A Generalized Specialty


Photo by Barry Schwartz


My first career was in construction and kitchen-and-bath design, so years later when I became a professional photographer it was a pretty natural progression to specialize in architectural photography. The business culture was something I understood very well, I already had industry connections, and I was more than happy to hang around pretty buildings and construction sites.

As a young photographer in my teens and for years after, I considered turning pro but did not feel I had the fire in the belly I believed it would take. Still, I took my little camera (an Olympus OM1) everywhere, including on jobsites. Some of my friends, and not a few colleagues, considered me a bit of a pest; little did I understand at the time how that level of persistence was a positive attribute – a requirement, in fact – for a professional career.

I educated myself about photography purely by instinct: I followed what attracted me. Avedon and Penn, Cartier-Bresson and Sam Abell, Jerry Uelsmann and Wynn Bullock. I taught myself how to develop film and use a darkroom. I never took a single class. In my twenties, I added color, stopped processing and turned all that over to labs. I never learned anything about studio photography or technical cameras and focused on documentary work and the occasional portrait. It was a lot of fun.

The last ten years of my actual career was dominated by building and designing kitchens. To promote myself through pictures, I bought a tripod and some lights and umbrellas and made an awful lot of awful pictures. Gradually, through attrition, I got better – just as my wrist and elbow started to give out from the physical demands of construction; clearly, my blue-collar life was coming to an end. I assumed I would simply turn to designing full-time, but circumstances offered me the chance to photograph other people’s work, and the short version is: I never looked back.

Switching careers concentrates the mind, as the Brits say, and studying became an obsession. I didn’t have to learn about the culture of my design clients, because that had been my own life; my job now was to learn about the techniques and culture of architectural photographers. Among the advice I heard was that design clients expect their photographers to be specialists – as they were – and to never show them any other kind of work on websites or in portfolios because that demonstrated a lack of seriousness of purpose, and design is a serious business. If an architectural photographer did produce another kind of work, the smart move was to keep that quiet by having a separate website.

Being a contentious student, however, I discovered successful photographers who did not follow the path of being a pure specialist, while hearing repeatedly how important it was to have a camera with me all the time, which was exactly the justification I was looking for, and so found myself doing street photography and environmental portraits more than ever. It was still a lot of fun. This was work I wanted to get paid for, and while I understood the concept of niche marketing I believed there was a place for a serious architectural photographer who also made pictures of people. I knew it might be dicey starting out, but kicking off a new profession was already a chancy move, so, why not? Besides, I already had the experience of a diverse career, simultaneously working as a contractor, carpenter, and designer.

Architectural photography remains my primary source of work, and I’m certain I’ve lost opportunities because of my decision to diversify, but other projects have come my way precisely because I produce several kinds of work, all proudly displayed on the same website. Several recent projects each required portraits, architecture, and documentary work, and those clients made it clear my capabilities were why I got hired. Niches may be niches, but fun is fun.

Robert Brunner, a well-known product designer, recently said in a talk for 99U, “You don’t own your brand. A brand isn’t a logo or packaging. It’s a gut feeling. And when two people have the same gut feeling, you have a brand.”

My career path turned out to be the right move – for me. Being a generalist is my brand. That’s what my clients think, exactly what I hoped for. Maybe I just got lucky; I don’t think so.

Anyway, I would make the argument that for someone like me, branding is just another word for nothing left to lose.