We interview RJ Kern: 5 tips for emerging fine photographers

Finding success in a single area of ​​the photography industry is no small task. And yet RJ Kern has managed to achieve success not only as a wedding photographer, but now also as an art photographer. I sat down with him one afternoon to sort his brain out on his top five tips for emerging fine art photographers.

I recently spoke with Minneapolis-based artist RJ Kern in his home studio, where we chatted about his art and career. Kern is a photographer who creates work related to ideas about home, origin and sense of place. A new book by him is currently being published, about which you can find and buy more information on his website. He is also working on a video series for this project, which I highly recommend!

Stay Inspired

Kern ran a successful wedding and portrait photography business. To some, it may seem a strange choice that he turned somewhat to start a fine arts side of his practice. I asked him why he made this switch, and his answer is valuable advice for all photographers:

I prioritize a personal work center for my creative practice. Otherwise, the risk of burnout is too great. We owe it to our talents to grow and nurture them, not to leave them for when we come home exhausted. I followed my gut feeling, but also looked to work in museums, books, galleries and film for inspiration.

This advice is also number five in his top five tips. A key to success in any field of photography is to stay inspired. If you lose sight of that, chances are it will show up in your work as well. I’ve written articles about finding inspiration before, but as Kern suggests, watching a lot of work (and it doesn’t have to be just photography), reading books, and watching movies are great ways to keep that inspiration alive.

Think like an entrepreneur

Kern’s fourth advice may seem to contradict what we are sometimes told in the art world. By thinking like an entrepreneur. you will be able to grow your art career more effectively and sustainably than if you ignore the business side of things.

Kern’s work, for example, is heavily funded by grants. He told me that with that first purse it would have been easy to use the money to buy a single expensive piece of equipment. But instead of doing that, he reinvested the money in himself and considered ways he could turn that one grant into more money to continue funding his work. This allowed his art practice to be more enduring and even grow to new levels faster than it otherwise likely would have been.

Pimp the work you want to photograph

The third piece of advice Kern shared is sometimes easier said than done, but it’s extremely important to keep in mind. If you only create work that might make you money, but isn’t what you really want to create, you’ll never get beyond that work. The key is to build a portfolio of the work you want to create and take steps to make that your main source of work. That could mean doing unpaid test shoots to create the work you want to make more of in the future. Collaborating with other photographers or creatives is also a great way to build the portfolio you want and can also help boost your creativity and inspiration!

For Kern, this process of pimping the work he wanted to create began in part with creating portfolios of his work by hand and taking them to portfolio reviews. Having a well-crafted, personalized portfolio made a big difference in how his work was received and allowed him to show off the work he wanted to focus on in order to move forward. Moreover, the work is more than just a photo for him, and he enjoys watching entire projects come to fruition. When I asked him what his favorite part of the creative process is, he even told me:

I find it exciting to see a finished project come together in all the different components – book, exhibition or community engagement. However, it is not what drives me. The creative part, shooting and editing, is the part I love the most. However, that is only one pillar. Without the pillars of networking, marketing, sales and thinking, I wouldn’t be able to do the part I love.

Be a good mentee

The second tip Kern gave is to just be a good student. Follow the advice you are given. If you want someone to spend time helping you and giving you tips on how to grow your career, take that advice seriously and take the necessary steps to move forward with it. He said it’s generally easier if you’re paying for advice, such as portfolio reviews or paid mentoring sessions, because that’s where there’s more weight and there’s another layer of responsibility because your hard-earned money is involved. Those opportunities that you have to pay for can therefore be extra valuable.

Find, identify and engage your audience

The most important advice Kern has for emerging fine art photographers is to focus on finding, identifying and engaging your audience. For Kern, these are peers in the photography and visual arts industry, curators, book collectors and publishers. Spending time considering who will appreciate your work the most and then connecting with those people is imperative to successfully growing your audience and thus career.

Portfolio reviews are a great way to start this process of finding and engaging with your audience and are great for bringing your work to the attention of those who could potentially advance your career. Building a mailing list and newsletter process is also an essential tool when it comes to interacting with your audience. People who invest in your work (in whatever form) want to know what you’re up to and how their investment is making a difference, so sharing updates and keeping them informed will keep them interested and interested in your work.

If you identify your audience as well as your style and artistic voice, it can be easy to fall into a style and subject matter that become extremely narrow and perhaps limiting. I asked Kern about this because his work is very focused and narrowed at the moment. He told me:

I will extend the scope of this four-year project to the changing skin color of young people in other regions of the United States. My intention is to expand representation, especially with regard to socio-economic and geographic reach. And thereby answer these fundamental questions: What is changing in rural America? What is the same? And which values, if any, are transferred through the breeding and keeping of animals. Is there anything about the rural experience of animal breeding that creates a common bond between different ethnic groups?

His broadening view of the project will also allow him to broaden his audience and engage with them in new ways. Thinking about ways you can stay true to your job while reaching new people is important to staying active in the art world and growing your career. In addition, working on expanding projects can lead to finding new inspiration and motivation for your work!

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