Mary Catherine Bateson on How To Be A Systems Thinker


Most artists are not obsessed with art to the exclusion of the rest of the world; despite a common misconception of non-practitioners, it makes for better work to be curious about the wider world.

An aptitude for curiosity can easily lead to a lack of focus; without some self-curation, there lies madness, and no career. A little structure can go a long way. Practitioners in the arts world – really, any world – are cognizant to some degree how they fit into the system they operate in. This awareness gets better with repetition and self-awareness.

By default, this makes everyone a systems thinker, whether they do it well or not-so-well.

Mary Catherine Bateson is an anthropologist and author with something authoritative to say about all that. She has a singular take on systems theory and its better-known cousin, cybernetics, because her parents, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, helped invent them during the 1940s and ‘50s when they helped organize and run The Macy’s Conferences.

The Conferences were intensely collaborative experiences with a small group of big-thinkers, including artists and social scientists. Computers were never the focus; their work was really about systems theory, fueled to an extent by their sense that the world after WWII was going to be a different place, which, of course, they got right.

Bateson quite literally grew up in the company of this remarkable, highly accomplished group. Like her parents, she has the ability to put into ordinary language what in other people’s hands would be needlessly jargon-filled ideas.  You can see her in action in a video on  The video runs about 40 minutes, and because she is humorous and plain-spoken, it’s not a slog. “You don’t know have to know a lot of technical terminology to be a systems thinker.”

The ideas and processes she talks about apply to artists and creative entrepreneurs as much as any other profession. Truth-in-advertising, Bateson is a friend of mine through her father, who I knew well when I was a young man.

Mary Catherine Bateson on

How To Be A Systems Thinker

Another Edition Of Worthy Links For You, Dear Reader

Photo by Barry Schwartz

Julia Child’s husband, Paul Childs, took the photos that illustrated her first books. It’s no accident his work was at a professional level – he had been taking pictures for decades. Before he and Julia moved back to the U.S., while living in France he was friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Napa, and Edward Steichen. He even used their printer, the legendary Pierre Gassmann. The Lens Blog in the New York Times previews images of France and Julia Child never seen before now.  From the new book France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child.

The Unseen Julia Child

Learning about art school can be more fun than actually going to art school.  And much less anxiety-producing. Here’s a short cartoon-graphic as proof by Walter Scott in The New Yorker:

Wendy’s Guide to Art Grad School

Two of the smartest people in journalism and media are David Remnick, writer and Editor of the The New Yorker, and A.G. Sulzberger, the Publisher of the New York Times. They’re seriously smart regarding the massive, never-ending changes in their world, while striving to be ethical, professional communicators. What is billed as an interview by Remnick of Sulzberger is more like eavesdropping on a fascinating, relevant-to-our-times conversation.

A Conversation with A. G. Sulzberger, the New Leader of the New York Times

Newsletters are one of the best ways to stay in touch with clients and potential clients; they consistently have an “open-rate” that make them the envy of any online ad.  Newsletter technology has gotten cheaper and easier to use, but you still want to send emails people will want to open, or at least read. The Nielsen Norman Group, a respected source of effective design for the screen, has a short video tutorial on three design elements worth paying attention to. While you’re at the site, be sure to subscribe to their own newsletter, it’s packed with good information.

3 UX Tips for Better Newsletters and Marketing Emails

For creative entrepreneurs of any kind, licensing is part of the lifeblood of maintaining an income stream.  Here is a great example of the value of limiting licensing, as opposed to unlimited licenses. From the really terrific blog Pricing & Negotiating that appears on the the equally terrific A Photo Editor blog.

Pricing & Negotiating: Licensing Extension

In 1964, many years after high school, Richard Avendon and his high school friend James Baldwin published Nothing Personal, which was re-published last fall along with a lot of new and extra material, including Avendon out-takes. The introduction, excerpted here, is by Hilton Als, Pulitzer-prize winning critic on the staff of The New Yorker, who knew Avedeon – the first staff photographer the magazine ever had. From the New Yorker’s own Photo Booth blog.

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s Joint Examination of American Identity


Interview With Ethan Pines

I was one of the authors of a book published a few years back, the ASMP Guide To New Markets In Photography. My contribution was a series of oral-history interviews with thirty-two photographers, totaling 21,000 words. The editor, the late Susan Carr, asked me to speak with successful women and men whose age and specialties ranged widely: fine art, editorial, and commercial.

Photographers are in business, just like musicians, writers, stained-glass makers, and other creative entrepreneurs. Successful ones never cease to be preoccupied with keeping their careers and work fresh and engaged. We wanted to find out how they managed it.

Most of the interviews have never appeared outside the book. I am publishing a few of them here, appearing exactly as they are in the book.  Other than the introduction, the words are the photographer’s.


Started career in 2002

Career Summary: After photography school, worked for a few years as an assistant but quickly became an editorial and advertising photographer.   Portraits, conceptual, lifestyle, fine art.

Production Value
I’ve been putting together a higher level of production value into my testing – and even into my editorial shoots – to create more portfolio images that hopefully stand above the crowd.  The only way to avoid bidding wars and the ensuing race to the bottom is to offer something that’s not easily replaced by another photographer.  You want the client to hire you for the way your shoot, not for your pricing.  From what I’m seeing right now, clients are starting to commission more new shoots than they were over the last one or two years.

I’ve also worked on bringing in more revenue from stock.  Clients are commissioning fewer unique shots than they used to, due to decreased marketing budgets and the cheapness and availability of microstock and royalty-free stock.  I make sure to only do shoots at a high-quality level that are viable for rights-managed stock, and I’ve had some good stock sales.

Night Trees Project
I’ve always shot a ton of personal work that I felt had a fine art bent to it, but if you want to have a gallery show, you really need to have a body of work that’s long-term, a cohesive body of work.  The Night Trees project started very spontaneously. I was in Las Vegas for a two-day shoot.  I had my 4×5 with me, and I didn’t use it at all on this shoot, but at one point I was just driving through this neighborhood and I just saw this bare tree above a house.  Both things just looked like they were out of the late ‘60s, just weathered and vintage.  No chain link fences around, no new hardware or windows or doors.  No billboards around, nothing like that.  It looked like it could be from any era and this tree was just perfectly centered in front of the house and towering over it like a lollipop.  I just loved it and it looked great at night under the lights.  I  just loved the way it came out and felt there’s something about it that speaks to me I haven’t seen it before so I just continued this Night Trees project.

How do you separate yourself from other photographers or get some recognition.  Many times it’s just beautiful personal work that really resonates with people.  You have to do whatever it takes to stand out a little bit above the crowd because there are so many photographers now and so many good ones.  And that being said.  I’m shooting this because I want to.  Maybe it’ll bring in some clients maybe not.

Faced with increased competition and my own inner drive to continually improve, I’ve made my product – my images – more compelling and more sophisticated over time. And my marketing has changed. With the increased competition that exists now, I have to market more than ever, via more avenues than ever. It’s so easy for photographers and would-be photographers to promote themselves that it’s far more difficult to stand out above the din and clutter. It used to be you could have a website and a spread in Workbook and be all right. Now, there’s the website, sourcebooks, online portals, email blasts, social media, blogs, getting on to other blogs, photo competitions…the list goes on. You have to do it all.

Relationships are very important.  I have good relationships with my clients.  Having more personal meetings is something that is part of my marketing plan for this year. It’s more about fewer clients, but having real relationships with them. I do an e-mail blast about once every two months.  I get some good responses, some people actually write back from design firms and agencies and say thanks, we really like your work.  I get a few opt outs but not many. Over the last four years I’ve either been in Archive or AtEdge consistently. I do contests.  Which can be, if you get in, really good.

The Trees were in the Communication Arts Photo Annual in 2010 and then actually last year in The International Photography Awards.  Which was cool.  It’s nice exposure and it gives you something to send out in an e-mail.

Personal Work
My website doesn’t distinguish between…it’s just portrait, lifestyle, and animal.  There is a section that says Personal, but there’s nothing that says the stuff in my portrait, lifestyle, and animal sections can’t come from a shoot that I set up myself.  I feel if it’s in a section on your website, it should have a consistent feel because it’s just too jarring for people to be going through and suddenly something’s completely different.

The biggest thing that you can offer that distinguishes you from other photographers is your imagination, your mind. That’s the tool you’ve got that will really take it to the next level.  Equipment is great.  It’s fun and it’s exciting, but the most important things at the shoot are you and the subject.  The people in front of the camera.