Today’s guest post is by Joe Decker, a nature photographer, writer and educator who lives in Northern California. Follow Joe Decker on Twitter to learn more about his workshops or read his blog. Learn about composition from him from his e-book, Tuesday Composition.
While I’ve had the opportunity to teach and work with hundreds of talented nature and landscape photographers, few if any of them ever consider artist residencies as a tool of developing their photography.
That’s a pity.
What are artist residencies? Residencies are programs which grant artists a place to live while they focus on their work. These programs can take many forms. In some cases, these residencies are created by fine arts programs, many of those residencies pull in several artists at a time with the hope of encouraging interdisciplinary work or at least a sharing of ideas. Many parks and organizations that manage natural areas have residencies which are usually more solitary, but that put the artist in close connection with the landscape, in part with the hope of encouraging artwork that promotes and communicates the features of that park. Even some commercial concerns create residencies, my shipboard arctic residencies provided me incredible access to hard-to-reach areas of the planet, with the expectation that I’d also provide some work back in the form of workshops and material for a passenger DVD.
Why do so few photographers apply for such opportunities? Part of the disconnect is cultural. There has always seemed to be a quiet divide between the photography community and the fine art community, and while artist residencies are a staple of the traditional fine art community, they’re rarely if ever talked about in the photographic communities I’ve been a part of. There’s also a mystique factor, because of this “quiet divide”, Many times talented, creative photographers make the mistake of thinking that their work won’t be accepted by something they perceive as being part of the snooty “fine art” world. in reality, most residencies, particularly those applicable to landscape and wildlife photographers, are juried by people who do understand the creative potential of the photographic medium, and see art more broadly than many photographers might imagine.
Of course, there are some practical challenges to accepting a residency. Not everyone can afford the luxury of putting eight weeks into nothing but developing a new body of artwork. However, many people, particularly many talented amateurs, could afford two or three weeks if they understood the value they could get from a well-chosen residency.
Why You Should Consider a Residency
Why would a photographer wish to invest a few weeks in a residency? The most important reason to consider a residency is the opportunity for focused time. Whether you’re a professional or an amateur, it is unlikely that you get to spend nearly as much uninterrupted time making photographs as you’d like. Whether it’s the “day job at the factory” or the usual grind of marketing and selling your photographic work, the inevitable distractions of day-to-day life really get in the way of digging deeply into a photographic project. A few weeks dedicated to a project can bring depths to your work.
Cost is another reason. Few residencies offer anything in terms of cash, but there’s no question that the value of simply having a decent place to stay for a few weeks in an area you’d like to work is substantial. My arctic, ship-board residencies are probably the most extreme example of this, the cabin that I stayed in during my Svalbard residency this year probably would have cost around twenty thousand dollars if I’d paid for it retail.
Which brings me to access. Every residency I’ve been awarded has offered me unique opportunities in terms of access to the locations I’d be working in. In my National Park residency, not only did I have the run of the park at night and sunrise t (when the park was otherwise closed to visitors), but I also had enormous support from the staff there, from access to their geologic archives to guidance on a couple hikes to lesser-known park locations, as well as access to many archeological resources. My arctic residencies included the support necessary to get me and my camera near to polar bears without risking my life.
How To Apply
First, find a program that’s relevant to the kind of work you do, or at least the kind of work you’d like to do. You are more likely to be awarded a residency if it’s clear how you and your work fits in with the opportunity being offered, and you’ll are far more likely to benefit personally and professionally from a residency if the specific opportunity inspires you. If you’re a wildlife photographer, you might want to skip that urban art center opportunity, unless you have a clear plan for applying your skills and interests to a new environment–and even then, you’ll need to make a solid case in your application as to why you’re the best person to benefit from the residency.
Carefully research each residency you apply for, and respond to each residency individually. In applying for my Petrified Forest residency, I proposed projects that both inspired me and that leveraged the unique features of that park, such as it’s archeological resources and it’s incredibly dark sky. The Park Service’s own web site and in-park informational signage gave me a great deal of information about what they believed to be key features of the park, reflecting that understanding in my own proposal likely helped me win that particular residency.
Whether you’re a professional or not, it is essential that you show that you’re serious about your work. Few of these opportunities care about whether you make your living at photography, but all of them will care about whether you bring a serious, committed attitude to your art. There are many ways to show that in your application that don’t require having been “in business” for ten years–have you being showing your work consistently over a period of time? Have you been published broadly? Have you won awards or other recognition over time? Do you have references that can attest to the quality and longevity of your efforts?
Finally, don’t give up. While there are a lot of residencies out there, there are also a large number of artists, not just photographers but painters, poets, sculptors and videographers often vying for the same slots. With effort and focus, you can take advantage of this wonderful opportunities to further your photographic efforts.
If you made it this far down, I have to ask you if you are now considering artist residencies to elevate your own craft. What, in Joe’s article, moved you to make that decision? If you have any follow up questions for Joe, please feel free to ask him in the comments section below.
Joe has offered his e-book, Tuesday Composition, to one lucky person who comments below. Winner announced on December 30th.