You are not a photographer.
Before you roll your eyes and go back to redesigning your logo, which will surely solve all of your photography business problems, please allow me to explain the above factual statement in slightly more depth.
‘You are not a photographer’ is a statement that I’ve said to myself over and over again through the years. Sometimes in the context of me doubting myself artistically, sometimes because I’m acting as an art director on set, or consulting on a big time project for a large agency. There’s a reason the degree I received from the University of Delaware doesn’t say “Photographer” (even though I haven’t seen it since graduation day, I’m still 97% certain that’s not on it.) What I do know it actually says, is Bachelor of Fine Arts…
I’m probably going to go on a bit of a rant here, but it makes me sad and hurts my brain when I meet with a budding new photographer, and they have never heard of Imogen Cunningham or Yousuf Karsh–and it’s nearly impossible to explain how Annie Leibovitz employs Rembrandt style lighting in her work, when all too often the plaid clad individual I’m sitting across from thinks I’m talking about a brand of fucking toothpaste. Okay, rant over.
This is a Rembrandt…
This is toothpaste…
For some reason photography seems to be the one art form where people can purchase the equipment needed to photograph, and instantly feel entitled enough to call themselves “professionals.” As far as I know, people don’t stop by the grocery store on their way back from Williams Sonoma and think they’re a professional chef. Just like any other form of art, it takes practice, training, and a fair amount of historical knowledge in order to fully understand how to create and innovate in your selected medium.
My good friend and Executive Chef at the world famous Culinary Vegetable Institute, Jamie Simpson is one of the most innovative people I’ve ever met. He spends all day, every day reading about and experimenting with food — most of which he grows himself. This practice and training gives him the ability to create new techniques and trends in his industry that will undoubtedly show up on dishes in the most amazing restaurants across the globe, including those right here in Cleveland. That is what true artists do– they learn their craft, continuously study it, and influence their final product by integrating their own creative processes from start to finish– or in Jamie’s case, quite literally from farm to table.
Jamie Simpson getting weird in my studio… REAL WEIRD. Photo by Alex Gradisher
In keeping with the theme of pushing limits and influencing other artists, one of the greatest rivalries from which we’ve all become winners was the epic battle between two titans of photography, Irving Penn and Richard (Dick) Avedon, during the second half of the 20th century. These guys would duke it out every month on the cover of magazines and billboards “sparring” with one another through technique, innovation, and an utter disregard for what anyone said, much less thought. What resulted from these two sparring creatives was, essentially, the entire fashion photography industry, including Vogue/Vanity Fair… heard of them?? You can probably even put on a pretty decent case for Irving Penn, tracing the birth of the “Supermodel” to the portrait below of his wife Lisa Fonssagrieves. These men used the photographic medium to create an entire industry.
Read that last sentence back to yourself slowly, and really think about what they’ve accomplished.
They influenced, and continue to influence, every fashion photographer on the planet, because they did it first. Although not referenced before another titan worthy of an honorable mention is definitely Helmut Newton. This is a long-winded example of what I am trying to say when I tell you that you are not a photographer. You are so much more than that… YOU ARE A CREATIVE.
I make it a point to keep art books of all kinds in my home and around the studio. Sure they’re mostly photographic in nature, but I also keep books on advertising, design, writing, painting, and even music because all of those mediums have an equal chance of sparking my creative fire or that of anyone who visits me. Something I’ve noticed about my most creative and passionate friends, is that while they’re certainly influenced by others in their chosen field, they are inspired by artists in other mediums as well. To prepare my work for the Cleveland Food Bank’s Harvest for Hunger campaign that I partnered with Adcom on, I researched 18th century paintings that ended up inspiring the concept.
Harvest for Hunger 2015.
Switching gears momentarily, I’ll make a “quick” side-note here to touch on the photography gear “problem.” In order to innovate and create meaningful work, you must understand every aspect of the technology involved in your craft. ‘Photographers’ suffer from what I like to call “gear envy” all of the time and use it as an excuse to produce crappy work. The best way I know how to describe “gear envy” is my experience on the golf course (and since it’s January in Cleveland, I’m missing it pretty badly right now). Will I ever beat Tiger Woods on the golf course?? No… hell no. I’ve got a better chance of walking on Mars. If I had the best clubs in the whole world, I still wouldn’t be considered a professional golfer, by any means, and if Tiger had the worst, he’d still be a pro, in every sense of the word. Would I pick up a few strokes because of the better clubs. Maybe. Get out of the sand trap in under 5 swings? Probably. Regardless, better clubs won’t change the fact that I’ve never honed my skills or put in the hours to master every aspect of the game like he has, and therefore, I will always remain the amateur and he will always be the professional.
Thus, the outcome will remain the same. Tiger would kick my ass. Every. Single. Time. In photography this mastery doesn’t come from what’s in your hand, it comes from your creativity… a.k.a. what’s in your brain. Since we can’t lift dumbbells with our minds (yet…) we have to enhance our creative muscles by studying current trends, attending workshops, and reading books/magazines/blogs/articles. A subscription to Communication Arts, and changing your homepage to PDN Online News will do far more for your career than just “shotgunning” Instagram with hashtags and crossing your fingers. And yes, just to be clear… this is me admitting that my golf game is as impressive as that standard train track high school senior portrait with a B&W filter tossed over it that we all know, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too well.
High school senior on railroad tracks. Photo used with permission by
Now, let’s talk about just pure, raw talent here for a second. Talent can often be mistaken for hard work in the arts, but unfortunately no matter what your parents told you, hard work does not necessarily equate to talent. It’s undeniable that some people are inherently better at some things than others (see the Tiger Woods comparison above) and those individuals have a huge advantage that they didn’t necessarily have to work for, and that’s OKAY!! When those talented individuals find passion in what they do and choose to work their asses off, we see creatives reach their true potential– that’s the real prize. In today’s digital world, though it’s possible(read: normal) for true talent to go undiscovered, due to the sheer volume of content and material being put out into the community, it’s my heartfelt belief though that talent paired with hardwork and integrity will always find it’s way through the fog and noise of any saturated business. It also helps, immensely, when people who know better can spot someone who is truly talented, help them, teach them, and encourage them to keep pursuing their dreams.
In 1+1=4, we touched on the fact that there are so many facets and people who work together to create impactful imagery. Those facets are also inherently present in every creative mind. While we may focus on only one of them for our career path it’s important to remember that artists are producers, designers, art directors, retouchers, stylists, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers etc. With that in mind it’s incredibly important that we don’t ignore those disciplines or shut ourselves off to their influence. Go to a symphony, take a cooking class, or visit a museum… I guarantee you’ll feel artistically motivated because no matter what you see or do, the creative inside of you can’t help but be inspired.
So as I mentioned at the beginning of this post…
YOU ARE NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER… YOU ARE A CREATIVE AND THAT’S AN AWESOME THING TO BE.