Ask an Art Buyer: Do Photographers Need to Branch Out into New Genres?

by Heather on January 18, 2010

Today’s Ask an Art Buyer question comes from Melissa Hennessy of Hennessy Reps.

Whenever I call an AB for an appointment, I always make sure I have either new artists to present, or new work to show so as not to waste his/her time. Usually the new work is within the same genre- i.e. landscape or fashion, etc.

Recently I had a show & heard this comment, “I’d really like to see new work from him” The particular book the creative was looking at was over 50% new work, but it was in the same genre.

So my question is, do creatives want to see artists branch out into other genres outside of the work they are most know for?

I feel like an artist can continually create new work in the same genre, but maybe I’m wrong?

This is a very tricky question and a hard one to answer definitively. What one AD likes in a book will be drastically different from his CD, and his AB will have another take on the book too. One thing I can say for sure is that I really dislike seeing old work in a book. If it’s more than a year old, it’s probably already been seen by the viewer. And if I’ve already seen the work, this meeting is indeed a waste of time. Also, older work can communicate the message: “I haven’t shot anything better in the last 2 years (or however dated those images are)”.

But this Art Director’s comment could mean a bunch of things, and, being privy to the conversation, Melissa might know which one is closer to the truth.

Possible readings of this statement according to Heather, who was not present:

1. I really like this shooter and I wish he had a broader application.
2. I think this shooter needs to spread his wings- this genre is tired and he’s not doing anything new with it. Even though he’s got new work in his book, there’s nothing *new* here.

Without question, there are lots of people in the industry who will want to pigeon-hole you. “Oh, he’s a good environmental portraiture guy.” It’s just easier to file you away under one heading. And, I agree with you Melissa, in theory at least a photographer CAN create new work in the same genre. Furthermore, it can be smart to focus and *own* a particular niche.

On the other hand, it can be super exciting to see a shooter apply herself to something new, to show me how their particular world view can resonate in another area. The problem is, it can be really hard to position yourself as a multiple genre shooter (and this is different from a generalist).

This discussion reminds me of my recent and contentious post on how important it is to shoot and then to shoot some more. Although I was criticized for lowering the quality of my discourse by giving advice like this (“crap” and surely only aimed at junior, and likely non-professional shooters) I stand by my argument.

Believe me when I say that I can tell if a photographer loves shooting by looking at their book. The work is fresh, it’s interesting, it’s well-crafted. And there’s always lots of new work to see. This goes a long way to assure me that the shooter will dive into my project and find the excitement in doing it. This might give me a clue that if I throw her a little curve ball, she’ll figure it out because she is so deeply interested in photography and has explored it in many ways. Curiosity about the world is just something I value. This could also be the outlook of the Art Director that Melissa references.

But back to the question, let’s look at some shooters who are engaged in this type of multi-genre exploration commercially.

I produced for years for Tom Feiler and he lived by the axiom that you must reinvent your photography every few years. He tested film to find new looks and played with point and shoot cameras for his commercial book. Then he moved into serious storytelling and created dreamy but odd little beautiful vignettes. Looking at his site today, there is a huge shift between his commercial and personal work. Two from Tom:

© Tom Feiler

© Tom Feiler

© Tom Feiler

© Tom Feiler

Derek Shapton, has recently launched a fantastic food book. Why? Cause he found out he likes shooting that too. Two from Derek:

© Derek Shapton

© Derek Shapton

© Derek Shapton

© Derek Shapton

Paul Weeks, still life shooter, is now showing a landscape book. Two from Paul:

© Paul Weeks

© Paul Weeks

© Paul Weeks

© Paul Weeks

Raina Kirn is one half of commercial power duo Raina & Wilson. But on her blog, she shows one new piece per post and it’s very different from her commercial work. This is the type of shooting I was talking about in the original “shoot shoot shoot” post. Raina may not be putting this work out commercially but all the AB’s I know love visiting her blog. One from R&W and one from Raina:

© Raina & Wilson

© Raina & Wilson

© Raina Kirn

© Raina Kirn

Whether this kind of cross-genre approach is a good idea really depends on the shooter- your best bet is to make sure that the work you’re showing is fresh. Changing genre’s might be a little drastic, it isn’t for everyone and it’s not necessary if the work shows that your photographer is expressing himself and exploring his world in new ways.

I think your best advice is to look at the photographer who earned the comment and be really clear on whether the book (or the shooter!) needs to freshen up- how drastic the change needs to be is a big question that only you and he can figure out. Best of luck.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank January 19, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Doesn’t this invalidate old work, even though it may be brilliant? The giants of past decades (too numerous to mention) on whose shoulders we all stand, still showed and published work that was done decades ago – all the way through the latter half of the past century. And there’s precious little new work that can hold a candle to it. Even with alll the modern bells & whistles available to photographers. I dunno, I think I get the point but it also smacks of a syndrome for which i’m sure there’s already a name or buzzword – ‘gimme something new every moment lest I feel under stimulated’. If a photographer has found his/her way of seeing and bringing something of him/herself to the pictures, and is comfy in that zone, and is producing excellent bodies of work, it could be legitimate and ‘usable’ for years and years. No ?

Heather January 19, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I think this goes back to the “purpose of the book” question- is it to show your oeuvre or is it to show your most recent work? Again, I think the danger of using older work (especially the further back you go) is that it may communicate that your best work is behind you (especially of course if the newer work isn’t as good). As you say, if that photographer is producing (not “has produced”) excellent bodies of work, then show me the new work because that tells me how you see the world now.

Also, for almost all of the time period you’re referencing (latter half of past century), we didn’t have access to your archive on your website- and, let me add, I DO like seeing past work on your site, but I think your book should be a very particular and special collection of your current/best work. Back then (I feel old), it made sense that your book included all of your work.

If you’re talking about switching genres etc. then I totally agree- there are many greats who are able to consistently knock it out of the park in their chosen style. But, I still think they should show “fresh” work in their book.

Frank January 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I’m not contradicting you… I ‘see’ what you’re saying, and I accept it as sensible advice in the given context. I responded to the original post because I was visualising a young AB or AD telling a ‘Mr. Penn’ …”I’ve seen this stuff before…it isn’t fresh…bring me something new…don’t waste my time” :-) lol

Heather January 19, 2010 at 8:14 pm

And I will agree that there is certainly a “show me what’s new” syndrome with the young ones too. I’m not sure how much time is spent educating AD’s about how to look at photography and see craftmanship etc. I think there are huge holes in the area of “looking at photographs” in the Design and Art Director education field generally (and I’m just the gal to fix it- Educators: call me).

Rodrick Bond January 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Excellent post, thanks Heather. I took the libery of quoting a few pages, hope you don’t mind.

As an assistant just moving into shooting, this tends to scare me. The amount of time I invest in test shoots as an assistant, I had kind of hoped they’d get me more than 6 months worth of book presence!

Still, I totally see what you are saying and I agree that a photographer pitching for a job with a dusty book must be a bit hard to take seriously.

After all, clients are looking for something to differentiate themselves (or look the same as the cool kids), and if the photographer’s work looks dated, well, game over.

I assist a photographer who is lucky enough to have a style that she more or less created, and while she hasn’t worked that hard on reinventing herself lately, enough jobs pop up that fit her style, and when they do she’s the obvious choice. There has to be something said for that, even if it’s not what I’d do.

Frank January 19, 2010 at 8:32 pm

There are a few wonderful books that can help educate the eye and hone the craft – the classic “Looking at Photographs” by John Szarkowski, and the more recent “The Nature of Photographs” by Stephen Shore. Both talk about & show ‘the steak’ in pictures rather than ‘the sizzle’.

Chuck St. John March 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

Great post Heather…especially the comment that juxtaposes two confusing terms; generalist and genre’. The examples show a nice visual explanation of what you’re talking about.

I dont’ think anyone can say with a straight face that one image from the shooters you show, relates to the other which is the whole point I think. Just because you shoot one thing, doesn’t mean you can shoot something different. Trying to prevent being “tagged” as one kind of shooter or another is a constant battle. In my smaller market, that’s not much of an issue. But I’ve shot all over the country and I find that the bigger the market, the more narrow the perception is of what we “ought” to be doing.

Those that see my fashion/beauty work think that’s all I do; those that see my equine work or my corporate work think the same. All the client wants to see is nice but effective visuals that relate to them. I don’t think they want to see a beauty shot of a corporate horse.

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