10 questions about fine art photography: An interview with Joe Reifer

Joe Reifer interviewed by BFA candidate Holli Brunkala, April 2011

1. Did you receive any formal training in photography? How has that helped or hurt your business?

I learned traditional black and white developing and printing from a college friend, and worked in a black and white lab for a short time. I was primarily focused on playing music during my 20′s, and didn’t get serious about photography until about 10 years ago.

I used to think the photography business was 80% business and 20% photography. Now I think a conservative estimate is more like 90%/10%. Marketing and negotiating are more important than f/stops and shutter speeds. John Harrington’s Best Business Practices for Photographers book is really the best 20 bucks you could spend on your photography education.

2. It seems you do not have a rep. How are you marketing yourself? Due to the current economic status, have your strategies changed from when you were first starting out?

I am an artist with a day job. For the last 4 years I’ve made most of my income working 25-30 hours per week at a photography website company, teaching photography workshops, and teaching Photoshop at an art college. I’ve done occasional event and editorial work over the last 7 years, but I’m not actively seeking this type of work. My primary marketing activities are related to teaching workshops – blogging, social media, and email are the primary tools.

My job as an Account and Project Manager has given me the opportunity to meet and network with a wide variety of photographers. Beyond a handful of people who are doing weddings and corporate work, very few people I know are making a living as a full-time photographer without teaching or another source of income.

3. I could not find any books that you have published. Do you have another means of promoting your work?

Eventually I’m hoping to publish a book. Having a physical end product that’s paper instead of pixels seems immensely satisfying. I’m encouraged by the quality improvements in the print-on-demand world. But I want to take my time. Going on road trips to out-of-the-way places and absorbing the atmosphere under a full moon is my favorite thing to do. I’m more interested in making work that pleases me and having adventures than I am in packaging and selling my photos.

4. The work on your website is geared toward the fine art genre of photography. Have you been able to make a living from selling these images on your website, in galleries, etc. or do you have supplemental income?

This is mostly addressed above, but here’s the lowdown. Almost nobody makes a living solely as a fine art photographer. Beyond a very small roster of art world stars, even most well known successful fine art photographers have to teach or do commercial and editorial work.

Being a fine art photographer is a lot like being in a garage band. You might make enough money for a new guitar or camera, but you still need a job to pay your bills. Whether that job is shooting weddings or designing websites or working a regular job is up to you. My strategy has been to maintain a day job that leaves me the time and energy to shoot what I want.

5. What are the essential steps for an up-incoming photographer to make a successful living as a fine art photographer?

The best photography career advice I ever got was from Joe McNally at a workshop 6 years ago. He said “be an octopus.” You need to have an arm in everything, because it’s unlikely that one thing will pay your bills. Fine art photography is the least likely thing to pay your bills actually. For most photographers, there isn’t enough editorial work to pay your bills. So do both. Do headshots of lawyers. Pursue an in-demand specialty.

Once you have some experience, consider teaching. Love Photoshop? Lots of teaching opportunities there. Maybe you’re really good at masking and compositing – look for work as a retoucher. Talk to people who are doing the kind of work that you’re considering. Find out what it pays and how hard it is to get jobs. Do some assisting. Get to know some working professionals that will share their industry knowledge. Get a job at a lab or a high-end gallery. Don’t get discouraged. If you really want to make a living in photography, you can do it – HOW you do it may be much different than you suspect.

6. You and Troy Paiva have images from the same places. Are you ever worried about preserving your identity and whether or not your images will look too much alike?

Troy and I have very different styles – part of our compatibility is because there isn’t a threat that our images will look the same. In John Szarkowski’s construct of Mirrors and Windows, he’s a mirror and I’m a window.

7. How has it been beneficial to work with another photographer on night shoots?

The best part about night shooting with other photographers is networking about locations, camaraderie during the drive, and safety at remote locations. Seeing how other people shoot a location is also really interesting.

8. I am interested in photographing and/or documenting abandoned buildings, much like the images in your portfolio. How would a photographer go about gaining legal access to these types of places?

Make prints and be nice to people. That’s the secret. Getting permission is all about social engineering. Many property owners are concerned about liability, so having insurance can be really helpful, too. Troy Paiva’s chapter on location access in Lance Keimig’s night photography book has extensive advice on this topic.

9. What makes Southern California, as opposed to other desert-scapes, the ideal place for night photography?

The Southern California desert has a wide variety of junkyards, mining ruins, and military and industrial sites to photograph. It’s also about proximity for me – 6-7 hours in the car, and there’s always something interesting to shoot. Western Nevada is also pretty nearby. With more time and budget, I’d do some shooting in Arizona, and New Mexico. The reality of working means if I’m driving more, I’m shooting less. Why drive further when the quintessential desert is only 300 miles away.

10. I noticed you update your blog fairly frequently. Why is it important for a fine art photographer to have and continually post to a blog?

Blogging is one of the best ways to get people to your website. Over 1/3 of my web traffic comes from people who are searching Google. There are a lot of ways to share your images online. I prefer using the blog format because I’m in control of the of the container, and it’s integrated into my website. Once images and articles are posted on my blog, it’s easy to share them on other websites.

Thanks again for the interview. Let me know if you have any follow up questions!

14 thoughts on “10 questions about fine art photography: An interview with Joe Reifer

  1. You had some great pieces of advice to take in this interview. I’m going to check out the John Harrington book you mentioned.

  2. Joe,
    Great answers. Much too often, people ask me how I make a living from exploring places. The answer: I don’t – not even close! I actually don’t think branding oneself as an artist these days is the way to go. Be an octopus – wise words.

    • Hey Jon – I’m not sure why people often assume there’s any commerce involved in art. Most of us are doing these things for love, not money.

  3. Thank you so much for responding to my questions. I really appreciate the advice and am very excited for a book. I planned on being a sort of “octopus,” but was worried that I would lose interest in or wouldn’t have enough time for personal work (i.e. night photography). But I’m glad to hear that it is working for you. You are always creating new images while still working a day job. It is encouraging to know if you’re determined enough you can do both.

    • Hi Holli – Thanks for the thought provoking questions. Making time for personal work is important.

  4. Very down to earth answers to some very acute questions. I hope your answers about the constant striving to make one’s way as an artist has not discouraged Holli, who would apparently excel as a student of yours.

    • Thanks, Steve. Sometimes there’s a misconception that at a certain point you can “make it” and things are easy. In reality, the real job is to figure out how to have fun during the constant striving.

  5. “Being a fine art photographer is a lot like being in a garage band.”

    Great answers Joe, and some very sound advice.

    • JW – Thanks. That means a lot coming from a working pro. The opportunity to watch you shoot was always a great learning experience.

  6. Joe – great interview, and very informative. What instrument did you play? I play the trumpet.

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