A Leica Photographer on Being “Discovered” and Publishing FAIR WITNESS: Street Photography for the 21st Century by David Lykes Keenan


A Leica Photographer on Being "Discovered" and Publishing FAIR WITNESS: Street Photography for the 21st Century by David Lykes Keenan

David just launched a Kickstarter campaign to publish FAIR WITNESS. For more information and to support the campaign, click here

What is an emerging photographer -- wait, I hate that expression. What is a rookie photographer to say when someone of Eli Reed's stature tells him that it is time to put out a photography book?

Eli, by the way, is definitely in the big leagues. He has been with Magnum Photos for 30 years, has published two critically acclaimed books "Beirut" and "Black in America", and he is a professor of photojournalism at The University of Texas at Austin. A retrospective of Eli's career will soon appear from UT Press.

Furthermore, how is this rookie to take it when Eli says, "... in the future, people will be copying what he is doing."

This is exactly what happened to me about three years ago. I was photographing with my Leica around the world and living in relative artistic obscurity in Austin, Texas, with only an occasional blip on the national radar, when some of my photographs found favor in competitions offered by BLACK & WHITE magazine and the Center for Fine Art Photography. But that did not lead to lasting recognition of any significance.

Any photographer enjoys these occasional pats on the back and this is likely why we continue to enter competitions and participate in portfolio reviews. The underlying reason, however, I think is the desire for something bigger -- that is the hope of being "discovered" and to find ourselves on the path to fame and fortune.

My vision of being "discovered" always goes to the beautiful blonde who is sipping a soda at a Hollywood lunch counter when Mr. Bigshot comes in for a danish and coffee and instantly ships her off to stardom. If this story isn't part of American folklore, it should be.

I am clearly no starlet so what exactly what does it mean for a photographer to be "discovered"?

At one end of the spectrum, I suppose, there is Ryan McGinley who was plucked from an obscurity probably not much different from mine or yours by a curator at NYC's Whitney Museum and hasn't looked back since. Call it petty jealousy, if you will, but McGinley's sudden rise embittered many of his peers who wondered if the then 20-something had really "done the work" to warrant his newly found fame.

In earlier times, many photographers sought an audience with the MoMA's John Szarkowski who was viewed as something of a career maker. A wonderful photographer and friend of mine had such an audience back in the 1970s. While I know that she felt honored to have such an opportunity and treasurers it to this day, the meeting did not lead to fame.

Certainly McGinley is an exception. Even the fortune to meet someone of Szarkowski's status is a rarity. For the vast majority of rookie photographers, the notion of "discovery" of any kind remains keep-my-fingers-crossed wishful thinking.

So, to bring this around to something I can speak to with some authority, should I consider the moment that Eli Reed told me it was time to produce a book of my photography to be my moment of "discovery"? While it did not fast-track me to the Whitney, it was definitely a moment when someone at a much higher level of recognition, even fame, in the world of photography took notice of my work, assured me it was worthy of recognition well beyond my limited sphere, and challenged me with a call to action.

What followed were several months of personal interaction with Eli as the foundation of what would ultimately become FAIR WITNESS was laid. This has been followed by roughly two years of work as I have continued to refine the book and to seek a path to publication.

When it comes to a photographer book by a rookie, there is always the question of self-publishing vs. trade publication. This is a complex subject worthy of a separate article but for FAIR WITNESS I never seriously considered self- publishing. All of my efforts have been directed toward finding a traditional publisher will to take on FAIR WITNESS.

Once the door to the upper strata of the photo world was cracked by Eli's support, my photography and the early stages of FAIR WITNESS have been seen by many of his peers including Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Gilden, Mary Ellen Mark, Maggie Steber, and Alec Soth. More recently, my work and FAIR WITNESS has garnered the support of the director of the Leica Akademie in the United States and the Leica Store in NYC.

What does having my photography recognized and supported by Eli Reed, the elite group mentioned above, and many, many others, mean for FAIR WITNESS? Will the direct product of my own "discovery" ever be more than a collection of photographs and a few book prototypes?

I think it is safe to say that the implied endorsement that came from the support of Eli, et al, opened the door for me to the well-respect Italian publisher Damiani Editore. Damiani has published books by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Charles Harbutt,
Moby, Laura Letinkski, Gina Lollobrigida (!!), Mary Ellen Mark, and dozens of other photographers.

The bad news is that even the attention of an established publisher like Damiani doesn't mean what it used to. My photography may be worthy, my endorsements sky high, and my book prototype compelling -- but none of this translates into readily identifiable book sales and books sales is all Damiani (or any publisher) really cares about. And since I'm not an Eli Reed, Elliott Erwitt, Mary Ellen Mark, or another bankably identifiable name, Damiani is not going to take a chance on me.
Honestly, no one will, because it doesn't make financial sense. No one will take a chance on me -- except for myself.
So, after nearly a year of preparation, I have just launched a Kickstarter campaign to prepay for the publication of FAIR WITNESS. A successfully funded campaign, knock on wood, eliminates Damiani's risk since the funds raised will essentially cover the cost of printing, etc. and guarantees Damiani at least, I assume, a modest profit.

And a guaranteed profit equals books. In our age of Amazon.com and the mass closing of bookstores (anyone remember Borders?). this is just about the only access a rookie photographer has to a traditional publisher and the worldwide distribution they provide.

Does it still make sense to talk in terms of being "discovered"?

Regardless of whether you like Ryan McGinley's style or not, he did do the work. Discovery is almost impossible without lots and lots of work. His being discovered was just more dramatic and immediate than most.

The attention and support any photographer receives from those on high can be gratifying and reassuring, but amounts to little more than additional pats on the back if one is not prepared to do the work, artistically and otherwise.

I think I've done the work. At the moment, FAIR WITNESS with a Damiani imprint on the spine is still my dream waiting to come true.

FAIR WITNESS, if it comes to print, will be the fruit of my "discovery" which is still a far, far cry from fame and fortune, to be sure.

David Lykes Keenan is a Leica street photographer based in New York City. He has been photographing seriously since 2004 after a 30-year career as a software developer. His current Leica of choice is a Monochrom with an MS- Optical Sonnetar 50mm f/1.1 lens.

To help get FAIR WITNESS onto the bookshelves, please click here.

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