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!


Desert Night Photography Portfolio on La Lettre de la Photographie

Joe Reifer Desert Night Photography Portfolio on La Lettre de la Photographie
Joe Reifer Desert Night Photography Portfolio on La Lettre de la Photographie

I'm honored to have a portfolio of 20 desert night photos on La Lettre de La Photographie. Many thanks to Gilles Decamps for the stimulating conversation, and to Jean-Jacques Naudet for putting together what has quickly become one of the top photography sites online.


Pier 24: An amazing collection of photography in a big quiet space

What if I told you there was a place in San Francisco to view an amazing collection of modern photography from the 1920's to present. And what if it was free to get in. And the space was huge. And only 20 people were allowed in at a time, so you could stand in front of your favorites as long as you want. And there were no crowds. And it was quiet.

This amazing place exists. It's called Pier 24. A whole room of Bernd and Hilla Becher typologies. A whole room of Lee Friedlander. A whole room of Robert Adams. Arbus. Eggleston. Winogrand. Frank. Evans. Sugimoto. Misrach. Weston. Stieglitz. Strand.

The current exhibit runs through February 28th. Appointments to view the collection are available starting on January 3rd. Get this on your calendar for 2011!

Update: More motivation to visit Pier 24 from B.


How to frame photos without a mat

Framed Mad Mouse panorama without a mat -- by Joe Reifer
Framed Mad Mouse panorama without a mat -- by Joe Reifer

I've always framed photographs with a mat, both for the traditional look, and to keep the print separated from the glazing. Over the last year, I've noticed the variety of framing methods for photographs at the high-end New York galleries via the art show reviews on DLK Collection. Recently I was printing a panorama for a show with a 36" size restriction. I wanted to use the full width for the image. If you just put a print into a frame without a mat or spacers, contact with the glass can cause sticking, buckling, newton rings, and a variety of other problems. The trick is to use spacers to create an air gap between the print and glazing (glass or acrylic).

Here's what I did:

  1. The image was printed on 36 1/2" wide by 9 3/8" high paper that included 1/4" black borders. The actual image area was 36" x 8 7/8".
  2. The print was mounted on black gatorboard. The mounting process removes about 1/16" from each side of the borders.
  3. A custom frame was ordered to fit the overall size of the mounted piece at 36 3/8" x 9 1/4". Measure the mounted piece carefully before ordering your frame.
  4. The thin profile Nielsen 117 metal frames hang over the artwork by about 1/4" on each side, covering the remaining black borders.
  5. I applied a 1/8" black spacer to the entire edge of the acrylic glazing. The spacers covered the remaining black borders on the print, and are not visible under the 1/4" lip of the frame. The EconoSpace spacers are easy to cut with garden pruners (really!), and the 3M adhesive is easy to apply. The whole process only took a few minutes.
  6. Insert the mounted print and backing board, tighten the frame, and add your wire hanger. Ready to go!

There is another variety of plastic spacer that doesn't use adhesive called FrameSpace. Here's a FrameSpace and EconoSpace comparison chart.

My favorite online retailer for mats and frames is framedestination.com. They carry a great selection of mats and frames in the 2:3 aspect ratio, and their customer service is top notch.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, I highly recommend The Framer's Workshop in Berkeley. I brought my print down and they helped me install the spacers and make sure the finished piece looked great. I felt like I was in a parallel universe where everyone is genuinely friendly. Framing a piece at The Framer's Workshop was one of the best customer service experiences I've had in a long time.

If you're printing photos for an art show or your wall and don't want to use a mat, I hope these resources are helpful!


Dark Resort: A nocturnal survey of Lake Berryessa in transition

Resort -- by Joe Reifer
Resort -- by Joe Reifer

Dark Resort: A nocturnal survey of Lake Berryessa in transitionPhotographs by Riki Feldmann, Stephen Walsh, and Joe Reifer November 5-30th, 2010 Opening Friday, November 5th from 7:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. Pacific Pinball Museum (Lucky Ju Ju) 1510 Webster Street, Alameda, CA [Map] The art show is free. No host bar and special $10 admission to play pinball on the night of the opening.

The demand for water in Northern California led to the construction of the Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa in 1957. Photographers Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones documented the end of the town of Monticello in their acclaimed 1960 monograph, Death of a Valley.

Lake Berryessa provides flood control protection, municipal and industrial water supply, and hydroelectric power. The lake is a popular spot for recreation, hosting up to 1.5 million visitors per year who enjoy activities such as fishing, boating, waterskiing, and camping.

In a controversial 2006 decision, the Bureau of Reclamation ordered the removal of over 1000 privately owned trailers from the 7 resorts at Lake Berryessa. The 50-year lease between the government and the resort concessionaires expired in 2008, and most of the resorts were closed.

Fifty years after the Death of a Valley, the Berryessa region once again entered a time of transition. Riki Feldmann started photographing the abandoned resorts along the western shore of Lake Berryessa in 2008, and invited photographers Stephen Walsh and Joe Reifer to join him. Under the cover of night, they made numerous trips to the lake over the last 2 years to explore the abandoned resorts under the light of the full moon.

The nocturnal images of abandoned lakeside trailers, concessions, and boating facilities are suffused with a post-apocalyptic feel. Where did everyone go? The melancholy of night is balanced by subtle humor documenting the curious artifacts of recent habitation.

In late 2010, the old trailers are gone, a new concessionaire is in place, the resorts have been renamed, and there are plans for new camping and recreation facilities. These mysterious night images of Lake Berryessa in transition help convey a deeper historical perspective on this brief, but fascinating piece of California history.

View a gallery of Lake Berryessa night photography For press inquiries about the show, please contact Joe Reifer


Five Decades of Bill Owens

Bill Owens: 5 Decades of PhotographyPhoto Central Gallery, April 17-June 18, 2009 1099 E Street, Hayward, CA [Google Map] photocentral.org

Bill Owens is an internationally renowned photographer living in Hayward. His most famous work, Suburbia, has been exhibited in museums around the globe but it is just one part of his dynamic creative life. This exhibition is the first to feature Bill’s photographs from the Peace Corps in the sixties to the Rolling Stones at Altamont all the way to his newest video work. Bill is a vibrant “people person” who shows us our real selves with wry humor and wit. If you only see one exhibition this year-this should be the one! Learn more about Bill at: billowens.com

Important Note: Medium-sized prints are very reasonably priced at $300-500 unframed. For those on a budget there are signed Suburbia posters for $10, T-shirts for $20, and small prints for $150. The show also includes a folio of 10 prints for $900 that includes 8 silver prints and 2 color.

Bill Owens Books

Many people know Bill's classic book Suburbia, but his other 1970's books are underrated gems, especially Working (I do it for the money), and Our Kind of People: American Groups and Rituals. These two books are highly recommended, and usually available used for $10-15. Leisure is quite good, with a sprinkling of newer work. I haven't looked at last year's hardcover monograph entitled Bill Owens. In addition to photography, Bill is a microbrewery and craft distilling pioneer, heads up the American Distilling Institute, and has a forthcoming book on making whiskey.


The Artist Hierarchy: Invisible Jump Shots

Tacqueria mural -- by Joe Reifer
Tacqueria mural -- by Joe Reifer

Last year on this blogging contraption we had a lively discussion about fine art print pricing, where I divided print prices into four general quadrants. Earlier this week the DLK Collection wrote a review of Dan Thompson's book: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art that included the following graphic analyzing the artist hierarchy:

DLK Collection Artist Hierarchy
DLK Collection Artist Hierarchy

A key part of this hierarchy is that 95% of artists never make it out of the Invisible category. Mapping the artist hierarchy categories back to the print pricing levels discussed in my previous article is an interesting exercise. My pricing categories have been revised slightly since last year. These prices are for unframed prints:

  • A: $50-150 for a small/medium sized print
  • B: $250-500 for a medium sized print
  • C: $1500-2500 for a medium/large sized print
  • D: $4000 and up.

For most photographers, Invisible maps to Level A. Having some friends that would be categorized by the art world as Emerging, this category maps well to Level C. After raising my prices last year to Level B, my print sales dried up. We all know the simple premise that things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. By raising my prices I found out that Level B barely exists for me. I know photographers who are selling at Level A, C, and D, but don't know anyone who's selling at Level B.

Last year I was wondering how to get from Level A to Level C -- perhaps a better question is how to go from Invisible to Emerging. The price schedule just follows the trip up the pyramid. Photographer Brad Evans made a remark last year that really stuck with me when he equated the trip up the pyramid with making it to the NBA. Even if you're quite good, odds are slim to none. It's rarified air. This ties in well with the 95% Invisible number. I've found the NBA analogy to be an easy to understand answer to the question: "Do you make a good living as a fine art photographer?" And the NBA analogy answer is more polite than: "Are you crazy? Fine art photographers either teach, have day jobs, or a rich uncle."

Anyhow....the place where the NBA analogy breaks down is that traveling up the artist hierarchy has less to do with your skill on the court, and much more to do with talking about your game. The important piece of this puzzle is that it's not only how you talk about your game, but who you're talking to. I've had some interesting discussions recently with photographers who would be filed under Emerging as to the best way to identify and engage the who. More on this topic later.

For those interested in reading more about the art world, I recommend adding both the DLK Collection and Edward Winkleman to your feedreader. I also found Sarah Thornton's book Seven Days in the Art World to be both entertaining and thought provoking. See you on the court for a game of H-O-R-S-E later.