The thing about a photography career is that it goes through so many changes along the way. You may move from one genre to another. Your portfolio evolves. Your themes change. Your look changes. This means that you have to constantly evolve your portfolio. Before digital, this was done with one’s book. This was a sacred document of beautifully printed pieces, well-bound, sometimes even in leather, name embossed and, if you were lucky, it sat not in your own hands but in the hands of a rep. This person peddled your work, to agencies, art buyers and photo editors. They had the Rolodex. And that sort of charm. And they took their cut.
Back then, long discussions took place with photographers and their reps, where gaps in their portfolios were addressed, test shoots were planned out and new work slipped into the book and was proudly shown and discussed at the next meeting among rep and client. The artist remained romantically absent. That mystique was part of what was sold. People wondered what it might be like to work with an artist of this caliber. The anticipation, part of the calling card, part of the mystery, of being a photographer.
Then came digital. Then came Instagram. On the plus side, a photographer could do their own repping, sliding into a potential client’s DM. And the evolution of one’s work as reflected in the portfolio was suddenly easy and cheap. And who needs to give up 30% of a job to a rep when you’re already Instafamous? But what IG really did for photography is what it enabled for the would-be photographer. As I call them, Hip Hop Photographers. Suddenly an angle existed for the hungry and talented to make it on their own — no schooling, no experience, no rep necessary. An incredible enabler for those who could front well.
What got lost in the evolution was the romance. Mystery was replaced with incredible bravado. And then that became the thing. Chest-expanding captions and behind-the-scenes b-roll replaced the dormant but explosive charisma of a photographer in waiting. And that photographer, the one without the following or the mic or the self-portraits just seemed kind of lame.
In the movie Joe Vs The Volcano, Dan Hedaya plays Tom Hanks’ overbearing boss. In one scene, he shouts into the phone, “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”
It was movie gibberish, but it stayed with me the way some movie lines do. This is what happened to Instagram. It started to become a storefront for people more capable of getting a photography job than doing a photography job. This is the thin nature of PR. More headline than body copy. More caption than capability.
Joe Biden’s chosen photographer for his new administration is Adam Schultz. Adam was not an Instagram celebrity, he is a guy who has been in and around politics for a long time, having worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and for years prior at the Clinton Foundation. He didn’t get the gig because he had a big following, he got it for being good, present and workmanlike in his process. And when it was time to show his book, he was ready.
Adam Schultz, by my estimation, has the best job in photography. It might yield better images if we didn’t already know so much about his subject, but regardless that’s the gig. And Adam is distinctly post-Instagram. He’s gaining followers there without even posting to his account. What does that say about the medium?
It says that Instagram (and social media in general) is a reflection of success, not a creator of it. It’s PR.
And so in that way, Instagram isn’t a place you want to be. Because if I’m already successful, already working, already busy filling up someone else’s feed, magazine or website with my images… what do I need with a PR tool? For a few slaps on the back? A place to tell you what you already know — that you’re doing a good job? That’s Facebook.
There’s three things an up-and-coming photographer needs to do all the time to break in: work, network and have a great book. Instagram has gone from being a place for all of them to a place for bits of each. But it’s the lesser bits of each. You do some Instagram work, but the better work is for larger formats and outlets with meaning or real reach. You can network there, but much better networking is going on at the job and in-person. And you can put your portfolio together there, but it’s going to look far better printed or on your website. Even, as in Mr. Schultz’s case, in his phone and computer.
The photographer’s journey is always changing, but it gets even more complex when the industry is also. A double helix. But it’s straightening out. Which means we can — if we want — go back to being who we are while still being in the shadows. A place I prefer. A lot of us do. As a photographer, I don’t want it to be about me. I don’t want to have to worry about whether I’m getting great b-roll of me doing my shoot so I can put it in my story for some half-conceived notion that that helps. I just want to do my job and be able to think, frame it up, and shoot.
As they say in the South, to the girl with the revealing outfit on, Honey, have a little mystery.
Photography is very much alive, but it’s moving past Instagram at quite a clip. Every new startup needs imagery. Every new musician, new app, new clothing line. There has never been more opportunity for a photographer than right now; in a time where brands are built, not just from a few images, but through constant imagery. It’s there for the picking, and those who’ve stepped away from their apps and started to re-engage with the real world will be the recipients of it. And when it all comes together for you, then you may find yourself on Instagram — not to make yourself successful, but because you already are.