Succeeding in just one area of the photography industry is no small feat. And yet, RJ Kern has managed to be successful not only as a wedding photographer, but also now as an art photographer. I sat down with him one afternoon to choose his brain on his top five tips for emerging art photographers.
I recently met Minneapolis-based artist RJ Kern at his home studio, where we discussed his art and career. Kern is a photographer who creates works related to ideas surrounding home, ancestry and sense of place. He currently has a new book coming out, which you can find more information about and buy from his website. He’s also working on a series of videos for this project, which I highly recommend watching!
Kern had a successful wedding and portrait photography business. To some, this may seem like an odd choice as he has pivoted somewhat to throw some fine art into his practice. I asked him why he made this transition, and his answer is great advice for all photographers:
I favor the personal work center for my creative practice. Otherwise, the risk of burnout is too high. We owe it to our talents to make them grow and nurture them, not to leave them exhausted for the return home. I followed my instincts, but I also looked at works in museums, books, galleries and movies for inspiration.
This tip also happens to be number five of his top five tips. One of the keys to success in any field of photography is to stay inspired. If you lose sight of this, it is very likely that it also ends up in your work. I’ve written articles on finding inspiration before, but as Kern suggests, watching a lot of work (and it doesn’t have to be just photography), reading books, and watching movies are great ways to keep that inspiration alive.
Think like an entrepreneur
Kern’s fourth tip may seem to contradict what we are sometimes told in the art world. However, by thinking like an entrepreneur. you will be able to develop your career in the fine arts more effectively and sustainably than if you ignored the business side of things.
For example, Kern’s work is heavily funded by grants. He told me that with this first grant, it would have been easy to use the money to buy one expensive piece of equipment. However, instead of doing this, he reinvested the money in himself and considered ways to turn this grant into more money in order to continue funding his work. This allowed his art practice to be more sustainable and even helped him reach new levels faster than it likely otherwise would have.
Pimp the work you want to photograph
The third tip Kern shared is sometimes easier said than done, but it’s extremely important to keep it in mind. If you only create a job that maybe makes you money but isn’t what you really want to create, you will never get past that job. The key is to build a portfolio of the work you want to create so you can take action to make it your primary source of work. It can mean taking unpaid test photos to create the work you want to do more of in the future. Collaborating with other photographers or creatives is also a good way to build the portfolio you want to have and can also help boost your creativity and inspiration!
For Kern, this process of procuring the work he wanted to create began in part by handcrafting portfolios of his work and bringing them to portfolio reviews. Having a well done and personalized portfolio made a big difference in how his work was received and allowed him to show off the work he wanted to be able to focus on moving forward. Also, for him, work is more than just a photograph, and he likes to see complete projects come to fruition. In fact, when I asked him what his favorite part of the creative process was, he said:
Seeing a completed project come together in all the different components – book, exhibit or community engagement – excites me. That’s not what motivates me, however. The creative part, the photography and the editing, is the part that I love the most. However, this is only a pillar. Without the pillars of networking, marketing, sales and thinking, I wouldn’t be able to do the role I love.
Be a good mentee
The second piece of advice Kern provided was to just be a good student. Follow the advice given to you. If you want someone to spend time helping you and providing advice on how to grow your career, take those tips seriously and take the necessary steps to move forward. He mentioned that this is usually easier when paying for advice, such as portfolio reviews or paid mentoring sessions, as they carry more weight and there is another level of accountability since your hard earned money is implied. These opportunities that you have to pay for can therefore be very valuable.
Find, identify and engage your audience
The number one tip Kern has for emerging art photographers is to focus on finding, identifying, and engaging with your audience. For Kern, they are peers in the photography and fine art industry, curators, book collectors and publishers. It’s imperative that you take the time to figure out who will appreciate your work the most, and then connect with those people to successfully develop your audience and therefore your career.
Portfolio reviews are a great way to start this process of research and engagement with your audience and are great for showcasing your work to those who may be able to advance your career. Building a mailing list and newsletter process is also an essential tool for engaging with your audience. People who invest in your work (in whatever form) want to know what you are doing and how their investment is making a difference, so sharing updates and keeping them informed will keep them invested and interested in your work.
As you identify your audience as well as your style and artistic voice, it can be easy to fall for a style and topic that becomes extremely narrow and perhaps limiting. I asked Kern about this, as his work is very focused and restricted at the moment. He told me:
I will expand the scope of this four-year project to include the changing complexion of young people in other parts of the United States. My intention is to broaden the representation, especially with regard to socio-economic range and geographic scope. And in doing so, answer these fundamental questions: What is changing in rural America? What is it the same? And what values, if any, are conveyed by breeding and raising animals. Is there something about the rural experience of raising animals that creates a common bond between various ethnic groups?
With his broader vision of the project, he will also be able to broaden his audience and engage with them in new ways as well. Thinking about ways to stay true to your job while reaching new people is important for staying active in the art world and for developing your career. In addition, working to develop projects can lead you to find new inspiration and motivation for your work!