Tips + Techniques

From the Cubicle: Discovering—and Accepting—What Defines You

June 23, 2014

By RF Staff

Last month, I went to an event to listen to one of our industry’s most iconic photographers, Albert Watson. I studied this guy in college, admired him, and worked tirelessly to emulate his style. After graduation, I littered his studio with resumes and phone calls hoping for a chance to be one of his assistants, but to no avail. I never had the opportunity to meet him in person, and I was very excited to hear him speak after all these years.

As he showed a long slideshow of his work over the last three decades, it was like a time warp, reminding me of when I first saw them and bringing back memories of my days in the studio as an assistant and student. To me, Watson is most outstanding for his portrait work and the sense of intimacy he brings to the subjects he photographs. He flourished in the 1990s, shooting countless celebrities—from Steve Jobs to Jay-Z—and creating iconic images that helped define the person in the photo. Ironically, he didn’t do this with elaborate sets or hours of post-production. My favorite images (and the ones he’s best known for) are on white backgrounds or on muted backdrops. The lighting is, of course, impeccable, and each one has something magnificent to study in not overpowering the subject, but enhancing the image.

Kate Moss in “Torn Veil, Marrakech, 1993,” by Albert Watson is a good example of the photographer’s simple, intimate style.

The talent he has for consistency in this style fascinated me; this was his signature, his style, his brand—it was his “who” as an artist. In this issue on marketing and branding, you’ll see this kind of “brand identity” is something we strive for as artists. Achieving this kind of recognition is not an easy task, but after seeing Watson or any other successful artist speak, you’ll always hear them talk about their self-discovery process.

When his slideshow concluded, a member of the audience asked Watson about his thought process for selecting the images he included—which varied in style. I loved the question, and the crowd definitely leaned in for the answer. He laughed and said, “I know this slideshow is all over the place, and there’s very little continuity in the work.” He went on to say, “It’s funny you make that comment because many of my reps and managers have complained that my work is way too all over the place.” He then joked that he was an “artist” and shot for himself, always doing what made him feel good. “I can’t be pigeon-holed, I would die as an artist,” Watson said.

Of course, the crowd loved this response—we’d all love to say the same. But as I rode home on the train that night, I laughed to myself as I thought that as artists, we often shun the one thing that defines us. We spend a good portion of our careers trying to find ourselves, only to throw it away for one reason or another, sometimes just out of boredom. I learned a valuable lesson from him that night: even the biggest photographers in the world manage to steer off course—it’s perseverance that makes them successful.

As you read the articles on branding and marketing in this issue, think about the discovery process that every great artist goes through; it’s in this discovery that we find something that clicks, that defines us, and gives us a slight edge to make us stand out.

Going to see others speak about their work is a great way to inspire your artistic identity. During my evening out, Watson said one thing that made all his work make sense to me. “The way I create intimacy is simple: we perfect our lighting, prepare for the shot, ask the subject to join on set and then I turn everything down. I turn down the music, I ask people to leave the set and then it’s just the two of us.” He went on to say, “We converse, but I do it in a way to make them comfortable. I’m always looking for that one vulnerable moment.” I thought to myself, my gosh, that’s how he does it! This is how he creates those iconic shots, yet two sentences earlier, he was making fun of his reputation for pigeon-holing his creativity. Sometimes our brilliance blocks us in.

As promised, here’s my photo of the month (top). I joined my business partners Karen Seifert and Tim Co. for a surprise proposal in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. On any given day, hundreds of these stories take place there, and while battling the elements, fighting traffic and stressing about “missing it” is far from glamorous, they’re waiting to be documented. Tim and Karen have worked hard to gain visibility as one of Google’s top-ranked New York City proposal and City Hall Wedding photographers—something I would have pushed off as a waste of time—yet it continues to be a great revenue stream and build their core business. 

Case in point: the I Heart New York brand that I built over the last few years. Defined as “stylish photo shoots featuring you in the greatest city in the world,” it started with my engagement sessions, and I knew the idea was easily scalable into many different markets. The key to building on the brand was to shoot as many short sessions as I could at an affordable price for clients. Originally, the shoots required a lot of prep, took too many hours to shoot and weren’t very profitable. Fortunately, I had my business partners, Tim Co. and Karen Seifert, join me, and they were able to help guide my ideas into something more profitable and consistent. Take heed in the people you surround yourself with, and learn how to turn your ego off. Your career may depend on it!

See this story in the digital edition.