Creating Artistic Photographs: Commitment and the Backyard Project
The Backyard Project, the subject of my previous essay, is not just about photographs. It is about my commitment to photography, about continuing doing what I love in the face of challenges. The COVID 19 crisis is the current challenge. However, it is not the first one I have had to deal with. Since I started my photography business I dealt with the 911 crisis, the 2007 recession, competitors and many other challenges. I did so successfully as demonstrated by the fact that I am still around. I did not quit nor needed to quit. In fact quitting was never part of my thinking. Challenges bring difficulties but they also bring opportunities. 911 brought wealthy American customers to the National Parks because they could not travel abroad. Because I sold my photographs at the El Tovar hotel at the time I had one of my best years sales-wise. The 2007 recession brought real estate prices to an all-time low. Because I invested in real estate at the bottom of the recession I was able to acquire multiple properties for a fraction of what they were worth. Competitors taught me the importance of marketing, something I ignored when I started my business. Because I made a commitment to the study of business and marketing I was able to outperform competitors who had been in this business far longer than I have. Today the COVID 19 pandemic is forcing me to stay home and practice social distancing. Because I can no longer travel or socialize I have time to engage in activities I could not get involved with before. The time I used to spend on the road or in social activities is now spent doing research, practicing hobbies and completing unfinished projects.
The Backyard Project
One of these projects is the Backyard Project. This is a project I did not consider completing until I was forced to stay home. I spent years working on my backyard as an aesthetic endeavor and as a potential photography subject. However, until this year, I did not take the time to photograph it seriously. Instead, I photographed it occasionally, on the side so to speak, whenever I had nothing else to do.
This year, faced with the inability to travel and socialize I am forced to spend nearly all my time at home. Rather than complain that I cannot access the world-class sites I normally photograph I decided to give my attention to the subject that was right there: my backyard.
You can see my online portfolio version of the Backyard Project HERE.
To me this is commitment. Commitment means finding a way to continue doing what I love when things get challenging. A hackneyed saying is that when the going gets tough the tough get going. My version of this saying is that when the going gets tough committed people find a way to keep going.
My version is realistic because it is based on my experience. I like long-term commitments and I do not like doing things in a halfway manner. I want to give a strong foundation to my endeavors whatever they may be. Photography is no different. I realized early on that in order to continue doing photography I had to create a strong income basis. This meant diversifying my sources of income, secondarily within the field of photography and primarily outside of it. Photography is a want. Whether people buy one of my products (prints and derivatives) or services (teaching and derivatives) their motivation is to buy something they want, not something they need. If things get tough financially the first thing they will do is stop buying art or stop studying photography because the needs in their life will take precedent over their wants. One of these needs is real estate because having a roof over one’s head is a need, not a want. So I decided to invest in real estate and I acquired a number of rental properties. In ‘normal’ times these act as a secondary income. In ‘challenging’ times, such as the COVID 19 crisis we are facing now, these act as primary income because people’s priorities have switched from want to needs.
Having a secure income is important because it guarantees a strong commitment foundation. In short, I do not have to generate a full income from photography in order to continue doing photography. I can continue creating photographic images and I can continue teaching photography even though my photography business income is low. This means I do not have to change my life by finding a different job, applying for loans or closing shop altogether. It means security to both myself and my clients and this for both products and services. Things may be challenging right now but I am not going anywhere. My business is open and my photographic activities will resume full operations when the COVID 19 crisis is over, whenever that is. It may be in a short time or it may be in a long time however this is not a problem because meanwhile people will continue needing a roof over their head and I am providing this.
Commitment is important, both for myself and for my clients, be they print collectors or students. I do not like businesses that come and go. I like businesses that are stable. In setting up my business I wanted to offer stability. I wanted to be there for the long term, not being here for a minute before moving on to other endeavors.
Commitment to business and customers, to my passion, in short, is also about staying healthy. While I have no control over health-related accidents I do have control over monitoring my health, not engaging in dangerous activities, and taking basic precautions. Having been in business a long time, since 1997 full time to be exact, has demonstrated how important this is. I have seen many competitors, friends, and students lose their health or their life because they did not pay attention to the aforementioned issues. Sometimes this is due to a lack of health monitoring. I had a friend whose health was going down but wrote it off as ‘getting older’ only to find out he had blood cancer. By the time he was diagnosed it had reached terminal levels and it was too late to do anything about it. Sometimes it is caused by being overworked. I had a representative selling my work wholesale while I was selling retail at the El Tovar Hotel in Grand Canyon National Park. She lived in her car and spent her life delivering matted prints, postcards, and posters to the gift shops in and outside of the park. One winter she got caught in a snowstorm (the South Rim of Grand Canyon is at 7000 feet and receives heavy snowfall in the winter), drove off the road, and killed herself. Obviously snow was a factor but so was exhaustion from a job that provided no opportunity for rest. R & R was not part of her life.
Being overworked is the cause of many health problems for artists in the business. I know of several photographers who blacked out while driving. One of them found himself on the other side of town not knowing how he got there. Another felt something was wrong with him and was able to drive himself to the closest hospital where he was tested and found to be physically and emotionally exhausted. Too much work, too little income and the inability to pause take stock of the situation and straighten things out will cause that.
I am not immune to it either. While selling at Grand Canyon I had periods of intense stress that caused various minor illness issues. I was fortunate that things came to a stop for reasons out of my control. Selling at the El Tovar was stressful partly because of the intense competition from other artists and partly because my income doubled every year for five straight years. However, the show came to an end because the National Park did not renew the artist’s contracts, and while this caused me to lose this source of income it also put an end to the related stress issues. By then I had already planned my next step so my income was not negatively impacted however I must say that I would not have been able to quit on my own. How do you quit a job in which your income doubles every year?
Staying healthy is important for personal reasons. Obviously no one wants to get sick. However, it is also important for business reasons. Not only will being unhealthy cause business problems and loss of income it will also negatively affect customer relations. A good business is a stable business and while stability comes from many factors health is definitely one of them. When my representative died the stores lost their source of supply for her products and in turn, customers could no longer purchase them. While this may seem a minor issue it is not because customers enjoyed purchasing these products. Something was lost that did not have to be lost.
Similarly, when photographers blackout or are affected by stress-related issues the outcome is not only loss of income but also loss of services and/or products for their customers. We often think that loss of income is the only consequence. It is not. While important it is far from it. Customers are seriously affected especially if the business is successful. If people want my products then being able to provide these products on a dependable basis is important. If customers want my services then being able to provide these services on a reliable basis is important. Personally I dislike it when a store goes out of business or a mentor stops providing services because when they do I lose the investment I put in them. This investment takes many forms with money being only one of them. Certainly when a business disappears support and service are no longer available. However, if I am building a collection I can no longer acquire additional pieces and if I am studying I can no longer continue my studies with this person. This is a loss that affects my emotional investment with this business more than my finances.
Recessions and economic challenges of one kind or another provide an opportunistic jumping-off point for those who want to quit. Usually, businesses that are not doing well in good times, that are metaphorically ‘taking on water,’ will eventually sink when times get challenging. Similarly, if a business owner is not sure whether to plow on or quit struggling a recession is a good time to make a decision. 911 marked the end of their career for a number of artists who sold their work with me at the El Tovar Hotel. 2007 signaled the end of the road for a number of artists selling on the art show circuit with me that year. COVID 19 has started ending the career of workshop instructors and photography businesses and it is far from over.
Quitting is always an option and sometimes it is a good one. This is the case if someone started a business to foster one’s passion rather than to fulfill a business opportunity. Most artists, photographers included, get involved in business not because they see a business opportunity but because they need to generate income in order to pursue their passion. I am no different. When I started my photography business in 1997 it was not because I saw a business opportunity but because I was fed up with academia. At the time I was making $600 a month working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. I was not only underpaid I was overworked and discriminated (apparently being French was a problem for some of my professors) and I decided that making a living doing what I love, meaning photography, could not pay less or require more work than doing something I no longer enjoyed. A simple arithmetic calculation showed me that making $20 a day per month would generate the same income as my GTA salary. Back then my business skills were not what they are today and I forgot to withdraw my expenses from this total. However, being motivated by passion made up for the difference!
In any case, hardships provide an ideal jumping-off point. In my case the hardship was not caused by the economy it was caused but by the academic environment. However, the result was the same: I quit. As it turned out this was one of the most important decisions I ever made. While financial wealth was not my original goal I discovered that unknown to me, I had untapped business skills and once I found that out I put them to good use. I had to otherwise I would have quit the photography business a long time ago. Recessions and economic challenges would have done it if intense competition had not. My point is that regardless of why one starts a business there comes a time when sound business skills have to be acquired otherwise it is only a matter of time until the business will go under.
Commitment is often associated with intensity. While the two are not antithetical to each other maintaining a high level of intensity over a career that spans decades is challenging because professional photographic activities take many forms. Not only do I capture, process and print photographs I also market and sell them, teach workshops, post images on multiple social media platforms, write essays, communicate with peers and students and more. This list is no different from what other photographers have to do because these activities are expected of pretty much anyone who wants to be seriously involved in fine art photography today.
The problem is not what I do but at what rhythm I do it. What I mean is that it is easy to overdo it. I see photographers who post on their social media platforms several times a day. One year, in a hotel conference room where I was teaching, I found the schedule of a photographer listing a workshop each week. That’s 52 workshops a year… I know other photographers who write one blog post per day. That 365 posts a year… I also see some doing all of these things: 52 workshops a year, 365 blog posts a year, multiple social media posts every day and of course email marketing, conference calls, videos and who knows what else. How long can this go on until they get burned out? How long can this continue until they are forced to slow down either because they realize this is too much or because their health is negatively impacted?
Don’t get me wrong. Here too I was part of this group, doing too much for too long until I was forced to slow down. Fortunately what made me slow down was not health issues but the realization that there is more to life than photography. This convinced me that I needed to do things differently. Not do less but do it on a more controlled basis. Pace myself! This is when I came up with what I call ‘controlled intensity.’ Controlled intensity means putting things out on a regular basis but according to a schedule that I can maintain over the long run, meaning over years and years. What my controlled activity consists of is defined by me based on my needs. There is no ‘standard amount’ because we all have unique needs. What may be too much for someone maybe not enough for someone else? All I know is that if I feel overworked, drained, or run down, or if I realize that my life is about photography and nothing else, it is time to slow down and apply controlled intensity. I did and it has made all the difference. I do less but I enjoy it more. More importantly, what I do is of higher quality. After all one of the tenets of my business approach is offering quality rather than on quantity and controlled intensity allows me to apply this tenet not only to my products and services but to all my business activities.
I am sometimes asked if I plan to retire. Why do that? Why retire from something I love to do? Why retire when things get challenging if I don’t have to worry about ‘keeping the doors open?’ And to do what? Something I would rather do? I do that now! The fact is artists do not retire, real artists that are, because we do not do art in order to put enough money aside until we can do what we ‘really’ want to do. We do art because this is what we really want to do.
Art is it for me. I have no desire to do anything else than what I do now. I may have this desire if I had stayed in academia in which case I may be anxiously awaiting retirement in order to be able to devote my time to photography. Perhaps although I have the impression that I would have quit a long time ago. I would have just lost time compared to quitting before writing my dissertation. Knowing when to quit is important. One can waste a lot of time by hesitating whether to make a decision or not. Although it is never too late I am glad I made that decision when I had plenty of time left to build a career. The outcome is that today I have no bucket list and no unachieved goal. Quite simply I enjoy doing what I do day in and day out.
It is customary to talk about gear when talking about photography projects. The fact is very little gear was used for this project because all the images were created with an iPod Touch 5. This may feel like a let down to those who believe that all photographs should be done with the highest resolution camera available because this was not the case here. I did not even use an iPhone mind you, just an iPod, an item that may be taken off Apple’s inventory list for lack of demand.
I don’t have to legitimize the use of the gear I use because it is my artistic prerogative to do as I please and for my audience to like it if they want. However, since we are on the subject of gear let me say that the iPod was the camera I felt like using for this project. It does have something to do with print size because I have no intent to print these images large if I get them printed at all. Mostly it has to do with the fact that I use my iPod to listen to music and read the news in the morning, the time when most of these images were created. In short, it was convenient. I could listen to music, read the news, and take photographs. I continued using the iPod when photographing at other times of the day for coherence purposes. I did not want to have a mix of images with different resolution or different color balance and dynamic range. Continuity is important to me, more so than resolution. Images in a project have to look like they belong together. While this is achieved in part through processing (yes, unspeakable things were done to these images and if you follow my work you know what that means) it is also achieved by using the same camera throughout a project.
Finally using an iPod instead of a ‘real’ camera, or to put it differently instead of a camera that only takes photographs, is in line with my belief that skills are more important than gear. For the past three years, I have been focusing my energy on sharpening my skills rather than acquiring new gear. While I do buy a new lens or a new camera occasionally it is nothing close to the quantity of gear I was acquiring previously. This decision came out of the realization that I was giving more attention to my photography gear than to my artistic skills. Using the iPod is one of the outcomes of this understanding. Using a camera with a single lens, operating it with an app that does not give me control over depth of field or exposure settings, and pretty much letting the camera ‘do its thing’ overall, means that I am prioritizing artistic skills over technical sophistication. Using the iPod the only thing I can control is light and composition. I can decide what I am going to photograph and in what light I will photograph it and that’s it. This is a test of my artistic skills because it reduces photography to its essence: light and composition.
Subjects Close and Far
As I mentioned I designed my backyard as an aesthetic project and a subject for photography. In fact, I used to joke that I could offer workshops in my backyard and that students would learn as much photographing there than they would photographing Monument Valley, Zion, Antelope Canyon, or any of the famous locations where I organize workshops. The problem was I was unable to convince them and they did not believe me. The appeal of world-class locations was too strong and the desire to create their own images of famous locations too powerful. My backyard did not have the power of overcoming their convictions.
However, for me the belief that my backyard was a subject worthy of as much attention as world-famous locations were real. The backyard project is evidence of this conviction. Even if no one believed me I have now proved to myself that I am right.
You can prove it to yourself too if you are so inclined. Most of us have backyards of one kind or another. Those that don’t have nearby locations that they can photograph. This means you can find a subject worthy of your photographic attention, a subject waiting for you to photograph it. Go ahead and do so to prove to yourself that a place does not have to be world-famous to generate beautiful images and that you can find good light and interesting compositions without traveling far from home. The subject of your choice just needs to be photographed well. It just needs to be made famous in its own way by creating images that rival those of the world-class locations we all know.
Studying At Home With Alain Briot
The COVID virus situation has brought social distancing forcing us to stay home and limiting our photographic activities. I offer several ways for you to study without leaving home. First, you can refine and master your photographic skills with my Mastery Workshops on USB or DVD series. The Mastery Workshops focus on all areas of photography: processing, marketing, composition, etc. I have a 20 to 50% off offer, depending on how many Mastery Workshops you order at the same time. All the details are at this LINK.
Second, you can also study with my series of eBooks. These also focus on all areas of photography. Discounts are available if you purchase several eBooks at the same time.
About Alain Briot
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