Posted by: Tony – Dec 29, 2009
A roundtable with photographers Ken Howard, Ian Graham, Cameron Charles, and David Kenedy. First, I would like to thank the four very talented people that spent their afternoon talking honestly about photography with me. I had some ideas floating in my head, as to how this would go, but it's fun to be engaged within the conversation and go with it. Thank you for reading. -Anthony
First question, what is the best part about working in this town as a photographer?
Ken Howard: For the record, my name is Ken. The best part about working in this town, would have to be the sense of community…would be my first reply to that question. The fact that when your doing something you know that your friends and everyone else here is like a family of photographers that pretty much have your back. Within this community, unlike other places, were all willing to help each excel. If someone needs something, someone needs to borrow something, some lights, a camera, whatever, we’re all willing to do it. We’re not…you know, ego-driven self-motivated individuals that are out only for their own purposes. We all wanna see everybody eventually get what they need to get done. And you don’t find that at any other places. Not that I lived at.
Ian Graham: I used your lights at my first big studio showing. It was Disrobed at Gallery 5. I think I might’ve had two busted speedlights, and yeah, Ken lent me his fuckin' $2000 worth of equipment. Just picked it up, did the shoot, dropped it off. Yeah, I gotta agree. Not to sound like too much of a dick, but there’s not a lot that’s great about working as a photographer in Richmond (laughs) because a lot of other markets have a lot more money and better paying clients. Um, I have found a lack of appreciation. Not from any of MY clients. I didn’t get hired by those people. But a lot of people around here don’t appreciate the finer arts. Especially, when your doing like wedding photography out in the counties and stuff like that. There’s a lot of this like “How can you justify charging $1000 for taking pictures” and stuff like that. But photographers definitely watch out for each other.
The appreciation part… it’s gotta be a struggle to do artistic work and sell it in this town. I think that’s a struggle for anyone, any artist. But what is the worst aspect of working in town? David? Or Cameron? Is it the money thing or…? Do you feel limited by working in Richmond?
David Kenedy: I think it’s not so much an issue of being in Richmond really. There’s a million photographers around now and it doesn’t matter where you go. I think that Richmond having a particular downside… I don’t really know. I think it’s really up to you. I think you could have just a difficult time working somewhere else as you could Richmond. If you worked in a bigger city, you might get completely overwhelmed, or you might be able to take advantage of being able to get more work. I think it just depends more on the individual as opposed to really where you are. I mean, for me, it’s been great starting off in Richmond because it’s not TOO big a city and there’s enough of sort of somebody who works in the underground music and culture. That stuff thrives here. I don’t know, I guess within Richmond there’s … you can make it happen. Especially with the internet, you can make it happen. If you really want too. There’s opportunities everywhere.
I think you bring up a good point. A lot of people start off in Richmond but do you see yourself ending in Richmond?
image by Cameron Charles
Cameron Charles: I think that Richmond is a unique situation because you have VCU here and as someone who did not go to VCU, I didn’t even go to school for photography. I was one of those people who got interested post-education and started pursuing it. But it’s a unique situation because… will I end up here? I’m not sure. There’s so much competition within the school itself. My brother is a graphic design senior and he’s competition for me, you know, as far as if I wanna do anything as far as design. That’s just another person that does what I do and I’m sure there’s just enough people in the photography courses there. I don’t know, it’s weird cause you start to get frustrated cause you start to realize how many more people there are up and coming, younger, cheaper, and you know, debatably equally talented. But I think I’d like to stay here because I think Richmond is on a jumping off point. I think that Richmond is.... I guess you could say that Richmond ...
Ken: It’s always on the edge of jumping off. (laughs) I view Richmond in a lot of ways as it’s a very launch pad type city. It’s a great place to get your teeth cut. You know? It’s a great place to get your education, if you choose to go that route and go through VCU, and go the educational route. It’s a great place to do that. And to have a community, again, a community that supports art. Where you can have shows at coffee shops, at numerous places, at restaurants. Everybody will let you have a show. It’s a completely supportive community. In New York… I mean, I’ve lived in NY and there’s a waiting list to have a picture in a bagel shop, you know, there’s a six month waiting list. For me, having gone to NY and LA and experiencing the city feel to it, it’s humbling being in a place like Richmond and having the support structure that we have here. You’re not going to find that anywhere. When you’re somewhere else, you’re literally on your own. There’s no one giving you anything and you better…
David:…have something to show for yourself.
Ken: Yeah, an enormous amount of hustle. To the point where having a door shut in your face continuously doesn’t discourage you at all and you keep going on. And you brush it off as soon as that door slams and head down the hall to the next one. But the great thing about here is that with that launching pad city, the people who stay, I think Richmond in general, even for arts… I mean I don’t know of any other place that has more of an entrepreneurial attitude. I mean, even with you owning the magazine, with Justin owning Kulture, with Johnny Yams what he does with Sticky Rice, with Randy O’Dell and what he does with Mezzanine…I mean hands down I can have a ton of friends who I can throw off the top of my head who are entrepreneurs. And again, in other places it would be so so hard, just the rent on a building would be too much and they wouldn’t be able to do it.
Cameron: And it’s easy to complain about the size of Richmond, in the same token. You can say, well Richmond’s too small. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in everyone’s situation. And whether it’s drama or what not and it is, it’s extremely small but you have to take that with a grain of salt because the grass is always greener. And being someone who… you know… I moved to the beach one, just to collect my thoughts and that’s not necessarily a hub of any sort of creative activity. But it makes you appreciate what you have in a city like Richmond because you go to all these other places and there’s nothing. And there’s always gonna be good people no matter where you go, and there’s always gonna be people who are driven, and have creative desires, and who are extremely talented. But to find such a perfect blend of that in a small city where you CAN get to know a lot of people. You know, it’s like medium fish in a small bowl. It’s not that hard to become someone that’s recognized in Richmond. But it’s still difficult to be someone who’s extremely well known…making a living (off it)
Ian: You can be recognized but it’s hard to pay your rent. (laughs)
Ken: That’s the thing. It’s great here. The nurturing and the support in the community is fantastic. I view it as somewhat of a launching pad…if you ever wanna get past the apartment and a bike and struggling… if you ever wanna go, GO.
You gotta go?
Ken: I mean you just gotta go. (laughs) I mean the clients that are gonna pay you that money…if you’re gonna shoot a band, Rolling Stone calls you up to New York, that’s where you gotta go. I mean, you’re never gonna get that, that money…
Tony, you told me this one time…no one’s gonna do anything for you. When it really comes down to it, especially being a self-starter, especially if you’re just a photographer, just trying to make it. I think at some point photographers have to decide, how much of it do they want to be their job. It’s a life choice. Do you want this to be your job? What does it mean for you? Is it fun? Is it pleasure?
image by David Kenedy
David: Right. Is this a hobby? Is this something I wanna make money on the side with? How far do you wanna go? And I think in Richmond people tend to kind of, there’s a sort of flow, you never completely just go all out. Maybe people in Richmond don’t really just wanna crawl on everybody’s back just to get to the top and just live that lifestyle like some of the more fast-paced cities. Maybe people here are a lil more content…It almost comes down to what is your life about in general? I mean, why are we even here at all? I think that, especially in this country in general, people get caught up on being successful.
Ian: If your goal is to be a commercially viably successful artist, this might not be the right town for you.
Cameron: I agree.
Ken: Like if you are trying to end up in a three-story house with a two-car garage by painting or taking pictures, than you gotta get your ass out of Richmond. If you wanna have a good time doing it. If you wanna live a good honest simple life, Richmond’s the right spot.
But, there are people that have come to Richmond that have made a good living. Another question, what makes a professional photographer? To be a professional, you have to be willing to put your self esteem on the line. You have to live the lifestyle, because people that make that decision and say I’m going to be a photographer and that I am taking a risk. I mean, you have got to stand up to the criticism of people looking at your work seriously with a critical eye. What’s your thoughts on that Ian? What makes a professional photographer? Is it a certain pay scale? Certain equipment you have? A certain mindset?
Ian: I think certainly, that if you pay your bills by taking pictures that you are out of the gray zone. And there is definitely a large gray zone between an amateur and a professional. I qualify as both. I don’t’ pay everyone of my bills by taking pictures but…
…definitely more than a few.
Ken: I was about to say, I was about to reiterate… the being able to pay your bills apart… bills are all subject to that which lifestyle you’ve chose. Now, if you’ve gone to school and got $30,000 in loans your bills are gonna be different than … unless your loans are part of your rent. I paid my student loans and my rent so now I’m doubling my rent.
On that point, that’s why I have this mix of photographers because you’re the only one here who has a degree in photography.
Ken: Sons a bitches! (laughs) Formally, going to school… you know, I always look at school and education in general, as subject to what you’re willing to put into it. I think that if you’re a decently educated person and you have a brain on you, you can go to school for anything. But I think the experience of school isn’t necessarily as much about the education as about the process. I mean cause you can get the education at the public library. I mean, you can go get a book on physics and learn everything you’re gonna learn in the same class. And there are people who have done that. The degree is just a piece of paper, it’s more about the experience of whatever you do.
The mental wars that you have.
Ken: Yeah, the people, the interactions you make. The being in a wet dark room at two in the morning, you know, with a whole package of Ilford gels in front of an enlarger. Until you’ve been in front of a stop back and seen the image come out of paper and it’s not on the back of your lcd than it’s a very physical… it uses all of your senses, your sight, your smell, your touching, your feeling. I mean, it’s why movies romanticize it. How they put a darkroom, and they got the guy in there doing prints still in movies. The romantic notion of you in a room alone. That aspect of what a professional photographer can be so disillusioned because it’s kinda like the same notion if you base your terms of success on wealth because there’s always gonna be someone who has more money, has a nicer car, has a bigger thing, and also if you base it on equipment, again, someone’s always gonna have nicer stuff.
image by Ian Graham
Ian: Does everyone here think photography is a profession or is it a trade? That’s how I see it. I see photography as a trade. There are tools, there are techniques, there absolutely is a vast amount of technological knowledge that is required in order to be proficient in your field. And than everyone has their own little flavor, different houses are built different ways.
Cameron: I think what makes it unique is that with photography, kind of getting back to the professional thing, you can shoot weddings and you can do commercial stuff, and you can make a lot of money off that. Or you can do fine art photography. And that kinda opens the room up. Are you a professional photographer if you’re taking abstract pictures? Do you have to sell a certain amount to be a professional? I know, lots of times I’ve shot my share of weddings. It brings in the bills. It’s not really what I enjoy doing. Shooting weddings is extremely frustrating sometimes and stressful experience. A lot of things can go wrong. The term professional is kinda of gray. It’s very gray. I make money off my work. Do I make enough money to live? No.
Ken: Expensive wedding photographers never made as much as the most expensive fine art photographers who sold a single print for like 8 million dollars.
David: So, then that guy can look at the other guy and be like, “Oh, you’ve been shooting for 10 years and still haven’t made what I have in one. So, I’m more professional…” So it’s ambiguous…
Ian: I guess that’s part of the distinction between professional and a tradesmen, or a professional and an artist. Cause at the same time the person who builds your house never makes the money that your architect does. Your house painter doesn’t make the same money that your portrait painter does.
If you are not college educated in the profession does that de-value your work at all? Or does it matter?
David: I’m definitely just doing it for myself. I’m not trying to impress the industry in general but it hasn’t really mattered so far. Nobody I have ever worked for has put me on the spot. The work speaks for itself. It’s more of an issue in situations where you’re an official photographer on a pay roll, like if you’re working for a newspaper.
And now they want to check your credentials.
Ken: On a freelance scale it’d be like Einstein’s quote of “Imagination is Intelligence.” If your eye leads you down that road, then go for it. But if you were like good for Magnum photography and I want to work for Magnum and be a Magnum staff photographer, Magnum’s definitely going to be like “ok, who are you”? Like literally, bring me your life on paper. I mean, when you’re going into a place like Magnum you have expect that. On a freelance level, I don’t think there’s gonna be a client who’s like "show me your credentials." Not until you walk into like USA Today, Magnum Photo, or some big place where your gonna be like I want you to pay me $100,000 year salary with benefits, I work for you. Then they’re probably going to be like alright well…
Ian: I think more so than that, if you ever want to teach. That’s where…I had this conversation with my cousin who has an MFA in fine arts photography and she said that when she graduated with her MFA, “This is great. I have $80,000 something in debt and no one’s looking for abstract photography right now.” But she’s actually paid off a lot of her debt, as far as I know, by teaching for years. And that’s the thing, if you got an MFA from a good photography school you can walk into any school that is trying to hire and you’re there. Done. Oh, you got an MFA in photography from USC? Sure thing. Can you start on Monday? Here’s your class schedule.
Cameron: Here’s your salary with state benefits…
Ian: Yeah, state benefits, the whole nine yards. Then again, but we’re talking about not paying your bills by taking pictures. So, that’s the caveat. Yes, you can get a job. It’s not taking pictures.
Ken: There’s just so many roads you can walk down. I mean, one road you’re gonna need credentials and one road right next to it, you’re not. And one road you’re gonna… there’s some people who don’t even…well I know damn well that are up in New York that are professionals who have all these professional assistants. They don’t even shoot. That’s all they do. They can tell you everything about your laptop, your camera, your lighting, everything about everything and never take a picture. They can actually take that picture in their mind with all the science they’ve got in it and never even have the image. They just have professional assistants. And for like 20 years all they’ve been doing nothing but metering and color balancing and this and that.
Last question, what is the value of photography when everyone is a photographer?
Ken: It’s like being a DJ. (laughs)
It was elevated and now…I was talking to Ian earlier today…if feels like now, more than ever, that anyone can buy their way into photography. Or Ian or you might be able to take a photo and get it in ten shots; a soccer mom could quite possibly do it in a thousand. You know, get that one shot by just continuing to take that photo. So what is the value of it? And going forward, how do you make yourself different from the people who are getting into it?
Cameron: Obsession. I think, becoming completely enveloped in the love of making images. I think, that completely dedicating yourself. If you wake up in the morning and… driving down the street and looking at everything like you have a camera in your hands. It’s seeing that building or seeing that person or seeing that beautiful scene where something unique is happening and framing it. And that’s all you do. Ever. Every second of the day. I’m looking at you right now and I can see the shot. I think that’s the difference. You look at everything and you value the beauty. And I think it enhances your life and I think that if you look at it from that aspect…I mean that gives me value because it makes my life better because I get to see things, things in different angles. And it’s strange, you know, I’ve always been into the arts, even as a youngster just making drawings in notebooks and stuff. As it got more advanced, as you get older. I think, as you look into it more as your life, day to day stuff, every second of the day, it’s beautiful. Because even the terrible things you can see the beauty in that. And if something awful happens, you can say hey, I can capture this moment. You look at someone who captures events that are awful but at the same time are beautiful. I think that gives me the drive and that’s what makes it worthwhile is really the obsession.
It’s letting your work kind of validate who you are in communication. What do you think of that David? I know it’s a big question. But I mean, with everybody being able to buy their way into it, it really, the price…It’s like writers too, writers and filmmakers are suffering, and photographers too, they’re all suffering the same.
Ian: Everyone can download Photoshop.
How do you fight against that?
David: I know what you mean, by saying everyone’s buying into it. Cameras are getting cheaper. The mega pixel count is getting higher and blah blah. But I mean really, photography is just the tool. You’re essentially just using it as a tool in order to convey something.
Cameron: It’s a vehicle of obsession.
David: Exactly. So, really photography and the equipment and people buying whatever they can buy…it’s still what are they trying to say?
Ken: They’re gonna be soulless, what are they trying to say?
David: Exactly. If they have nothing to say and they’re not being honest about what they’re trying to say than that devalues any kind of photography they are trying to do. We all probably know someone who just run around saying they’re photographers but really I can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. It’s more like they’re into the idea of ‘photography’ then really trying to convey something. So, I think that, you know, more people having cameras and more people getting into it…I think it’s fine. I think it’s a good thing. I think if everyone had a camera and was taking pictures 24/7, than me as an image lover, that would be OK with me.
Ken: Yeah, I think it’s just separation of identity. Relying on talent not marketing or promotion. You know? I mean, you might sell more records but that doesn’t mean you’re better than me. Step into my world and I’ll knock you out. It’s the same type of thing. I mean you might be able to do whatever and snap a shot but do you have an identity? Does your eye – see? If everybody’s shooting, everybody’s gonna see it. Right? Everybody’s a lil minnow in the sea. That’s the way I look at it…like everybody’s a DJ, everybody’s a photographer now. It’s like. Alright, let everyone go to Best Buy and buy a camera and they can all walk out and take pictures and put ‘em all up on a wall and they’ll come all to just start blending into one big sea. The one that…I think for me, personally, the success of any of that wall is the one that stands out that doesn’t look like the rest of them. And that’s the person I wanna talk to. And I’m probably gone be more thrilled to find out that they shot it on like a Pentax K1000. And the reason I’ve completely…the reason it’s become interesting to me is there’s grain structure in it, instead in the beginning it just looks like a flat digital image. And I’m like oh my God, because the aesthetic…that’s wants pleasing me. I don’t think there’s gonna be any problem with photographers being able to separate themselves from would-be photographers.
Ian: I’ve had other photographers talking about how terrible it is to show up to a gig and you’ve got an amateur…like my uncle just bought a DSLR. I mean, I’ve shot on gigs where someone has a rig that cost ten times what I do. Everytime, I come to that situation I think it’s an advantage because I find someone who’s on my gig who understands photography and can appreciate how hard it can be sometimes. You’re saying any housewife can afford a DSLR now…she can afford a hammer, she can’t build a house. She can afford a car, she can’t win the Le Mans. She can afford a DSLR, she can’t get the same shots I do. What’s the difference? Yeah, maybe she can go to that soccer game and get one good pictures but at the same time I could get forty. I’ll put my photo skills against any housewife in this city! (laughs)
Ken: Yeah, again, I mean I think that’s just what I was trying to say. Its just separation of identity. That’s all it is.
Cameron: You can’t fake who you are.
David: Yeah, you have to be honest.
Ken: All of us sitting here are creative types. You know, a housewife type person that maybe…if we were all to say fine we take on the same assignment, we’re all probably gonna approach it in a different manner. And I think that a photographer’s identity will not be stripped away by the fact that things are being readily available with, you know, digital scanners and cameras and stuff like that. I think that what it’s gonna do is gonna push the boundaries even harder. Make it even more interesting. I was talking to Adam Wayland who shoots and does stuff for Virginia Film Society…since college he’s only owned a camera with a 50mm lens and that’s his aesthetic. You know, he’s like, “I don’t rely on lens….
Cameron: Yeah, I think that’s what we’re all saying. That we’re all gonna be fine because those people…it doesn’t matter… those people can jump into at any stage they want regardless of how readily available it is to them and we’re all gonna be fine because those people…they’re not us.
Ian: And this argument been made every time there has been a major advancement in technology. When photographers switched from using glass plates to actual flexible film…It’s the death of photography!!! The amateur can claim profession now. And then it would started getting into roll and you had to change it every time… it’s the death of professional photography! And the shit you heard when 35mm came around was that there is no point in taking pictures cause there’s you can just shoot and shoot and shoot and every chicken, every blind chicken will get a kernel, or however the statement goes. And digital makes that even more complicated. Digital; because everyone can shoot in bulk, it makes the value of a single good shoot increase so much more. Because soccer mom can go to the soccer meet all day long, shoot a thousand pictures and…I know how to arrange depth of field so I could shoot once! And top every shot she took. At the end of the day, you're using pieces of glass to focus light onto a material that records the photons, and the person who has more experience and knowledge will produce the better image... usually.
Well, hopefully we won’t have to setup a contest to figure that out. (laughs)
David: I’ll second Ian’s comment and bet that everyone here can beat an average soccer mom.
Cameron: A cougar shoot! (laughs)
Ian: I threw down one gauntlet this week, so I can’t be doing another challenge now. (laughs)
Okay, well thanks fellas for coming out and talking with me. That’s it.
originally published in RVA Volume 5 Issue 3, The RVA Photo Issue
main image by Ken Howard