I met Cameron Gillie and his wife, Nazan, in 2008, when Robbie and I were searching for a wedding photographer. During the wedding planning process, I found out quickly that it’s important to book your photographer a year ahead of time, especially if you’re getting married in summer in Wisconsin. We started planning our wedding about 7 months out, which meant that nearly every Milwaukee photographer I contacted was already booked. But since our wedding was to take place at my parents’ place between Milwaukee and Madison, I started contacting Madison photographers, hoping someone would be willing to travel a little farther.
Luckily for us, Cameron was in the middle of moving from Louisiana to Madison, and didn’t have a client base in Wisconsin, yet. We met him at a little coffee shop in a strip mall off of I94, and we were immediately impressed with his work. His photojournalism style was exactly what we wanted—no stuffy family portraits for us. We hired him.
During our second meeting with Cameron, he brought Nazan, and that solidified it: We were fast friends. Robbie, Cameron, Nazan, and I could hardly concentrate on the wedding details. Forget reception photos—we wanted to talk politics and travel. Fortunately, Cameron is a professional, and, with Nazan as his second photographer, our wedding photos turned out fantastic.
That was three years ago, and we’ve managed to stay in touch. I have followed Cameron’s work on his blog, and Robbie has a unique knack for running into him and Nazan during the rare occasions they come to Milwaukee. We decided to meet them for a hike at Pewit’s Nest this past weekend, and that gave me the chance to corner Cameron for an interview.
(Side note: It’s intimidating to take a picture of a photographer! I gave it my best shot.)
Cameron was our wedding photographer, but his real passion is nature photography. In the following interview he talks about the challenges of transitioning to different types of photography and making a go of it in the art show world.
As a kid in northern Minnesota, I grew up thinking I wanted to become a National Geographic photographer. As with most everyone’s childhood dreams, that didn’t happen. More people play in the Super Bowl each year than shoot a story for National Geographic. So, I’m not at National Geographic, but I am doing the same kind of work and really enjoy it. I travel this amazing world we live in and bring back photos.
I studied photography at the Colorado Institute of Art, and from there I worked at the Greeley Tribune in Colorado. Then, I worked at the Naples Daily News in Florida—in total, I spent ten years as a newspaper photographer. After newspapers I freelanced in Louisiana for six years. Now, in Madison, I have been attempting to transition into fine art photography. For a little over a year I have been selling the work at art shows around the Midwest and in Florida.
My parents bought me a 35mm camera as a confirmation present, and that led me to becoming a photographer for the high school yearbook and newspaper. Photography was my ticket to fit in and be cool, and what else does a teenager care about? I was a geeky, skinny kid, and now I had a reason to go to the football games and pep rallies. Ever since then, photography has been my passport to get out and explore and experience our world.
I asked Cameron, what types of photography have you done? Which did you enjoy most?
Being a newspaper photographer, you do it all. You photograph everything from mundane, everyday life to riots. I’ve been on the sidelines photographing John Elway playing against Joe Montana on “Monday Night Football,” and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa with a group raising money for a children’s hospital in Florida. It’s a wide-ranging experience. What I really fell in love with was the Everglades, and the environmental issues surrounding that fascinating place, while working at the Naples Daily News in Florida.
How did your photography jobs or experiences help you find a niche?
Covering the Everglades is what really rekindled my love for the environment. I grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota, so my childhood experiences were seeing moose roam through the backyard and exploring the woods behind our house. In the Everglades, I became a kid again, exploring a new and exotic place.
What are you working on, currently?
The past two summers I’ve been doing more fine art nature photography and selling the work in art shows. I’ve had pretty limited success in the Midwest in the summer. Last winter I traveled to Florida to see how it would go over down there, and did a lot better. So, I’m going to continue doing several more Florida shows this winter. But next summer I’m going to have to wake up and smell the coffee and attempt to do more of the profitable things like weddings again. I’ll still do some art shows, but not as many.
Cameron expressed some pessimism about the future of selling his work at art shows. The ubiquitousness of and easy access to high-quality cameras, combined with web-based tools and platforms, have made it difficult for professional photographers to compete, both financially and, in the minds of customers, creatively.
The combination of digital photography and the web has made it harder for professional photographers in the real world to make a living with photography. Even making a living with weddings is becoming difficult. I’ve been a professional photographer for nearly twenty years, and the definition of “professional” means making a profit as well. If you aren’t making a profit, you have a hobby.
Digital photography is a tool that has certainly made taking a properly exposed and in-focus photograph easier to do in the twenty-first century. But it’s not any easier today to take a good photograph now than it was twenty years ago. It still takes experience and skill. The camera is still just a tool. Nobody would ever say to Bruce Springsteen, “Wow, you must have a great guitar.” But I hear people say, “You must have a great camera,” all the time in my art show booth. I’m sure Springsteen does have a very nice guitar, but that is not what makes his music. I could buy the same guitar, but the noise I’d make with it would not be music.
Still, Cameron is determined to pursue what interests and fulfills him. He considers himself an accidental reinventor because his reinvention is driven more by circumstances than choice.
It’s challenging, no doubt, with the economy and the state of professional photography these days, but I’ve been pouring myself into taking great photographs for almost twenty years. It would be incredibly difficult to give up on that dream now.
I enjoyed my ten years as a newspaper photographer a great deal and wouldn’t take back a minute of it. It was a great experience, but I was starting to get frustrated with the corporate culture of newspapers, and I was tired of giving one hundred percent of my life to the newspaper. I wanted to get a life outside my job, date someone, get married, and be in control of my life. I met Nazan on an assignment in Louisiana, and it was love at first sight. After dating my airline for six months, I decided it was a good time to take the plunge and start freelancing. I finally had what I always wanted—someone to share my life with! I quit the paper and moved to Louisiana.
How did you decide to get into the art show business?
My original plan was to freelance for papers and magazines and start spending more time shooting my own work to someday start doing art shows with nature photography, which was my ultimate goal. When I first started working at the Naples Daily News, I covered some of the many art shows in the Naples area. I had no idea people actually made a living taking fine art photos and selling them at art shows. It seemed like the perfect job for me, and I thought, “Someday I’m going to do that!” I started shooting some nature photographs on my own time with art shows in mind, but of course there was never enough time for it. Freelancing would be my way of making the time to shoot more nature photography.
While he pursued his nature photography interest, Cameron continued to photograph weddings. His photojournalism style was somewhat of a novelty in the South and his business was very successful, but he was met with challenges in the Midwest.
Of course, I was realistic about money, so I was willing to do weddings as well. Weddings are good money, and photojournalism weddings were very in at the time. As things progressed in Louisiana, I did some very low-paying newspaper and magazine work, but the weddings really took off. It didn’t take long to realize I could make $2,500 in a day doing a wedding or $100 a day (or less) for editorial work. I never really intended to become a full-time wedding photographer, but it was paying the bills and actually paying down my mountain of debt. So, I made the decision to not turn down any weddings until my debt was paid. It’s not like it was my lifelong goal to be a weddings photographer; if you would have asked me when I was fifteen what I wanted to do with my life, wedding photographer wouldn’t have been on the list. I did get out of debt, even with the setbacks of Hurricane Katrina. Then, Nazan got a job at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and we moved. I thought I’d continue with the weddings for a while, at least to get settled in Madison, and then start doing art shows.
Here’s where the reinvention started. As successful as I was with weddings in Louisiana, my wedding business never took off in Madison. I kept trying to get the wedding thing off the ground because I knew that was going to be my bridge to art shows. But the wedding market in Madison is much different than Louisiana, where my biggest selling point was that my posed photo session would last 25 minutes. In Wisconsin, the tradition is to spend several hours taking posed photos in multiple locations. My photojournalism approach just didn’t go over here like it did in Louisiana.
I was making a pretty lousy profit with weddings here, and I decided that I might as well do something I was really passionate about. I started up the art show business much faster than I ever planned to. It probably was a blessing in disguise. Having the wedding business go down in flames sped up the progression of attempting to do art shows for a living.
Cameron describes his approach to change as follows:
If what you are doing isn’t working, try something else. There is a good saying… “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again thinking you will get a different result.”
Cameron doesn’t regret his recent decision to focus on nature photography and the art shows. He considers it a reinvention, much like the other times in his life when circumstance and the need to make money precipitated life changes—times that bear a striking resemblance to the uncertainty and trepidation he feels now.
As a photographer, your personal life and professional life are very intertwined. I AM a photographer. There isn’t much separation. Although, as a freelancer, fine art photographer—whatever you call me now—I do enjoy living life at my own pace. I probably work more hours in a week than the average person, but I do find time to go for long walks in the park and take naps whenever I feel like it. It’s great! I’d have a real hard time punching a clock again for some corporation.
These days, I do feel a lot like I did when I was out of art school trying to get a newspaper job. After graduating I applied to something like twenty paid internships at newspapers and got shot down by every one of them. That was a long, depressing summer. Luckily, the Greeley Tribune gave me an unpaid internship that fall (I later found out I was the only one who applied). I gave it my all, and that led to a paid internship, then a part-time job, and then a full-time job. I’m hoping determination pays off again in succeeding in the art show business. But when you are older and wiser, you do worry a lot more about it.
What’s next for Cameron?
I’m going to keep working on the art shows, but also put more energy back into weddings in the summer. My current idea is to hire a portrait photographer for weddings so I can spend more time on the wedding day focusing on what I do best—photojournalism. This way, the brides get the best of both worlds: the posed photos as well as great moment-driven photography, which is what I love to do.
With the Florida art shows, I’m going to just keep doing what I’m doing, add more shows to my calendar, and spend more shooting time in the Everglades. I seem to have a good recipe for success there, and I’m really excited about it. That is the bright spot in my career right now. If it continues to go well, I will be able to spend more time in the place I love: the Everglades. A good way to spend a month or two in winter! Nazan flies down and spends a week with me at some point, so we get some time together as well.
It seems like nature photography isn’t going to ever sell that well at Midwestern art shows. But I don’t mind trying new things. I am considering completely changing what I shoot and how I shoot it. I have lots of ideas, and it’s going to be fun to go back to the drawing board again. Who knows where that will take me?
I guess what this all boils down to is the struggle that every creative professional deals with: finding that delicate balance between profits and staying true to your creative spirit. It’s getting harder than ever to be a creative professional and still do what makes you happy. The only way to stay afloat is to keep reinventing.
I think there are two ingredients to success—hard work and the ability to critique yourself. I don’t mean patting yourself on the back when you do a good job, but being able to say to yourself, “Something didn’t work out. What will I do different next time?” Hard work by itself doesn’t get you there. You have to be able to look in the mirror. I heard someone say once that you achieve success through a string of failures. So, that must mean I’m at least part of the way there by now.
Cameron and Nazan.