Commercial photographer Eva Kolenko talks about how she launched a successful career, what it takes to stay in the game, and what she learned as an assistant that helped her become a professional.
Years after graduating with a photography degree, plenty of shooters still find themselves making ends meet with assisting (or the random day job), while trying to break through as professional photographers in their own right. Not Eva Kolenko. The 28-year-old commercial photographer was already getting representation and professional jobs before she graduated in 2005. Since then, she's been selected as an Art Directors Club Young Gun, won a PDN PIX Digital Imaging award, and been featured in Communication Arts and PDN Photo Annual (twice!). These days, her healthy client list includes household names like Random House, M&M's, and Novartis. Kolenko spoke with us about how she made her bones.
Photo courtesy of Eva Kolenko. You can view a selection of her work in the gallery above. To see more of her work, visit her website.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background?
Eva Kolenko: I graduated high school after my sophomore year to start my college career early. I studied all kinds of art, but eventually photography really won me over. I transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and graduated as valedictorian with a major in advertising photography.
AB: Describe the path your professional life has taken, from your student days to the present.
Eva Kolenko: I was really fortunate. There wasn't much of a gap for me between school and launching my career. I worked really hard to get my portfolio ready while I was in school. I submitted work to contests all the time, and also assisted for some very talented San Francisco photographers, which taught me a lot. But my biggest break was when a couple of photography reps started taking notice of me during my junior year. By the summer before I started my last semester at the Academy, I had partnered up with my rep, Sharpe + Associates. So technically I was a "professional" photographer before I even graduated.
AB: What was the best advice you were given while trying to launch your career?
Eva Kolenko: Fill your portfolio with personal work so you will get hired to shoot what you love.
AB: What did you learn from being an assistant?
Eva Kolenko: Of course you pick up some technical skills, but I think the most valuable observations I made were about photographer-and-client relationships—how to negotiate and how to sell yourself to get a job. Assisting on set, you also learn all kinds of practical stuff about photo production that you can't really soak up in a class, such as what a producer does, which stylist is responsible for what, why a copywriter might be at the shoot, who feeds everyone. But most importantly, it's a great opportunity to learn about the collaboration that happens between the photographer and the art director, and how to please the client as well as make a great photograph.
AB: Did you have advisers or mentors who helped you get off the ground? How did they influence the path you took and what were the most important things you learned from them?
Eva Kolenko: Definitely. James Wood, the director of the photo department at the Academy, had a major impact on the initial success of my career. He was the one who put my work in front of several reps, which led me to sign with Sharpe. But even before that, Jim taught several of my classes, including a portfolio class in which he really coached me to hone my vision and the voice of my book. I've got to say, though, my husband, who is also an artist, has been the most influential and consistent force in my life. He encouraged me to go to art school and pursue photography as a career, and was supportive all the way through, offering advice and critique.
AB: What was the hardest aspect of attaining success or meeting large or small goals?
Eva Kolenko: I am a pretty self-motivated person in general. Everyone who knows me well would say that my work ethic is pretty ruthless, but I think the hardest part about attaining and maintaining success is staying relevant. This means two things. One, you have to constantly shoot, allowing your work to mature and evolve naturally and at a healthy, steady pace to keep up. And then second, and even more importantly, you have to get all that work out into circulation and in front of art buyers, art directors, and photo editors. The minute you let some of your goals slide—you put off a print mail promo, or wait too long for a follow-up call, or you stop shooting because you don't have a job, or you don't build a new iPhone-compatible site—you become irrelevant. So the hardest part is that you can never let up.
AB: What would you do differently if you could do it all a second time?
Eva Kolenko: I'd go to culinary school and be a chef. Ha-ha—I don't think that's what you meant by that question . . . but I am only half kidding. In reality, there isn't anything major I'd go back and change, nothing beyond the inevitable small hiccups that happen during some shoots.
AB: What are the best practical resources you've used?
Eva Kolenko: People! People are by far the most important resources you can find. Build great relationships with producers, assistants, and stylists, and they will provide you with the most solid support system ever. In terms of online resources, Ads of the World is a really good resource for inspiration. I go there all the time. And Archive and Communication Arts. Those are my big inspiration go-tos.
AB: How much did financial considerations play into your career choice?
Eva Kolenko: None. I was prepared to be in debt from college, and didn't really expect to be able to live solely off photography for a long time, if ever. I don't think photography is a safe career choice for anyone with a main goal of being really successful financially. There are a lot of easier ways to make money.
AB: What do you think are the most important qualities and skills for a person to have in your line of work?
Eva Kolenko: I'd say people skills are number one. You have to be able to sell yourself and your work in a way that is genuine and interesting. Having a great portfolio is only the first step.
AB: Where do you want to take things from here?
Eva Kolenko: I just want to always be moving forward, continually making time to shoot what I love for my portfolio. I have some fun ideas for promotional pieces for the new year, and I've been saving up a bunch of new work that I am excited to get out there!
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo-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.