What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I’d like to start with two quotations. The first is from an article (which I’ll paraphrase) on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website. It describes a charming and significant portrait, although not a particularly powerful one, by a famous-photographer-to-be: This simple portrait of Annie Philpot is an important one in Julia Margaret Cameron's oeuvre; it is inscribed “My very first success in photography, January 1864.” Mrs. Cameron had received the gift of a camera only one month before it was taken. Having begun her experiments in image making “with no knowledge of the art,” she described her jubilation at producing the picture: “I was in a transport of delight. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day. Sweet, sunny haired Annie!” The article goes on to say that the portrait manifests “the hallmarks Cameron would continue to use and refine over her 15-year career.” During that career she made many great portraits, as the history of photography acknowledges. Although that early one might not have been her best, Cameron said of her accomplishment, “No later prize has effaced the memory of this joy.”
The second quotation is by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Enthusiasm is the great engine of success.”
Mine is the “camera and a darkroom kit for Christmas while I was in high school” story. The story also involves my parents getting divorced, and photography providing me with some stability and solace. Photography became a place for me to turn my attention and my efforts. It was a comfortable fit, and something I could control. At the same time, it helped me define myself at a formative period in my life. It provided a means of expression, and suited my temperament. It was, in short, a path forward.
Making good photographs on a regular basis, I soon found out, is a challenge—technically, aesthetically and intellectually. After I’d been out with my camera a couple of times, I was hooked. Today, when someone of the stature of Elliott Erwitt is asked what is his favorite of all of his photographs, and he answers “The next one,” I understand completely. The idea that the best is yet to come is a potent stimulant! and it’s one of the things that compels me to pick up my camera.
So the reason I started in photography, and the reason I continue, are actually one and the same: I really enjoy it. I love the activity of photography, and the amount of energy and attention it requires to do it well. As a film-and-darkroom photographer I embrace the craft aspect, too. And it feels good to be participating in something with a dynamic history and tradition. For me, making pictures is both a challenge and a great pleasure.
I used to worry a bit that “because I like it” might not be a good enough reason to essentially dedicate my life to photography. Then I came across a quotation by the American photographer, writer and MacArthur “genius award” recipient Robert Adams, that helped me relax: “Most photographs would never be taken were it not for an impulsive enjoyment, a delight that is notably free of big ideas.”
Photography became the thread running through my life; whatever else I was doing—whatever job I happened to have at the time—it was the constant. If I wasn’t out photographing or working in the darkroom in my spare time, I was reading about photography or looking at photographs in books, or thinking about it. But I never showed my work to anyone (well, to relatives if they insisted). And it went on like this, happily, for many years.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
I recently read an interview with the esteemed photographer Steve McCurry. One passage in particular stood out. Asked for his advice he said, “The first thing you should do is enjoy yourself. Explore. Observe. And then take pictures.” I couldn’t agree more with the underlying sentiment: if you’re engaged in the process, the results will take care of themselves.
When we start out as photographers, it’s common to imitate others, and to try out different styles and approaches. It takes time to become assured in our individual way of seeing and responding to things. It’s important to allow ourselves this time. The emulation/experimentation phase is when we learn to differentiate ourselves, and find our own vision and “voice”—something jurors and reviewers will be looking for. Why rush things? There’s valuable experience to be gained in taking your time. And not only valuable experience, but a growing body of steadily improving work. The more work you have, the more you’ll have to choose from; the strongest pictures will stand out as the others become less “precious.” Look at your pictures repeatedly over time (I keep recent work tacked up around the house). This practice will help you become a more objective editor. And look at your work in relation to other photographs you admire, and experiment with sequencing and pairing images.
I’d like to offer a few thoughts on portfolio reviews and gallery representation. Although I’ve served as a reviewer, I’ve never taken my work to a portfolio review. And I don’t use gallery representation. For better or for worse, I've always represented myself. (I currently spend about as much time promoting my work as I do making it.)
Although they undoubtedly represent a wonderful opportunity for some photographers, portfolio reviews aren’t for everyone. Your personality and temperament—and (let’s be realistic) your bank balance—are important factors to consider. Also, portfolio reviews are neither guarantees of, nor prerequisites for, success. And timing is absolutely critical. It can be self-defeating to participate too soon. Imagine Mrs. Cameron seeking a critical assessment of that early portrait of hers. One suspects she would have been advised (at best) to "Keep on working," something she would continue to do anyway; she was an artist.
She was, in fact, a great artist. But perhaps that wouldn’t have been recognized so early on. She hadn’t had the time yet to practice her photography and improve—she had only gotten her camera the month before. Cameron’s innate skill and unique vision were to develop and mature over time. It’s just possible that had her enthusiasm been dampened by a negative critique too early on, it could have sidetracked the very “engine of her success.”
So before you subject your work to the scrutiny of the most discriminating audience there is, consider trying it out on a few "test audiences" first. Enter competitions, locally, regionally and nationally. (I work best with a deadline). As much as possible, enter your work to participate in the process, not for the promise of prizes or sales. Then, when you feel like you have enough strong work, consider mounting a one-person exhibition.
Gallery representation, if it happens at all, typically comes much later on. And keep in mind that a gallery might (might) be interested in your work if they think it will sell. "Commercial viability," however, needn’t be the goal of every creative endeavor. Although it might seem like it these days, gallery representation is not the be-all-and-end-all of artistic achievement. Besides, it’s the rare art photographer who can make a living on the sale of prints, image rights, etc. In fact, generally speaking, most of us will spend more money on our photography than we’ll make on it. And that will certainly be the case when we start out.
Which brings me back to the article on J.M. Cameron: That early portrait has the pictorial hallmarks that Cameron would continue to use and refine over her career. And a hallmark is "a distinctive feature, especially one of excellence."
The one vital action I would recommend you consider, then, is to strive for excellence, not “success.” That, and (wait for it) be patient. It’s a difficult thing to do these days, but nonetheless it’s important. Here’s a helpful way to think about it: Patience is the suspension of expectations.
If you’re talented and committed, and excellence is your guide (from your camerawork to presentation and promotion)—and you enjoy photography—you’re doing it right.
After all, Julia Margaret Cameron spoke of experiencing the "joy" of photography. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "I have a passion for geometry. My greatest joy is facing a beautiful organization of forms." And, lest anyone think that a sense of joy and even elation is some bygone notion with no relevance to serious contemporary practice, here’s Alec Soth, in Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), "There is no greater joy than wide-eyed wandering."
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
In 1992 I had the privilege of meeting Harry Callahan and hearing him speak. I hung on his every word. This master photographer, 80 years old at the time, explained his reason for continuing to photograph: “To get out and walk and look is wonderful to me. Without any great intent, eventually I get something that amounts to something.” Thinking about the remarkable work that resulted from a lifetime of such looking inspires me to maintain that same approach.
When you’re doing what you enjoy without the (perceived) pressure of what someone else might think about it distracting you, that’s when you do your best work. When I’m out with my camera, if I sense imaginary eyes peering over my shoulder, judging every shot, I tend to freeze. I work best when I don’t put that kind of pressure on myself. I once heard André Kertész say about his photography, “It’s for me, I do it only for myself.” And he made some of the finest photographs I know of.
For almost twenty years I photographed without giving a single thought to what others might think about it; or even a single thought of exhibiting. It was just for me. The first time I showed a photograph was in a statewide juried photography exhibition. The following year I had my first solo exhibit at a local coffee shop. It was 1993 and I was 40 years old. My next one-person show was at a nearby Arts Council…and so on, and so on. Nearly two decades later, my photographs are in museum and corporate collections. The point being, that what worked for me as a self-taught art photographer was starting out small and local, and proceeding at a pace that was reasonable and practical, given financial realities. My only firm goal was the next picture.
As for the details, I like to focus on a project or two, establish a routine and see where it takes me. I also teach photography, and I exhibit my work, submitting exhibition and grant proposals and entering juried competitions on a regular basis (with an eye, always, on the juror[s]: Who would I like to see my photographs?) I seek out online opportunities, and I’ve made some wonderful connections. I have a website I maintain myself, and I engage in social media as it relates to photography. I continue to hone my craft, in the darkroom and at the computer—getting my prints to look “right” on the Web is a necessity in an age of online submissions and virtual exhibitions. And I look at lots and lots of photographs; online and in books, contemporary and “classical” (to borrow Bruce Davidson’s term). I look because I’m forever interested, and, yes, because I enjoy it.
Needless to say, leading a fulfilling (i.e., successful) life as a photographer involves more than just adopting a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude. Hard work and sticking with it are required. But having said that… if you love photography, and you’re pursuing photography because you love it, you’re on a path that’s as valid, worthwhile and well-traveled as any there is.
Photography, and especially art photography, has both enjoyed and endured significant changes over the years, including how it’s been perceived and valued by others. But for photographers, myself included, it has always been a magical and captivating medium.
Bonnie Cook was a young student enrolled in her first formal photography class at a local college where I was teaching. She was a natural. Arriving early to class one Monday morning, Bonnie rushed over and said, “I shot 13 rolls this weekend!” (the assignment had been for two). “And it was amazing!” Bear in mind that the students were using film, so Bonnie hadn’t even seen her pictures yet. Her enthusiasm had been generated by the sustained activity of making pictures.
In that exciting moment, Julia Margaret Cameron came to mind. And it occurred to me that, as much as the technology and aesthetics of photography have changed over time, this part—the joy part, the genuinely amazing part—never will.
But you asked me about success. I guess I do feel successful in that my own early enthusiasm for photography has never diminished.
© copyright all images David Simonton