The evolution of the professional photographer through phases and crises

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The professional growth of a photographer, and therefore the maturity of his projects, goes through several phases. Different phases require different skills from the photographer. With each step, the work and the purpose of photography change, the maturity of his work grows.

Borrowing ideas from Greiner’s growth model (good designers copy, great designers steal), I came up with a model for the evolution of the commercial photographer. Just like the famous Greiner model, my model has different phases. There are also moments of crisis marking the passage from one phase to another. And I want to say right away that it’s a pretty subjective model, and I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

Phase 1: Creators

The basis of photography is to create beautiful images. It is a fundamental skill of any photographer. This is what is taught at the School of Fine Arts. This is why photographers become photographers, to create beauty. This is what makes photography attractive. This is what most people imagine when they think of photography.

The designer uses classic tools and possesses aesthetic skills: color grading, rhythm, shape. The pursuit of professional growth depends on learning and mastery to create more beautiful things.

Crisis 1: Ladder

The first moment of crisis occurs when the photographer succeeds. The more photography improves, the more he can work on photo projects. The photographer needs to collaborate with more people and create projects on a larger scale. It requires tools that help create more complex photographs.

This is quite an obstacle for a creator who learned in art school to work solo on a single project and who masters the job to perfection.

Phase 2: Artistic directors

When photographers overcome the obstacles of collaboration and systems thinking, they become art directors. They now work with larger teams of stylists, agencies and even approach retouching and color grading differently. Continued growth will ensure better collaboration and refined systems thinking.

Crisis 2: Co-creation

An art director works with stylists, brands, locators, magazines, publishers, etc. He develops beautiful projects in tune with the times. Now the final image has more impact because the scale is bigger. But sometimes the team does their job not according to the mission, but the way they want or know how to do it. And that’s where the problems come in …

If the team wants more impact, the next hurdle they need to overcome is establishing the perfect point of interaction. The photographer (AKA art director) must become a problem solver, not an image maker. For the photographer, allowing others to participate in his process is a big step forward.

Phase 3: Connectors

If the photographer can connect with all stakeholders and develop organizational skills, he can create much larger solutions. To establish a dialogue, the photographer must understand the language of the company.

Crisis 3: Crisis of complexity

Even if you have worked out everything, put ideas together in powerful mood boards, you are faced with the fact that the reality of your idea is too complex to implement. Creating large-scale projects takes a lot of time and money, and in our complex world does not provide enough value. Either the world has changed since TikTok or it turns out you’ve drifted far into creativity. To solve this problem, the photographer must become a researcher, or better yet, a scientist. Scared?

Phase 4: Scientists

Scientists are able to build, measure and learn, apply their unique perspective, mindset and skills to take projects to the next level. Such a hybrid approach to the artistic, combined with analytical thinking, allows them to create even more rewarding projects. Visual thinking, the ability to create concrete things, creativity, courage and the ability to see connections all contribute to the quality and success of projects. They no longer do tasks, they create them. Take a look at Nick Knight’s photography projects, for example.

And that’s when they discover their superpowers, that they want more. They want maximum influence: to lead people according to their visions.

Crisis 4: Leadership crisis

And now the photographer faces the final crisis. He must elevate his status as a leader. When the photographer was artistic director, he was already leading a team. But now the playing field has changed. It’s not just about influencing a team anymore, it’s about influencing entire organizations.

It’s not just about learning to communicate well as in the days of “connectors”. It is a step forward. It requires understanding how modern designers, brands and entire industries think and work. To break the rules, you must first learn them.

There is a growing need for a new kind of leadership based on imagination. A powerful image can be a tremendous force for change.


About the Author: Dmitry Ostrovsky (@ostrovsky) is a photographer and editor-in-chief of the independent editorial board EDITTS (@ editts.class), which is the most useful and beautiful blog on contemporary photography on Instagram in Russia and the CIS. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


Image credits: Header photo licensed from Depositphotos



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