In the new frontier of photography, the traditional trajectory of art school to assisting to professional is becoming less common. Commissions occur less frequently through portfolio reviews and under the supervision of a production team.
Instead, advertisers are looking to industrious Instagram users who have built cohesive brands to endorse products based on their own unique vision. In turn, photographers are able to carve a niche in the industry just by doing what they love. We spoke to three photographers whose storytelling appeal goes beyond the lens.
A Lesson in Transparency and Sticking to One's Values
"I think of myself as a visual storyteller," says Brooklyn-based food, lifestyle and travel photographer Nicole Franzen. She didn't know four years ago, after working more than a decade in the restaurant industry, that today she'd be jet-setting around the world on photography assignments for clients such as Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Kinfolk and Martha Stewart Living, or that she'd consider her iPhone her "third limb."
The self-taught photographer has a knack for catalyzing on her passion for good food, beautiful scenery and artisan goods through her Instagram feed—while staying true to her values in the process. "I'm strict about Instagram endorsements. The places or things I'm shooting have to fit my aesthetic," she explains. "I don't want to be a sellout in that regard." To this end, she's turned down endorsing major corporations on Instagram even though there was big money involved. (She says that today endorsements on Instagram can pay more than editorial jobs.)
Using the social media platform in the way it was originally intended—as an instant feed—has benefited her immensely. When she's posting pictures on location, editors and agents often contact her to do other jobs in the area. "I never end up booking quite enough time—in addition to the jobs I'm already shooting—to pick up additional work when I'm traveling," she says.
She is, however, mindful of the ways in which this new frontier in personal branding can at times be a façade. "There are bumps in the road that we hit as photographers, but people just see a glamorous life [on Instagram], shooting in exotic locations." She is concerned that the beautiful images she puts out there can be confused for reality. "There are always things that are not pictured—like a sweaty nine-hour workday—and it's important to remember that."
Thinking Like an Advertiser, Photographing Like an Artist
Not only is Maurizio Di Iiorio one of PDN's 30 2015, but the Pescara, Italy-based photographer also shoots for Vice, WIRED and Marc by Marc Jacobs. Mr. Di Iiorio's ascent as a photographer wasn't typical: He spent 15 years in advertising before making the transition to photography full-time two years ago. "I used to sell words to my clients, but images lingered in my mind more than anything else," he says.
His eye-popping graphic style is thoughtful, fresh and vibrant—with just enough atypical color and contrast to make even the most banal objects seem like they have a story lurking within. "The intense chromatic result is mainly due to my lighting," he explains. "For a lot of people this style has become a fad, but in my case everything started from a clear choice."
According to the artist, that choice is not about being unconventional as a means to provoke. Rather, "I'm moved by de Chirico's metaphysics, by Cézanne's apples and by Picasso's cubism," he says. "It's impossible to separate my life and my art." To this point, he doesn't have any desire to work with brands whose aesthetic doesn't match his own.
In regard to social media, he admits, "If Tumblr or Instagram weren't around, you probably wouldn't be interviewing me. With social networks in the mix, nobody can whine anymore about not being considered or understood. If you're worth something, you'll get noticed." He says this ideology has flipped the role of client and artist in some instances; now clients are reaching out to photographers directly based on the unique vision the artists present online.
He offers one last thought: "Boring photographs aren't smart." Followed by: "Boredom is the enemy of ideas." In other words, lack of vision leads to unintelligent photos. We agree.
Melding Personal Vision With Brand Aesthetic
It was only three years ago when Alice Gao received her first major editorial commission for Kinfolk, Volume 2. It came a couple years after she had amassed an avid following on her blog and her Instagram feed, securing a reputation for documenting an aspirational lifestyle, her "affair with good coffee" and food, and her always elegantly garbed self.
Aside from taking a photo workshop by Mikkel Vang, she is entirely self-taught. "I would accept jobs that terrified me and, sure enough, I gained more and more confidence as I did so," she says of her beginnings. Today she has nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram and a client list that includes Madewell, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Cherry Bombe, Bergdorf Goodman, Mercedes-Benz and Van Cleef & Arpels. The key to her success is allowing her personal life and brand to evolve together, while thinking in terms of brand longevity. "I like my life and work to be stylistically intertwined to a certain degree, because that means surrounding myself with objects I find inspiring or beautiful," she explains.
Having such a large number of followers means a constant stream of advertising inquiries. She doesn't take her decision to endorse companies lightly, however, even if it does mean passing on opulent accommodations or a table at a fine restaurant in favor of a client who is aligned with her aesthetic. "For me, the best partnerships are the ones that make sense creatively," she explains. Her image-making philosophy: "To show beauty in simple or unexpected situations via subtle details—perhaps it's the shape of a shadow, the absence of a presence or a slight gesture," she says. "I think there's a way to draw inspiration from almost anything."
The three photographers profiled are Offset contributors; their photographs are available for royalty-free license on Offset.
About the Author
Lindsay Comstock is a New York-based arts writer, editor and content producer. She has worked with Offset and Shutterstock in varying capacities, but primarily as a writer/editor for the Offset section of the Shutterstock blog and an image curator. She has contributed as a writer and editor to publications including American Photo, Art Critical, Emerging Photographer, Featureshoot and PDN. She was formerly senior editor of Rangefinder.
About the Sponsor
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