We interview RJ Kern: 5 tips for aspiring fine art photographers


Succeeding in just one area of ​​the photography industry is not an easy task. RJ Kern is not only successful as a wedding photographer, but now also as a fine art photographer. I sat down with him one afternoon to try out his top five tips for aspiring art photographers.

I recently met up with Minneapolis-based artist RJ Kern in his home studio and we talked about his art and career. Kern is a photographer who creates works that relate to ideas about home, origin and local feeling. A new book is currently coming out which you can find and purchase more information about on their website. He is also working on a video series for this project which I highly recommend!

Stay inspired

Kern had a successful wedding and portrait photography business. Then to some it may seem a strange decision that he has moved something to bring a side of the visual arts into his practice. I asked him why he made this change and his answer is valuable advice for all photographers:

I prioritize the personal workplace for my creative practice. Otherwise the risk of burnout is too high. We owe it to our talents to develop and nurture them, and not to leave them behind when we return home exhausted. I followed my gut instinct, but also found inspiration working in museums, books, galleries and films.

This advice is also number five of his top five tips. One of the keys to success in any field of photography is staying inspired. If you lose sight of that, it will likely show up in your work, too. I’ve written articles about finding inspiration before, but as Kern suggests, doing a lot of work (and it doesn’t just have to be photography), reading books, and watching movies are great ways to keep that inspiration alive obtain.

Think like an entrepreneur

Kern’s fourth piece of advice seems to contradict what we are sometimes told in the art world. But by thinking like an entrepreneur. You will be able to develop your artistic career more effectively and sustainably than if you ignore the business side of things.

For example, Kern’s work is heavily funded through scholarships. He told me that with that first grant, it would have been easy to use the money to buy a single expensive device. Instead of doing that, however, he reinvested the money in himself and considered how he could convert that one grant into more money to keep funding his work. This enabled his art practice to be more sustainable, and even helped it grow to new levels faster than it otherwise likely would have been.

Pimp the work you want to shoot

The third piece of advice shared by the gist is sometimes easier said than done, but it is extremely important to remember. If all you can do is do work that may make you money, but is not what you really want to do, you will never get beyond that work. The key is building a portfolio of the work you want to create, taking steps to make it your main source of work. That can mean taking unpaid test shots to get the job done that you want to get more of in the future. Working with other photographers or creatives is also a great way to build the portfolio you want and can also help increase your creativity and inspiration!

For Kern, this process of pimping up the work he wanted to create began in part with crafting portfolios of his work and bringing them to portfolio reviews. A well-made, personalized portfolio had a huge impact on how his job was received and enabled him to showcase the work he wanted to focus on. Plus, for him, work is more than just a photo, and he enjoys seeing full projects come true. When I asked him what was his favorite part of the creative process, he told me:

To see how a completed project comes together in all of its various components – book, exhibition or social engagement – inspires me. However, it’s not what drives me. The creative part, the photography and editing, is the part I love the most. But that’s just one pillar. Without the pillars of networking, marketing, sales, and thinking, I wouldn’t be able to do the part I love.

Be a good mentee

Kern’s second tip is to just be a good student. Follow the advice that is given to you. If you want someone to take the time to help you and provide you with career advice, take that advice seriously and take the steps necessary to move it forward. He mentioned that it is generally easier to do this when you pay for advice like portfolio reviews or paid mentoring sessions as it carries more weight and there is another level of accountability as your hard earned money is involved. This can make the opportunities you have to pay for especially valuable.

Find, identify and engage your audience

The most important piece of advice at heart for aspiring fine art photographers is to focus on finding, identifying, and engaging with your audience. For Kern, these are colleagues from the photography and art industries, curators, book collectors and publishers. It is imperative to take the time to think about who will value your work the most, and then connect with those people in order to successfully grow your audience and, therefore, your career.

Portfolio reviews are a great way to start this process of finding and interacting with your audience and are great for introducing your work to those who may have the potential to advance your career. Building a mailing list and newsletter process is also an important tool when it comes to engaging with your audience. People who invest in your work (in whatever form) want to know what you’re up to and how your investment will make a difference.

Once you identify your audience, as well as your style and artistic voice, it can be easy to fall into a style and topic that becomes extremely narrow and potentially limiting. I asked Kern about it because his work is very focused and narrow at the moment. He told me:

I will expand the scope of this four year project to include the changing complexion of youth in other regions of the United States. My intention is to expand the presentation, particularly with regard to the socio-economic scope and geographical scope. And answer these basic questions: What is changing in rural America? What’s the same And what values, if any, are conveyed through the rearing and keeping of animals. Is there something about the rural animal husbandry experience that creates a common link between different ethnic groups?

With his expanded view of the project, he will also be able to expand his audience and engage with it in new ways. It is important to think about how you can stay true to your job while reaching out to new people in order to stay active in the art world and advance your career. In addition, working on expanding projects can lead to new inspiration and motivation for your work!


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