Finding success in a single area of the photography industry is no small task. And yet, R. J. Kern has managed to find success not only as a wedding photographer but now as a fine art photographer as well. I sat down with him one afternoon to pick his brain on his top five tips for emerging fine art photographers.
I recently caught up with Minneapolis-based artist R. J. Kern in his home studio, where we chatted about his art and career. Kern is a photographer creating work related to ideas surrounding home, ancestry, and sense of place. He currently has a new book coming out, which you can find more information on and purchase on his website. He is also working on a video series for this project, which I highly recommend checking out!
Kern had a successful wedding and portrait photography business going. For some, it may seem an odd choice then that he somewhat pivoted to start up a fine art side to his practice. I asked him why he has been making this transition, and his response is valuable advice for all photographers:
I prioritize personal work center for my creative practice. Otherwise, the risk of burnout is too high. We owe it to our talents to grow and nourish them, not leave them for when we return home, exhausted. I followed my gut, but also looked at work in museums, books, galleries, and film for inspiration.
This advice happens to be number five on his top five tips as well. One key to success in any area of photography is to stay inspired. If you lose sight of that, it is quite likely that it will come across in your work as well. I’ve written articles on finding inspiration before, but as Kern suggests, looking at lots of work (and it doesn’t have to be just photography), reading books, and watching films are great ways to keep that inspiration alive.
Think Like an Entrepreneur
Kern’s fourth piece of advice may seem to contradict what we are sometimes told in the art world. However, by thinking like an entrepreneur. you will be able to grow your fine art career more effectively and sustainably than if you ignore the business side of things.
For example, Kern’s work is heavily funded by grants. He told me that it would have been easy with that first grant to use the money to go out and buy a single piece of expensive equipment. However, instead of doing that, he reinvested the money into himself and considered the ways that he could turn that one grant into more money in order to continue funding his work. This allowed his art practice to be more sustainable and even helped it grow to new levels faster than it likely would have otherwise.
Pimp the Work You Want to Shoot
The third piece of advice that Kern shared is at times easier said than done but is extremely important to keep in mind. If you only create work that is perhaps making you money but isn’t what you really want to be creating, you will never move beyond that work. The key is to build up a portfolio of the work that you want to create in order to take steps towards making that your main source of work. That may mean taking on unpaid test shoots to create the work that you want to make more of in the future. Collaborating with other photographers or creatives is also a good way of building up the portfolio that you want to have and can also help boost your creativity and inspiration as well!
For Kern, this process of pimping the work he wanted to create started in part with hand-making portfolios of his work and bringing them to portfolio reviews. Having a well-made, personalized portfolio made a big difference in how his work was received and allowed him to show off the work that he wanted to be able to focus on moving forward. Also, for him, the work is more than just a photograph, and he enjoys seeing full projects come to fruition. In fact, when I asked him what his favorite part of the creative process is, he told me:
Seeing a completed project come together in all the various components— book, exhibition, or community engagement— excites me. It’s not what drives me, however. The creative part, photographing and editing, is the part I love the most. However, that is just one pillar. Without the pillars of networking, marketing, sales, and thinking, I wouldn’t be able to do the part I love.
Be a Good Mentee
The second tip that Kern provided is to simply be a good student. Follow the advice that is given to you. If you are going to have someone spend time to help you and provide tips on how to grow your career, take that advice seriously and take the steps necessary to move forward with it. He mentioned that this generally is easier when you are paying for advice, such as portfolio reviews or paid mentor sessions because there is more weight on those and there is another layer of accountability since your hard-earned money is involved. Those opportunities that you have to pay for can be extra valuable as a result.
Finding, Identifying, and Engaging Your Audience
The number one piece of advice that Kern has for emerging fine art photographers is to focus on finding, identifying, and engaging with your audience. For Kern, that happens to be peers in the photography and fine art industry, curators, book collectors, and publishers. Putting time into considering who will most appreciate your work and then connecting with those people is imperative to successfully grow your audience and therefore career.
Portfolio reviews are a great way of starting this process of finding and engaging with your audience and are great for getting your work in front of those who may be able to move your career forward. Building up a mailing list and a newsletter process is also a vital tool when it comes to engaging with your audience. People who invest in your work (in whatever form that may take) want to know what you are up to 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 could be easy to fall into a style and subject matter that becomes extremely narrow and perhaps limiting. I asked Kern about this, as his work is very focused and narrowed in at the moment. He told me:
I will expand the scope of this four-year project to include the changing complexion of youth in other regions of the United States. My intention is to expand the representation, especially with regard to the socio-economic range and the geographic scope. And in so doing answer these fundamental questions: What is changing in rural America? What is the same? And what, if any, values are transmitted through the raising and husbandry of animals. Is there something about the rural experience of raising animals that creates a common bond across diverse ethnic groups?
With his broadening view of the project, he will be able to also broaden his audience and engage with them in new ways as well. Thinking of ways that you can stay true to your work while also reaching new people is important for staying active in the art world and for growing your career. Plus, working to expand on projects can lead you to find new inspiration and motivation for your work!
Great article. I like the positive outlook it gives. His homepage is worth a visit. I have a question though: how do you learn to trust yourself, to have confidence in your own work? The business aspect is difficult enough, but manageable. In my own business (ICT), it took me quite a while to trust myself to be able to carry the responsibility that comes with my business: so many people rely on you. They have expectations. Can you fulfil them?
Jan, experience is the best way to build your confidence. It’s like anything else, the more you practice the better you become. Mentors and colleagues can help you navigate rough waters and they prove I valuable. Just don’t forget their time is valuable. Reciprocity must exist. Look at your weaknesses (writing about your work), and know there are experts/consultants that you can hire to help foster your growth. Happy to make several suggestions offline depending on your goals.
Thank you for taking the time to respond and advise. Experience is. It's a bit difficult to find mentors who are willing to take the time. Photographers are not the team players, at least not around here. I know a few, but they're in other fields, like architecture or journalism. And others who are in a completely different league. I wouldn't dare ask them. If I were younger, maybe.
I would be happy to read from or about you on the FS again.
Good choice of lights. Trouble free very capable items allows to concentrate on the work and it seem to pay off.
The Broncolor Move packs are reliable... have three of them and they have served me well. You get what you pay for.
One other little thing, he does beautiful work on unusual subjects that move people. He's not just flying to Iceland.
Thank you for your kind words, Jim. Creating work with an emotional thumb print remains an important part of what I do.
Great article, friend. RJ, it's been a joy to watch this journey from late evening phone calls, to watching you win grants, to transitioning from phenomenal wedding photographer to established fine art photographer. Here's to more adventures and meaningful work. Kudos. I'm writing this with your "The Sheep and Goats" book just a few feet from my keyboard.
Scott, you've been a supporter of this project from the beginning. We'll never forget: "If you ain't first, you're last!" Thank you for your ag tech guidance early on.
Learning is a skill... the more you do it, the better you get. I had a great experience with my wet plate collodian workshop from Brenton Hamilton at Maine Media College last August. He offers it once a year or so. Sign up!
Every once in awhile there is something worth the time to browse this site. This is just that.
Simply inspiring and how much fun to view such great work.
I really appreciate that, William! Thank you so much!
Thank you so much, William, for your kind words. Glad to help you!