What Kind of Photographer ARE You, Anyway?

“What ARE you?” I recall the man asking me. “Are you a photojournalist? A fashion photographer? Do you shoot weddings or portraits? Or do you shoot products?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Our society loves to put people and things into categories. It makes it easier to describe and follow. Our society doesn’t like it when we color outside of the lines.

Yes, I agree that someone’s photography becomes especially distinctive when he or she specializes in doing one thing really well, becoming known for it, which is a smart way of niche marketing, but I’m originally from a small town and learned to be a generalist for the sake of survival. The way I see it, photography is about lighting anyway.

chattanooga tn fashion photography The man above, checking out my recent exhibition, said he wasn’t sure what to expect because he’s familiar with a lot of my fashion and glamour work online. He joked that he wasn’t sure his wife would dig this photo show he dragged her to if I displayed a lot of half-naked beautiful women. Although he meant it in a good-natured humorous way, it is a little annoying to constantly feel pressured to stick to one style or genre of subject matter.

I want to shoot it all at least once.

Sure, I’d love to be known as “that guy who shoots ____” but even in middle age, I don’t know exactly what my _____ is all of the time.

I explained that context matters in such a situation. For a photo exhibition in a small Bible Belt town, my editorial swimwear images might not be as popular and accepted as, say, pretty pictures of familiar, scenic spots. Nor, I’m sure, would many wives allow their husbands to buy and display some provocative, sexy wall prints; it would transform my work into the equivalent of that leg lamp from “A Christmas Story” that the mom of the house can’t wait to “accidentally” damage so it must be taken down and stored away from public view.

Americana artist Russell Gulley
Russell Gulley

Different markets call for different sorts of images. If my goal is to sell wall prints, I suspect people are more inclined to buy a local scenic display than photos of good-looking strangers. As displayed here, you can see a sample of the variety in my photographic work.

The discussion seemed relevant while talking to musician Russell Gulley, who performs at a number of different venues. People want to classify musical artists as being blues players or Americana players or whatever. I remember being blown away, early on in my career, during a photo shoot with drummer Mark Herndon of the Alabama band. Although he was in one of the most successful country music groups of all time, he was listening to “Pink Floyd The Wall” and we bonded over a mutual love of that album.

I reject the notion that I must ONLY be a nature photographer or that my fashion/glamour work negates any serious artistic work in other genres simply because the subject matter is commercially popular. I shoot what I like and what I’m hired to capture in visually captivating ways.

Early on, the majority of my images were photojournalistic because I was working and shooting primarily for newspapers. My style and what I like to shoot are always evolving. Just because I shoot with a lot of models, it doesn’t make me primarily a model photographer — a term that can be ripe with mockery because there are so many hobbyists who like shooting pretty girls.

chattanooga food photographerWhether my camera is focusing on a lingerie model or a cheeseburger from a restaurant, the focus on making the subject look interesting and appealing are the same. That’s not to compare models to meat but to say that both are selling different types of allure. One image wants to convince you to buy your wife a piece of fabric to spice up your love life while the other is trying to persuade you to catch the dinner special at the restaurant down the road.

These days particularly, when professional photography seems under siege from supply exceeding demand and publications continuing to experience an apocalypse, one must become something of a generalist if he or she is to survive. Besides, it’s stimulating to work on personal projects that are completely different than what we might be “known” for.

If you couldn’t SHOW anyone my photography but had to describe it, how would YOU characterize my work? What about your own work?

My opinion is just my opinion. I’d love to hear what the rest of you think on this topic.