©Steven Seidenberg

The Value of Vision

Steven Seidenberg began using photography as an expression of his visual art. He approached it through the lens of a painter, using the camera as an immediate and realistic way to explore abstraction. Over time, Seidenberg’s fine art photography has evolved to include a variety of series that examine intriguing repetitions found in the built environment. While photography is just one tool in Seidenberg’s artistic quiver, his experiences in the medium have led to insights that could apply across different disciplines and to a variety of professional photographic specialties, especially when it comes to defining a unique artistic vision in the saturated photographic market.   

©Steven Seidenberg

When examining what different artists can learn from each other—and how those lessons can apply to commercial photography—Seidenberg urges photographers to consider different ways of thinking. It helps, he says, to consider possibilities beyond what’s traditionally defined as a photographic specialty and then nudge clients toward thinking about those possibilities as well.

Doing this often involves capturing not just a moment but an entire set of material conditions as viewed through a photographer’s unique perspective. By letting these conditions seep into their artistic perspective, photographers can create more versatile work. In the process, they can train their audience to want something unique instead of asking for something they’ve already seen in the marketplace.

“My suggestion is to actually identify a kind of photography that you find exciting in some way and see if you can nudge your clients towards those kinds of possibilities,” says Seidenberg.

©Steven Seidenberg

Photographers who get caught up chasing trends soon find there’s little to distinguish them in the marketplace because their work looks similar to that of many other photographers. When there’s no artistic differentiation, the fallback for competition often comes down to price. The question becomes how to create photography that is creative and distinctive but still commercially viable and not so far afield that customers don’t know what to do with it.

While acknowledging this challenge, Seidenberg offers the counterpoint that perhaps professional photography needs more work that stands solidly in left field. “There might be more room for someone making work for a much smaller subset of people who are willing to pay for something that seems quite peculiar compared to the rest of the relatively uniform photography that people see,” he says. This could be particularly true in the global marketplace, where discerning customers are not bound by geography and can connect with photographic work that speaks to them.

“Always consider: How are your photographs voiced in a way that distinguishes them from everyone else’s work, particularly now, at a moment where there’s such an extremely ordinary onslaught of images from all around us?” asks Seidenberg.

Photographers often focus on the hows of image making: lens, focal length, exposure, etc. While these considerations are valid, they are the least engaging items about an image, notes Seidenberg. “Trying to understand what a photographer is evoking rather than how they’re evoking it should be the first consideration,” he says. “That often gets lost in people’s photography practice. They’re not really thinking about evoking anything; they’re not trying to make people think something. It all needs to have openness for the viewer to bring what they bring to the work.”

Now is the time for photographers to think as artists, not just as technicians, he says.

©Steven Seidenberg

The novelist Saul Bellow once said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” Seidenberg adapts that quote to visual artists, saying, “An artist is a viewer moved to emulation—or maybe more accurately, an artist is a viewer moved to reciprocation.” You are moved by some work. You think that’s something you might be able to do for people. Maybe you’ll seek ways to create that experience for others in ways you haven’t seen before. “But you have to have that experience yourself to understand what you’re looking for in your own work,” says Seidenberg. “So looking at other photographs by photographers whose work you think is great and who are doing something strange and interesting, maybe even something you find uncomfortable or perplexing, can be really helpful.”

Further broaden your artistic perspective by engaging with work outside your specialty and communicate with artists who are working in different media. “What happens for people in any art form is they often only talk to other people who are using the media that they’re using, and I think that’s a mistake,” says Seidenberg. “Seeing other kinds of art, talking with and explaining yourself to other kinds of artists, is extremely useful. You want perspectives that aren’t just photography perspectives. Otherwise, you can get pushed into this corner where you aren’t able to see all of the possibilities you have as a visual thinker.”

©Steven Seidenberg
©Steven Seidenberg

It can be easy for photographers to start chasing what they think their audiences want. In the process, they will move further away from both their own passions and from whatever it is that makes their work distinct. Ironically, those passions and those distinctions are what ultimately attract an audience.

The questions photographers must ask themselves are, “How is this work voiced as mine? What makes anyone think that this is distinguishable from other photographers doing work that may be similar in some way?” says Seidenberg.

There are rarely easy answers because technique and visual expression come into play. And those things are in a state of flux. “But that’s the set of questions one has to always ask of one’s own work,” says Seidenberg.

Through asking these questions, photographers can find an easier path forward, particularly if they are feeling stuck creatively.

“I come back over and over again to this notion of having a distinct voice,” says Seidenberg. “Having something to say, having your own perspective, that you’re able to give through your work as a photographer that others aren’t doing in the same way, is so important.” 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.