Promos We Kept: For the Love of Making Something

November 30, 2016

By Sharon Ber

You don’t always need to start out with the intention of creating a marketing piece in order to promote yourself and your work. This month’s “Promos We Kept” focuses on three photographers who were simply inspired to create something. No designers, no big budgets. Two of the promos were even created by hand.

© Chris Sorensen. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN

© Chris Sorensen. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN.

Chris Sorensen

“Fulton Street” was not initially intended to be a promo piece. Chris Sorensen’s 8 1/2 x 10 3/4 inch glossy booklet started as a personal project documenting the changing neighborhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant, a section of north central Brooklyn that has been a prominent home to African-Americans since the 1920s.

“This was a street portrait project where I would go out once a week and tape a bit of seamless to the side of a building and ask people as they passed by if they had a few seconds for an art project,” says Sorensen, who was living in the neighborhood when he began the project. “Some people would ignore me, some would say no, but some would say yes. And with those who said yes, often it would be just a few seconds and a couple clicks. But occasionally they would spend a few minutes and I’d have a chance to get to know them a bit and hear their story.”

Two of the portraits in his 22-page book are accompanied by the subjects’ narratives. Sorensen stated that both those portraits were special to him because they occurred on the first day of the project, within the first hour. “Having been nervous to go out and start shooting this type of project in a neighborhood where, despite having lived in Bed-Stuy for years, I could be perceived as part of the gentrification starting to occur, meeting these two people within an hour of starting shooting and having them be willing to share such personal stories with me, a total stranger, really touched me and got me hooked on the project.”

Sorensen continued to shoot one afternoon a week for five months and captured about 500 portraits. He then refined his edit for the book to images that worked together and told a well-rounded story of the main commercial strip, Fulton Street, reflecting the Bed-Stuy neighborhood he had come to know. “Editing down that many images to the 17 primary images in the promo was challenging, but ultimately the ones I chose just stood out above the rest to me for the soulfulness of the person, their personality/attitude, or their story.”

Inspired by Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Sorensen shot black and white on a white background, which helped influence the look of his booklet. “I wanted to keep the design clean and simple to go along with that esthetic to keep the focus on the amazing faces and personalities. The decision to print it full magazine size was also to show the people as large as possible—to be able look into their eyes and see every scar, every wrinkle.”

Sorensen printed 150 booklets using MagCloud, an on-demand printer. He designed the booklet himself and said the process of using MagCloud was fairly simple and involved uploading a high resolution PDF. MagCloud’s prices are based on a per page charge and each “Fulton Street” book cost around $5 to print.

Sorensen sent his books primarily to editors and ad agency people he’d previously worked with or met at portfolio reviews. He also uses them as leave behinds. The feedback has been fantastic, he says. “‘Fulton Street’ was my first serious attempt at shooting something purely for me and the story I wanted to tell as opposed to what I thought people wanted to see,” Sorensen says. “It has gotten a different response from editors and agency people than showing my other work or promos. . . And even though it wasn’t shot or designed to garner commercial work, it ended up doing so.” As a result, Sorensen has  booked a couple of national commercial campaigns.

“It has expanded how people view me and my work since it’s so different than the editorial work I typically shoot. . . The most uncommercial thing I’ve probably shot or sent out as a promo has definitely [had] the biggest benefit in moving my career forward. I’m a huge fan of personal projects and shooting what you love because I’ve seen how people respond to it.”

© Michael Larkey. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN

© Michael Larkey. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN.

Michael Larkey

Michael Larkey‘s interest in photography started with creating imagery around the skateboarding, punk rock and hip hop scenes of the ’90’s. “Most of my friends were talented at drawing and painting but I had no skill for that so I gravitated towards photography and video,” Larkey says. His squirrel fight photo zines, which he began creating in 2012, stem from this time in his life. “Part of the culture of skateboarding and punk rock that I grew up with was making zines cut-and-paste style, which I had participated in using my own imagery.”

Larkey makes between 40 and 50 zines per issue, all by hand. “Part of my interest in creating these was also to play with different formats, sizes, styles, layouts, etc. and there’s just more freedom when you take that on yourself,” Larkey says. The majority of work Larkey creates is black and white, which helps keep the cost down and leaves him less concerned about the print quality. “I wanted to keep these low-fi, focusing more on the act of making them than worrying about everything being perfect,” Larkey admits.

In keeping with the roots of early zine-making, Larkey prints his at a copy shop, usually a FedEx in midtown Manhattan. The cost runs between $0.50 and $2 for printing;  the time it takes to create each zine varies based on the design. “The one sheet pieces probably take about 30 seconds to fold,” Larkey states, but the current Japanese stab-bound zine takes approximately 20 minutes to cut and sew.

The intent of these zines are not really to market Larkey’s photography. He keeps a short mailing list of friends he sends them to, but mostly his goal is to have something physical to give away freely. “I never had it in mind that these would carry the load of getting assignments,” says Larkey. “I really only give them out if the subject comes up. On rare occasions I’ll be meeting with someone and they’ll inquire if I have anything else and I’ll give them a few of these I think they might be interested in. I find they are well received in those situations, but I don’t believe everyone will be interested.”

© Alex Thompson. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN

© Alex Thompson. Photo by Sharon Ber for PDN.

Alex Thompson

The idea behind Alex Thompson‘s “Builders” project was a “celebration of the handmade.” Inspired by his curiosity about how things are crafted and his desire to promote conscious consuming, Thompson decided he would create his first major promo by hand. He wanted the piece to represent his “do-it-yourself” esthetic and to showcase his attention to detail. “Having this professionally printed went against what this project represented,” Thompson explains when asked why he decided to create this promo by hand.

The book, measuring 8 1/2 x 11 inches, follows the process of making coffee, building a bike and creating a surfboard. Many of the images show details of hands. The photos, which Thompson meticulously placed into hand-cut slots in pages of the book, cost $100 to print at Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles. Thompson made 20 copies of his promo and the entire project cost about $200 total. Thompson says it took a few days to assemble, but, “It was quite taxing since everything was done manually.”

The promos were then sent to a targeted selection of photo editors and art directors. Thompson said it was very well received and more recipients than usual responded.

The project inspired him to move on to other work about sustainability and the environment. “Invisible Disaster”  is about the oil and gas infrastructure in Los Angeles and “Veins of God”, which is yet to be released, documents the effects of extraction in Wyoming on the environment. Thompson states these projects were “a natural progression from this body of work and help to continue my personal narrative of understanding where things come from and who is affected by our consumption.”

“We live in a society where consumption is met with high regard and that produces a lot of waste—this is unsustainable. I hoped that by taking these images I may be able to inspire the viewer to think twice about the things they purchase and before throwing them away.”

Related Links:

Promos We Kept: More Than Just a Promo

Promos We Kept: Bigger is Better

Promos We Kept: The 2016 PhotoPlus Expo Edition