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The Business of Photography: A Conversation with Mary Virginia Swanson

A leading photography educator shares essential advice for working artists.



Mary Virginia Swanson’s workshop To Be Published, or Self-Publish? at the Aperture Foundation, February 2016. Photographs by Becca Imrich

Aperture workshops bring students, professionals, and amateurs together with leading photographers working in a variety of fields and genres for intensive educational experiences. Registration is open for the two remaining sessions of the Business of Photography SeriesIntroduction to Multiple Markets and Your Work, Your Brand—taught by Mary Virginia Swanson, renowned author, educator, and consultant in the photography community.

Aperture Foundation’s Education Work Scholar, Becca Imrich, spoke with Swanson recently about her thoughts on the photography publishing market, favorite photobooks, and advice for photographers and photo enthusiasts looking to take their projects and careers to the next level.

Becca Imrich: When did you develop your affinity for teaching? What catalyzed your shift from being a photographer to an educator, and an advocate for other photographers?

Mary Virginia Swanson: As far back as graduate school, when I was the student director of Northlight Gallery [at Arizona State University], I was teaching professional rather than creative practices. I knew I wanted to work with photographs and with artists. It was after gaining a much broader perspective on our field when working at Magnum that I developed a class for NYU called “Career Options in Photography: A Pre-Professional Survey.” We spent two weeks meeting with individuals engaged with photography, and photographers—artists, of course, but also gallerists, curators, master printers, photo editors, art buyers, paper conservators, photo researchers, commercial studio managers, and more. The opportunities I have had to teach involved the business of being an artist—building on one’s strengths and understanding how to build a career. My teaching and mentoring today emphasize maintaining a smart professional practice.


BI: Can you speak about what it was like to work at The Friends of Photography with Ansel Adams during the 1980s?

MVS: Ansel was a lifelong teacher, from leading tours in the Sierras as a young photographer to our workshops in Carmel late in his life. He had an incredible curiosity about creativity and the science of photography, and was interested in what you were interested in. We had an amazing group of people around us and so many of our heroes came to Carmel to meet Ansel. I had the opportunity to meet many inspiring artists, historians, writers, publishers, curators, and gallerists, and came to understand and appreciate that together we are a community.

BI: Is there a particular photobook that initially sparked your infatuation for photobooks, and why?

MVS: My family gave me important photobooks for holidays and graduation—The Family of Man, of course, then later Szarkowski’s The Face of Minnesota was important to me as Minnesota is my homeland. In college I bought exhibitions catalogues as they were more affordable, and I could see the work of more artists. I love publications of collections, my first being A Book of Photographs of the collection of Sam Wagstaff. As I was fortunate to come to know Helmut Gernsheim and study with Bill Jay early in my studies, I still love reading great photo history titles. And lastly, I never tire of reading books about photobooks!

BI: What is a photobook that you’ve seen recently that really resonated with you?

MVS: It’s rare that a photobook doesn’t interest me in some way. I am excited about how photographers are beginning to explore the book form in a way that artist bookmakers have been working for decades. A friend since our college days, Susan kae Grant’s artist books opened that world to me, and two recent titles I love are Penelope Umbrico’s Range (Aperture, limited edition of 500) and the artist-book version of Jane Fulton Alt’s book The Burn called between fire/smoke (self-published, edition of 18). Both titles engage the viewer in an exploratory manner.

BI: While you were teaching the first session of your Business of Photography series at Aperture, I noticed that you’ve distilled these essential questions that get to the heart of what photographers should be considering as they move towards publishing their work. What questions should photographers ask themselves while they are in the process of conceptualizing and developing their projects?

MVS: At conception, understand what the work tells us, and what it does not. It is that unknown that drives one to engage, to push boundaries. At development, question the final presentation format and the vocabulary that one might bring to the work. To me, this is the place where one’s work expands and evolves.


BI: You have reviewed hundreds of artists’ projects over the years! One of the defining factors of our current climate is an inundation of information and images and the democratization of photography. In your opinion, what are the fundamental ingredients of a successful photography project—whether a photobook, exhibition, or both?

MVS: There is a lot of good work out there that fully satisfies the maker and their audience. Far fewer projects feel authentic, however, with their vision, craft and presentation fully resolved, causing the viewer to pause and ponder the work. Rarely do I see work that I have not seen before and when I do, it is memorable.

BI: In recent years, the photobook market has changed significantly and expanded. Still, the question of how to make this business profitable remains omnipresent. What is missing in the photography publishing market, and what is the je ne sais quoi that will keep sustaining it?

MVS: Distribution. If you know your audience, and you know their price point, and you know how to reach them you can make engaging photobooks. But if they sit in storage they are not going to reach any audience and the work and investment you brought to the project certainly won’t make a difference in your career.

BI: What advice do you have for people trying to find their niche in the photography community?

MVS: Take a good hard look at what inspires you in our field and work to get yourself into that aspect of this profession. Your contributions to our industry need not be measured in your accomplishments as an artist. Artists could not thrive if we didn’t have visually sophisticated, supportive professionals surrounding them at every step of the art-making and art-marketing process.

Registration for Introduction to Multiple Markets will remain open until Sunday, April 17, 2016. Registration for Your Work, Your Brand will remain open until Sunday, May 1, 2016.

For more information on Mary Virginia Swanson’s Business of Photography Workshop Series, and other upcoming workshops at Aperture, please visit or contact [email protected]. For information about Aperture’s Work Scholar Program, please visit

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