Large dark-roast with room, please

The photographs hanging in my local coffee shop are beautiful. Minnesota landmarks are captured with evocative lighting and that slightly-too-detailed-HDR thing that people are into these days. The pictures are not my thing but I get why someone would buy one and hang it in their home.

I’ve also seen them a million times. Its the same style that has overrun Flickr in the last 8 years. I’m sure I can go on YouTube and get a step-by-step breakdown of how to achieve the same look and what the optimum times to shoot are.

So dude’s work doesn’t stand out. There’s no contrast between these images and any other photographs hanging in a coffee shop nowadays. This might seem like a problem. Maybe she should switch her style up. But what if she really likes his style? What if she’s a year or two (or 10) away from a breakthrough where she manages to do something new with this look?

Maybe she should just quit?

No. Her photos are my design work, your resumé, and his sculptures. We all try our best (or so we tell ourselves) but we’re not the best. We’re not the most original and we’re not the first. And even if we tried to be the most original, the most high-contrast to our surroundings, what are the odds that we succeed? And what are the odds that we don’t just end up with some bullshit that’s original for original’s sake? If you want to make “original” music dubstep-polka-with-operatic-vocals would be a novelty but you’d also be an a-hole desperate for attention and the world would be done with you after 100,000 YouTube views. Striving for originality or “greatest of all time” is simply not an option in a world where billions of people can pick up a camera, go to school in your same field, or start making sculptures (and share them online) and immediately become your competition for attention, sales, jobs, or whatever resource you’re trying to get.
Should you quit? No; you’ll still have to compete with the whole damn world on some other front anyway.

So, what should you do?

Embrace the evils of branding and marketing.

Not as a job but as a mind-set. If you don’t want to radically change what you’re doing to be new then the key differentiator between your work and someone else’s will not be quality or talent. The difference is you and the story you tell about yourself and your work. This is also known as “branding” and it has nothing to do with logos or graphic design. Branding is your answers to questions like “Who are you?”, “Why are doing what you’re doing?”, “Why are you here?”. Or, put simply “Why should I care?” (and if your answer is “Because I am the best undiscovered artist in the world” you better come up with some proof that makes believers out of people). These answers then feed into marketing which I define as “engaging a market (voters, consumers, gallerists, HR people) so that it adopts an idea (cause, product, company, you). Adoption requires engagement. And while I don’t believe there is such a thing as a key differentiator—a magic bullet that separates you from the masses—it is a major factor. Do you only engage the press but be purposefully mysterious (the music press looooves this)? Do you make it a mission to meet everyone who buys your art? Do you give away all your trade secrets? Do you make it difficult to buy your sculpture? Do you start public fights with famous people? Each of these strategies is a way of telling your story and its also a part of your story.

This might seem contrived or inauthentic but if you love what you do, if you think its best expression of what you’re capable of, then you have to engage the market and it can’t just be to hang more photos in a coffee shop. Because there’s a story there, as well, and its boring as hell—“Yet another local photographer that I don’t know hangs nice-but-banal pictures in generic frames in a coffee shop. They’re not expensive but they’re not exactly cheap. Large dark-roast with room, please.”