Pricing Is Not A Dark Art

Arts District, downtown Los Angeles.  Photo By Barry Schwartz.
Arts District, downtown Los Angeles. Photo By Barry Schwartz.

By Barry Schwartz

Social media can be a lot of things; thankfully, not all of them anxiety-producing. For a professional photographer such as myself, social media can be a window into how other pros deal with known issues of running a business. As an educator and professional, it is a tool that helps me step outside myself and keeps my thought processes from becoming too ingrown. For an educator, social media is a way to stay current with the pain-points experienced by students and emerging professionals – even mid-career photographers; complaints and confusion are ever-present.

I recently came upon a post where a photographer commented unhappily about the price of a potential car repair from a mechanic, comparing that estimate with how difficult it can be for photographers to figure out what to charge.

I responded that the estimate was based on what the market will bear, combined with what the mechanic felt their services were worth in comparison to their peers. That’s how all kinds of businesses keep their doors open. They were the same calculations that went into my fees during the twenty years I was a building contractor, and these days similar to how I calculate fees as a photographer. All business owners have specific expenses – personal and business – that must be addressed to stay viable, and everyone achieves stability in their own way; however, that does not mean the process is opaque or unique to each profession or even to each person. It boils down to: what to charge?

There were lots of sympathetic comments about the post, including the often heard complaint that pricing is an opaque, dark art, and that photographers as a group hold their pricing cards tight to their chest, revealing nothing. In fact, in the States, there are lots of ways to uncover what photographers charge for their work. Think of it as open source intelligence; no secrets.

For instance:

On aPhotoEditor, there are posts from Wonderful Machine that describe, in considerable detail, the briefs of projects, the resulting negotiations, fees, and expenses, all revealed in the actual contract, including the Terms & Conditions (look under “Pricing & Negotiating”). The owner of aPhotoEditor, Rob Haggard, has been posting a new series, “How Much Do You Make”, where people describe in varying amounts of detail (sometimes per job) how much they made in a recent year, Gross and Net, who their typical clients are, and even their workflow. These descriptions are remarkable in lots of ways, but not for being secret: anyone can read them. They even get posted on Instagram.

Consultants and reps who negotiate with commercial and advertising clients – even editorial photo editors – tend to have a good idea of standard pricing. Project pricing depends on a number of variables, including (but not limited to): the difficulty of the project, the client’s size, standard fees for support trades and vendors, usage length and breadth, and how the photographer’s experience and style factor into pricing. Bidding is both science and art, but the most important factor is prior knowledge, because consultants and reps develop bids all the time. Win or lose, they have their noses to the ground and a community they are engaged with. These folks can sometimes be hired by the hour or as producing partners, where they help develop proposals with the idea that if the photographer gets the job, so do they.

I find lots of photographers will discuss fees; I do, and so do most of my friends. I had one friend where, for some obscure reason, we were asked to bid on the same projects so often we would automatically check in with each other about the project and not only discuss pricing, but how we might light and even produce the brief.

I’m a member of several online photo groups where pricing discussions are common. It’s worth joining professional – or even semi-professional online groups, even as a lurker. Trade associations in the States, while not allowed to proscribe fees, can certainly enable the kind of community conversations where pricing is discussed.

The process of bidding all by itself is a way to find out how one sits among the competition. Valuable feedback can come in the early stage of developing a proposal when clients indicate what their preferred budget is. Even if the job goes to someone else, potential clients may reveal if pricing was the losing factor or if it was something else – knowledge to be incorporated into future pricing. Those factors could include style, personal connection, ability to think and respond quickly. A critically important aspect of business is people skills. If there is any art involved, it’s in knowing how to negotiate, which is not a dark art at all but a learnable skill, however much anxiety is attached to the process for both photographer and client.

Budgets can be remarkably variable. One of the reasons a client may request bids from several photographers is to verify that their wish-list for deliverables can be realistically attained: they may need feedback from photographers in order to meet their own internal requirements for the project. They honestly are not sure. This is standard operating procedure, not secret or deceitful. These negotiations are a reality for all kinds of gigs at every level of expense. People skills come into play here, as well, because even if a photographer is not awarded the project, other people will remember if they were difficult or easy, pleasant or abrasive – the bidder with the better behavior is much more likely to be asked to bid on further projects and thereby gain more knowledge.

Fine art pricing, where the artist decides in advance of a sale what the price for their art should be, can seem like the most opaque and arcane and secretive of all. However, it’s easy to see what other photographers are charging simply by going to galleries, where a puzzled photographer can look at work similar to their own and even compare how far along they are in their careers. I’m referencing actual, physical galleries – the kinds with doors on the front. Things can be learned by going to websites: fine art photographers list clients, exhibitions, and shows on their websites; more links for learning. Alternate venues that display photos, such as coffee shops, art fairs, restaurants, online marketplaces, and open studio tours can be valuable for research. Everyone starts somewhere. If an artist becomes part of a gallery’s stable – a somewhat unfortunate, yet accurate, term – the gallery owner will work out with the artist what they think the market will bear based on their own experience, just like commercial reps and consultants.

Wedding and commercial event photographers often publish rates right on their websites. Their fees, just like those of other kinds of photographers, are based on a specific set of services which may be listed in detail. These groups of professionals are particularly free with their knowledge, up to and including entire conventions devoted to their trades.

In editorial the budgets are not a secret because, with a few exceptions, publications, not the photographer, set the fee for an assignment. While not terribly negotiable, editors respect the need for additional expenses, such as travel, stylists, and rental equipment, all of which can increase the total fee. For instance, it’s not unusual in either commercial or editorial work to claim a rental fee for owned equipment.

Successful photographers in every genre at every level of experience lose out on jobs all the time; no one gets them all. One of the reasons such folks are able to stay in the game is because they are aware of all the factors above. Business is hard, but not impossible. If mechanics can remain viable with all their competition, so can photographers with theirs.

Interview with Jesse Burke

This article first appeared on Lenscratch as part of the series Photographers On Photographers. The brief included speaking with photojournalists and documentary photographers whose work is exhibited in galleries, museums, and other public displays, as well as in publications and advertising.

Barry Schwartz in Conversation with Jesse Burke on Lenscratch:

The full article, sans photos, follows.


Jesse Burke is a fine art, editorial, and advertising photographer based in Rhode Island.  After receiving his MFA from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), he quickly gained gallery representation, which, unusually, led to commercial work.  He has worked on personal projects his entire career, including those with family members, and all are thematically and aesthetically linked to his commercial work.


Artist Statement and Bio

My Wild & Precious project brings together treasures from a series of road trips traveled with my eldest daughter to explore the natural world and get more in touch with the earth. I use these adventures to encourage a connection between my child and nature and to give her an education that I consider essential—one that develops appreciation, respect, conservation, and self- confidence. Together we document and collect objects from the routes we drive, the landscapes we discover, the creatures we encounter, even the roadside motels where we sleep. Wild & Precious reveals the fragile, complicated relationship that humans share with nature and attempts to strengthen those bonds.

My Intertidal series is an investigation into the delicate balance that exists between the heroic idea of masculinity and the true reality of men. It explores the presence of vulnerability and sensitivity that act as forces against the mythology of male dominance and power.


Barry Schwartz
You do both editorial and commercial work. The general take on editorial is that it is similar to personal work in that it pays less, but you have more creative freedom. Is that basically been your experience?

Jesse Burke 
Yeah, definitely. I think they’re looking to collaborate. Another difference between editorial and commercial is that along that on commercial projects they have a pretty solid sense of what they’re looking for. In editorial projects, most of the time they’re very open to what you can do, which is where you get to have be creative and do things that you would do for your personal work, because they know they’re not paying you a ton of money. But we like what you do. And we know we’re going to like what you give us. 

You also teach at RISD.

I took some time away from RISD to teach in other places. That’s a scheduling and money combination of things. I love being connected with academia, but I don’t love that it doesn’t pay very much and that it’s very time consuming. It’s a balance, right? I need to be available to travel when the jobs come through. I have taught at RISD, the more or less, since 2005.  It’s fun to get a variety of teaching positions and adjunct positions in different schools. It keeps me on my toes, the kids keep me on my toes.

If you’re going to be a responsible teacher, you actually have to know what you’re talking about, which means you have to keep learning. Keep learning from the students, of course, but bringing in stuff that’s up to date in terms of decent information. In my case, I’m not teaching how to take pictures, I’m teaching about how to make a living.

I think professional practice is the most one of the most important classes. It’s increasingly becoming more popular, but it was just implemented when I was at graduate school.

I’ve always felt that class, of all the classes I’ve ever taken, was the most helpful. Critique classes are great. But in terms of practicality, the professional practice class gave me a little bit of an insight into all this insanity. Henry Hornstein was the teacher. He’s a really amazing guy and has a ton of experience with different elements of photography, which would include commercial, editorial, bookmaking, photo, gallery. I’ve always been very fond of professional practice, as a course, as a visiting artist, which I’ve done countless times.  I just think it’s so crucial.

You studied at RISD also.

My academic path is I took some photo class electives at a community college in Arizona, then I transferred to the University of Arizona in Tucson for my BFA in photography. I went to grad school for my MFA in photography at RISD.

That’s a good school, in Arizona.

Big photo school. The Center for Creative Creative Photography was there. I worked there. The Avedon archive is there, Mary Virginia Swanson is there..

Had you started shooting professionally before you got your Masters?

I always knew I wanted to be involved in commercial photography somehow. When I was in graduate school, I assisted some wedding photographers. I knew that I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer, but it was photography, and it was fun, and it paid a little bit of money. I mean, I made $200 a wedding. But I had a great time.

When I graduated from RISD, through my professional practice class, I decided I’m going to follow the path they’ve laid out. I’m going to make a portfolio, I’m going to start reaching out to people and try to get meetings and go in and show my book, and then maybe they’ll hire me to shoot something. And over time they did. Although it wasn’t terrible, it was very rarely something I wanted to photograph. Slowly, I started to get better gigs. It’s a bit of a snowball that’s always rolling, still rolling.

Currently, I have no gallery and no agent. Those are partially my decision, but it’s always in flux, right? You’re always growing, the snowball is always rolling.

My fine art career came much easier than my commercial career did, which is usually the other way around. You work really hard, you can get some commercial success. The art world thing is out of your hands in the sense that you just make the work you make. You can’t necessarily cater to your clients, which would be like galleries and museums. It’s got to be a natural fit in some ways. I just got lucky that my work was appealing to the right people at the right time. It was harder for me to break through the commercial barricade. I think people liked it, but they didn’t really know how to use it, or use me, or what to do with me. I’ve slowly been able to get over that hump. I’m not the perfect lifestyle photographer, which would make it really easy to get jobs.  My work is a little more complicated for them. And maybe it’s not happy enough or as glorious as it should be, or as fun as it should be. At this point, I don’t really care, because I’m sort of confident enough to just make the work I want to make, which then lands commercial gigs. But that’s a very hard position to live in.

What was your entry into the fine art world?

James Wagner and Barry Hoggard did a review of my MFA work in their blog. Pre-Instagram. A couple of different gallerists found my work through that blog. One put me in a group show and took my work to Art Basel, Miami for one of the smaller satellite fairs. This is the December after I graduated. Crazy. That relationship blossomed very quickly, because I had a great response to my work at the fair and they offered me gallery representation and a show that led to a book being published. That trickled into another gallery in Canada, which had an exhibition and then another book, and that really set me on the path to go to Review Santa Fe in 2009. 

I found pretty good success pitching myself at that review, because the professional practice class I had with Henry Hornstein really prepared me. That led me to getting represented by a gallery in New York. And that really put me more on the map. So I got into the real deal art world very quickly, within a matter of five years out of grad school. It’s all contingent upon having pictures they liked, good artwork with good messages, good statements.  And timing is such a big part of this job. I was making work that not a lot of people were making, and I think it became a popular subject matter.  I got very lucky with this. I just made my artwork in grad school, I didn’t think about how the markets are going to digest it in five years, and whether or not it’s going to be a hot topic.

This was “Intertidal”, which was about about this idea of masculine identity, and a self portrait. “Wild and Precious” was really interesting, I would say it’s my best work, certainly, it’s my most favorite work. It’s my most successful work in some ways, but it didn’t sell very well. 

I shifted as a person. I had a kid, I started making new work. Again, I’m not making work for the market. I’m just making work I’m interested in.  Since 2015, the culture around children and nature and the connection — or not — between humans and nature, and the environment and climate change, all that stuff was really boiling up. This was just part of my life, became part of my photography, and wasn’t really something that was as sexy as my gallery wants it. It was different. I was now taking pictures of a little kid. No more men and no more self portraits, but now I was dealing with parents and nature lovers, and it opened up so many more doors for me as others were shutting.

That is the way careers go for creative people who are not trying to meet the market, they’re waiting for the market to meet them. Students and emerging photographers in particular, you’re told your voice, your brand — whatever that is — is the most important thing. Be unique and set yourself apart. At the same time, you’re told be commercial, whether you’re in the fine art world, the gallery world, or the editorial world; meet the market.

I have this relationship with that concept as a construct in the world. My friends that are commercial photographers, they’re often very successful because they’re always doing like what’s hot in the market. And I don’t necessarily have any interest in that, at all. I’m aware, very aware, of what’s hot in the market. I’m very aware of marketing in general, and what sells. But I don’t cater my work to that. 

For example, in the last few years, there’s been a huge push for minority representation, and BIPOC and LGBTQ+ representation that I’m all for 1,000%, I love all that stuff. But I don’t necessarily try to shoot that stuff in my work. When I’m on a commercial job, I certainly try to cast minority people for representation purposes, because I think it’s fair and equitable and something I want to do, but in my own personal artwork, it’s really not present. If I did, I could probably be more successful. My friends that do are more aware of it and chase it harder, and I find they are more successful in some ways.

There’s a total consistency in the work on your site.

I’m just me, and obviously the pictures are going to reflect that, because it’s really just the way I see the world. It’s not that unique, but it’s very specific to me. For example, right now I’m working on a project, we’re putting together a bid package for this job, it’s a road trip job, and it’s for a big brand. I was creating this treatment, which is a presentation about why I should get the job. All I did was say: Hey, this is who I am, look at all the shit that I’ve done in my life has led me to the moment where I can actually say to you that I am the right photographer for this job. Here’s all the proof. It’s a series of personal projects and client work. 

Just to give you an example, I had a client in the past where we would go on RV road trips with my family, which was spawned because of Wild and Precious. They were like: go make Wild and Precious for us. It’s 75% me being myself and 25% shooting stuff for the client. I would never shoot a picture of an RV personally for myself, but we were in an RV, but most of the pictures were just art pictures. The beauty of that process for me is that the client gets the artist they are after, and I get the artwork that I’m after on the client’s dime. So it’s a really great place to be. There’s a certain level of keeping it real with your vision and not catering to the market, but there’s also an element of commercial viability in my artwork. 

My life is one thing, it’s one path. I feel very fortunate to have stumbled into that. That’s not necessarily a conscious decision, it just happens. I think it’s nice I’m able to sort of live in between two worlds. I think there’s a lot of photographers that do that; I’m not the only one.

I don’t know how much influence pop culture has on my life. My work is infused with lots of things that are relative to culture, and pop culture. Somehow, my story is a little slippery, it can slide in and out of editorial work and commercial work and climate change, global warming, being a conscious consumer, traveling, parenting. Those are big, high level concepts that all my work fits into in a really fortunate way. We’re all living in the same world, right? We’re all trying to raise our families in the same world. We’re exposed to the same TV commercials and the same movies and the same political bullshit. So all of those things are overlapping into all of our lives. I just feel like I’m fortunate enough to have it also overlap into my artwork.

Most people, if they do artwork, are mostly doing their day job, then they do their artwork and there isn’t any overlap, necessarily. 

I think the takeaway from these interviews always, is that you can live the dream. It’s possible, right? I have some kids, I have a little farm, I have a decent career in photography, and I basically do what I want, when I want, and how I want. Not many people can say that, even in the photography industry. I don’t need a lot of money to survive. I have an older LandRover that I love and it’s a passion car for me. It’s still a nice car. We’re happy, and I’m able to make it work and keep it real with my vision and my artwork and parlay it into commercial photography. For people wondering how the hell do I do that? Or can I do that, I think it’s really nice to know that, yes, it’s definitely attainable. It’s a lot of work. You never can turn it off. It is never off. You’re never off the clock. It has sacrifices. I was literally up until midnight on the phone with other people talking about this commercial project last night when my wife is trying to sleep. My kids know that Daddy’s always on the phone. You’re never not working.

I saw Joyce Tenneson give a talk. She said it is still true that a lot of people assist in order to learn the trade, then they’ll go on to become photographers. The ones that succeed, they don’t go to the party. They go home at the end of the day because you have to build your portfolio. 

I assisted after grad school to make money when I wasn’t getting any jobs. I was a digital tech. We were taught how to operate camera RAW from Steve Smith over at RISD. I was able to segue out of grad school into the commercial world through the assistant path because of that, which gave me a lot of insight as to what commercial jobs were like. I remember my first job, where we had a motor home, and there were models and hair and makeup people. I was like, this is like a movie. Then I started working for Ralph Lauren Polo for my friend who was shooting that stuff. We were traveling all over the country shooting famous models, and it was nuts.

You made me think, when you quoted the photographer who said the ones that succeed are the ones that don’t go to the party. I would argue there is something to be said for the party, in the sense that that is a place to make connection. I think that’s a huge piece of this. I totally agree with that person’s stance, but also you need to make time to go to the party once in a while. You need to have some sort of a personality when you get to that party so you can connect with other people who are peers, other photographers, writers, cool people, art directors, clients: they want to go to the party. A lot of the times the people you want to work for are at the party. So not going to the party, ever, does rob you, in some ways, of opportunity. Part of the reason I was getting jobs is because I was having fun with these art directors. You’ve got to be open and flexible and fun and have a good personality, but also have good artwork.  If you have bad pictures, it’s game over right at the beginning.

I say to my wife, you know, comically, when we’re butting heads about something related to my job, I always say, Hey, listen, don’t get mad at me because I chose to make a career out of drinking beer with my friends and going on road trips.

It takes a good partner.

I have the best partner. Most understanding partner, no question. I’m blessed.


Jesse Burke –

Interview with Rachael Wright

This article first appeared on Lenscratch as part of the series Photographers On Photographers. The brief included speaking with photojournalists and documentary photographers whose work is exhibited in galleries, museums, and other public displays, as well as in publications and advertising.

Barry Schwartz in Conversation with Rachael Wright on Lenscratch:

The full article, sans photos, follows.


Artist Statement and Bio:

Rachael Wright (b. 1981) is a portrait and documentary photographer based in Oakland, California. 

Originally from Northampton, England, her work is shaped by the unique perspective gained from her travels and experiences living abroad, underpinned by innate curiosity and a deep sense of empathy. With an intuitive, photojournalistic approach to both personal and commissioned projects, Rachael seeks to reveal the beauty and complexity of the human experience, while exploring the universalities and idiosyncrasies connecting us all. 

Her work has been recognized by the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Humanity (2022), the Julia Margaret Cameron Award (2022) and American Photography (2021, 2020, 2019). Commercial commissions include projects for Marc Jacobs, Converse and A24 Films, and she has been published by The Times of London, The Guardian, The Sunday Times Magazine and The New York Times. In 2020, Rachael was featured in the critically acclaimed six-part PBS/Sky Arts documentary television series, ICON: Music Through The Lens. 


In the wake of the sudden death of a close friend in 2002, Mark Kuhn tore up the cattle feedlot on his Iowa farm and, with the help of his two sons, spent 18 months constructing a perfectly manicured grass tennis court in its place. 

It was a dream the third generation farmer had held since discovering Wimbledon – a tennis tournament held 4,000 miles away in London, England – on hearing it broadcast on his grandfather’s shortwave radio when he was 10 years old. 

The court soon became a community hub, with people traveling from all over the world to Charles City, Iowa, to play at the ‘All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club’ – named after Wimbledon’s home, the All England Lawn Tennis Club. 

Having repeatedly written letters to Wimbledon’s head groundsman, a then 61- year-old Mark went to London for an internship at the All England Club in 2012. He finally got to see Centre Court for himself and diligently set about learning the very precise methods used on its hallowed turf. The same methods he uses with monastic dedication on his own court today. 

In 2016, Mark was invited back to Wimbledon to serve as a Court Attendant. It was the honour of his life, and he returned to the farm overjoyed from another stint at his spiritual home. Two days later, his youngest son, Alex, took his own life. 

Dandelions is a paean to a unique man, the realization of his far-fetched dream… and the love and loss of his boy. 


A meditation on death, grief and transformation, made in the coastal New England states of New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts over the course of winter 2021. 

The project was initially conceived in late 2018, during an off-season visit to the seaside town of York Beach, Maine. It was the middle of a chapter of life punctuated with cancer, suicide, ill- health and loss. The dissonance of bold colours on boarded-up beachfront facades set against the gray skies and frigid air, with a hostile Atlantic Ocean churning nearby, deeply resonated with me. A temporary move from season-less California to the Nor’easters of seacoast New Hampshire at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic gave me the opportunity to delve into and express this internal emotional landscape visually. 

Though predominantly shaped by the absence of people, the series includes a traditional approach to portraiture (‘Samantha’ – whose grief was palpable as she spoke of the recent loss of her ‘soulmate and sweetheart’, Tom), as well as a more abstract interpretation (‘Rhonda’ – a pink balloon marking the spot where a 35-year-old mother-of-three was violently murdered at the place she loved most by her partner in broad daylight). 

Each winter breath is a ghost
Of our recent selves:
We can learn to die easily,
No resistance, just

A gentle shrug into everything.
No one mourns their breath in winter.
Though you watch the essence of you
Escaping. Winter has its reasons.

– Greg Gilbert, Seeing Winter as Death and Finding Solace


Made during the dog days of summer on the edge of New England, The Wall explores the relationship between a 11⁄2 mile sea wall and the community who call it theirs. 

In contrast to the wealthy enclaves nearby, with their private beaches, exclusive rules and parking permits, The Wall is a democratic place. A silent witness to the ebb and flow of humanity and nature, and the myriad ways both interact with it. 


Barry Schwartz 
You’ve got editorial and commercial work on your site, and they’re all mixed together.

Rachael Wright
I want everything to look cohesive, like it all comes from me. The personal work isn’t separate, either. This is my eye, and this is what I do. I redid it recently, I divided it into selected work and archived work. The selected work, these are my favorite projects, and this is what I want more of. The archive stuff is: I’ve also done this. I’ve done a lot of celebrity work and work for musicians; it’s to show I’ve worked with these people and I can be trusted.

You were a publicist…

Many years ago. In the music business. In my 20s.

Were you taking photos then?

No, I was hiring people to take photos

Were you going along on the shoots?

I went on a few shoots. I did a lot of events, I did festivals and would always look after the photographers there.

How did you end up as a photographer?

I worked for a record label and a top promoter, and I’d started writing and interviewing bands for a music magazine in the UK. I went to New York for the first time and I was like, this is where I want to be. I’m going to move here. The music magazine that I interviewed for when I was in London asked me to interview a band in New York. I had just bought a camera, it was just a crappy Canon Rebel or something. I said, I’ll do the interview if I can do the photo shoot as well. I think about that now and what the fuck was I thinking? Luckily, this band knew what they were doing. I didn’t know at the time, but they were doing half my job. I look at the original pictures and I can see that I had the thing that you need to have that you then build upon. But the band liked the pictures and they asked me to go on tour with them. And that was kind of it. 

Because I’d been a publicist, I knew how magazines worked and who the right people to contact were. I’d also worked at a magazine as a writer, interviewing celebrities and writing features and that kind of thing. So I learned lots of different facets of the industry and therefore have empathy. I’m like a magpie, I like to collect. And I now I collect pictures of things, I see a moment or some light, and I’m like, I want that. I’m like being a butterfly catcher.

You talked in another interview about photographing David Crosby, and you had 30 seconds or something along those lines.

I got what I needed from him, but I let him have it on his terms a little bit more than I would have with somebody else. It’s not because I was starstruck; it’s deference, not reverence. I have a lot of respect for these people.  I remember at the end of the shoot, I wanted to do a few more, because photographers, we’re always trying for more, but I knew I had it. I was about to open my mouth to ask him to do something new. He just looked at me, like: We’re done. He wanted to go and get dinner. You’ve got soundcheck and then dinner, and I was the barrier to his dinner. So, okay, we’re done.

I remember going to a shoot with K.D. Lang. I went to her apartment, just me and her. I straight up asked her: What do you not like, and qualified it by saying because I’ve heard about photographers that have a concept in their mind, and I’m much more of a person that will come to another person’s space, figure out who they are from the clues in their space as if it is your picture too.  K.D. Lang has been doing it for years. She knows what she’s doing. She’s seen enough photographs of herself to know what she likes and what she doesn’t like. She said, Oh, I hate that, I’m so glad you said that. We ended up having a really nice shoot.

I read that she was a Buddhist. And I noticed she had a little room set up as a temple. I went to step backwards and realized I was about to step into this room, and I had my shoes on. I immediately stopped and said, Do you want me to take my shoes off if I go in there and shoot? She looked at me like I was the most considerate person on earth. She opened up to me more as well, because I was considerate of her space. It’s those little things…you can learn them to a degree, but it’s about learning to be a person rather than a photographer. My main takeaway from a shoot is to feel like I was a good person and a good photographer, and if you get both, brilliant.

I want to have a nice time, I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I want them to have a nice time.

Tell me about your Pluto Transits project.

It’s a project about death I did in New England when I lived there during Covid. I was kind of feeling burned out, not knowing what I wanted to do anymore, but I wanted to do a personal project. Magnum released this educational series with different photographers, and one of them was Alec Soth. I just love his vibe.

I’d already started the Pluto Transits project. York, Maine in the summer is popping. It has the Fun-O-Rama. But everything was shuttered, everything was freezing cold, there was nobody around. I love the aesthetics of offseason seaside towns when they’re waiting for the life to come back. It’s quite gray, with the juxtaposition of the happy colorful arcade signs against the churning grey sea and all the sand and the flotsam and jetsam from a nor’easter.  I wanted to go out and explore where I am. I’m living in this weird place where I never thought I would be living. It came at a time when we were in the depths of Covid.  I was dealing with the grief of a couple of people that I had lost, right before Covid. Death just seemed to be everywhere. I had started therapy six months before that, so I was kind of interrogating my own inner landscape. I found that all around me, the world was showing me my internal landscape using external things.  

I’ve always taken pictures of other people and other people’s stories, and never really thought about what that says about me or what I’m feeling or thinking. So it was an exercise, really, just to see what I came back with. I was also in a group with Brian Fink, doing an online class where we’d have Zoom meetings every weekend. I was trying to keep the wheels turning and stay sharp and make pictures. We had this group that met every Monday where we’d show each other the work, so it forced me to go out and make work, and then it forced me to also talk about the work, which I’d never done before. I’m not a winter person but I’d go out every day in January in New England, freezing weather.  I would look for the things that expressed what I was feeling inside.  Somebody else very important to me died during the project. 

I stumbled across a murder scene in York Beach, a woman was murdered on the beach on a day that I was going to go there, by her partner. I went back there a couple of days later and made a picture of a pink balloon on some rocks with the ocean in the background.  And then I saw a house that had burned down and a woman had died in that house. I was just exploring grief and death and looking it in the eye, if that makes sense, instead of turning away from it or trying not to feel it. I told my therapist about this she helped me really interrogate later on. It is helpful having a person sit and ask me questions. I have to form sentences and tell her about it and talk.

Being intentional in that way.

I didn’t want it to be about death, I wanted it to be about ‘there is always hope’, I wanted hope. There was always this element of hope that I wanted the project to ultimately get to. 

In Alec Soth’s class he talks about sequencing a lot. That project was so personal and I remember saying in the group that I would meet with every Monday, I don’t care if nobody actually sees these pictures ever, because I’m working through something, these are for me. In the sequencing, there’s three stages to it. The first one is death and everything falling apart. Second stage is standing in the rubble and surveying: Okay, this is the new reality. The third stage of the sequencing is running towards two pictures, where one is looking behind at some footprints in the sand, and the next picture is completely white, virgin snow, and an empty drive-in theater screen. That feels like that’s the past then moving into the future. It doesn’t really look like a lot of my other work. I’m just going to put it out there. It’s something I love. It’s very personal to me.

But that led to being able to go to Iowa, and talk about the hard things with Mark and try to articulate that in pictures. 

This is the project in the New York Times, “Tending to Grass, and to Grief, on a Tennis Court in Iowa”, that you call “Dandelions” on your site.  I would guess one of the reasons you were able to connect with Mark was because he recognized you were sympathetic, empathetic, that you’re not one of those journalists that want to feed off tragedy.

Yeah, exploiting that. Some photography projects you have to be really careful not to exploit people.

April 2022, Covid’s over, I can go to Iowa if Mark will allow me, so I wrote him a letter. I’d love to come take pictures of you sometime, I think was three pages long. Just telling him what his story meant to me. 

I talked about Alex constantly while I was there, because I could tell that he loves talking about him. How you keep people alive is to talk about them. I wanted Alex’s presence to be a part — I didn’t know how I was going to do it during the project, because how do you have the presence of somebody who isn’t here anymore? But he’s in every blade of grass. There’s a picture of a butterfly on some mud — there’s lots of tennis shoe prints, and there’s a blue butterfly in the middle of it. To Alex’s mother, butterflies are a sign that Alex is around.

I would love to be able to give you perfect sentences about what it means to me, but I actually felt healed afterwards. And I felt a healing about my my friend who I lost to suicide. I had this weird anger towards him that came out of nowhere. I couldn’t look at a picture of him. If he came to mind, I felt really angry with him. That all dissipated on that trip. 

It was really meaningful that it was a project that I did on under my own steam. It was something that was mine. And it was from a part of me that I don’t show easily or often. I love getting to share that with people, and share Mark with people. I have a call with him tomorrow to catch up. We’re going to go to Wimbledon and see it together. He’s my Wimbledon soulmate, we’re going to meet at Wimbledon.

You’ve been in some exhibitions.

This first one was through a band I was working with.  Secret 7” is an Amnesty International charity, the money goes to them. It was one song on a seven inch vinyl. The artwork is by a photographer, donating a picture, with the artwork to be exhibited. Buyers don’t know who the band is, what the song is. They pick which one they want to buy.

Live Energy was a group exhibition of live music photography. That was for charity as well. I donated a picture, sold at auction. That was through my editor at Q magazine, who works with books and exhibitions and knows every music photographer going. He approached me to be a part of that. 

Work In Progress was the one that I think of most, at Root Studios in New York.  My show within the show was called Access All Areas, which the tour section on my website is now called; it was all backstage photos. I like backstage stuff, stuff nobody gets to see. I don’t like exploiting — to me backstage is private, right? So I asked all the musicians if it was okay to exhibit the photographs. 

The 100 Club in London, is a storied punk club from back in the day, really famous for its red walls and its black and white photography hanging on all of the walls. There’s pictures of Johnny Rotten, and every rock star you can think of. They have three of pictures in their permanent collection. 

You won a Julia Cameron Award and Portrait of Humanity.

This Portrait of Humanity is in a book. I was really pleased to be a part of that.

What’s your portrait?

I have two pictures in that one. One of them is the the lady from my Pluto Transits project, the lady with the red scarf.

There is also a grandfather and a grandson I saw fishing on Santa Monica Pier. I just watched them until the sun went down, and they had no idea I was watching until until the end. They looked up and saw that I’d been taking a few pictures but I was mostly just watching this little boy that didn’t know that this man wasn’t going to be around forever; again, death.

I was thinking about when I went fishing with my granddad and how I didn’t know that he wouldn’t be around much longer. I think when I take pictures, I’m trying to hold on to something that’s un-hold-on-able-to.

We were talking earlier, and I was trying to remember that quote, I think it’s Beckett, which is “only connect”.

Yeah, that’s true. I think that’s, that’s what everybody is looking for, whether they know it or not. I’m constantly just looking for connection. Like, I went to a farm in Iowa to spend a week with a 72 year old man.  We’re completely different. But what is it about us that’s the same? And I do that with 17 year old Billie Eilish. There’s an artist called Brittany Howard. She was in a band called Alabama Shakes.  She’s black. She’s had a completely different life to me. But I need to go in there and find common ground to connect as humans. I read on her Wikipedia that she grew up on a in a junkyard. My granddad, my grandma, had a farm, and the second place they lived was basically a junkyard. So we were both junkyard kids. We sat talking about being junkyard kids, and how you’d like poke around in like, death traps.  It was finding that we’ve had completely different lives and yet, there’s this one weird detail about us that makes us who we are. I’m constantly looking for that detail in anybody I meet.

Annie Leibovitz has a famous shot of Jack Nicholson in his bathrobe on his lawn, holding a golf club. That wasn’t part of the plan. He was practicing while the crew was setting up inside and she looked over, and the picture was just there.

That’s where the magic is. I try not to go in with too many expectations. I like to have a plan, but I think it’s important to be open.

The Iowa project ended up being completely different to how I wanted it to be. I drove all the way there, and the whole way I was telling myself I need to let go of what I want this to be, because it’s not going to be that, it’s going to be what it’s going to be; just how it ended up being.


Rachael Wright: