I worked with Andrew Southam quite a bit in the past, so when he told me about a personal journey he recently underwent, I asked to publish an account of it on the blog. I think you will find his honest and humble account of what happened to him inspiring.
APE: Briefly tell me about your background in photography, how you came to it and when you found success?
Andrew Southam: I started out in Sydney, Australia in the early 80’s. I was incredibly fortunate to find a job assisting a photographer named Grant Matthews who became my mentor and great friend. I arrived in NYC in 1986 with a decent book and just got on the phone to all the magazines. A lot of people met with me and I dropped my book off everywhere else. I got assigned portraits for Rolling Stone and Vogue, some small fashion pieces for Conde Nast magazines and that began my career in America. A year later Sassy Magazine was started by an Australian publisher and art director I had worked with in Sydney, another piece of incredible luck. I started working solidly for them doing everything from covers and fashion stories to photo essays about teen suicide and a girl on death row in Indiana.
Would you call what happened next a midlife crisis or is it the result of a shitty economy and shrinking photo industry?
When you’re young and new in this industry you have a kind of allure you don’t know you have, I certainly didn’t. I had a lot of success early on which I took for granted. I just assumed it would be all up and up. I went along like that for about 15 years. Of course I had flat spots but I was what you’d call a working photographer with a good reputation. What happened next was really a kind of burn out. I started out taking very personal pictures, shooting very much my own way. This had as much to do with not having the technical skill to do it anyone else’s way as any artistic ideals! But of course over time you learn technique and wind up doing work that you have less personal investment in, money jobs. What happened to me was I lost my sense of ownership of my work, was less invested in it. Inevitably the assignments I was getting reflected this, less exciting work, not being hired to bring any point of view to the job. More being hired as a good technician who could get all the shots finished on time, run a crew, answer a budget, work with talent. All that’s great but I was feeling steadily more unhappy with myself and my career. I can’t blame the economy or changes in the industry. Of course I’ve felt the changes like everyone. But finally I wasn’t feeling inspired and it caught up with me.
What did you do to break out of the funk?
I was feeling pretty desperate. I never cared that much about the money. In the midst of this period I had some good years. But I was really unhappy with the work I was getting and doing. Finally, all credit to my wife who said “just go and stop talking about it!” I went off on a week long road trip from LA to San Francisco. The first day on the road I felt a real panic that I couldn’t take a picture without a client, an assignment, a deadline. I’d spent so many years shooting actresses, models, portraits of people for magazines, I didn’t even see the scenery at first. But after a day I slowed down and started seeing the world and then looking at it through the camera. Then the huge pleasure of just looking through the viewfinder, composing in that rectangle, paying attention to the light returned to me and I got really excited again. It sounds so simple but it really felt like a kind of rebirth at the time.
Tell me more about the dream project you dreamt up?
While I was driving and shooting, I started to see the journey as a road movie. I imagined a man, a woman, a car of a certain kind, motels, restaurants, the road, all the emotional stuff that happens on a long journey. Maybe it starts out romantically, but at some point you’re just so over being in that car and stuck together, you sort it out, you don’t, you have sex, you argue, on and on. So when I returned home, still with that “my life is at stake” energy, and having unplugged for a week from the whole white noise of our lives now, realizing I could do that and just be a photographer and not an e-mailing machine, I buried myself into using the pictures I’d taken as a story board for a series with the man and woman. I worked with a friend who is a great stylist, Kelly Hill formerly at J.Crew. We found two actors, a real life couple, we found a 1968 Cadillac and talked the guy who was selling it into renting it to us for a few days. I wrote a page and a half treatment for my actors describing the trip, this crisis point in their relationship. It was fantastic because then everyone knew what they were feeling, they sort of lived it and I just shot away as if I was making a documentary about them. Because we were together all day, seriously all day, they stopped noticing me which made the whole thing really intimate. I had no crew except my stylist and my tech who like me is great at becoming invisible. My very large edit was then shaped by designer Matt Taylor at Matt Varnish. He helped me refine the narrative, gave the images a treatment to feel like vintage prints left on a car’s dashboard, designed the book, located and supervised the printing, and was really essential to the project being the success it was.
And the job that followed, how did that come about?
My agent at that time had the promo book I made of these pictures at LeBook Connections LA 2011. An Art Buyer from M&C Saatchi, Jenn Sellers picked it up and put it in front of their Creative Director James Bray who was just then looking to solve a problem, how to shoot the men’s Uggs campaign? I was called in to meet with him. I’ve now just shot their second campaign in an on going series.
Is there a lesson here? Did the industry change to be more receptive to this type of thing, did you find different clients, or did you change how you take pictures?
The lesson was pretty profound for me. Clients are out there looking for ideas and photographers with ideas, with a particular way of seeing. There are SO many photographers, so many great technicians and digital has only made this easier. What there are less of is photographers with a distinct point of view. You have to really dive into yourself and find out what you have to say or show that is your own take. My friend June Newton, Helmut’s widow says “shoot your desires, shoot your perversions”. Obviously that served Helmut well! I am not the first photographer to shoot a road trip story but I really made it my own. So when clients saw it, it was exciting to them and they recognized something they could use. So yes, the industry is super receptive to a photographer with a body of work that is their own peculiar, fully expressed take. There is SO much imagery out there now, you can only imagine how they must be scratching their heads in advertising agencies and design companies saying “how do we do this in a different way?!”
I am finding new clients. It’s a process and I feel like I’m just beginning it in lots of ways. Which I’m very grateful for after shooting for 27 years! But I have a handful of great new clients who are asking me very specifically to do my own thing. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
I have changed the way I shoot, or rather I’m evolving. I’m trying to see photographs now in series, like a set of film stills, an unfolding narrative. Rather than trying to get the “perfect moment” I’m trying to be much looser, look for the “mistake” that will make the pictures more exciting. Now I’m arriving prepared with a treatment for the story, a clearer intention of what I want to say.
What does the future look like to you?
It has to come from me. If you look to the industry to see what will come next, it’s too late, it’s already happened. I can’t worry too much about trends, about what other people are doing. I just need to go off alone and think about my take on life and how to express that in photographs. It requires self discipline I have to work on constantly. It’s a muscle you have to develop and that never ends. It’s too easy to sit in my “beautiful cave” as portfolio consultant Beth Taubner calls it, and push around post-its and respond to e-mails. I have to shoot more often for myself and develop that part of my brain and just keep doing it. My advice to anyone in the funk I was in would be: don’t wait to get assigned your “dream job”, it may never happen. Assign yourself and go and do it. I fully appreciate this can expensive but you have to find a way. I am always asking favors of people and seeing how I can cut corners to save money. Some friends will work for you for free. Your excitement is contagious. But clients are unlikely to assign you work if you can’t show them you’ve already done it. The good idea is hugely important in all this.
The other part is get the help and support you need. I’ve recently teamed up with photo rep Sarah Laird, someone I feel really lucky to know. Sarah’s agency is artist driven; the photographer must be absolutely clear on their point of view before she can represent them. She’s into building a career around that, finding the right audience for each photographer’s work. Sarah directed me to Beth Taubner who I’ve worked closely with and I would recommend to anyone looking to reconnect with their work or deepen it. I’ve been working on portfolio and website redesign with Bryan Fisher at Perfect Holiday who is amazing and definitely lifted my presentation. I feel like I’ve surrounded myself with great people who can help me take my work to another level. After already having had a long career I feel really excited and grateful to be doing this.