Unless you live in a time capsule, you know how crucial social media has become to building a business, especially if you’re in a creative industry like photography. Not only do photographers need to produce quality images, they also need to have a strong presence on social media sites in order to find new clients and enhance their reputation. In today’s world, you could be as talented as Steven Meisel, but if you don’t have a Tumblr blog, then chances are no one under the age of 30 has heard of you.
Rangefinder spoke with three photographers—Billy Kidd, Scott Jarvie and Carli Kiene—whose rise in the industry can largely be attributed to social media sites like Tumblr, Google+ and Instagram. Although they each approach the medium differently, the results are similar: The more they used networking tools, the more fans they acquired, and the more business they got as a result. Let them serve as inspiration to you.
Tumblring Toward Clients
Billy Kidd didn’t start his career as a photographer; rather, he was a debt collector in Phoenix, Arizona. It took getting laid off from his job in 2007 to go back to school at Scottsdale Community College (he had dropped out after having his son, who’s now 13), where he started taking some elective photography courses. “My professor introduced me to a photographer who needed an assistant,” Kidd says. “I had a lot of experience with computers, because I was majoring in computer science, so he took me on.”
Pretty soon, Kidd was taking images of his own. Within a few years, he had amassed a large enough body of work that he decided it was time to move to New York, where he was determined to get a job—any job—working for Irving Penn, who had been his long-time idol. “I arrived in September of 2009 prepared to do anything it would take to get in with him,” Kidd says. “Then, in October of 2009, I read online that he had died. I was heartbroken.”
Undeterred, Kidd lived off savings he had accumulated before making his move. “I shot every single day,” he says. “I shot landscapes, I shot candids, I shot models who were referred to me through a friend at an agency.” He began posting these photographs to his Tumblr blog (iwasshotbybillykidd.com), using his intuition as curator to decide what would appeal to other people. Slowly but surely, other users began to respond. “I was and am willing to do whatever it takes to shoot,” he says. During his first few months in New York, these things included living off Ramen noodles for a week at a time to preserve his limited funds.
If you’re not privy to the format, Tumblr is a microblogging site (most recently bought by Yahoo for $1 billion) that allows anyone to sign up and share work. Users create communities by following each other, and responding to work they like. As of May 2013, the website hosts more than 105 million blogs, a number that continues to grow exponentially. In order to cull through the enormous amount of information that’s posted daily, the site has editors who spotlight specific blogs for their quality. Kidd somehow caught the eye of a fashion editor. “Tumblr began throwing my images around the radar,” Kidd says. “To stay in touch, I began messaging the editors, and telling them to check out my work whenever I posted something new.”
It was through Tumblr that Delphine Del Val, the senior photo editor at Walter Schupfer Management, first discovered Kidd. Del Val was in the habit of checking Tumblr for new talent, and Kidd’s images—with a distinct style that seems unmoored from constraints set by industry titans—immediately caught her eye. Kidd’s first big jobs as a result of working with Del Val were for Nike and ERES in Paris.
“Although I would have loved to have assisted for a big name like Mark Seliger or Terry Richardson, I think the fact that I didn’t set me apart from their former assistants, who were just imitating their style,” says Kidd, who has an incredible ability to transform the unique physical characteristics of his models into iconic images worthy of high-caliber glossies.
A test shot with Kelly Mittendorf © Billy Kidd
Today, Kidd has over 42,000 followers on Tumblr and says he gets roughly 100 new followers a day. His most popular photograph so far, an image of the “many faces” of model Kristina Romanova, has over 150,000 notes—in Facebook terms, they are equivalent to “likes.”
His Tumblr success is followed by the professional accomplishments he has accumulated since becoming a client of Walter Schupfer. These include recent editorial spreads in Numero Paris and Glamour magazine. His subjects have not only included top models, but also Josh Groban, Zooey Deschanel, Lianne La Havas, James Franco and Jason Sudeikis.
“You don’t have to be a social person to use social media,” he says, noting that the site allows him to network even though he’s a complete homebody. In terms of advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps, he recommends cultivating relationships within the community. “Always respond to people who message you,” he says. “Not only does it make them even bigger fans, it also helps you verbalize what you’ve been doing with your own work. Describing something allows me to go back and do it again.”
The Plusses of Google
Scott Jarvie is another photographer whose career has been enhanced by social networking, although his medium is Google+, a site with 500 million users. Only Facebook dwarfs its network—in January 2013, Google+ surpassed Twitter as the second most popular social media site on the Internet.
Unlike Kidd, Jarvie had been working as a photographer for many years before becoming popular on Google+, where he currently has over 254,000 followers. He had also been using other social media sites. “I would post photographs on Facebook all the time when I first started using the site in 2008,” he says. At the time, he was working as a teller at a bank in Utah to pay his way through college. He had no aspirations to become a photographer—he just really enjoyed shooting images.
“A friend approached me after seeing pictures I took in Europe, and asked me to take their engagement photographs,” he says. Quickly, other friends began to associate him with wedding photography through Facebook; many approached him to shoot their own ceremonies.
Even though Jarvie posted advertisements on Facebook, he quickly found the site to be limiting, as only his friends were seeing his work, not a larger community of like-minded people. “When I joined Twitter in 2008, I began interacting with photographers outside of Utah,” he says. “Knowing that people in the industry might be looking at my work really made me step up my game.”
An image from one of Jarvie's wedding shoots.
When Google+ was launched in 2011, Jarvie was immediately drawn to the site. “I was able to connect with people beyond my immediate networks,” he explains. In these networks were photographers who already had millions of followers, such as Trey Radcliffe and Thomas Hawk. They were more interested in travel photography and portraiture—and because they didn’t want to shoot weddings themselves, they began recommending wedding photographers like Jarvie. “We began organizing ourselves into circles,” he explains. Circles allow users to gather their communities in a single bunch, and share them with other people. “When Google+ started its own suggested user circle, my friends that were on it started getting 5,000 or 10,000 followers a day.”
Jarvie was just recently added to Google’s elite circle of suggested photographers, which includes only 40 users; being on it means that his name pops up high on certain Google search results for “wedding photographer.” “Google+ is great for SEO, because the company obviously wants to promote its own users,” he explains.
Through Google+, Jarvie, who is still based in Utah, has booked jobs in locations as far away as Philadelphia, Canada and Paris. Although he’s grateful for the exposure, he still hopes to use social media for purposes besides just finding clients for his wedding business. Next, he plans on trying to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a project in which he will travel around the United States, taking images of religious buildings for a monograph.
“I knew Google+ would lead to something eventually,” he says, when asked to give tips for other photographers on how to use the site. “But the reason why I kept on using it was simple—I liked doing it.” Passion, apparently, comes into play not only in the work, but also in the way photographers choose to disseminate it.
Insta Graphic Start
Even though photographer Carli Kiene has never been much of a fan of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, she first started using Instagram on a camping trip in October 2010. “I usually love camping,” she says. “But this was the most boring camping trip ever.” To pass the time in her tent, she downloaded the smartphone application (which currently has over 100 million users) on her phone, and began taking pictures. To date, Kiene, whose username is InkedFingers has over 260,000 followers.
A screen grab from Kiene's Instagram feed with 4,733 likes and 82 comments.
At the time, Inked Fingers, also the name of the photography business she started with her husband, John Kiene, was two years old. Together, they were shooting up to 25 weddings a year, and three portraits a weekend. It was exhausting. Photography, which had long felt like a calling, was starting to feel like any other work. “I had started to ask myself why I was shooting pictures,” Kiene says. “When I started using Instagram, it didn’t feel like work. It brought back the joy in making art.”
Kiene had known she wanted to be an artist since she was a little girl—but not necessarily a photographer. When she entered the University of Texas at Austin, she did so as a major in graphic arts. Within six months, however, she switched to the photojournalism department. “I wanted to be in communication arts,” she explains.
To support herself while in school, she worked as a barista at Starbucks. One afternoon, a customer walked in, and handed her a note asking her out on a date. That man ended up being her husband, John. “All good things happen to me in coffee shops,” she jokes.
One year after meeting him, her school loan money ran out. Rather than despairing, she began charging people money to take portraits (previously, she had been doing it for free). Then, one day, her neighbors asked her to shoot their wedding. The price? $300. “Up until then, like most artists, I thought wedding photography was beneath me,” she says. “But I ended up really loving it—it never felt like a chore.”
An image from Inked Fingers' wedding portfolio © Carli Kiene
Or at least it didn’t until around the time she discovered Instagram during that 2010 camping trip. Another burned-out photographer might have used the app to post cute cat photos and nothing more. But Kiene curated her Instagram feed so that it was more of an artist’s portfolio than a way of sharing her life with the world. Before long, her ethereally-lit, romantic shots landed her a spot on Instagram’s recommended user list. Soon after, brands such as Tiffany & Co. and Fancy Feast began contacting her to work on advertising projects.
Kiene attributes her success on Instagram to keeping the photographs generic. Her only rule is that she never posts pictures of her face. (Or at least that was the rule until two weeks ago, when she finally posted a picture of herself, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, for her fans.) “If people can look at the photograph and put themselves in it no matter what their gender or ethnicity is, then they will like it,” she says. “I think most successful artists do that in their own work without even realizing it.”
When people look at her images, which are unabashedly romantic, she thinks that they feel “love.” The government of Israel certainly felt it when Kiene was invited to participate in “Once In A Lifetime HD.” The project required Kiene—along with nine other Instagram sensations—to travel to Israel in September of 2012. At the end of their trip, they all presented their favorite photographs to President Shimon Peres, who seemed thoroughly amused by their passion for social media. “It was huge,” gushes Kiene about the trip.
Images from Kiene's "Once in a Lifetime HD" trip, where she was invited to document Israel on Instagram.
Her advice for budding Instagram users? “Only do it if it feels like you; if you do it half-heartedly, your followers will be able to tell.” In other words, if you don’t love a specific form of social media, don’t try it. But do find some way to build an online community, because that, more than anything, seems to be the key to long-term success in the modern-day photography industry. RF