What happens to photo-school grads after they are handed their diplomas and shown the door? No one seems to know.
Sure, there are a few that find some kind of early success (the worst kind of success, if you ask me). Then there are others who carry on because they are consumed by the possibilities of photography and what it can add to their lives (and who, more often than not, will have to work a day job to be able to afford the luxury of photography).
But most, sick of the rough and tumble hustle of making a career in photography or frustrated by not being successful (however they define that word) seem to melt away. They pick a different, more easily defined job.
In this, the first of what will be a few interviews with recent grads, Vera Saltzman (SPAO, 2012) talks about how she came to photography, her school experience and the path she’s followed since she graduated.
Lots to learn, even (especially) after you graduate . . .
What’s your background and how you did you end up being a photographer?
I was pretty late to the party when it comes to photography. I spent most of my life in the business world wishing I could be a photographer. When my partner and I decided to go on an adventure and moved to Nunavut from my home province of Nova Scotia, I bought a digital camera, enrolled in a distance education program, and started to learn. Photography was a way of getting to know the place where I lived and helped me to fit into these small Inuit communities. But I was still pretty shy about it all. When we moved to Ottawa I decided to leave my full-time employment to complete the two-year portfolio development program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa or SPAO as it is affectionately known. There I explored all things photographic including using film and alternative processes. It was their motto of Vision Content Craft that really motivated me. After I graduated in 2012 we moved here to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan where I continue to work at it.
I really struggled with the move to Saskatchewan. Not only did this province feel very foreign to me, I had left behind a photography community I loved. But I hadn’t come this far to give up, and I kept working. I was pretty determined. I set up a tumblr site with a goal of posting something every week. Baby steps kept me focused on making work. And once again, I turned to photography to help me find my place in a place I didn’t know.
It took time to become part of the artistic community here in Saskatchewan. A local artist in Fort Qu’Appelle introduced me to a retired photography teacher in Regina. I met the owner of Film Rescue International, a world-renowned business in Indian Head that develops vintage and expired film, and he taught me how to develop my own color film. Another photographer who came across my tumblr site reached out to me and we’ve become a source of support for each other. It has taken a while but the circle is growing.
I make use of numerous genres including landscape, architecture, portraiture and self-portraiture. Though I now primarily work with film, I enjoy incorporating various techniques and cameras into my practice. I believe in taking advantage of all photography has to offer creatively to continue to expand and evolve my body of work.
I think success means continuing to grow, learn and produce meaningful work. The rewards can be few and far between, and you have to be internally motivated.
Can you talk a little about what you learned about developing a career in photo school, about how your expectations were met and not met? I take it from your answer to my first question that you had experience in the business world. How did what you learned there (in business) help you with building your photo career?
I learned so much! As you know SPAO is a small grassroots school where the students have the opportunity to make things happen. Not only did we learn the craft and history of photography, we came up with project ideas, developed them, wrote artist statements, assembled portfolios and then marketed it all doing everything from circulating exhibition posters, designing our website and artist promo cards, to using social media as a promotion tool and finally hanging shows, even catering food for the event and then networking with patrons, media, etc. I even wrote an artist grant application to win a tuition scholarship. I took advantage of every opportunity to “learn by doing.” Perhaps my previous experience opened my eyes to how it all would apply later on. Whether we like it or not there is a business side to creative work.
One thing I look back on from my time in the corporate world is a workshop I attended to determine my personality type and how it influences the way I like to work. For instance, I prefer to stay open to new information and options rather than having things definitively determined, so I need strategies to help me to pick a direction and follow through. When it comes to personal photography projects now, I usually approach them differently than the structured way we did in school of first picking an idea and then making the images. We didn’t have years to work on a project there, and it also seems much the same way in the art world – you’re expected to produce projects of a specific number of photos within a specific time frame. After I graduated I felt tremendous pressure to come up with a series in this way and, if you’re a person like myself who doesn’t like to close doors, this can be suffocating. I often think about that workshop and remind myself I can do this in my way. I keep making images, playing with processes and exploring the possibilities. At some point though I say “Ok, what do I have here?” I need to step back and implement some of what I learned in school to help me focus or I’d never get anything done. Photographers like to discuss what is the “right” way to set about a project. Understanding what works for you personally is always the right way.
I don’t think having talent or training is enough either. One thing I treasure more than anything are the resources that I found in photography school: friends, teachers, other alumni, who I still turn to for support. School gave me a community I still value. I’m a big believer in the importance of a network of people supporting one another, no matter what career a person chooses.
You live in Regina. What’s it like living there and tell me a bit about the art/photo scene?
Growing up on the east coast, I imagined Saskatchewan only as this straight monotonous Trans Canada highway stretching over flat, bald ass prairies. A means to an end – to get to Alberta. But there’s so much more.
I actually live on a lake in rural Saskatchewan, an hour outside of Regina. I love dropping from the prairies, or “up top” as the locals call it, down into the Qu’Appelle Valley with its chain of lakes surrounded by smooth rolling hills. The amazing Canadian Olympian snowboarder Mark McMorris got his start here at the local ski hill. We live with harsh winters, wind chills over -40C, but also get more sunshine than any other place in Canada. My goal is to travel from the southern grasslands through the boreal forest to the sub-arctic north to better understand the province.
Historically Saskatchewan is a strong supporter of the arts. For instance, the Saskatchewan Arts Board is the oldest public arts funder in North America. Since 1948, it has been encouraging and funding a wide variety of artistic endeavours. Only the Art Council in Great Britain has a longer history. And BlackFlash, a photography and new media in art magazine, has been published in Saskatoon for the last 34 years. Pretty impressive!
Similar to Ottawa, there are camera clubs, commercial and freelance photographers, university fine arts programs, and artists/photographers working with photography to create their artistic vision but overall I’d say photography itself is still on the periphery of the art scene here. The legacy of abstract/landscape painting is pretty strong. And ceramics. One man who purchased a piece of mine noted it’s the first photography in his collection. It’s not an easy sell.
I count myself lucky to have Slate Gallery in Regina representing my work. With their support I’ve had opportunities for exposure I likely wouldn’t have had working on my own anywhere. Not only do they see artistic value in photography, they encourage me in my practice.
Picking a project upfront has not been my process. It works well for some, but I honestly think it can be the kiss of death for others. I made lists of projects that are still sitting in a notebook. I beat myself up for being a shit photographer who couldn’t get her act together. It could have been the end of my photography career, but I kept making pictures and talking about photography with friends.
I’m not even sure I can identify a “first project.” It was more like I had all these images and then went back to reflect on them. I seemed to be drawn to certain things, always looking for home. This profound longing for the east coast and a desire to feel a sense of belonging on the Prairies appeared as a common thread. I felt like a transplant that hadn’t taken root. Fishing shacks reminded me of time spent with my father in Nova Scotia, grain elevators marked the landscape like prairie lighthouses, the importance of water in a landlocked province haunted me, and so on.
I try to not put too much weight on how long it takes me to do something. It takes as long as it takes. Perhaps a day, maybe a week, or even years. I spent a week making a handful of images using a simple homemade pinhole camera with some paper negatives called, “I walk the valley.” It speaks to the overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness I felt when I moved to Saskatchewan, which was intensified by being slammed with menopause. And I was done with it. I had no more to say.
Other work may never end. The fishing shacks and grain elevators for instance are a kind of typology I keep adding to. I worked on my most recent series “O Human Child” going on three years. Photographing the local iconography, landscapes, or the portraits of people of Saskatchewan helps me to foster attachment and feel like I belong here. I love what Robert Adams says about why people photograph – “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect – a sense of inclusion.”
I may go back to my project list at some point so I won’t get rid of it. I’ll even keep adding to it, but it won’t be what I live and die by.