We emailed Art Buyers and Art Producers around the world asking them to submit names of established photographers who were keeping it fresh and up-and-comers who they are keeping their eye on. If you are an Art Buyer/Producer or an Art Director at an agency and want to submit a photographer anonymously for this column email: Suzanne.email@example.com
Anonymous Art Buyer: I nominate Kris Davidson as one of our art directors really like her and she seems so great.
How many years have you been in business?
Full time, about 6 years – I gradually transitioned from a branding/marketing career into being a photographer and educator.
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
After taking every single photography course at Loyola University in New Orleans I immediately enrolled at Brooks Institute for an MFA program. Beyond that, I feel compelled to credit the invaluable non-formal education I have received over the years as well – my career began in the San Francisco during the dot com boom in as a branding project manager. The time I spent learning how to dissect a brand was priceless. I owe a huge debt to my branding guides Renee Sheppard and Rita Damore. Also, photographer Catherine Karnow, who showed me how to really see people through a lens, demonstrating that it, is possible to make a living celebrating humanity.
Who was your greatest influence that inspired you to get into this business?
Two people: Dr. Leslie Parr, a photography professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. She is a wonderful photo historian with a focus on the documentary genre. Her classes were always the most delightful refuge for me. Also, Michael Sustendal, a commercial photographer who I assisted during my college days in New Orleans. A Southerner to the core, he is the most entertaining storyteller I have ever met. I could listen to him talk all day! He remains a life mentor and dear friend.
How do you find your inspiration to be so fresh, push the envelope, stay true to yourself so that creative folks are noticing you and hiring you?
Honestly, I don’t think too much about ways to stay fresh. Maybe I should! In truth, I just indulge my own curiosity — I feel most alive when traveling and telling/interpreting stories (whether in a far away land or just down the street). Curiosity drives pretty much all the work I do, from commercial work (branding IS a form of story-telling, after all) to editorial travel assignments and my personal work. I have come to regard the camera as a magical key that allows me to open doors into worlds that I have no reason to be in otherwise.
Do you find that some creatives love your work but the client holds you back?
I tend not to look at it that way. In my previous branding career incarnation I was privy to a topographical view of the branding landscape far before anyone ever paid me a dime to shoot a single frame. With my hands in everything from initial client meetings — including the occasional hellish moment of having to tell a new client that “their baby is ugly” as one of my first branding mentors wryly phrased it — to the end resolution/plan for moving a brand forward in a dynamic, collaborative way. The photography portion of a brand can be very important, but it is always a part of a larger effort. As such, I don’t view client pushback as a rejection of my own creativity — I view it as part of a larger conversation about an organic brand. My goal is to be creative — of course — but I always want to be in tune with how the rest of the brand is emerging and evolving. The collaboration itself is the creative challenge.
What are you doing to get your vision out to the buying audience?
Well, I am a people-person! I try to meet with creatives with my printed portfolio whenever possible – there is nothing that compares to a beautiful printed portfolio and eye contact. Other than that, I don’t like being too heavy-handed. I send a small set of promos of current/new work out a few times a year, along with short, personal hand-written notes — although I wonder if that is a good idea since my handwriting is questionable. Beyond that, a clean, focused tightly-edited website is my primary marketing tool – I update it about ever year with the help of my marketing consultant. I also blog — I like to write with the intent of providing a deeper insight into my photographic approach and who I am as a person.
What is your advice for those who are showing what they think the buyers want to see?
Be honest with yourself about what kind of work you really want to do (often easier said than done). Then, with that defined, make every effort to understand the business side the specific market you are interested in. It is not the sexiest area of study (and you may need to devise your own education here to some extent), but it is essential. The consumer, editorial, commercial and art markets are all unique, and nuanced within themselves. I personally find it very useful to partner with industry experts/consultants to help organize and present my work. Just like I have an accountant who does my taxes (thank god), I have a consultant who helps me manage my portfolios/marketing strategy, a printer who makes my prints and a bookbinder for my portfolio book exteriors. It is an investment, but worth it. For me it is a huge stress relief not to have shoulder the weight of all that work by myself.
Are you shooting for yourself and creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?
Yes. Being an immigrant to the United States, my current personal projects explore what it means to become and be an American. There are so many varying interpretations. I am working on two separate projects that explore this question. Currently, I am focused on American Macondo, which looks at migration in the US/Mexico borderlands through a magical realism filter (I am interested in navigating a line between a documentary aesthetic and the often fictional/constructed landscape of memory). And, being based in New Orleans for the time being, I am also working on a project titled In the Southern Garden, which considers how individual identity and collective social memory continue to unfold in the American South in the wake of the Civil War.
How often are you shooting new work?
Commercial and editorial gigs — as often as they come! Beyond that, I am almost always working on a personal project in some capacity. But I am not someone who shoots every day or carries a camera everywhere. Rather, my process tends to involve a lot of pre-shoot thinking and cross-disciplinary reading/research for inspiration. Right now for my American Macondo project I am reading three very different books: Being America: Liberty, Commerce and Violence in an American World (by Jedediah Purdy); Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America (A McSweeny short story collection); and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (another collection of surrealist/magical short stories by Karen Russell). I also have a standing coffee date with a friend who is a Mexican economist and we just chat about art, Latin America and his impressions of the US. Later this year I’ll head back down to the borderlands to shoot – and see what transpires.
Kris Davidson is a freelance photographer and educator based in San Francisco and New Orleans. Her specialties include travel/lifestyle and portraiture for editorial, commercial and corporate clients. Kris has an MFA from Brooks Institute and a BA (Communication Arts) from Loyola University in New Orleans. Prior to becoming a photographer, Kris worked as a marketing/branding professional for 8 years.
As a photographer, Kris has worked with various clients including Lonely Planet Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Travesías Magazine, The Discovery Channel, MTV Networks, The Institute for Shipboard Education, Kimpton Hotels to name a few. She has been recognized for her work in PDN Magazine, American Photo Magazine and in the International Photo Awards.
Kris is also faculty at the Academy of Art University based in San Francisco, teaching several courses online in the photography school; additionally, she also teaches for the National Geographic Expeditions Photography Workshops.
APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after founding the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter fed with helpful marketing information. Follow her@SuzanneSease.