. As a collective we are just very good at what we do and it takes time to teach good storytelling.
I would certainly be happy to pass more information along, as I did in Vegas. In order to ensure that my wedding business is successful, I also realize much of the future success will be in multimedia. You can see various aspects of multimedia and video creeping into wedding photography. It is not unlike the changes happening with online newspaper content. Quick videos and audio slide shows will be a permanent part of the future wedding business models. I am working to get myself at a level that will not only be competitive but possibly groundbreaking.
David Walter Banks
I have been speaking with a few different conferences and workshops about speaking, and have plans to work with some colleagues on a few different ventures outside the already established workshops. I believe that in a time where print media as a whole is up in the air, it’s important to diversify. This goes beyond the speaking or conducting workshops and flows into the realm of art photography print sales, producing books, and even working to generate a model of online content that is actually profitable. More »
Making the bride happy, not an editor
Strength in numbers