Ansel Adams And Paul Strand On Self-Promotion and Exhibitions

July 7th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Split Boulder Near Lake Ediza, The Minarets, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, California, 1950 by Philip Hyde. First exhibited in the original "Perceptions" exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1954 with the work of the members of Group f.64, Minor White, his students and a few other Bay Area photographers. This exhibition many consider one of the foundations that defined what became known as the West Coast tradition.

(To see the photograph full screen Click Here.)

In reading the letters between Paul Strand and Ansel Adams from the Center for Creative Photography’s publication, The Archive, it quickly becomes apparent that the times then were quite different. The first exchange of letters between the two photographers in 1933 occurred during the Great Depression, when photography was almost unheard of and even other forms of art were comparatively scarce in relation to the volumes produced today.

To compete and be heard in the market today, a photographer must not only make good photographs, but also promote tastefully. Writing well online also helps to develop a following. One of today’s photographers succeeding in all three is Guy Tal. I have mentioned him before on this blog and I mention him again, because what he writes often relates to what I am learning about the history of photography and because he recommended my blog to his readers. I like Guy Tal’s blog, not because I always agree with him, but because he has a knack for stirring up ideas, thoughts and opinions and getting people to participate. Recently he wrote a blog post called, “Small Confession,” in which he acknowledges the necessity of self-promotion but confesses that he respects photographers who do it reluctantly more than those who revel in it.

Shortly after reading this post, I started reading the letters between Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. These two pioneers, despite what it appears to us now, were also reluctant self-promoters. However, they lived in a time when people were looking for something new artistically and there wasn’t all that much being created of note. Along came people like Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others. These people offered something that had never been seen before.

Straight photography was not a stuffy, constraining, self-contradicting notion as it is seen by some today. It was a huge Wow, and also freeing and energizing to the medium. Also, these artists did not have to promote themselves as loudly to be heard, because there was much less noise then and fewer voices vying for the public’s attention. People mobbed most of the events of the straight photographers. Perhaps those who look at straight photography as out-dated and old-fashioned, will have justification for that opinion when their events are packed because they have invented something striking and new enough to draw hoards of people.

The first time Ansel Adams wrote to Paul Strand, he reminded him of their meeting and mentioned meeting with Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. Then Ansel Adams told Paul Strand that he had opened a small gallery…

My place is most decidedly not an imitation of Stieglitz’; I wrote him at great length and outlined my plans—I told him I was going to alternate my exhibits between photography and painting or graphic arts, that I was not a missionary or a promoter, and that I did not care if I made anything out of the gallery or not—I only hoped it would pay its own rent. I am trying to bring things to San Francisco that should have come many years ago.

Ansel Adams went on to ask Paul Strand if he would be interested in exhibiting his photographs at Ansel Adams’ gallery. Paul Strand wrote back…

Actually I have little interest in exhibitions—because at the basis they seem to be un-American—just a mean and meaningless affair; mean in that they exploit the artist to entertain the public free of charge—meaningless in that they seldom establish any standards.

I turned down three museums last year in just the above terms—Their impudence and complete ignorance of what they are doing is just disgusting—They think that flattery is a substitute—but they can all go to hell as far as I am concerned—for I refuse to be part of that racket—that is my general feeling about exhibitions—I can never get used to the idea that pictures are free entertainment in the U.S., elsewhere too, that the people who claim to enjoy a thing never support the individual who makes what gives them pleasure.

Paul Strand went on to explain that it was difficult to send his prints out of Mexico, where he was living at the time, for fear they might be damaged, and that he might entertain the idea if he could ever make it to San Francisco in person. Paul Strand told Ansel Adams of a show he had in Mexico under extenuating circumstances, that over 3,000 people came to see in 10 days. Not bad for someone who despised the whole idea. For more about the photography of Paul Strand see the blog posts, “Straight Photography And Abstraction,” and “Photography’s Golden Era 5.”

(This blog post was originally posted March 24, 2010.)

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36 comments

  1. Three thousand people in ten days…amazing!

    David, you wrote –

    “To compete and be heard in the market today, a photographer must not only make good photographs, but also write well to develop a following.”

    I wonder about this. Are the followings that are developed made up of people who buy/collect photography or people who take workshops, buy books about photography, etc? It does seem like this is only one part of the photography market.

    Sharon

  2. Hi Sharon, thank you for raising an interesting question about the followings on photo blogs. In my observation, there are a good number of followers of many photo blogs, maybe even the majority of followers on some, that are the workshop and DVD buyers learning photography, and more power to both the learners and teachers. However, I have noticed that on some landscape photography blogs that offer high quality nature photographs and intelligent writing about art, the followers are also other full-time professionals. As you know, the interconnection between blogs is a defining characteristic of blogging. In that respect, I notice that many of the photo blogs are each other’s followers because they have developed a relationship, as you are well aware, which is part of the strength of the blogosphere. We inspire one another and partially depend on each other for our existence. People who buy and collect photography come in all shapes and sizes but are less apt to be regular readers of photo blogs. I decided at the outset that if I were to solely write for collectors, I would be waiting a long time for readers and particularly for comments. However, now that the blog is in place and certain material is here, I am able to refer collectors to various posts that pertain to their individual interests. I of course am building content with this and many other concerns in mind, sometimes even spontaneously with nothing at all in mind. The mind, after all, is overrated. I did edit that sentence to now read: “To compete and be heard in the market today, a photographer must not only make good photographs, but also promote tastefully. Writing well online also helps to develop a following.”

  3. I would put your blog in a different category all together, David, and I enjoy it very much. You have so much to offer to anyone interested in landscape photography. I comment here because you have engaged me in the subjects that I comment on.

    Sharon

  4. Thank you Sharon for such a strong commendation. Having you comment is the ultimate compliment because of the quality of your ideas and photography.

  5. Richard Wong says:

    Good points, David. I think there is a balance that people need to find between promoting and beating one’s chest. No one likes a bragger. Two people can have the same exact message but the one who seems a little too proud of their own accolades (telling people that you are good for example) will probably not be as well liked. I know I hate that sort of behavior personally.

  6. Thank you, Richard for making that distinction. I think it is an important addition to the discussion to note that self-promotion is, or is not a turnoff, depending on how it is done.

  7. Derrick says:

    I think there is a distinction also to be made from someone shouting “hey look at me” vs. someone openly sharing information/ideas/photography…

  8. Thank you, Derrick. Definitely, I agree.

  9. Jim Sabiston says:

    David,

    This is a topic close to my heart, as I often find myself confronting the issue of ‘art vs market’ with my images. I started out in photography as a hobby strictly for myself and this is still, and hopefully will remain, the primary driver behind it. My wife suggested I show my work at one point about three years ago and everything changed. I sold about a third of my pieces in my first show (to my everlasting surprise!) and it has only grown since then. Even at the low key approach I use, some marketing seems necessary, but I keep it as minimal as possible, relying more on exposure from shows and word of mouth.

    The real trick, as I’ve seen it, is how to respond to learning what images sell and which images don’t. There is no absolute trend by any means, but I’ve found many of the images I’ve made that I consider ‘art’ don’t sell well, and others that I didn’t think that much of sell like hotcakes. I’ve also been requested to shoot certain subjects and types of images that are more likely to sell. My response is to follow through on those requests, but bide my time until I am able to capture the image my way – that way the work is still mine. This balance seems to be working so far.

    In the end, I continue to produce images that I am happy with and I think that is the most important factor for any artist to stay true to themselves, regardless of marketing needs and pressures. Of course, this is easier to do when your art isn’t your primary imcome source.

    BTW – I learned of your blog via Guy Tal, whose blog I’ve followed for some time now. I recently started my own blog and I find the writing process is very helpful for sorting out my own thoughts on various topics. It is geared, at least in part, towards some friends who are trying to learn about the photographic process. I focus on the underlying ideas more than the technical aspects. I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

  10. Hi Jim, Congratulations, glad to hear you are doing well. Landscape photographer Carr Clifton recently said to me that it is a good idea to mix into any show some images that are better artistically, even if they don’t sell as well. My dad used to do a lot of that. In fact the last 20 years of his career, he decided he was going to show what he wanted, because he could finally afford it. There are differences in audiences too, though. As you may have discovered, it is necessary to ask yourself, ‘What will sell where?’ and ‘to whom?’ Just as much as, ‘What will sell?’ I’m not going to mention any names, but in a certain state, there is a certain landscape photographer who dominates the state. When people think of that state and landscape photography, they think of this certain photographer. However, most of the ‘art’ photographers look down on this photographer’s work. As one recently said, “His images are like postcards.” He captures pretty mountain scenes, farms, anything colorful or scenically pleasing without much attention to form, texture, composition or other elements one learns in studying photography to any depth. In this particular state, he has a gigantic 5,000 plus square foot showroom for his prints and his work sells like crazy. However, if you look around in any of the major museums outside this particular state, they don’t have his work. The people in this particular state are not highly educated when it comes to taste in art. There is another photography gallery in the same city that carries all the work of the photography masters from Stieglitz to Strand to Adams, all the Westons, Elliott Erwitt, you name it. This fine art gallery can hardly sell a print since the downturn. I could make more money if I exhibited Philip Hyde in the same gallery with the former photographer, and have had many opportunities to exhibit Dad’s work in similar venues. However, I would rather make less money and keep Dad’s work exclusive and exhibited only in certain ways with certain other types of photographers. I would rather work at Home Depot myself, than sell out. This response is veering a little away from your comment, Jim, which is an intelligent delineation of your explorations. My statement here is merely a warning to anyone new in the field: Each decision is important and has an impact on your future career and stature. If you’re in it just for the money, why not just become a stock broker or anything more profitable and less artistic than landscape photography? As for your beautiful photography Jim, I have looked at your website and your blog. In my opinion any of your work will both sell and carry artistic merit, which is the balance any good artist is happy to find.

  11. Jim Sabiston says:

    David,

    Thank you for your very generous comments.

    Another artist that I am a fan of, a musician, speaks to this subject at great length and has made a distinction which I find of value. To paraphrase:

    Before you can become an artist, you must become a craftsman. The craftsman understands the tools of his chosen trade and can use them with a high level of skill with regular and predictable, repeatable results. The influence of chance is minimized. The artist builds on this solid foundation, but cannot succeed without it.

    When I go out to take a photograph of a subject that someone else has suggested, I go out as a craftsman, but I try to come home with art. To me, this is the ideal balance, as you stated.

  12. Hi Jim, thank you for that great quote and your comments that are pertinent to the discussion here. Please share, who is the musician you paraphrased? What you are getting into now, is part of the subject of a blog post coming up this week about new directions in digital photography that maintain the quality artistic aesthetics, while departing wildly in technique from the old Straight Photography.

  13. Jim Sabiston says:

    David,

    The artist in question is the guitarist Robert Fripp. My paraphrasing is a severely simplified paraphrasing of Mr. Fripps lengthy commentaries on the topic of creativity and its interaction with performance. Mr. Fripp and I have corresponded a bit over the years on the topic. Wikipedia provides a reasonably thorough yet succinct entry on Mr. Fripp:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fripp

    I could go on ad nauseum on on his music and his ideas. He is one of the most unique and creative musicians alive, with a personality to match, but I’ll let you off lightly with the wiki link! ; )

    I’m looking forward to your next entry. Sounds very interesting.

  14. Hi Jim, Thank you for the link. After reading the Wiki, I realize who he is. I listened a little on Amazon. The guitar work is fantastic and definitely pushes the boundaries at times. I am not so into the ambient or experimental stuff, but I like the melodic bluesy pieces. The singing is better in King Crimson. He is no doubt one of the greatest creative guitar players. I like what he said about “loosening up expectations” in the music industry.

  15. Greg Boyer says:

    Hi David,
    Great post. Really enjoyed the writing and the comments were/are very pertinent to what is really a very serious subject for all artists these days. Maybe now more than ever. I always felt that if I just let my images “speak” for themselves I would do all right. But it’s pretty hard to get noticed with all the “screaming” that’s going on. ;-)

  16. Hi Greg, I appreciate your comment. I agree, but remember that the “screaming” is mainly done by those who don’t understand new media or how to harness the power of viral marketing to promote photography. I am just beginning to understand how little I know. Sometimes whispers and rumors pass along better than screams.

  17. Derrick says:

    “tastefully”… I like that term! Funny in that it appears the original post is well over a year old now, and it means so many different things to me today as I have learned much between now and then.
    I’m still struggling mightily with just how to “get the word out” about my stuff, but I think your use of “tastefully” has hit a nerve here.

    Thanks once again, David.

  18. Hi Derrick, great insight. It is amazing how much can be learned in a year, isn’t it? I have charted a steep learning curve because I knew so little back in 2002 when I first started working with my dad and he had forgotten most of what he knew due to old age, blindness and being semi-retired. Could you, would you share a brief summary of what you feel you’ve learned this year, especially the part of it you realized while reading this post?

  19. Greg Russell says:

    David, this is a really salient post regarding what you and I have discussed lately, especially regarding the state of landscape photography and self-promotion. Indeed it can be a tough line to walk, balancing between what you call tasteful self-promotion and shameless self-promotion.

    While I can’t claim to have never been shameless, like most people, my preference is to remain tasteful. Something about my work gaining a following in a somewhat organic manner is very appealing to me.

    Its great to read these letters, giving us insight into the minds of photographers like Strand and Adams. Great post…thanks for sharing!

    Cheers,
    Greg

  20. Hi Greg, I know what you mean. I struggle all the time with the balance between tasteful and distasteful and shamefully shameless. At some point I hope to be able to implement an online strategy that I am just beginning to understand: producing everything in such a way that people want to share it. From what I’m learning, this is the secret to the new economy.

  21. Sharon says:

    I’m not sure it’s the secret for every photographer, David. I don’t offer products for other photographers like Guy does. So for me, the internet is a place for initial discovery, but buyers usually want to see actual prints before they buy. Having people comment on my blog and my commenting on their blogs is something I do out of interest in other’s work and because I find it enjoyable for our blog to be more of a conversation than just a presentation. But it isn’t something I do to help our business, per se, as my customers don’t participate usually unless it is about something like the erosion series we did.

    However, your blog IS helpful to other photographers as a forum to discuss issues and ideas about photography which is, in a way, separate from promoting your father’s work. How that produces income is the real question. Maybe, it will involve your bringing together photographers in a salon type experience online – a new f/64 club or something.

    I am so tired of the self-promotion that is so over-the-top. People describing their own work as stunning, breath-taking, captured at great risk!!! Usually it should be described for what it is – derivative.

    Sharon

  22. Hi Sharon, thank you for a different perspective. First of all I must admit that I had to laugh and groan just a bit at my first comment on this post that I wrote in response to your first comment here over a year ago in March 2010. In light of Derrick’s recent comment and what I have learned in the last year I might answer somewhat differently. Back then I probably didn’t realize that you ought to have been telling me how the photo blogosphere works and that is still the case today. You are the more experienced blogger. This year, all I will offer are my observations, beginning with your first comment:

    “Are the followings that are developed made up of people who buy/collect photography or people who take workshops, buy books about photography, etc?”

    My original comment only mentioned followers who are learning landscape photographers and photographers who are already pros, as though these are different groups. Essentially all photographers are learning, especially those who read photo blogs and don’t presume to know it all already. You indicate that in your experience photo blog followers and print buyers are two separate groups. I too find this is true, for the most part, with Landscape Photography Blogger and the online Philip Hyde Photography gallery and website. It is particularly true that those who acquire Dad’s vintage black and white prints, Cibachrome prints and dye transfer prints in the best photography galleries rarely read Landscape Photography Blogger. However, there is significant overlap between archival digital print buyers and my photo blog followers at times. Some landscape photographers work to increase this overlap on their photo blogs by adjusting their content and offerings accordingly. In your setting on Nantucket Island, you will may always have more print buyers offline than through your blog, but you never know. The internet is evolving. Even high end photography collectors do significant browsing online now on certain websites. I believe there are methods of interesting this market in our photo blogs. Some of these approaches you will see here in the future, some are already beginning. With a whole long year’s photo blogging experience under my belt, I just wrote a comment on another photo blog saying essentially that Guy Tal’s approach for mentoring and sharing his work with other landscape photographers was not necessarily unique to him, but his particular way of doing it is. His approach to making a living in landscape photography is probably not duplicatable by anyone who doesn’t have his unusual set of talents and personality traits. Thank God we can’t all do it that way or there would be too many teachers. Maybe there is already? Your second paragraph in your latest comment is a much appreciated compliment and a good idea. Do you want to know how to make millions a year marketing landscape photography? Work out in the gym a lot, get really tan, wear a muscle shirt and an Indiana Jones hat, talk with an exotic foreign accent about how you had to risk your life to capture your photographs, take photographs in each exact location in America that someone else made famous long before you and develop a super-glitzy, super-slick marketing machine. That’s it. That’s the real secret.

  23. pj says:

    “Do you want to know how to make millions a year marketing landscape photography? Work out in the gym a lot, get really tan, wear a muscle shirt and an Indiana Jones hat, talk with an exotic foreign accent about how you had to risk your life to capture your photographs, take photographs in each exact location in America that someone else made famous long before you and develop a super-glitzy, super-slick marketing machine. That’s it. That’s the real secret.”

    Maybe someone should do a TV show along those lines. Oh wait…

  24. LOL, PJ. Yes, a TV show. I am sad to have missed the premiere. The funny thing is that Art Wolfe already had a high quality photography TV show long before any other along the lines you are suggesting. I feel that Art Wolfe’s show was done with taste, considering it was TV after all. I haven’t seen this new photography TV show. So who knows? It’s hard to talk badly about someone when their people were so nice to me, asking me to write for them, etc, etc. Did you get the same invitations, PJ?

  25. Sharon says:

    I got the request you are referring to, David. :-) I declined as I can see you did.

    You are a much more skillful blogger than I am, David. I’m more a photo poster. :-)

    Sharon

  26. Glad you returned again Sharon. I have a background in writing and an edge that way, but you are a superb photo blogger. What I observe about you, if I may, is that you make interesting and sincere comments on other blogs that add to the discussions and help people see something they wouldn’t have previously.

  27. pj says:

    I did, but I refused. I haven’t seen it but who knows… maybe it’s great TV but it just didn’t sit right with me. It seemed to me that it was marketing a personality rather than any particularly unique work. I don’t know… maybe that’s what marketing is really all about. Selling the sizzle not the steak like the experts say. I know I’m not very good at it. Maybe I need to create an online cartoon character of myself or something…

  28. Hi PJ, you are entertaining plenty enough without making yourself into a cartoon character, and you do it genuinely as your real self. Since I already am a cartoon of myself at times, maybe I could do something though. I could have a name like Super Chicken with a mission to bring the steak back to landscape photography. I could go around asking people if they are BURNED OUT on SIZZLE…

  29. Derrick says:

    1st off! I’m a bit hurt that I didn’t get an invitation I could turn down!!! WTF??! LOL.

    As for what I’ve learned in the past year now that I’ve shot my mouth off….

    I would have to say that it’s been a mix of technical skills, like learning how to better use the camera’s functions to get what I want or in learning (still) how to use Lightroom – again, to better represent what I remember seeing.

    There’s the mental stuff, on how to look or see a particular shot – before I was content to find a good shot and not really work the scene over, experimenting with different things. Not so much any more. (thanks Bill Neill!)

    I learned I don’t really like workshops. Not that I don’t enjoy shooting with masters like Wyman Meinzer, but I just don’t feel that I accomplished anything by taking the same picture that 10 other guys did.

    I’d rather find my own way, I suppose.

    I also have shied away from taking pictures of sunsets, David. ;) It’s really got to be a GOOD one to capture my imagination now.

    My eyes continue to learn to see, whether or not it’s in my own work or in the work of others.

    And I’ve learned that you don’t have to be a very good photographer to generate a lot of readers/comments. There’s a ton of rather ordinary photogs out there that have huge followings while conversely there are several gifted photogs who have practically none at all…. which brings us back to the whole marketing thing.

  30. Thank you so much, Derrick, for returning and giving us that rundown of insights. You have been productive this year. I wish I had taken as many photographs or visited as many photo blogs as you have. I don’t know what to say about the invitation except that perhaps your landscapes are the least like his of any of us, a scary (for us) and supreme compliment to you. I like what you say about workshops. Some of it depends on who teaches them and how they are taught.

  31. Jim Sabiston says:

    Interesting updates to this old post. I am of Sharon’s mind as much as any – I dabble in the various social marketing processes, but the only thing that truly expands my marketing presence is the old fashioned stuff: knocking on gallery doors and personally selling at the outdoor art shows, easily my most productive venues. Word-of-mouth is starting to show results as well as former customers actively search me out at shows to buy additional prints. Having a full time job apart from photography limits my ability to expand into other areas, although I get teaching requests regulary.

    I’ve seen the TV show of the photographer in question and found it laughable – not so much from the photography aspect as the commentary about the risk associated with being outdoors in these dangerous places/conditions which are highlighted and overplayed for dramatic effect. I am an avid outdoorsman and trained winter mountaineer and my photography started out as a natural extension of exploring some of the remote places of the world. The way he plays up the ‘danger’ and risk is a bad joke to any experienced outdoorsman – but then he isn’t catering to us either as outdoorsman or photographers. he is selling to people who do not know better on either topic and will buy into the shtick – and there are apparently many who buy into it. For the rest of us, whose interest lies in the art of what we do, the approach must be different and rather more subtle.

    My blog is not so much a marketing tool – I’m reasonably certain no sales could be traced back to it – but rather a venue for organizing and expressing my creative thoughts and ideas. Dave happens to be one of my favorite semi-regular visitors and often leaves valuable comments which further refine my own thoughts.

  32. Thank you for returning Jim. Excellent insights into marketing and into the TV show, especially coming from a genuine outdoorsman. This is good validation that our scoffing is not off base. His videos struck me the same way. I grew up in the outdoors and his approach to scaring people about the natural world is not good PR for nature. Oprah Winfrey said that nature loves him. I disagree. Maybe he is doing his part to help protect the wilderness places he photographs by scaring people away. On the other hand, there will probably be plenty of ignorant lemmings who will go running out to “his” locations just for the so-called challenge and “danger.” The sad thing is that this kind of marketing merely perpetuates the idea that nature is to be feared and conquered, rather than enjoyed, revered, communed with, hugged and maybe even worshiped. Your blog is well worth visiting. I will shoot for being more regular.

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