PDN’s 30 Panel: Perspective and Persistence Key to Success for Young Photogs

Sam Kaplan, Ryan Pfluger and Holly Hughes at PDN's 30 seminar

©Amber Terranova. Sam Kaplan, Ryan Pfluger and Holly Stuart Hughes at the March 14, 2012 PDN's 30 Seminar at the School for Visual Arts Theater in New York City.

At the first in a series of educational seminars organized as part of the 2012 PDN’s 30 programming, three photographers named to this year’s PDN’s 30 spoke about the importance of establishing and unique esthetic perspective, and about being persistent in creating and promoting new work to potential clients.

The panel discussion at the School for Visual Arts Theater in New York City, which was moderated by PDN editor Holly Stuart Hughes, included PDN’s 30 photographers Sam Kaplan, Peter Ash Lee and Ryan Pfluger, as well as veteran photographer Andy Katz and New York Times Magazine associate photo editor Clinton Cargill.

Pfluger, an editorial and fine-art photographer, started the conversation by discussing how consistently promoting his personal work has allowed him to bring his quiet, soulful portraiture into editorial work. Pfluger recalled how a self-funded and self-produced trip to Sundance Film Festival resulted in a portfolio of 13 images of actors that became part of his book and has been syndicated. After searching unsuccessfully for an editor who would give him a Sundance assignment, Pfluger decided to go himself, and managed to set up sessions through actors’ publicists, which he found by signing up for the professional version of the Internet Movie Database.

While he was in Sundance, Pfluger shot “bust portraits,” portraits of subjects showing just their shoulders and head, something he had done in his personal work but had never been hired to do. Pfluger said that by showing the Sundance portraits to editors, he was able to get jobs shooting bust-portraits for clients, and it has become a stock in trade for him. Touching on the point of persistently shooting and showing personal work to potential clients, Pfluger noted that he’d shot bust portraits for two years before he got his first paid assignment to shoot one.

“Constantly update [clients] and show them new work,” Pfluger advised the audience.

While working as an assistant, still-life shooter Sam Kaplan spent a year testing and building his portfolio and Web site. Kaplan would often assign himself series of photographs utilizing everyday objects like twine. The series helped show clients that Kaplan could work creatively within assigned parameters, he said.

Kaplan also noted that, after sending print and email promos to hundreds of potential clients, he sent personal emails to 100 editors working at publications that fit his esthetic and asked to meet with them. He got a handful of meetings with smaller publications, and from those meetings he received a couple of small jobs. He then sent more personal emails to the people he wanted to work for saying he had tear sheets, and eventually landed jobs for Fortune and other publications.

Peter Ash Lee, who started a magazine while he was an undergraduate and built his portfolio through that project, likened client relationships to romantic relationships as a way of illustrating how much personal attention they require. Running his magazine, Corduroy, Ash Lee is constantly bombarded with promos from photographers who haven’t studied his magazine and whose work isn’t relevant to the publication. Seeing things from the side of an editor helped Lee understand that he had to be targeted in his communications with clients. “Realize who your market is and what your work is good for,” he advised. Be “tasteful and genuine” in your communications, he added.

Ash Lee recalled that he sent a series of personal letters to people he greatly admired and wanted to work for. As a result of that effort he received a phone call from Dennis Freedman at W, and received an email from Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair.

Veteran photographer Andy Katz recommended self assigning long term projects so you are always working on something in down time. He also recalled that only 20 percent of the people in his  graduating class from Art Center College of Design are still working photographers. Even in art school, he said, he could predict which ones they would be: The ones who were passionately and solely dedicated to photography.

Clinton Cargill of The New York Times Magazine echoed the need for photographers to pitch work that makes sense for the publication they want to work for. The New York Times Magazine has a history of working with emerging photographers and “loves to give people a first shot,” Cargill said. When evaluating photographers, “We look for a consistent sensibility,” he added.

Cargill noted that assignments often boil down to whether a photographer is the right person for a specific need. The staff at the Magazine knew of one photographer’s work for five years before they found an assignment for her, he recalled. Cargill also showed work from the “Look” feature in the recently redesigned magazine, which includes a small image with a caption followed by a double-truck photograph. The goal of “Look” is to show “something in the world you’ve never seen before” through an exceptional image, printed large. The Magazine had never worked with Peter Bohler before he contacted them and asked if he could shoot something at a music festival called “Polish Woodstock.” They gave him the assignment.

The 2012 PDN’s 30 program is sponsored by Adobe, Canson, Sony and ASMP.

For information about upcoming PDN’s 30 panels in Los Angeles, Syracuse, NY, and Chicago look for announcements on PDN’s Facebook page or “Like” PDN for an invitation.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Peter Ash Lee founded his magazine during graduate school.

Related: The 2012 PDN’s 30 Gallery

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