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Brian Kosoff

As a follow up to his recent posts about transitioning from advertising and editorial to fine-art landscape photography, Brian Kosoff wanted to share the story of his first in-person presentation to a gallery from which he was seeking representation. That first meeting can be intimidating, no matter where you are in your career, so we hope you’ll gain some courage from seeing how one photographer weathered it successfully.

"Silos" ©Brian Kosoff

Co-ops are a good place to start

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!

Look at all your work together

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.

Show them what they want to see

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.

Be prepared to put on a show

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.

Don’t jump to conclusions

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.

Brian Kosoff was an advertising photographer during the good times. Over the years he watched the industry change and things get harder and harder for photographers. In his last post he talked about his decision in 2002 to leave advertising and move into the world of galleries and fine-art photography.
"Hay Bales" © Brian Kosoff

"Hay Bales" © Brian Kosoff

At the end of my last post I had decided to close my studio. I open this post with the admission that I’m glad I did! I still keep in touch with many of my old clients and studio-mates, but talking to them about work is not a cheery walk down memory lane — it’s a bummer. Fewer and fewer photographers have their own studios. The majority share, but in cramped conditions. Now you’ll find five photographers sharing 2,000 square feet: a ratio likely to create stress and conflict. Some photographers I know shoot family portraits for the general public, something that would have been embarrassing for them to pursue ten years ago.

My work is much more solitary now and I miss the camaraderie of other photographers, assistants, and stylists (and the catered lunches!) that I had in the studio. Sometimes I don’t speak with anyone in person, except a motel clerk, for months. I joke that when I get back home from one of my trips, I hand my wife a credit card and ask for a non-smoking room. Still, I consider myself very fortunate. On an almost daily basis I get to see some truly magnificent sights and I get to drink some of the best and worst road coffee out there. (Best: ANY Scandinavian country. Worst: the U.S.).

"Dune Silhouette" © Brian Kosoff

"Dune Silhouette" © Brian Kosoff

As for my landscape photography, it’s still a work in progress. I‘m relatively new to it, and while it didn’t take too long to master the technical aspects, I’m still trying to figure out why I’m drawn to certain subjects. It took me a while to realize that my fondness for a minimal style, often having a center oriented composition and a high-key or white background, was a direct result of having spent more than 20 years shooting minimal, center oriented, often white background product photographs. I guess that even when you change directions, you still carry some of the momentum from your earlier motion.

Change is inevitable and it’s often feared, but I consider my change from advertising to landscape photography an opportunity. For me now, my work is more satisfying than ever, and life is simpler. That’s a change for the better.

In Brian Kosoff last post he talks about the value of advertising photographers’ time and images dropping during the last decade. For a while he stuck it out with cost saving measures like those outlined below. But when an opportunity arose to move to a new model — fine art photography — Brian was smart enough to see its potential and happy to make the switch. Check out his next post too, about how he has adapted to his new work.

"Refinery" © Brian Kosoff

Over the course of my advertising career I followed a pattern of continually trading up to larger studios and adding more subtenant photographers to lower the overall cost per foot of the studio. My first NYC studio, in 1980, was about 2,000 square feet. All mine. My next studio, which I built in 1985, was 5,000 square feet. With this one I decided I would rent space to other photographers. My thought was that this would keep my costs more reasonable, and if I were busy there’d be more than enough space to produce the work.  Ultimately I had two other photographers in that space with me. This worked well for 15 years, until the dot-com bubble (the internet!) caused rents in the Photo District, where my studio was located, to go skyward. I had to move.

For my last studio, built in 2000, I partnered with another photographer and we shared responsibility for the space. This space was 7,500 square feet and we built facilities to accommodate us and three other photographers. Around this time the dot-com bubble burst (the internet!). The economy and the ad industry slowed down. I still had a large client list, but they were producing fewer ads, also in part because print media was less effective in a media environment diluted by the Internet. And what they were paying for each assignment was lower. The assignments themselves became less photographically challenging and less satisfying, due to a switch from still life photography (my specialty) which required the creation of sets that illustrated mini environments, to more silhouette-type photographs that could be photo composed into digital environments or stock photos. All the signs said it was time to move on.

Fortunately for me, a few years earlier I had started to shoot landscape photos again. I got married in 1999 and moved to a cute Hudson River town just north of Manhattan that had several galleries, including a few co-op ones. My wife encouraged me to join one, and I thought it would be a good excuse for me to actually print up a few of my landscapes, so I signed on. In April of 2001 I had the first solo show of my work since 1976. It did extremely well and was very profitable –- enough to make me think that I might have found an alternative to advertising photography and the high overhead of a Manhattan studio. Within a week of the show I had representation offers from several galleries in Manhattan. I ended up at Edward Carter Gallery and my new career shooting landscape really began.

"Snowy Ridge" © Brian Kosoff

A few months later were the September 11 attacks, and the aftermath devastated the NYC economy. A large chunk of lower Manhattan was closed off. For the galleries in Soho, it could not have been worse. Many businesses came to a screeching halt. Ad agencies had massive layoffs. The amount of work now available to advertising photographers was dramatically reduced. It didn’t seem like there was a real future in that field anymore. For the first time I thought that I might close my studio and leave Manhattan.

It’s not easy to walk away from something that you built over the course of two decades. My business was still viable, I still had a large client base and they would start to produce advertisements again, but there was a larger change. Even if it was still profitable, the kind of work that client’s wanted was more about cost than content or quality. That’s just not where I wanted to be. So at the end of 2002 I made it official and closed my studio.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: We are currently in an economic downturn similar to the dot-com bust, and advertising budgets are certainly being cut. How are photographers out there dealing with the situation?

Brian Kosoff was a top advertising photographer for 25 years, up until the beginning of the end of advertising photography’s golden age. As he watched photographers’ incomes drop and overhead costs rise, he found a way to transition to the world of fine-art landscape photography. Here he talks about the roots of the challenges advertising photographers still face. Check his second post where he explains how he dealt with rising studio costs.
"Contrails," an image by former advertising photographer Brian Kosoff. © Brian Kosoff

"Contrails," an image by former advertising photographer Brian Kosoff. © Brian Kosoff

When I began working as an advertising and editorial photographer in 1979 I joined an industry that hadn’t changed much for 50 years. People made a product, someone would have to photograph or illustrate it, and then someone else would put that image in a publication. How much could that paradigm change?

My first encounter with digital technology’s foothold in the graphic design world was in 1984. I went to see a client, a design firm, and one of the designers pulled me aside and pointed out a small computer on his desk. “This is going to revolutionize design,” he told me. I looked at the little box again, focusing on the small screen and wondering how designers accustomed to drawing on 24-inch pads with hundreds of color markers would be able to work on a 9-inch black-and-white screen using a “mouse.”

Of course, a decade later the digital revolution had arrived. The world of graphics and printing changed dramatically –- typesetters disappeared and art directors also became computer experts –- but it was the effect on photography I really felt.

I bought a Mac and Photoshop in 1991. Previously I had done a lot of special effects photography for clients. The type of thing where you have five cameras set up on five sets and take the same piece of film and multiply expose that film to precisely masked and composed scenes. The Mac changed all that. Now all I had to do was scan film at the local service bureau and then move the pieces around almost effortlessly in Photoshop. Well not that effortlessly, it would take hours sometimes for the Mac to complete a Photoshop command. I can recall holding a loupe to my screen to check if the progress bar indicated whether the Mac had frozen or was still working. Seeing the bar move a single pixel in 90 seconds meant that PS command was going to take all night. Of course it usually ended up freezing first.

For most advertising photographers of my generation these were the good times. Very little had changed for us except we had more and better tools. But the same tools that made photo composure so easy for photographers also made photo retouching easier and less expensive. Why pay for a highly skilled photographer who could produce images needing little or no retouching when you could hire a less experienced and far cheaper photographer who’s work could now be inexpensively retouched and enhanced? You could argue that the more experienced photographer brought other values to the mix, but in many cases lower cost trumped quality. Still, the old hierarchy persisted. The photographers just starting out got the lower paying assignments, the high end photographers still got substantial day rates, and the mid-level photographers got a mix of both, an agreeable situation for all. More »


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