Collaborations: an egoless road of artistic discovery
The myth of the photographer as a solo artist appears to be dominating our contemporary photography culture. But you only have to scratch the surface of this myth to discover that it isn’t necessarily true, and that there is much to gain from photography collaborations. Sophia Hawkes reveals the motives, benefits, and challenges behind collaborations.
Photographers seeking creative stimulation, fresh perspectives, and a network of people, may discover that a collaboration is the perfect vehicle. In his recently published book, Photography and collaborations: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing, author Daniel Palmer emphasises photography as a “social rather than solitary act”. By contrast, the historical and current narrative of photography in museums and art schools presents photography as “an art of individuals who produce discrete works,” Palmer states. Although “in the 1960 photography and contemporary art merged in a significant way,” he continues.
A montage of motives
Typically, what motivates photographers to collaborate varies from project to project. For French-born, New York-based fashion photographer Antoine Verglas, it was his curious nature, sensitivity, and openness to all art forms that drew him to collaborating. “A collaboration is an exchange of ideas, it’s progressive, and helps you go further,” he says. Verglas began carving his niche and trademark style in the fashion industry in New York in the 1990s. Developing an intimate documentary style of fashion photography, his work with supermodels and actresses such as Cindy Crawford, Penelope Cruz, Angelina Jolie, and Julia Leskova has frequently been labelled as ‘uninhibited’. Verglas’ images have appeared in prestigious magazines such as Elle, Vogue, Esquire, GQ, and Maxim. Together with visual artist Bradley Theodore, he created the exhibition Raw Beauty, blending the realms of street art and fashion photography, where the canvases were the bodies of renowned models. He’s also collaborated with the street artist, Senz and is currently working on a new collaboration.
Married couple and collaborators, Jerry Redfern and Karen J. Coates met at university in America. A few years later, when moving to Cambodia they decided to collaborate as it seemed like the natural thing to do; Redfern was a photojournalist and Coates was a writer. “Stories need photos, and photos sell better with stories,” Redfern says. In 2005, they embarked on their biggest project, reporting on people living and dying amongst bombs in Laos. Between the years of 1964 and 1973 the U.S carried out the “largest bombing campaign in history against the tiny country of Laos . . . and as much as 30 percent of what was dropped didn’t detonate at the time,” Redfern explains. “Those bombs remain in the ground today, still deadly.” The couple spent eight years reporting on the topic before publishing a book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, in 2013. The project “is a combination of photos and written stories,” he says. The couple continues to report on this issue, currently finishing a documentary based on the book.
When you hear about photography and collaborations you most commonly hear about photographers collaborating with artists from other fields, not other photographers. But in Copenhagen, Denmark, the photo collective Sara, Peter and Tobias is thriving. The collective consists of Tobias Selnaes Markussen, Sara Brincher Galbiati, and Peter Helles Eriksen. The trio’s first collaboration, Phenomena, toured in Holland and America and resulted in a published book. They were recently awarded the Forhanna Grant to assist their current project, The Merge, to be exhibited in Holland at the Bredaphoto Festival in September this year. The decision to collaborate formed organically as they shared a studio space three years prior to Phenomena. However, the decision was fuelled by a shared desire to dissolve the “romanticised ego of the photographer”. Tobias says that they wanted to see if it was possible to merge and become stronger as a group.
Being aware of their own egos, they didn't know if it was possible. Initially, the plan was to collaborate only on Phenomena, but due to the project’s success, they decided to form the collective two years after completion. Their loyalty to their quest to dissolve egos led them to co-own, and create everything within the collective. Furthermore, they don’t get attached to ownership of ideas or subjects.
For Ryan Schude, the reason behind his collaborations is more functional than the motives explored so far. Schude is based in Los Angeles and works as an advertising, editorial, and fine art photographer. His narrative, tableau vivant (living picture) style is remarkable, and, although carefully staged, often appears spontaneous. Indeed, this style alone is a collaboration between theatre and visual arts. However, this doesn’t mean that the photographer choosing to produce this type of image collaborates with other artists; they may merely direct them. But Schude has from time to time collaborated with other photographers, directors, stylists, and even doctors, in the true sense of the word. “I would love to pretend there was some romantic notion about getting out of my own head and blending creative juices with my closest friends and family for the greater good of our artistic endeavours, but it was much more functional than that. For him it’s a matter of knowing his own limitations and reaching out to those around him with resources he doesn’t have. Instead of simply hiring these resources, Schude relies on a collaborative approach.
Growth and widening your scope
A collaborative approach typically helps all the way from the idea phase to execution and completion; you can get much more done artistically, administratively, and when it comes to promotion. Sara says that when it comes to getting the job done, you can divide yourselves and cover a lot more ground and people than you would on your own. “The energy you get from other people being as excited as you are is the best battery to keep the project going and promoting it,” she says. Moreover, if three people think something is a good idea, Sara believes that you have more certainty that you're going after the right target.
Through their collaboration, Redfern and Coates have developed an approach to storytelling they call “slow journalism”; they stay in one place until they get a “deep feeling for what is going on” and then move on when they both believe they’ve got what they can. Redfern calls this a “vacuuming” of as many photos and as much information as possible. Afterwards, they’ll sort out the particulars of the story. This approach was used to create the book, Eternal Harvest, as well as the upcoming documentary. “I don’t think there’s any way we could’ve worked like that without collaborating, and that collaboration made the book a coherent whole,” Redfern says.
Practical benefits aside, collaborations also create artistic advantages. For Tobias, it was being challenged as a photographer that was the greatest benefit. “It’s an amazing opportunity to challenge how you work and perceive things as an individual. In sharing everything with two other people, you invite them into your own practice of being a photographer and that creates a whole new way of seeing photography,” he says. The collective doesn’t see or do photography in the same way, so coming together naturally creates something very different than if they were working alone. “The result has been aesthetically homogeneous, but there’s more tension and diversity,” Peter says.
The added creative perspectives collaborations bring is not lost on Schude. “Just because you envisioned something in a particular way, doesn’t mean it was the best way. Having another perspective right there with you is the best check and balance you could ask for,” he says. He also values the time spent with people whose company he enjoys and discovering what they can co-create. “The best part isn’t the result, it is the process along the way,” he says.
Verglas loves the artistic stimulation collaborations bring. A way of bouncing your creativity off another artist’s minds, Verglas says that collaborating connects you to fresh networks of people. Looking at photography with “different eyes”, it also opens up opportunities to new exhibiting possibilities. Redfern echoes these sentiments. “I like the extra eyes, the extra ears, the extra research, the different view of the world,” he says. He adds that inevitably collaborations build better stories. Coates has led him to a range of stories and places he wouldn't have considered on his own. “Two minds look at the same story from two complementary perspectives – words and visuals,” Redfern says.
Trust boosts creativity
All those interviewed agreed that before launching into a collaborative project, it’s helpful, if not vital, to know the people you’re collaborating with to ensure there’s mutual respect, as this fosters trust, which is crucial. “You have to be willing to give up some – and perhaps a lot – of control, so you need a person you can trust with that. Working with a person you like, but whose work you don’t like, will lead to conflict. And vice-versa . . . It’s a matter of trusting one another’s professional instincts,” says Redfern. Verglas on the other hand talks about a “mutual respect for the art”. He expects the same respect he offers, and asks the person he's working with to let him do what he does best, and gives them the same.
Sara, Peter and Tobias have an intimate understanding of how trust affects the outcome of a project. “When you are in a collective with people that you trust, you are safer, so you can make bolder choices,” Peter says. Sara shares a story of them shooting a robotic hand in a lab to highlight this sentiment. Two of them were staying in the “safe-zone”, setting up a “perfect shot, with the light, going into the details”, the third one seeing the others “playing it safe” was given the space to experiment doing snap shots. In the end, one of the snap shots was the best image. Tobias adds that it can be hard to balance safety and bold moves working on your own. From her experience, Sara says that it can also be hard to judge your own work at times, especially if you’re exhausted or have spent a long time scanning images. Then it’s great to have trusted team members to assist.
Schude too talks about trust. “The trust you put in your collaborators opens up your thoughts at times during a stressful situation when they can get muddled with all the other intricacies of the shoot.” Also important, he believes, is to have a very direct conversation about what level of involvement is expected from each of the collaborators. Doing so is a great way to minimise some of the challenges collaborations can bring.
As with any project, collaborations will present challenges. A major one is facing your ego and being willing and able to debate your ideas and work. Verglas says that if challenges arise, it’s always because of egos. If an artist has too much ego, they may be unable to collaborate. The best way to approach challenges and obstacles is via discussion. If agreement can’t be reached, then the collaboration might not yield the desired outcome. Similarly, Sara, Peter and Tobias will spend countless hours discussing, debating, and sharing ideas, images, and how to get the job done. Peter states that although it’s time-consuming and challenging, it provides a strong safety network from which you can push boundaries and your photography further. “It's good to remind yourself that you are part of a collaboration to have these discussions that you otherwise wouldn't be having,” he adds.
“It's an open debate about how I can improve. How I can challenge something,” Sara says. “If you can't handle that, maybe collaboration is not for you.” Collaboration is always back and forth, but discussions are for the better of the project. “It’s the motor,” she adds. It can be difficult and frustrating to present an idea only to have it shut down, or talk for a day about one thing. But in the end the outcome of joint efforts are always greater than if working in isolation, according to Sara, Peter and Tobias.
Sara, Peter and Tobias’ project allowed them to take a lot of time to find mutual ground and understanding. By contrast, Schude’s projects have a tight time-limit, and as a result, considering differences in opinion proves a challenge for him. “When it’s in the middle of a shoot, you need to come to a conclusion fast because people are waiting on you. If it is in the pre- or post-production process, you have a little bit more leeway to look at things differently,” he says. “If you can afford the opportunity for options, trying it both ways during shooting is ideal so that everyone feels heard,” he says. To collaborate effectively, you’ve got to be open to have conversations about your images and ideas, as challenging as this might be.
Collaborations will bring a unique challenge, namely to face your own and others’ egos. If you're up for this challenge, and to debate and discuss your work, they can open you up to new and valuable perspectives. Working together with other artists and photographers can be creatively stimulating. Additionally, collaborations may help you create a safe space from which you can experiment and take risks to reap unexpected rewards. Working with others may also open up new avenues to promote your work. Really, there’s no good reason not to get together with people you know and respect and begin a new creative project. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but maybe blending what’s already there in new ways is possible, with a bit of help from your friends.
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