David Bowman’s body of work represents his vision of life at the top of the United States. His images are a blend of self-assigned and commissioned projects, but they all get to the heart of his experience living in Minnesota, the northernmost state in the contiguous United States.
“I’m fascinated by the world within driving range of my own house, where I grew up and where my family comes from,” Bowman says. “To me, the Midwest is an exotic, mysterious and challenging place. There’s always been a strong connection for me between photographing the local landscape and understanding the place I might call home.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
David Bowman: I started working as a photo assistant right out of college in 1991, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison with a journalism degree in newswriting. I suppose I should have been looking for writing projects, but after taking one photojournalism course towards the end of my undergraduate program, I became obsessed with photography. After graduating, I returned to Chicagoland, where I had grown up, and my first job was working as a photo assistant at a catalog studio on the Near West side, in a neighborhood that was like a war zone. The economy was in recession, George Bush the elder was in office, and we were at war in Iraq. It was my first job out of college and everyone seemed miserable, especially in the studio where I worked.
One morning, someone forgot to lock the studio door behind them, and a random person burst in off the street and attacked the receptionist with the scissors from her desk. Another day, the lead photographer’s car windows were smashed in the studio’s parking lot and his child seat was stolen. Finally, one morning during my commute, a businessman was murdered on the elevated train during rush hour. It was a harsh environment and it didn’t feel right to me. After about a month of working there, I quit.
At the time, I didn’t think that commercial photography — or being back in Chicago — was the right place for me. So I spent the next four years traveling and photographing, from Ireland on a bicycle, across the United States on a motorcycle and in the Australian outback via camel. For money, I worked various jobs, from cooking in restaurants to working as a welder. I kept a darkroom in a barn at my parents’ house in rural Wisconsin, and would come home between trips to save money and develop film. Finally, at the end of 1994 I decided I needed to establish some sort of roots, so I moved to Minneapolis and began working in a community darkroom and meeting other photographers. I continued to work as a house painter, cook, and janitor for a year or two; whatever it took to afford film and darkroom supplies. But eventually a friend that I met through the community darkroom turned me on to freelance photo assisting. I was reluctant at first, thinking back to my earlier days in Chicago. But I really didn’t have anything to lose. I needed the money, and the freelance hours sounded great.
I hadn’t gone to school for photography, so I really didn’t know much about anything beyond basic 35mm, TLR medium format, and simple black-and-white darkroom work. Commercial assisting at the time was all about large format cameras, color transparency film and working with strobes. I didn’t know anything about those things, but I was eager to figure them out. The best thing that happened was that I started working for a photographer who was less concerned with what I already knew, but could see that I wanted to work and was excited to learn.
After a few years assisting some busy commercial studios in Minneapolis, I got to know a few art buyers. Even though I was still shooting my own style of black-and-white landscape work, they began calling in my portfolio, and I landed my first big advertising job with a crew, location and budget. And it was to be shot with 35mm black-and-white.
After that, I figured the time was right to ditch assisting and start shooting jobs, but things quickly changed after 9-11, which happened right after my first job. Since it didn’t seem there would be any work in Minneapolis for some time, my wife, new baby and l packed up the car and moved to San Francisco for two years. I started assisting some great photographers out there, and began landing some national editorial work. As the economy improved, I also began getting hired more frequently by Minneapolis agencies and began travelling for shooting jobs. The agency Fallon sent me to the Bahamas for a month of shooting — and while I was there, my wife called and informed me that we were pregnant. It was time to move back to Minneapolis. Once we returned to Minneapolis, I joined forces with a national repping agency and began shooting commercial jobs full time.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?
DB: As an assistant, I started working full time for a photographer who happened to be the president of ASMP’s Minneapolis chapter. I hadn’t gone to school for photography at that point, and I really had no background in commercial work, so I was always asking him business and usage questions. He sponsored me and paid my initial dues, just so I could get the business practices book and quit bugging him.
ASMP: What has made you remain an ASMP member?
DB: During the time my wife, daughter, and I were in San Francisco (2002-2004), I also became a member of APA, which had a strong commercial presence in San Francisco. When I moved back to Minneapolis, I continued the APA membership for a while since it was connected to my insurance, but eventually switched back to ASMP. There is no APA chapter in Minneapolis, while the ASMP chapter has a strong presence.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
DB: I value the community aspect the most. Back when I was an assistant and just starting out shooting, I was always hanging out with other photographers. But once I had a family and began shooting jobs all the time, it became harder to stay in touch with other people. ASMP meetings are a great way to get out and see people in person after a long day of chatting on the phone and working on the computer in the office.
ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
DB: The coolest thing for me is getting to know photographers that I’ve heard of, or bid against, but had never met before. And staying in touch with people I might know through photography, but wouldn’t see otherwise.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?
DB: Model and property release information. Every once in a while questions come up about this type of paperwork, and it’s easy to forget the details if it’s been a few years. So it’s super handy to know that this information is available online at ASMP.org whenever I need it. I’ve also used the ASMP release app on my iPhone, but I prefer paper releases. But it’s great to have the app in my pocket too, just in case I forget to bring the physical forms to a location.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
DB: Most of my commercial work involves portraiture. I also shoot quite a bit of landscape, sometimes for jobs, but mostly as personal and fine art projects.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?
DB: In a spiritual sense… I’d say my darkroom. I still have the first enlarger I ever laid eyes on when I was 17 years old (bought it for $50). But I suppose, in a business sense, it’s my laptop. In my office I keep it hooked up to a 30-inch LCD monitor, keyboard and pen tablet for retouching. I use the same laptop for office work all day, communicating with clients through e-mail, and delivering high-res files. I also use it to design and send out marketing materials and e-mail blasts, print portfolio pages and gallery prints, and update my Web site and social media. When I was in graduate school, I used it for class, and then after I graduated, I’ve used it as an online instructor. When I go on a job, the laptop comes with me to the shoot and is tethered to the camera. After the shoot, I edit, upload the high-res, and invoice the client, all through the laptop. After my eyes and hands, I would say the laptop is the most valuable single tool that I have. Cameras are important too, but I have lots of those. And unfortunately, a camera by itself can only do so much, business-wise.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
DB: For better or worse, I’d describe my approach as a cross between commercial, fine art and journalism.
The work is commercial because I learned the techniques on the job, assisting other photographers who had gone to school to shoot commercial work. They taught me how to build a portfolio that could get me working. They also introduced me to the people to whom I needed to show my work.
But much of my inspiration and interest in photography comes from the history of photography, and what is considered art photography. I’m much more excited about work that is created by artists as personal expression, rather than as advertisements that have been art-directed, bankrolled and client-approved. Commercial work is great for feeding the family, but it takes more than dollars to stay interested and engaged in a photography career.
Journalism because that’s where I started, in journalism school. And that’s where the bulk of my work is published today, either for editorial clients or for advertisers who prefer a style that looks authentic and real.
ASMP: Please talk about your working methods in pursuing your vision of life at the top of the United States. What drew you to Minnesota, how long have you lived there and how long have you been working on this project? Do you view this as a finite series of images or an ongoing body of work that you’ll always be exploring?
DB: I’m fascinated by the world within driving range of my own house, where I grew up, and where my family comes from. To me, the Midwest is an exotic, mysterious, and challenging place. There’s a stereotype of the successful landscape photographer as someone who only shoots in the mountains or on the ocean with beautiful models, fancy wardrobes, and expensive cars — at sunset. But that’s not me.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same house, on the same street, surrounded by the same people. The day I left home for college, my family moved away. Almost overnight, the neighborhood changed and everyone else’s family moved away too.
As a freshman, I became one of 50,000 students at a large public university in an unfamiliar city and state. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know anyone and I was alone. Feeling lost in the center of America, photography became a means for me to explore and understand the expanding world around me. There’s always been a strong connection for me between photographing the landscape and understanding the place I might call home.
ASMP: Given that Minnesota is the coldest state in the contiguous US and there’s snow on the ground seven months of the year, relatively few of your Minnesota images represent living with extreme snow and cold. Your artist statement mentions that this type of imagery can feel like a “photographic fantasy,” but it must also make for difficult conditions. Please discuss the difficulties it presents in daily life and why you chose not to represent this in your images?
DB: Minnesota winters are hard, and they last an awfully long time. But winter here doesn’t look all that different from winter in Green Bay (where I was born), or even Chicago (where I grew up). So how do you photograph the unique level of intensity that shapes the winter in Minnesota? Long exposures at night over a frozen lake with northern lights and star trails could be one way of doing it, but that type of heavy camera technique can lead to a romantic image that says little about the experience of living here.
To me, winter in Minnesota is more psychological than visual. It’s what’s happening inside, when you are cooped up for too long, not seeing anyone for half the year, living in the dark and being cold. It’s a stark reality. Sometimes the best way to capture something like this is not to photograph the landscape itself, but the culture that thrives on it.
Every March and April I get calls from people, mostly out-of-town, wanting to shoot in Minnesota for projects that will be published in summer, so they need the environment to look green. But we usually have a few feet of snow on the ground until May. This has led to some interesting ‘Spring’ shoots.
ASMP: Your submitted images all have a quiet beauty regardless of the subject matter. Please talk about your photographic style and its connection to your current lifestyle in Minnesota.
DB: Landscape photography can be a solitary endeavor, especially when you’re out shooting in winter while everyone else is inside, hugging a radiator. I moved to Minnesota 20 years ago. Before that, I grew up hearing about Northern winters from my parents, who lived on the North Shore of Lake Superior when they first got married. My mom was a nurse in Hibbing, Minnesota and my father worked in an open-pit iron mine nearby, where the miners had to work outside every day, year round, unless it was colder than 20 below zero (in which case they could stay home). My father was obsessed with mines, and kept a rock collection in the best room of our house in Chicago; bits of rock that he’d picked up on the job in mines across the country, polished and painstakingly labeled. Every night at dinner he showed us his scars, and talked about his work — the slow descent of the elevator, lunchtime in the wet dark, and terrible accidents of exploding earth.
As a photographer, I work outside year round too. And I’m a bit obsessed with the landscape and geology. But instead of digging with tools like my dad, I make photographs.
ASMP: You mention the importance of finding balance between assignment, personal and fine art work. In addition to that, you also teach. What, if any, strategies do you use to find and maintain a balance between these various compartments?
DB: Personal work comes easy. If I could, that would be all I’d shoot — all day, everyday. It’s the whole reason I’m a photographer. But in order to pay the bills, I need to keep the jobs coming in, so I strive to make sure that whatever personal work I’m creating will either be appropriate to my assignment portfolio or to any longer-range art photo projects I might be working on. It takes a certain amount of discipline to stay on task and make a living, while also working as an artist and following my obsessions. But it’s not impossible. Getting a master of fine arts (MFA) degree through the online program at San Francisco’s the Academy of Art University played a big part in helping me define and balance the various genres within my photographic practice.
Some photographers are either commercial or fine art, and it’s a black and white issue for them. But for people like me, whose work crosses boundaries, it’s important to strike a balance, and stay relevant on both sides. Teaching is a separate issue, but also important for the development of any artist. You can be great at “doing” something, but being able to teach that same thing opens you up to a new level of understanding about your artistic processes that may have been out of reach prior to teaching.
ASMP: You received an undergraduate degree in journalism in 1991 and an MFA in photography in 2013. What prompted you to return to school after so many years? Did you go back for an MFA in order to teach or for other reasons? Please talk about the benefits and challenges to going back to school after such a long hiatus.
DB: I went back to school at the beginning of the latest recession, as a sort of mental break from the commercial photo fray. One of my reasons was that I had just finished paying off my business credit card debt and, as the economy began to worsen, I was reluctant to get back on the treadmill of borrowing money in order to market myself. Especially since it seemed like I might not make the money back for a long time. The common wisdom at the time was for commercial photographers to double down and focus on commercial clients and possibly begin shooting video. It all sounded very soul crushing to me. My instinct was to do the opposite, and focus on artistic growth. So I continued working full time, but instead of keeping up with the more expensive marketing recipe necessary for success in the ad world, I began to focus my marketing more on existing advertising clients and editorial markets. An added bonus to getting the MFA was that I would also be qualified to teach college some day if I chose.
I arrived at the decision to pursue the MFA after watching my assistant go through the process. When he first began his program, I played the devil’s advocate, telling him that he didn’t need an MFA to be a professional photographer. But over the next two years, as he continued to work at it, we had so many great conversations that my interest was piqued. When he finally graduated, I was like, where’s my MFA?
The benefit of being older and already established as a photographer while enrolled in graduate school was that I didn’t waste any time. I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of the program, and I advocated for those results starting on day one. Before ever enrolling in the program, I had lengthy conversations with two of the directors and made sure the program would work for me.
ASMP: What was the most memorable, influential or valuable thing that you learned as a graduate student?
DB: A big part of graduate school for me was opening up to the idea of challenging the viewer through art photography, rather than simply handing them the beautiful commercial photo that I’d become used to making.
ASMP: You were selected as valedictorian of your graduate school class and you spoke at graduation. Please give us a brief overview of the speech you gave to classmates.
DB: In my speech to my classmates, I outlined the story of my involvement with photography and how, even though I had achieved a certain amount of commercial success without an education in art, I was still hungry for challenge and growth — something I found in the MFA program. So, even though in many ways they have the opposite — education but no experience — my point to my classmates was that they’ll carry their education with them as they grow and continue to build on it. They may not always see their degree in action, but the foundation will be there for them if they need it. Jobs come and go, but education is forever. And no one can take it away from you.
ASMP: How do you divide your time between personal, fine art, assignments and teaching (not to mention home life)? What gets most of your time and attention? Does your workload differ based on particular months or seasons?
DB: My wife is also a photographer and artist. We met on set as photo assistants, back in 1999. I was the first assistant on a BMW car shoot, running the 8-by-10 camera, and she was hired on the last day of the two-week, multi-city shoot to help wrap up. So she understands the flow of photo life and has always supported me 100 percent. While I’m not a big fan of sitting behind the computer, I think it helps our family life that my office is in our home, so I’m there quite a bit, at least physically. Our kids are photographers too. We gave our oldest daughter a DSLR for her 12th birthday and she’s been shooting, directing, and editing HD video ever since. I keep an older computer next to mine in my office for her to edit with. We have a blast working together. The only problem is agreeing on what music to listen to.
ASMP: How much of your assignment work is based in Minnesota or the upper Midwest region? What’s been your favorite recent assignment and what made it special?
DB: Most of my assignment work is based in the upper Midwest, although I do travel for editorial and ad clients on occasion. But my favorite jobs usually involve hopping in the car and seeing another part of the state. At night, watching the news, I Iove looking at the weather map of the Midwest and seeing all the places I’ve lived and photographed.
A recent assignment was for People magazine. While I was in Wisconsin with my family over the forth of July holiday, People asked me to detour through Appleton to photograph the MLB / Target Teacher of the Year Eric Vander Loop, along with 20 of his students. It was raining when we arrived, but luckily for us, the teacher of the year keeps an EZ-UP in the back of his pickup. Safely under canvas, my wife Hallie and I set up the lights, camera and laptop while a local hair and makeup stylist groomed the kids inside the school. As the sky began to clear, we moved on to the next challenge: what color shirt? We had a tight deadline, with less than 24 hours to deliver the files. The editor had specifically asked that I keep it photojournalistic, and create the final image “in camera.” This meant no using Photoshop to retouch separate captures into the perfect, blink-free homage to Annie Leibovitz. People magazine has the largest circulation of any U.S. magazine, with almost 50 million readers (100 million eyeballs). Up to this point I’d done everything I could to pull off the shoot, including driving to Wisconsin, scouting the location, lighting the scene with strobe, and keeping the equipment out of the rain. We even made a trip to Walmart and found a blue shirt. But now came the moment of truth. As the Teacher of the Year and 20 of his students walked onto the set, I recognized that expectant look on their faces — the expression reserved specially for photographers: What do you want us to do?
I had no idea. I never do. I just dive in and start directing. A photo evolved and the magazine was thrilled.
ASMP: In your opinion, what defines a good assignment?
DB: The best assignments have an artistic component that requires me to interpret the client’s needs, balance that with what resources are available and create something new in the process, based uniquely on my taste and talent — on who I am as an artist.
ASMP: Please talk about some of the most challenging assignments you’ve photographed. What made them difficult and how did you resolve the situation to come back with the images?
DB: For one advertising project, I had to light an entire football team with strobe, in a place that didn’t have electricity. So we needed multiples of everything, including generators and assistants. The logistics were crazy, especially when it came to feeding everyone. We had more than 30 people on set.
But here’s the bizarre part. Someone had placed a sign down at the main road with an arrow that said something like “BOWMAN SHOOT.” Not too unusual, since that’s my last name, and since we were in a remote location, a sign could help the crew to find us. But while I was setting up the shot, a guy showed up with a compound bow and arrow, and asked my assistants where the “BOWMAN” was. It seems that this guy was driving past with his archery set, saw the sign for BOWMAN SHOOT, and pulled over.
After being told that this wasn’t that kind of Bowman shoot, he left, somewhat disgruntled. The next day we read in the paper that afterward he went on a rampage with his bow and was busted shooting arrows at nearby buildings.
Another challenging project was when a golfing magazine flew me to another city to photograph abandoned golf courses. They had this great article about the recession that they wanted me to illustrate, about the rash of abandoned golf courses in one midwestern city. The first hurdle was figuring out how to photograph in these dicey locations without raising a fuss. But once we got to the location and started scouting around, we realized a much bigger challenge. Abandoned golf courses don’t look like golf courses. They look like the woods, or weeds, on the prairie. Most of the iconic golfing symbols that would make a viewer think of a golf course were long gone. So it was a challenge, but we kept going from one location to the next until we found the right mix of abandoned and manicured that we were looking for.
ASMP: Please talk about other team members you work with, both commercially and in your personal work. Do you work with freelancers or fulltime support for business administration, photo assistants, tech support or other support staff?
DB: Mostly I work with a rotating group of freelance assistants, depending on who’s available. Photo assistants are extremely important to me, not just to help haul the gear, but to have someone on hand to frame in and pre-light when doing a portrait — especially when time is tight. But it’s also great to have the company on location and to get input on how the shoot is progressing. And it’s helpful to have someone watching my back when I’m out shooting at night in a strange place.
For ad work, I’ll hire various producers to help create estimates in the initial phase and then to help me pull the crew, location and other parts of the job together when I’m awarded the job.
For fine art prints, I print up to 16-by-20 in my studio, but I hire a local printer to make larger sizes and to create drum scans of large format negatives. I maintain my own darkroom for processing and printing black-and-white film up to 8-by-10 format.
ASMP: Some of your work is shot with a large format film camera and you also shoot digitally. When and why do you choose digital versus film? In your opinion what are the most important differences (or distinctions) between the two?
DB: I’ve had my own darkroom for the past 25 years. While this type of work isn’t as important for assignment work anymore, I still consider it an important part of my practice. I usually have some type of darkroom-based project happening in my life, even if it’s not something that I have immediate plans to show. To me there’s something about working in the darkroom that is fundamental, like I’m creating something with my hands, rather than on the computer. I don’t believe film necessarily makes for better images, but I enjoy the process.
I also have a digital back that goes on my 4-by-5 camera. I use that kit to shoot much of my color assignment landscape work. It’s not the same as film, but the process of working digitally with a large format camera can be similar and yields images that are digital for speed and quality, but with a slower, more organic process.
ASMP: You teach college-level photography both online and in the classroom. How do these two forms of instruction differ in terms of your preparation time, your teaching style and the caliber of the students?
DB: In my experience, I’d say the caliber of the students, photographically speaking, is similar between online and in the traditional classroom. What’s different is the way students interact as a group. Online students tend to work at their own pace, checking in when their lifestyle permits, whereas students in the classroom tend to know each other from previous semesters and function more as a group. Also, online creates new opportunities to reach nontraditional students, who might not be able to do the classroom thing. This can be good, but it can also be a problem when someone signs up for an online class but cannot realistically keep up because of their other commitments.
ASMP: Does teaching inspire you, and if so, in what ways? What is the most memorable (or valuable) thing you’ve learned from one of your students?
DB: I believe that, as an artist, you haven’t completely mastered a subject until you’ve learned to teach it as well. This doesn’t have to be in a classroom, because photographers have been teaching assistants on the job for years. But teaching in a classroom has its advantages vs. the commercial relationship between photographer and assistant. Academic freedom can help a student grow on many levels that may not be available in an apprenticeship-type scenario.
My proudest moment as a teacher was when one of my students told me that he had an interview later that day for an internship as an art buyer’s assistant at a local ad agency. When he told me the name of the buyer, I told him to say hi for me. Later that day, my phone rang, and the buyer asked me what I thought of the student. I told him the truth: He’s my best student. Later that week, the student got the job. Six months later, after he graduated, he was hired full-time at the agency. I’ll never forget the look of gratitude on his dad’s face when I met him and he said, “Thanks for getting my son a job!”
ASMP: Your assignment work spans a wide array of genres including portraits, lifestyle, landscape and corporate. Do you have a preference among the subject matter you shoot?
DB: I’ve always had an affinity for shooting landscapes, since I first picked up a camera. But in the beginning, photographing people was more like a side job. I’d show a portfolio of mostly landscapes, which got me in the door, but then art buyers and editors would ask if I could show them some portraits. So when I first started working with a national rep, we began to talk about landscape and portrait work as two separate things. Over time, it became apparent that most of the work I was being hired for was portrait-based, since that was a strong market demand. And, at the same time, I noticed that most of the commissioned landscape work that I was seeing in the ad world was highly retouched, almost like an illustration, and nothing like the sort of documentary landscape that I was interested in.
As my business evolved, I began to feel pressure to focus on portrait work if I was going to make it in the commercial world. This was confusing to me, because it seemed like if I wanted to be successful, I needed to stop doing the very thing (landscape work) that propelled me into photography in the first place. This paradox is what led me to graduate school.
As the Great Recession loomed, it was sink or swim and I was faced with a choice. Either forget about shooting landscape altogether, reinvest in my business and somehow manage to limp through the recession without losing my shirt, or start over somehow. The idea that I needed to stop shooting the kind of work I was passionate about became unbearable to me. So, instead of focusing on my photography business in the face of a failing economy, I chose instead to re-invest in myself as an artist, and get my MFA. More than anything I just wanted to dig into photography as deeply as I could, without a commercial reason or market need behind my choices.
In the four years I was in the MFA program part-time, I continued to support my family by shooting jobs for a living, providing images to clients like National Geographic magazine, Vanity Fair, Johnson & Johnson, Syngenta, and TIME. And, in my final year of grad school, I also became an adjunct college professor, teaching photography to undergraduate art students in Minneapolis. Shortly after graduating, I began teaching online and became a full member of National Geographic Creative.
ASMP: National Geographic Creative (NGC) represents your commercial assignment work and stock licensing. Do you (or can you) also pursue assignments outside of NGC?
DB: Yes, National Geographic Creative is like a traditional repping agency, in that they handle all of my advertising and corporate assignments. But they also run their own stock agency, so they handle that part of my business as well, which is great, because I had been holding back all these years from placing my work with a stock agency, hoping that something better would come along. Now it has.
On a limited basis, National Geographic Creative also handles my fine art work, which includes exclusive National Geographic auctions at Christies and future gallery sales. But I still handle my own editorial work, which keeps me busy in between things. Plus I love shooting for magazines; it’s one of my favorite things about being a photographer.
ASMP: Please describe how this representation through NGC came about and how this collaboration works.
DB: When I started graduate school, I was also working as a freelancer without a rep group for the first time in years. I knew I needed to keep marketing if was going to keep the work coming in while I studied, but I needed to be smart about it. Big repping agencies are marketing powerhouses, but that type of network can be super expensive for the individual photographers. Of course, if they’re getting loads of ad work, it’s no big deal to spend $20K a year on 2,500 oversized postcards every six weeks, buying multiple page spreads in sourcebooks and shipping portfolios all over the world. But when you’re on your own and shooting mostly editorial work, that type of marketing spend would be suicide, because you might never make the money back. It’s a real Catch 22 for editorial and fine art photographers: You need to do the same marketing as everyone else if you’re going to get noticed — but you need to be shooting ads in order to pay for it all.
The thing I’ve learned about marketing is that it’s either expensive or labor intensive. So if you’re on a limited budget, you can make up for your shortfalls by busting your butt. It works, but it can be hard to maintain. What usually happens is that people work hard at their marketing, start getting jobs, but then fall off the marketing wagon because it’s too much work. At the very least, you need to be shooting new work you’re excited about and getting it in front of people. The trick is to find the sweet spot where you’re shooting new work that satisfies you as an artist, but that can also be good for bringing in new work.
So while I was in the MFA program, I continued to shoot new work, send limited postcards and e-mail blasts, show my portfolio around town and enter contests. After so many years of doing this sort of thing with a rep group, I was able to work on autopilot somewhat and focus on my studies. One of the things I did during this time was enter my State Fair series into the International Photography Awards, and it won first place. Contests are a great way to stretch your marketing dollars — as long as you win. Even if it doesn’t lead directly to work, at the very least it gives you something meaningful to talk about in your marketing communications.
Later, a National Geographic editor came across my winning State Fair images on the IPA website and asked if she could submit them to her boss to be considered for publication by the magazine. It was a long process, and I had pretty much forgotten about it until National Geographic magazine contacted me one day and asked if they could publish one of my State Fair images as the opening spread to the 125th Anniversary edition in January 2013.
A few months after that issue came out, I graduated with my MFA. By the end of that year, National Geographic Creative had invited me to join their repping and stock agencies, since my work had been published in the magazine (a requirement for admission to the group).
ASMP: According to your blog, the company Room + Board is now selling a set of your photographs from the Minnesota State Fair as the David Bowman Collection of framed prints. Was this an arrangement you made or were the images licensed through NGC? What kind of fee structure did you receive for this use: a set fee, a percentage of sales or something different?
DB: This arrangement developed on its own. Room + Board is based in Minnesota, and they have a genuine interest in local artists and subjects. We negotiated a price per print and they purchased multiple copies of four images in advance. So, the price per print was modest, especially when compared to selling a single print in a gallery. But when you look at it wholesale and add up the numbers, I did quite well. They paid for everything up front. For me it was like having a gallery show and selling hundreds of prints in advance.
ASMP: Your Web site includes a section called Little Movies that showcases a number of short videos you’ve shot. When did you begin working in video? How does creating this type of media differ from the other formats you work in? Do you have a preferred format to work in or does this depend on the story being told?
DB: I was pretty reluctant to jump into video when people first started talking about it, which is similar to how I felt initially about switching from film to digital capture. So I guess I’m a holdout for traditional photography somewhat, because at my core, I’m a still photographer and I don’t want to give that up. So it took me a while to get interested in video. But once I started playing around with it on my own terms, I became more interested. I started out by taking a class in FCPX, playing with the video capture on my camera, experimenting with external audio capture and genuinely trying to enjoy the process and make it my own, without relying too much on the conventions of TV, film or music videos.
ASMP: What is the range of gear you work with for both video and stills? Does the equipment for your personal and fine art work differ from your commercial work? What are the most important factors affecting your decision of what tools to use?
DB: In general I only shoot film for personal or art photo projects, since in my experience it’s never a realistic option for assignment work. For the past few years, I’ve been working on a landscape project where I’ve been shooting black-and-white film with a Sinar 8-by-10 camera, and hand-processing the film in Pyro developer. The final negatives are then drum scanned to make 40-by-50-inch gallery prints. But I also love to experiment with digital capture. For assignment work, I almost always shoot digitally; with a Phase One digital back either on a Sinar 4-by-5-inch camera or Mamiya RZ body. I also love shooting with my Nikon D800, and have adapted an older 4-by-5 lens to work with it.
I’d say the biggest difference for me between commercial and personal work is that most of my commercial work is shot tethered to the laptop with the client in mind. For my own work, I shoot straight to the camera whether it’s film or digital, and keep the LCD screen turned off. I also never use autofocus on my personal work. For me, manual focusing is a big part of the large format process that I don’t want to give up.
ASMP: You use the platform Blogger to power your blog, which features a toolbar with different viewing options, from Classic to Snapshot to Timeslide and more. How long have you run your blog on this platform and what’s your user experience been?
DB: I’ve been with Blogger for about eight years. Until recently I used their classic or standard HTML blog template, but decided to start using the “dynamic views” template when I upgraded my Web site, since I was now including more links to social media. The old template felt sort of redundant, when viewed alongside Instagram, Facebook and the like. But what I like about the dynamic view in Blogger is that it can give viewers a snapshot of all the images that have ever been posted to my blog in one view. This keeps all of the entries at their fingertips, rather than burying old posts. And they can choose to read an archived blog entry based on a visual, rather text or date-based heading.
ASMP: Please talk about the various distribution channels (social networking sites, photography portals, online magazines, traditional print publications, galleries, stock distributors, etc.) you reach out to in order to build awareness and market your images. Are there specific channels that have been more effective than others in generating attention and response?
DB: As I mentioned earlier, marketing comes down to either spending dollars or doing the labor yourself. I try to split the difference and spend wisely, but also make time for critical marketing tasks like building lists of contacts and managing e-mail blasts. Unfortunately, I don’t do much traditional print marketing anymore, based on cost factors vs. e-mail and Web promos. But entering awards and getting to know people is still important. Social media is important too, but can have diminishing results if it takes up all of your time and isn’t leading to jobs.
ASMP: You’ve received numerous awards, since 2004. Is there one particular award that’s been most memorable and/or had the most impact on your career? Please talk about how these accumulated awards have affected your career in general. Have they created more awareness, brought in more commissions, or had other effects?
DB: To me, awards are an effective form of guerrilla marketing. They’re much less expensive than sourcebooks, and they carry more clout. But they need to be entered wisely to get the most for your money. I’ve gotten work directly from winning the PDN Photo Annual and the IPA Photo awards. Other times I’ve won awards and not noticed a direct benefit. But the best part is that they’re cumulative. So every award you win stays with you for your career, adding weight to your resume.
ASMP: In 2014, you received a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to continue work on a fine art project about the source of the Great Lakes in Northern Minnesota. Please describe the application process for this grant? Over what time period will you pursue this project and how will the funds be used?
DB: The Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB) annual Artist Initiative grant application is for MN artists only, and requires an artist plan and work samples that are reviewed by a jury. The artist plan is a two-page document with five components:
- Artist/project background;
- Major project goal;
- Barriers to achieving goal;
- Actions to overcome barriers; and
- Impact of project on the state of Minnesota.
I received the MSAB grant in Spring 2014, and have been working on it since. Funds pay for me to travel to northern Minnesota, make drum scans and large format prints, study bookmaking classes and pay myself an artist fee. The official grant year began in February 2014, and will end in February 2015. This particular grant is paid for by state taxpayer funds, so the money needs to be spent in Minnesota. It’s important that the final work is eventually shown in Minnesota as well, and this is a factor that is considered by the jurors when they review submissions.
ASMP: Approximately how many grants and award competitions do you enter annually? Do you use any particular method to track your entries or analyze how your work holds up against awarded projects? Are there particular honors or awards you have not yet achieved that top your list?
DB: I’d estimate that I enter my work in about five main awards programs, as well as submit four or five grant applications every year. However, it’s usually completely different work that I’m entering in various places. Awards programs skew heavily toward commercial work, or at least the personal work of commercial photographers, while grant applications are much more academic, with roots in the gallery and museum world.
Whether you’re submitting images to a contest or applying to a grant, it’s important that you identify your audience. Otherwise you might be wasting your time and money by showing them something they’re not interested in.
ASMP: What criteria do you use in identifying and deciding which grants, competitions or calls to enter? It must be a time consuming process to research and prepare your submissions. How much time do you dedicate to this process? Can you also elaborate on your process for obtaining exhibitions?
DB: My main criteria for entering a contest or applying for a grant is whether or not my work is a good fit. The more you enter, the better your chances of winning — if your work is appropriate. After a few years of applying to the same contests and grants, you start to get a feel for the rhythm of what gets awarded. Like any marketing technique, you need to do some research and legwork to succeed. But when it works, it pays for itself.
ASMP: You’re a founding member of the Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis. Please describe the gallery, how you got involved and how it currently operates.
DB: Back when we were working as photo assistants, my wife and I got together with some friends and created a cooperative gallery in a vacant Minneapolis storefront. It was a lot of fun, but we eventually moved on. It’s exciting to know that our creation is still alive, twelve years later.
ASMP: Does Rosalux Gallery represent your fine art work? Do other galleries represent your work? If so, please describe these relationships.
DB: Rolalux doesn’t represent my work any longer, but Nat Geo Creative does represent my fine art work on an evolving, limited basis. Three of my images were chosen this year by National Geographic editor Elizabeth Krist to be part of an exclusive NG Auction at Christies.
ASMP: Which photographers, filmmakers, or artists inspire and influence your work and style?
DB: Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Mitch Epstein and Jem Southam have all influenced me, in regard to thinking about and shooting landscape images. For portraiture and editorial work, I’m finding myself just as fascinated by the work of Robert Frank as when I first saw his book The Americans. Some other photographers that I admire are Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Taryn Simon, Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson.
ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?
DB: When I first moved to Minneapolis, I snuck into a gallery preview for art students of Richard Avedon’s show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He was giving lofty advice and taking questions from students, when I asked how, as artists, we were supposed to make a living? And he told me, “Start working.”
ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?
DB: Connecting with a national rep when I first started shooting advertising jobs was a huge boost to my career. It was like going from zero to 60 in regard to understanding how the commercial side of photography works. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t last forever. But it was a fantastic experience that taught me most of what I know about being an assignment photographer. In the same way, waiting to get the MFA until I was older and ready to make the most of the program was equally important in developing who I am as an artist.
ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?
DB: Take risks.
ASMP: Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead? Where do you see yourself in five years time?
DB: The wonderful thing about connecting with National Geographic Creative is that I’ve only just barely scratched the surface. I’m excited to continue growing within the organization. It really is a fantastic group of people. And for the first time in my career, I feel like I’m standing on solid ground. I couldn’t imagine landing in a better spot.