This week’s Questions with an Educator features, Thomas Werner.
Thomas is a photographer, author, and Assistant Professor of Photography at Parsons School of Design in New York. Thomas has experience lecturing internationally on topics from fashion to contemporary professional practices. He is the former owner of the Thomas Werner Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea Art District, has spent time working for the Department of State as a cultural representative in Russia, and has been a photography consultant for COACH and Rodale Publishing. He brings his diverse experience in the photography industry and the professional world to his students in the classroom. Here, he describes his recent book, The Fashion Image, details career experiences that specifically help in the classroom, and shares how he incorporates personal work into his business.
We asked: Please describe your recent book, The Fashion Image. At what point in your career in the photography industry did you begin writing? Why?
Thomas said: The Fashion Image begins with an overview of fashion photography and the way it reflects, embraces, or shapes the era in which it is made. Fashion design and the photographs that define it have historically shown us where our boundaries lie and how we seek to embrace or break them. The book goes on to cover the Photographer’s Team, Fashion Designer’s Team and the fashion design process, the Ad Agency’s Team, and the Editorial Creative Team. It then moves into pre-production, working on set, post production, developing shoot concepts, creativity, and fashion in a global context. [https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-fashion-image-9781474240888/]
The Fashion Image was my first book and the first time I had done any substantive writing. The book came about unexpectedly, one day about 4 years ago I received an email from an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing, London asking if I had an idea for a book on fashion. We met for coffee and I pitched three concepts. Once we arrived at an idea that made sense for the publisher, myself, and the marketplace, the process began. It was both life and career changing.
Writing a book is in many ways the antithesis of photography as the process is very slow and it can take years before you see the final result. It took me a long time to understand what my process was as a writer, that may have been the biggest challenge in terms of completing the text. A number of opportunities have arisen due to The Fashion Image including my role as an Editor at Large for IRKmagazine, a Paris based fashion and culture magazine and web site. I have always believed that it is essential to keep evolving throughout your career and this was a natural if at the time daunting step in that evolution. I am happy to say that a proposal for a second book has already been requested and approved by the Editorial Board at Bloomsbury. We are looking at a tentative January 2021 release.
We asked: What contemporary professional practices do you find to be most important to expose to your students? Do you often incorporate these business strategies into your photography classes?
Thomas said: Professional Practice is central to all of my courses, even those that focus on portfolio development or conceptual processes. I work to bring people from across the industry into my classroom. Guests include colleagues from advertising agencies, magazines, fashion design houses, art galleries, photographers, producers, and so on. This not only helps students build their network, but also provides insight into how various aspects of our industry work. There is no single path to success in our business, and each guest offers a different road that can be taken as you build a career. In general, I try to introduce a new aspect of Professional Practice in class on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and these run the gamut from ethics, to releases, to rights of use. In addition to a real world perspective I stress the importance of building a cohesive brand across all of your media platforms, one that reflects your work and who you are as an individual. Instagram, and social media in general, is an important part of this process. Every art director, art buyer, and editor that I know looks for talent on Instagram.
We asked: What previous experiences as the owner of the Thomas Werner Gallery in Manhattan do you most frequently use to help you teach in the classroom?
Thomas said: Owning the gallery provided an understanding of the business of fine art and the manner in which the market place functions. I am able to give students insight into how to approach a gallery, contractual obligations, and what a gallerist expects before, during, and after an exhibition. It is important to note that I do not ask students to change their work for the marketplace, but do want them to understand the needs and challenges of the not for profit and for profit art markets. As an exhibiting artist who was represented by galleries in New York and Los Angeles and had the pleasure of being reviewed in the New Yorker Magazine, I understand the difficulty of building a career as an exhibiting artist and finding a gallery that is a good fit. I work to bring all of these experiences as well as a personal history of grant writing into the classroom as succeeding in the arts goes far beyond creating your work for exhibition.
We asked: How did you branch out to lecturing internationally? Did you use any key marketing strategies that you think could also benefit your students?
Thomas said: In 2005, I decided to visit Eastern Europe and Russia before they became too westernized. After a trip to the Baltics, Russia and Romania I ran into a person from the US Department of State on a train platform in Philadelphia, and told him that I wanted to do one lecture, workshop, or exhibition in Russia. A very long story short, he gave me his card and I sent him a proposal. He responded with two email addresses. I rather naively got on a plane to Moscow and began to meet with people, including Joseph Backstein who was about to launch the first Moscow Biennale. Joseph invited me to speak at the National Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the first Biennale. That lead to my going to Saint Petersburg, Russia and the beginning a long collaboration with the State Hermitage Museum, the US Department of State, and a number of organizations throughout the country. The success of each presentation lead to another and over time I have had the good fortune to work with 32 cultural, educational, and governmental organizations in 29 cities across Russia. The release of The Fashion Image has also created international speaking opportunities. After a point you are asked to travel and speak internationally, but if you want your career to change and grow, you will need to endlessly create new opportunities for yourself in addition to those that come your way. Building credibility is essential, as is proving that you can deliver on a consistent basis. Small successes matter, even in terms of lectures and presentations, and can lead to move visible and better paying opportunities.
In terms of marketing, you need to make and keep yourself visible within the community in which you would like to work. I use Instagram @thomaswernerprojects, LinkedIn, and Facebook, all of which have had a positive effect on my career that I had never anticipated. I am not good at networking at parties so I had to find other ways to meet people. Public speaking was one of those avenues, one that has grown into an important part of my practice. Participating in ASMP and creating programming for the local chapter was another way I was able to meet editors, gallerists, and art buyers when starting out. At this point, I am moving into a new phase of my career that will include a series of national and international workshops, which will demand a more complex form of marketing. I am enjoying the challenge this presents.
We asked: Please describe how you incorporate personal work into your business. How important is personal work to your career overall?
Thomas said: If you want to build and sustain a career it is essential to create personal work. Doing so keeps you fresh and provides a space where you can experiment and find success while making beautiful mistakes. From a business perspective many art directors, editors, and gallerists will want to see your personal work as well as your professional portfolio, as that is often where your true vision resides.
Personally, this work has been an important part of my business. In the beginning it became my commercial fashion and portrait portfolios. Later on, the work exhibited in galleries came from a series I created solely for myself. As I began to work and exhibit regularly I lost some of the pleasure that came from producing work for exhibition. Every frame took on an exaggerated importance and the entire process had an unpleasant weight to it. So I took some time off and became a bit more selfish in terms of my personal projects. The pleasure has since returned and I feel more inspired both personally and professionally. Instagram has been a great outlet for some of those images, and of course I still exhibit the photographs that comprise my personal work, but with greater discretion. An exhibition of photographs taken during a stay at a monastery in Ukraine will be opening on February 8th in Russia. These choices may have slowed my career as an exhibiting artist, but image making has certainly become more enjoyable, and good for the soul.
Find more of Thomas’ work at @Thomaswernerprojects.