Process 054 ☼ The Best Advice I Ever Received
GIVEAWAY: Photo Playing Cards + Print by Austin Fassino
Today we dive into my archive and go back to February of 2019 when I received the single most valuable piece of advice about being an independent photographer.
Before we dig in I’d like to say hello and introduce myself to the new subscribers that joined after a kind shout out over at Boooooom, one of my favorite art blogs.
My name is Wesley Verhoeve and I’m a photographer and curator based in Amsterdam and New York City. I started Process to share my work and behind-the-scenes moments in a calmer and more intentional way than social media allows.
I share practical tips on How To Ask A Stranger For A Portrait, ponder Who Are We Taking Pictures For, and share lessons learned from publishing my book NOTICE. I hope you enjoy yourself here! Welcome!
This week’s Process Giveaway is your chance to win some wonderful photographic playing cards by my pal Austin Fassino as well as a beautiful large format print.
This issue of Process is sponsored by my friends at Glass, an ad-free and algorithm-free photo sharing app. More below!
An Inspiring Conversation
Early 2019 I was fortunate to interview and photograph Ms. Coreen Simpson, a Brooklyn photographer and jewelry maker who recently turned a spirited 80 years old.
The purpose of the interview was to speak about the photo books that had most inspired her work throughout the years, but along the way she shared stories and lessons including the most valuable piece of photography advice I have ever gotten.
But before we get to that part, we’ll drop into my conversation with Ms. Simpson a few minutes before she shared her wonderfully empowering piece of advice. I had just told her that more and more young photographers were finding their way back to shooting on film again and Ms. Simpson was pleasantly surprised.
Ms. Simpson: There's something about film. The feeling of putting it in the camera, rolling it up, learning how to do all that. I used to make mistakes on that too. I remember photographing Muhammad Ali, and I thought a roll of film was in my camera. I was still a young photographer. I was with him for an entire evening and at some point I realized something was wrong and asked myself “Why is this still going? Why am I still taking these pictures?” I opened the camera, peeked in there, and there was no film! This is how you learned!
Wesley: What did you do when you discovered this?
Ms. Simpson: I didn't say anything. I just opened up a roll of film and slapped it in there and thought to myself: “Girl, what are you doing? Are you crazy?” I think I was nervous too, because I was with the great Muhammad Ali. But you know, I was there with him all evening. And he took me from one party to the next party. And I just did my thing and that was one of the great nights of my life. Being able to photograph Muhammad Ali.
Wesley: What was this an assignment for?
Ms. Simpson: It was the self-assignment! He was fighting Ken Norton at Madison Square Garden. My thing was that I was going to take pictures of people coming in. I knew they were gonna look fabulous. So I figured, let me go stand by the front of the place and just take pictures. I gave myself this self-assignment.
I saw a lot of people I knew going in to see the fight and I was feeling so badly that I couldn't go into see the fight. But I was there to just document people outside. Then at some point some man came over to me and he knew Muhammad Ali. He asked me if I would like to meet him and I said, okay. He took me in through a side door and there he was! Muhammad Ali on a table being massaged and getting ready.
When he was done Muhammad Ali said: “You're coming in with me. We’re going to the ring.” So there I was walking behind him as he went into the ring. So that was exciting. I could not believe it. When he was walking into the ring there was this entourage following him and I was in the entourage. The people I knew who were inside spotted me and they couldn't believe I was in there. Because I had said no, I'm not gonna go, I’m gonna stay outside.
I was dressed in just a green military jumpsuit, no makeup on, nothing, so after the fight when Muhammad invited me to an after party, I said: “Well, I have to go home and get dressed up.” And he said: “No, no, no.” He didn't like women that dressed up and wore a lot of makeup. I said, I gotta do something so I put red lipstick on. After we got in the car with his chauffeur and entourage we went from party to party all night long. It was amazing and that was just a self-assignment.
Wesley: Did you do that a lot, give yourself self-assignments?
Ms. Simpson: Yes. I always tell photographers, don't wait for people to give you an assignment. That's bullshit. Like, if there's something you want to do, do it on your own. Make enough money for yourself to underwrite it. Whatever it is, go travel there and do it on your own. Then present it to editors. Call up magazines and tell them you got these photographs. That's what I did.
You can't wait for people. If you wait for people to give you power and give you a job, that might never happen based on your portfolio. I say fuck that, I don't need them to tell me I can do this, I know I can do this. So let me just go do it.
A novelist writes a novel. He doesn't necessarily ask his agent or the publishing house, should I write a novel? He just sits and writes his novel and then tries to sell it.
That's what always has propelled me as an artist. Just do what it is you want to do. And later on, you'll find out where that fits in. That's the best way I find.
Wesley: Where did those photos with Muhammad Ali end up? Were they published?
Ms. Simpson: Oh yes, they were published in a sports magazine. I called up editors and the piece was called “My Night with Muhammad Ali”. It was crazy!
I don’t know about you but even re-reading this story gets me fired up all over again. I walked out of that interview with a new motivation and perspective on making stuff happen for myself. In the years since I have centered my entire photography practice around Ms. Simpson’s advice and I hope this story inspires you to do the same.
Don’t wait people to give you an assignment. If there is something you want to do, do it on your own. Self-assign.
To check out Ms. Simpson’s photography and jewelry designs check out her website.
That’s it for this week. Next week I will share my inspirations outside of photography, as well as a selection of inspirations submitted by the Process community. Movies, books, poems, every influence outside of photography.
Also next week: I’ll ask you submit photos for the second Process Community Feature in partnership with Shoot Film Magazine. Check out the last one here.
Keep shooting and take good care of yourself and others.
PS Check out Booooooom too, Jeff and the team do amazing work for the art community.
➳ Process Sponsor: Glass
Glass is a photography community and photo sharing app. It's a place where you can share your work, get feedback, experiment, and find inspiration.
Something I love about Glass is that the photos being posted are diverse and less burdened by the pressure of algorithms and likes. Glass doesn’t have either, which means people post what they want you to see, not what they think you want to see.
Glass co-founder Tom told me that because Glass charges a small subscription fee ($5/month or $30/year) they don’t have to turn their users into a product and can keep photography and what is good for photographers at the core of Glass. No advertising, no algorith, no spam, no tracking or information selling. Just pictures and community.
As a thank you to Glass for sponsoring Process this week I’d love for you to try out Glass for free by clicking the button below.
My good friend Austin Fassino is a great large format photographer based in Berlin. He also works at my favorite German lab Safelight! He recently sold out the first run of his 55 card custom designed deck of playing cards featuring different photos taken all across Berlin, Germany.
He’s making available one deck from the second printing plus a gorgeous contact print from the deck made on 8x10 Rollei "Vintage Pearl" darkroom paper and shot on 8x10 Foma 400 using the Intrepid 8x10 mk1. See below.
To enter email me at email@example.com using the subject line PROCESS GIVEAWAY 054 before 11pm EST on March 30th and answer the following question:
What is a current roadblock that keeps you from taking the photos you want to take? (If you don’t have a current roadblock you can share a past one.)
Your answer can be practical (e.g. not having access to your subject) or philosophical (e.g. not feeling ready, not knowing how to best capture).
The winner will be randomly drawn and notified. This giveaway is for Process subscribers only. Subscribe by clicking the button below:
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If you’re a new reader, browse the Process archives here.
If you’d like to support what I do here click the button below to order my new book NOTICE.
Process is a weekly letter from Wesley Verhoeve.