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university of michigan
I'm fortunate for so many reasons. Among the first is growing up under the influence of another great photographer: my father. Equally important is the support and encouragement both my parents have always shown, no matter how crazy my ideas are.
While finishing my senior year in college in 2004 I had the extreme pleasure of photographing one of the greatest instructors in the history of man, Ralph Williams. Had I not experienced this shoot, I'd likely not be who I am today... or married* for that matter.
I was inspired to work with Ralph during one of his lectures. On this particular day he was being recorded by a local station and the film crew had set up spotlights so he'd show up in the dark auditorium. As he danced back and forth in front of the class, the spotlights highlighted his mannerisms so perfectly I could think of nothing other than recreating the set up for my own camera.
After first coordinating with his secretary, who made me explain my intentions numerous times, I was finally able to talk to Ralph in person. We picked a day during Spring break so the auditorium would be empty and I secured lighting from another department at the school.
When the day arrived I triple checked I had everything loaded in my car and even brought Ralph a muffin and tea. I arrived early to set up, ran a few tests and anxiously awaited his arrival. When he got there we chatted a little and I explained what I was looking for as he still seemed confused by my request.
"Just give me a lecture like you normally would", was what I said. I knew it wasn't one specific pose or anything I could control, it was simply Ralph being Ralph. So he began, book in hand, and I began shooting. To me it felt longer than it was because when this man delivers a lecture to a class it's epic, but when it's channeled at only one person it's almost more than the mind can handle. But, I survived. And shot three fabulous rolls of black and white Ilford HP5 Plus.
I finished, Ralph departed and I wrapped up. I didn't know it then, but this shoot was the beginning of my career. So many shoots I'd go on to be part of or orchestrate myself would function similarly, but they weren't as special because I knew how they'd unfold.
I recently got to work with Ralph again, two months shy of ten years later. Unlike our first shoot, we spent most of the time talking about family, travel, our careers. The experience was just as amazing as I remembered and below are some of my favorites.
Thank you, Ralph.
* In 2004 I entered the pictures of Ralph into the art school's senior show. A recent art graduate named Yen saw them and felt compelled to email me. I'm happy to say we still email one another if for some reason one of us isn't at home.
Yesterday I highlighted students recently introduced to the world of photography. In a few years they might continue shooting as a hobby, begin an apprenticeship with a studio or further their education through college.
Nicholas' path to photography is an interesting one.
"I came to photography through skateboarding. I think this is a pretty common story, but there comes a point in a skater's career when they think, Yeah, I can't do half the shit my homies can do. What can I be good at? Then they pick up a camera and find a niche as the crew's filmer or photographer. I filled the void as photographer and began trying to emulate the stuff I saw in Transworld and Thrasher. But shooting skateboarding is hard for me, because I started not skating everyday and I eventually began shooting more portraits, and fashion stuff."
I then asked him which is more important: subject, environment or action. His response didn't surprise me as his works often include the composition and story-telling seldom seen by those with less than decades of experience.
"I think you need all three, no? I almost always really want to incorporate two of those concepts into my composition."
Image capturing technology has changed a lot in the last ten years. So much so that today's DSLRs shoot video, making it easier for photographers to venture into motion. He explains this is the direction he's headed.
"I still use a DSLR so it feels very similar to staging a photograph, but now I am directing scenes based in time instead of moments. So lately I have been getting a lot of enjoyment from trying to depict the subtly psychotic, the quietly deranged and people who are occupying a different reality, a place that never makes sense and is often condemned in our day to day culture."
His work and style already provide inspiration for peers of all ages, but who does he look up to?
"I think I get the most out of artists who are not primarily photographers. When I idolize a photographer, it really shows in my work, like my style morphs to theirs. So I try to focus on artists who draw, paint, or make films so I don't have to worry about adopting a photographic style that is not my own. I really love Egon Schiele, Stanley Kubrick, Salvator Dali, Roman Polanski, Harmony Korine, and Wernor Herzog, all for their own reasons. Film directors that use subtle diversions from reality to create new worlds are my favorite meal. As I am still in school I am so thankful to have people like Ed West and Holly Hughes who are each both huge stores of information and offer great, honest opinions. Stamps is pretty stocked with solid professors, I like them all, even the ones I disagree with I really enjoy the challenge they provide."
(That last sentence is incredibly important!!!)
Professor Ed West has not only helped Nicholas perfect studio lighting, but also pushes him to travel and explore photo stories as he did following drag performer Dulce De Leche with the Kelly McKinnell Memorial Award.
So, what's next?
"After college... right... academia feels so safe and warm. I go back and forth about graduate school. If I could get into a fully funded program it would be cool to bop around for a bit longer and ride the wave of free studio space and time to create whatever I want. Although I feel like I should really get out into the real world, maybe live the grunge life and soak up some salt. All my favorite directors and artists seem to have come from underground sorts of places and I feel I have led a very privileged middle class existence. I might really need to just be in a place where I am the only variable in whether or not I have food to eat and a place to sleep. Although the danger would never be real, someone is always around to save me. So yeah, obviously undecided, leaning towards academia, but only if I can make some work that is considered good enough to go for free."
As long as Nicholas is experiencing life and making new work, it doesn't matter what he decides.
How to Get a Job in the Art World: Branding Yourself through Resume, Grooming and Other Important Stuff
We're pretty involved at our alma mater, the University of Michigan School of Art & Design. In a couple weeks we'll be meeting with students at the Portfolio Expo, a great event where students get to share their work with professionals that can give them insight on internships and jobs, what approach to take to achieve their next goal and general advice for exploring the art world. I remember how nerve-wracking it was trying to get my foot in the door at a gallery. There's a steep learning curve involved with molding into the culture of dealing with clients and that's something that can't be taught. Since the bulk of my background has been in gallery and art administration, I've interviewed and hired a few interns over the years. For the most part, I knew my future intern within two minutes of meeting them. But before that, the resume tipped me off on who I should look out for. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
You are a brand, and your resume is a product of that. I really appreciate a thoughtful resume with attention to font, spacing, color and if it's relevant, a logo. It's especially effective if the content of your resume stands up to the aesthetics. Many times I see gimick-y resumes but there's little to no content or not enough text to tell me what skill sets students possess or what they did at their last job. Conversely, a resume that's content heavy but runs text all the way to the margins when it says they're graphic design majors, is just as disconcerting. Striking a balance is difficult and every interviewer or potential employer is going to look for different things. My advice is to send your resume to at least three professors and/or professionals in the field that have the time to give you feedback on both aesthetic and content.
Here are a few other tips:
- Curate and edit. Keep your resume to one page, if possible. The second page is usually overlooked, mostly due to time constraints.
- Don't fill up the page with an extra large font if you're short on experience. Own the fact that you're green and be honest about your ambitions during interviews.
- Please use spellcheck. I cringe thinking that you're not only sending it to me, but lots of other potential employers as well. It's indicative of the type of work you'll produce.
- If you don't feel confident on your design skills, do a trade with a graphic designer to spruce up your resume.
GROOMING + INTERVIEWING
I once had a student show up for a 9 a.m. interview at 9:15 (Strike one. I'm a stickler on punctuality, especially for interviews)! We had a nice conversation but I knew right away that she wouldn't feel comfortable on the gallery floor. The collectors I dealt with would walk all over her. Plus, she hadn't brought a copy of her resume (strike two). As she was speaking, I noticed that her hair was a bit unruly. As she turned to the side, I saw a huge matted knot on the back of her head that stuck straight up. Bedhead. (Strike three. Must brush hair to work in gallery). After she left, I never heard from her again. Then there was the student who showed up in a tight white, see-through waffle shirt and dark, red lipstick - all over her teeth. She wasn't called back.
Last year, our good friend John Luther, the Career Development Coordinator at the School of Art & Design, sent me notice that Kelsey would be calling to meet when she moved to Chicago. She was open to various positions but was really hoping to get into a design consultancy that handled all kinds of creative campaigns and products. Although it wasn't my realm of expertise, we had a great conversation about the art scene. Not only did she show up on time and brush her hair, she was dressed appropriately, brought copies of her resume (although I had already seen it electronically) and had done research on the gallery. Consequently, Kelsey got herself a great position from meeting the President of a major company just weeks later.
It may seem obvious but I used to have friends during art school that didn't shower. And one notorious friend who didn't brush his teeth (gum was the stand-in). Whether you know it or not, people will recognize you from gallery openings and class which could affect your outcome in getting a job later. Brush your hair. And your teeth.
There's an old saying that goes, "Dress for the job that you want, not the one that you have." There's a lot of truth to that. My first year of art school, I couldn't afford a lot of interview clothing. My "uniform", as it came to be called, consisted of black long sleeve shirts, a black sweater vest, black dress pants and black boots. I pegged myself into the stereotypical artist garb but I never had a problem with matching outfits or looking underdressed. I always made sure my hair was coiffed and kept out of my face. I interviewed for two jobs this way and got them both. The point is, do your best and carry yourself like you mean it. Here are a few points to remember when interviewing:
- Practice out loud. Make sure you can answer simple things like, Tell me about yourself? or Why do you want this job?
- Answer the question. Don't get caught up in telling long stories and forgetting what they wanted to know in the first place.
- Research the organization or company you're interviewing with. Even one factual tidbit will let the interviewer know that you're serious.
- Bring your resume, no matter how many times you know they've seen it.
- Smile and try to have a good time!
- Follow up. Thank you note or not, it's a helpful reminder to email or drop a line to keep your presence fresh in their mind. If not for now, maybe down the road.
It's a daunting but exciting feat to obtain an art-related job. Internships are competitive and really test your ability to thrive under pressure. In between final projects, tests and papers, it's hard sometimes to figure out what you want to brand yourself as and ultimately, how. Think about your business card, your website and consider how cohesive they are to representing you and your work. Art school is a competitive business but don't be afraid to show your work to peers and ask for feedback. We should all be well-versed in giving active and helpful critique by now so offer to do that same for your friends too.
We're hoping to acquire an intern as our business grows down the road. Who knows, maybe it'll be you. Best of luck to each and every one of you!
Many times in life I've interacted with people that show up to work or class, and do exactly just enough to get by. They usually do what's required, but that's it. There seems to be no drive or personality in their actions. Brijit Spencer is currently an art student at the University of Michigan's School of Art and Design. Her interest is photography, which she has a firm understanding of, as well as some drawing and painting. It's photography, though, that she'd like to pursue, post graduation. It's no surprise that some of her favorites include Sally Mann, Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus. Her work, past and current, seems an ongoing documentary of the life she knows and is getting to know. Among other photos in her Integrative Project (which can be seen here) are two photos of a boy and his Halloween candy. Both images hold innocence, but the first leaves the viewer wondering if the slight frown worn by the child is just a random moment or in response to an unwanted request. The other photo perfectly captures the subordinate eyes of the child, as a piece of candy hangs in the balance. People are capable of acting out these emotions, but for a child this age, staged photos are extremely rare. The credit here is due to Brijit.
These images represent only a slice of her photography and style, and it's safe to say that as a student who is set to graduate in a few months, she has little free time. Yet somehow she is doing something that few students do: she's reaching out to people before graduation.
It's never too late for anything, BUT if you have the chance to contact potential employers and/or artists you admire before entering the fast paced real world, do so. Good grades and solid work are definitely good things, but they don't always set you apart. Be aggressive, be persistent. Simply put: be like Brijit.
More of Brijits work can be seen here.