The Artist’s Paradox | Fstoppers

In a career where our job is literally to be creative, sometimes the one thing you don’t get to be is… creative.

As of 2 pm yesterday afternoon, I officially have three websites. Actually, if we are getting super technical about it, I have four. Well, really eight. There’s my “main” site. Not sure if it really is my main site anymore. But, it is by far the longest standing, the one with the best SEO, and undoubtedly the one you will likely land on were you to search for me on Google. At its inception roughly 20 years ago, that site was an official place where I could put my photography portfolio instead of my daily attempts to overload Flickr. Well, “portfolio” might be a strong term for the site back then. More accurately it was a random assembly of whatever the latest photographs were that happened to have passed through my camera on my weekend photo walkabouts. No particular rhyme of reason. And, as my writing predates my photography, the number of long paragraphs of prose on the site rivaled the number of photographs, making it probably the most literate site on the internet. But not very effective as a portfolio site for a photographer.

Over the years as my skill, experience, and credit list has grown, the “main” website has grown as well. It’s my flagship site on the web. It’s the one stop shop for potential clients to get to know all I have to offer. Of course, that comes with a catch.

I think it’s fair to say that my “main” site was at its most polished a few years ago. I don’t mean in terms of design or the quality of images. I’m constantly updating the design of the site and, judging from my client’s comments, it is effective in getting a reaction. What I mean by it being at its most polished a few years ago, is that this was the period when my brand message was at its most clear. I began my career as a screenwriter and director. That led to cinematography. But, there was a period over the time span of the last couple decades when I had left most of that behind and 100% of my focus went to still photography. More than that, it went 100% to one specific type of still photography in one specific market and in one specific style. It wasn’t a boom time for artistic risk. But it was a boom time for brand clarity. Every client that visited my site knew exactly what they were buying if they hired me. And, because I was only focused on a single niche, I knew exactly what to put on my website, my social channels, my business cards, and everything else. This level of synergy made marketing extremely simple.

If asked for advice, I still suggest this is the right course of action for a professional artist. While it might be possible to be a generalist in smaller markets, if you are living in one of the larger markets filled with overwhelming competition, niching down to something very specific is one of the best, perhaps the only way of differentiating yourself from the competition. It’s nearly impossible to establish yourself as just the best “photographer” in a sea of photographers. But, the field of photographers who only shoot left-handed women wearing blue sport coats is pretty slim. So, if you niche down, you give yourself a specific pool in which to be the big fish. You might not get every job, there are right-handed women wearing red sport coats, after all. But you can be pretty sure that every job that comes up within your niche is one where your name will be in consideration.

It takes a lot of discipline to be able to maintain your focus on a more limited area. It took me years before I finally relented to the idea and niched down. Financially, it was one of the best moves I ever made. Creatively? Well, that’s another story.

If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll have realized that photography was only my fourth artistic career. At least chronologically speaking. In terms of prominence in my mind, it has wavered between first and fourth depending on when you ask the question. I absolutely love it. It’s just that I also love other artforms as well. For me, creating art is less about the specific artform and more about using whatever skillset is most effective in telling the story I want to tell. Sometimes, that’s a photograph. Sometimes, that’s a movie. Sometimes, that’s a commercial. Sometimes, that’s just an article online. All of those activities provide me equal enjoyment and I’ve been fortunate to have achieved a certain level of acclaim in each field. So choosing to ignore those other things in order to focus on a very specific niche was not an easy choice. A lucrative one, as I mentioned. But, artistically speaking, not easy.

I was able to keep up this razor sharp focus on one thing for years. Ironically, what finally broke my resolve to stay inside a box was work itself. My clients began wanting not only stills but for me to direct and shoot spots for them as well. So, by necessity, my hiatus from filmmaking had to end so that I could meet my clients’ needs. It didn’t take long for me to remember that filmmaking was my first love and, in fact, the very basis for my stills. My brain and creativity was immediately overrun by filmmaking again as I couldn’t fight back what was always my first love despite my having submerged it in my psyche as I was building my still career.

At first, opening those floodgates again was a matter of sheer practicality. Clients requested X. I provided X. But, because filmmaking has always been more than just a job for me, I suddenly found myself again accessing banks of creativity that I had for a long period shut off from use. Not only did my skills as a director come back, but because my skillsets have always been so interdependent, I found my love of cinematography being woven more and more into my approach as a still photographer. All of my skills were folding in on each other. I was reaching my peak as an artist, regardless of category, because I was finally allowing myself to access all parts of my creativity rather than limiting myself to a single niche. In short, it felt amazing. And the number of awards and bid requests that came my way told me that clients were recognizing this growth as well.

Sounds amazing, right? Well, it was. And, it wasn’t. The artistic growth I was experiencing was the most overwhelming of my career. But, because that growth came as a result of a great deal of experimentation and finding myself as an artist, my new skills and interests no longer fit so neatly into the limited box I had put myself into in order to build my brand in the marketplace. The work on my main site was unquestionably better. But it was also less focused. More genres. More mix of still and motion. More mix within motion between commercial and narrative. I was loaded with great new work and great new recognition to brag about in front of clients. But my elevator pitch was going from a sentence to a novella. And it had to change every time I met someone new because I didn’t know if a potential client was calling me for film, commercial, or photography. And within photography, were they asking for the type of stills I was known for, or the newer more expressive stuff? My artistic brain was clearer than ever. But my marketing message was becoming muddled.

That’s when I added website two. The goal of the second site was to separate my advertising photography from my commercial directing. Yes, these two things overlap as they both share many of the same clients. But the individual contacts within those companies that hire for each tend to be very different. An art producer hiring you to shoot a still campaign “and add a little motion” is very different from the production company looking for a director for their next Super Bowl campaign. They are looking for different things. They will look for different things when they arrive at your website. And leaning too much in one direction can oddly turn off potential clients who might be more interested in the other. So, to that end, while both site one and two have many of the same things, the navigation through each separates the specialties a bit to tailor them to their specific audience.

Yet, then I ran into another problem. As I mentioned earlier, I come from a narrative filmmaking background. This is my first love. Because of my career as an advertising still photographer, my directing/cinematography work also extends to commercials. It’s a natural connection. But the producers who hire for commercials don’t give a hill of beans about my narrative work. And the producers and collaborators with whom I work on my narrative films couldn’t care less about my commercials. Furthermore, I have occasionally been penalized for success in one field while trying to get a job in the other. Commercial production companies that wouldn’t consider me because they saw me as a narrative filmmaker not dedicated to commercials. Or narrative producers who just saw me as a commercial director and not someone who could work in the narrative space.

So, you guessed it, I had to create a third website just for the narrative world. If you add that to the plethora of other brands/URLs that I’ve had to create in order to drive traffic to specific part of my business that might not rank the home page of my main site, and the temporary individual project based websites that I create for a limited timespan to correspond to a specific project, you’ll realize that I am now maintaining and incredibly diverse portfolio of websites. This doesn’t do wonders for my free time. But, it does help to draw a delineation line between the various products I offer and make it clear to clients that I am, in fact, dedicated to that specific area (as opposed to just having a hobby).

I realize I’m not alone in this. Many photographers with conflicting specialties have multiple sites. It’s the name of the game. But, I’m probably also not alone in wishing that the world was able to see an artist as simply that, an artist, rather than needing to limit ourselves to fit into a neat description in order to stand out. You would think that it would be easy enough for a potential client to say, “Look, there is Joe Smith, he does all these different things. And that’s great because he can do all those things for us.” But, the truth of the matter is that most clients would look at Joe Smith and call him a jack of all trades, master of none. He might actually be a master of all trades. But the market tends to only give an artist credit for one area at a time. And success in other areas can actually hurt, not help, their chances of success.

I guess this is the artist paradox. You put the time and effort into improving your skills and being the most creative person you can be. But actually getting paid for your work often requires you to scale back your ambition and fit neatly into a more limited box. Not that I’m complaining. I wouldn’t trade my artistic growth for anything in the world. And, even if it would be easier from a marketing standpoint to revert to the artist I was a decade ago in order to have a cleaner brand message, I can’t see any world where I would willingly put my newly rediscovered interests back into the bottle. It might be easier financially. But, like most artists, I didn’t start down this path just for the money. I do, however, wish there was a world where one could simply have the title of “artist,” and the world could appreciate him or her for the breadth of their skills instead of the brevity of their elevator pitch.



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