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There are myriad paths to a career as a professional photographer. Many involve working for oneself, but few are truly as independent as fine art photographers. While most professional photographers depend on clients to generate assignments, fine art photographers are truly working for themselves.
That's part of the beauty of fine art photography. The photographer generates her own ideas, shooting what she wants when and how she wants, before making prints and selling them to people who want her beautiful work adorning their walls. In a way it’s the simplest, most straightforward expression of what it means to be a photographer. But along with that creative freedom comes a host of special challenges.
Fine art photographer and Sony Artisan Brooke Shaden describes running her business in a way that makes it clear there’s a fine line between the unfettered world of artistic endeavor and the bottom line realities of earning a living through art. Here’s what she said when we asked her for advice on building a thriving fine art photography business.
When making art is your hobby you're free to wait for inspiration to strike. Not so for a professional.
"I believe that the biggest downfall of someone creating their own business is waiting," Shaden says. "Not just waiting for success, but being stuck in the mindset that someone is going to give you a task, or tell you the right way of moving forward. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of my life is finding balance between electric creativity and the constant forward motion of business. Inspiration in all things that we do must flow or else stagnation takes over. I have learned that when I am stuck in my business I am also stuck in my creativity and in my personal life. When I am inspired, it flows through every part of me."
Shaden understands that ideas are valuable and need to be generated on a regular basis if she is to continue not only growing as an artist but also growing her business. Consequently, she says, she’s come up with three “foolproof” methods to find inspiration for her work. Daydreaming is her first approach.
“It sounds silly,” she says, “and a lot of people think it is, but I know what works for me and I stand behind it. I take anywhere from two to five minutes a day and have an intentional daydream. I imagine myself somewhere and I see, smell and hear every detail of the place. I then imagine that I am walking and that I encounter trouble and I work out how to solve the problem. It’s storytelling in a controlled bubble. This keeps my imagination active and working every day and keeps me thinking in terms of story. It has given me countless ideas.”
Next is breaking down an image into its most basic elements.
"I like to think of images as having many obvious component parts,” Shaden says. “For example, my images are made of character, wardrobe, lighting, location, time, theme, color, etcetera. To flex my writing muscles and come up with a story and idea easily, I choose anywhere from three to six of those categories and I write down a totally random word that applies. For location I might write 'castle.' For wardrobe I might write 'bathing suit.' And then I do one of two things: I either write a story using all of the words I chose, or I come up with a single photo using all of those elements. It's a fun and easy way of playing with creativity."
Lastly is the conscious exploration of symbolism.
"I am a big lover of theme and symbolism," Shaden says, "so I spend a lot of time cultivating the themes that light my creativity on fire. I also spend a lot of time analyzing objects and assigning meanings to them, which may not be immediately apparent. For example, I love the theme of drowning and I love using umbrellas as a prop because they symbolize protection. So I've created images using these themes and symbols before."
It wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that Shaden considered turning her photographic hobby into a career.
“Honestly,” she says, “that had never dawned on me before. I simply took pictures of what I wanted, posted them online and repeated day after day. I started to look at ‘fine art’ as a career choice and realized that it was possible. I had never intended it to be my career. I started photographing because it was a fun hobby and only when I realized that I could get out of my desk job that I started devising a plan.”
Not wanting to abandon the imagery she was passionate about, the first step in Shaden’s plan was reaching out to galleries.
“That was what would allow me to create by myself and for myself without being accountable to anyone,” she says. “That is where the difference lies in fine art versus most other types of photo-related careers. I don’t deal very well with being told what to create. By that standard I might as well have any other job in the world, because it doesn’t bring me joy.”
Shaden knew that galleries offered the best opportunity to get her work seen by a broad audience, and more importantly it would effectively provide a sales team working on her behalf. So suggests starting small and working to add galleries one by one.
“My strategy is and always has been very simple,” she says. “Reach out to anyone who could guide my images to where someone will buy them. I started looking for galleries that would accept up-and-coming artists and as such I would pay nominal amounts to have my work included in juried exhibitions. After I had enough shows under my belt, I got in touch with a better gallery, and so on and so on. When I had enough galleries representing my work, I was able to begin making a living off of those galleries marketing my work to art buyers. My clients have been art buyers through galleries, mostly, for that part of my business.”
“I can't say what the normal strategy is in getting your work out there as a fine art photographer,” Shaden adds, “but the 'communicate and upgrade' method has worked well for me.”
Shaden says it’s also important not to work with just any gallery, but rather to find the ones that provide a good match for the type of work you create. Without that, being in the gallery isn’t likely to lead to sales.
“The strategy is to see where your work fits,” she says, “and then test out how well that gallery can make sales. It is important to remember that just because a gallery isn't making sales for you that A) that gallery isn't necessarily bad at their job and B) you aren't necessarily creating bad art! The pairing has to be right. That is why it is important to continually search for the right match and then truly honor that match when you have found it. The goal is to generate money for yourself and your gallery and then the relationship becomes very mutually beneficial and filled with respect.”
As Shaden was working to get her art into bigger and better galleries she was simultaneously working to get it in front of commercial clients who might want to license her images. “I began reaching out to publishers,” she says, “to see if I could get my work on book covers. That has lead to great opportunities in the world of book publishing. My clients in that case are either authors who are self-publishing or agents within bigger companies who deal with design for book covers. Which leads me to another client—interior designers, for private clients or businesses.”
Making a living as a fine art photographer has never been easy, but the challenges have multiplied in the digital era. Diversification has always helped artists make ends meet and it’s virtually essential these days.
“I don't have the pleasure of knowing many people who are doing fine art as a career,” Shaden says, “but from what I can gather it is extremely difficult. It has been for me as well, depending on the time of year. I could sustain myself from print sales and licensing, but not very nicely. I do notice a lot of photographers, myself included, taking on clients. I do the occasional commissioned shoot, maybe three times a year on average. I am also a motivational speaker. I teach workshops as well. These are all methods to being able to practice your craft as often as possible.”
“I didn’t want photography to lose its fun,” she continues, “so I broke down my desires—how I want to spend my time—into three things. I wanted to sell through galleries, I wanted to write a book and I wanted to be a teacher. My whole life I’ve wanted to do two things: teach and write. Those were my life goals since before I can remember, so it made sense to incorporate them into my life now.”
Shaden’s diversification strategy starts and ends with ensuring that no matter what she’s doing or for whom, she will never have to stray from storytelling in her own particular way.
“Diversifying is really important in the fine art world,” she says, “but I caution to do it in a way that is organic and inspirational to you. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes a chore. Knowing where to stop diversifying is so important, because when you don’t you burn out and mistake your disdain for a certain type of photography as a hatred of all photography. For example, I tried fashion twice before I decided I couldn’t bring myself to do it, for many reasons. I tried taking on portrait clients before I realized that my passion was not in working with others to satisfy their vision, but it was in creating my own vision and then later finding those who would be in sync with me.”
See more about Brooke Shaden here. Follow her on Instagram @brookeshaden