Building a career as a professional artist is a long journey of ups and downs. Here’s one lesson to take along to help you on your way.
This was a heavy week for meetings. Just as my commercial assignments throughout the year tend to come in bunches, so too do the meetings. The bulk of my days are spent trying to either get meetings with very specific people who are able to offer me very specific jobs or, if I’m successful, taking those meetings and trying to sell those people on actually hiring me to do the jobs I’ve spent my life preparing for. The mass level of cold emails and cold calls I send out each year are probably just shy of enough to qualify me for my junior telemarketer card. But, ultimately, like an average-looking guy trying to get a date, it’s a numbers game. You got to put out a lot of lures to eventually catch the fish.
This past week, I had the good fortune of reaping the benefits of casting so many lures as I found myself overloaded with portfolio meetings and shaking hands (virtually) with several art producers and art directors I’ve long wanted the chance to get in front of. As always, I had my portfolio carefully prepared for the occasion. And, as I’ve urged you many times in my column before, it was filled not simply with what I thought clients wanted to see, but with images of the type of work I want to create. Your passion for your work shines through in your presentation. And a client can tell if you’re including something just because it’s something you think they’ll pay for versus it being something you are so passionate about that you are literally the only photographer who can bring it to life.
I’ve been a professional photographer for a couple of decades now, and my brand is pretty well established. What I shoot and how I shoot it is evident in both the clients I’ve been lucky enough to shoot for and the marketing material I’ve been sending out for years. But that doesn’t mean that my art has been standing still for 20 years. Instead, even now, my work is constantly evolving, and I am both learning new skills and, more importantly, continuing to learn what makes me happy creatively. Even within a niche, there are multiple side streets. And the joy of being an artist is the opportunity to explore them.
But, of course, part of running a successful business, photography or not, is establishing a consistent brand. So, how do you and when do you go about introducing new elements to your portfolio presentation that speak to your heart but may risk confusing your core audience? This basic question led me to today’s article and a lesson that I was reminded of this weekend as I was presenting my work to a series of potential high-profile clients.
It can be terrifying, but the simple fact of the matter is that if you want to make your dream into a reality, at some point, you have to take a leap of faith. Sure, you can putz around for years, taking half measures, saying that one day your dreams will come true and some angel will magically see your work and pluck you out of thin air to put your images on the cover of Vogue. And, hey, I’m sure it’s happened before. But the more likely scenario is that you will one day realize that if you want this, if you really want this, you are just going to have to commit to doing what is necessary to make it happen. You’re going to have to do the cold calls. You’re going to have to market yourself. You’re going to have to develop your skills beyond innate talent into a highly developed, repeatable skill set which you can deliver to real paying customers under pressure consistently. And while this maybe shouldn’t be your first course of action, there may ultimately be a day when it’s time to quit your day job, burn the safety net, and go all in on your own ability to make a living purely from the fruits of your own labors.
The order and pace of which those things happen will vary for everyone. But, what doesn’t vary for everyone is the fact that at some point, you will need to take a risk.
Of course, that’s probably something you were aware of, even if you haven’t yet quite felt ready to take the risk yourself. I’m hardly the only person out there who would have told you that entrepreneurship requires the courage to be bold and take chances. There could be gold on the other side of that mountain, but the only way to find out is to commit yourself to reaching the other side.
What might be less obvious and what I was reminded of as I entered my meetings this past week is that once you take your big risk and are fortunate to build the career you’ve always wanted, your work doesn’t stop there. Technology only continues to develop. More and more competition enters the market every day. It’s taken you a lifetime of practice, sacrifice, and hard work to develop the skill and the business to make a name for yourself. But success as an artist is a moving target. And just because you’ve established yourself doesn’t mean you will stay “established.” To borrow a few words from Janet Jackson, the business can very much be a matter of “what have you done for me lately?”
So, after building up the courage to take your leap of faith and having it pay off exactly how you planned, you will then need to re-summon that courage again and again to continue to take leaps of faith in order to keep growing your career.
These new leaps may differ from the first. Your first leap might have been just to move to a new city and start a business. Or maybe your leap was quitting your day job and going full-time. Conversely, your new leap of faith might be something far different, like overhauling your visual style or shifting your focus to another segment of the market. Perhaps, for example, you’ve established yourself as the number one photographer of black shoes on the market, but you feel stifled as you’ve gone as far creatively as you feel you can go. The market doesn’t know it, but you’ve been doing these amazing glamour portraits for years on the side. And those portraits are what’s really in your heart now and what makes your creativity sing. But, you’re afraid to show the work because you don’t want to kill your business in photographing black shoes. It might now seem like a big thing to include a few glamour shots in your portfolio. But, depending on where you are in your career, taking a chance and showing that work might just be a radical act of courage. And continuing to show your passion, even if it doesn’t fit nicely into the box you’ve built for yourself, might just be the thing that will turbo boost your career to the next level.
That is obviously just an imaginary example, but I’m sure you get the idea. It takes a leap of faith to reach the top. But, it also takes continual smaller leaps of faith to stay at the top. Clients are constantly on the lookout for the fresh new thing. They are constantly searching for the right photographer whose skill and passion for a particular subject will add that something special to their job. The only way to consistently be that photographer is to continually be developing your own interests and skill sets. And when you have something special to show, you then have to have the courage to believe in yourself and trust that the clients will see just as much beauty in your new work as they did the old.
Of course, just like taking your initial leap of faith, these things take planning. You don’t just jump out of an airplane, then figure out how to make a parachute on the way down. Planning and considered execution continue to be key in any successful rollout. But, however you go about continuing to grow your business and creativity, know that one skill that will always be required is courage.