How Personal Work Pays Off

March 17, 2017

You’ve heard it before: Art directors, creative directors, reps and photo editors want to see the work you’re passionate about shooting. Photographers use personal projects to fuel their creativity and to reach new clients. Over the years we’ve talked to many photographers who have done projects that are personal, but had wide appeal. We learned how they shared the work, and why it seized the imaginations of clients looking for fresh imagery for marketing or advertising. A few of those interviews are excerpted here.

© Aline Smithson

“Quincy,” from Aline Smithson’s series “Spring Fever.” © Aline Smithson

Aline Smithson: Finding your Artistic Voice Through Personal Work

Photographer Aline Smithson had her career breakthrough more than a decade ago with a series of photographs of her mother that pays homage to “Whistler’s Mother,” the well-known painting by James McNeill Whistler. She started collecting props—a leopard coat and hat, a piece of leopard fabric, a cat painting, a chair—then coaxed her 83-year-old mother to model. She ended up making a series of 21 portraits. Upon the publication of Self & Others, her 2016 retrospective of her work, we asked her about her career and the advice she gives to her students about discovering their voice. Smithson said, “I think we pull from the stew of childhood and life experiences. When I work with students I sometimes feel like a photo therapist, where I ask them all about their life from day one. I always stress that their best work is right under their nose, something they want to explore on a personal level. Many end up making work that is really formed somewhere in their childhood, and it makes the work unique and very rich because they’re really thinking about their inner lives, and instead of taking a picture they’re making a picture.” To elevate personal experience into something universal, she noted it’s important to “create a way to allow the viewer to enter the photo.” She added, however, “There is great reward in letting it percolate and become stronger over time before you put it out into the world. When I was totally anonymous, I loved the idea of making work only for myself, with no consideration of who would look at it. I remember my mother saying [about the photographs of her], ‘Who would be interested in this work?’ And I basically said, ‘I don’t really care, I just want to make it.’” Oftentimes, especially at the beginning of photographers’ careers, where there’s so much concern with what the photo world might think about the work, that gets in the way of thinking outside the box and doing things that are not the norm.”

From Personal Work to Paying Assignments: Michel Leroy’s Rally Bikers Project

When New York City-based photographer Michel Leroy was trying to transition from assisting, he struggled to get advertising and editorial clients excited about his portfolio. Having observed photographers he’d assisted, “I saw their success from personal work,” Leroy says. So he started looking around for “something to sink my teeth into.” Leroy took a summer off to photograph bikers in a portable studio he set up at motorcycle rallies at Sturgis, South Dakota, and other places out west. The resulting portraits “capture that moment just after we meet” and highlight the veneer of biker identity, with all its patches, leather, tattoos and weekend renegade posturing. After shooting 1,143 subjects, Leroy used MagCloud to self-publish Rally Bikers, a book featuring 63 of the portraits, and began showing it along with his portfolio to art buyers, art directors and photo editors.

The phone started ringing. “[Leroy] showed his commercial portfolio but I fell in love with his biker work, which I felt had a lot of attitude and soul,” says Digitas VP and Director of Art Production Lisa Oropallo. She met Leroy at the NYC Fotoworks portfolio reviews in 2012 and invited him soon afterwards to bid on a campaign for Lenovo computer tablets. Agency art directors wanted visual consistency across the entire campaign, and they wanted Leroy’s Rally Bikers style. “It was [a case of being in] the right place, at the right time, with the right work,” Leroy says. Assignments shooting the covers of magazines and key art for network television shows followed.

© Kate Parker

Photographing her athletic daughters and their friends jump-started Parker’s career. © Kate Parker

Kate Parker Finds Empowerment

Kate Parker began making photos of her confident, strong, athletic daughters and their friends because she was frustrated by prevailing commercial imagery of girls as demure and overly feminine. “That’s not how I saw girls I knew, or my girls as they are,” says Parker. Unable to sell prints of the work, she sent the images to bloggers. Mary Alice Stephenson, founder of the empowerment-through-style website GLAM4GOOD, wrote about Parker’s photographs for Huffington Post. Parker was flooded with requests for interviews. A book agent also called, and Parker ended up auctioning book rights to Workman Publishing, which has just published her book called Strong Is the New Pretty. Parker quickly adopted that title as her brand, and her commercial photography career has taken off. Prior to March 2014, she had been shooting assignments for local clients. Since then, she has shot 14 or 15 commercial jobs for clients all over the country. “Because of my personal project, shooting strong women is the kind of job I get now,” she says. For instance, ivivva athletic wear hired her last year to shoot an image library. Her biggest assignment to date is for Kellogg’s, which gave her a year-long contract as a brand ambassador for Special K as it was preparing to launch its “Nourish Your Next” campaign.

How Tobias Hutzler’s Light Drawing Led to An Album Cover Assignment

Tobias Hutzler began his “light drawing” project more than two years ago, taking trips into the deserts of the American west to study the nuances and ever-changing qualities of different types of light against the natural “canvases.” “I’m interested in light and its interaction with the landscape. It’s not me that’s drawing. It’s nature,” he says, explaining that he photographs the manipulation of artificial light by wind, waves and gravity. The long exposures result in traces of light, both ordered and random, across dramatic landscapes. Hutzler creates the images in camera, without any post-production manipulation. “It’s like calligraphy,” he says.

He ended up showing his light drawing work to Dave Bett, whom he’d met at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Bett, design director for Sony Music Entertainment’s Columbia Records division, was looking to hire a photographer to help promote a new album from the indie rock band Magic Man. The cover of the band’s previous album had featured images of colored smoke in wooded landscapes. “We wanted to take that idea of an unusual phenomenon in a natural setting to another level. Tobias’s light paintings were the answer,” Bett says. The title of the album was Before the Waves, and the band wanted a setting for the cover photo that reflected their origins in the northeast. Hutzler went to Block Island, Rhode Island, to scout for places to shoot, and present light drawing ideas for the album packaging. For one of the images, he says, “We wanted to have an entire landscape burning.” To simulate that, he used string to tie hundreds of small lights to a large net, and threw the net into the water, far enough from shore so wave action could move the lights freely in all directions. The resulting image was used on the album cover.

Hutzler says he does little to promote his personal work. Instead, he focuses on projects that are out of the ordinary. Several, including his light drawing project and a video he made of a circus performer building an elaborate balance, have gone viral. He says, “It’s important to go on a path where nobody else goes, and to go beyond common projects.”

Personal Work that Lands Paying Assignments: Shaniqwa Jarvis’s Charming Portraits

When Shaniqwa Jarvis was starting her career, an agent who looked at her portfolio suggested she photograph the people around her. The advice struck Jarvis as hackneyed and “ridiculous,” she says. “But I took her advice to shoot something personal to me.” She came up with the idea to approach intriguing men in public, and ask to photograph them in their homes. “I was working out my issues with dudes,” she says. She also wanted to improve her portraiture skills. The men she approached had caught her attention with their dress and demeanor. “I would say, ‘Hey, I’m working on this project, taking portraits of guys.’ And most of them said ‘Yes’ straight off.” She approached an exhibition space, and landed a slot. The opening of “This Charming Man” drew 500 people, and she sent copies of the catalogue “all over the place—to random agencies, to editorial people.” The Standard hotel in Los Angeles wanted to exhibit prints from “This Charming Man” in its lobby. Jarvis instead proposed a project called “This Charming Guest,” featuring portraits of musicians, stylists, designers and directors who styled themselves, all photographed in the hotel. Jarvis also created a newsprint ‘zine of the images for distribution to hotel guests. When UK-based online fashion retailer ASOS started selling Vans shoes, Jarvis was hired to shoot an advertorial for the ASOS website, featuring guys who wore Vans. She photographed them at their homes.

Jarvis is now expanding into new specialties, photographing still lifes, kids and luxury brands. The numerous assignments she shot in the style of “This Charming Man” have been mostly for clothing and shoe retailers, and they usually feature 20- and 30-something guys with personal style and a bit of mystery, but she has seen a potential to reach a broader range of clients.

“Companies want this look and feel and styling,” says Jarvis, noting that many brands are trying to art direct a look she’s figured out how to create naturally.