Sustaining a Long-Term Photo Project
Writer Edgar Allen Beam asked Isa Leshko: What have you learned from the success of Elderly Animals that might help other photographers with long-term projects? Her advice applies to so many photographers struggling with their long-term, personal series that we wanted to share her tips and words of encouragement.
1. Make work that matters to you.
Photograph subject matter for which you feel an abiding curiosity and/or a visceral emotion. Long-term projects are labors of love that require a tremendous commitment and dedication.
Don’t worry if your images do not remotely resemble what is currently being celebrated in the art world. Focus on making the best possible work you can create and worry about finding an audience for it after its been made. The work will be more honest and original if you take this approach.
During the early stages of my Elderly Animals project, several people discouraged me from pursuing the project. Many people do not consider animals to be suitable subjects for fine-art photography. “They’re beautiful images, but I’m worried you won’t be taken seriously as an artist,” one photo editor told me when he reviewed my early images for the project. Other friends and advisors questioned whether collectors would want this work on their walls and predicted that the prints from this series would not sell.
This project has been challenging on nearly every level: emotional, physical, and financial. I have cried either during or after several shoots. The animals I photograph usually die within months after I meet them. I fall in love with them knowing they will break my heart soon. I don’t work with assistants, so I spend a lot of time traveling by myself and I have stayed in some pretty awful hotels. By the end of a day spent shooting in a barnyard, I’m typically covered in animal feces and I’m sore from contorting my body to remain at eye-level with the animals I’m photographing. In the earlier phases of this project, I spent considerable money on travel expenses without any hope of selling prints of this work.
Needless to say, there have been points at which I have questioned my sanity for proceeding with this project. But I still felt compelled to keep making these images regardless of how they would be received. My passion for the work and my stubbornness have kept this project going.
2. Look beyond the photography blogosphere.
Pursue other avenues for publicity beyond the photography blogosphere. As many of you reading this article know, there is a tight-knit online photography community that is a wonderful resource for photographers, particularly emerging ones. I am very grateful to this community for their support and have made close friends online.
But, it’s important to keep in mind that photography blogs are not the only media that publishes fine art photography. Furthermore, many collectors do not even follow photography blogs and instead find out about artists through other media, exhibitions, and word of mouth. There are also a large number of people who love art but don’t consider themselves collectors. They may occasionally buy art, but they don’t frequent galleries. Receiving press in diverse publications (see more about this, below) enabled me to connect with these people as well as first-time art buyers.
3. Don’t give up.
Cliché but true. I have submitted my work widely to juried shows, grants, and to editors and I have received countless rejections along the way. It’s hard to weather these rejections when they relate to work that comes from a deeply personal place. But, the truth is that rejection is a way of life for artists.
Persistence does pay off, though. For example: Last fall I contacted The New York Times Lens blog about featuring my work. James Estrin was extremely kind and encouraging, but passed because Lens had recently featured a few animal-related projects. I was admittedly bummed, but then I decided to try other departments at The Times. I contacted the editors of The New Old Age blog, which focuses on aging and caregiving. They forwarded my query to the Well blog, which fortunately featured my work. The article made the top 10 most e-mailed stories on The Times web site for 2 days. That level of visibility opened several doors for me and led to many print sales.
4. Cultivate relationships
Don’t enter into a dialogue with a curator, gallerist or editor thinking it’s all about what s/he can do for you right at this moment. These discussions can be valuable learning experiences if your ego doesn’t get in the way. And, they are opportunities to begin important long-lasting relationships.
Be patient and don’t expect results overnight, particularly after attending a portfolio review.
It can take months or even years for outcomes to develop from a review. For example: I met Roy Flukinger in November 2009 at Photo NOLA. He was very supportive of my work and we had a great meeting. We stayed in touch since that meeting and in May he purchased a print of my work for the Harry Ransom Center. That took almost three years to happen.
5. Resist the pressure to crank out work.
There are so many opportunities for emerging fine art photographers to have their work seen both online and offline. There’s the blogosphere, social media, self-publishing platforms, portfolio reviews, and juried shows. I personally have benefitted from these various avenues and I’m grateful that they exist.
But I also think the current climate places pressure on fine art photographers to produce and market work more quickly than ever before. This pressure is not good for our work, nor is it good for our sanity. Remember the days when photographers would spend at least 5-10 years on a long-term project? How many artists are doing that type of work these days?
I am taking this approach with my elderly animals project. I am ruthless when I edit my images and I discard much of what I shoot. I also put a lot of effort into printing my work and I collaborate with a very talented master printer, Paul Sneyd of Panopticon Imaging.
I want to feel good about this work 15-20 years from now when I look back on it. And I hope my collectors will feel the same way.