We asked Zach Gross, whose meditative and intimate images have already won him a place in the pages of the venerable New Yorker magazine, about what it’s like to be a successful young fine art editorial photographer in today’s competitive market. Gross talked with us about how drawing strength from his work made it stronger, the value of portfolio reviews, and what day-to-day life is like in his field.
Photographs courtesy of Zach Gross.
Aimee Baldridge: What was your education in photography like?
Zach Gross: I did a lot of photography in high school. I had a great teacher and learned a lot from him. Then I went to Hallmark Institute of Photography for a year. When I was nineteen, I started working at Blue Sky Studios and freelance assisting in San Francisco. I needed time to develop my confidence as a photographer, to explore and find myself. I was always shooting and asking people to sit for portraits. After about two years I moved back to New York and I took some classes at ICP. I learned a lot there and highly recommend it. I also TA'd there.
AB: Did you make a conscious decision at some point that you wanted to do photography for a living?
Zach Gross: Photography set the tone in my life. It helped me understand who I was, because I didn't really learn the way everyone else learned in school. Photography taught me how to live. I kind of invented my own way of having a dialogue with the world around me. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom experimenting, and I was really inspired by Man Ray. I made tons of rayographs and developed my own processes as well.
I really wanted to learn about how to be connected to people and understand and talk to them. I was pretty shy, but through photography I was able to connect to people. My shyness got in the way of expressing myself, so I would force myself over and over again to go where I was uncomfortable. I knew I needed to get past that stuff. If you have a weakness, you have to go there. That's a big thing in my life: If I feel I'm falling short in some way, I'm obsessed with fixing it, however uncomfortable that is. So photography got me past my shyness.
Of course, I wanted to make a living with it, but I also knew that I didn't want to do anything else, so I was going to make it work.
AB: What type of work makes up most of what you do these days?
Zach Gross: I'd say most is editorial, but I do a lot of things. I've done larger and smaller advertising. I shoot for The New Yorker and some fashion/art magazines. I paint and I do my darkroom projects. I also photograph artists and other creative people I find interesting.
AB: How did you come to work for the New Yorker?
A few years ago I was at a NYCFotoWorks portfolio review and showed my work to one of their photo editors. She saw that I had some potential and told me to stay in touch. Every six months or so I sent her an e-mail and showed her the work I was doing. They saw my work evolve and trusted me a little more as I got experience. I also went in there a few times over the years, and I would send them printed promos. They're accordion-folded pieces with photos on each side; it's a good reminder for people to see physical copies of your images that are beautiful and designed well. When they felt I was ready, they started giving me assignments.
AB: Did you find portfolio reviews valuable in general?
Zach Gross: Yes. I went to the ASMP and APA ones too. There would definitely be shared opinions about my work, but people have different tastes. Someone would tell me, “This [image] works and this one doesn't.” And then another person would tell me something completely different. So it also taught me to be more confident in my work, because not all of my work is for everyone. I used to take it really personally and feel depressed after, because I'd spent my whole life coming to that point and trying to get my shit together. But it was good for me to learn how not to take things personally and just say, “OK, I learned something from that.”
It also taught me something about the real world, because the reviewers were working photo editors and art buyers. I learned what they were looking for and how their thought process worked. I learned a lot about what goes on on the other end, and about editing and cohesion.
AB: Do you think it's important for young photographers doing fine art or editorial work to spend time in New York?
Zach Gross: I think it's a great experience to live in New York. It's a cliché, but if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. It's a hard city. It takes a lot of mental strength and focus to succeed and do what you want to do here. So it's a good way to toughen somebody up. But every photographer is different. There are a lot of other great cities.
AB: What is your life like day to day?
Zach Gross: It's different every day. I have so many projects going on all the time. If I have a job, then I'll do that. If I don't, then I'm always working on my projects in the darkroom, or I'll make paintings or read or write. Through creativity and art is how I focus and make sense of my life.
AB: What is the day like when you have an assignment?
Zach Gross: I jump on a train or take a taxi. I don't use a lot of equipment. I go to the location, usually by myself, occasionally with an assistant. I'll meet the person and shoot pictures and we'll walk around a little bit or explore their space. I really love photographing people one-on-one because there's less tension, and there's more of an opportunity for understanding them as a person and having something true and honest come out. I just love learning about people.
AB: Is there anything you don't like about your job?
Zach Gross: I don't really see it as a job. It's my life. I'm always looking for ways of understanding life and myself and feeling comfortable and happy and connected to people. I can get isolated, so if I have the opportunity to meet someone interesting, that's really great. If I let myself be stagnant, my mind goes off into unproductive territory. So it's important to keep things moving forward and focused.
AB: What advice would you give people who want to do editorial fine art work?
Zach Gross: Understand what came before you, and shoot as much as possible. Don't wait for things to shoot. A lot of things happen just by finding something interesting and photographing it. Meet as many people as you can and photograph people you find interesting.
AB: Do you worry about the future of photography and making a living over the long term, or do you think things will work out?
Zach Gross: I'm optimistic. There are more people doing it, but there are also a lot more opportunities than there used to be. It's about putting the time and effort in. It's definitely hard, but if you want something badly enough, you'll get there.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery.
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