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Sara Macel and Danna Singer on Forging a Fine-Art Career: Creators’ Lounge at PHOTOPLUS

In a lively conversation at the PDN’s 30 Creators’ Lounge at PHOTOPLUS, photographers Sara Macel and Danna Singer discussed how they established their fine-art careers. They shared lessons they have learned about sharing their work with collectors and editors, approaching strangers to make photos and handling rejection. 

Macel showed three projects and explained what each has taught her. For her first, “Kiss and Tell,” she interviewed strangers about their early sexual encounters, and then photographed the places where the encounters occurred or places that represented some part of their recollection. The willingness of people to share intimate secrets taught Macel “how easily how people will open up to you if you show genuine curiosity about their lives.” She self-published a limited edition of 100 books, which she signed and numbered to make them “more collectible.” She included excerpts from her interviews, and because the text was written in the first-person, some people mistakenly believed she was recounting her own sexual history. “The blurring of fact and fiction is always interesting to me,” Macel said.

On Making a “Calling Card” and Meeting Reviewers

Her book May the Road Rise to Meet You explores her father’s life as a traveling salesman who sold telephone poles. Mixing the documentary and the fictional again, Macel and her father recreated scenes he recalled, or she would make pictures while traveling on her own, sometimes to places her father had visited. Macel noted that while the road trip is a common theme in American photography, most road trips have been chronicled by men. Macel edited and sequenced the series as a book, then self published 25 copies which she used “as a calling card”—bringing copies to portfolio reviews and meetings with curators, saying, “This is the book I want to make.” She then published a trade edition of the book with Daylight Books, using her Aaron Siskind Foundation’s Individual Photographer’s Fellowship to pay for printing and production. She chose to work with a trade publisher, she said, “because I wanted the wider audience, I wanted the PR.” Daylight gave her several books she had to sell herself. With each copy she sold, she would include a postcard that she and her father wrote. Collectors “respond to something personal,” she said, making them feel that  “they’re not just buying object, they’re investing in you, your career.” She continues to include personal notes with any print she sends to collectors: “Showing gratitude with every interaction helps.”

“Counting Change.” © Danna Singer

Attending portfolio reviews, Macel said, is like speed dating: “You wouldn’t marry someone after the first date.” Photographers should not to expect reviewers to immediately offer an exhibit or job. Instead, she said, think of the review as a way to “build a relationship.”

Singer said that she applied for The New York Times Portfolio Review but was rejected; six months later, she was shooting for The New York Times Magazine. A year later, she chose not to re-apply for the Times’ portfolio review. Instead, she took the list of reviewers and emailed her work to everyone she wanted to meet—doing detective work to guess their email addresses. “Sometimes you have to go in the back door,” she said.

On Rejection

“You get more rejections than yeses,” said Macel, who keeps a folder on her computer with every rejection she has ever received. Macel applied and five times to art dealer Jen Beckman’s “Hey Hot Shot” competition and was rejected. The sixth time, she got an exhibition and sold prints. “If I’d stopped at five submissions, I never would have had that.”

Macel has been collaborating with her mother to make the photos in her latest project, “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” since she found a suitcase of her grandmother’s old photos, and began doing detective work about the lives of the women in her family. “I work well on deadline,” she said, so she hurried to edit and sequence images in time to show them at Review Santa Fe. Reviewers were eager to talk to her about publishing the work as a book, but Macel said, “It’s not ready.” Macel continues working on the project, which has changed since she herself got married. She advised the audience not to let “outside people” dictate when you share a project or consider it finished.

Singer’s own work has evolved and grown through the years. She became interested in photography while attending a vocational school for at-risk youth. During the 25 years she was supporting herself and her kids as a waitress, she made formal portraits of her children. She sometimes brought her prints to the billiard hall where she worked: “I was having portfolio reviews with my patrons.” She attended Pratt, then applied to Yale and was rejected, moved to New Mexico in hopes of getting into the University of New Mexico, but was rejected there, too. A year later, “I got into Yale with a full scholarship.” She said that when she was mixing drinks in a bar, she had no idea she would one day shoot for magazines and teach at Yale, but she reassured the audience that there is no set path an artist must follow.

At Yale’s MFA program, she was told she could no longer photograph her kids. She began making photos of members of her family and people in her hometown. Interested in “the architecture of a space,” she would often set up her tripod, then have people move around the space or enact scenes that reflected tensions and situations she had experienced as a kid. Many of these scenes were influenced by classical paintings or movies, she said. After a time, she began adding on-camera flash: “I was trying to make uglier pictures,” she said, to eliminate any sentimentality. “I don’t bring a lot of gear on editorial assignments, because I think it makes people uncomfortable.”

On Talking to Strangers, Editors and Bar Patrons

She got her assignments by emailing her work to magazine editors, along with a note saying “ ‘It’s been recommended that I send my work to you.’ No one recommended me, except me,” Singer says. Kathy Ryan of The New York Times Magazine called her for a meeting. “I didn’t have my portfolio with me,” Singer said, “I thought, oh, they know the work.” Ryan and Singer huddled around a computer instead, and Singer has shot two assignments for the magazine. She has also shot assignments for Joanna Milter of The New Yorker. “If you do a good job on one job other work will come to you.”

She began her latest project—on people living in motels—after she struck up a conversation with “an outlaw biker” at a motel where she was staying. Macel asked Singer if bartending has helped her photography. Singer said she is able to talk to anyone and ask them if they will be photographed. “It’s hard when you’re told no,” she said, but she keeps trying. “All those years I hated my [bartending] job are paying off.” Macel said that learning to talk to strangers—whether potential subjects, editors or curators—can be intimidating, but she now imagines that they are two strangers having a conversation in a bar. “Putting myself in the mindset that we’re just two human beings hanging out made it easier.”

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