Tuesday, December 11, 2007

and even more... using "personal style" to pay the bills

Among the blogs I check out regularly, a couple of my favorites are A Photo Editor, written by an anonymous photo director for what must be a slick NYC-based magazine and Avisualsociety, written by an anonymous NYC-based photo agent. Though I'm a little wary of the anonymity (in general it can lead to a lack of civility), both have handled it well and I appreciate that these blogs provide insight into a world that I'm engaged in, but don't fully comprehend, that is, the world where making photographs can actually put dinner on the table and shoes on feet.

I came into editorial work through happenstance and, in many ways feel like I'm learning the ropes while being pummeled up against them. I see editorial work as a question of problem solving, each assignment with its own unique challenges. In a great conversation over at Conscientious between Alec Soth and Doug Dubois, Dubois (who I studied under), has this great observation, "Editorial work keeps you on your toes and in shape – the unique stress and pressure of an assignment can offer up some real surprises. The hardest part is to maintain a sense of your own work and take appropriate risks in making a good photograph."

My entry into the editorial world happened about three years ago when I got a call out of the blue from a photo editor who'd found out about me from another photographer/editor who I'd shown work to previously. She said she'd seen my site and loved my "style." She needed a portrait of a couple of artists here in town and wondered if I did that kind of thing and would I be interested. Truth is, I didn't do that kind of thing, and was downright terrified at the idea of doing that kind of thing; something so constructed and artificial. Up to that point, the portraiture I'd done had been made by chance- incidental, unscripted, and more often than not, of family. But for some reason, probably just because I was flattered with the attention and needed the money, I said yes.

It's embarrassing to look through the film I shot on that job. The subjects were great- kind and patient, but it was awkward and I didn't know what I was doing. I was a bumbling fool working outside my comfort zone. The majority of shooting was done with a shutter speed that was way too slow and a fill flash, resulting in a horrible combination of ghosting with the subjects and an overwhelming neon glare from reflective tape in the background (that I didn't even realize was in the shot). But the one thing that I did do right was recognize, on the spot, that I was a dumbass. I kept shooting and trying new things until I felt safe, even past the point where they were burnt out and wanted me to go. One more roll, I told them, for at least the last four.

The last one worked. In fact, it really worked. To this day, it's among the photos that I keep in that portfolio, the one I now have on hand to send to art buyers and photo editors in the hopes of drumming up more work. But the whole situation really brings up that question of how does one retain their "style" when the actual working process and environment are so far removed from one's personal work and the shooting conditions that contribute to that "style" in the first place?

APE recently posted on "photography tags," the labels that he (is it a he? why do i think that?) uses to categorize photographers and remember who does what. Among them are descriptions such as "quirky," "lyrical," "awkward," "crunchy (super sharp)," "high contrast," "egglestonish," etc. He points out that it's important for a photographer to have more than a couple tags in order to differentiate yourself, but fewer than a dozen as it gets hard to categorize.

Over at B, Blake chimed in on the issue of "personal style" with a great reference to a previous discussion on Soth's blog regarding "the sentence," the one line description used to define photographers who are recognized enough to have had sentences written about them. For example, take the following quiz and tell me who's who? Answer any or all correctly and you can win a copy of Michael Bishop's postcard book on the Erie Canal.

1) "... makes pictures of children-- luminously beautiful black-and-white images of mysteriously elfin children around [her] rural home in Lexington, Virginia."

2) Which popular post war photographer is known for his "comparisons to a modern-day de Tocqueville for his fresh and skeptical outsider's view of American society."

3) Name "an American photographer who is best known for elaborately staged, surreal scenes of American homes and neighborhoods."

4) And to make it a little harder now, name the young photographer who's been "depicting 'the simultaneous feeling of sad and funny' throughout his career"?

I guess now I'm kind of wondering if this question of "style" may have less to do with photographs and more to do with language, and our ability, or perhaps inability, to formulate a concise description of how photographs work, and how photographers use them. Are we tap dancing about poetry, using one language to inadequately discuss another? I'm reminded of Robert Adams' essay "Writing" in which he writes of Robert Frost's response to someone asking him to explain one of his poems, "'You want me to say it worse?'"

But in a world of blogs and press releases and money changing hands, the issue's certainly worthy of consideration for those of us who enter into that marketplace, that world where photo editors need to have a clear idea what they can expect from a photographer and gallery owners need to craft press releases that are going to draw attention and sales. It seems that we too are affected by the world of sound bytes.

Let us cultivate our garden...

... and keep in mind a great "letter to a young artist" from Stephen Shore in the archives of avisualsociety.

6 comments:

Tabatha said...

Mann, Frank, Crewdson, and...um...Ryan McGinley?

shawn said...

congratulations tabatha, you've won. though #4's not ryan mcginley (hint, the answer's linked to the question...)

send me your email address and i'll send your postcard book right away.

Ed said...

#4 is Jason Fulford!

shawn said...

congratulations, ed. you've also won. send me your address and i'll send your postcard book right away.

Radon said...

Consider this. A photographer (you) writes (blogs) to work through issues concerning his practice. Imagine instead a writer (like me) publishing photos as commentary on (or working through of) her writing practice. I am thinking about words and how you consider that they are used to package (essentially) the work of an editorial/commercial photographer.

Regarding your question of style and its definition: the style, the aesthetic of the photographer exists before the language to describe it. How do I know? Because I can look at the work of some photographers (and you can probably play this game with hundreds more than I) and say, that is a Tina Modotti or a Jeff Wall or even a Holly Andres. And I don't need descriptors to wrap around my recognition to be able to call it.

I think it's kind of like artists getting to the point where they have a mature style and a DeKooning is a DeKooning, as inimitable as a poem by William Carlos Williams.

A parallel issue that amuses me is that of design firms insisting that they don't have a style, but mind-meld completely with the client and the project to create "appropriate" design.

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