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The art market may be the most illusive of the industries that former staff photographers are exploring, but I don’t know a single photographer who would mind seeing their prints up on a nice white wall in some gallery. Marita has a great take since she not only founded a gallery that does a lot with photojournalists, but she’s also consulted extensive with photographers for the exact topics that I’m sure you’re dying to ask her about. 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. NOTE: Marita has graciously agreed to continue to answer questions through next week, although her answers might not be as prompt as usual since she’ll be away from the office.

Marita Holdaway

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.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

On a final note of moving on to bigger and better things, we asked our panel of former staff photographers this question. Please share your own stories — as you can see, you’re not alone. Follow the “more” link to see all photographers, and check out Monday’s “Group Therapy” for photographers’ back stories and websites. Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.

  • What is your favorite thing about what you are doing now? Are there things that have been hard to adjust to?

Nanine Hartzenbusch
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.

David Walter Banks
My favorite thing about what I’m doing now is that my only limit is myself, and I know that as long as I’m doing everything I can to produce and then market that work, then I can continue to grow. The model of climbing the ladder and being held down by superiors no longer exists. My close second favorite element is definitely personal projects. I believe that I have found more time and realized how vitally important it is to work on personal projects completely outside of client influences. Strange as it may seem, these projects also seem to endear you way more in the eyes of those clients.

Stuart Thurlkil
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 »

Buzz Urkle, a former Magnum photographer and director, has achieved success in the art world, built on his documentary talents. Although his feelings about the art world are obviously a little ambivalent, his advice about sticking to your own style and not following the herd is dead on — for any kind of photographer. Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.
©Burk Uzzle

©Burk Uzzle

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.

“The good ones, who think independently, can change your life by believing in your work.”

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.

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.

Bill Owens is known for his seminal photography book, Suburbia, which stemmed in many ways from his work as a staff photographer at the Livermore Independent starting in 1968. But according to Bill, he hasn’t been a photographer for decades. He ran Buffalo Bill’s Brewery for more than a decade and is now offering online distilling classes and working on a table-top book about the craft. Of course it’s great if you can parlay your skills as a staff photographer into other photo-related work. But maybe the best lesson from Bill’s story is that, sometimes, you just gotta go make whiskey instead — and “take pictures” just because you want to.
©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

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.

©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

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.

“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.

©Bill Owens

©Bill Owens

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.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.


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