The Magic and Danger of The Medium
Lauren Renner on finding work/life/art balance and how commercial work has bolstered her fine art practice
By Noah Blumenson-Cook and Siena Oristaglio on May 10, 2017
Lauren Renner has a lot going on. Her upbeat nature and boundless energy seems like a contradiction with the thoughtful, serene introspection that her photographic work inspires. The work of hers I'm most familiar with — In Others Words — explores something primal and vulnerable about humanity, but with her large-format camera she also finds hope, truth, and a unique honesty that only photography can achieve.
When she first came to The Void Academy for consultation, all three of us realized she was seeking a lot of the same answers that that led us to create this company: How do I produce great work if I have to keep a day job? Where is the healthy balance between commissioned work and passion project? And why aren't we taught any of this in school?
Siena Oristaglio: What do you want people to know about your work as an artist?
LR: When we see a photograph, we are conditioned to believe on a subconscious level that it is a document of something real. This is a huge part of both the magic and the danger of this medium — it's a double-edged sword. In our world, photography is often used as a weapon to convince us that our bodies, lifestyles, and self-images aren't good enough. Every day we are bombarded with contrived images of the perfect life that we don't have and the perfect people that we would much rather be instead of who we really are. I am very conscious that this is one of the realities of my medium when I make my work. Personally, I am much more interested in using photography as a force for good — a way to unify people on some common ground and explore the depth, fire, and complexity of the human spirit. Whether I'm working commercially or in the fine art realm, this message is always at the forefront of my mind.
With regards to my recent work In Others' Words, specifically, the main thing I want people to take away from that work is the feeling that they are really engaging with another person and seeing them in an exposed way that they didn't initially think they could.
SO: In your own words, what is In Others' Words?
LR: In Others' Words is a photography series in which I invite people who have never met to show up to a photoshoot with a pre-written list of terms they have been labeled over the course of their lives. The first time my subjects meet, they take their clothes off and write these words on each other's naked bodies. In doing this, they are stripping away preconceived notions of how they identify as a person, what their style is, what their class is, what their sexual orientation is, and so on, so they get to connect in a way they might not have been able to before. Then I transport them to a public outdoor space where I photograph them with a 4x5 view camera.
SO: I'm curious about the backstory of this particular photo, taken in Wroclaw, Poland.
LR: The shoot took place in Sepolno — a Wroclaw suburb constructed in the shape of the symbolic Reichsadler, or Nazi Eagle. The neighborhood was originally built to house Nazi military officers during WWII. Local Poles now inhabit the area, one of whom generously offered for us to use her home as our shoot location. In the midst of the culturally conservative climate, our host insisted that the shoot could only take place if we hung blankets on a clothesline to conceal the revealing act from her surrounding neighbors. Likewise, the participants were reluctant to be photographed completely nude for personal reasons and agreed in solidarity to present only in their underwear. In the middle of shooting this piece, the participant in the center stopped and asked in a moment of bravery if she could remove her bra for the final image.
Noah Blumenson-Cook: Wow. Amazing. Can you talk a little bit about what are you currently working on?
LR: Something that I didn't get to share about myself through In Others' Words is that I have a very seasoned athletic background. A couple of weeks ago, I got my third degree black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu. I'm an avid runner, surfer, and snowboarder, and I've been doing yoga since I was 15. I have a deep understanding of the human body and I'm passionate about being active in it. So, right now I'm looking to move my work in a more commercial direction, photographing athletes. I've also been thinking about fine art multimedia projects that I'd like to do with athletes that speak to the human spirit behind athleticism. That's my current direction.
NBC: What’s great. Is there something you currently feel a great sense of pride about, artistically speaking?
LR: I'm very proud of In Others' Words — that project came a long way. I'm proud of the TED talk in Poland that happened based on that work. Seeing the work reach another part of the world that was craving a work that could unify individuals across different cultures was very gratifying. If I look back at myself as a young artist at age 13, when I first fell in love with photography, it was something I felt such a strong sense of purpose with. Starting In Others' Words as a school thesis, I thought about how I wanted it to travel the world and enable a diverse group of people to have their voices be heard. To physically see that happen — to travel across the world and have people who may not have seen the project otherwise be able to participate in it — that was a proud moment for me.
NBC: What was your work/life/art balance like that it allowed you to self-fund In Others' Words? How did you make money, how did you spent money to make art, and how did you make money back from that art?
LR: I worked retail a lot and used that money to fund my work. I also had many assistantships with photographers and I used the money I made from those jobs to fund the work as well. At one point, I worked for Lululemon Athletica and I also photographed athletes for them. That was a 9-5pm deal, so I would do retail shifts and then 4-5 nights a week I would drive into New York City to photograph. At this time, I was showing In Others' Words and it had started to get traction, so I got connected with many magazines. Through the magazines I would partner with writers and would be sent on assignments. These included Fashion Week jobs, profiles of artists, and so on. I realized that I can't work a 9-5 and feel that my soul isn't shriveling, so my life was really intense for a long time.
When we see a photograph, we are conditioned to believe on a subconscious level that it is a document of something real. This is a huge part of both the magic and the danger of this medium — it's a double-edged sword. In our world, photography is often used as a weapon to convince us that our bodies, lifestyles, and self-images aren't good enough.
SO: Has that work/life/art balance shifted in any way now?
LR: Definitely. Right now, I'm not working in a different industry in any capacity. Both my feet are in the photography industry. I work as a photography assistant and I also do editorial or commercial photoshoots to make money. I then use that money to self-fund my fine art work. I'll admit right now, I'm going through a big transition. For the last 6-7 years, all of my energy has been put into In Others' Words. I've wanted to grow a balanced platform of having a commercial side of my business and then also a fine art side. As I said, I'm currently jumping from the fine art side into having more of a commercial focus, trying to get clients who I want to work with on the basis of my artistic style. That's a really big shift for me.
The patrons that I gained through the In Other's Words world tour crowdfunding project I'm still in touch with very frequently, but I haven't made any type of reach out to say, "hey, I'm doing a new project, would you be interested in funding this?" because, like I said, I'm slowing back my fine art process a little bit during this time.
SO: That's great that you've been in touch with those people and have maintained relationship that could be long-lasting. Ultimately, if you decide to shift focus again and end up with a different kind of balance, those people will be there and will support your work.
LR: Definitely. I just had a phone call with one of the patrons of that project two hours ago. He started by saying, "You know, I was just thinking of you. I really love that work. How are you doing?" Crowdfunding is a great glue to bind the relationships you make along the way as an artist. It's so important in that regard.
NBC: What's particularly interesting about that in your case is that you didn't reach your crowdfunding goal. I think a lot of people pack up and go home at that point but you didn't. What was your mental process around not making your goal?
LR: It wasn't great. I realized I had a pretty high goal: $35,000 for a fine art tour, in one month. I think if I was to do anything differently, it would be to do what you suggested at the beginning, Siena, which was to break up the tour. I think it could have been more successful financially in that case. When I realized I wasn't going to make that goal, it was a rough feeling. As you know, one of my participants also passed away at that time so it was hard on a lot of levels when that happened. What was really cool, though, was talking to you two during that time and hearing you say, "Hold on. In so many ways this was actually very successful in terms of where you wanted this project to go." If you look at what I actually accomplished with that campaign, the work did reach people all over the world who stood up for it and supported it, I did actually go to Poland and do the TED talk as well as the photo shoot that went with that, and I did get to set up a stronger foundation for my career through all of the networking that took place. These things were a direct result of that Kickstarter campaign. Honestly, I would not feel as solid in my career's foundation if I hadn't done the campaign, regardless of what the outcome was. Also, the financial outcome was $14,000 in two weeks. That's a lot of money in two weeks, especially for a project like this. That definitely fuels me. Going forward, if I want to do something like this again, I know that I can. I've learned from the mistakes that I made that time around and I know that I can take what I learned and apply it to the next stage of my career.
SO: I have a question about how you currently connect with your community — you've talked about having phone calls with patrons, you've talked about your TED talk. What are your favorite ways to connect with people who experience your art?
LR: As directly as possible. The work that I do is so intensely about connection. It's about people having this contact with one another and that's really significant and powerful. I really value those kinds of personal connections. Phone calls are great if it's with someone who lives somewhere else in the world, but in person is always the number one way for me to connect with my community, if it's possible.
SO: Where does the internet fall for you in terms of forming those connections. Are there ways that you find it helpful?
LR: The internet is huge. It's interesting because this year, I've dropped off of social media for a little while to preserve my own personal sanity. I think that was amazing because many people really did reach out to me and said, "What are you doing? I was following you and am so amped up about your work." The fact that people are that invested that they look for my work online is exciting and it reminds me that when I do pick that ball up again, there's a crowd of people out there who are excited to see what's next. When I am active on social media, I mainly use Instagram, Facebook, and my mailing list. Those are my main three channels.
NBC: What do feel works best about those channels for you?
LR: Well, I'm a photographer so Instagram is tremendous. It's a huge connecting point for people in my industry. In the past, I've noticed a lot of engagement from Facebook event invitations as well as doing personal reach outs to people via Facebook or email. It's nice if you can link something that you're promoting on the internet to something that's physically happening in the real world. If I'm having an art show, sending out a Facebook invite usually draws more people out. I've had people who I haven't seen since I was in third grade show up out of the woodwork saying, "We see what you're doing, we're following what you're doing, and even though we haven't spoken in over a decade, we're excited about this and we wanted to be here."
I realized that I can't work a 9-5 and feel that my soul isn't shriveling...
SO: That's awesome. Going back to the two aspects of your work that you mentioned earlier, the commercial side and the fine art side, do you have an idea of what your fantasy balance between those two would be? In a dream scenario, would you be doing each fifty percent of the time, or some other combination?
LR: That's such an interesting question to ask me right now because I'm looking at the commercial side of things as fine art cross-training. Yes, I want to make money and grow a client-base and I'm trying to establish an entrepreneurial lifestyle. But really, I want the commercial work right now because I feel like it's going to sharpen me and challenge me and push me in ways that I haven't conjured up in my own brain. The fine art work is an inner dialogue with something that inspires me or something that comes up organically, so I can't really pick and choose my times with something like that. I think for me, it is important to have a somewhat even balance. In terms of skill-building and sharpening my collaborative sword with people, working in the commercial realm is pretty important. It fulfills another side of me that I carry into my fine art. It's also another way to extend my education by working on projects that I wouldn't otherwise. So, today, that's where I am, but if you ask me in a year or two years, I might feel differently.
NBC: Is there anything that you've learned about the business of art that you wish you know when you first started out?
LR: Yes, so many things. It's honestly some of the most simple stuff that I wish someone had just said to me. For example, I wish someone had told me that there are actually paths that you can follow. That there are other things you can do to make money within your industry that are going to lead you to your end-game goal. For me, that goal is to be a successful photographer with a fine art side of my business and a commercial side of my business. Nobody ever sat down and told me, "If you get a degree in photography, that means you can work in several different industries. You can work in advertising, you could work in marketing, you can do editorial stuff. You could take that creative energy within you and you can "create content." You can write things and conceptualize stories and photograph them or do videography with them. There are so many directions that you can take and that was never a conversation that was had. At the college that I went to, if you asked a question like, "What can I do to support myself from my artwork?" they would laugh and say, "Work at McDonalds." That would be as far it would go and then we'd continue to learn about art history. If I had known there was another way, maybe I wouldn't have worked retail jobs for the first two or three years out of college. Maybe I would have pursued something within my sector. This is what I'm trying to do now and in certain ways I feel a little bit set back, and sometimes a little angry that I didn't have that information.
NBC: You're pointing to an issue with business education that exists in many art schools. There was an avoidance around talking about the business of art as well as a flippant attitude that did an enormous disservice to you.
LR: Totally. Where was the conversation about where your rates should fall as an artist and how to stand up for them and negotiate when necessary? Also, when I'm doing commercial photography, I'm working in studios constantly and I remember in my school they offered only one studio lighting course. I proceeded to take it twice because I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd really need it even though nobody told me that I would.
SO: If you were going to go back and teach a class to your younger self, what would it look like?
LR: I've thought about this so many times. The class would be called "Mapping Your Industry." Photography is a huge industry. There are so many niches and so many different types of photographers out there who fit into different niches. The only way that I was able to sample those things was because I was really motivated, I knew this is what I wanted to do so I started interning with people in different parts of the industry when I was 15. But not everybody identifies with something that they're passionate about that early in life — I was very lucky. I went out and tried wedding and event photography, interned in fashion, worked with a fine artist, worked on editorial projects. That way, I managed to see a lot, but only through those experiences. It was never laid out that way in school for me. Something that would be really helpful to let young artists know is that it is possible to structure your path so that it is a web of experiences that lead to the goal that you are aiming for. You don't just have to flail around.
NBC: So, you had to learn on your own how to negotiate with clients for your commercial contract work and for fine art sales. Can you comment on that experience?
LR: In the fine art realm, I recently had a really interesting experience with pricing artwork. I had a gallerist approach me who catered to a very specific demographic and felt strongly that the work wouldn't sell unless it was priced at a very high price point. They set the bar at $7,000 for a work that I was originally going to price it between $1,000 and $3,000. That was a learning experience in how to consider who you are selling to and where you are selling.
Commercially speaking, the industry has changed so vastly. It's switching from print over into media. I'm coming on the scene at a time when people are firing staff photographers — they're a dying breed. Everything's switching over into media houses so you're losing things like page rates. If you shoot a cover for something, you're not really seeing much from that. If you're going through an editorial house, like a Time Inc. or a Hearst, they set their day rates for photographers, so no matter what, you get a set day rate. Doing freelance work, you can set your own rate and charge thousands of dollars just for your time and then factor in your equipment. Though when I first started shooting for local magazines, I did a lot of work for free to establish my style and my name and my basic network.
I have great mentors and that's been really helpful, but you get to a certain point and there are some questions that I wished I'd asked earlier on in the game. Such as, "where do you think I should set my rate with this particular client?" I remember I had something come up a long time ago where there was a yoga mentor who was designing a whole line of clothing and his agent approached me and said, "I really like your stuff, we want you to do the photography work for this." We went through two weeks of negotiating. I had a producer I was working with at the time out of a production house. I was asking him where I should set my rate and he said, "You should definitely be upwards of $3,500 for your time." I was not comfortable quoting a rate like that to someone so I kept saying, "I should come down, I should come down." And he said, "Come down if you want but that's not the way that you should be doing this." That was a hard lesson because in the end, even when I did come down, the client said, "Oh, well we're just going to get someone who we know to shoot it for like $100." This was a two-day photoshoot, multiple locations. It’s scary to stand up for a higher rate when you know there are a thousand other people who will come in and try to undercut it for very little.
Honestly, I would not feel as solid in my career's foundation if I hadn't done the [Kickstarter] campaign, regardless of what the outcome was.
SO: That is scary, and we see it happening all the time in various fields. Are you now at a point where you are getting work at rates you can live on?
LR: Yeah, I am. I do production as well as shooting and in addition to being a photo assistant. Between those things, I am able to have an income.
SO: How do you get a sense of who's a "real" client and who is going to hire somebody from Craigslist who will do it for $100?
LR: The client I was telling you about before, with the yoga company, they're in the athletic realm, so they didn't realize what they were walking into. They didn't realize there was a $30,000 usage fee if you're planning on printing images on clothing tags, so they got spooked. If you're operating in the correct realm, like some clients I work with are with, they're not going to take somebody who's going to do it for $100 and do a shitty job. You have to target those people who know what they're doing already. That's kind of where you get into a catch-22 because you have to already have clients to get the attention of the clients you want.
SO: Is there anything in the arts business that you wish you could take a course in right now?
LR: Definitely. I’d love one about mapping rates all over your industry, in the current context of what they are in your industry. From a fine art perspective, I'd also like to see a course on how to set up systems within your studio. How do you decide how many editions you should make of a series? Where do you price your work? If you want to go super basic, I'd also like to see a course in how to factor in your cost for producing an artwork into the sales price of the work. We're talking barebones basic building blocks that you could always go back to no matter how far you get in your career. I think these things are needed for a strong foundation.
Something that would be really helpful to let young artists know is that it is possible to structure your path so that it is a web of experiences that lead to the goal that you are aiming for. You don't just have to flail around.
NBC: So essentially, the fundamental economics of producing, selling, pricing, and living on art.
LR: Exactly — and with respect to pricing, how you price the physical work you produce versus how you price your time and how those two relate.
NBC: Right, so basically, how do you make something realistic when you're producing real goods? What is the cost basis, what can your market support, and is that going to work out? I think a lot of artists don't do that calculation. In fact, when doing crowdfunding, that's one of the first discussions we have with artists when it comes to rewards. How much does it cost to make the reward? At what backer level is that reward? Is that math going to work out? Having that mentality and being able to do some simple math on everything you do is very important.
LR: Yes. Right now, it's exclusively a learn-as-you-go thing, so there is an element of self-consciousness. There is still some stuff that I'm trying to figure out that I'm not totally clear on and that's just where I'm at.
SO: What we've found from talking to artists about this is that many are in the same boat as you. The self-consciousness prevents them from talking about it, which means they're less likely to get the advice that they need. That's one of the reasons why we're starting these discussions.
LR: Awesome. I’m so glad you are.
For additional information please visit laurenrenner.com.
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Lauren Renner is a New York-based Photographer and creator of the internationally acclaimed award-winning photographic series, In Others' Words. Specializing in Environmental Portraiture, she has worked as a collaborating artist with the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) and with industry professionals including Patrick Demarchelier, Heinz Kluetmeier, Elizabeth Heyert, Mitch Epstein and Tina Barney. Her various photographic works have been shown internationally at galleries in Mali, Africa and throughout the Northeastern United States. She has hosted workshops on her work with TEDxWroclaw Adventures in Poland and has been featured in books and publications including the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and BuzzFeed. Her commercial clients include Sports Illustrated Kids and lululemon athletica, Inc.