Fine Art Photography

What I Didn’t Learn In Art School: Life Lessons From Photographers

July 20, 2012

By Conor Risch

Graduate and/or post-graduate photography education gives young photographers many of the creative and business tools they need to pursue a career in the photo industry. However there are some lessons that, for various reasons, student-photographers don’t get in school. While putting together the July Fine-Art issue of PDN, we reached out to 10 photographers who’ve graduated in the past few years to ask, “What lessons didn’t you learn in art school that have been important to your career?”

Here’s what they told us via email and in phone conversations:

How to Build a Career Beyond Fine-Art

“The school I went to was pretty heavy in being able to write about your work and get it out there on the gallery side of things,” says Melissa Kaseman, who received her BFA from California College of the Arts. Kaseman says she was heavily focused on her “personal vision” in school, and learned grant writing for artists’ grants, “but there was not talk really of how to make contacts to get work.”

It wasn’t until Kaseman assisted working photographers that she learned “how to put your work out there in a different market other than the gallery world,” she says. She worked with a fine-art photographer, a documentary photographer, and a commercial photographer. “Each one showed me a whole different side of things,” she says, and through assisting she learned “how to be a working photographer instead of a really broke artist.”

Rachel Barrett, who received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, echoes Kaseman’s sentiment. “No art school can teach anyone what it will take to survive life as an artist,” she says. “But I think that there are ways in which an art institution can prepare its students for that reality. I do believe it was valuable for the emphasis of the program I attended at the School of Visual Arts to stay focused on fine art and not delve into fashion, or how to put a commercial book together or approach photo editors… But as photographers we are in an amazing position to use our artistic skills towards these forms of gainful employment and there was not even a discussion on how to utilize our abilities towards commercial or editorial work.

Also, Kaseman adds, “There was never talk about other avenues where you could use your creative vision, like photo editing or photo research.”

Being Serious About Your Business

“I had a good art education in college,” says Daniel Shea, who received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Arts, and who is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But very little was talked about in the context of art as a professional or ‘business’ practice…. Taking business, efficiency and organization seriously leads to more leverage in the eyes of the ‘real world’ and more importantly, more time to make work,” he explains. “I read books on business, researched everything I didn’t know about, and looked to more established friends for advice.”

Also, Shea adds, “This is a generalization, but I tend to be wary of competitions, awards, juried shows, etc., that establish themselves as professional opportunities or an access point to important people and entities, as they tend to bait photographers that might not realize there is potentially a simpler option—if you consistently make work and put it out there, things will happen.”

Lisa Wiseman, who received her BFA from Academy of Art University, says that although she learned things about the business side of photography, “I didn’t understand that the idea of treating yourself as a small business is really critical,” she says. The understanding that she was operating a small business and that only she was responsible for all the moving pieces—like taxes and a Web site and model releases—never really “gelled” until Wiseman was out of school. “You’re responsible to yourself—and I’m not talking about responsible for shooting or responsible for assignments—you’re responsible as an entity, you’re responsible for all this stuff that’s not just photography,” she says. “You outsource it if it’s not something you’re skilled at, but you don’t get to not pay your taxes or not have a brand or not have a Web site.”

Fiscal Discipline

“Photographers have to carry a lot of debt from expenses on jobs at any given time,” says Mark Mahaney, who received his BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. “It used to be that you’d often get advances on photo or travel expenses, but that doesn’t happen much anymore. So, as a result, you might have to carry thousands of dollars of expenses from any given job. At the beginning of a career, this isn’t ideal,” Mahaney explains, noting that publications sometimes take “months” to pay fees and reimburse expenses. “I can remember when I first started working having to wait upwards of 10 months to get reimbursed and paid. If I hadn’t been fiscally responsible and lived very frugally, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. It takes serious discipline. I figured out a system so I could pay my expenses off in full every month, but many don’t. I know plenty of people who literally can’t take on new jobs because they’re maxed out on their credit cards…. This is likely the number one thing I’ve heard has put the nail in the coffin for many young photographers,” Mahaney adds. “While a professor could try to speak to you about this, it just wouldn’t be the same as experiencing it in real life. Not only is each and every publication different to work with and each have different policies, but each photographer also has their own unique financial practice.”

Building and Fostering a Network

“Developing a network of close colleagues has been a rewarding characteristic of my career,” says Eliot Dudik, who received his MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. “An art school will likely inform a student that they need to build a network, but it is very difficult to show or tell them how.” Dudik has cultivated relationships with fellow artists and with people outside of the fine-art field, he says. “Many of us have a romantic notion of the lone artist who believes they make art for themselves, and someday the world will recognize it. Unfortunately, it is up to us to get our work out into the world, our livelihood depends on it, but we don’t have to do it alone. A network of colleagues and collaborators helps the artist reach new patrons and audiences, and opens doors that may have previously seemed impossible [to open].”

“I think experiencing success is partially a result of being talented and determined, but it’s also about being nice,” says Mark Mahaney. “Communication is everything and I wasn’t taught it in school.” Developing a style of communicating with people is similar to developing a photographic style, Mahaney notes, and both define your work as a photographer. “There’s really a finesse to building authentic and respectful working relationships and understanding that all creative industries are built on interconnected relationships,” Mahaney notes. “Photo editors move around from magazine to magazine and everyone seems to know one another.” Mahaney says he’s relied primarily on word of mouth promotion in his career. “Whenever I’d work for a client and felt they were very happy with my work, I’d call or email them to ask if they can think of anyone they know who I should reach out to for work. Each and every time I’ve done this, they gladly send me a list of friends I should contact or even sometimes write emails on my behalf. That’s essentially how my entire client list has expanded. Good work and clear communication has yielded more work. It’s been so smooth and I haven’t had to spend time or money on other ways of promoting myself. It’s so important to be genuine and not be egotistical with clients. You can’t be rude to anyone. Be nice to the receptionist at the magazine, because they don’t want to be the receptionist, they want to be art director or the photo editor and they will be likely in a year or two. Be kind to everyone.”

Understanding How Clients Perceive Your Work

“I’ve come to realize that your perception of who you are as a photographer may be totally different from the way clients see you,” says Wayne Lawrence, who studied at Brooks Institute of Photography. “Although you may be confident in your abilities to handle most any assignment, clients are in the business of minimizing risk. This may seem counter productive creatively, since the best work usually comes when you take risks, but in a climate where budgets are extremely tight, most of the time you’re only going to be hired to do the type of work that you show. It’s important to know exactly what it is that you’re bringing to the table, and how effective are you in getting that message across to potential clients. This doesn’t mean that you should just focus solely on your strengths and ride that to death, but use your personal work to try new ideas and get out of your comfort zone. Then you put the new work out there once it’s fully cooked.”

Balancing Persistence and Pushiness

After graduating from Brooks Institute of Photography, Reed Young got an internship at McCann Erickson in New York that allowed him to see the client side of the business first-hand. “I learned so much about the business and promotion side of photography. I did everything from producing huge advertising jobs to sorting the mail,” Young says. “The average art buyer receives between 15 to 20 promo cards a day. Most would basically go through their mail at the trashcan and throw anything out that wasn’t an invoice they needed to process. But every so often they would keep a promo they loved. This is where I learned that a single strong image on a postcard works the best. People who are inundated with mail almost never take the time to open or unfold anything.”

Young also organized portfolio reviews at McCann. “I realized that I had to say no [to photographers] the first three times,” he recalls. “If they called a fourth time I’d organize the meeting. If I had said yes the first three times we would have had 35 portfolio reviews each week. Persistence is key.”

Young recalls apologizing to his boss, Andrea Kaye, after scheduling another portfolio review for her. “Her response was not to say sorry: an art buyer’s job is to continually discover new photographers,” Young notes, adding that meeting new photographers is “just as important” for buyers as it is for photographers to get those meetings.

Work Ethic

“There are some things that need to be practiced before and after school that help the success of an artist,” says Eliot Dudik. “Many of us come into art school with a competitive nature and do very well with the help of our instructors and peers, pushing us to do better. The challenge is keeping that drive alive after parting with your support group. Without the constant deadlines from instructors, and inspiration from classmates, it can be difficult to put forth the energy to continue working as an artist. I feel lucky. I grew up on a farm, and from an early age, had to sacrifice through hard work. I learned the benefits of work, and how it leads to accomplishment. Meeting deadlines in art school is one thing; however, it takes another kind of tenacity afterwards to propel your career as an artist forward.”

Getting Portfolio Images Can Be Just as Valuable as Getting Paid

“In school, especially in my business practices class, everyone talked about how to make money as a photographer,” Mark Mahaney says. “Outside of school, I learned sometimes the best way to make eventual money is by not making money on some jobs, but using the imagery those jobs yielded to get more and more work.”

“I made a conscious decision when I set out working on my own that I took on work if I thought it’d be good for the evolution of my career. I don’t focus on money,” Mahaney says. “I focus on doing the best work I can do, regardless of the budget…. You obviously have to be reasonable and can’t only take on nonpaying jobs, but too many people let their egos get in the way and refuse doing work for free. Some of my favorite portfolio pieces are from jobs where I either got paid nothing or even worse, had to shell out money of my own to pay for some of the expenses. Getting work in a magazine is an advertisement for you and your work every single time. Sometimes some of the most beautiful layouts and tearsheets come from the independent and more artful publications that have no money to pay you.”

Doing Your Own Reporting

“I went to photojournalism school, but I never learned the journalism part,” says Daro Sulakauri, who graduated from the International Center of Photography’s photojournalism program. While Sulakauri learned to create photographic narratives in school, she didn’t come away with a firm grasp of how to write texts to accompany her photographs, whether that meant extended captions or even a news story or a grant proposal. “I think it’s very important to write yourself without [relying on a journalist], because sometimes you don’t get along with the journalist, and you want to do it yourself,” she says. Sulakauri, who was born in Georgia (the country) and spends most of her time working there, says she has considered enrolling in workshops to help her further develop her writing skills. Writing well about your work also helps you speak about it cogently to editors and other audiences, Salukauri adds.

Grant Writing

“The art of grant writing” is a key ability for an artist that Rachel Barrett says she didn’t learn in art school. “This is a skill all unto itself, not as simple as stating your artistic intentions or the social good the work will do, providing historical context or a thoroughly prepared budget. It is far more complex and I am still learning the ropes,” she says. “I do feel that artists can and should rely on grant funding, but need to know how to access it and receive it.”

Solving Non-Photographic Problems

Gabriele Stabile, who studied documentary photography at the International Center for Photography, notes that in school he didn’t “learn to solve problems that are not related to the actual photography.” Only experience and “large quantities of coffee,” Stabile says, can teach you how to cope with “last minute emergencies that can arise on a job: dealing with PR people and their madness-infused schedules; booking, changing and chasing flights last-minute; driving without a navigator in northern Alabama or on the wrong lane on a freeway in Tunisia, and such.”

Related: From Assistant to Photographer: Magdalena Wosinska’s Professional Transition