5 & 3/4 Questions
1. Can you describe yourself and your work?
I think it’s fair to say that I’m a photographer’s photographer in that I bring considerable technical ability and a discerning eye to every project that I undertake. Photographers, who tend to prize technical excellence and compositional balance, generally admire my work because it is well crafted and visually interesting. The challenge for me, however, is to move beyond that. Purely aesthetically pleasing images, while enjoyable to look at, don’t hold my attention like they used to. I’m interested in work that provokes a dialogue and opens the door to new perspectives.
I take very much to heart the artist Ai Weiwei’s admonition that “We see plenty of artistic work that reflects superficial social conditions, but very little work that questions fundamental values.” It’s this process of questioning and challenging that has grabbed my attention.
2. How did you get started?
My path to the present was fairly circuitous. My passion in college and after was rock climbing. In the course of my climbing adventures, I began to photograph my fellow enthusiasts in competition and in the many beautiful mountainous regions to which we traveled. My photos soon found an audience with climbing and outdoor sports magazines—which then got me focused on photography as a profession. I quickly realized that the outdoor sports market was too small to make much of a living, so I learned the craft of the commercial photographer and began doing a mix of studio and location work. Slowly my clientele grew until I broke into the big money ranks of advertising photography. Along the way, I’ve shot for magazines, national advertising agencies, and commercial clients big and small.
After ten-plus years of that, I grew bored and started a wedding and portrait photography studio. With my photographic skills well honed by commercial work, I was able to quickly jump to the high-end wedding market. When I started in 2001, wedding photography was still pretty stiff and uninteresting. I was among those pioneers who reshaped traditional wedding photography into the more documentary/lifestyle approach that we see today.
These days, I no longer pursue client work but instead focus on my contemporary art practice.
3. What piece of work best represents you and why?
I’m going to demur slightly on this and say that one piece of work can at best describe only one aspect of who I am and the work that I create. Like so many other artists, my interests—and my work—are all over the place. I have multiple bodies of work—each of which is the result of my various investigations into the world. It’s hard for me to pick a single series or project, let alone a single image. These days I rarely think of single works—I think in terms of using a series of images to convey an idea from multiple viewpoints. In fact, some of my newest works are actually a series of images exhibited together.
That aside, one of my all-time favorite images is also one that is highly biographical. It’s of a woman sitting in a lawn chair watering an artificial lawn [above center]. The photograph is my commentary on both the banality and the often-repressed nature of growing up in postwar suburbia. I grew up in one of those pleasant but sterile Southern California suburbs, attending 12 years of Catholic school along the way. The tidy perfection of white middle-class life, the disinterest, the artificiality, the Americana, and the sexual overtones are all themes that relate to my upbringing—and continue to shape my thinking.
4. What are you into currently?
Right now, I’m consumed with my Neighbors portrait project. I’ve taken to creating portraits of Americans in all 50 states. In the past year, I’ve photographed in 28 states—I’ve driven my RV from San Diego to Washington to Kentucky to Maine. Unlike many projects that restrict themselves to single, often downtrodden communities, this collection captures an epically diverse cross-section of Americans. I’ve photographed sawmill workers in Northern California, oil men in North Dakota, rodeo riders in Utah, street hustlers in Atlantic City, power brokers in Washington D.C., newlyweds in St. Louis, farmers in Vermont, white-collar professionals in New Hampshire, and drag queens in New Orleans.
My latest compulsion is writing essays to go along with the photos: I’ve started reading them as spoken word in front of audiences. I’m also pairing the images together as dyptics. It’s fascinating to see people from opposite sides of the country who look so different—or so similar—placed in context with each other. It’s almost as if the images themselves constitute words in a language. When they get strung together, they create meaning beyond the individual words. As I alluded to earlier, it’s in the combination of images that more complex narratives and concepts begin to reveal themselves.
The artistic process to me is one of continual reinvention. I shot commercially for years, and then I turned to weddings. Now I’ve abandoned my client work in favor of an art-based practice. Because the art world doesn’t care about my commercial accomplishments and accolades, I’m starting all over again. I like to joke that after 26 years in business, I’m an “emerging photographer.”
5. What are three things you’ve learned that young creatives should know?
I could go on for hours on this…
An artist is the owner of their art-making business. As a dedicated artist, I get it that most artists don’t want to deal with the business side of creating and selling art. But what I’ve seen is that so many artists get stuck in a torturous cycle of not making enough money and then poorly managing it so that they never fully get to create the work they love and live the life they’ve dreamed of. If you’re in school or thinking of it, study the basics of accounting and business. Learn to invest your money wisely so that it grows without you having to constantly run on the treadmill. When you’re an artist, you’re the CEO of your business, like it or not—think and act like one.
Value your work! If you don’t value what you do, nobody else will either. Don’t give it away for free for meaningless exposure. Cheap clients are the worst. They don’t value what you do and will walk all over you. The more you charge, the more people appreciate what you do and the more creative freedom you’ll have.
Always stay in motion. Dreaming is nice, but purposefully engaging with the world is essential to success. Anyone who’s been around me as I’m working my way through life’s uncertainties has heard me say, “One thing leads to another.” When you’re creating work, no matter how mundane, that work is likely to spark another idea that you can use to create more work—which then sparks more ideas and more work and so the process continues. You may not think that what you’re doing is productive, but if you’re acting with purpose, eventually good things will happen.
When you’re in motion, you’re going to fail. In the beginning and as you’re growing, hopefully a lot. Failing means that you’re exploring and pushing the boundaries of your abilities. We learn more through our failures than our successes, since we tend to examine what went wrong so we don’t repeat our mistakes. You may not see any immediate feedback from your efforts, but over time, all of that staying in motion will pay off in ways that you can’t imagine.
Nothing is more important than personal projects. Client work is important for paying the bills, but always maintain your personal projects. It’s the artist’s R&D. It keeps the work fresh and then allows opportunities for growth or to change direction when the corporate job ends or the work dries up.
Study art. Instagram and other image sharing is great but it’s not a substitute for studying and understanding art by past masters and contemporary practitioners. Odds are the work you’re doing has either been done or been influenced by an artist who worked 100 years ago. When you know the history of your practice and what others in related fields are doing, it helps you to make better-informed choices about your work. Few things are more frustrating to me than showing the work of an influential photographer to a room full of professionals and not one single hand goes up when I ask if anybody knows who created the work. Please don’t be one of those people.
Last but not least, be different. I know it’s tempting to copy the trends and the popular people. In the beginning, as you’re learning, that’s okay. But over time you’ll want to forget what the masses are doing and develop your own aesthetic. The absolute secret to success as a creative and an artist is to create unique work that’s unlike what anyone else is doing. The more unique your work is, the less competition you’ll have and the more control you’ll have over the jobs you’ll get, the clients you work with, and the rates you charge. It takes time, but this is the one goal every artist should focus on first and foremost.
5¼. Favorite color? I like colors in between other colors. Mustards, dirty blues, and, probably my favorite, desaturated variants of orange. I once had an orange house, orange backpack, orange shoes, orange T-shirt, and orange car. I was quite the scene walking out the door some mornings.
5½. Favorite website? Zillow [laughing]. Going back to what I said about being a businessman, I’m always looking for opportunities to invest my money. I firmly believe that, for creatives, the surest way to financial security is to buy property in an inexpensive area that has potential to change and become more desirable. Too often artists inhabit the cheap-rent district and then get kicked out once gentrification begins. I’m a believer in riding a wave, not being crushed or pushed aside by it. Also, I like Zillow because seeing the property values in a given community tells me a lot about the people there and its economic state of affairs—which helps as I travel the country in search of subjects for my portraits.
5¾. Pet peeve? Film. Hate that shit. What really bothers me is to see young photographers wasting their time with it while thinking that they’re being cool or creating art or some other nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, if you enjoy shooting film, fine. But understand that when it comes to creating great work, nobody cares what you shoot. Film unfortunately slows down the learning process, and is technically inferior and expensive. If you wish to earn a living at photography, you’ll get there much faster putting technology, specifically digital technology, to work for you.