Have a lot of your ideas for fine art projects come to you during commercial assignments?
Well, I wouldn’t have had access to the monkey if I hadn’t been shooting him for a commercial project. I decided to do a portrait of the monkey, and that’s when I decided to do a series of them. For the Glass Ceiling series, I don’t think I would have necessarily set out to do an underwater photo series. That was definitely inspired by an assignment. I loved the way the U.S. Olympic synchronized swim team looked somewhat ridiculous wearing heels, but as it turns out,
There actually was somebody selling a web video tutorial with my name on it, and I was like, 'Excuse me? I’m not dead.'
professional synchronized swimmers often wear heels underwater. I don’t think the animals were really inspired by a commercial assignment. It’s just that I wouldn’t have had access to the monkey, and that sort of sparked something, since it was something that seemed new to me. I used to photograph my childhood dog in a very similar approach to how all of my animals are photographed now. I did headshots, where the dog looked like a philosopher — his name was Plato, so I photographed him like he was thinking. It’s sort of a continuation of that.
How do you maintain and prioritize your fine art career? It seems like on both sides, both commercial and fine art, you’re extremely prolific. When you contributed to our “How to Make It” feature, you said that being prolific is your advice to aspiring creatives. How do you find a balance?
Well, I don’t think it’s about maintaining it. I didn’t really maintain it when I was first starting out. When I first moved to New York, I really wanted to do both. I was doing personal work that was totally separate from the work I was doing for my commercial portfolio.
In 1992, I applied to the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study program, but I didn’t get it that year. Later that week, I got one of my first good jobs for Sassy magazine. I thought that I should just focus on doing the commercial thing until I could get to a point where I would have economic freedom and be able to afford to do the personal work. Doing photography is expensive, and I didn’t want to wait tables and be a starving artist. I’ve always liked doing portraits and seeing my work outdoors on billboards, but I’ve always had other ideas to explore.
In the early ‘90s, I was doing scanned body parts and playing with digital imaging, but it was hard to do both. It’s still hard to do both now. It’s hard for me to say, “If I have a certain budget, do I want to do tests for my commercial work, or do I want to spend the money on another personal series?” I usually tend to do the personal thing. My personal work doesn’t have anything to do with the commercial work. Strangely, I ended up getting assignments from the crying children series — to recreate that lighting for ads — which I didn’t expect at all. I don’t do something personal just so I can get commercial jobs.
In the case of the horses, I don’t think anybody wants someone painted purple and green. [Laughs] I did Horses because I wanted to do it. It’s hard because the serious art world can be an odd place for the people who have achieved commercial success first. I wasn’t born a commercial photographer, I was born an artist, and I’ve been doing art my whole life.
A lot of your work has spread virally online, and people have reacted strongly on blogs and otherwise. You put a lot of effort into your Facebook page and switched your official portfolio over to Tumblr’s platform. Is this out of a desire to connect with people who want to discuss your work?
Yeah, I definitely like doing that, but I’ve been really confused as to whether or not I should watermark my work. We finally decided to just put the copyright on it, but people can crop the copyright out of course. Just last week, we discovered that some huge Republican donor had stolen one of my crying children images and used it on a digital billboard for “Vote Republican.” That was insane.
The crying children images have been stolen so much. For whatever reason, I guess it’s a universal theme of a crying child that can be used to illustrate anything. I don’t really like that, and unfortunately copyright laws don’t really make sense, especially in other countries where infringement happens a lot. You’re only really supposed to collect the amount of money that you would have gotten if you had licensed the image to these people, but since I don’t license those images for anything, it doesn’t matter. For a one time web ad, you’d only get $500, so for me to sue somebody for $500 would obviously make no sense, because I would lose a ton of money. The international copyright laws are really frustrating.