This has been an interesting week in my life, to say the least. I had the opportunity to talk at length multiple times with a photographer whom I greatly admire. Here’s a short bio:
“Born in New York City in 1947, Jock Sturges is a fine art photographer living in Seattle, Washington. Best known for his nudes and extended portraits of families in Northern California counter-culture communities, Ireland and on French naturist beaches, his large format images borrow significantly from classical periods in both photography and nineteenth and early twentieth century painting.
Represented by twenty-five galleries in nine countries, Sturges’ work is also to be found in the collection of many of the world’s museums including The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and The Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art in Germany. “
In other words a very experienced person in the art world.
When I found out he lived in Seattle (where I live) I mustered up my courage and sent him a short note. I just said that I was also an art photographer in Seattle. I knew he was very busy, but if he ever wanted to meet and talk photography, I’d love to do that. I also included a link to my web site.
To my astonishment, he answered back. Here’s what he said: “I’d be interested to meet you. I’ve noodled around your two sites and see a really excellent photographer who is a bit divided against himself….”
He nailed me perfectly with that last part. He also included his phone number and invited me to call. Nervous as hell, I did, and not only did he want to meet, he invited me to his house.
He warned me in advance that he’s very opinionated and honest – to be forewarned. That was exactly what I wanted. We talked about art, the history of photography, my prints, direction and focus, how galleries work, philosophical discussions as well as the nuts and bolts of how to properly mount a print (hint: it ain’t foam core).
Here are some of the lessons I learned about being a fine art photographer:
- Know the history of art and photography. This is absolutely critical. Jock called it “the pyramid”. These artists are the foundation of all great art, and if you want to elevate yourself to be a block in that pyramid, then you need to understand that foundation. If you do that, and then add your own unique content and style, you too can become a block. And as you continue to refine your art and push boundaries, you can move higher up the pyramid to become something of significance that can have a lasting history. I know art history fairly well, but my photographic history knowledge still has some gaps. He recommended ‘The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present‘ by Beaumont Newhall, as well as books by Harry Callahan (no, not Dirty Harry), Emmett Gowen (who greatly influenced Sally Mann) and others. By studying these greats, you’ll start to understand composition, form and light, but most importantly content. (By the way, Jock had great stories about many of these people and I loved listening to them. You should hear the “real story” behind Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise Hernandez”)
- Find the one thing, the one passion, the one obsession that can consume your photography for life. If you had to choose only one thing to photograph for the rest of your life, what would it be? He said to look at all the Masters of painting of photography. The vast majority of them concentrated on one particular type of photography or subject and explored every facet of it, every nuance, every subtlety. They lived, ate and breathed it, saw it in every light, kept exploring, looking deeper and deeper until they captured its essence in a photograph. An exercise: If your house was on fire and you could only grab one print, which one would it be? Now go out and photograph nothing but that for 6 months.
- A unique style and technique does not make a great photograph. Content makes a great photograph. Your subject. Your in-depth understanding and relationship with that subject, be it a particular model, subject, location, city, culture, whatever, is what matters. Substance beats style every time. As you explore the subject in depth, the style will be the result of that, not the other way around. This is a critical point to understand and what lead to the second of our conversations, just so I could fully comprehend this concept.
- Think long term. Think about an entire lifetime of work when you’re seeking your direction. Limited projects also have a limited value and can result in a scattered vision. Unless it ties into your overall body of work (see item #2), leave it out. Or at the very least, don’t put it anywhere that galleries can ever see it.
- Don’t rely on gimmicks. That infrared film that I’m currently in love with won’t last as part of a vision in the long term. Same with things like tilt/shift lenses or even Holga cameras (see item 8).
- You only get one chance to make a first impression with galleries. Your prints should be first rate. You should edit ruthlessly. If you don’t, galleries will think you don’t know the difference between a good and a bad photo. They should also be mounted properly using archival materials.
- You need a deep portfolio before attempting to break into the big time. You may have 20 great photographs, absolute stunners, but as soon as a gallery sees those, they’ll say “Those are great – show me 20 more”. If you don’t have that depth, you’ve just blown item #6.
- Toy camera work isn’t taken seriously by galleries. Yes it’s interesting, yes galleries may show it (I continue to get shows in them, but I’ve had that same sense). If you want to move to that next level of long-lasting excellence you can’t rely on gimmicks. See item 9.
- All of these rules can be broken. There’s nothing that says you can’t be the first toy camera photographer with a permanent presence in the Met. Or the first iPhoneographer at MOMA. Pioneers of photography break new ground, but they’re also single-minded about it and drive it into that realm of respectability with sheer will and talent.
And #10, the biggest take-away from these conversations: Confidence. Validation. I had a person with an in-depth knowledge of art and photography, who is a serious presence in the art world, tell me that I had the potential to do good things with my photography.
I’m still wrapping my head around all of this. I’m sure my life has changed for the better because of these talks. What direction my photography will take I don’t know. I’m still coming into focus on item #2, but for the first time in my life I feel like I’m very close, and I’m excited about the future.
P.S. I know that Jock’s work came under attack here in the US from right-wing religious fanatics who think all nudity is bad. In Europe it’s no big deal. I’m not going to get into a debate about that as it’s obvious how I feel about his work. Any comments relating to that discussion will be deleted.