There’s an extensive interview with me about shooting abandoned places at night over on Digital Trends. I talk about why I love night photography, how I got started, gear, location access, and technique. There’s also a portfolio of 10 images. Enjoy!
Sometimes I get emails from students who have an assignment to interview a photographer. These interviews are often a good reminder to re-examine how I tell the story of my photographs. Recently I received some questions from a student on the Isle of Wight:
1) What inspired you to do the style of art you do?
My inspirations evolve every day. In addition to photography, I’m also inspired by film, music, and design. I’m a firm believer in the idea that paying attention to a wide range of artistic inputs helps your artistic output immeasurably. This could be the clean lines in the design of a chair. Or how an album sounds on a new pair of headphones. Everything can have a subtle influence on your art if you pay attention.
Ten years ago, photography and lighting workshops led me to the desert and I fell in love. From old ghost towns to more modern day ruins, there is a special feeling when you stand in a place where humans have come and gone. Visiting these places under the light of the full moon intensifies the energy. I hope I can capture a little bit of that feeling with my camera.
2) Have you always been interested in photography?
I’ve been interested in photography since high school, but music was my primary artistic outlet for 15 years. I started on piano, then guitar, and finally upright bass. A series of events around 1999 led to my slow transition from music to photography. By 2003 I didn’t own any musical instruments, just cameras.
3) Who bought you your first camera?
First camera stories are the stuff that bad artists’ statements are made of. Equipment needs to be easy to operate, reliable, and produce the intended results. Cameras come and go – it’s the photographs that count.
That being said, here’s my first camera story: My dad gave me a Petri 7 rangefinder camera that he had purchased while in the Army. The Petri had a fixed 45mm lens, and also included wide and telephoto screw-on lenses. When you used the screw-on lenses you had to use an auxiliary viewfinder and compensate on the focus scale. I would not call it easy to operate, but it was fun.
4) Did you take art or photography at school?
I studied electronic music and jazz in school, and somehow got a degree in literature. I lived near the college darkroom, and a friend who was a photo major taught me to develop and print. I also worked in a black and white lab for a short time. We used to buy old 620 cameras at thrift stores and jam 120 film into them. Photography was something fun to do when I wasn’t playing music.
5) What gave you the idea of taking photos of abandoned places?
I’ve always been fascinated with ghost towns and ruins. There is a rich photographic history of this type of work back to the 19th century. We live in an interesting time. A lot of what was built after World War II has come and gone. Photographs are a way to record the last gasp of these places before they’ve disappeared. There’s a line from a song that says: “how strange it is to be anything at all.” Examining ruins under the moonlight is a way to tap into the mystery of being alive.
The San Francisco Chronicle had an article about the Bay Area night photography scene in the October 8, 2011 Datebook section. The lead paragraph starts out with a loose quote from yours truly, and the piece also features night photography mentor Steve Harper, Nocturnes kingpin Tim Baskerville, and my frequent co-conspirator Troy Paiva.
Night photography was more prevalent throughout the history of photography than the article suggests, and has had major practitioners since film technology improved in the 1920′s. I wouldn’t say there is one codified style of night photography that developed in the 1970′s. There are a wide range of styles from the post-New Topographics industrial landscape to surreal light painted decay. The influence of Troy Paiva’s colored urbex work has created a somewhat codified style of night photography. This codification has occurred over the last 5 years, in parallel with the rise of the affordable digital SLR, and the prevalence of online photo sharing. That discussion is not the focus of the article, and is a can of worms for another day.
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!
Andy Frazer and I have just finished an extensive 2-part interview on his night photography blog. We discuss a wide range of topics including photographic style, the desert, locations, influences, photography books, post-processing, and cinema:
I’d like to thank Andy Frazer for his time and care with the whole interview process. Writing about photography is an excellent chance to clarify your thinking. I hope those of you who are interested in the topics we discussed will comment with some of your own thoughts on these interesting questions.