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(Photo: Stephan Brigidi)

How Do You Make a Living, Fine-Art Photographer?

• April 03, 2014 • 9:00 AM

(Photo: Stephan Brigidi)

For starters: also be a sexy wedding photographer.

For 40 years, Stephan Brigidi has been juggling: artistic and commercial photography, book publishing, teaching, and more, all to pay the bills and stay ahead of the bills. The Rhode Island School of Design graduate talked to Pacific Standard about balancing the life and the books, why selling prints are the cherry on top, and being a sexy wedding photographer.

What do you tell people you do when they ask?

The first thing that comes to mind is that I say I’m a photographer. That’s been my mainstay, going back almost 40 years. I also say I’m an adjunct professor at Roger Williams University. I have taught photography, but for the most part I teach aesthetics, which is more encompassing. It’s art history. It’s performance and visual arts. It’s everything. I’ve taught painting on occasion, too. I’ve taught since 1978, full- and part-time, at a whole range of places from Hawaii to Connecticut and Rhode Island.

I run a commercial photography studio. We’ve done a lot of things. Weddings were the mainstay for extra money along the way.

I’m also a publisher right now. I’ve been publishing wedding and social event brochures for the hospitality industry, both hard copy and e-brochures.

Did the teaching and the commercial work come out of a need to smooth out the revenue streams or was that stuff that you always wanted to do?

“You do what you have to do. It could be a 50th anniversary party, a graduation event, a bar mitzvah. The only photography I never did, honestly, was underwater photography. I’ve dangled out of airplanes and helicopters. Not a lot, but I’ve done it.”

The commercial work was borne out of necessity to make a living. When you’re in school, you start by photographing the work of your painter friends. I did that back in the ’70s and have kept doing it. I have photographed a lot of artwork along the way, but I’ve also gotten into other products. I’ve spent time printing in a darkroom for other people. We found there was a real absence for fine-art approach, documentary-straight photography in the wedding realm. We found a real niche.

[A phone rings. Brigidi excuses himself to take the call. He returns a minute later.]

That phone call was an artist. I still photograph artwork. She said that my photograph helped, that she got publication and an award. I told her: “It’s just a photograph of your artwork. Your piece got the award. But happy to help.”

If I were to define the vocation itself, I would say I’m a juggler. I’ve juggled teaching, commercial work, and fine-art work to form a balance. All of it has been to support my fine-art work. That’s where my heart is. I’ve published two books. I haven’t made a lot of money on them, but I have three other books I’m working on.

A lot of my colleagues did a lot of waiting tables and bartending. I did a little of that but not too much. You do whatever it takes to support the work.

I photographed interiors yesterday for somebody, some architectural things. It’s always creative. Sometimes you have to press hard to keep it creative. It’s a challenge. I give it my all. I learned a long time ago about attitude adjustments. You can’t let your ego get out there, say, “Well, I’ve had several one-man shows in New York.” Big effing deal. If you’re here for photographing babies, which, fortunately, my wife does that. I can’t deal with the young ones too well, but you do what you have to do. It could be a 50th anniversary party, a graduation event, a bar mitzvah. The only photography I never did, honestly, was underwater photography. I’ve dangled out of airplanes and helicopters. Not a lot, but I’ve done it. That’s a different kind of challenge.

How has the industry’s transition to digital altered your experience?

I came up in the film days. I had to understand light. Film was very imperfect. The digital world has really changed a lot of that. It has created a lot of latitude. That’s why so many people pick up a good camera, they think it’s foolproof, and they think they can make a good living. It has impacted us professionals who have been around a long time. There’s a lot of adequate photography out there. You could say “almost credible.” But at the end of the day, you still have to have the vision, and that takes practice. That’s what I’ve been doing: practicing forever.

Is it harder to convince someone that they need a professional now?

It’s a bit harder, but here’s an example: Tomorrow, I’m going in to shoot a large-scale bakery. The owner called me and said he got referred to me after trying to do it themselves and really screwing it up. We do a lot of troubleshooting in that respect. Once or twice a month we’ll get a call to come correct something people have been trying to do themselves. Even if a person has a fairly decent camera, they still don’t know how to light something, how to set up something. Those who want serious websites or print publications will call us.

Has the juggling gotten easier as you have gained experience and made more contacts or is it the same struggle over and over again?

It’s a constant struggle in a way. In the wedding game, I was far sexier when I was a younger man, and now I’m an aged professional. I don’t have a potbelly, and I still have a fair amount of hair, but it’s white, not black. It takes a younger person. If you have 30-year-old people getting married, they want a peer, not someone who is as old as their father or approaching grandparent age.

I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been juggling for a long time. One of the choices I made was to walk away from a tenure-track that I had. I could have become a fat, deadwood old professor. There are plenty of examples of that at numerous institutions. A lot of people work in an art department and they might have a show every 18 months or whatever, but they don’t really work. They don’t really create. They might be good teachers. I don’t want to dismiss that. But to be a really good teacher, you have to set a good example and be a professional. That’s what I learned from my great teachers. I had Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind in the classroom on a daily basis for a couple of years. And there were a bunch of other professional masters, male and female, who came through RISD. I was privileged to spend time with them.

I walked away from a cozy, secure position where I could have had a good pension coming. I don’t have any pension coming. But that was a deliberate choice, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I would love to be offered a tenure-track position today. That’s a paradox. I could put in 10 years and know I’d have a regular paycheck.

Did you ever have a regular paycheck?

I’ve never had a secure regular paycheck. Even when we were running the studio, when we had 12 people working for us and we were running some pretty good numbers in the 1990s and into the early 2000s doing primarily weddings, I paid myself very little. About four years ago, we started to see the numbers really slip, and I took myself off the payroll entirely to keep some of the people employed here. We have three full-time people and a couple of assistants. I live off my wits. I have a few investments that I made over the years in real estate. I siphon some rents as I can to keep ahead of the banks. And I’m OK.

In February, how do I come up with all the property taxes and the car insurance coming due? I go through the sock drawers and there’s a couple hundred bucks I didn’t know I had. You put together spare change. It is not without its stress, but it’s what I’m used to and I’ve become very good at being a juggler.

I’ve been very blessed by having a beautiful partner as a wife and as a working photographer. Do we get along all the time in the studio? Absolutely not. But no day is dull. No day is predictable, always. It keeps it exciting. Yeah, I’d like to know I’m going to get a regular paycheck come May when the teaching is over, but I’ll figure out how to pay the health care during the summer. I’m as spiritual as I can be. I think the universe will take care and provide, and it’s been happening now for a good number of years.

There’s no “r” word. Retirement. I’ve had people ask me about that when I was in my 40’s, my 50’s, and now that I have entered my sixth decade. I’ll retire when I can’t see, maybe. I just want to go out with my boots on in that respect and keep photographing.

It seems like a lot of the choices you have made have been made with the idea that you wouldn’t stop, and didn’t want to stop.

Like I said, it’s not without it’s stress. But I think the stress is part of the charge. When I said “deadwood,” I mean “complacency,” that would be my biggest fear in the world. To sit on my laurels and let the stuff come to me. I would love to have the publishers come to me, the big guns with the big commissions. They come here and there, but they are rather infrequent. Print sales have never been consistent or dependable. I might have a good year where I can supplement between $20,000 and $30,000 in print sales, but I can’t count on it. I can’t even say I’ve sold a print, and we’re into March. There will be a few things along the way before the year is out. That’s usually how it happens. But that’s like gravy. You have to look at it that way. A little cherry on top.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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