Establishing Our Identity As An Artist
Living the life of an artist is truly one of the most vulnerable of vocations. It takes courage and fortitude to share oneself so personally, to risk rejection, or worse, indifference. Despite the romantic notion of the artist working in a vacuum, insulated from the outside world, the act of creation is not the only goal of the artist. Having an audience with whom to communicate and share our work, our ideas and emotions, is an integral part of the creative process.
It is an interesting and challenging paradox the artist faces, for while we work primarily for ourselves we must also have an awareness of our audience. But, why exactly? It is not that we are looking to them for recognition or approval, for that must come from within. We do this for ourselves and no other. I believe the need to connect with our audience arises from the reason(s) we are an artist. Personally speaking, it is my way of communicating my deepest thoughts and feelings, many of which I am not even aware of. They reside in my subconscious, drowned out by the minutiae of daily life and the mask we wear in front of others. My art allows these thoughts to come to the forefront, to be heard and recognized. I am communicating with my deeper self, but I am also looking to communicate with others. As David Ulrich states in his book, The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity, “Sincere artists, when moved to convey their insights to others, continually question and explore whether their work communicates what they intend.”
How well we connect with our audience is a function of authenticity and how we present ourselves. We need to establish our identity, for that identity will lend a consistency of voice and authenticity to our work. This speaks to not just the work itself and the type of photos we produce, but also our behavior. Who will we be as an artist? How will we conduct ourselves? How will we connect with an audience? What approach will we take in marketing our work? It’s one thing if we are not relying on our art to make money; the stakes become much higher when photography is our profession. Our monetary success is tied strongly to the relationship we have with our audience. People will not plunk down their hard-earned money on a workshop with a photographer with whom they don’t identify and feel a strong bond. They will not buy a print from a photographer that has different sensibilities from their own.
Communication with an audience is one of the primary objectives of the artist. In a perfect world, our art alone would build the bridge between artist and audience. But, it is not that simple. Our vision, our voice, can be communicated in ways beyond our photographs. Exhibiting our work, our online presence, blogs, essays, all serve as vehicles for sharing not only our work but ourselves. Communicating our thoughts and feelings, in both our photos and our writings, allows people to more deeply identify with us, to see a reflection of themselves. They will most connect with someone who has similar sensibilities and philosophies, their way of seeing the world.
The topic of connecting with our audience has been at the forefront of my mind since a recent experience selling prints from my website. Over the course of a two-month sale that I ran during the holiday shopping season I sold exactly zero prints. I was somewhat disappointed, but not surprised. The number of prints I sell from my website annually can be counted on one hand. A hand without all its fingers even. Yes, that many. I realize of course that a photographer cannot rely on print sales alone for much of her/his income. These days people are more interested in learning how to make their own photos than purchase them, a consequence of the digital age. Still, I have to believe that my sales are on the low side. It’s a source of concern, not so much from a financial standpoint (though as a full-time artist I would certainly welcome more sales) as it is a question of how well I am connecting with my audience. Could the absence of sales reflect a lack of connection between myself and those who view my work?
Social Media and Marketing
Much has been written about the shortfalls of social media, but it does provide the most obvious opportunity to connect with and build an audience. It allows us the ability to share our work with a greater number of people at no cost. I would love to do more exhibits, but it is simply cost-prohibitive. The challenge with social media is to have our true self shine through in our posts. How we present our work and what we say about it provides our audience with insight into who we are and what makes us tick, all information that is vital in establishing that connection. For some people it is almost second nature when it comes to building relationships, for others it can be much more difficult. The former may be more open and willing to share about their life, the latter is more cautious and protective. Perhaps it’s a question of introvert versus extrovert, though I hesitate to reduce it to something so simple.
Making a living as an artist brings with it a host of concerns and challenges, chief among them the need to make money. We have to decide how we will market ourselves and our work. Marketing is often regarded as the bane of every artist, usually seen as a necessary evil. However, it doesn’t need to be that way. The key is to develop an approach that is true to who you are and reflects your personality, much like your imagery. It’s a fine line between self-promotion and peddling consumer goods. Early on I decided I would take a low-key approach to marketing. It’s in line with my personality and photos. I don’t list my website on each social media post. I no longer ask people to like, share, or comment. I want my audience to feel inspired to do so and not do it because I ask. I prefer my website to resemble an online portfolio rather than a “storefront”. But, what if a low-key approach, authentic as it may be, is preventing me from connecting with a larger audience? Would a more effervescent approach and marketing-driven strategy spur more sales? And if so, do I change who I am, even a little bit? There is being true to one’s self, then there is being stubborn. I had a conversation recently with a friend and fellow photographer who expressed the same concern, worrying that if she was to actively promote herself more she would wind up feeling sleazy, as if she was prostituting herself. It’s not a question of right and wrong, only what is right for you. What feels like prostitution to one person is savvy marketing to another.
Promoting myself and my art is something with which I have never been entirely comfortable. I place a high premium on humility and modesty. That is not meant to sound superior, it is simply who I am. I fear coming across as a narcissist; look at me! I limit my posts to no more than two a week. When a particular honor is bestowed upon me or an achievement is reached I mention it grudgingly and in the most modest way possible. The only reason I mention them at all is out of a need to establish myself as a “professional” so that other photographers or enthusiasts feel they can learn from me and sign up for a workshop. It gives me the credibility I need to make a living as an artist. The pats on the back are nice, but not required.
I am not loud, not in the types of images I produce, nor in the way I promote them. While it is true that “a good photograph should be able to stand on its own”, its power and impact on the viewer can be greatly enhanced through the written word. Imagery and text can be used to communicate different things, and when done well the end result is a whole that is greater than its parts. I like to include thoughtful and reflective captions when posting a photo online that often have little or nothing to do with the image itself, at least not in any obvious way. A fellow photographer calls it “talking around” the photo rather than about it. Why describe what is already obvious? I believe a little mystery is a good thing. In music, I’ve always been drawn to songs with lyrics that are ambiguous if not impenetrable. Obvious is boring. It’s the same with photography. When I look at another photographer’s photo I would rather not know the complete story behind it. Where it is from, what she went through to get it, what she was thinking at the time, what the meaning behind it is. I wish to be left to wonder, to have to deduce and be given to thought, to not have everything spelled out for me. But, is maintaining that air of mystery and not being overtly obvious akin to building a wall around myself? I fear I am making myself less approachable.
I avoid trends in photography, whether it is a particular technique, subject matter, or visual effect. When I see a trend my natural instinct is to veer left when everyone else goes right. It is a streak of the contrarian within me. Once ICM started being employed as a stylistic tool it quickly became ubiquitous, causing me to abstain from doing it myself for that very reason. In response, I want to make images with even greater detail and sharpness, if that’s even possible. The same goes for trends on social media, whether it’s a year-end “Best of” collection, or “Waterfall Wednesday”, or what have you. But, am I not being as relatable because I don’t jump on the bandwagon? Am I robbing myself of an opportunity to share something of myself with my audience in a fun and social way?
Establishing a relationship with our audience goes beyond social media. Like most landscape photographers these days, the bulk of my income is from education, in particular leading workshops. One decision I needed to make at the outset regarded my identity as an instructor. What is it I have to offer as an educator/workshop instructor that sets me apart? I have often heard that to make a living as a landscape photographer we must find our niche’. Fair enough. It becomes a question of where our areas of expertise and interests lie. Am I to become proficient in some processing techniques or another technological aspect that I can share with other photographers? Luminosity masking, astrophotography, time-lapse photography, all are examples of very popular and technique-oriented workshop topics. However, my interests lie more on the creative side of photography, an area where there is no recipe, no blueprint on how to achieve a desired outcome or product. That makes it more difficult to sell because it requires more work. There are no guarantees. With time and practice, anyone can learn the craft. Learning to make creative, personally expressive photos is much more challenging. Also, not everyone is interested in becoming the next Edward Weston or Minor White. There is more interest in improving one’s photography through craft than through creative vision. The audience of photographers looking to make more creative and personally expressive photos is not as large as those who are more concerned with craft.
Returning to the topic of my recent web sale, I realize that the lack of audience connection is but one of several possible explanations for the paltry results. Maybe I haven’t made it easy enough to purchase through my website. Perhaps my prices are too high. Or, the very real possibility exists that I’m just a lousy artist. I don’t think any of these are true (certainly not the latter, I hope). It may very well have to do with the degree of subjectivity of my images. Perhaps more conventionally “pretty” photos would make more desirable wall decor. Although, I don’t believe my photos are esoteric or subjective enough to preclude higher sales. The truth is I may never know. It is also something I cannot worry about. No doubt there is someone reading this that has suggestions on how I can increase my sales. I am all ears. However, the connection I seek with my audience goes well beyond marketing. I wish to relate to my audience on a much deeper, emotional level. My hope is that through my work they can learn something about the world around them, even something about themselves they never before realized. If people can relate to me and my work in that way then I can ask for little more.
Likes and followers are not rewards worth attaining. Produce honest, quality work that is a true expression and reflection of you as an individual and the rewards will be far greater. Let your true identity as an artist come through in everything you do. The more personal and more subjective your work is, the smaller your audience may be, but it will be more fervent. Be authentic and you will find your audience. More to the point, they will find you.