Fat Stacks of Cheddar

“Gonna make some mad cheddar yo. Fat stacks, dead presidents, cash money. We’re gonna own this city.”—Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad)

(© Ian Plant) In my last post, Say Anything, I discussed what I don’t want to be as an artist. Some interesting questions and comments ensued, such as: How can photographers who are just starting out get noticed unless they shoot only the most epic scenes and subjects? Can one take the road less traveled and still succeed? And how can one manage to make a living without pandering to the popular online mania?

Basically, it seems to me that the question on everyone’s mind is really this: Can a photographer make fat stacks of cheddar without becoming a sellout?

“Vesturhorn”—Iceland. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 100, f/11, 8 seconds.

When we think of the word “sellout,” images of Metallica’s “Black Album” immediately spring to mind (or perhaps Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” depending on your personal musical tastes). Wikipedia defines “selling out” as “the compromising of integrity, morality, authenticity or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money. In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience; for example, a musician who alters his material to encompass a wider audience, and in turn generate greater revenue, may be labeled by fans who pre-date the change as a sellout.” These days, I think we can add something to the definition: it’s not just money that people are after, but also attention, celebrity, and fame.

But do we accuse Coke or Pepsi of being sellouts because they try to find ways to make their products popular with as many consumers as possible? Most businesses do just that, in the quest to maximize their profits. I guess most businesses don’t start off with “integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles” which can later be compromised for material enhancement—but apparently we hold “artists” to a higher standard. I guess it is a debatable point whether art is somehow different from any other commercial product out there, but for now let’s assume that artistic integrity does in fact exist.

How much “artistic integrity” you have depends on whether you view your photography as a purely artistic endeavor, or as a business. If you’re doing it just for fun, then it is easier to stick to your principles than if you are doing it for a living. And some professional photographers might view their work entirely as a business endeavor, and not think in terms of artistic integrity at all. But I think for most of us in the profession, photography is both an artistic passion and a business.

“Sinuous”—Sahara Desert, Morocco. Canon 70D, 162mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/30 second. 

A few years ago, in my post So You Want to be a Pro Nature Photographer?, I told readers that if you want to make it big as a photographer, you have to “photograph charismatic mega-landscapes and mega-fauna.” I think this remains true today. And, to some extent, it has been a cornerstone of my business strategy for the past five years. But to a much larger extent, my strategy has been to shoot what I want, and to find a way to monetize it later. So although I have tailored my choice of subject matter and style of shooting to specific business goals, I still try to cling to artistic integrity as tightly as I can. Of course, that can be hard to do when you don’t have enough money to buy food. And making money allows me to do the things I want to do as an artist—which these days, involves taking expensive trips to places around the world I’ve always dreamed of photographing. It’s always tricky to find a balance between artistic integrity and business expediency, but that balance can be achieved.

But to return to the question about “shooting epic,” I actually built my career as a photographer doing exactly the opposite. For the first five years after I turned pro full time, I almost exclusively photographed my local landscapes, which at the time was anything and everything within a three hour driving radius of Washington, D.C. Some of the scenery was very nice, but it certainly wasn’t anything approaching the obviously stunning landscapes of the Western U.S. or other parts of the world. A subtle landscape, in my opinion, is more challenging than one that stands up pretty for you, and I believe that making such images prepared me for when I decided to broaden my work beyond my local region.

Approximately five years ago, I made a conscious decision to start shooting nationally and internationally, in order to grow my business and align it with my broader goals as a photographer. With the Internet now being the prime means of marketing and promotion, I knew that having a local portfolio wouldn’t quite get me where I wanted to be. Arguably, I sold out, and started shooting more “epic” places in a bid for increased status in the industry. My earlier work, to be certain, positioned me both artistically and professionally to make the transition, but I can’t help but wonder how my business and career would look now if I hadn’t made the switch.

Sellout is a harsh word, and maybe we’re not being fair to Metallica and Gwen. Maybe they just wanted to grab as much filthy lucre as they could get their hands on—but then again, maybe they just woke up one day and realized that they were running a business, and they decided to stop acting all stuffy and treat their product—their “art”—as a commodity, just like any other business would. Maybe they got sick and tired of maintaining the fiction of artistic integrity. Or maybe they just wanted to try something different; sometimes business expediency and artistic growth coincide. I feel like that was the case with me: I knew that shooting exotic places would broaden my appeal as a photographer, but I also really wanted to go shoot those places.

“The Canyon”—Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Canon 5DIII, 28mm, ISO 100, f/9, 0.8 seconds.

As I said above, it’s all about finding the right balance between being an artist and running a business. Despite my embrace of a more appealing artistic strategy, I’m not fully committed to “giving the people what they want.” What that means is that although I might be strategic as to my choices about where to go and what to shoot, I’m still shooting what I want to shoot when I get there. Which means I’m willing to turn my back on the “epic” shot if I’m more interested in something less obvious, but more artistically relevant. Which means I’m unwilling to turn my photographs into Photoshop fantasies, despite how popular such imagery has become in certain online forums. Which means I’m okay if no one else likes what I’m doing, so long as I like what I’m doing.

The key point of my So You Want to be a Pro Nature Photographer? post is often ignored, which is this: Don’t Suck. If you are really good at what you do, you can make a name for yourself shooting just about anything. Sure, people react to exotic subject matter, but there’s one thing that will make them sit up and take notice more than all the epic scenery in the world: really great photography.

Of course, it might not matter much anyways, because here’s a dirty little secret: clever marketing—or just plain dumb luck—will likely do more to get you noticed than the actual quality of your photos. I’ve seen a lot of crappy photographers build giant followings, and a lot of great photographers languish in obscurity. Of course, it’s been this way for artists for centuries. Who you know, how affable you are, how much money you have, how good looking you are—and sometimes blind chance—often determine how far you go in life more so than actual talent. No matter what, however, hard work can’t hurt. Whatever advantage you do have over others, it won’t mean squat if you don’t press it with all you’ve got.

So I guess my advice is this: don’t worry about it too much. Just shoot what you want to shoot. If you really want to get noticed, then just make sure that whatever you do, you do it well. And market the crap out of it. The Internet is like a crowded room full of shouting people, so it is hard to be heard above the din. But it also means you are bumping elbows with a lot of people. If you’ve got something interesting to say, you’ll eventually find an audience that appreciates what you have to offer. With all the noise out there, people are starving for something different, something authentic, and something meaningful. Just do your best to get your work out there as much as possible, and let it do the talking for you.

Or, you can forget everything I say here and just shoot pictures of puppies underwater. Cha-ching!

This post was originally published on the Dreamscapes Blog.

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