Amanda Marsalis on Overcoming Her Mid-Career Challenges

October 13, 2016

By Conor Risch

When Amanda Marsalis graduated from California College of the Arts she had goals for herself as a photographer. She identified specific clients she wanted to work for and honors she wanted to receive. As she established her commercial and editorial photo business in the early 2000s, she met those goals and her calendar filled with portrait, travel and lifestyle assignments. Yet “in the blurriness of growing up” and “figuring out how to have a career,” she lost track of her passion for photography and she stopped setting personal goals for herself. “Once I had an established career, I didn’t have any more goals, my goals were just more work,” she recalls.

She was constantly busy, she says, but she wasn’t “thinking about the kind of work I wanted to be doing, I was just taking the work that was coming to me.” As a result, she says, her photographs became less interesting because she wasn’t making any for herself. “My work all started looking too commercial” and clients were less interested in working with her. She hit a period about three years ago when she was working less, and she felt “depressed and scared,” she says. “I had dark, dark days.”

In retrospect, the slump helped Marsalis address underlying challenges she’d been able to ignore while she was busy: She’d stopped doing personal projects and was focused wholly on what clients wanted from her. “It was only once I, in a certain way, hit bottom…[that] I started really focusing on my own work again,” she says. It didn’t happen all at once. “It took some time to realize the kinds of jobs I had gotten used to were not coming my way,” she says. Her studio manager, Kate Shoults, was “great at nudging me in the right direction, pushing me to self-assign projects.” She also met her agent, Gregg Lhotsky at Bernstein & Andriulli. “We are a really good fit and he is super supportive.”

Marsalis says she’s “always been a photographer,” and that making photography a career was a way of monetizing what she had loved doing since she was 14. Her early work was “in many ways about documenting my life, and then I got busy enough where I had very little of a life,” she explains. She’d stopped shooting as much for herself when she wasn’t working, so she switched from a Hasselblad to a more portable Contax T3 film camera and now carries it everywhere. She goes through a roll of 35mm film every few days, and posts those photos on her blog, which is a visual journal of her everyday life. That work has attracted clients, she says.

© Amanda Marsalis

Amanda Marsalis started working on a project photographing Chez Panisse. She will publish a book of her photographs in November. © Amanda Marsalis

She also started working on a project photographing Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley, California, where chef Alice Waters has promoted cuisine based on organic, locally grown ingredients. “Chez Panisse really inspired me, their commitment to craft, and how passionate they are about what they do,” Marsalis says. “I just really wanted an excuse to be around people like that, and so I self-assigned that project and they thankfully agreed to let me spend a lot of time there.” A book of Marsalis’s film photographs, documenting the people, food and culture of the restaurant, will be published this November.

In addition to refocusing on personal work, Marsalis also asked herself, “What kind of work do I want to be doing and who do I want to be working for? What jobs do I want to get?” It wasn’t necessarily about having different clients, she says. “Any client can do great work—something beautiful and challenging and about great photography.” She “wanted to be doing work I was excited about for clients who loved my work,” she explains. In addition to creating and showing more personal work, she also collaborated with her friend and designer Jodie Gatlin to create a promo “book/zine that we would want to see on our bookshelves at home.” That garnered “really good responses,” she says.

Marsalis came through these mid-career challenges by rediscovering “what it is that I’m passionate about,” she explains. “I get to tell stories, I get to share emotions and feelings and all these things with a tool that I carry around all the time,” she says. She also gained some wisdom she shares with younger photographers: She highly recommends taking a break from social media if you’re “in a rough place. You have to focus on yourself and what it is that you need and what you want to be doing.”

Setting both personal and professional goals is also key, she says. “Do not lose track of why it is that you get excited about photography and what it is that you like to do, and do not depend on anyone else so that you’ll take good pictures. You don’t need somebody else to give you art direction and tell you what to do. It’s up to you to have the vision.”

Related Links:

Amanda Marsalis On Recreating Southern California’s Natural Light

Photographer Amanda Marsalis’s First Feature Film Debuts At La Film Fest 

Veteran Fashion Photographer Pamela Hanson Talks About Her Enduring Career